Title
Theory of Evolution
Prompt
Big Bang 2007.   Forks in the Road: Conversion - John survives, but doesn't revert back to human.
Summary
Stuck with a body he can't accept as his own, John withdraws - and Rodney lets him, certain that all John needs is time. But what if he's wrong?
Pairing
McKay/Sheppard
Rating
NC-17
Word Count
41993 words
Notes
This story includes spoilers up to and including The Long Goodbye. The Lost Boys, The Hive and Epiphany do not happen.
Please understand that some of the views in this story are not my own. In no way do I think torture is the way to go, for whatever reason.
Companion Artwork
  • Choice Theory - 1024x768 by 2am_optimism
  • Choice Theory - 1280x800 by 2am_optimism
  • Choice Theory - 800x600 by 2am_optimism
  • Theory of Evolution by Elli

John didn't even know he wanted Rodney until he fell into bed with him.

When John beamed back into the city from the Daedalus, Elizabeth pulled him into a hug, and he returned it. It was short and awkward and John didn't quite know where to look after she had let him go, but it was heartfelt. It was a welcome home after what they both had thought would be a flight to his death; a thank-god-you're-not-dead after Atlantis had seemed to have flashed out of existence for over a minute, destroyed by a barrage of Wraith darts. He was still flying high on adrenaline when she sent him to the infirmary to debrief a terribly aged Colonel Everett. Everett's words – a gruesome goodbye that left John reeling, unable to do anything but snap into a textbook salute and hope like hell the Colonel understood what he meant – didn't do anything to calm him down. And then there was Ford to deal with. Poor Ford, too damn young to go through this kind of shit, half-dead and pumped so full of Wraith enzyme that Beckett thought he must have become instantly addicted. And then Rodney, who looked dead on his feet but kept stubbornly standing anyway, brought the news that twelve more Hive ships were on their way to Atlantis.

It was at that point that John decided he needed a break.

He didn't get one right away. The Daedalus - with John aboard -  blew up two Hive ships, which was better than nothing but not nearly good enough when they only had one ZPM and not much in the way of defensive weapons and Rodney and Zelenka had to work out a way to put their plan to fool the Wraith into action. Somewhere in the middle there, Ford went ballistic and disappeared through the Gate with a puddle jumper, which kind of put a damper on the fact that the Wraith had actually bought into the idea that Atlantis was destroyed, leaving everyone off balance that suddenly all was well. Elizabeth made a nice speech and coordinated the efforts to sweep the city from the remaining Wraith, begin the necessary repairs, and find out who was missing and who was dead, into eight-hour-shifts.

By then, John hadn't slept more than two hours at a time in over a week. Neither had Rodney.

Looking back later, John still couldn't tell how it happened. He'd only planned as far as making sure that Rodney actually made it to his quarters this time and stayed there until his shift was on. But there was still that adrenaline high, the buzz of having survived a Wraith siege, the shock of having Ford run away from him like a kid from home. And Rodney, who had just saved John's city for the nth time in a row, was standing there with wide blue eyes and shaking hands, worn out and wired, looking at John like he wanted to ask, 'so what now?'

They fell together as easily as if they had only been waiting for an opportunity. Staring at each other one moment, clumsily pulling at one another's clothes the next, desperate and exhilarated, until the constant terror of the last two weeks was washed away in the white-out of an exhausted climax. John fell asleep right there on Rodney's bed and woke up twenty hours later to fresh coffee and a slow blowjob. After that, it seemed a little late to be freaking out over the whole gay thing, so he didn't.

He and Rodney became a semi-regular thing after that, with Rodney first trying to convince both himself and a nervous John that the latter wouldn't be left behind on Earth, and then celebrating his promotion to lieutenant colonel, both by way of blowjobs. John returned the favour on the way back to Atlantis, fumbling his way through his first time going down on a guy in a niche between the Daedalus' glider bay and the little room with the weird naked alien to assure himself that Rodney was really not dead. He fucked Rodney for the first time after they had gotten rid of the Wraith virus that had taken over the Daedalus, in his closet-like but camera-free quarters, with lube cheerfully supplied by Carson Beckett. Of course Rodney would alert his doctor to an increase in sexual activity; it was just the kind of person he was. John took in that piece of information with an eye roll and fucked Rodney a little harder in retaliation.

They ran into a rough patch when John decided to make Ronon a member of his team. Rodney was still smarting over having had Lt. Cadman stuck in his head and what he perceived as a distinct lack of moral support throughout his ordeal. John pointed out that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' also included 'Don't Show the Marine Currently Occupying Half of Your Fuck Buddy's Brain', which Rodney reluctantly agreed to. He still insisted he should have been asked before Ronon joined the team, and it wasn't until Rodney almost got himself killed by that madman Torrell on Olesia that they resumed their... thing. John fucked him as soon as Elizabeth let them out of the debriefing and before anyone else could get their claws into Rodney, then again after Rodney had checked out the labs and they'd finally got rid of Rodney's little buddy Eldon. He could have lived with that, getting regular blowjobs and sinking himself into that sweet round ass, but then Rodney introduced him to the wonder that was John's own prostate, and, yeah. That was pretty cool.

So the semi-regular became regular, with a switching of positions and the trading of handjobs and blowjobs according to the McKay rota for maximum productivity, which basically meant that John got to fuck Rodney twice as much as the other way around because Rodney was just too much of a lazy bastard to move. John still wouldn't call what they had a relationship. Friends with benefits, maybe, but not... not lovers. Sure, he liked Rodney, and they often had dinner or watched a movie or played the Ancient version of Civilisation before the inevitable bone-melting orgasms, but he figured that was the buddy part in 'fuck buddies'. He wasn't swooning over Rodney's manly shoulders – though they were mighty fine – nor did he feel the need for more intimacy than they already shared. And if he was staring at Rodney's lips sometimes, well, that was only because they looked so good when they were stretched around his cock. That was all.

The first time they kissed was two days after Rodney had blown up a solar system and almost gotten himself killed – again – along with John. Sure, John was furious with the guy for risking both their lives after very obviously manipulating John into agreeing to his plan in the first place, but Rodney was crushed after what he saw as a professional and personal failure. John couldn't stand to look at that sad half-smile for more than two days before he found himself standing in front of Rodney's door, and when Rodney's eyes wouldn't lose that dull look, he tried to show forgiveness and offer comfort the only way he could think of. Rodney's lips were soft against his own and the light rasp of stubble felt weird under his palm and in the space of a moment, everything changed and John had found a new addiction.

Although they didn't really change their schedule or their behaviour towards each other after that – if anything, John pulled back a little, but he thought that Rodney got it – things between them did feel more intimate. Rodney became a little less high-strung, John was a little less likely to risk his neck; instead of watching movies they sometimes just made out for hours, and yeah, it turned out that maybe they had a relationship after all. The thought didn't make John nearly as uncomfortable as he would have thought. In fact, more often than not it made him smile at Rodney without apparent reason when they were alone. Rodney always smiled back and kissed him and most times they'd have sex, and all in all life was pretty damn good.

Then the team went to Ratira where they met Zaddik and his daughter Ellia, and it all went to hell...


John woke up slowly, dragging himself up through the medicated haze that dulled his thoughts. A sharp antiseptic smell was stinging his nose, something was stuck in the back of his right hand and a heavy warmth was weighing down his left. Infirmary. He tried to remember what had gone wrong this time but came up blank, his memories a jumbled mess of fear, hunger, and... bugs? Hundreds of them, skittering across the cave floor to make a path for him and-

Shit!

John's eyes flew open. The memories of the last few days came rushing back to him: Ellia, the claw mark on his arm, slowly turning into a creature that was more Iratus bug than human. His hands clenched against the memory of helplessness, of feeling himself slip away, of being forced to sit idly by while what little was left of his mind watched the rest of him turn into something else. Something scary that wouldn't be controlled, hungry and fevered and screaming at him to run, run and hide and kill. And he had run, he remembered as much, but he didn't know if he'd killed someone. Most of his mind was fuzzy and blank, like a broken TV showing disconnected images of himself escaping his quarters, knocking out his security detail and a searching party, crawling up a wall. He thought he would still recall the warm-slick feeling of blood on his hands if the claws he remembered had ripped into another human being, but he couldn't be sure. John raised his right hand, itching as if there might be dried flakes of brown on his fingers, and started as he discovered that those fingers were still blue, the claws still there. What the hell? He was unchanged and lying unrestrained in the infirmary? Were they insane?

"Wha?" Rodney jerked upright from where his face had been mashed against John's disfigured left hand, his gaze slightly wild as he looked around the small private cubicle to find what had woken him up. The light was dim, but John could still see him as clearly as if the infirmary had been filled with its usual brightness. Rodney's eyes met John's and he broke into a startled smile. "Hey! Carson said you'd be out for a few hours yet. It's, uh, nice to finally see you awake. Um. How are you feeling?"

"Why-" John's voice cracked, his throat feeling dry and rusty. He licked his lips, soft tongue slicking across hard, shell-like ridges and he cringed, wishing he hadn't done that.

"Oh, right. Sorry." Rodney stood up and handed him a plastic cup with a straw, flushing as John recoiled when their fingers brushed together. Water spilled over the starched infirmary sheets and formed a wet patch. They stared at it, John keeping himself from clenching the cup in his knotted hand until the joints of his fingers started to ache.

"You should probably drink something," Rodney suggested miserably. John drank, concentrating on the coolness of the water slipping down his throat so he wouldn't notice how the straw scraped over his lips.

"Why aren't I in restraints?" he asked finally when he felt he could trust his voice again. He should be; in fact, he should be in the brig, because he didn't think those flimsy straps would stand a chance against his new strength. He remembered effortlessly smashing the glass wall in Elizabeth's office, being so much better than Teyla with the sticks that it was laughable. He wasn't sure why they kept him in the infirmary, but he knew that it was dangerously foolish.

"You got the eggs, remember?" Rodney bounced a little on his feet, then his face fell when he saw the look of incomprehension on John's face. "What, you don't... oh, uh, you see, Carson discovered that your sweat glands produced the same pheromones as the Iratus bugs." John grimaced at that, and Rodney nodded. "I know, gross, isn't it? Anyway, Carson overdosed you with the neural inhibitor and made you lucid enough to walk into that cave, you know, with the nests, and you managed to collect enough eggs for Carson's stem cell therapy to work. I'm surprised it did, actually, the whole idea was ludicrous at best."

"So I'm turning back," John said hoarsely, wondering why he wasn't relieved.

"Yes, that's what I just said, wasn't it?" Rodney's mock irritation was completely overthrown by his delighted beam as he leaned down for a kiss. John's hand on his chest stopped him, dark blue with faint streaks of pink against the grey of Rodney's shirt. For a moment, they both went still, the only sound the muted beeping of a heart monitor. Distractedly, John noticed that Rodney didn't baulk at the touch, his face showing nothing but a puzzled frown. He seemed to be a lot less revolted by the changes that John's body had undergone than John himself.

"Don't." John pulled his hand back and studied it to avoid looking at Rodney's face. His fingernails were a light chitinous blue, more claws than anything. The actual skin was darker where it had been changed, mostly human except for its colour and the fine scales covering it. Alien, John thought. Now that he knew the changes would eventually revert themselves, they were more repulsive than scary. At least his palms were still normal.

"Don't what? Kiss you? Why not?" Rodney wanted to know, then he straightened, lips pressed together in an unhappy line. "Is this about not visiting you? Your oh-so-useful security detail wouldn't let me in, it's not like I wasn't trying. But what was I supposed to tell them, 'that's my boyfriend mutating in there'?"

"Because it's creepy, Rodney," John told him in a voice that clearly implied "duh" but Rodney shook his head.

"No, look, I spent the last few days listening to reports of you dying in a horrible way and being comforted by, by Ronon. He even brought me food, and then Elizabeth said we should say our goodbyes and you have no idea how excruciatingly painful that was, so you don't get to push me away!"

"You can kiss me all you like, Rodney. After I turn back."

"Oh, believe me, I'm going to do a lot more than that. For now... how's this?" Rodney leaned down again, his palm feeling hot through the thin white fabric of John's long-sleeved hospital scrubs as he grabbed his forearm and pushed it away. He was stronger than John, who was still fighting against the lingering pull of his medication. Too strong, for once, to shove him back, no matter how much John wanted to. He closed his eyes at the first soft touch of Rodney's lips to the human skin of John's cheeks, flinched as Rodney peppered his nose, his eyebrows and parts of his forehead with dry, gentle kisses, even as he leaned into the contact. His heart was racing as he mutely accepted each touch that he both loathed and craved, and Rodney smiled against his skin. "Nothing to freak out over, see?"

"I'm not freaking out," John lied, because this was wrong, his body felt wrong, and Rodney shouldn't be touching it. Yet he was strangely disappointed when Rodney pulled back at the sound of footsteps approaching the cubicle. Moments later, Beckett poked his head around the entrance and beamed when he saw that John was awake.

"Colonel. I see Rodney's already working on your blood pressure."

John cleared his throat, not quite meeting the Scot's eyes. "Yeah, you know Rodney. He's got a talent for these things."

"Excuse me? I'm not sure I like what you're implying here," Rodney complained, but he was still smiling.

"No one's implying anything, Rodney. Now off you go, I have a patient to examine."

John hadn't thought he could grow any more tense, but apparently he'd been wrong. Examination meant being looked at and he didn't want that. He remembered sitting in his quarters, scratching at his skin as it transformed into scales, from his arm up across his chest and down his thighs, up his neck, itching and pulling and driving him crazy with loathing and fear. By the time his eyes had changed, he'd begun to feel agitated, restlessness skittering through his mind like... like bugs. He hadn't been joking when he'd told Elizabeth to shoot him – it would have been a mercy. John had become something out of a nightmare, a monstrosity, and while he'd still been aware of who he was, what he was supposed to be, he'd had to force himself to look into the mirror. He could hardly bear to look at himself. He didn't want anyone else to see.

Rodney was arguing with Beckett, determined to stay at John's side and John mutely shook his head. Hell no. No way was John prepared to have Rodney stare at him with horror in his too-honest eyes. Or with pity.

"Rodney," he interrupted the ongoing discussion, "go wait outside."

"But-"

"Rodney." He was so tired of fighting and after all the shit they'd been through together, Rodney had to see that.

"Right." The unhappy expression was back on Rodney's face as he pointed toward the cubicle's entrance. "I'll just..." He stepped around Beckett, who had been watching their exchange with sympathetic eyes, and moments later could be heard outside answering someone's quiet questions in a low voice. If John had to bet, he'd say Rodney was talking to Ronon and Teyla, possibly Elizabeth. There was no way to be sure, though. John's hearing was still the same as always, a small blessing when so much else had changed.

"Now, this might hurt a bit," Beckett was saying, the universal introduction to the drawing of blood. Of course, that meant pulling back the sleeve of John's scrubs to reveal his blue-scaled arm, and John watched, appalled, as Beckett inserted the needle into the hard crook of his elbow and started to draw his startlingly red blood. Overall, his arm looked much like the back of his hands, with the added bonus of darker, purplish patches of what had to be chitin or something similar forming strange patterns from his wrist up to his elbow and around the back of his upper arm. They looked like a sick kind of tribal tattoo, hard and faintly shimmering, and John wanted nothing more than to dig his claws under the edge of each ridge and tear it off, to get rid of them all, one by one.

Something must have shown on John's face, because Beckett was awkwardly patting his shoulder. "Give it a few days. You'll be right as rain."

Right as rain, yeah. He could still feel Elizabeth's throat, soft under the press of his hand as she struggled to breathe. Teyla, stiffening as he forced his mouth against hers. He didn't remember doing anything to Ronon, not yet, and that was probably a blessing.

But he was changing back. Rodney had said so and Beckett had implied it, so John would just have to hold on to that thought and wait until the blue was gone, until the scales had vanished and he was back to himself again, human, and then he'd go and apologise to everyone for whatever it was he'd done to them.

And then he'd never talk about it, never even think about it, ever, ever, ever again.


There had been a lot of good wishes and get well soon sentiments – all in the form of cards or messages passed on through Rodney, who wouldn't be kept out of the infirmary no matter how often John said he didn't want anyone to see him like this – and John had accepted each one of them with thanks. Waiting. For the scales to fall off, or maybe peel off, or be absorbed by healthy skin. For the blue to fade away into a faint memory. For his eyes to regain their normal sight. He'd tried to cut his nails to fit a human hand, but all he had achieved had been a dent in the small scissors. He'd watched as Rodney's smile became hesitant, brittle, as Beckett ran more and more tests, fretting and smiling and so obviously worried that it was hard to maintain even the semblance of patience. He was aching to touch Rodney, take a little comfort, but couldn't, not when his claws were sharp enough to draw blood with the careless twist of a hand. Not when his skin was rough and scratchy and entirely the wrong colour, and certainly not when he thought he could feel the life pumping through Rodney's body if he concentrated hard enough. John liked the guy, probably more than he'd ever even liked his wife when they had still been happy, and he wouldn't allow Rodney's look of affection to change into one of pity. Or worse, revulsion. If keeping his distance was hurting them both, John would have to satisfy himself with the knowledge that it was better for them in the long run. At least Rodney didn't try to kiss him again.

After a week, the cards were towering precariously on John's bedside table. He was holing up in his private infirmary cubicle and the forced stillness was driving him up the wall – not literally this time, thank god for small blessings – and he ached to retreat to the safety of his own quarters.  But walking back to his quarters would have meant even more people seeing him, and he'd shown them far too much already. John knew the nurses were whispering, that rumours had spread throughout the city. The plan had been to wait them out and counter them by smiling his cocky smile and looking as laidback and lazy as a military commander possibly could. Of course, for that plan to work he'd have to be changing back, and he wasn't.

He wasn't.

John wouldn't admit it to either Beckett or Rodney, but he was scared. He wasn't stupid; he could sense that something was wrong. Beckett was having a hard time meeting his eyes, and John had woken up to Rodney furiously hissing at the doctor just outside his cubicle more than once. His recovery wasn't going as planned, that much was obvious, but he didn't know anything, didn't know if it was simply progressing slower than anticipated, or-

He shied away from the thought, too much of a coward to face it, and immediately kicked himself for that. No visible results didn't necessarily mean that there was no progress, but he had to face that his changing back into a human didn't seem to be happening. And as much as John didn't want to ask, he decided he'd had enough. He needed answers.

"Doc."

After a moment of silence, footsteps approached the cubicle and Beckett peered warily around one white edge. John was sitting on his bed, wearing one of his black sweaters and BDU pants, because while holing up in the infirmary was one thing, doing so in flimsy scrubs was quite another. The fabric kept catching on the scales, but at least most of his skin was covered. "Colonel."

"I was wondering about the lack of progress," John said flatly, his hands clutching the edge of the mattress. "According to what you said, I should have changed back by now."

Beckett winced and looked away. "Ah, yes. About that-"

"Hey," Rodney interrupted them, barging in like he owned the place, "I brought some DVDs and a laptop. I thought we could watch a..." He looked from one man to the other, his smile fading. "Did I, uh, interrupt something?"

John was still staring at Beckett. Now that he'd finally asked the question, he wanted an answer. He wasn't about to be distracted. "Doc."

Instead of a reply, Beckett turned to Rodney. "You'll have to come back later, Rodney. This is a serious discussion, and I'm not about to break doctor-patient confidentiality."

"What?" Rodney's voice was high-pitched with indignation. Beckett knew about their relationship; he hardly ever turned one of them away when the other was in the infirmary. "I have every right to-"

"He can stay," John interrupted the beginning diatribe. His claws were digging into the mattress – if there was any good news to be had, Beckett wouldn't have hesitated to share it. He pushed the thought away, along with the feeling that he already knew what the doctor was about to tell them.

Beckett's face was a mask of regret as he sighed. "I'm afraid the retrovirus has taken over too much of your system for our magic bullet to work the way we intended it to. Your brain patterns and behaviour have returned to normal but the physical changes are permanent. We think your ATA-gene somehow interacted with the characteristic DNA the Iratus bug shares with the Wraith to form a new compound." Beckett sighed again, looking utterly miserable. "I'm sorry, son. You won't be changing back."

John gritted his teeth. "Try something else."

"At this point we've tried everything we could think of, Colonel. The stem cell therapy was our best bet, and it didn't work. Breaking the compound without severely compromising your system simply isn't possible."

"Well then go back to thinking."

"Colonel, I don't-"

"This is my life we're talking about!" John jumped up, pacing the small space between the bed and the cubicle wall, not missing Beckett's initial flinch when he came too close to the cubicle entrance. "If you're just going to let me stay this way, you might as well shoot me. That's still better than the alternative."

Rodney had been listening with wide eyes. Now he chimed in: "We'll figure something out. You'll be back to, uh, charming the ladies in no time." He tried for a smile and failed miserably, and John nodded jerkily, his ridged lips pressed together.

"Thank you, Rodney. If I thought this was an engineering problem, I would have told you."

The smile faded and Rodney looked away, fidgeting. "I... That was a joke. I mean, I'm not going to leave you because you are," he waved his hand, looking for the right word, "you know. Blue."

And once again, it's all about you, John thought. "I don't need reassurances, Rodney, I need results."

"I just, I wanted you to know I'm there. For you."

"Maybe I don't want you to be there," John hissed angrily. It was like snuffing out a candle, the way the light left Rodney's eyes. In the shocked silence, John's harsh breathing seemed very loud.

"Colonel," Beckett began, his voice dripping with sympathy, "you will have to get used to this. We will of course keep working on a treatment, but right now we don't have a cure. I'm sorry."

He was sorry. Well, so was John. In fact, he was more than sorry, he was furious. How dare they tell him to get used to this, this abomination that was his body! He was a fucking bug!

"John-" Rodney's hand was on his arm, and John reacted without thinking.

"Stay the fuck away!" He shoved Rodney back, hard, then watched in horror as the scientist was thrown several feet through the air, knocking down the cubicle and slamming into the wall. His head met the metal with a sharp thud and he slid down, dazed eyes fluttering closed even as he raised a hand to feel his skull.

"Rodney!" Beckett hurried over to the fallen man, leaving John to stare at them, shaking, his stomach churning with the knowledge that he could easily have killed Rodney without meaning to. God. He could have killed him. Rodney's eyes blinked open again and he pushed Beckett away, trying to get to his feet. He seemed confused but okay, but the wall behind his head was stained with a faint red smear.

John ran.

He turned away, tore through the infirmary and past two startled nurses, broke into a sprint once he'd reached the hall. Four sharp turns and a flight of stairs, and he was three levels above normality on Atlantis. John ran. Past a transporter and down another hall, legs pumping with alien efficiency, his breath barely audible over the loud thump of his boots on the metal floor. Without consciously thinking about it his body was following the familiar route he ran with Ronon almost every day, leading him away from the centre of the city and past yet another transporter to a secluded balcony, their turnaround point. The doors opened easily for him and he stumbled out, surprised to find the sky dark and dotted with stars. Obviously his internal clock was messed up as well.

God, he was so screwed. John leaned on the night-cold railing, catching his breath and absentmindedly wondering if the water below would do any damage should he decide to jump. His breath came in short, hitching puffs that started to hurt somewhere between his lungs and his throat; his eyes were burning as he blinked rapidly. Salt water. It had been the only thing to hurt the Iratus bug on John's neck, back when Ford was still on the team. John didn't remember the pain, but he remembered screaming. That whole episode seemed a lifetime away now. Would his tears leave blistering furrows in his skin if they slid down his cheeks? Was the burn in his eyes already more than just pain threatening to spill over? John didn't know. He wasn't sure he really wanted to, or even cared.

He couldn't believe that this was him now. That this knotted, scaly, distorted body was really his. Another hitch as his breathing grew faster, more shallow. He was a monster. A freak. Stares and whispers behind his back, just like after Afghanistan. Worse. People avoiding his gaze, avoiding him. Afraid of him, even if they didn't admit it. I know, gross, isn't it? Rodney's voice rang unbidden through his mind, and he barely suppressed a sob. Gross, and not temporary like they'd thought. Who the hell would want anything to do with a human bug?

A harsh chuckle escaped his lips – his blue, bumpy lips – as he wondered what he'd do now, what they would do with him. Things couldn't go on like they had been, he knew that. And they couldn't ship him back and give him a discharge. So now what? Keep him here, safely locked up so he couldn't hurt anyone else? Leave him for Beckett to experiment on, to perfect his retrovirus against the Wraith? Or take him back to Earth, the planet that hadn't been home even before the change, to pull him apart and see what made him tick?

Maybe they'd show some compassion and just shoot him.

John had no idea how long he'd been standing there brooding, but he was still turning that last thought over and over in his mind, savouring it with a feeling of grim anticipation, when the doors behind him slid open. He tensed and didn't turn around as his fingers clenched around the cold metal railing, knowing full well who had come to find him. Probably using the life signs detector, too: apparently John had his very own colour code. And didn't that make him feel special.

"John?" Rodney's voice was hesitant, and that alone was evidence of how very not normal this situation was. Rodney never hesitated. But being thrown against a wall obviously made him cautious.

Good.

"Did Elizabeth call security?" She should have. With that scene in the infirmary John had made it more than clear that he was dangerous.

"No, I, uh... I managed to convince her that it was an accident. Carson backed me up, though if you think I'm a bad liar you should hear him. I don't think Elizabeth believed a word we said. Um." There was an awkward pause. "I just... in case you were wondering, you didn't hurt me. Well, I, uh, cut myself on one of those pointless decorative protrusions, but I'm fine. No harm done."

John didn't react although he felt something inside himself relax minutely. He'd thought he had at least given Rodney a concussion.

"Are you- well, no, you're not all right, obviously." Rodney took a deep breath, and John imagined him squaring his shoulders. "Can... can we talk about this?"

'This' meaning John's shiny new complexion? The tatters of a relationship that had been far too young to survive a blow like this? Or maybe the way he'd almost killed Rodney, oh, ten minutes ago? "There's nothing to talk about."

Picking up his courage, Rodney inched closer. "So, what? You, you simply decide it's over and that's it? We're done? Because that hardly strikes me as fair."

Fair. What a joke. Of all the words to pick, he'd chosen exactly the wrong one. Nothing about this was fair. Nothing about this was even remotely fair.

"John, talk to-"

"Leave it, McKay."

There was a moment of shocked silence at the use of Rodney's last name, then a sharp inhalation that had John tensing up even further because damn it, couldn't Rodney leave well alone for once in his life, just once?

"You don't get to decide this alone, John," Rodney told him, his voice forcibly calm as he stepped even closer. "By definition, a relationship like ours is a partnership of equals, so I-"

"Equals!" John spat and spun around, his blood rushing in his ears when Rodney paled and flinched, flinched away. "Have you looked at me, Rodney? Because maybe it's just me," and he sneered, "but I don't seem to be all that 'equal' anymore."

Rodney swallowed and raised his chin in that way he had when he was about to make a stubborn, desperate point. "Physical appearance means nothing," he claimed, his voice wobbly and his eyes uncertain, and John actually laughed.

"Rodney, physical appearance means everything to you."

"I'll admit to being... shallow, in the past, but," Rodney took a deep breath. "Look, I know this is hard for you, but I, I'd like to think that you can rely on me- to be there- for you. Um. I mean, we're friends, right? Friends who, okay, fell into bed together after one of them almost blew himself up, but- but that has to mean something, right?" Rodney's voice steadied, gathered confidence. "I mean, as a base for a relationship that's actually very good, right, because you know you can trust me and, and we know each other's faults, and I- I, uh, I love you." He looked vaguely sick. "I don't care what you look like."

"You don't care," John echoed flatly.

"No, I... I don't."

"And you want me."

"Uh." Rodney blinked, nauseous doubt now plain on his pale face. "Yes? I mean, yes. Yes, I want you."

That was such an obvious lie that John felt the fine threads of his patience snap. Betrayed and furious, he spat, "And I'm supposed to believe you want this?" His claws shredded easily through the fabric as he yanked off his sweatshirt and his BDUs, exposing his disgusting body to the cold moonlight, to Rodney. He kicked off his boots for good measure, to give Rodney full opportunity to take in exactly what it was that he was claiming to want.

John's feet were of a dark indigo, his toes sporting the same pale claws as his hands. Hard, purple ridges drew their way from the back of his feet up his scaly calves, around shell-like kneecaps and along his thighs. They trailed off at the back when they reached his ass, fanning out into smooth scales, but turned into broad, plate-like lines that covered the sides of his torso like body armour. All his body hair was gone, replaced by scales of various shapes and sizes, and his dark blue bumpy cock lay nestled against rough skin. John had no idea if it could get hard, didn't want to know. His belly and chest were almost smooth with their covering of fine, light blue scales, his nipples a disturbingly healthy pink, completely unchanged. His arms were rougher, darker, again covered with ridges that started purple but turned blue the higher they climbed, over his shoulders and upward, trailing off over his face, travelling up the sides of his neck until they reached his ears. His ears, with their hard chitin shell creeping along soft, human skin. His face, half-alien and half-John. He'd never liked the colour of his eyes that much, but the neither-here-nor-there hazel had been a hell of a lot better than the yellow cat's eyes with their slit pupils he'd seen the only time he'd actually dared to look into a mirror. And he hated, hated his hair with its cheerful normality, standing up in all directions as usual.

Behold, the new John Sheppard. What a sight he makes.

Rodney was staring, eyes round with shock, his mouth opening and closing without a sound. It was satisfying, in a hurtful kind of way, to see him like this. For once he was at a complete loss for words. Thankfully, his face had always spoken for him, and it was as easy to read now as it had been when John had returned from the Daedalus after what was supposed to be a suicide mission.

It didn't speak of want right now.

"Yeah. That's what I thought." John's voice lacked inflection even to his own ears. He wasn't even disappointed. He hadn't expected anything else. Rodney flinched at his words, his eyes snapping up from where they'd been fixed on John's cock, so very blue. God, he hated that colour.

"No, don't be stupid, that's not what I-"

"Leave it, McKay."

"John-" Rodney took a step closer, and it was like that time when Atlantis had been in the middle of a storm, John's hurt and anger and resentment rising like the giant wave that had been threatening to swallow the city, only this time there was no one to raise a shield to keep him from drowning.

"Leave me the fuck alone!" he screamed, his voice cracking over the last word because that's what he was, alone, untouchable, what he wanted to be, only not. Rodney stumbled back like he'd been hit. His expression showed betrayal, of all things, as he jerkily turned around and slammed his hand against the door sensors, hitting them on the second try. He didn't look back, just left, and John didn't understand his own halting step forward. He stopped when his foot caught in the torn fabric of his BDUs, blinked down at the shredded remnants of his clothes. Bending down to pick them up, he held them for a moment before tossing them over the railing and into the sea below. For one numb second, he wondered if he shouldn't just jump after them, to drown or melt or break his neck on impact. To be done with it.

Then he gritted his teeth, and started the climb up the outside wall to his quarters. His claws and the many protrusions on the metal surface made it absurdly easy.


He literally ran into Ronon the next morning when he was on his way to Elizabeth's office. John knew that he had to come out of hiding some time, but that didn't mean he felt comfortable with everyone watching him as he walked past. He was wearing the most skin-covering clothes he'd been able to find – very much like the ones he'd shredded – and wondered if he should start asking around for a pair of gloves as well. Ronon's eyes were lingering on his hands. After a moment, John surreptitiously curled them into loose fists to at least hide the claws.

"Hey, Ronon. How's it going?" he asked after a too long pause. Ronon looked him up and down, his eyebrows drawn into a slight frown. His face was unreadable. Then he shrugged, turned and walked away, leaving John to stare at his retreating back. "Yeah," John mumbled, faintly hurt despite his lack of surprise.

In Elizabeth's office, she and Caldwell were already waiting. The atmosphere was tense, like almost every time those two spent more than a minute together. This wasn't just the usual forced politeness, though. This was different, and John hovered in the doorway, eyeing them warily.

"John." Elizabeth stood up from her place behind her desk and smiled at him. "It's good to see you."

Caldwell rose as well. "Colonel." His voice was carefully neutral, his gaze not straying from John's eyes. Against his will, John was impressed. "I expect you can guess why we called this meeting."

"You're probably wondering what to do with me," John hazarded, folding his hands behind his back as he stood at ease. Never show them you're scared.

"Take a seat, John," Elizabeth offered with an irritated glance at Caldwell.

"Thank you. I'd rather stand."

"As you wish." She sat down again, as did Caldwell. John took a step forward so the door could close behind him. "We have been conferring with the SGC through databursts, trying to explain the... situation." Elizabeth folded her hands and looked up at John with a serious expression. "John, I won't lie to you. The SGC wants you to return to Earth, to run a series of tests. I tried to explain that Carson is the leading Wraith expert and should be the one to work on your case, but I'm afraid they were very insistent."

John tensed, trying hard not to show it. So he was going to be a guinea pig. He'd expected as much; there was no reason for his lungs to constrict like they did.

"We managed to reach a compromise," Caldwell explained, not looking at Elizabeth. "The Daedalus will take every sample the SGC asks Dr. Beckett to acquire on its way back to Earth. You will be relieved of duty and stay here on Atlantis. I will be the acting military commander of this base until a final decision has been reached."

John let out a long, slow breath. He could stay. As insane as it was, Atlantis still felt like a safe haven in his mind. If he had to be an alien – and he hadn't given up on Beckett yet – he'd prefer to be far away from the military and their experimental labs. Knowing them, they would have started trying to create an army of half-bug super soldiers the moment John had set foot on Earth. Elizabeth probably wouldn't let something like that happen here. At least she'd try and fight it.

Relieved as he was, though, John couldn't help feeling weary. Staying on Atlantis also meant people knowing him, seeing him, talking about him. Watching him and waiting for him to lose his mind. The thought alone was... exhausting.

"I expect you want me to hand over my gun?"

"Just a precaution." This time, the look Caldwell gave him was full of sympathy. "I know this will take time getting used to, Colonel. Take as much as you need."

"John," Elizabeth chimed in, frowning at Caldwell, "if you need anyone to talk to..." She let her voice trail off, and John nodded, keeping his face blank.

"Yeah. If that's all?" They nodded and John walked away, out of the office and through the control room, past the stares and whispers. He didn't need their condescending sympathy. He didn't need to talk. And he really didn't need time to get used to anything.

All he needed was to change back.

That didn't happen, though. John handed his gun to the sergeant on duty in the armoury and pretended he didn't care; the Daedalus went on its way back to Earth with samples of everything the doctors at the SGC had been able to think of, and a few John was pretty sure they threw in just to poke him some more; Caldwell quickly and efficiently changed the way the military was run on Atlantis from the ground up, and Elizabeth smiled through gritted teeth and kept trying to sic Heightmeyer on John – another thing that wasn't going to happen.

John's team was no longer on stand-down; instead, it was disassembled when it became clear that simply putting someone else in charge wasn't going to work. John had no idea if Ronon was too hard to handle for anyone but him, or if his team had simply gotten used to him and refused to cooperate out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. Rodney went back to working in the labs around the clock, Teyla focused on accompanying trading missions and spent more time with the Athosians on the mainland, and Ronon simply went where Teyla did. Every now and then, he'd go with another team on a search and rescue mission, or when it looked like the kind of assignment where he might get to kill some Wraith. John was spending most of his time holed up in his quarters with a few harmless Ancient gadgets he'd stolen from the lab, trying to turn them on. The results were less than reassuring: there was a forty percent chance the device wouldn't even react when he flipped that mental switch for the first time. The odds of John actually managing to interact with Ancient technology improved the more often he used a particular device, but his ATA-gene had become decidedly wonky. Beckett thought the Wraith part of his DNA was interfering with the Ancient component somehow, but John suspected that was mostly speculation.

The bottom line was he'd have to get used to it, like he'd have to get used to the ravenous hunger that tore through his system whenever he left the safety of his quarters to sneak to Atlantis' upper levels and work out his frustration without anyone bothering him. It was like his body demanded instant replacement of the energy John used up, and he was probably very lucky that he could still eat normal food as long as he kept swallowing the pills Beckett had cooked up for him. As far as John understood, they contained some super-enzyme that kept his digestive system on track. And he could actually eat salt – that 'allergy' was one of the few things he'd been spared. So far, he'd managed to avoid setting foot in the mess hall, but even the stash of MREs Rodney had hoarded in John's quarters for non-specified emergencies was rapidly dwindling. Soon he'd have no choice but to walk around in public. All on his own.

He still didn't want the attention. Ronon was avoiding him anyway. Teyla had tried talking to him a few times, as had Rodney, but he'd just sent them away. Rodney had looked pale and dejected the last time John had seen him, which had given him a strange sense of regret that was tinted with satisfaction. Why should he be the only one who was unhappy?

You're the reason he's miserable, a little voice from the back of his mind whispered. John pushed it away. He knew he was hurting Rodney with his decision to keep everyone at arm's length, but it wasn't like he didn't miss the man, too. In fact, he was a little scared at the intensity of his... well, not longing, but... he just missed Rodney. He'd always known there were at least some feelings involved, why else should they have fallen together as easily as they had? Except this was more than he'd ever anticipated. He missed the banter, the movies, the Ancient game they had been playing for months now; the closeness, the way Rodney touched him like John was something infinitely precious... god, the touching. John was aching for it, hurting with want, but it would be wrong. He didn't want to watch Rodney's brave attempts at maintaining a relationship fade into hesitation, repulsion, fear. He honestly thought that might break him.

John didn't think Rodney would try again, though. Their last run-in earlier in the infirmary had been very final. "What does it take to make you get that I don't want you to touch me?" John had snapped, and the sheer hurt on Rodney's face had almost made him reach out. Almost. Then Rodney had raised his chin and blinked a few times and said, "I see. Sorry for invading your privacy, Colonel. It won't happen again," and had walked away, his shoulders set in a way that screamed, leave me alone.

That had been two hours ago. Beckett had done his usual draw-some-blood-but-don't-offer-any-results spiel and had sent John home with a jerky pat on his shoulder and an admonition to "please be patient." Like John had been anything but for the past few weeks.

He was sitting on his bed trying to watch a movie when his door chime rang. He was having a hard enough time concentrating on the plot without anyone distracting him and was half-tempted to pretend he wasn't home. This wasn't the first time Elizabeth had visited him in his quarters to try and talk with him and frankly, he was getting tired of that. Talking wouldn't make the problem go away, and maybe he should tell her that.

It was Teyla standing in the hall, not Elizabeth. John opened his mouth and closed it again when he realised that he had nothing to say.

"May I come in?" Teyla asked without a smile. John stepped aside to let her in, turning around to stay next to the door with his hands in his pockets while she came to stand in the centre of the small room. She looked angrier than he'd ever seen her before.

"I know your fate is a hard one... John. Your decision not to accept any help is unfortunate, but I can respect it," she told him, her voice clipped and tinged with disappointment. "But your pain does not give you the right to lash out at those around you, especially Dr. McKay. I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour."

John's hands clenched into fists as he fought to keep a casual stance. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do. You are hurting him on purpose to make him keep his distance. Such actions are beneath you, John."

"That's none of your business."

"Rodney is my friend, and when you are ready to join us again you will realise that you are, too. Nothing can change that, John." Teyla gave him a sad little smile, then her expression hardened. "That does not mean I will stand by and watch you hurt him. If you cannot speak civilly to Rodney, I would prefer if you did not speak to him at all."

She gave a sharp nod and left before John could figure out if he should feel angry or guilty, the door closing behind her with a final-sounding swoosh. She was right, in a way, even though it really was none of her business. She obviously didn't get that he was hurting Rodney for his own good, just as he was keeping every one else away from himself to protect them. He wasn't safe to be around anymore – ask Rodney – and he couldn't risk losing his temper again. He missed them all, Elizabeth, Teyla, Ronon, and not just Rodney. But he wasn't even human anymore... how could he be a friend?

John sat on his bed, lonely and miserable and hating himself. The curtains were shut tight, but even the dimness of the room wasn't enough to hide Rodney's latest physics journal on his desk, Rodney's toiletries cluttering up the small alcove that served as a bathroom, Rodney's screensaver playing on his laptop. Slowly curling his hands into fists until his claws were digging into his palms, just short of breaking the soft skin, John kept himself from reaching out to run a finger over the journal's cover.

God, he wanted.


Four days passed without John leaving his quarters. It was raining the whole time, big fat drops pattering down on his small balcony, hitting the railing with a metallic clatter. It suited his mood just fine. He almost managed to convince himself that he kept the curtains drawn and the lights off because he didn't need much light to see by and the darkness was the right setting to listen to Johnny Cash sing about lost love and death. His belongings were still littering the small space from the time, weeks ago, that he'd pulled them out to remind himself of his humanity. John stowed the useless surfboard away, along with the skateboard he'd never use again and the football he couldn't even hold properly without his claws scratching the leather. For a while, he tried to figure out if he could pluck at his guitar and not rip through the strings. Turned out he couldn't, and he broke it as he clenched his hand around the neck. Then Johnny sang, "I'm gonna sit right here until I die," and John stared at the poster on his wall for a long moment before he snorted, both at Johnny and himself.

What the hell was he doing?

His first venture into the mess hall was met with stares and a perfect silence as conversations died down when people spotted him. He didn't have to stand in line for dinner, thankfully, it was late and the mess hall mostly empty. The whispers started when Sgt. Anders loaded John's tray with food, muttering, "Sir," when John told him he'd prefer fruit salad over Jell-O. Heads hastily swivelled away when John turned and walked to the back of the room where he sat down at an empty table. Slowly, the conversations around him started up again. He picked at his food before he discovered how hungry he truly was, stares or no stares, and dug in.

John took to having three meals a day in the mess hall, always some time after the main rush. He met Teyla every now and then, and each time she stopped with her tray, her expression asking if he cared for some company. Every time he shook his head, she nodded sadly before she went on to another table. Elizabeth learned that John outside his quarters didn't equal John ready to talk and left him alone as well. After a while, he started to get used to the way he was now. So did everybody else. John marvelled a little at the professionalism of the people he had been working with. Now he could walk down a crowded hall or into the control room without feeling too weird or anyone jumping out of their skin when they spotted him, except for some skittish scientists. As John had heard in passing, those scientists were even more skittish after Rodney had ripped them a new one for their idiocy. He didn't quite know what to make of that one.

Then there were one or two incidents where Ronon had stalked into the mess hall, spotted John, and sat down at another table to stare at him until John left. Those were usually unsettling enough to make him miss the next meal – if the next meal wasn't breakfast – simply because he didn't know what Ronon was thinking. John wasn't comfortable in his skin, not by a long shot. Blue had become the most despicable colour, and it had taken him some time to handle stuff – clothes, his laptop, his toothbrush – without his claws getting in the way. Mirrors weren't John's friends, and neither were his old t-shirts: the soft cloth kept rubbing his scales exactly the wrong way. But he told himself that he wasn't ashamed of his appearance anymore, though it was possible that Heightmeyer might disagree there.

But he had a daily life, even if it was still mostly happening in his quarters. And alone, except for the limited contact he had as a part of his job. Ever since that last hurtful encounter, Rodney had stayed well away from John. They nodded at each other when their paths happened to cross – and that wasn't very often: John suspected Rodney was avoiding him on purpose, which was fine with him – and managed to keep up the appearance of something approaching actual communication whenever John was in a meeting Elizabeth insisted he join. Those were mostly about the state of the city or who would fit into what offworld team, something John still knew more about than Caldwell. Surprisingly enough, the Colonel didn't seem to have any problems with that. He had even sought out John's input once or twice, an action that had gone a long way to make John feel like he might have some sort of purpose left on Atlantis.

Not this kind of purpose, though.

"I really don't see why you need me on this mission." They were sitting around the briefing room table, with Caldwell to Elizabeth's right and Teyla to her left. John had placed himself two seats down from them. The half-statement, half-question was directed at Rodney, who had been explaining the nature of the mission with his usual high-speed techno babble that John had always enjoyed in the past. Now it was just really annoying.

"Because, Colonel, we have a functioning Ancient spaceship slowly making its way towards us and might need someone who can interface the technology when we go and check it out. As highly as Colonel Caldwell regards the crew of the Daedalus, this calls for a more experienced team." Rodney was actually bouncing in front of the large green blip on the Ancient screen, visibly proud that he'd convinced Elizabeth to let John go on a mission.

Too bad John didn't want to. "Then how about you send Jefferson's team? If you're afraid Dr. Vogel might break something, you can always tag along."

"Because unreliable as it is, yours is still the strongest gene in Atlantis and you have significantly more experience at initialising unknown Ancient technology without getting yourself killed than Lt. Jefferson, so how about you stop arguing and gear up?" Rodney was getting visibly irritated with John, but he was just going to have to deal with it.

"Thanks, but I'll pass."

"What is wrong with you, Colonel?" Rodney exploded, slamming the back of his hand against the thin screen where the green blip cheerfully blipped on. "This is our chance to obtain an actual Ancient spaceship, complete with assorted weaponry! Do you even realise that this might well save this city the next time the Wraith decide to pay us a visit, or are you too preoccupied with yourself to care?"

"Dr. McKay," Caldwell started, but Rodney was on a roll.

"If nothing else, the Aurora should carry several puddle jumpers. The ship left Atlantis long before the other Elizabeth made Janus interrupt his experiments. Who knows, one of those jumpers might even be equipped for time travel!"

John paused, intrigued against his will. "Really?"

"No. The point is, three months ago the thought of an Ancient warship would have been enough to make you salivate on the table!"

"Three months ago I wasn't a bug, Rodney," John told him with forced calm, refusing to let Rodney's accusations get to him. There was a long moment when everyone silently avoided his gaze, uncomfortably gazing at the screen or their fingers or the people working in the control room. Everyone except Rodney, who was glaring at John with a mixture of hurt betrayal and resentful accusation. "You also weren't a coward," he said flatly, grabbing his laptop and walking out of the briefing room without sparing anyone a second glance.

Elizabeth and Teyla exchanged a meaningful glance, then Teyla pushed her chair back and rose. "I will check if Ronon is ready for the mission," she announced, carefully ignoring John, and quickly followed in Rodney's wake. John crossed his arms, cautious to keep his claws away from the insides of his elbows.

"I'm not going."

Caldwell leaned forward and rested his folded hands on the table. "I could make it an order, Colonel."

Before John could answer, Elizabeth jumped in. "I don't think that will be necessary." Her voice was cold and the Colonel narrowed his eyes, his lips a pale, angry line. John shook his head.

"Elizabeth."

"I'm aware that this is hard for you, John. But Rodney is right; you're our best bet to get the Aurora back to Atlantis. Dr. Beckett assures me that your... condition," she grimaced helplessly, and he tried not to scowl at her, "has in no way affected the strength of your ATA gene, only your ability to interact with some of the systems. I've already talked to Colonel Richards. The Daedalus will be ready to leave within the hour." She paused and tucked her hair behind an ear, her expression sympathetic but determined. "John, I know you don't want to go, but any advantage we can get in the war against the Wraith is more important than your personal issues, don't you think? We need that ship."

John grimaced. They were right, he realised that. But knowing that didn't mean he had to like what it meant for him.

Two hours later, he was on his first mission since Beckett's retrovirus had wreaked havoc on his system. He didn't get to wear a gun – he wasn't sure he could have used it anyway, what with the claws and all – and the added weight of the tac vest over his jacket made his t-shirt chafe uncomfortably across his scales. Still, it was a good thing his body hadn't changed so much that he needed any custom-made equipment, John thought sarcastically. Otherwise the mission would have needed a lot more time to prepare, and he'd really hate to inconvenience anyone with his weirdness. But despite his crankiness, gearing up again after almost three months of sitting around doing nothing had been accompanied by a tiny thrill that wouldn't be suppressed no matter how hard he tried. Or by how intensely Ronon was staring at his back. The Satedan hadn't let John out of his sight ever since the team had been beamed aboard the Daedalus; in fact, John was surprised that Ronon was still on Atlantis at all. The man obviously hated sitting around doing nothing, but except for the occasional trading mission with Teyla and one or two search and rescues, almost all he did was train the military contingent in unarmed combat. Maybe he'd gotten used to the regular meals.

Colonel Richards had been there to greet the team when they'd materialised in one of the cargo holds. John's first thought had been surprise at how young the man looked: he couldn't be much older than forty, which would be an unusual age for someone to command one of Earth's few intergalactic spaceships. Richards was a little shorter than John and stocky, with dark hair and a slightly ironic smile playing on his lips. He had taken one look at Rodney and waved him away, telling him to "at least try not to piss off Hermiod." Rodney had given a jerky nod and marched out into the hall, Teyla trailing after him. John had been startled at the short pang of jealousy when he'd realised that Richards knew Rodney well enough to read him at a glance. He wondered when those two men might have met before – SGC? Area 51? – and what kind of history they shared to have developed that kind of easy casualness with each other.

It's not your business anymore, he told himself after Richards had left with a few polite words. Rodney can do whatever he wants. And that was the plain truth. Now John just had to bring himself to believe it.

"This place okay with you?" he asked Ronon to distract himself, sitting down with his back against a large crate. As much as he'd have loved to, there was no use asking for private quarters away from the stares of the few Daedalus crewmembers. The trip was too short. "We could go somewhere else. Maybe scare the flight crew."

Ronon shrugged and leaned against a crate of his own, obviously settling in for the long haul. John let his head fall back to hit the crate with a soft thud and closed his eyes.

A few hours went by before they dropped out of hyperspace. John had fallen into a light doze, peripherally aware that Ronon hadn't moved. A short burst of static in his ear made him open his eyes. "Colonel, we are picking up a Wraith scout ship," Rodney's tinny voice told him. Ronon straightened and loomed menacingly without actually changing his position.

"Hey, don't look at me." John frowned, Ronon raised an eyebrow, and John raised one back in a clear challenge. Ronon's lips twitched into a slight smirk and John scowled, which earned him a barely perceptible shrug. Well, as long as that's clear, John thought and settled down again. Maybe Ronon wasn't keeping an eye on him as much as keeping everyone else away. Although that was completely... well, no, actually, that would be kind of nice.

"Wraith scout destroyed," Rodney informed them. John activated his radio.

"Understood."

A moment later, Richards hailed them. "Colonel, you and your giant might want to suit up. The Aurora's got more holes than a Swiss cheese, and no signs of working life support."

"Understood," John repeated, shaking his head as he got to his feet. Richards seemed to be from the same take-it-easy military branch as General O'Neill. Compared to Caldwell's way of playing it strictly by the rules, that could be a refreshing change.

They met Teyla and Rodney in yet another cargo hold, already suited up. Rodney handed him a pair of smooth gloves to go under the bright orange space suit.

"What's that?" John wanted to know, inspecting the hard caps at the end of each of the gloves' fingers by tapping a claw against them. Rodney huffed impatiently and poked him lightly with the butt of his flashlight.

"A little something extra. Wouldn't want you to rip a hole into your spacesuit."

John looked down at his claws, curling his fingers a little. "Regular boy scout, huh, McKay?"

"Not all of us can make Que Sera, Sera their hymn, Colonel," Rodney shot back, and John turned a little to hide his tiny smile. He was pathetically grateful to know that Rodney still cared on some level, enough to prepare for the eventuality of John having to move in hard vacuum. And while the rhythm of their banter was seriously off, they were both trying in their own incredibly awkward way. Having something that at least resembled their former friendship was nice and strangely comforting, and John allowed himself to relax a little. He could have done without the need to stand so close to each other when Hermiod transported them to the Aurora though. It was impossible – they were both suited up, for god's sake – but he thought he could feel Rodney's warmth, smell his scent. The transporter beam enveloped them mid-fidget, and John hurried to take a step aside once the light faded around them to reveal the bumps and creases of the Ancient spaceship.

The Aurora was cold and silent and so dark that not even John could see. He switched on his flashlight and let the broad beam sweep over inactive panels and several rows of ladders that seemed to connect that level with the ones above and below. Next to him, his team did the same, quietly fanning out. A thick layer of dust covered the floor. The air must have left the ship gradually, the decompression slow enough to give the dust time to settle. It didn't stir as they walked along the dark corridor to where Rodney thought the bridge would be. The Aurora turned out to be not quite as dead as they had thought: the double bulkhead doors that lead to the bridge opened with hydraulic ease when John reached to pry them apart. Some automatic systems still seemed to be running in the background. John almost smiled at Rodney's quiet noise of excitement – if the ship still had some juice left after all this time, it might well be powered by a ZPM. They'd have to go check it out later.

The bridge was mostly gone, a gaping hole where huge view screens once must have been. No dead bodies, though, and that was odd. Possibly culled after losing their run-in with whatever Wraith ship they had encountered. John grimaced at a burnt-out console: so much for flying this thing back to Atlantis. The Daedalus would have to take them in tow. Maybe Hermiod could rig up some kind of tractor beam thing, like Picard's Enterprise had – that would be cool.

"Colonel." Teyla's voice pulled John from contemplating the stars hovering beyond the open bridge. He closed the bulkhead doors behind him and walked down the short corridor that connected them with the semi-circular hallway Teyla and the rest of the team had gathered in, staring up at something that looked like a lot of Plexiglas bubbles. They lit up when he stepped closer, filling with a greenish-blue light that illuminated the faint outlines of faces underneath the dusty glass.

Stasis pods. So this was where the bodies were.

"If you want to investigate this further, you'll have to find a way to get life support back online. These suits are only made for a short trip," John told Rodney, who was staring at row after row of pods. There were dozens of them, maybe hundreds.

"Yeah, I'm on it," he said faintly, visibly fighting to pull his gaze away from the sleeping Ancients.

It took Rodney a while to get life support up and running and even then the air was stale, but eventually they were out of their suits and investigating the pods. Well, Rodney was investigating, the rest of the team were simply looking at the incredibly old people sleeping inside what started to look – at least to John – eerily like coffins. Yet Rodney had told him that the whole crew of the Aurora seemed to be alive, even after ten thousand years. Apparently they had aged too much to be woken up, but Rodney would-

"Whoa!"

"What?" John jogged the few steps to where Rodney had hooked his laptop to the stasis pod of the man they assumed was the captain of the ship. The insignia on his uniform were different from those around him and even asleep he had the air of someone used to giving commands and having them obeyed. Standing close enough to look but not so close they'd touch, John tried to peer over Rodney's shoulder. He could read the computer screen perfectly, but the letters and little graphics meant nothing to him. Rodney was practically drooling, though.

"McKay?"

"This is- I'm getting cortical signals, it's incredible!" At John's blank look Rodney sobered a little. "There's a distinct amount of neural activity going on," he explained. "It's like all of these people are conscious or even-" he snapped his fingers, his face lighting up. "The pods have to be connected with each other and this," he gestured at the screen, "means they're communicating with each other."

"What, all of them?" John asked, looking up at the long rows of stasis pods.

"So what're they saying? Exchanging recipes?" Richards chimed in. Up until now he had just been listening to them on the radio.

"Yes, exactly. This one's an Ancient potpie," Rodney snapped, flicking his finger against the computer screen. "Any more stupid questions?"

Richards' chuckle was clear over the radio. "Any chance you can figure it out before we have to go back?"

"I don't know! This is an incredibly complex Ancient system, not DOS! It would take weeks to-" Rodney broke off, staring into space for a moment before tapping his radio. "Teyla? Are you done exploring yet?"

"Yes. We have found many more of the stasis pods."

"And are any of them empty?"

John raised an eyebrow. Rodney just grinned.

Teyla and Ronon had in fact found several empty stasis pods. Rodney of course was almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of hacking into what he called a virtual environment. John raised both his eyebrows when he realised that the scientist's oh-so-brilliant plan was to simply enter one of the stasis pods and then hope for the best. Sure, it was a chance to talk with living, breathing Ancients, but there was still a considerable risk. And to have ten thousand year old equipment fry Rodney's synapses and destroy that beautiful intellect... just, no. Relationship or not, John found he couldn't even take the thought of something happening to Rodney, though he'd be hard-pressed to admit it. Still, with Teyla's help he managed to convince Rodney that having John be the one to awkwardly fumble his radio out of his ear and lie down on one of those metal slabs was a way better idea – that way, Rodney wouldn't be the one with the fried brain in case anything went wrong. John suspected that Rodney's lingering resentment might have had something to do with how easily he was persuaded. But his concerns were real and he was trying hard not to show that he was nervous as hell when he let himself be hooked up, slipped into his stasis pod, closed his eyes-

-and opened them in a world of white and blue. Squinting against the harsh light, John looked around. He was in some sort of hallway, with shiny white walls that were, strangely enough, painted with what looked like trees when they weren't blinking with the lights from some unknown machinery. The floor was smooth, marble-like, and also white. As was John's uniform, but the moment he looked down at himself, all that suddenly became very unimportant. His breathing hitched as he stared at his hand – his rosy human hand, with its long fingers and blunt nails and a smattering of fine black hair. Licking his lips as he raised a hand to his face, John was shocked at how soft they felt. And when he lightly ran his fingertips across his cheek, there was no sign of any scales, just his usual five o'clock shadow, which he hadn't had for three months. His heart was thumping against his throat as he licked his lips again and muttered, "Damn," staring at his hand once more. There was the faint scar on the back right behind the knuckle of his middle finger, a reminder of how much his wife's cat had hated him. It was completely innocuous, but he hadn't seen that particular scar for so long that seeing it now made him want to weep.

The sound of a door sliding open made him snap out of it, and he turned to face the young man who was staring at him with a mixture of surprise and mistrust.

"Who are you?" the Ancient wanted to know, and John cleared his throat.

"Hi! I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, and we, uh-"

"This is a restricted area! How did you get in here?" the young man demanded. The conversation deteriorated from there. When John tried to explain that his people had found the Aurora, all it earned him was a blank stare. The security guys didn't believe him when he said that they were in a virtual environment, and neither did the captain when said security guys escorted him to the very intact bridge. Apparently none of the Ancients knew they were actually in a simulated version of their ship, which kind of threw a wrench into Rodney's plans of simply saying hello and communicating with them. John thought he might have gotten through eventually if not for the captain's first officer, who was a real babe but also a true bitch. "Who are you, and how did you get aboard this ship?"

"Look, I already told you, my name is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, and-"

"I have never heard of that name. Are you a member of this crew?"

"No, of course not, I'm-"

"Sir, this man is obviously an intruder. We should proceed accordingly."

And that was how ten minutes after he'd arrived, John found himself in the brig. As much as the blue walls were a relief for John's eyes – all that white had started to hurt a little – the situation still sucked. All his attempts to convince the captain that ten thousand years had passed since the Aurora had set out on her recon mission were thwarted by that damn lieutenant. She kept insisting that finishing the hyperdrive modifications the Ancients were apparently working on was more important than John's 'delusions', and the captain seemed inclined to believe her. Worse, he told John about a communiqué the Aurora was carrying that contained information about a serious weakness in Wraith technology, but refused to say anything further. No matter what John told him about Atlantis or the expedition, the man remained adamant that the information was only meant for the Atlantean Council. The first officer actually grinned a little at that, and John wanted nothing more than to throttle her and wipe that superior expression off her face. The only one who was allowed to look that smug around him was Rodney McKay, and he usually got a head thwack in return.

John was very tempted to just jump out of the simulation to tell Rodney his plan sucked and the Ancients didn't want to play, but no matter how hard he concentrated, the system wouldn't disconnect. Not until he was alone, and by then he was too determined to find out the contents of that damn communiqué to stay outside for longer than it took to explain the situation to Richards and his team.

"Serious weakness, huh?" was the Colonel's reaction. "Sweet."

Rodney snorted and rolled his eyes.

"I can see you doing that."

"What?" Rodney jumped, looking frantically up, then over his shoulder. "How? That's impossible, there's no way you could-" He stopped, annoyance crossing his face when he realised, "You're yanking my chain, aren't you."

Richards cracked up, his laughter loud and clear even through the radio static.

"Oh, yes, very funny." Rodney crossed his arms and pouted. Teyla shot him a sly grin.

"Colonel Richards does seem to know you very well, Rodney."

Yeah, he did, and John gritted his teeth. "Is anyone interested in completing this mission?" he snapped, earning himself a startled look from Rodney and raised eyebrows from both Teyla and Ronon.

"Sure. Go right ahead," Richards told him, and Rodney sent John back in. Against all probability, he managed to escape his cell, but his plan to talk to the captain alone kind of failed. Completely. He only got right up to "Just let me prove to you that-" before he was hit in the back by something that felt very much like a Wraith stunner, only a lot more painful, and the world blinked out.

When he woke up, he was back in his cell, lying on the small cot. Rodney was with him, wearing the same white uniform as John did, staring down at him with a strange expression. It took John a moment to realise why.

"What?" he asked innocently, raising an eyebrow. Rodney blinked, opened his mouth, and closed it again.

"You were unconscious," he rasped finally, still wearing that indecipherable expression. It made John want to squirm. "And why are you in a cell? You didn't mention any cells out there."

"Why are you here?"

"You were unconscious," Rodney repeated, this time with more exasperation in his voice. "Also, there's a Wraith hacking into the system, so-"

"What?"

"We found him on one of the lower levels. He must have been manipulating the neural feedback loop for a significant amount of time, that's why your Ancients have no idea they're in stasis pods. I thought he-" Rodney swallowed. "I came to see if you were okay. Richards says there are two Wraith Cruisers approaching the Aurora; we have to get back to the Daedalus."

John got up to pace the narrow cell. "I need to find out what's in that communiqué. If there really is a weakness in Wraith technology, knowing what it is would give us a definite advantage." He stopped and turned to Rodney waving a hand at the bars of the cell. "Can you get me out of here?"

Rodney managed to look insulted, his mouth pulling down at one corner. "Of course I can." He said more, but John wasn't really listening. He was watching Rodney's mouth. Suddenly he realised that there were maybe six feet of space between them, and if he wanted to, he could just reach out with his very human hand and touch. Touch Rodney, who would be warm and familiar and there, who wouldn't have to shy away from scales and claws. John wanted to. He wanted it so much it was like an ache, a low thrumming in his gut. And really, what was stopping him?

"Rodney," he interrupted the steady flow of words, "come here."

Rodney frowned but came willingly, his unquestioning trust causing something to clench hard in John's chest. They stood a mere foot apart when John reached out a hand that was barely shaking and placed it lightly on Rodney's waist. He could see the moment Rodney's eyes lit up with understanding and dared take a half-step closer. There was curiosity in that gaze, panic, want. John's breath came faster as his other hand slid around Rodney's back without his conscious decision.

"We have no time," Rodney murmured distractedly, but he was staring at John's lips. A second later, their mouths met. For one eternal moment, the contact was cautious, hesitant, and full of fear. Then someone groaned, and suddenly the kiss turned almost desperate in its hunger, open-mouthed and messy, each of them trying to relearn the other's taste; the texture of saliva-slick lips, the nooks and crannies of the other's mouth. Rodney's hands were clutching at John's shoulders like he needed them to keep himself upright, and John moaned into the familiar warmth as their hips bumped together.

He'd never understood the notion of wanting to climb into someone else's skin, but right here, right now, he wanted to get closer to Rodney than it seemed possible. Rodney, who had said that he loved him, barely an hour after John had tossed him halfway across the infirmary. At the time, John hadn't realised just what exactly Rodney had been telling him, but he remembered it now. And with the way Rodney was clinging to him like a drowning man, maybe he could allow himself to believe it. He deepened the kiss, his fingers digging into the strong muscle of Rodney's back. He'd missed this. God, he'd missed this so much.

Then Rodney's hands were on his chest, pushing him back. John stumbled, almost tripping over his feet with surprise. He felt his cheeks grow warm as shame made his heart drop an inch or two, taking care not to clench his hands into fists as his stomach lurched with cold betrayal. Blanking his expression, John said flatly, "That's not the reaction I was expecting." He didn't quite manage to keep the accusation out of his voice. Maybe he didn't want to.

Rodney was flushed, his pupils a little blown, and he swallowed before he shook his head. "I know what you're doing, John. I don't want it." His chin was raised in defiance, and you'd have to know him really well to detect the fine tremor in his voice.

"Funny. I thought you wanted me." This time, John didn't even bother to hide his frustration and anger. He'd known, he'd known that Rodney was lying that night on the balcony, but he'd never thought that Rodney would outright admit it. He'd never thought the truth would sit in his chest like a ball of lead, poisoning his blood.

"No, see, that's exactly the problem: I want you. The real you, not this, this daydream. I mean. I, I miss you, but this is what, a fling? A virtual one-night stand? Because that will achieve nothing but making everyone even more miserable and I don't think you're doing yourself a favour with this. Or us. Um. I think you, uh, need to accept the way you are now before this," Rodney waved a finger between them, "is going to work. And I, uh, I will be waiting. For when you're ready."

Rodney was standing impossibly straight, looking sick and stubborn and noble and John had never wanted to hit anyone so badly in his life. "In case you hadn't noticed," he hissed, "I just kissed you. I am 'ready'."

"No, you're not."

"Damn it, Rodney!" John exploded, gesturing sharply at himself, a human – human! – man with pink skin and hazel eyes and not a single scale anywhere on his body. "What do you need, a written invitation? I'm here! I want this! And if you weren't so damn full of yourself-"

"Well excuse me for wanting the real thing, not a replica!"

"I'm a bug!"

"And why does it always have to come back to that? You're human! I mean, yes, you're blue and your pupils have these little slits and half your DNA is Iratus and, and, um," Rodney swallowed. "But inside you're still human. You're the one who makes this all about appearance."

John stared at him coldly. "You have no idea what you're talking about." When Rodney opened his mouth to object, John stopped him with a sharp gesture. "Oh, I know you think you have everything figured out, but you're wrong, Rodney. This," he waved a hand between them, "is a physical thing. The mechanics don't work if you can't get it up. And if you're able to get it up for the appearance of the... thing I am outside, there's something seriously wrong with you, because that's just sick."

Rodney paled and pressed his lips together. "Well. It's nice to know that's how you see me, Colonel," he said after a moment, his voice clipped and precise. "Now excuse me. I have a job to do." His crossed his arms, his whole posture rigid, and disappeared.

They didn't achieve a lot after that. Rodney got John out of the brig and managed to expose the Wraith without exposing John – and was almost killed when the creature pulled itself out of the virtual Aurora. Ronon saved him at literally the last second, making John a little grateful that Richards was now in command of the Daedalus. With two Wraith cruisers on the way, Caldwell probably would have beamed everyone out long before Rodney had even left the virtual environment.

The communiqué was lost, irrevocably gone when the Wraith had deleted it from the Aurora's database. Not even the captain knew its contents, looking deeply regretful when he told John as much. The Ancients blew themselves up along with their ship to destroy the two Wraith cruisers. Rodney wasn't talking to John at all. Nothing gained, and so much lost.

John was left with a bitter taste in his mouth. He stood on his balcony, leaning on the railing, and watched the ocean sway slowly under the distant stars. The cool air carried the scent of salt and he inhaled deeply. After the scrubbed air of the Daedalus, the Aurora, and the Daedalus again, breathing something that didn't smell faintly of burnt dust was a relief. Elizabeth had given them the next day off, no having to be on call in case of emergency, and as John rested his chin on his crossed arms, he wondered if he should use that willingness to finally let him out of the city to go to the mainland for a run. Just run, an unwavering line in one direction until even this body gave up and had him shivering with exhaustion, finally reaching its limit. He'd never make it back, but what was one more failure?

The others had drunk to the crew of the Aurora, like John had promised the captain they would. He was sorely tempted to try and find out how his body would react to alcohol. After this day, he figured he deserved to have the world blur out of focus for a while.

He'd never thought Rodney's rejection would hurt so much. It shouldn't have; John had been the one to break their relationship off in the first place. Then again, maybe that was the reason he felt like an idiot. Maybe John had thought, in some denied and unexplored corner of his brain, that he would just have to reach out to Rodney when he'd finally grown used to the way he was now, and things would be back to how they had been, no hard feelings. Knowing Rodney, it might even have worked. Not everything had to be complicated in McKay-world; when it came to emotions, Rodney had always been surprisingly easy. And maybe John had believed Rodney's declaration on the balcony that night, at least a little. If he was honest with himself – which he very much didn't want to be, but there you go – he still did. Rodney had said he loved him, and John believed it. Whatever good that did him.

John sighed and shifted his arms to rest his forehead on the cold metal railing. It was slightly damp, chilling his skin to the point of being uncomfortable, but that was fine. He closed his eyes, listening to the waves thumping against the city.

He had screwed up. Rodney hadn't rejected him out of pride or cruelty, and John hadn't really reached out to him in the first place. He'd found a loophole, he'd tried to cheat, and Rodney, who had blunt honesty as his default setting, hadn't gone along with it. Unwilling to define their relationship by five minutes spent in a virtual reality, and who could blame him for that? Seriously, who could?

John huffed a mirthless laugh. At least this time, it was really over. No going back, no more chances, because Rodney sure as hell wouldn't give him any. And he was right to keep John at a distance.

Getting too close only hurt them both.


Rodney still hadn't spoken to him in the week since they'd returned from the Aurora. John had gotten to hear his voice in the background once when Elizabeth had radioed him to inform him that there were two Wraith cruisers – and why did it always have to be two? – in the neighbourhood. He had concentrated carefully on Elizabeth's voice alone, nodding along even though she couldn't see him. Apparently the two ships were fighting each other, and it didn't look like they had any idea that Atlantis wasn't gone like they'd made the Wraith believe, but it was always good to know. Caldwell's orders were to keep things quiet for a while, which mostly meant no strange experiments with possibly dangerous emissions for the scientists and therefore didn't directly concern John. He still liked to be kept in the loop, though. Surprisingly, he found he missed being in charge, even in his current... predicament.

He had taken to walking his own kind of perimeter; officially it was because if there were still Wraith hibernating in uninhabited parts of the city – and there could be – John with his immunity against their stunners would have the best fighting chance if he discovered one. Unofficially, he was going stir-crazy sitting in his quarters listening to Johnny sulk all day. He had stared hard at each marine or scientist he'd encountered on his first few rounds, daring anyone to say something about him or look at him in a funny way. If anything, he had been met with welcome, like people had been waiting for him to show up again. John picked at the idea like it was some strange and puzzling thing he'd discovered offworld. Why would anyone find comfort in the knowledge that there was a monster slinking through the dark parts of the city? He didn't get it. The babble and chatter in the mess hall didn't even falter anymore when John walked in at lunch time. Several times now a scientist had approached him and asked him to assist them for a minute or two, to use his gene to try and switch something on or off. Not Rodney, though. Never Rodney. John told himself he was perfectly okay with that. Johnny Cash might be so lonesome he could cry when he was covering Hank Williams; John and tears hadn't gone together since the last time he'd broken his nose.

Every now and then Ronon would accompany John on his rounds, a silent shadow who followed him through dark corridors and across rusty walkways, only occasionally muttering a greeting or telling John he'd be switching on the flashlight now. It took John a while to be halfway comfortable with Ronon's presence, but ever so slowly, he thought they were getting used to each other again. They had never needed to talk much, and the silent companionship felt almost relaxing.

Today, John was walking his perimeter alone. He was out at one of the grounding stations when he felt a slight tremor run through Atlantis' walls. His interactions with the Ancient technology had become unpredictable at best, but he could still feel the city's mental circuits and buttons even if he couldn't press all of them anymore. It wasn't anything physical, just a sense of getting ready for something, of gathering power. Since he knew it was time for the weekly databurst back to Earth, John didn't think much of it. He'd gotten used to reading the city like one would a car with an automatic shift one had been driving for years: he knew all its oddities, all its stutters, and could tell by the sound of its hum when it was about to change gears. Dialling Earth always meant taxing the engine a little harder. John snorted at himself at the thought of how Rodney would react if he knew that John was comparing the ZPM to a combustion engine. Maybe it would annoy him into talking to John again.

Abruptly, the humming changed its tune once more. Instead of the slow build-up that would change into a steady thrum once the wormhole was open, Atlantis seemed to hang on the brink for a second before settling back into the usual low-level buzz that John could hear more with his mind than his ears. That part of the mental component to Ancient technology had taken a while to get used to, but after more than a year, John navigated by it, and now it was telling him that something was definitely off.

"Control room, this is Sheppard." Before he could add anything, figure out a way to ask what was wrong without having to explain why he was asking, there was a burst of static in his ear and then Elizabeth's voice.

"John. You should probably be up here." She sounded tense, her words clipped. John knew that tone, and it was enough to make his heartbeat pick up the pace. Just a little, but still...

"I'm on my way," he replied, already jogging toward the nearest transporter a few halls down. "Sheppard out."

Rodney was already in Elizabeth's office by the time John got there, telling her and Caldwell in no uncertain terms that the ZPM needed to be disconnected from the system, now. He was pale and agitated, and John realised with a sinking feeling that whatever had happened, it was bad. Then they explained it to him, and it was even worse. "There's a bomb in Atlantis?"

"Yes. We believe it was planted by a Trust operative under orders from the Goa'uld, quite possibly even a Goa'uld itself," Caldwell told him. Then he nodded at Elizabeth. "I'll send out search teams to locate it. In the meantime, all Stargate activity will be suspended."

"What's a Goa'uld?" Ronon asked in a low voice. He'd come up silently behind John while Elizabeth had explained that establishing a wormhole to Earth would have led to the destruction of Atlantis.

"Slimy snake-like alien that burrows into people's heads and takes control of their bodies," John explained quietly. Ronon frowned like the thought alone was disgusting, which it was.

"Sounds unpleasant."

"Believe me, you don't want to have anything to do with them."

"Colonel Caldwell," Elizabeth's raised voice drew their attention back to her, "may I remind you that unless we find ourselves in a military situation, I'm the one in charge?"

"There is a bomb in the city," he bristled, "obviously this is a military situation."

"The very fact that this is sabotage rather than an act of war clearly determines that-"

"Hello, wasting time?" Rodney interrupted them sharply. "Obviously we need to locate a bomb that was planted somewhere in the city, and I don't see how it's in any way significant who gives the order to go and look for it."

Both Caldwell and Elizabeth had the grace to look sheepish, then Elizabeth cleared her throat and nodded at the Colonel. "All right, organise the search teams. Rodney, I want you to look for any unusual energy readings, maybe you'll find something that points you to an explosive device." She hesitated. "John, I need you to search the outskirts of the city. You have the best chance of getting to places that would take us hours to reach."

John pressed his lips together, but gave her a nod. He might hate it, but he was faster than anybody else. She'd be stupid not to take advantage of that.

"Lieutenant Cadman will assist you," Caldwell told Rodney. "She's an explosives expert; she can help you look for characteristic patterns." John grimaced at that. While he was only seeing the back of Rodney's head, he could easily imagine the man's expression. Rodney had hated Cadman ever since she'd been stuck in his head, usurping his body like... well, like a Goa'uld, come to think of it. The word 'rape' had been used more than once, though personally John thought that was taking it a little far. But Rodney had been unwilling to forgive what he saw as a contemptuous exploitation of his body against his will, and it probably said a lot about him that he'd saved Cadman's life regardless of his intense dislike of her. But having those two working together on one project wasn't about to go well. And sure enough, Rodney was less than enthusiastic over the prospect of having to cooperate with his own personal nemesis.

"You've got to be kidding me! She's probably the one who planted the bomb in the first place!"

"Now, Rodney, why would I do that? I'd blow myself up, too!"

"How should I know what's going on in that Goa'uld-infested head of yours? And that's Dr. McKay to you!"

Yeah. That cooperation was going to be as smooth as a Wraith's teeth.

Elizabeth ordered the Daedalus back to Atlantis to help with the investigation, under Caldwell's protests that doing so would effectively cut off communications with Earth. Her voice was strained when she explained that the Trust's agent would probably be on the ship, unless they wanted to be blown up along with the city. It was a good point that Caldwell couldn't argue, so the Daedalus was recalled after relaying a message from Earth: the bomb's detonator was somewhere in Atlantis itself. The search was on; most of the lights went out when Rodney disconnected the ZPM, using the naquadah generators to power only the most important areas like the control room and to keep the air recycling systems up and running. That meant flashlights for everyone except John, who could see perfectly well by Atlantis' dim emergency lights. Whenever he came across a search team on his way through the outskirts of the city, he told the men and women where to go, when to fan out, optimising the pattern as he went along. It was controlled chaos of which he assumed command without really thinking about it, or about the way everyone was jumping to follow his orders willingly, almost eagerly. They didn't find anything, though, and by the time Richards arrived with his ship, everyone was frustrated. Elizabeth started interrogating Dr. Kavanagh as soon as the Daedalus was close enough to use its transporters to beam people into the city. The scientist had been on his way back to Earth, barely three weeks after he'd arrived on Atlantis again in the first place. That alone made him their prime suspect, not to mention the apparent inconsistencies in his story. He wasn't really cooperating though, driving Elizabeth up the wall with his attitude.

John was on his way back to Atlantis' inhabited area when the city trembled, its muted hum turning up a notch. What the hell... they're dialling the Gate?! John was already running by the time his radio started to squawk in his ear, telling him to get his ass to the control room ASAP.

"What do you mean, you can't shut it down?" Caldwell was demanding when John arrived in the control room, slightly out of breath and hungry from running around all morning.

"I mean that I can't shut it down," Rodney snapped back, frantically typing on his laptop. "I used short words, do you need me to spell it out for you?"

"Easy there, Rodney," Richards told him from where he was sprawled in one of the control room chairs, looking amused despite the tension.

"Well then stop distracting me with stupid questions." Rodney's fingers were dancing across the keys of his laptop, his face a mask of panicked concentration.

"What's going on?" John wanted to know. Ronon appeared at his side and handed him an MRE, which John took with a grateful nod. He didn't even stop to heat it before he ripped it open and dug in. Beef chilli macaroni. Good to eat cold, and John nodded at Ronon again, this time with a look of appreciation.

"The Gate just started dialling itself," Elizabeth told him. "There is no bomb. It seems that the Trust agent has disabled the failsafe measures that keep the ZPM from overloading. If we had dialled Earth, the effects of using that much power would have been catastrophic."

"But we disconnected the ZPM," John pointed out, raising an eyebrow at the frantic activity around them.

"Your problem, Colonel Sheppard," Richards chimed in, "is that this little display of Gate activity right now was just a distraction from a distress beacon, and now there are two Wraith cruisers on their way to Atlantis. That means you need to cloak the city, and that means you need to plug the ZPM back in."

"Yes, yes, we're way past that," Rodney interrupted and turned to John. "Bottom line is, when we reintroduced the ZPM to Atlantis' system – an automatic routine that I suspect was put into place by the Trust's operative –" he threw a significant look into Cadman's direction, and she crossed her arms over her chest with a glare, "started powering up the inertial dampeners for the city's star drive. I can't stop it without entering a very complicated command code – which I don't have – or unplugging the ZPM, which will mean that the Wraith will know we're still here."

"So that means..." John let his voice trail off to prompt Rodney into continuing while he quickly finished his meal and stuffed the empty wrapping into a pocket.

"That means that in about two hours, we either blow ourselves to pieces or let the Wraith do the job. Now, shall we take a vote or simply toss a coin?" John winced at Rodney's words. They probably could have used Zelenka right now, but the Czech was offworld checking the EM field generator of the kids from M7G-677, and stuck there after Caldwell had shut down the Gate. "Oh, and if by some divine intervention we don't all die, we should probably get the Wraith beacon out of the city. We could deposit it on the coast of the mainland along with some rubble. With a little luck – hah! – the Wraith will believe they've found Atlantis' remnants."

"Do it. And keep working on the fail-safes," Elizabeth ordered, prompting Rodney to roll his eyes. But he was already concentrating on the screen in front of him again, so she let it go. "Colonel Richards, Colonel Caldwell," she nodded at the men, "I think it's time to prepare Atlantis for evacuation."

"I agree." Caldwell looked at Richards. "We will evacuate the expedition team on the Daedalus."

"Well, hallelujah, we are delivered," Rodney mock-cheered. "Except wait, there's the small issue of insufficient life support." His eyes never left the screen, so his words weren't as biting as they could have been.

"Not to throw a wrench in there, Steven, but you know as well as I do that there's no way the Daedalus can handle the whole expedition. Not if you want your people to breathe." Richards shrugged apologetically.

"What about the planet where we found the crashed Wraith ship? It's pretty close, so the Daedalus shouldn't have a problem transporting our people there," John suggested.

"And we can use the puddle jumpers to ferry supplies and the rest of the expedition members," Elizabeth added, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and smiling slightly. "Good thought, John."

"Don't forget Teyla," Rodney said distractedly, "she's on the mainland with the rest of the Athosians. Something about a ceremony or something." It was funny, John thought, how Rodney was always quick to dismiss rituals of any origin, Earth or otherwise, but never commented on any of the Athosian ceremonies. Not even in Teyla's absence, which was probably a testament to the respect he had for her.

"Don't worry, Rodney, we won't leave anyone behind," Richards promised him. Rodney just huffed and continued to work.

"What about Kavanagh?" Ronon had been silent up until then. Now his voice made their heads turn toward him.

"I don't think he's going to give us the codes," Elizabeth admitted. Even after several interrogation sessions, Elizabeth hadn't gotten anything out of him but insults.

"Want me to convince him?" John asked with forced casualness, flexing his fingers. The control room lights reflected on his claws. Rodney paused his typing to stare at them, his eyes wide, and John pretended not to notice. Richards grimaced, and Caldwell actually looked thoughtful.

"Do it," Elizabeth said quietly after a long pause. John nodded and turned to jog out of the control room and toward the small briefing room they had Kavanagh locked up in. He wasn't sure his distorted appearance alone would be enough to scare the scientist into confessing everything. If it wasn't... John swallowed. If it wasn't, he had better be prepared to go through with his threats. Even if the thought alone was making him sick – not because of the violence: desperate times meant desperate measures. No, what scared him was the thought that if he used his claws to torture someone, to shed blood, deliberately, he felt he really wouldn't be human anymore. On the other hand, that was exactly what he'd signed on for when he'd first joined the military: protecting his people at all costs, even if it killed him. It was just that if he had been given a choice, he'd rather die for them than become something he wasn't.

John was reaching for the control panel that would open the door when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. He looked up to find Ronon looming behind him, and sighed. "Look, Ronon, I know this must be an uncomfortable decision for you, but-"

"Let me do it," Ronon interrupted him. John blinked.

"What?"

To his amazement, the tall Satedan flushed. "I just don't think you should do it," he said gruffly. John threw him a long, searching look, then he stepped aside.

Kavanagh's eyes went wide with alarm when Ronon stepped inside the small room, John close behind him. He jumped up from the chair he'd been perched on, raising his hands. "I've got nothing to do with it."

"We'll see," Ronon grinned dangerously and pulled out one of his many, many knives. He advanced on the retreating Kavanagh, reaching out and grabbing the scientist's ponytail, flashing his knife in front of the man's eyes. "Let's talk."

John's radio crackled. "Sheppard, this is Richards. According to your Lieutenant Cadman and Hermiod, your operative is Caldwell. He's two levels down from your position, close to the ZPM room, and he's somehow jamming our transporter signal."

John hit the call button. "We're on it." To Ronon, he said, "It's Caldwell."

Kavanagh fainted.

They were barely out of the room when the lights went out. The hum of power inside Atlantis' walls increased, and John broke into a run. "Shit! Whatever he's done, it's bad!"

They ran as fast as they could. Ronon quickly fell behind, but managed to keep up surprisingly well, stopping briefly at the armoury to pick up a Wraith stun gun for John. Not two minutes later they were on the right level, almost on top of Caldwell. John took a brief moment to regret the impossibility of bursting through a sliding door, then he was pointing the stun gun at the Colonel's back. "Don't move!"

Caldwell froze, his head cocked a little. He had opened a panel in the ZPM console and was kneeling in front of it, pressing a rapidly blinking device against the wires. Slowly, John approached him, licking his lips. "Put that thing down. Slowly."

Caldwell pulled the device out of the tangled wires and carefully laid it on the floor, where it continued to blink. "I was merely running a diagnostic for Hermiod." Caldwell sounded irritated and impatient, but John wasn't falling for that.

"Of course you were. Now, give me the access code, and no one has to get hurt." Behind him, he heard Ronon move closer.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Sheppard."

"Don't give me that bullshit. The code, now!" All around them, Atlantis was building up energy at an alarming level. They couldn't be far from overloading the ZPM. "Don't make me shoot you!"

"You would not dare, peasant!" Caldwell's eyes flashed when he jumped up and spun around. John's finger tightened on the trigger, but the next second, Ronon had Caldwell slammed against a wall. John blinked but lowered the stun gun, ready to help if necessary. After a few violent punches that made John wince, it looked like Ronon had things under control. The Goa'uld retreated, and Caldwell slumped to the floor.

"Sheppard," he rasped, "listen..."

Caldwell gave them the codes before Ronon knocked him out for everyone's safety, then John called the control room. "Control room, this is Sheppard, I've got the access code." No answer, not even static. John pushed the call button on his radio with a rising sense of dread. "McKay?" Damn. "McKay!"

Nothing. Caldwell must've taken out their communication along with the power. John cursed.

"Go," Ronon's gruff voice came from behind him, "I'll keep an eye on him."

John nodded, took a deep breath, ran into the hall, and jumped. His first leap took him half a level up and he landed on the wall, his claws digging into the fine protrusions and recesses of the Ancient metal. He climbed as high as he could and jumped again, this time landing on a narrow walkway that connected two flights of the main tower on the inside of the building. John ran, faster than any human ever could and hating it even as it brought him to a staircase that he took two flights at a time, avoiding obstacles others wouldn't have spotted without a flashlight. He hated the way he was barely out of breath when he stormed into the control room, and he hated the ravenous hunger clawing at his gut.

He'd heard Rodney's frantic yelling several halls down, a familiar diatribe made up of equal parts panic and the determination to do something, anything that would lead to a solution. The control room was lit up by the Ancient emergency lights and a few working monitors. Three of them were right in front of Rodney, who was typing manically even as he shook his head. "McKay," John shouted, leaping up the stairs when the scientist swivelled around to gape at him. "7BO4-K730G11-P47XL!" He had repeated the numbers and letters to himself so many times they had become a mantra that would probably keep popping up for weeks to come.

Rodney's fingers flew across the keyboard as he entered the code. Abruptly, the electric whine in Atlantis' walls died down and settled into a soft hum as the cloak came up to hide the city from the Wraith. Moments later, the lights came back on. There was more than one sigh of relief as scientists slapped each other's shoulders or leaned back in their chairs, laughing shakily, running their hands through their hair. Elizabeth was standing in the midst of it, her eyes closed, taking a deep breath. She opened her eyes and smiled at where Rodney and John were standing pretty close together. "Gentlemen," she said quietly, "good work."

"You'll need to send someone to take care of Caldwell." John winced at his own words. "Ronon's with him now, but-"

"Understood," Elizabeth replied, and walked away, her hand already reaching for her radio. John was suddenly very aware of the man beside him, the one who still appeared to prefer facing the proverbial firing squad to dealing with John. He shot him a glance and caught Rodney staring at his claws. Self-consciously, he curled his fingers into his palm.

"Did you-?" Rodney started to ask, then broke off, fidgeting with his own hands.

"No. Ronon offered to step in for me, but Kavanagh fainted before he could do anything." John hesitated, then added, "I... don't think I could have done it, anyway."

Nodding, Rodney relaxed a little. "Good. That's... that's good."

"Yeah." John looked down at his boots, then at the console in front of him. "Listen, Rodney-"

"I should probably go make sure the ZPM is in a suitable condition and that the fail-safes are all working properly. And I think Radek should be ready to, uh, return home now." Rodney nodded sharply and turned away without giving John a chance to reply. John watched him leave the control room with a determined stride.

He had no idea what he'd been going to say.


The Daedalus left Atlantis with Caldwell on board; Radek cursed Rodney's entire lineage for making him go to a planet with children; Elizabeth fell into a moral crisis over the whole Kavanagh thing; and the SGC reinstated John as the military commander of Atlantis.

The last one felt like a punch in the gut, hard and unexpected. John had no idea what to say, neither when he got the news nor when people started congratulating him. Apparently the reports on how he'd handled Atlantis' latest emergency had been nothing but glowing from both civilians and military. Major Lorne, who had taken over the job in Caldwell's absence, was openly grinning when he handed John his handgun. "Compliments of the U.S. military services, sir," he said and saluted sloppily. John took the gun and dismissed Lorne from his office, running a finger along the edge of his desk before he sat down behind it.

Paperwork. Duty rosters. Disciplinary measures. And he heard the marines were already throwing a party. John placed the gun on the desk and stared at it, at his clawed fingers resting on the shiny black handle. He'd have to practice if he wanted to use it again, same with the P90. The way things were now, he needed to put his finger very slowly around the trigger, otherwise his claws got in the way.

He was glad to be back. He just didn't know if this was the right decision.

A movement in the doorway made him look up – and straighten when he saw who it was. Rodney was hovering there uneasily, hands clasped behind his back. "I just wanted to, uh, congratulate you in person," he told the air above John's right shoulder. "It's good to know you're back. In office. Even if you're, you know, hardly ever actually in your office." He grimaced at the lame joke.

"Thanks." There was a long, awkward pause when John desperately wished for something else to say. He swallowed. He'd thought up several scenarios where he and Rodney would casually start talking to one another again, but now Rodney was standing in front of him all the clever conversation starters John had come up with seemed silly and embarrassing. The seconds were stretching like molasses, each of them a little piece of John's time running out. "So, uh, how are things going with Katie Brown?" he asked finally, wincing internally at the sheer stupidity of the question. The botanist had been Rodney's very clumsy way of distracting the rumour mill from the amount of time he spent with John, and John had no idea why he was bringing her up now.

Rodney opened his mouth to answer, then got that spaced-out-yet-concentrated look that sometimes came with wearing a radio headset. He pressed the call button and told someone, "I'm on my way." Turning his attention back to John, he actually looked a little relieved. "I have to go back to the lab. Um. Congratulations, Colonel."

John nodded, and was once again left staring at Rodney's retreating back. It was rigid and tense, and he wanted to rub it until the muscles were warm and as malleable as putty.

He looked down at his claws, and shook his head.


Three weeks later, John really wished he'd found something else to say that day in his office. Rodney was gone, crashed into the ocean with a broken puddle jumper and sinking without anyone knowing where exactly he was. Radek and his team where trying to figure out where to start looking, which still left the question of how they should get to Rodney even if they found him. The jumper had been 1200 feet under the surface when radio contact had broken off; there was no telling how deep it had sunk since then. Especially if it had taken on water.

Of course, there was always the possibility that Rodney – and Griffin, he mustn't forget the pilot – were already dead. John didn't allow his thoughts to linger there. An Atlantis without Rodney wasn't something he wanted to imagine, not even for a minute. Rodney and Griffin had made it to the rear compartment before the windshield had broken and the cockpit had flooded; they were safe for now. John firmly refused to believe anything else.

"Just find them," he told Radek in that first what-do-we-do-now meeting, "I'll handle the rescue." He already had some ideas, actually. He might be useless with a laptop, but that Masters in aeronautical engineering had to be worth something. The jumper was a flying machine, after all.

"Good." Elizabeth nodded at both him and Zelenka. "Gentlemen, I don't need to remind you we don't have much time. Hurry."

Yeah, she was right, John thought as he strode into the lab and shanghaied just about every engineer Zelenka could spare. She didn't need to remind them. Zelenka had said that breathable air would be a serious issue if Rodney couldn't rig the life support to work from the rear compartment instead of the cockpit. The same went for temperature – a few thousand feet deep, the water was going to be pretty damn cold. And without power, the jumper was nothing but a square chunk of metal – like a coffin, he thought – narrow and solid and stifling; Rodney had to be choking on his claustrophobia by now. "Clear blue skies," John muttered, like Rodney could hear him, willing the other man to be okay. If they got Rodney back-

When they got Rodney back, there'd be no more hiding. No more pushing him away. If Rodney still wanted him, John was willing to try.

John's initial plan – to use the magnetic grappling arm the SGC had come up with to lower the Daedalus' F-302s into the jumper bay to simply tow the downed jumper back to the city – was a bust.

"If the jumper really has taken on water, and that's what we have to assume," Dr. McNab told him as they walked swiftly down a hallway, "there is no way you're going to be able to lift it as far as the surface. Further, your rescue jumper can't go deeper than 1,000 feet, maybe 1,100 before the pressure compromises the windshield's integrity. McKay and Griffin are already deeper than that." McNab was an oceanographer and engineer who had come to Atlantis to study the apparently pretty peculiar ocean on M8R-169. Rodney liked him, which was odd enough given that he regarded physical oceanography as one step removed from the soft sciences, and McNab had been the first to volunteer his help when John had started collecting engineers.

"So what are your suggestions?" John wanted to know, because no way was he going to give up that easily. McNab smiled, stopped in front of a door, and pressed the panel next to it. The door slid open to reveal a storage room, holding what to John looked like a damn long cable attached to a pretty powerful winch.

"My suggestion," McNab said mildly, "is that you equip the rescue jumper with this."

John looked frankly at the other man. "I like the way you think, doc."

He also liked the way the scientists worked. None of them seemed to have a problem with John constantly looking over their shoulders and coordinating their efforts. They easily grasped what John wanted them to do and then got it done, unafraid to ask him for clarification if they needed to. Standing in the jumper bay, in the midst of hammering and cutting and welding and people working at top speed, John thought that McKay had better know what a damn fine team he had.

It took a few hours to equip the rescue jumper with both the grappler and what had turned out to be roughly a thousand feet of cable. By the time the engineers were finished, Zelenka had narrowed down the search area and they were going over the last details in Elizabeth's office, but-

"What do you mean, it's not enough?"

"Ah, I do not mean to say your efforts are insufficient, Colonel," Zelenka smiled nervously and pushed his glasses up his nose, "but the jumper's probably well under 2,000 feet by now. You won't be able to reach it, even with your cable."

Damn! John resisted the urge to kick Elizabeth's desk, then a thought struck him. "Wait. The last time the Wraith attacked, you and McKay turned the shield into a cloak, right?" Zelenka nodded, frowning, while Elizabeth straightened to look at John with new hope. "So how about doing it the other way around?"

"Can you turn the jumper's cloak into a shield?" Elizabeth asked Zelenka, and the scientist nodded, hope dawning in his eyes.

"Should be possible. But it's going to take hours, use a lot of energy." He pushed up his glasses, frowning again as he shook his head from side to side. "Difficult."

"Don't worry, doc. I'm sure you'll figure it out as we go."

"What? Me?" Zelenka paled and raised his hands. "Oh, no, I couldn't, I mean, you cannot make me-"

"Believe me, I can," John told him coldly. He'd always liked Zelenka, but that didn't mean he wouldn't use force if the Czech wanted to abandon Rodney – and Griffin – to die under several thousand feet of ocean.

"Radek," Elizabeth said gently, "who is going to help Rodney if you won't?"

Zelenka stared at her, almost hyperventilating. Then he nodded jerkily. "Right. Just... give me a few minutes."

John agreed, then started to make his way back to the jumper bay. Not for the first time that day, he wished Teyla and Ronon were in Atlantis instead of on the mainland, carried there by the very jumper that was now under several thousand feet of water. They couldn't have done anything to help with the rescue mission, of course, but Teyla made for great moral support in these situations. And if the rescue failed, John had no idea how he'd tell them that Rodney was... how he'd tell them.

Not that the rescue would fail. John wouldn't let it.

Dr. Beckett stopped him in front of a transporter, dumping a lumpy bag into John's hands.

"What's that?"

"Dry clothes, hot water bottles, and a thermos with lukewarm tea."

John gaped at the doctor then at the bag he was holding. "Well, that's a nice thought, doc, but we're not going to be down there that long."

Beckett grimaced. "Those are for Rodney and Sgt. Griffin. Radek tells me there's a very real possibility that those two might be severely hypothermic. If they're cold and not shivering, you need to get them into dry clothes as soon as possible, place the hot water bottles in their armpits and groins, and make them drink the tea to raise their core temperature. You're not to rub them or allow them to move around. If the body is kept vertical it will divert blood from vital organs and you don't want that."

John licked his lips and nodded grimly. "All right. Anything else I need to know?" Frankly, the mission probably would have been easier if Beckett had just come along, but they'd be taxing the jumper's life support system enough as it was with two people, and John needed Zelenka. Each additional person would mean feeding the life support systems with extra energy that they simply couldn't spare.

"You have to monitor them for cardiac arrhythmia. Heart failure is a common occurrence in hypothermia victims."

John's own heart sank. Even if they managed to rescue Rodney and Griffin, the two men could still die on the way back to the surface. He didn't know what would be worse, finding them already dead or losing them after all the effort they'd gone to. If he had to watch Rodney die... John swallowed. "Thanks, doc," he managed, and Beckett nodded.

"Good luck, Colonel."

Ten minutes later, John was done waiting for Zelenka and stalked out of the jumper bay and into the hall, fully prepared to drag the scientist to the rescue jumper if he needed to. But just as he was pressing the panel to open the transporter, the doors slid apart, revealing a very nervous Czech clutching his laptop. Zelenka looked sick but determined, and John's opinion of him rose a little. "Let's get this show on the road," he said quietly, climbing into the pilot's seat and hoping like hell that several hundred hours of flight experience would be enough to let him interface properly with the jumper. He held his breath as he initiated the system, just to let it out slowly when the small space ship reacted to his mental commands as well as the physical ones, if a little sluggishly. With a silent thank you, John patted the main console, grabbed the sticks, and took off. A few minutes later they were speeding through the sky toward the designated search area.

"You all right?" John asked after a while when it became clear that Zelenka wasn't going to talk of his own accord.

"No," was the answer, "I hate water. I cannot even swim."

"Well," John drawled, "the last thing we're gonna do on this mission is go for a swim. We'll leave that to the rescue divers."

The Czech didn't look convinced. Then they were above the search coordinates – time to dive. John looked briefly at the other man. "You ready?"

Zelenka nodded sharply. "No," he said.

"Good. Here we go."

John brought the jumper into landing position with practised ease, then they broke through the ocean surface and started to sink. After they had left the frail rays of light behind and made their way through dark water, it was a little like flying through space, the jumper's headlights reflecting off tiny particles that looked like stars. Space usually didn't interfere with their radios, though. The contact with Atlantis broke off after John had told them one last time to have the jumper with the rescue divers standing by. He and Zelenka were alone. The Czech didn't talk much on their way down, even less when the scientist needed to monitor not only for possible signs of the downed jumper but also had to keep an eye on their shield after they passed the 1,000 feet threshold. Apparently he couldn't concentrate well on talking and working at the same time, and John found himself missing Rodney with a sudden fierceness. He wasn't used to this silence when someone was working behind him; Rodney would gladly explain whatever he was doing if only to demonstrate his brilliance. Rodney also would have treated the fact that they were flying the jumper under water with the awe such an event deserved. It wasn't that the Czech was bad company, per se. But after countless missions with Rodney McKay, Zelenka kind of paled in comparison.

Just hang on a little longer, John thought as they made their way down, we're going to find you.

They didn't. The shield was rapidly eating up their energy and there was no sign of the downed jumper, no sign of Rodney and Griffin, and far too soon their time was up.

"If you have any smart ideas, now would be a good time to share."

Zelenka muttered something in Czech that was probably a slur about John's heritage. Not that his parents would have recognised him like this, anyway. "Nothing," he said, "only..."

"Only what?"

"There's a big life sign, circling something on the ocean floor. It is probably nothing, but-"

"But," John decided, "we should definitely check it out."

The big life sign turned out to be a whale, several times bigger than the jumper. And the thing he was circling-

"We've got them!" John smiled grimly and nodded at Zelenka. "Get the grappler ready."

"No, no, it's no use. The rear compartment is almost completely flooded; we will never be able to drag them up. The cable will simply snap."

"So now what?" John wanted to know, staring at the faint outline of the downed jumper, barely visible in the headlights. So close, and it might as well be on the other side of the planet. Next to him, Zelenka straightened.

"The shield! We can extend the shield between the two jumpers and simply walk over there."

"And that will work?"

"Yes! If you set this jumper down on the ocean floor, we should be able to divert the extra power from the engines!"

"Then do it!" They set down just a few feet from the other jumper's rear hatch, and John watched the shield extend between the two ships like a bubble, already out of his chair. "Do you read any life signs?"

Zelenka shook his head. "No, but that could simply be power drain from the shield. Most of the non-essential systems have shut down." John swallowed around the cold lump in his throat, tapping his radio as he ran across the ocean floor.

"McKay, Griffin, do you copy?" There was no answer. John took a deep breath. "McKay, Griffin, do you read me?"

A long moment of silence, then, "John?" Rodney's voice was weak and incredulous, and John had never heard anything sweeter.

"Hey, buddy," he said lightly, silently renewing his vow to grab Rodney and never let go of him again unless he had to. "Care to let me in?" He banged against the rear hatch, and after a short discussion that involved cloaks, shields, and hallucinations, the hatch lowered to let out what had to be several hundred gallons of freezing cold water.

"Shit, McKay!" John was inside the jumper before the hatch even touched the ground, closely followed by Zelenka. Rodney was lying on the hard floor, soaked to the skin and ghostly pale, grabbing feebly at John's sleeve as they carefully got him to his feet. There was a nasty gash on his forehead, still oozing blood. He looked terrible, but he was alive, and John felt a relief so sharp that he couldn't breathe for a second. "Come on, let's get you out of here."

He didn't ask about Griffin. The fact that Rodney was alone told him all he needed to know.

They got Rodney back into the dryness of their own jumper, John flopping down into the pilot's seat while Radek recalibrated the shield to get them home safely. John raised the pressure in the cabin after Rodney haltingly told them he needed to decompress, setting it to decrease steadily over the few hours. They'd still need to get Rodney acclimatised to the city once they were back, but at least Beckett would be standing by. Then he set the jumper to auto pilot and made his way back to the rear compartment, taking one look at Rodney before he reached for the bag Beckett had given him and started to pull out dry BDUs, socks and a sweater for Rodney, pouring him a cup of lukewarm tea while he was at it. "Here, drink this." Next to him, Radek was crouching down to untie the laces of Rodney's boots.

Rodney was barely shivering, his eyes not really focussing as he stared at them. "You're really here," he slurred when they carefully helped him out of his sodden clothes.

"Of course we are," John told him, raising Rodney's hands with the cup clasped between them to the scientist's lips. "Drink."

Obediently, Rodney swallowed. He didn't put up a fight or even comment when they stripped him naked, and that more than anything told John that his friend wasn't firing on all cylinders. He had no idea if it was from hypothermia or if the gash on his temple was actually tied to a concussion. Rodney had been unconscious for over an hour after the jumper's initial crash; it was likely that his head wound was more serious than it looked. While John wrapped Rodney in dry clothes, Zelenka cleared one of the cushioned benches of the clutter of equipment and got the hot water bottles ready. John made Rodney sit down, handling him as carefully as if he were made of glass. Rodney blinked up at him owlishly, then at John's hands still grasping his elbows.

"We need to talk." John kept his voice soft, causing Rodney to blink again. "Later. What say you just lie down now?"

"I'm sorry, Rodney," Zelenka said quietly, standing a little to the side and fidgeting. John was grateful for the distraction, because Rodney grimaced, visibly pulling his thoughts away from John.

"You can... make it up to me... later," he managed, lying back with a low moan. Zelenka handed him the hot water bottles to place between his legs, tucking the others carefully into Rodney's armpits.

"What's he talking about?" John wanted to know, turning to Zelenka when Rodney just closed his eyes. "What are you talking about?"

"I was the one responsible for jumper repairs. I should have been on the test flight." Zelenka looked down, his expression pained as his gaze swept over Rodney's pale figure. "I asked Rodney to take my place. It should have been me down here."

"Well, if it had been... I certainly would have... found you faster," Rodney huffed, smirking a little. John allowed himself to breathe more easily despite his irritation with Zelenka. You didn't leave your people behind, especially not if it was your own fault they were in a sticky situation in the first place. Yet Zelenka had refused to come for Rodney until Elizabeth had sent him on a guilt trip. John didn't get it. But Rodney was alive, he was going to be okay, and it was his place to deal with any possible trust issues, not John's. He had his own apologies to make.

They made it to the surface without running into any more problems, telling the rescue divers to return to Atlantis as soon as they were in range for radio contact. Beckett was already waiting for them in the jumper bay, but it took them another few hours to decompress before they could finally lower the jumper's ramp. Beckett took one look at Rodney's ashen, blood-streaked face before having him placed on a gurney and whisking him away to the infirmary. John ached to follow them, but Elizabeth was there, congratulating both him and Zelenka and then asking for a debriefing. That took about half an hour, and by then Beckett was busy treating Rodney for hypothermia somewhere in the back of the infirmary, letting no one in who wasn't a fellow doctor or a nurse. John settled in to wait, occasionally asking for updates and being told that Rodney would be okay, he just needed to be warmed up very, very carefully to prevent any stress on his heart. And that there was indeed a concussion. Oh, and a very mild case of hypoxia, but don't worry, Colonel, he'll be fine. After that, John stopped asking. Teyla and Ronon stepped in at one point and sat down to wait with him without saying a word. John didn't ask who had brought them back from the mainland, although he tried to remember it for later. Anyone who'd fly a puddle jumper hours after one of them had crashed into the ocean was either brave or insane enough to watch out for. Zelenka came to wait as well and, eventually, Elizabeth.

"Well, he's a resilient little bugger," Beckett announced cheerfully when he finally stepped into the main infirmary. "The hypothermia was rather serious, but we managed to raise his core temperature to an adequate level without encountering any cardiac arrhythmia. He has a concussion but no epidural or subdural bleeding or any notable brain injury. We'll keep him for observation for a few days, but he should be right as rain in no time."

John felt the relief crash through him almost painfully. Around him, the others visibly relaxed.

"Can we see him?" Elizabeth asked. Beckett shook his head.

"Not tonight, love. I'll tell you when he's up for visitors."

"Fair enough." She nodded and smiled at the small gathering. "Well, then. I think I can sleep now." With that she walked away, a slight spring in her step.

"I believe I will retire as well," Teyla said with a glance at Ronon, who shrugged: "Yeah, me, too." Only then did John wonder when they'd gotten back from the mainland in the first place. Radek was already scurrying off, probably back to the labs.

That left John. "Doc-"

"I know." Beckett raised his hand. "If you promise not to wake him unless I tell you to, you can stay with him."

"Thanks," John answered with real gratitude, standing up to follow the doctor to the back of the infirmary where Rodney was sleeping in a cubicle very much like the one John had spent several weeks in. He pushed that thought away, grabbed a chair, and sat down next to Rodney to watch him sleep. The scientist still looked pale, with dark smudges under his eyes, although his skin wasn't as waxy as it had been a few hours ago. He was hooked up to various screens not only monitoring his heart – with the sound switched off, so it was obviously just a formality – but also apparently his body temperature and brain activity, if John was reading them right. The wound on his temple had been cleaned and taped up, and his breathing was deep and regular. John finally felt that last knot of tension relax. "Thanks," he whispered again, not really sure who he was talking to. Maybe the whale, maybe Rodney, maybe Griffin. Judging from that final radio transmission before they'd lost contact with the sinking jumper – and Griffin's absence when they'd come to rescue Rodney – that man had done a remarkable job, and they didn't even have a body. John closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, listening to the familiar sounds of the infirmary, inhaling the scent of starched sheets, antiseptic, and Rodney. The last one was faint, but there, and enough to make John smile a little. The expression felt alien on his face, and he gave it up after a minute.

Two hours later, Beckett's hand on his shoulder made him snap awake. He blinked, grateful that the light was dimmed, and looked questioningly at the doctor.

"I'm going to wake him now. I thought you might not want to miss it." Beckett seemed tired, his accent a little thicker than usual. John checked his watch, adapted by the scientists to Atlantis' longer days. Twenty-five thirty. Late.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep."

"Don't worry, lad. We all know it's been a stressful day." Beckett smiled slightly and stepped close to Rodney's bed. Rodney was still sleeping, his mouth slightly open. Beckett carefully shook his shoulder. "Come on, Rodney. Just let me check up on you, then you can go back to your beauty sleep."

Rodney twitched, and frowned as his eyes slowly blinked open. His gaze swept across John without really taking him in, then came to rest on Beckett. "Huh?"

"All right, just look here for a moment." Rodney jerked back when Beckett quickly shone a penlight into his sleep-glazed eyes but didn't protest. His eyes watered and he blinked, looking befuddled and vulnerable. "Good. Your pupils react nicely." Beckett slipped the penlight back in his pocket. "Congratulations, you may sleep for another two hours."

"Uh. Thank you?" Rodney hazarded, his voice rough and a little unsteady. Beckett patted his shoulder.

"You're welcome." With a last encouraging smile, Beckett turned to leave. "Oh, Colonel, there's a cup and a pitcher of water on the table. You might want to help Rodney have a little drink before he loses his voice." The amusement in Beckett's voice clearly implied what a shame that would be, then the doctor was gone. John was alone with Rodney.

Not knowing what else to do, John poured Rodney half a cup of water and silently held it out for the other man to take. Rodney's fingers fumbled the cup and John ended up holding it with him while Rodney drank a few sips, his disfigured blue hands covering Rodney's. He tried not to stare at them, but his eyes kept being drawn back to the sight of his claws resting lightly on Rodney's soft pink skin. They were making little dents, and Rodney's hand felt cool and smooth, and John swallowed.

He couldn't do this. He just... he couldn't.

Rodney had finished drinking and was watching him with an odd expression, his eyes flickering from John's face to where their hands were still touching and back again. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, then closed it in resignation and shook his head.

"What?" John asked automatically, although he didn't really want to know. It was bound to be a relationship thing, and that couldn't end well.

"Oh, nothing." Rodney carefully extracted one hand from underneath John's and waved it tiredly at the white privacy screen around them. "For a moment I really bought this, but I'm drowning, aren't I? I'm drowning and this is a last hallucination to make myself feel comfortable because clearly even I wouldn't believe that Sam Carter would drop her clothes and at least I know what you look like naked."

John couldn't help it: he gaped. "You have a concussion," he said slowly, "so I'm not exactly expecting you to re-invent wormhole physics, but that didn't make any sense at all."

"Yes, whatever, so not falling for this. There's no way John Sheppard would voluntarily touch me." And that stung, even more so because it was true... had been true... John honestly didn't know anymore. He took the cup out of Rodney's hand and set it on the table, licking his lips nervously as he settled back into his chair.

"Rodney." He paused. "Listen, I didn't mean to- I thought about... stuff, while you were down there, and I'm- that is to say, I feel kind of... sorry for- look, this isn't a hallucination, all right?"

"Yeah, sure." Rodney nodded readily, clearly not believing a thing he'd just heard. "Look, can we just get to the making out part before I pass out from asphyxia? I mean, if I have to die, I might as well die happy, right?" He looked weary, like he thought that even his hallucination was going to reject him. John's heart missed a beat as he stared at Rodney's miserable expression. Abruptly, he stood up, his chair scraping across the floor. He stepped closer to Rodney's bed, hating the barely curious, drained look in the other man's eyes – and that he'd been the one to put it there.

"I know you don't trust me right now," he said, leaning forward, leaning down, "but trust this, okay?"

Rodney's answer was lost in the gentle touch of their mouths as they bumped together, chaste and shy and terrifying. John's pulse was racing, his blood thrumming with something like fear as he kept his lips pressed against Rodney's, watching the other man's eyes grow wide before they fluttered shut. John took a deep breath and kissed him again, almost drunk from the touch, the warmth, Rodney's scent – soft and earthy and alive. Another kiss, and another, gentle pecks with closed lips that nevertheless were addictive enough for John to want more, as much as Rodney was willing to give him. He must have been a very special kind of idiot to think he could ever stay away from this.

Beneath him, Rodney suddenly froze. John pulled back, puzzled, meeting Rodney's disbelieving stare for a second before a hand dug painfully into the fine hair at the nape of his neck and hauled him down again almost violently, their mouths mashing together without any finesse. Rodney made a choked sound against John's lips and started kissing him in earnest, wet and pushy and demanding like the greedy, greedy man he was. Never mind that both of them tasted of fatigue and fear and too little sleep; Rodney's fingers were scrabbling against the sides of John's face, holding and caressing and learning by touch. John found himself returning the tired smile on Rodney's lips, no matter how strange it felt on his own face, the way his cheek muscles stretched and the skin around his eyes crinkled. Rodney scraped his knuckles against the scaly protrusions on John's neck and flinched, murmuring a petulant, "Ouch," against John's lips and immediately held on tighter, like John might pull away. John couldn't help it; he laughed into Rodney's mouth, giddy and relieved and happy and home, and they kissed until Beckett stumbled into the cubicle an eternity later and told them to stop that.

"Not a hallucination," John murmured as he pulled away, his heart pounding like he'd just run a few miles. Rodney nodded, dazed, and Beckett threw John out of the infirmary.

But that was perfectly okay.


Rodney was released from the infirmary two days later, under orders from Beckett to take it easy the first few days. Both Elizabeth and Zelenka seemed to be supporting that notion, banning Rodney from the labs under threat of "severe repercussions," which sounded both ominous and final. Rodney's forced downtime suited John just fine, actually, so he nodded and promised to keep an eye on the scientist, trying to sound casual instead of nervous as hell.

He hadn't been back to the infirmary at all, afraid he wouldn't be able to stop himself from touching Rodney. Not that touching Rodney would be a bad thing per se, but it was one thing to let yourself be kissed when you had a concussion, and quite another to do the same when you were thinking straight. Or to forgive the guy who had been pushing you away for months. Or to... John swallowed. The sex question was going to rise eventually, if they managed to patch their relationship back together, if Rodney wanted John back in his life at all. He'd said he'd be waiting, but that had been before John had acted even more like an asshole than usual, so there might be... issues on Rodney's side. God knew there were more than enough on John's.

John simply didn't know how to act. He had no idea if Rodney expected him to apologise again, or if he was supposed to grovel, or if he should just act like the whole rift had never happened in the first place. Or how he was going to react if Rodney did want sex. John wasn't sure he was up for any kind of physical exploration. He had meant what he'd said on the Aurora – there had to be something seriously wrong with Rodney to desire something like John. Now, the scientist was infamous for being stubborn and kind of quirky, but was he that quirky? John didn't know. What he did know was that all those unfamiliar insecurities were starting to drive him up the wall, so he decided to stop acting like a silly little girl. He was a man, he could have a relationship talk. Even if the thought alone was enough to make him feel queasy.

Rodney's quarters were far too close to his own, John decided, standing in front of the closed door and feeling seven kinds of stupid. Calling himself a miserable excuse for an Air Force officer just to make his spine straighten a little, he reached out and waved his hand over the door control panel to ring the chime. Moments later, the doors slid open and Rodney was standing in front of him, wearing one of the blue science-crew t-shirts and a pair of charcoal grey cargo pants John had never seen on him before. He was barefoot, underfloor heating probably running full force, and his face lit up when he saw John.

"Oh, hey," he said, stepping aside, "come in." Which wasn't exactly what John had been expecting him to say.

"You're probably wondering why I'm here," he started, looking around the familiar room to see if anything had changed. There was the usual mess on Rodney's desk, the broken lamp he'd never replaced, the old pictures and diplomas on the wall. Nothing new.

"Actually, no." Rodney grinned but it faded immediately as he stood looking at John, unconsciously wringing his hands. "I was waiting for you to show up."

"You were." John raised an eyebrow and Rodney shrugged awkwardly.

"You kissed me. I was hoping you'd, uh, made up your mind."

The whole damn room smelled like Rodney: it was driving John nuts. They were standing a few feet apart, but John still imagined he could feel the heat radiating from Rodney's body, distracting him from whatever he'd come here to say. Rodney might not want John, but John wanted him. He was suddenly aching to touch all that skin, to slip a hand under Rodney's shirt and tease those nipples until they were tight and perky, to relearn the planes and curves of Rodney's body, he wanted to, he wanted-

Something must have shown on his face because Rodney's expression softened and he stepped closer. "Tell me I'm right," he said quietly, his voice a little uncertain.

"You're right," John complied and leaned in, tilted his head a little, closed his eyes, and-

And the world dissolved into complete insignificance.

John had thought that kissing Rodney would be familiar, but it wasn't. The scent, yes; the taste, yes, but the kiss itself felt weird. Not a bad weird, just... weird. Rodney's mouth was strangely soft against his own; somehow, John had become used to the bumps and ridges of his changed lips. What if Rodney found it weird but in a bad way? What if this wasn't going to work? What if-

Rodney pulled back with an impatient sigh. "This isn't working."

John's stomach dropped through the floor and several levels down. He realised his mouth was still open and snapped it shut. His thoughts were racing – there had to be something he could say, something he could do... maybe they could be together without touching, work up to it, or, or just, talk about it or something, it had to be possible for them to-

"John." Rodney's fingers on the side of his neck made him blink through his panic. "I'm the high-strung individual in this relationship, so me telling you to calm down? Probably not the way to go." John blinked again and licked his lips. "Now, take a deep breath." John did. "Good." Rodney smiled – that crooked, self-confident, unique smile John had missed so much. "Now. Let's try this again."

John closed his eyes when Rodney's right hand reached for his left, lightly tangling their fingers, his soft skin warm against John's scales. Rodney's breath ghosted over his lips for a moment, then Rodney kissed him, just a brief, chaste contact that brought warmth and softness. John exhaled. Rodney kissed him again, and again, nothing fancy, just tender little touches that nevertheless made John shiver with something he couldn't name. Longing, perhaps. Happiness. He tilted his head and parted his lips without conscious decision and was rewarded with Rodney's smile against his mouth, with a warm hand stealing around the back of his neck, with the gentle sweep of a tongue over his lower lip. He wanted to flinch away – what if-? – but Rodney's hand kept him there and he found himself helplessly kissing back, growing bolder when his advances were met with nothing but acceptance and an uncharacteristic gentleness from Rodney. John brought his right hand up to settle on the soft curve of Rodney's hip and let himself sink into the kisses, into the slickness of tongues and the press of lips and the sound of their breathing growing louder, shorter, until his heart was beating so fast he thought it might slam its way out of his chest and right into Rodney's.

What a way to go.

Rodney's fingers squeezed his before the other man pulled back. "I want to undress you," he said hoarsely, his blue eyes a little glazed. "Can I undress you?"

John swallowed. "I guess," he croaked, smiling a little when Rodney beamed at him. "Yeah, okay. Go ahead."

He was startled into a laugh when Rodney's fingers immediately began working on the catch of his wristwatch, earning himself a mischievous grin. The laugh turned into a groan when Rodney's next target turned out to be the thigh holster John had taken to wearing again after being appointed military commander once more; then Rodney's hand brushed not-so-accidentally over his groin before working on John's belt buckle. His dog tags were next, then his boots, his wristband, his jacket. The floor was warm under his bare feet, and he curled his toes a little to keep the claws from Rodney's sight, feeling incredibly self-conscious.

"Do you have a system?" he asked when Rodney carefully tugged the radio from his ear.

"Not really," Rodney replied casually, then licked his way behind John's partly-human ear and started to suck on that one particular spot that had used to send shivers all the way down John's spine. It still worked, apparently, and John sighed when Rodney pulled back. "But I do have a goal."

Rodney reached for John's hand again, but instead of interlacing their fingers he turned it over and pressed wet kisses against the hard knuckles, one for each, and the last with the barest flicker of tongue. Next were the fine scales on the back of John's hand, then the harder ones over his wrist bones. The scales on the inside of John's wrist were as soft as the belly of the alligator he'd once held as a kid, sensitive, and Rodney spent almost a minute caressing them with his lips. John's fingers clenched against the tickling, causing Rodney to chuckle a warm huff of breath into John's soft human palm.

"Rodney-"

"Let me."

The kisses went up his arm, followed the hard purple patches to his elbow, lingered on his biceps while Rodney's fingers softly stroked the inside of John's forearm. Rodney licked along the line of his t-shirt and started kissing his way along John's neck until he reached his jaw. That was when John lost his patience and turned his head to capture Rodney's lips with his own again. He sighed as their tongues met once more, but this hadn't been his show from the moment he'd agreed to let Rodney have his way. For once, he wasn't the one in control.

Slowly, Rodney reached for the hem of John's t-shirt, giving him every opportunity to pull away. John let him work his fingers under the fabric and push it up. The t-shirt caught on the fine, light-blue scales of his belly, and Rodney pressed brief, open-mouthed kisses against them to soothe the irritation. John sucked in a breath as Rodney's tongue dipped into his belly button. Up the t-shirt went and Rodney followed, lingering on John's nipples when he discovered that they were unchanged, kissing and sucking and nibbling until they'd hardened into firm little nubs and John lightly cuffed the back of his head to make him get on with it already. He was squirming under Rodney's slow exploration, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Come on, you said you wanted to undress me."

"What, and I can't take my time with it?" Rodney complained, but he made John stick up his arms and pulled the t-shirt over his head. John took a deep breath and reached for the zipper of Rodney's shirt, except Rodney batted his hands away. "No, let me. Please."

John let his hands drop to his sides, feeling sheepish and uncomfortable as Rodney unbuttoned his BDUs and pulled them straight down with his underwear, kneeling in front of John to help him step out of them.

Naked again, John thought, swallowing hard when Rodney ran his hands up his thighs, brushed his fingers over the hard ridges, and scratched lightly over his shell-capped knees. He was painfully aware of his soft cock, blue and bumpy on naked skin – naked scales – where pubic hair had used to be. He didn't even know if he wanted it to grow hard or not, dreading Rodney's reaction either way.

Rodney was still on his knees, eyes level with John's crotch. He was silent, just looking, and John was torn between reaching out and running away, so he just stood there, fists clenched, waiting. Rodney's hands on the back of his thighs burned like a branding iron. Slowly, Rodney leaned forward, his breath hot on John's scales as he paused. Then he licked an experimental stripe up John's cock and, god. The hot-smooth glide of his tongue followed by a slight chill as the saliva cooled made John's whole body jerk.

"Rodnuhhhh-" John's voice cracked when Rodney took him into his mouth and started to suck gently, learning the bumps and ridges with his tongue. He closed his eyes and steadied himself with a hand on Rodney's shoulder as he felt himself grow hard for the first time since... since. Rodney pulled back a little and closed one hand around the base of John's shaft, licking and sucking and stroking him to full hardness.

"This is weird," he commented, stroking his hand up and down the spit-slick length of John's erection. John looked down and tried to keep his expression casual even though his heart was sinking.

"Yeah?"

"Yes, the, uh, scales are kind of, uh, raspy? Against my tongue. It's not a bad weird," Rodney hurried to add when he noticed the look on John's face. "Just, it's different."

"Different," John echoed faintly.

"Yes, but different can be very... no, you know what? Shutting up now." Rodney took John's flagging erection back into his mouth and coaxed it back into full hardness. Not a difficult task, John thought, realising for the first time how desperate for any kind of touch he had become. And Rodney knew him, mouthing his way along the length of John's cock just the way John liked it, barely deterred by the unfamiliar knots and bumps. John shivered when Rodney started to suckle on the head of his cock alone, dipping his tongue into the slit and pressing it against the underside where the thick vein was barely disguised by fine, dark scales. He licked his way up and down the upper half of John's cock like it were a candy cane, delicious and to be savoured, causing John's breath to hitch and his heart to beat faster. God, the sight alone was enough to have John halfway there already. Then Rodney took him deeper, and deeper still, one hand lightly cupping and rolling his balls while the other slowly caressed the back of his thigh right were it met his ass, and John couldn't stop the groan that escaped him when his cock bumped against the back of Rodney's throat. Rodney looked up at that, lips stretched wide around John's shaft, his blue eyes dancing with smugness, and John was gone.

He groaned again, something that might have been Rodney's name, and felt himself spurt into that hot mouth, felt Rodney's tongue work him as the other man swallowed. His hand on Rodney's shoulder was the only thing keeping him upright as his knees threatened to buckle, Rodney's hand still cupping his balls. One last spurt and John was done, his head spinning with afterglow-induced euphoria, and it was all getting to be a little too much.

"Rodney," he rasped, and Rodney pulled back, his hands stroking their way up to John's hips where they stayed to hold him, keep him steady. John couldn't help smiling down as he caught his breath and Rodney smiled back, a little smugly but mostly awed, causing John's breath to hitch yet again. "I missed you," he blurted stupidly, and Rodney's smile widened into one of pure delight.

"Really? I mean, yes, of course you did. What's not to miss?"

John huffed a short laugh and smacked him over the head. "Exactly," he agreed nevertheless and enjoyed one of Rodney's rare moments of speechlessness. "Want any help with that?" He pointed vaguely at the visible bulge in Rodney's pants.

"Ah, yes, that would be appreciated."

John helped Rodney to his feet and started to undress him – finally. The process wasn't easy: John's claws kept getting in the way, but miraculously Rodney didn't complain about the tiny holes in his shirt or the light scratches on his skin. If anything, the latter made his eyes go darker. Now that was interesting. John decided it was something to be pursued another day, and pushed Rodney back on his prescription-matressed bed once he had him naked. Rodney bounced a little, and so did his fully engorged cock. Instead of joining him, however, John took a moment to just look. Rodney had lost weight during the past few months, the comfortably round curve of his belly almost flat now. John grimaced inwardly at that, because a) he was afraid he knew who was responsible for that weight loss and b) he'd liked Rodney's belly just the way it had been, soft and a little plump and a wonderful thing to knead. Rodney was still broad, though, still solid, and also beginning to look impatient.

"Should I sell tickets?"

"Depends. Can I pay with sexual favours?" John returned, and Rodney leered. It looked disturbingly cute.

"I don't know, do you have any references?"

"Sam Carter thought I did okay," John said easily, watching Rodney's face grow red and derailing his outraged comeback by kneeling on the bed and closing a hand around Rodney's cock. Rodney arched, mouth still open but without a sound coming out, and John allowed himself a smug grin of his own.

He jerked Rodney off slowly, using all the neat tricks, marvelling in Rodney's obvious trust in him to keep his claws away from anything vital. John stared with morbid fascination at his hand closed around Rodney's flushed cock, watching the slick blood-red head appear and disappear between his knotty, blue-scaled hand.

"How can you not find that weird?" he wanted to know.

"Excuse me?" Rodney panted, "I distinctly remember saying this was weird. You.... ohhhhh, you really need to learn to listen to me, one of these days your life might depend on that... do that again... on that ability. Wait, no, that already happened. Several times."

"But it's creepy," John said, adding a twist to his upstroke that made Rodney give a gratifyingly loud moan.

"It's... it's you," he replied eventually, and John stared down at him, naked, face flushed, skin sweaty, his eyes holding nothing but arousal and honesty.

"I love you," he realised, thinking out loud, and Rodney shuddered and came with a choked groan that sounded a little like he was dying.

"Say that again," he panted, his eyes wide. John cleared his throat, suddenly embarrassed.

"Now, don't get greedy."

"That's not greed, it's... healthy self-indulgence." Such a perfectly Rodney thing to say, delivered in that half-superior, half-uncertain tone that made him so popular among his staff, even though most of the time he was kind of an asshole. John loved that, too, although he wasn't about to say it again. Rodney seemed to realise that, because he got up with a huff and padded into the bathroom, reappearing a moment later with a damp towel. John reached for it, but Rodney put on his determined expression and grabbed John's wrist, cleaning the come from John's hand one finger after another. It was a weirdly intimate gesture, and John had to suppress the urge to pull his hand away. His scales looked darker when they were damp, and they glistened eerily in the bright light of Rodney's quarters. Rodney didn't seem to notice; he just wiped the towel over his spent cock and threw it into the general direction of the bathroom. He ignored John's raised eyebrow and climbed back into bed, pushing and wriggling until they were both settled under the covers.

John ended up on his back with Rodney's head on his shoulder, Rodney's arm around his waist, and Rodney's leg thrown across his own, but it didn't feel like cuddling. More like Rodney was firmly resolved not to let go, like John might jump up and run away any second. John supposed he couldn't blame him for the notion, but he needn't have worried. John wasn't going anywhere. He felt at home in his skin for the first time in months, tired and sated and ridiculously happy with Rodney's warm bulk pressed against him. He wasn't going to give that up.

He wondered if he should tell Rodney as much – in a manly way of course – but before he could make up his mind, Rodney was snoring gently into his shoulder. John smiled, decided he'd try not to move too much so Rodney wouldn't cut himself on his scales, and followed the other man into sleep.


John woke up early to find Rodney spooned up against him, both of them covered only by a thin blanket, and took a moment to simply lie there very, very quietly, cataloguing the sensations: Rodney's breath warm against the back of his neck; Rodney's arm again thrown heavily across his waist; Rodney's sleep-limp fingers brushing over his belly with every inhalation; Rodney's knee bumping the back of his thighs. Rodney, giving off heat like a human oven, warming John deeper than just the skin. John snorted at the thought. He enjoyed the occasional romantic gesture, sure, but that was just silly. Rodney's fingers tightened on his abdomen, absent-mindedly stroking the soft scales before they stilled abruptly. John could hear Rodney take a long, deep breath and clear his throat.

"So I, uh, didn't dream that," Rodney said lightly, almost bored, but now his hand was splayed over John's belly and his body tense.

"No. Not a dream." John took a deep breath himself and casually covered Rodney's hand with his own. He told himself his heart wasn't racing, concentrating on how ridiculously soft Rodney's warm skin felt under his palm. Rodney was oddly silent for a moment, long enough to make John a little bit nervous. Then Rodney pulled his hand away and scooted back, away from him, and his heart sank.

"Turn over."

"What?" John blinked. If Rodney wanted him to leave, wouldn't it be easier to make him get up and go? Did they have to talk about it?

"We're in my bed and that means I get to give the commands. Turn over."

"As you wish," John said with the slightest hint of sarcasm as he turned underneath the thin blanket. Neither of them had thought to draw the curtains, and the first rays of sunlight streaming in through the large windows gave Rodney's skin a golden glow. John met Rodney's gaze head-on, blinking again when the hard look he'd expected was only notable in its absence. Instead, Rodney seemed to take in every single feature of John's face, wide-eyed and serious as he brought his hand up to run a thumb across John's cheek, along the seam of his alien skin. The touch felt scratchy across his scales, smooth where it ran over the human skin of his cheekbone. The awed expression was back on Rodney's face, and John swallowed, blinking against the suddenly too-bright light.

"Going to kiss you now," Rodney told him quietly, hand still on John's cheek as he leaned in. John kept his eyes open, not daring to look away in case Rodney might change his mind. Rodney's eyes held his gaze as their lips brushed together, hard ridges and soft skin, alien and human. Rodney kissed him softly, almost reverently, thumb lightly stroking John's cheek. John decided to take a risk and licked slowly along the seam of Rodney's lips, heart fluttering when Rodney's blue eyes smiled at him before they flickered shut. They both sighed as the kiss became more intimate and their tongues bumped together, morning breath be damned, unhurriedly exploring and relearning the maps of each other's mouths. John allowed his own eyes to close and brought a hand up to slide it gently over the hollow of Rodney's waist, to settle it in the dip beneath Rodney's shoulder blades. He pulled Rodney in until their bodies were touching from chest to toes, Rodney's smattering of body hair fuzzy against John's firm scales. Rodney smiled against his mouth and slid a leg between John's to bring them closer yet, kissing John with a lazy thoroughness most people probably wouldn't expect from him. John tightened his arm around the warm body pressed against his own, falling back into routine with an ease that was not quite frightening but probably should have been. They had always done this, every single morning after on the rare occasions they'd dared to spend the night together, just kissing. Doing this here, now, felt like coming home.

Eventually, though, John had to draw back, throwing a rueful glance at the alarm clock on Rodney's bedside table. "As nice as this is, I probably should go back to my quarters and take a shower. Lorne and his team are scheduled to check in at 0800 hours, and I kind of wanted to be there." His voice was scratchy, rough. John cleared his throat.

"Hmm." Rodney pulled him back in for another long, slow kiss, then sighed. "Well, I guess I should check what my staff has been up to, see if your venture into the thrilling world of engineering broke the puddle jumper. And, you know. Kick Radek's ass for almost killing me."

John grimaced. "It wasn't his fault."

"Actually, you don't know that. He was the one in charge of the repairs, and obviously he screwed up, because that jumper? Was so not ready to fly. Now, I realise he probably wasn't doing it on purpose, but the fact is that Atlantis nearly would have needed a new chief scientist."

"Rodney."

"All I'm saying is that I won't stop him from making it up to me." Rodney paused, looking thoughtful. "He did come to save me, though, that gives him a few points."

John wisely refrained from mentioning that he'd practically had to order Radek to participate in the rescue mission. Instead he leaned in for a last brief kiss before he got up and went over to the rumpled pile of clothes, groaning quietly at the snap-crackle-pop of his spine as he bent down to pick up his boxers. Some days, he just wished he were at least ten years younger.

"Meet you at lunch?" he asked as he started to get dressed.

"Sure." Rodney got up and stretched, a light flush colouring his cheeks. John winced as he heard the pop and crackle of Rodney's back. That had to hurt. "Or we could take a shower now."

"You know I don't have the time."

Rodney shrugged. "Fine. Be that way." He padded to the bathroom, his bare feet slapping against the hard floor, his full round ass cheeks wobbling a little with each step. John stared after him, contemplating his options before he dropped the jacket he was holding and pulled his t-shirt over his head.

Maybe he had a little time to spare, after all.


John's life went through the most amazing changes after that.

A science team found evidence of at least one other technologically advanced civilisation living in the Pegasus galaxy at one point when they stumbled over a pair of stasis pods drifting in space. They dragged the two devices back to Atlantis and tried to find out who'd built them and when, since the design very obviously wasn't Ancient. Too bad the people inside the pods were long dead, otherwise they could've just asked them. Obviously their stasis technology hadn't been as sophisticated as the Ancients' – the occupants of the two pods weren't only aged beyond reason, they were mummified inside their metal coffins.

A quick scan of the planets in the closest vicinity of where they'd recovered the pods didn't bring up any evidence of occupation, current or otherwise. Rodney tried to access something he thought was similar to a black box but didn't get it to work, much to his frustration. Still, Elizabeth was fascinated by the thought of another advanced civilisation out there and spent hours speculating with the anthropologists over the cultural significance of what little belongings they had found with the two bodies. She was obviously having fun, smiling and animated, which in turn made everyone else on Atlantis smile a little more easily.

But as cool as all of that was, it was mostly just a blip on John's radar. Rodney kept touching him at every opportunity: a bump against his shoulder walking down a hall, a hand brushing against the small of his back when they stood in line for dinner in the mess hall. John let him, no longer caring what rumours might be spreading or who might discover something they shouldn't. There'd be no dishonourable discharge, of that he was certain, because then what? The SGC would have a mutiny in Atlantis on their hands if they tried to use John as a lab rat, and they couldn't just kick him out to make a life for himself on Earth, either. No, Atlantis was safe, his, and while he wasn't about to flaunt his relationship with another guy in anyone's face, he also wasn't going to be paranoid about it. Not like Before. And if there were any dirty looks, any hateful whispers, they weren't anywhere he noticed; it wasn't like he'd know if the prejudice was about him being gay or being half-bug, anyway.

So instead of silence and trying to get used to a body that wasn't his, now there was banter, movie discussions, chess matches over lunch. Feeling like he had regained his footing somehow, John asked Teyla casually – a painful, awkward casual that probably hurt them both – to join him and Rodney for their meals.

"You don't have to, but I think it would be nice." It was hard not to fidget, but he managed. He did not, however, look at Teyla, so he completely missed the first step forward she took, and then it was too late for an evasive manoeuvre. John tried not to flinch away when Teyla gently put her hands on his shoulders, but his back felt impossibly tense and his hands clenched into painful fists. She lowered her head and just stood there, waiting, seemingly oblivious to John's discomfort. Teyla was a patient woman, so John swallowed and leaned forward to touch his forehead to hers. She was warm and smelled of the Athosian incense she sometimes burned in her quarters when she meditated. John had kept his eyes open, and so he saw the delighted beam cross her face. He still pulled back as soon as she lifted her hands.

"Thank you, John," she smiled, and he knew she didn't mean the invitation. He returned her smile, reminded her to arrive early or Rodney would have picked all the good food, and then went to have his palms checked out by Beckett. Thankfully, his claws had barely broken the skin, so all he got was a salve and an admonition to, "Be a wee bit more careful."

Teyla not only joined Rodney and him for their meals, she also brought Ronon. Others drifted along, like Elizabeth and Beckett. After pointing out to Rodney that after Project Arcturus – the mention of which made Rodney wince – they were now probably even where it came to screwing up, Zelenka became a regular participant of their meals as well. Soon they pushed two tables together in what had become 'their' corner of the mess hall and meals became almost something like a family thing. John felt himself relax enough to grin, if not laugh, and to join the conversation on the rare occasions Rodney paused to take a breath. He would have been lying if he'd claimed to like his new body, but he'd... settled, somehow. Of course, Rodney's wide-eyed way of touching him like he was special instead of a freak might have had something to do with that. John still hated it when anyone else even tried to lay a hand on him, but pushing Rodney away? Never again.

A week or so after the discovery of the stasis pods, Caldwell returned, having replaced Richards as the commander of the Daedalus. Rodney wasn't thrilled.

"He tried to kill us all!"

"He had a snake in his head, Rodney. Not even Ronon is holding that against him."

Ronon looked up briefly from his mountain of mashed potatoes with gravy and shrugged. Rodney just crossed his arms and huffed.

"And who could possibly tell what kind of subliminal commands that Goa'uld left behind, hmm? We might have a ticking time bomb here."

"Or, you just might have watched too many cheap sci-fi movies," John pointed out.

"I'm just saying, we were better off with Richards."

Teyla had finished her salad and neatly put her fork on the tray. "I have been meaning to ask you, Rodney, did you meet Colonel Richards before? Your treatment of each other suggested a deep familiarity."

John also stopped eating and started wiggling his fork, waiting for Rodney's answer. He'd tried to come up with a way to ask that question ever since that episode with the Aurora, but he'd never managed to think of something that wouldn't have looked like prying. Or jealousy.

"Richards was a test pilot at Area 51 while I was working there. He was reasonably intelligent and interested in the technology behind the Stargate, so we frequently met for lunch." Rodney threw John a knowing glance and smirked a little before stabbing another salad leaf and putting it in his mouth. "That's all," he said, chewing.

"Never said it wasn't," John pointed out, relaxing nevertheless. Rodney's past lovers didn't have any effect on their relationship, of course, but John still didn't need to meet them.

Caldwell kept behaving in a strangely subdued and hesitant manner for a while. While John thankfully had no idea what it was like to be consciously aware of being trapped in one's own body, he knew exactly how it felt to be out of control. He could relate to what Caldwell had to be going through – the shame, the insecurity, the mistrust – and tried to act like nothing had changed. After all, the Colonel had been more than fair to him after that whole transforming into a bug thing. Elizabeth seemed to have a bit of a hard time dealing with Caldwell, but eventually things settled down. There seemed to be less hostility in the way she argued with the Colonel now, too.

Then Teyla asked John to pick up their training sessions again, and his first thought was, hell no. His second thought was, hell, no, too, and it kind of went downhill from there. "I distinctly remember our last session not ending so well."

"I understand that you were not yourself, John. I do not blame you for any behaviour that might have been, how do you say, out of character."

"Good. That's... good." He nodded, glad that they were on the same page. He probably shouldn't have jumped to conclusions.

"I still think it would do you good to resume our sparring. And I would enjoy the challenge." She smirked, clearly implying he hadn't been much of a challenge before. John just shrugged. After all, she was right.

"Sorry, Teyla, but that isn't going to happen." I'm not going to hurt you.

Teyla's smile faded a little, but then she nodded. "I see. Well, perhaps then you will allow me to join you and Ronon on your daily runs."

"With pleasure."

And it was a pleasure. Ronon saw Teyla as a personal challenge, Teyla set out to teach him not to underestimate her, and John got to kick both their asses. Life was good.


Everything was going fine until Lorne and his team found another Atlantis offworld: an exact copy of their own city, almost entirely buried under hills and woods and with barely any power left. They managed to trade Beckett's gene therapy to the people living there in exchange for their puddle jumpers and their drone supply, even though Elizabeth and most others were a little uncomfortable of dealing with that kind of oppressive feudal society. Rodney and Zelenka on the other hand were having geekgasms over all that unbroken technology, sending a swarm of scientists to check and cross-reference and write down every bit of knowledge they could. It was all well and good, but-

"I said I'm not going."

"But why?" Rodney waved a hand, clearly baffled. "They don't have a working ZPM, true, but think of all the technology we could salvage. I know your gene isn't working the way it used to, but-"

"I'm not going offworld, Rodney, so drop it, okay?" John viciously stuffed the last of their laundry into the duffel and pulled it closed, already turning toward the door. But Rodney wouldn't take the hint.

"No, really, explain to me why you don't jump at the opportunity to explore an Atlantis that hasn't been damaged by either the ocean or the Wraith, because I don't get it." Rodney's hand on John's arm made him turn, to face a discussion he didn't want to have. "Is it because of the bug thing?" Asked so very carelessly, like it wasn't a big deal that anyone would freak out if they were faced with something like John. "We can land directly in their jumper bay, most of them wouldn't even have to see-"

"It's none of your damn business, Rodney!" John said sharply, grimacing inwardly at the surprised hurt that flickered across Rodney's expressive face. But damn it, Rodney really needed to learn that some things were better left alone.

"What? How can you say that? You're my... how can you say that?"

John opened his mouth to snap an answer, then thought better of it. He pressed his lips together and lifted the duffel before he turned to the door.

"Oh, right, like walking away is going to solve anything!" John ignored him and stabbed his hand in front of the door controls in something resembling a wave. The door slid open. "John. John." He heard Rodney take a deep breath. "If you walk out now, I'm-" His voice was cut off when the door closed behind John.

John stood in the hall for a moment, gritting his teeth against the tight anger that made his hands shake slightly as he kept his fingers from clenching into fists. Why did Rodney have to keep questioning every damn decision John made? If he said he wasn't going offworld, then Rodney should just accept it and shut the hell up.

John slammed his fist against the wall, but it made him feel only marginally better. So he walked, dumped the laundry with the corporal on duty, and went to find Ronon.

They ran. Or, well, Ronon ran; John was jogging at best, his thoughts a tangled mess. He knew Rodney only meant well, but damn it, he was supposed to understand. People on Atlantis knew John; they'd had time to get used to him. But offworld, where the Wraith had culled and destroyed entire civilisations for thousands of years, he was more than just a freak: he was a threat to his people's safety. How would they explain to a new ally that John wasn't any different from them, not really, except for his looks and his ability to run faster, jump higher, withstand Wraith stunners... John punched the wall of the narrow hallway they were running through and picked up the pace, the sound of Ronon's feet hitting the metal floor a solid thump-thump behind him. This galaxy was full of superstitions and weird beliefs, and associating Atlantis with the Wraith, even if it was only because one of the expedition members looked a little like one, would be fatal to most of their offworld relations.

Not to mention that John could do very well without being stared at. Rodney of all people should know that, and he should know better than to push it. John quenched the slight feeling of unease that started to stir when his mind went back to Rodney's last words. Rodney was prone to dramatics, he told himself; an ultimatum from him wasn't likely to mean anything. John would calm down, Rodney would pout for a while, and then they'd go on like always. With the exception of Cadman and someone named Jimmy Bingham, Rodney wasn't really one to hold grudges. Though, come to think of it, John still didn't know what that Bingham guy had ever done to Rodney.

"You run enough yet?" Ronon's panted question interrupted his thoughts. John pulled a face and slowed down, coming to a halt next to a small alcove that at some point had probably held one of the potted plants the Ancients had liked so much. Ronon slumped against the wall and reached for his water bottle as he tried to catch his breath. Drinking in huge gulps, he nodded at John. "Trouble with McKay?"

"That's not really something I want to discuss right now," John said after a moment. He pretended he'd had to get enough oxygen for an answer, although he knew Ronon was well aware that he didn't even feel that tingle in his muscles yet, the one that came with a good workout.

Ronon shrugged. "Okay." That was the nice thing about personal conversations with Ronon: they were short. John ate two of the MREs he'd brought and waited until the Satedan nodded at him again, then they ran back. Back to Rodney, back to a shouting match. John grimaced. He didn't really want to argue, not when they'd just gotten their relationship back on track. He didn't want to apologise, either. He was a grown man fully capable of making his own decisions, and Rodney would just have to accept them. Maybe they should try to have a relationship talk, set some boundaries. Otherwise minor arguments like this one might well become regular occurrences, and he could honestly do without that.

After a detour to collect last week's laundry, John walked back to Rodney's quarters. A wave over the control panel and the door slid open to reveal Rodney standing in front of one of the large windows overlooking parts of Atlantis and the sea, his back to the room. John blinked in surprise: he would have expected Rodney to be in the labs by now. Walking slowly into the room, he leaned the duffel against the desk chair.

"I brought the laundry," he said, frowning at the tense set of Rodney's shoulders. He was willing to bet a week's pay that the scientist wasn't actually looking at the ocean, but he didn't fully understand what was going on. Sure, this was their first real disagreement since the jumper crash, but hardly a big deal. John had made it clear from the start that he didn't intend to go offworld again, so it wasn't like-

"I thought you were running away again." Rodney didn't turn away from the window, his voice flat. Somewhere in the back of John's head, alarm bells started to go off. Crap. He'd thought this was a regular argument, but apparently they had slipped into a full-blown crisis while he wasn't looking. Which wasn't really fair; while he couldn't blame Rodney for reaching his conclusion after all they'd gone through, the man was making far too big a deal out of things. Now, John could either tell him that, or try for some damage control. Looking at Rodney's rigid back, John sighed inwardly, suddenly feeling very old. All right, damage control.

"No," he said lightly, walking over until he stood right behind his... friend? Lover? Partner? "I might be kind of an idiot sometimes, but not that much of an idiot."

His attempt at lightening up the mood fell flat. Rodney raised his chin, still looking over the ocean as he spoke. "You know, actually, I think I am the idiot. I was so sure we could make this work, maintain a relationship, but you," he waved a hand in a strangely restrained motion, "you keep pushing me away, and now I don't know what to think anymore except that this... us..." his voice cracked, "it's obviously not worth as much as I thought it was. To you."

For a moment, John was so shocked that he couldn't even breathe. He swallowed – partly to buy himself some time to make his racing heart calm down again – and licked his lips, even though his mouth felt dry. "So, what, you want to break it off?" he asked, his voice sounding like it came from far away. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be. Rodney was always there, always right at John's shoulder; he couldn't just up and leave because of one small argument!

Rodney turned around to fix him with a level gaze, his eyes huge in his pale face as he drew in a breath. "Yes. Yes, I think I do."

John was in freefall, no floor beneath his feet, nothing to hold on to. He tried to breathe but his lungs wouldn't expand, frozen by the same thing that had his heart lurching sideways, pounding with sickened worry. Panic. Sheer, blinding panic. "No, you don't," he managed through numb lips, taking three hurried steps forward to close the space between them. Rodney simply looked at him with tired eyes but let himself be pulled into an embrace so tight it had to hurt, and John clung like Rodney was the only thing holding him up and he was, he was. Only Rodney, and he couldn't just leave, he couldn't-

"Rodney, you can't." John's voice sounded choked and desperate to his own ears but he didn't care, burying his face against Rodney's neck as his body started to tremble, his fingers clenched into the fabric of Rodney's thin blue shirt. He didn't want to be alone again, didn't know how to be on his own anymore. Faintly, he felt Rodney's arms come up to slide around his back and pull him closer, but he was too busy breathing in Rodney-scented air in short little gasps that were more sobs than anything else. Rodney's neck was cool and smooth and dry against his lips, pulse fluttering fast underneath the skin. "You can't," John repeated, or thought he did, because the world was becoming a little fuzzy.

There was a moment of vertigo when John was sure he was falling, that Rodney had let him go, but then he felt Rodney's mattress dip under their combined weight and took another shaky breath. Rodney was all around him, one arm under John's head and the other snaked possessively around his waist, a heavy leg weighing down John's own. One of Rodney's hands was tangled in his hair while the other kept rubbing small circles across his back and slowly, slowly, John felt himself relax enough to register the ongoing murmur of, "-freaking me out, you stubborn, screwed-up moron; just breathe, don't make me tell Carson I broke you, please, breathe..."

In response, John scooted even closer, turning his head into Rodney's sleeve as he mumbled faintly, "This is worth something."

Rodney stiffened for a moment, then he barked out a harsh laugh and pressed a shaky kiss against John's temple. "Yes, believe me, I got that."

"I'm sorry."

"What, for making me think I gave you an aneurysm?" Rodney sounded seriously freaked out, not that John could blame him.

"For making you think I didn't want..." John swallowed as he tried to find the right words, the words that would make Rodney get how important he was. The intensity of his own reaction had blindsided him and he wasn't sure he could explain it, or even wanted to. "I... you're not... I mean, you have to know... damn it, Rodney."

"Yeah." Rodney clumsily patted his head, and John told himself he wasn't pushing back into the touch. "Me, too."

It should have been reassuring, but John found he was still floating no matter how close he pressed himself against Rodney, feeling a jarring sense of disconnection between them. He tugged clumsily at Rodney's shirt, trying to get his hands underneath. "Fuck me," he rasped, hating how desperate he sounded, but they needed to reconnect somehow, needed to regain their balance, and he would have done anything, anything, to feel grounded again.

Again that strange, brittle laugh. "Yeah, okay, no."

"Rodney-"

"No." Rodney's voice was weirdly gentle as he let his hand wander from John's back down to his ass, cupping one of his cheeks and squeezing lightly. "I'm not going to hurt you."

John thought he'd hated his body before, but it was nothing compared to the wave of loathing he felt now. Rodney was right, it would hurt; the scales around his asshole were thick and without a lot of give. But he needed this, needed to feel Rodney inside him with an intensity that would be a little scary, except he couldn't care. Shifting his weight, John slid a hand between them to run it along Rodney's rapidly hardening cock, squeezing and stroking him through the fabric of his pants until Rodney pulled away with a gasp. "Yeah, all right, just..."

They undressed without finesse, their movements hurried and frantic as they fumbled their way out of their clothes. Rodney barely managed to grab the lube from its drawer before John pulled him back onto the mattress. Rodney yelped and landed right on top of him, his weight slamming the air out of John's lungs. It felt great, their cocks rubbing together as John reached for Rodney's ass, ran his claws lightly over the round globes. Rodney shivered, supported himself with one hand and flicked the tube open, a thick dollop of lube landing on John's chest as Rodney slicked his fingers.

"Come on, Rodney, yeah," John encouraged him, spreading his legs for better access. Rodney shifted his weight, head hanging down, fine hair tickling John's chin as he reached... oh shit, as he reached behind himself, his hand brushing over John's, and then his body tensed, arched against John. John groaned when he felt Rodney mouth his jugular, resting his hand lightly on Rodney's to feel the tendons move as Rodney slowly pushed a slick finger into his own ass, took a deep breath, and started to work in a second. "God, that's... you're..." Rodney's mouth swallowed John's words and he groaned again, pushing up lightly, just enough to feel some friction but not enough to upset Rodney's balance. They didn't kiss so much as devour each other, Rodney's tongue moving in time with his fingers, and god, that had to be the hottest thing in the history of sex, Rodney writhing on his own hand while his tongue slid in and out of John's mouth. John made a protesting sound when Rodney pulled away, only to let out a choked moan when Rodney rolled a condom over his dick to protect himself from the fine scales, slicking it briefly with the hand that had been... had been...

John's thoughts derailed entirely when Rodney straddled him, lined up his shaft with a trembling hand and slowly sank down. He groaned and closed his eyes when he felt Rodney open around the head of his cock, soft and hot and a little like coming home. Slowly, panting, Rodney took him in, and John opened his eyes again because he wanted to see, couldn't bear to miss anything. Rodney's face was flushed, a grimace of pained pleasure, sweat dampening his forehead. His blue eyes were half-lidded and glazed as he settled down in John's lap and stilled for a moment, just breathing. He was beautiful.

"Rodney," John whispered, breathless with awe, and Rodney's eyes flickered open to meet his.

"Love you," he gasped, moaning as he rose up a little and sank back down. John's eyes were prickling dangerously, but his answer thankfully died in his throat as Rodney started to move in earnest. John moaned, his hips bucking to push him deeper into that soft welcoming heat, hands reaching up to play with Rodney's pink nipples. Pinching them carefully got him another gasp, dragging his claws across them almost hard enough to draw blood earned him a full-out moan. John repeated the motion, again, and again, watching greedily as Rodney's face flushed a darker red, pupils blown wide enough to swallow nearly all the blue. He canted his hips, changing the angle until a groan and a shudder from Rodney told him that he'd managed to hit the prostate.

"John," Rodney panted, "please," and John closed a hand around his weeping dick, smearing the pre-come around the blunt head with the pad of his thumb before he started to jerk him off. Rodney moaned, his rhythm faltering, and John squeezed harder, moved faster. They both stared at his hand, its deep blue a stark contrast against the dark pink of Rodney's shaft, claws inches from vulnerable skin. Even after weeks, neither of them had become used to the sight. Following an inspiration, John brought his other hand around to scratch lightly over Rodney's tight balls. Rodney's hips stuttered as he came with a startled shout, slamming down on John's cock and clenching around him, semen splattering warm over John's fingers and on his belly. John let out a groan of his own, the last of his control dangerously close to slipping.

He grabbed Rodney's shoulders when Rodney started to sag forward, flipping them over in a move he'd never admit he had learned from Ronon, grunting as the manoeuvre nearly dislodged him. Probably one of the dangers of treating sex like unarmed combat. Holding up Rodney's legs he pushed back in until he was again fully sheathed inside Rodney's ass. Rodney was tight, aftershocks still running in tremors through his body, and John moaned at the soft flutter of slick muscle around him. He let his head hang down as he started to pump into Rodney, mindless, claiming, mine, mine, "Mine!" Then Rodney's hand was on his shoulder, blunt fingernails digging into the scaly skin, and- "John!"

With a last deep moan, John came. His claws pressed into the soft skin of Rodney's thighs, hard enough to draw blood as he fought to keep himself upright, buried as deeply inside Rodney as he could go, his hips still pumping in tiny jerks as he filled the condom. Rodney pulled him down into a series of sweet, sloppy kisses, interrupted by their panting, until John relaxed with a shaky breath. Spent, he let go of Rodney's legs and slowly pulled out of him, both of them wincing as his still half-hard cock slipped from Rodney's body. He rolled off the condom and closed it with a knot; then he sighed and gave Rodney a deep kiss before he stood up and padded over to the bathroom, grimacing at the pull of too-sensitive muscles. All he wanted to do was pull Rodney close and give in to the sleepiness that was tugging at him, but that wouldn't be pretty in the morning, sticky as they were right now.

John wet a washcloth and quickly cleaned himself up, then rinsed it and brought it back to the bed where Rodney was drowsing, his whole body flushed and covered with a thin sheen of sweat. He yelped when John let the damp washcloth flop down on his belly, and John grinned. Rodney grumbled as he quickly cleaned himself and threw the washcloth back at John, who deftly caught it and took it back to the bathroom, rinsing it again and hanging it up to dry. Then, finally, he could climb back into bed with Rodney, frowning as he inspected the tiny wounds in Rodney's legs, already scabbing over. He really hadn't meant to do that.

"Stop that. It doesn't even hurt, and you know I'd tell you if it did," Rodney murmured, tugging at John until he let himself be pulled close, his head on Rodney's shoulder and his arm thrown over his belly. Slowly, he stroked his hand along Rodney's flank, not quite lightly enough to tickle.

"Mine," he whispered, tucking his leg between Rodney's.

"What, now I'm your pet?" Rodney's voice was high and still a little bit breathless, yet he nevertheless managed to sound indignant. It was entirely possible that John loved him even harder for that.

"My own pet genius," he drawled, smirking. "I could get used to the thought."

Rodney snorted. "Of course. Brilliant and great in bed, not to mention that I'm already housebroken."

"Exactly." They lay in silence for a while, pretending to catch their breath. Rodney's naked body was warm and still slightly damp with sweat; John resisted the urge to lick a broad stripe up his arm to taste him. "So," he said after a while, trying to sound casual instead of hesitant. "We're cool, right?"

Rodney smiled, a crooked smirk that made him look at least two years younger. "I'm cool. You're fine."

"Hey!"

"No, sorry, you're a girl. You don't get to be cool." Rodney sounded smug and sleepy and happy, even after John had kicked his shin. Wrapping them both into the blanket and already drifting off, John's last drowsy thought was that he'd hang on to this for all he was worth.

When sleep dragged him under, he went willingly, warm and safe and in love.


Rodney ended up going with a group of scientists to the second Atlantis for a few days, accompanied by Lorne and his men. Beckett also tagged along, muttering something about hating to make house calls, which for some reason Rodney seemed to find hilarious.

John grinned as he saw them off from the gate room and waved at Ronon, who he had put on bodyguard duty for Rodney. The large Satedan wasn't all that happy about John's orders and it was plain to see in his attitude towards Rodney. Those two hadn't gotten along all that well from the beginning, although John had no idea if Ronon just didn't get the finer points of Rodney's behaviour or if he had a problem with scientists in general. All he knew was that neither Ronon nor Rodney were looking forward to spending almost a week in close quarters. Well, tough. That was why John was making the decision. He thought that if he could get Rodney and Ronon to get along, the former Runner would have a much better standing with the science team, who for now were evading him with wide eyes and wary faces. Atlantis would never be a true home for Ronon if two thirds of the staff were afraid of him and the other third only knew him as someone who could beat you up but good.

The thing about Rodney was that, despite his waspish attitude, the science team loved him. He got their names wrong more often than not, didn't have any patience for anyone who wasn't a physicist or engineer, and was known to confiscate any kind of sweets for himself, but he was a genius and the scientists recognised that. Being on Rodney's – or Zelenka's, for that matter – personal staff was an honour, and a simple, "Good work," from him usually elicited bright smiles and looks of envy. If someone decided to leave Atlantis and the SGC for whatever reason, having 'highly classified work for the government' on their CV wasn't worth nearly as much as their letter of recommendation from Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD., PhD., because even on Earth Rodney was known in all the important circles as difficult, but brilliant.

If Rodney's esteem was a door-opener back on Earth, it was invaluable on Atlantis. As much as John liked to think that the marines trusted Ronon a little more because of his budding friendship with their CO, it just wasn't the same.

John's smugness over his master plan lasted for almost five hours. Then Lt. Baker called in to yell, over the sound of heavy bombardment, that there'd been some kind of coup and the gene carriers had been taken somewhere. The connection broke off before Baker could tell them where, and when Atlantis dialled back in and sent a MALP through the Gate, it was destroyed on the other side almost immediately. That was reason enough for Elizabeth to postpone all attempts at a rescue mission until the arrival of the Daedalus.

"The Daedalus isn't due for another three days!" John protested, wishing like hell he hadn't let Rodney go offworld without him. Sure, it would have been a risk to their alliance and he would have hated being stared at, but not knowing if Rodney and the others were even still alive was torture. His mouth was dry and he had to keep his fists from clenching, had to force himself not to yank the Gate technician away from his place at the DHD and go to the planet himself. He was fast, he could make it.

"I don't see how we have any other options. There is no other Stargate nearby, so we can't send a jumper." Elizabeth's gaze was full of sympathy. "I'm sorry, John, but the risk is too great. We have to wait for the Daedalus."

John had no choice but to grit his teeth and follow Elizabeth's order, trying to distract himself by going on one run after another, and failing. His stomach clenched at the thought of what Rodney might be going through: forced labour, torture, anything was possible. And that was only if... god, only if he hadn't been killed already. John felt himself panic at the mere thought. Rodney couldn't be dead, Atlantis needed him. John needed him.

He just couldn't get his head around the irony that Rodney's first offworld mission after their argument had promptly proved him right. John should have gone with him. Screw the scientific discoveries; he should have made sure Rodney was safe. Yes, Ronon and the other soldiers John had sent along to keep an eye on the scientists were heavily armed and trained for exactly that kind of thing, but it wasn't the same as John being there himself. He would have made sure to keep Rodney away from the line of fire, protect him from anything that might be out to hurt him. No one else had John's personal investment, and next time he would think about that before he sent his partner through the Gate. If Rodney came back in one piece, no way was he ever going offworld again without John.

The Daedalus was still two days out and John was beginning to seriously fear he was going insane from the forced helplessness, when the situation resolved itself in the most anticlimactic way possible. He was in the control room when the Gate suddenly activated, his nervous suspicions – the kidnappers calling in to demand a ransom? To tell them their people were dead? – dropping into blinking disbelief when the Gate tech announced, "Receiving Major Lorne's IDC, sir."

"Lower the shield," he ordered, already raising a hand to his radio. "Elizabeth. They're back." Then he quickly made his way down the stairs to the gate room floor, arriving there just as Lorne and Baker stepped through, followed by Dr. Kusanagi and Dr. Vogel. John felt sick with relief when he saw Rodney stumble out of the event horizon, Ronon only a half-step behind him. Rodney's face was dirt-streaked and he was pressing a wad of gauze to his temple, batting away a fussing Beckett. Their eyes met, and Rodney scowled at him.

"You! This is all your fault! If you hadn't decided to stay behind and sulk in your quarters, none of this would have happened!"

"I'm sorry, was there some problem offworld?" John asked, faking a puzzled frown just to see Rodney sputter.

"Excuse me? Did you miss the part where we were kidnapped and didn't call in for two days?"

"No, I didn't," John said, the tension of those two days not really gone yet. Something must have shown on his face, because Rodney reached out and awkwardly patted his arm.

"Yes, well. We're back now."

"That you are." And I won't let you out of my sight again.

He had to let him out of his sight, though, when Rodney was immediately whisked off to the infirmary with a concussion because, as he put it, "Half a city just fell on my head!" John felt more than a little disturbed when he learned that his claim was actually true. In the debriefing with him and Elizabeth, Lorne told them that apparently the other Atlantis had been ruled by a bunch of people with the gene who had been reluctant to hand over their power. The young woman who had made the deal to exchange technology for medical supplies and the gene therapy, Mara, had been overthrown by her brother Tavius, who had then decided to cut all ties with Atlantis and go on a general killing spree. Rodney had managed to stop a salvo of drones aimed at a village near the Gate just in time, but then the structurally damaged city catacombs had collapsed on top of him. Luckily, it had been easy to get him and his guide out of there relatively unharmed, but still, John couldn't entirely suppress a grimace at the thought of what might have happened.

"We did manage to collect the fired drones, though. I'm sure we can use them. The jumper bay was also undamaged."

"Good. I gather the conflict has been settled?" Elizabeth wanted to know.

"It has. In an unfortunate turn of events, Tavius was 'accidentally' poisoned by his chamberlain, Mara's husband. Very tragic." Lorne shrugged.

"Let's send them a condolence card when we retrieve the jumpers," John suggested dryly, and they wrapped up the debriefing pretty quickly after that.

Down in the infirmary, Rodney was still complaining about his headache when John arrived: "-because honestly, I don't know how much more abuse my brain can handle. This is the second concussion in barely more than a month; I don't even want to imagine the irreparable damage to my intelligence." Rodney paused and went even paler. "Oh my god, it already happened, didn't it? I, I, I can't even remember my sister's phone number! Carson! I need an MRI and a-"

"Rodney," John interrupted him, not even trying to suppress his amused smirk, "you never knew your sister's phone number."

"Don't worry, McKay," Ronon said at the same time. His smile was wolfish as he rested a heavy hand on Rodney's shoulder. "I hear you've got a pretty thick skull."

"Oh, yes, mock the injured man, why don't you!" But Rodney's snap wasn't as biting as it could have been and Ronon actually grinned at him, so John decided to chalk that one up as a victory. The two of them seemed to be getting along just fine.

If he fucked Rodney into the mattress a few days later, not only for scaring him like that but also because he was jealous of all the time Rodney and Ronon suddenly spent together, analysing the mess hall food and its similarities to stuff they'd both eaten over the years, well... nobody asked, and John wasn't going to tell.


When the Daedalus finally arrived, it brought supplies, new personnel, and the mail. Rodney bullied John into helping him carry his hoard to his quarters and gleefully began sorting through his envelopes and packages, frowning as he noticed John's empty hands. "What happed to all those stupid magazines you ordered?"

"I cancelled the subscriptions," John said easily, shrugging like it wasn't a big deal. "Not like I was going to go surfing again any time soon."

Rodney looked at him for a moment, then began rummaging through his stack until he pulled out a long, flat package. "A-hah!" he crowed, shoving it at John. "Here, you can open this one."

John raised an eyebrow and drawled, "Aww, Rodney, you shouldn't have." He raised his other eyebrow at Rodney's wide grin and sliced a claw through the tape without another word, curious what the hell Rodney had ordered. Inside the package were- John blinked, and stared. "What did you do, buy out the stock of Condoms'R'Us?"

"Great, isn't it?" Rodney bounced on his feet. "I thought we could do with a little more variety."

John held up the wrapper of what promised to be a glow-in-the-dark extra-rippled 'special', whatever that was supposed to be. "I didn't know you were bored."

"What? Don't be stupid." Rodney threw the rest of his mail carelessly onto the mattress and pulled John into a slow, dirty kiss, sliding his hands under John's shirt to run his fingers across the hard scales that ran up his side. "Like you could ever be boring," he finished when he pulled back again, looking regretful. "And I'd love to continue this discussion, but I have minions to brief on how not to destroy this city."

"Yeah, I kinda have to say hello to the new military contingent, too. You know, prepare the marines for Ronon, that kind of thing." John sighed. He hated that part, introducing the new soldiers to the city and trying to figure out who'd fit in and who would not. Lorne was much better at giving the 'Welcome to Atlantis, please try not to get killed' speech. "See you at lunch?"

"Sure." With a last lingering kiss they parted, and John headed out.

Soldiers who came to Atlantis for the first time were usually briefed at the SGC before they even shipped out on the Daedalus, but John found that there were always a few things the brass forgot to mention. Like how the Athosian girls and women who visited Teyla for training were off-limits, and not only because Teyla could remove a man's guts with her bare feet. Or like how seriously annoying one Dr. Rodney McKay was a sure-fire way to be cut off from the city's black market, because pissing off Rodney meant pissing off Zelenka and he was the one who had his fingers in almost every trade made on Atlantis. Paying attention to those little details was a survival trait every man under John's command should have; there was still enough stuff he left them to figure out for themselves.

John had almost reached the West Pier where he'd had Lorne assemble the new military personnel when he heard an unfamiliar voice drift from a nearby side corridor. Certain that one of the latest soldiers had gotten lost John changed his course to collect them. He had barely taken the first few steps toward the corridor when he registered the actual words, and frowned.

"-ordered around by a freak?" a man's voice demanded, wavering somewhere between amusement and outrage. "I mean, seriously, what the hell? The guy looks like something you'd be ordered to shoot at, not salute!"

John froze when he realised that the man was talking about him. For a second, his mind was a blank. He'd always known there'd be talking, but to actually hear it- maybe he should send the guy right back on the Daedalus. John gritted his teeth and swore inwardly. Never mind that the ship would be there for three more days, just get the man the hell out of his city to make him shut the fuck up.

"Thank you for voicing your concerns, Sgt. Devraux." Lorne sounded as dry as always as he spoke. "Anything else you'd like to share?"

"Yeah, actually, I hear he's fucking one of the scientists. One of the male scientists. That's just not right, if you ask me."

John felt his blood pressure rise. He was tempted to throw the guy – Devraux, was it? – right here from the pier and be done with it, get rid of him once and for all. He wasn't worried about DADT any more than he had been a month ago, but talk like that always meant trouble. If his men didn't follow his orders because they thought he had no business giving them, people could get killed. He was not going to let one fucking bigot poison the air on Atlantis with his stupid words. John was about to step into the corridor when, to his surprise, he heard Lorne chuckle.

"Listen, Sergeant, there are three things you should know if you want to survive in this city. One: who is fucking whom is none of your business. Nobody is asking you." Lorne's voice went from slightly amused to freezing cold with his next words. "Two: Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard has earned himself the greatest respect of every single member of this expedition. He is the best damn CO you will ever have the privilege to work with, and nobody gives a shit what he looks like. Three: if I ever hear you talk crap like this again, I will personally deliver you to the Wraith as an entrée. Is that clear, Sergeant?"

There was a moment of silence, and then a mumbled, "Yes, sir."

"Now get the fuck out of here and to the West Pier, or you'll start your posting here scrubbing the desalination tanks with your toothbrush."

"Yes, sir." Hurried footsteps echoed through the corridor and away from John, disappearing around a corner. Moments later, Lorne gave a sigh and stepped into the hallway – and stopped short when he spotted John.

"Uh. Sir." He grimaced. "Sorry you had to hear that."

John licked his lips and swallowed. His throat felt like it was filled with sawdust. "Yeah," he managed, his voice rough. "Me, too."

He had no idea what to say. Neither did Lorne, apparently, because after a minute of uncomfortable not-fidgeting from both of them, he simply shrugged and waved in the general direction of the pier. "So. Want to prepare the newbies for Pegasus?"

"You know, I'm kind of... lacking in enthusiasm right now." John pulled a face and started walking anyway. Lorne fell into step beside him.

"You could always leave out the part where they shouldn't start sparring with Ronon unless they've got a black belt in something."

Despite his mood, John felt himself smirk. "Major, I'm shocked. That would be wrong."

"Yeah, it would, wouldn't it?" Lorne nodded solemnly. They shared a quick grin, and walked on.


John tried his best to get Sgt. Devraux and his obvious narrow-mindedness out of his head, but he didn't quite manage. Hearing himself called a freak drove home to him that despite how normal he might be feeling, he was still anything but. And it irked him, probably more than it should. His appearance had been the reason for his fight with Rodney over going offworld, hadn't it? So why did it suddenly bother him so much that others thought exactly like he did?

He thought that staying cooped up in the city had made him a little too complacent, maybe. Rodney still touched him like he was an unexpected gift, his friends were very careful not to make him feel any different, and his people followed every order without hesitation. The fact was that outside of a crisis, he didn't even think that much about his body anymore. And maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it was a sign that he was actually accepting what had happened to him. Or maybe it was just resignation, he didn't know.

John was almost ready for an appointment with Heightmeyer by the time he met Rodney for lunch. The uncertainty about whether he had a healthy, mature way of dealing with things, or if he was going to snap any day and take out half the city with him, was driving him nuts. Rodney of course was entirely oblivious when he dropped into his seat and immediately started on his Altesian chicken; a tiny bird more like a quail than anything else. John stared at his own tray, debating if talking about the whole thing would make him feel better. He could, if he had to. He just... deliberately chose not to.

"You won't believe what Moore did," Rodney announced cheerfully around a mouthful of half-chewed chicken-and-peas, dragging John from his thoughts. "I always knew that physical oceanography was a proto-science at best, but he took stupidity to a level previously unknown to man. Well, unless that man were Kavanagh; in that case, all bets are off."

"Don't mock the guys who lent us their thousand-foot cable, Rodney," John said, amused despite himself. "That's not very nice."

"It's not like we used it," Zelenka pointed out as he put his tray next to Rodney's and sat down.

"See? Radek knows where his priorities are."

"Speaking of priorities, are you still going to take the newcomers to the lower levels later?" Zelenka wanted to know, his glasses slipping down his nose as he stabbed a salad leaf with his fork. He pushed them up absentmindedly and continued eating; John didn't think he'd really noticed them slip in the first place.

"Yes, I'm going to let them explore a little, figure out what's what where they can't do any damage."

"Just remember to take some security with you," John reminded him. "I have a meeting with Lorne and Caldwell, but I'll try to join you later."

"Yes, yes, sure. Hey, maybe we'll find something interesting." Rodney was probably the only person in Atlantis who could bounce while seated. John firmly told himself that he did not find that kind of cute.

"I bet you won't," Zelenka stated with a smug grin. Rodney stabbed a finger at him.

"Oh, you're on, you're so on."

The remaining lunchtime was spent with Rodney and Zelenka discussing progressively more outlandish theories while John watched people file in and out of the mess hall. Occasionally he threw in a word to wind Rodney up, but mostly he just listened. Eventually, they all stood up and gathered their trays.

"You guys will be in subsection seven, right?" John asked Rodney, and his friend nodded.

"Yes. If we move further, we'll notify the control room."

"Okay." John resisted the urge to pull Rodney into a kiss, mindful of the military personnel around them. "Try not to inhale any Ancient nanoviruses or anything."

"Oh, ha ha. Try not to volunteer yourself for any suicide missions," Rodney shot back. John shared a grin with Zelenka, tipped his imaginary hat, and ambled off. He would talk with Rodney later, when he had figured out what to do with Devraux.

The meeting with Lorne and Caldwell was long and boring, circling around filing systems and newly developed security protocols until John was ready to say yes to just about anything if it might wrap up the discussion. He might have agreed to a duty roster that didn't really make sense to him, but he was willing to admit that Caldwell had a lot more experience with that kind of thing. If he thought it was going to work, then it probably would.

When the meeting was finally over, John wasted no time getting out of the briefing room. The control room technician confirmed that Rodney's group was still prowling around subsection seven, and John headed over to the stairwell. Subsection seven was a few dozen levels down but still in the central spire; Rodney was far too paranoid to allow his new underlings to venture too far from the infirmary on their first day out. John took the stairs one flight at a time, sure that saving Rodney from having an aneurysm over the horror that was untrained personnel went above looking like a dignified military commander. It wasn't like anyone whose opinion mattered hadn't figured out long ago that sometimes John could be about twelve years old.

Subsection seven had been explored before; just a brief sweep to make sure no Wraith were hiding in the many corners and alcoves that made up the Ancient architecture. The corridors were dark but dry, and John could see the smudgy footprints of the science team leaving a clear trail in the fine layer of dust. He followed them, walking through the dark as if he had his own invisible light source, until the sound of voices nearing his position through the next hallway made him stop. A moment later the mini-expedition spilled into the corridor, babbling and theorising and not noticing him until they almost walked into him.

"Colonel Sheppard!" One of the scientists shone his flashlight straight into John's eyes. John hissed at the sudden pain and raised his hand to block the beam, but the scientist had already lowered his flashlight, looking sheepish behind the colourful blobs dancing through John's field of vision. "Sorry."

"Never mind, just don't do it again." John blinked a few times, then he nodded at one of the soldiers hovering nearby. It was one of the new contingent, snapping to attention when John's gaze came to rest on him.

"Sir!"

"At ease, Captain," John drawled, adding, "Where's McKay?" when he didn't spot him.

"Dr. McKay stayed behind to make sure all the systems that had been powered up were shut down again, sir."

"Alone?"

"No, sir. Sgt. Devraux is with him, sir."

Devraux. Great. John nodded at the captain and started to make his way through the scientists, who were huddled together like a flock of sheep. "All right, just... keep walking," he told them, and they hurried on. John rolled his eyes and fell into a light jog. He wasn't about to leave Rodney alone with Devraux for longer than he had to.

A few corridors later, John could hear voices from a little further away. One of them was Rodney's, and he sounded pissed. John picked up the pace, hoping this wasn't what he thought it was.

"-you think you are?!"

"You better shut up, freak-fucker! Or is it the other way round, huh? Does the freak make you scream when he fucks your ass, faggot?"

There was the sound of someone being slammed against a wall, and John broke into a run. He dashed into the room, registering for a split-second Rodney, pale-faced and pushed up against the wall by a brute guy who was at least half a head taller than Ronon and had his fist raised for the punch- and he lost it. A red mist descended over his vision as he tore Devraux away from Rodney like the man were a lightweight and knocked him to the ground, over him before the sergeant could even react. A hard punch split Devraux' lip and possibly cracked his jaw, eliciting a satisfying howl from the fallen man as he raised his hands in defence. John pulled his fist back to punch him again, but then there was a hand on his arm, holding him back.

"John, stop!" John froze at the freaked-out sound of Rodney's voice, taking a step back when Rodney pulled him away. Devraux curled up on the floor, groaning as he reached for his jaw, and John blinked as the adrenaline ebbed away. Rodney's hand was still curled around his bicep, fingers digging painfully into the flesh beneath his scales. They stared at each other for a long moment, then Rodney let out a shaky laugh, his eyes still a little wild.

"Wow, I can't believe you did that. I mean, really, for a moment there I thought you were going to kill him."

"Yeah." John licked his lips. "Me, too." He was beginning to feel a bit light-headed as he stared at Devraux again, who was glaring up at them with a look of pure hatred, holding his jaw. A bruise was already starting to form, but John felt oddly detached about that.

Rodney's unsteady smile fell from his face, and he swallowed. Then he reached for his radio and tapped it lightly. "Uh, infirmary, this is McKay. We need a medical team in subsection seven. Broken jaw, I think, possible concussion. No, it's not me again, Carson, do I sound like I have a broken jaw? Fine, thank you!" He lowered his hand. "They'll be here in a few minutes."

John nodded mutely. He felt like he really should sit down, but first- he went over to Devraux and disarmed him, keeping the soldier's sidearm loosely clasped in his hand. He should have done that minutes ago. Devraux didn't fight him, but he also didn't stop glowering. John walked around the consoles he only noticed now and to the nearest wall, where he slid down until he was sitting on the floor. He pulled up his knees, rested his arm across them and his forehead against his arm, and took a deep breath. After a moment's hesitation, Rodney walked over and sat down next to him.

They didn't talk until the med team arrived. There was nothing to say.


After Beckett had set Devraux's jaw – which was, in fact, broken – John had the soldier beamed up into the Daedalus' infirmary. There was no point in trying to get the man to fit in on Atlantis now. Even if Devraux had in any way shown that he regretted what he'd done, John didn't trust himself around him. Not after Devraux had dared to lay a hand on what was John's.

He groaned and put his face into his hands, feeling the fine protrusions rub roughly against the soft skin of his palms. He had more or less confined himself to his quarters after seeing to it that Devraux was gone. If he only knew what to do with himself... Devraux had set him off but good, more on Rodney's behalf than his own, and he wasn't sure he could trust himself not to lose it like that again. There was no guarantee that there wouldn't be similar situations in the future; John could hardly ask the SGC to 'make sure not to send any homophobes, please'. That was, if he even got to stay on Atlantis.

He knew he had been lucky the first time the SGC had wanted him back on Earth, after it had become clear that he wasn't going to turn back into a human. Now he had broken the jaw of a serviceman. That Devraux had assaulted Atlantis' chief scientist didn't matter; it was no excuse for John's behaviour. If the big brass still wanted to recall him to Earth, to turn him into a guinea pig, now they had every excuse to do so.

John sighed and shook his head, face still in his palms. Elizabeth wasn't happy with the situation, or with John. She had called Caldwell almost as soon as she'd heard what had happened, and now the two of them had locked themselves into the briefing room. John had no idea what Elizabeth thought she could achieve.

His door chime rang, and John stood up slowly. He had left Rodney half an hour ago in the infirmary, telling him to make sure his scientists hadn't gotten lost on their way up from the lower levels. Rodney had been reluctant to let him go, but he more than anyone knew that John could be stubborn once he'd made a decision. John had compromised by promising that they'd talk later; he just hadn't thought that 'later' would come so soon.

The person on the other side of the door wasn't who he'd expected.

"Colonel Sheppard." Caldwell nodded to him, hands clasped behind his back. "Can I have a word?"

"Of course." John stepped aside to let the colonel into his quarters, hardly noticing as the door slid shut again. Caldwell looked around the room with interest, and John was suddenly, painfully aware of the physics journals stacked up on the right bedside table, of the laptop running a simulation that had nothing to do with soldiering. His relationship with Rodney was right there, in every little detail, and it was one thing to brush hands waiting in line in the mess hall, quite another to rub your violation of several Air Force Instructions under your superior officer's nose.

Caldwell's face was carefully blank when he turned around to John, his hands still clasped behind his back. "I assume you can imagine why I'm here, Colonel."

"Yes, sir." John stood up straight, determined to face this down with every bit of dignity he could muster.

"Then you won't be surprised when I tell you that Sgt. Devraux has announced his intention to bring you up on charges, not only for assault, but also for fraternisation with a team member."

"No, sir."

"Good." Caldwell took another look around, his gaze lingering on the laptop with its wormhole physics simulation. "The next time something like this happens, please make sure I don't hear about it."

"Sir?" John blinked, sure he couldn't have heard that right. "I... I don't understand."

"It has been explained to Sgt. Devraux that his chances of getting out of this situation with an honourable discharge are a lot worse than your own." Caldwell allowed himself a slight smile. "After all, he did attack a high-ranking civilian without provocation. Sgt. Devraux has agreed that sometimes silence is, indeed, golden."

John felt numb inside, like someone who'd just had his death sentence revoked and couldn't quite believe it. "So the SGC is not expecting me to hand you my gun?"

"What the SGC is expecting, Sheppard, is for you to do your job and leave this kind of thing to the marines." With a pointed glare, Caldwell walked to the door and waved his hand in front of the control panel. "They're a lot better at it than you are."

John nodded, speechless. Caldwell didn't even look at him before he stepped out, the door sliding smoothly shut behind him. John stared at it and blinked. That had to be one of the most surreal conversations he'd ever had, not counting those with Rodney. But he wasn't going to be brought up on charges, that was a good thing. He could stay.

God, he could stay.

The door slid open again and Rodney stepped in, nervously wringing his hands. "So what did he say?" he asked breathlessly, his gaze darting around the room like Caldwell might be hiding somewhere. "Are we going to have to pack?"

"I think we just got permission to be gay with each other," John told him, feeling a little breathless himself. Rodney stilled, staring at him with wide blue eyes. Then, slowly, a huge grin started to creep across his face until he looked positively giddy.

"What, really?"

"Yeah. Really." Suddenly, John laughed, taking a few quick steps forward to pull Rodney into a fierce hug. "Pinch me," he whispered, hooking his chin over Rodney's shoulder and breathing in his scent, "I think I'm going mad."

"Yes, well, that's hardly a surprise considering the amount of concussions one keeps amassing around here," Rodney said darkly, but he pinched John nevertheless, and none too gently. "I'm just happy you didn't call off our relationship this time."

"Nah," John told him, loving his job, his city, and Rodney so much he felt drunk with it. And Rodney loved him back. "Never crossed my mind."


It had been a slow week, and John was ready to call it a day when he stepped out of his office late afternoon. He was so up to date with his paperwork that he wouldn't have any for at least two days; he had filed all the necessary requisitions for Thursday's databurst; he had even worked out the duty roster for the next two months. He was done, finished, closing time, off to new shores. Except that his new shores were his quarters, where he'd hopefully find Rodney. The scientists had been exploring the city and tinkering with Ancient gadgets for the past few days, which was their idea of fun when nothing was broken and needed to be fixed. Rodney had acknowledged the quiet time by actually pulling reasonable hours and leaving the labs while it was still light out. It was great for everyone involved, especially John: Rodney was a lot more fun when he was relaxed.

On his way through the city John nodded amiably at everyone he met, dangerously close to whistling. The last few nights had been great and this one promised to be no different. More than one scientist grinned openly when they nodded at him, and some of the marines seemed to be having a hard time keeping a straight face. John didn't care. He was a private guy, sure, but he was also very, very lucky. Everyone could know that, as long as they stayed out of his way. If there were any more nasty rumours going around after the episode with Devraux, he hadn't heard any of them. He didn't know if that was because people were afraid of him or if the marines really were taking care of things their way, although that second option was still freaking him out somewhat.

His quarters were warm and humid when he arrived, the smell of shower gel scenting the air 'ocean fresh'. The door had barely closed behind him when Rodney stepped out of the bathroom, one towel slung low around his hips while he vigorously rubbed his hair with another.

"No wonder your hair's backing away if you treat it like that," John pointed out and Rodney glared at him.

"I'll have you know that I have a genetic condition," he snapped.

"Yeah. Also, you're losing your hair." John caught the towel before it could hit him in the face and grinned. He made a show of eyeing Rodney appreciatively up and down. It was no hardship: Rodney's skin was still flushed a healthy pink from the shower, a few droplets of water clinging to his chest hair. His belly looked soft and slightly rounded over the second towel still riding low on his hips, treasure trail disappearing under the white terrycloth. Naked was always a good look on Rodney; naked and damp was even better. "So. This is nice."

Rodney smiled happily. "You're thinking about sex, aren't you?" He bounced a little when John didn't deny it and took a few steps closer, his hands gliding briefly over John's chest before he reached up and pulled the zipper of John's shirt slowly down. His eyes glazed a little and his lips parted slightly as he peeled the black fabric away to reveal the light blue scales of John's chest. John was watching him with faint bemusement.

"This is a kink for you, isn't it?"

"No," Rodney claimed breathily, thumb flicking over John's nipple to make him gasp. "Okay, fine, yes. Possibly. Does that bother you?"

"No, go ahead." John waved magnanimously and let Rodney undress him, leaning into the nips and kisses Rodney gave him along the way. He loved this, loved the small caresses, the way Rodney's breath hitched and his eyes grew wide and dark.

His cock was half-hard by the time Rodney had him naked and just kneeled in front of him for a moment, looking up at him from underneath those insanely long lashes.

"You're so hot," Rodney murmured reverently and started mouthing his way along the ridges that ran up John's thigh. Three months ago, John wouldn't have believed him; now he knew he could look like anything – anything – and Rodney would still think he was hot. Sometimes that knowledge was as scary as it was exhilarating.

Rodney had worked his way up to the crease between John's thigh and groin. John gasped as Rodney nipped the soft scales, shivered as Rodney licked a broad swipe across his balls. His cock hardened further when Rodney reached for it and grasped it lightly, pulled the dark, plump head into his mouth and dipped his tongue into the slit, humming softly.

"Rodney," John breathed, and Rodney grinned up at him before he leaned forward, braced his free hand against John's thigh and took him further into his mouth, gently sucking him to full hardness. John tried not to buck his hips as Rodney started to move up and down his cock, sucking him in and pulling back until only the very tip remained between his stretched lips. Rodney's hand was moving in counterpoint along the base of John's erection, drawing a groan from him as it squeezed lightly.

John carded his fingers through the soft, damp strands of Rodney's hair to have something to hold on to, his claws scratching lightly across Rodney's scalp. Rodney hummed happily, the vibrations almost enough to make John come right there on the spot and he moaned, pulling away, pulling him up and into a kiss that he made as fast and dirty as he knew how. Rodney clung to him as their tongues met in a steady game of advance and retreat, exchanging taunting jabs and pointed thrusts like they were in the middle of an argument. Heart pounding, John used Rodney's distraction to get them both a little closer to where he wanted them to be: he stole Rodney's towel and flung it across the room, pushing against Rodney's chest to send him sprawling onto the bed with a surprised yelp. Before Rodney could start to complain about irreparable damage to his back, John was above him, kissing him again and getting them both worked up before he scooted down. His scales scratched across Rodney's soft skin as he moved, trailing kisses where he went, spending an extra minute playing with Rodney's belly button. When he reached the end of the bed, he paused to admire the view: Rodney was spread before him like a feast, pale skin flushed pink, his cock jutting up and looking delicious. John's mouth watered.

"Now," he said with a casualness he wasn't feeling, "I was thinking, what with the lack of running for your life lately, I should really make sure you're not losing your stamina. Keep you in shape for the next crisis."

"Oh god, yes, go right ahead and do whatever you have to," Rodney agreed breathlessly and waved his hand in a feeble circle. John grinned as he gave Rodney's belly a friendly pat.

"Good. Turn around."

Rodney frowned, his gaze flickering to his erection and back to John's face. "What? Why?"

"Because I say so," John told him, carefully enunciating each syllable. Rodney pouted at him but obediently turned around, resting his weight on his forearms as he raised his ass. John licked his lips at the sight of those pale round globes, smooth and warm and perfect under his palm as he lovingly ran a hand across them. Scooting closer and leaning forward, he used both hands to pull Rodney's cheeks apart, exposing the small rosy hole between them. He could feel the tiny tremor running through Rodney's body as he leaned in close, blowing a gentle breath across the puckered skin. Rodney gasped, a sound that would never get old, and John let his tongue dip into the damp crack, ran his tongue in a broad swipe over the soft skin- and pulled a face. Beneath him, Rodney groaned.

"Fluffy new towel?" John wanted to know, spluttering a little as he carefully picked the lint from his tongue. Rodney had the grace to look back over his shoulder with an apologetic expression.

"I'm sorry. But in my defence, how was I supposed to know you were going to come home early and do that?" His question ended on a high-pitched squeak as John dove back in, running his finger along the crack before he followed it with his tongue, tasting skin and water and Rodney, warm and pure and strong. "Oh god, don't stop!"

John had no intention of stopping, not when Rodney was moaning with every lick, every sweep of John's tongue like it was pulling him undone. He loved the way Rodney responded immediately to even the tiniest bit of teasing, his string of words unravelling into breathless encouragements that fell from his lips as helplessly as knitting sliding from a needle. His own face was flushing at the sounds Rodney made, at the way his hips bucked and stuttered under John's mouth. John's cock was almost painfully hard, throbbing in time with his racing pulse. Pressing an open-mouthed kiss to the puckered skin of Rodney's entrance, John let his tongue dip into the tiny circle to wet it thoroughly before he pushed inside. Rodney groaned and let his head drop to rest on his forearms, clutching at the sheets as he pushed himself back into John's face. John went with it, pressing his tongue into the tight channel and pulling out again, fucking Rodney with his mouth. The added taste of salt made his task even more delicious, made him moan against Rodney's skin as Rodney broke into a sweat, flushing and trembling and finally begging, "Please, John, touch me!"

"Jerk yourself off," John ordered, his voice a throaty rasp he barely recognised. Rodney whimpered, his ass shifting as he resettled his weight to close a fist around his dangling cock. John dove back in, trying to fuck Rodney's ass in time with his moving hand, but Rodney was too far gone already. His hand was a blur as he fisted his cock, open-mouthed and panting heavily, muscles clenching as he came. John groaned and reached for his own neglected erection, grabbing himself firmly as he jerked himself hard and fast, letting go of Rodney and allowing him to collapse forward onto the mattress. After only a few pulls he was there, gritting his teeth as his come spilled out of him to spatter all over Rodney's ass. The sight made him groan, and his cock gave another feeble twitch.

His body feeling like it was made of Jell-O, John let himself fall down next to Rodney, both of them panting as they tried to catch their breath. Finally, Rodney turned his head to blink slowly at John.

"I, uh," his voice broke off and he cleared his throat, starting again. "What the hell was that?"

"Are you going to tell me you didn't like it?" Because that would clearly be a lie. Not that John was going to be smug about it or anything.

"That's not the point. I merely object to you calling me kinky and then doing," Rodney waved his hand in a complicated gesture, "something like that."

"You were the one complaining that our sex wasn't varied enough."

"I did no such thing!"

"McKay." John was exasperated, a very familiar feeling when it came to dealing with Rodney. "Are you seriously arguing about this?"

Rodney visibly deflated. "Uh. No?"

"Good." There was a moment of silence between them, then John rolled over on his side and ran his hand lightly over the sweat-damp skin of Rodney's back. "I'm hungry. Want to have dinner?"

Rodney looked relieved. "Yes, please."

They took a shower together and got dressed, then Rodney leaned against the wall next to the door and crossed his arms. "So. What do you want to do tonight? I mean, after dinner." Rodney looked like he fully expected the answer to be, 'have more kinky sex,' and was prepared to roll his eyes over that.

John manfully refrained from making any jokes about trying to take over the world and shrugged. "Lorne said they're playing Grease in the rec room."

Rodney's face lit up. "Do you think there will be popcorn?"

"Probably." In fact, John had made sure of that. It just wasn't movie night without having to save his popcorn from Rodney.

"Oh, well, in that case, what are we waiting for?"

John looked at Rodney: he was bouncing on his feet next to the door, grinning gleefully. He closed the distance between them and pulled Rodney into a kiss, their hands briefly tangling together as Rodney melted against John, scales rasping across skin. It didn't feel alien anymore.

Drawing back, John looked for a way to say everything he felt. Love you, he thought, only the words were so overused they didn't do Rodney any justice, and everything else sounded cheap in his mind. He gave up and settled for kissing Rodney again, nibbling at his lip and earning himself a smile before he took a step aside and waved a hand over the door control panel. He trusted Rodney to know what he meant.

"Let's go."

The End
Notes
A huge thank-you to: Broet-chan, Denis, Moonmip, Villainy, Smuffster, Rishabree and Bibliokat for hand-holding, cheering and general support, as well as some awesome beta-reading skills. Also to everyone who kept encouraging me - you guys are the best!