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Once Keenan had given the okay for them to try and get an image of the tablet with the scanner, John laid off the near-beer and went with straight water for an hour or so. He spent the time eating with one hand and playing a cutthroat game involving seven carved bone polygons, which John assumed were the Kurnei equivalent of dice, with Keenan and Teyla (both of whom gave him constant, and frequently contradictory, advice). The object of the game seemed to be to make your opponent curse heatedly in another language. John lost every game.

Anticlimactically, it took less than twenty minutes to get a clean scan, even being extra-super-diligent not to come close to touching it. A little crowd of Kurnei gathered to watch and murmur at him to be careful if he got within three inches of the thing; it would have been far more annoying if John wasn't pretty sure that their concern was well-meant, and oriented more toward John not getting his ass beat than toward John not touching their tablet.

He sent Teyla over to pry McKay away from Yeira; he needed a laptop, since the scanner's imaging screen was too small to display the whole surface area of the tablet. Rodney grumbled a little at being interrupted, and the sideways look he shot John was cool enough to make John want another near-beer, but Rodney wired the scanner to his laptop with quick, confident motions and settled on his knees in front of the little pavilion that housed the tablet, laptop balanced on one end of a long bench.

John positioned himself behind and slightly to one side of Rodney so that he could see what he was doing without the glare of the sun spangling off the screen. Rodney tapped at the keyboard, several programs flickering to life in variously sized windows, piecing together the image by hand more quickly than John would have ever managed to, fingers speeding up on the keyboard as he got warmed up.

Rodney gave a pleased, breathy little sigh when the forty or so scans he had taken resolved into one image, and John shifted surreptitiously and pretended he'd never heard that noise before, and even if he had, he hadn't somehow cataloged it as one of Rodney's sex noises. Christ, he thought, totally disgusted with himself.

Once he had an image, Rodney's tapping became even more frenetic; John was starting to worry that he was going to sprain something when Rodney said, "Oh. Oh, God," in a weirdly faint voice that had John stepping closer without thought. Rodney tipped his face up and gave John a wide, delighted grin.

John blinked, and then forced himself to look at Rodney's laptop instead, feeling off-balance. For three seconds or so, he just stared blankly, mostly trying to recover his equilibrium, and then his gaze snagged on an equation, something that sparked a zinging little jolt of recognition in his brain, and he narrowed his eyes and leaned over Rodney's shoulder to get a better look.

Rodney stiffened and John didn't let himself think about the fact that Rodney hadn't actually said a word directly to him since his aborted attempt at an apology, or the look Rodney had given him directly thereafter. He didn't let his hand curl around Rodney's shoulder for support, even though that might have been more natural than the way John was standing, bent nearly double and leaning over Rodney's shoulder. He focused his attention on the scan on Rodney's laptop screen, instead, and it wasn't that hard to do. John still didn't know Ancient -- except while synced with one of the cathedra -- but the only Ancient present seemed to be notations along the edges. The rest of it was math.

Not just math, but math that he'd seen before, or part of it was, part of it was the... "--formula for naquadah fusion," John murmured, moving in a little closer and studying the rest of the equation thoughtfully.

"The baselines," Rodney agreed, and John touched the latter half of the equation on the screen with two fingertips, smoothing along the elegant, alien length of it. "The rest of it's pure theory."

"Theory for us," John said, pausing on a bracketed set of variables that weren't, couldn't... But if he-- "If we--" he muttered, and tapped the brackets with one finger, frowning at them.

"John?" Teyla asked from somewhere behind him, and John tilted his head at her absently.

Rodney said, "Leave him," in a remarkably quiet, remarkably calm voice, which John would have wondered about more if he weren't busy mentally juggling several higher-degree polynomial functions.

John frowned at the scan and sank down to one knee, fumbling at one of this thigh pockets fruitlessly while his brain skittered ahead of him, inserting and discarding variables, ratios, and he let out a frustrated little growl just as someone thrust a pen into his hand, followed a moment later by a pad of paper, and he was scrawling length-wise across the page with barely a glance and muttering, because he could see the pattern, he could almost--

"Incomplete elliptic integrals," someone -- Rodney, a distant corner of John's brain supplied -- said, sounding surprised, and there was a tug at one corner of his notebook that John brushed away with a snarl.

Math like this -- math John truly got, like differential equations and Bochner integrals and spherical trigonometry, rather than the more theoretical version that Rodney most often worked with –- was something John could do, though he'd never told anyone that moments like this were almost, could almost compare with flying. They were like flying with his brain when all the variables strung themselves out just right. But flying was always flying, and there hadn't been enough time for both. John had never regretted the choice he'd made.

But man, this was beautiful, this was the most gorgeous thing he'd ever seen, and it was so easy, spieling out naturally like a barrel roll, effortless moments of rushing joy, the ultimate freedom of breaking all ties with gravity.

The Ancient's equations were smooth, as pretty as an F9F Panther and as sleek as a Firecat, and John knew even as he fumbled a quintic equation onto the paper that his were rough in comparison, but they couldn't use what was on the tablet no matter how pretty they were, they needed something realer, provable, he had to join them up, unite them, and that was its own kind of beautif-- "Double-periodic function!" he blurted, and tipped forward further to prop his paper up against the bench, flicking his eyes back and forth between the scan and the notebook; he could hear himself laughing distantly. It would be the same kind of clumsy and inelegant hybrid that was the earmark of all the Ancient tech they'd married to Earth systems, but it would work, and beauty was in the eye of the beholder, and Rodney could always pretty it up later, and it was good, it was right, and it was going to work.

He had no idea how long it took; it didn't seem like long at all, but when he blinked down at the paper in his hand and realized he was done, his hand was stiff and cramped and his back and thighs ached dully from the crouch he'd been unconsciously maintaining. He felt a little dazed, and he could hardly tear his eyes away from the paper, because it was, he needed--

"Rodney?" he asked, surprised at how hoarse and unsteady his voice was, and then the big muscles in his thighs spasmed and cramped, and he tipped backward and landed on his ass. Which, ow, was still tender. It did, however, draw him a little more firmly into reality. He looked up and saw that he was surrounded, Rodney still on his knees just to his left, laptop open in front of him, gaze fixed silently and intently on the notebook, but also everyone else, Ronon and Teyla and Keenan right behind him, looking at him like he'd sprouted a second head, and the Kurnei behind them, ten deep and just staring silently.

John blinked and turned away, not entirely sure how to deal with that, and found himself pushing his pad of paper stupidly at Rodney.

"Rodney, I--" he said, a little freaked out because he was way out of his depth here, and wanted nothing more than to hand the whole thing off to someone who knew what to do with it. Rodney just looked at the notebook, not meeting John's gaze, and John didn't have anyone else to give it to. "I can, uh," he muttered, and made a tentative move to pull it back, thinking, Zelenka? and ignoring the tight knot in his belly because he probably deserved this.

Rodney's hands closed around the notebook, edges curling a little in his fists, and didn't even glance down at the paper.

"Don't," he said tightly, brows drawn together in something that was almost a frown, eyes flicking up to John's face for less than a second.

John opened his mouth uncertainly, and said, "I think I made--"

"You made the next evolution of naquadah reactor." Rodney said, not sounding surprised, sounding... calm. "You bridged the math. I saw."

John blinked at the way Rodney seemed to be looking fixedly at his left knee, face dipped down far enough that John couldn't really get a good look at it. He didn't know what to say. If he'd ever considered a possibility in which he'd done extremely cool math right in front of Rodney, this would not have been on his list of expected responses. He struggled up to his feet; there was much snap-crackle-popping as his bones realigned themselves, and John winced.

"You, uh, I'm sure you'll have to." He made a fiddling gesture with the fingers of one hand.

"No, I won't," Rodney said. "It's right," he added.

Which, for some reason, didn't appear to be a good thing, and that felt a lot like a gut punch for reasons that John didn't know how to think about. He groped for something to say in response.

"If it's right," John said slowly, "the output of these things is going to be..." He stopped, because he'd done the math, sure, but he hadn't thought about it. Not in any way that wasn't abstract. "Holy shit!" he breathed.

Rodney tipped his chin in John's direction, but didn't actually turn to look at him.

"Catching up, are you?" He shook his head and waved a dismissive hand. "Two hundred and eighty times the output of a Mark II," Rodney said softly, almost flatly. "It isn't a ZPM, but at that kind of increase, I'm not inclined to quibble."

"Yeah, thanks for that," John croaked, and caught Teyla giving him a puzzled look.

He managed a smile, because there was no reason in the world not to be tickled pink, was there? They'd be able to run all of the cathedrae with that kind of power; they could hook primary systems up to generators and save the ZPM for the shields and the stardrive. With the trade agreement for the Kurnei naquadah all over but the handshaking, they were looking to come out of this deal about a million times better than they had any reason to expect to.

Teyla pressed a glass of water into his hands, and John gulped gratefully at it, salvation in the form of distraction. His neck popped when he tipped his head back to drink, and John winced, but he'd take that as distraction, too. Christ, how long had he been crouched like that? His lower back and knees hurt like a bitch.

When he'd drained the glass, Rodney was looking at the equation, still frowning faintly.

"You'd have done it faster," John heard himself mumble.

"Maybe," Rodney said, and finally looked at John, the left side of his mouth tilting faintly upward for a second, and then his eyes dropped down to somewhere in the vicinity of John's right elbow. "But I didn't."

"I did not know you could do that, Colonel," Teyla said; she sounded impressed, but also a little sad.

"I can't, really," he said, bracing one hand at the small of his back and turning toward her so he'd have an excuse not to look at Rodney not looking at him. "Not like McKay can, anyway."

Teyla's eyebrows seemed to disagree with his assessment.

"It seems to me that you can," she pointed out.

"You stabbed McKay in the back of the hand with your pen," Ronon rumbled in agreement, "so I'd say you do it pretty much exactly like McKay."

John blinked in surprise and looked at Rodney, who curled his hand into a fist and pressed it against the leg of his pants, but not before John had seen the ink mark slashed across the back of it, surrounded by angry red skin.

"It was my own fault," Rodney told Ronon, shaking his head. "I know better than to interrupt someone else's epiphany."

John shrugged helplessly, torn between apologizing to Rodney and doing something about the way that Teyla's faintly disappointed expression seemed to imply that he'd been hiding things from her on purpose or something.

"I have Master's degrees in applied mathematics and aeronautic engineering," he told Teyla, not sure she even knew what that meant, but feeling helpless to do otherwise. "I wanted to know how flying worked."

It sounded, John decided, hopelessly stupid when phrased like that, and he waited for Rodney to say something sarcastic in response.

Instead, Rodney put a hand -- the one John hadn't stabbed -- over his eyes. John could see the pale pressure of his fingertips against his temple. He sighed.

"If you weren't already the military commander of the expedition by the time I figured out how smart you are, I'd have tried to buy you, too."

John just stared at Rodney, and eventually Rodney dropped his hand away from his face and pushed up to his feet, turning to the Kurnei.

"So, what you have here is a recipe," Rodney said briskly, directing it to Keenan, but also to all the rest of the Kurnei that were crowded around. "Directions for the power generator that I don't doubt your naquadah lamps are bastardized versions of. You said this was here when your people got here?"

"It was, yes. Since we didn't know what it was and it did not belong to us, we chose to do nothing with it, aside from protecting it as well as we could in the event that the owners should come looking for it." Keenan took a step closer to peer at Rodney's laptop and John's notebook. "I don't pretend to understand what any of this means, Doctor McKay, but my people have been using the metal in the mines for light for generations beyond memory."

Rodney nodded. "Yes, well, this is probably where the idea came from. Once upon a time, your many-times-great grandpa must have been able to read this at least well enough to get some of the pertinent details. Your people don't have the technology to do anything on this scale; that would require magnetic shielding and the ability to refine more cleanly than your level of development allows at present, and the math is probably far outside of what any of you could hope to grasp, but the notes in Ancient that run along either side of the tablet are probably where whomever made the first lamp came up with the idea. At least two of them mention reactivity with certain chemicals commonly found on this planet. At some point, someone with at least some level of scientific understanding read the tablet and put together a rudimentary but effective source of light energy for your people."

Keenan gave Rodney a long look, and then smiled.

"I'm afraid we'll have to take your word for it, Doctor," and he looked just as amused by Rodney as he had the first time they'd met.

It boggled the mind, really, since the whole thing had sounded a lot like Rodney explaining exactly how dumb they were, but John wasn't going to point that out. He wasn't actually planning to open his mouth again today, if he could help it. His back and neck ached dully, his hand was stiff and wanted to curl into writer's-claw, and his chest felt painfully hollow.

It was just past noon on Kurn, and this was officially the longest, crappiest day ever in all the ways that didn't matter.

**

When the scientists trudged back into the village, it was late afternoon. They were filthy, sunburned, and twittering excitedly about what they'd managed to get done. The marines looked grumpy.

John considered sending the lot of them back to Atlantis, but Keenan was already passing out drinks and urging them to raid the Kurnei equivalent of the buffet tables, and John figured there was no real hurry. Within an hour, the whole thing had devolved into something like an impromptu pit barbeque, and Ronon was standing over the fire and wielding what could only be called a cooking spear. A couple of the marines were watching him with what looked a lot like true love, but might have just been a deep and abiding appreciation for the exceedingly savory smell of the three-horned pig thing that was currently roasting.

The scientists were getting quietly but determinedly smashed on apple-ish near-beer. A couple of them looked like they were nearly out on their feet. John himself was still doing okay, and the rest of his team and the marines looked fine, but science wasn't really used to the time-zone shifting that 'gate travel often entailed.

At one point John glanced up and did a double-take at the sight of one of the engineers making out with a native woman. He grimaced, thinking he was definitely going to have to add a couple of footnotes to his briefing for personnel that didn't go off world routinely, but when he glanced over, Keenan seemed to be giving the pair an indulgent look.

Still, John couldn't quite stop himself from leaning in to ask, "This isn't going to end unexpectedly in marriage, is it? Or, uh, spankings?"

Keenan gave John an improbably Rodney-esque smirk and replied, "Only if the young man's goal includes either of those things, John."

"Ah," John said. "Right."

Later, he saw Ronon and a woman smaller than Teyla -- though she looked to be close to John's age, if the silver streaks that swept through her thick black hair at the temples were any indication -- standing close together, her hand curled around the side of his neck, thumb resting casually atop his tattoo, one of his large hands on her back, cupped against her spine.

John looked away and mentally wished him luck.

Rodney and Yeira were still hunched over Rodney's laptop, practically the same position they'd both been in for the last three hours, heads tipped toward each other, taking turns using their hands to shape things in the air between them.

John was just turning his head to check for Teyla when his headset crackled to life unexpectedly; his eyes went to his watch even as the marine at the gate announced, "Colonel, I have an incoming wormhole here."

"Teyla!" John shouted, on his feet and thinking Wraith, calculating how long it would take reinforcements from Atlantis to get to them assuming that they dialed out the second the incoming wormhole collapsed, thinking Goddamnit, thinking Where the hell is Teyla?

Across the green open area, John could see Ronon and Rodney abruptly side by side and coming toward him, could see the marines on their feet and looking at John, and about half the scientists doing the same. He could see Keenan beside him, watching but not interrupting, and he could see sixty Kurnei at least, maybe closer to seventy, and if the sky was about to be full of darts, he wasn't going to be able to save them all. "Teyla!" he shouted again, this time across what had become mostly silence as the Kurnei realized that something was going on, something the Lanteans didn't like.

"John," Teyla gasped, rounding the fountain at a flat run and skidding to a halt a few feet away. She shook her head, and added, "There is nothing, I sense..."

And then Elizabeth's voice was coming over the radio, harsh and taut, and John's split-second relief evaporated instantly. "'Gate team one, this is Atlantis."

"Atlantis, this is Sheppard," John bit out, and met Rodney's gaze. "Go ahead."

"We need you and Doctor McKay back in the city immediately," Elizabeth said. "There have been... complications with Havildar Cheema's current assignment. I can send a Puddle Jumper for you."

Rodney turned to Yeira, who was hovering uncertainly at his side, and began giving her simple, precise directions on how to unhook his laptop from the lamp.

"Atlantis, unless you've got one ready to come through, don't bother. We can make it to the gate in eight minutes," John said, and stripped off his tac vest, dropping it on the bench he'd been sitting on. "Teyla, you're in charge, get everyone home, no hurry, but don't dawdle," he murmured.

"We'll expect you in eight minutes, Colonel. Weir out."

"Keenan, we've got an emergency at home, I can't explain," John said, and in the interest of expediency, leaned in and rested his forehead very briefly against Keenan's. "Teyla's going to make our apologies."

"I understand, John. I hope we will speak soon," Keenan agreed, concerned but accepting.

"McKay," John said, looking around.

"I've been ready for seventeen seconds," Rodney snapped from right at John's elbow; Rodney'd ditched his tac vest, as well.

"Up for a run?" John asked.

"God, I hate you," Rodney replied grumpily, but he was two steps behind John when he took off, still there ten yards later, and keeping pace every time John turned to check on him thereafter.

**

It actually only took them six and a half minutes to reach the 'gate, another fifteen seconds for Rodney to dial, and then they were both pelting through the wormhole, red-faced and panting and sweaty.

Elizabeth was right there waiting, talking before John had caught enough of his breath to demand information. "There are two Hive ships on a direct course for the fleet of ships, less than an hour out. They just dropped out of hyperspace like they knew where to go, knew there was something there. Radek thinks they must have known there was a facility in that vicinity and simply hadn't been able to locate it due to the cloak, that they probably had sensors scattered around the area to report activity like this. Who knows how long they've been there." She ran a hand through her hair, mouth twisted into a grimace. "Why couldn't they have malfunctioned by now?" she demanded, apparently of the universe.

John ran through a quick half-dozen impossible scenarios in his head involving various combinations of the Daedalus, Puddle Jumpers, and divine intervention.

"Shit," he muttered.

Rodney didn't even bother to answer; he tapped his headset and barked, "Radek, where are you?"

"I am in the power distribution center, Rodney," Zelenka responded at once, voice tight but calm. "I assumed you would need me here."

"Perfect, don't move." He turned and strode away from Elizabeth, not running but walking damned fast, and John and Elizabeth fell into step behind him. "Maitreyi, tell me everything; everyone else, clear this channel. If I hear a single voice not involved directly in this problem, I will personally hunt you down and and have Ronon beat you to death with his bare hands."

Elizabeth smiled tiredly and John shook his head, smirking.

Ronon totally would, of course.

"I cannot override the safety protocols that prevent remote-operation of the engines." Cheema sounded tired, but calm. "I don't have the computer skills necessary to code a hack, but it would be unsuccessful even if I did possess them. I believe it would require more power than I am able to access through this cathedra. Without engines online--"

"Yes, yes, I know, no way to change course to avoid the Hives, no way to engage the hyperdrive, and even if we could, we'd be leaving behind one of the warships and all of the battlecruisers, no way to-- Christ, Sheppard, you couldn't have done the math for the generator upgrade last week?" He stopped speaking and stopped walking at the same time, and turned to look speculatively at John. John arched both brows, but Rodney just said, "Maitreyi. Can you reroute the power from the sublight drives to the offensive systems and shields?"

For several seconds they just stood there, waiting. "Generator upgrade?" Elizabeth asked into the silence, and Rodney ignored her.

When Cheema came back with, "I believe so, Rodney," Rodney's speculative expression twitched into something more intent, chin tipping slightly down, eyes a little unfocused. John was familiar with the look from any one of the half-a-hundred times he'd seen it, usually right before Rodney saved all their asses.

John really hoped it was that one.

"Won't that leave the ships with no means of propulsion?" Elizabeth demanded, a deep vertical furrow between her brows.

"No active means, but some guy name Newton seems to think they'll keep moving in this direction until something stops them," Rodney muttered almost absently, flapping one hand dismissively at her, and then used the same hand to point at John. "You, go back to the control room. I'm going to need you in command."

"Rodney," Elizabeth began sharply.

"Elizabeth," Rodney snapped back, just as sharply. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Look, I don't know enough to give you a definitive plan of action yet; I need to get in city systems and see what I'm dealing with, and I need to do it five minutes ago. When I know, you'll know."

Elizabeth blew out a frustrated breath, but was already nodding. "Yes, of course, yes."

Rodney made a one-handed shoo-ing gesture in John's direction, but didn't meet his gaze.

"What are you waiting for, Colonel?" he demanded. He didn't bother waiting around to see if John obeyed, just headed in the direction of the nearest transporter with Elizabeth still trailing after him.

John narrowed his eyes at Rodney's retreating back, but started back for the control room at a jog; it wasn't like he had any better ideas.

He was just outside the control room, already bristling a little with impatience, when Rodney said over the open channel, "Ah, yes. Hmm. I see them." He added a low, thoughtful hum, and John was nearly sick to his stomach with nerves and worry and a tight, controlled fury at the Wraith, the fucking Wraith headed right for his ships, goddamn them, and it seemed impossible that he could still find himself abruptly thinking about Rodney's sex noises at the same time, but here he fucking was all the same.

"Jesus, John," he muttered aloud, and scowled at Chuck, who was giving him a puzzled look.

Cheema said, "Transferring power intra-system is likely to cause--"

"--catastrophic overload, yes, can you--" Rodney interrupted.

"The programming is beyond my..." Cheema said, and,

"Give me five minutes," Rodney said, and then, "Colonel, at the foot of the 'gate platform, at about 5 o'clock if you're facing the 'gate, there's an activation panel under the floor."

John walked over to the spot and waited several seconds. "There isn't a panel, Rodney," he said grimly.

"Give me a moment," Rodney snapped, and three seconds later a waist-high thing that looked like a short podium rose noiselessly out of the floor, the surface smooth and blank.

"I've keyed it to your genetic signature," Rodney told him. "You can unlock anything in the city from that panel. It should respond to your touch." John grimaced, but laid his hand on the surface, feeling the familiar sense of recognition; he didn't need further instruction. He was already unlocking the cathedra when Rodney said, "You should be able to-- Ah, good, yes, there you are."

The podium-thing sank silently back into the floor even as the cathedra emerged, an octagonal section of the floor irising open like the roof of the Puddle Jumper bay in miniature.

It didn't look that different from any of the other cathedrae; John had sort of thought it would be bigger.

And while he might have secretly been hoping for one without the weird petrified-looking wood motif, he wouldn't have actually chosen to trade that for having the entire back of the chair covered in the neural interface gel. He didn't have the same kind of memory for scientific detail that Rodney had, but he remembered enough of the schematic and accompanying notes on the command cathedra to understand the expanded neural interface. It didn't make him much happier about stripping down to his pants in the 'gate room, though.

"You've got to be kidding me," he muttered aloud, having momentarily forgotten about the open comm until Rodney snorted.

"Wasting time, Colonel," he snapped, and, much more nicely, "Maitreyi, upload this, yes, thank you."

John blew out a breath and went to work unbuttoning his shirt; he left it in a pile by the cathedra along with his belt and thigh holster, and then hesitated.

He'd been in one cathedra or another more often than any other person in Atlantis, but he hadn't ever been in one in tandem with anyone else. He didn't have a clear idea of what it would be like to be neurally interfaced with Cheema and Rodney, but he couldn't help suspecting that it was pretty likely to make things difficult from the perspective of future interaction with both of them. Cheema was directly under his command, and if he came out of this calling her Maitreyi and enamored of her genius, it was going to be complicated.

And Rodney. Well. The last thing he and Rodney needed was more forced intimacy that neither of them was particularly good at dealing with. He knew it wasn't telepathy, not exactly, but it was closer to that neighborhood than he felt comfortable with, considering the last week or so.

"Colonel," Rodney said eventually, actually letting the silence go on several seconds longer than John would have suspected him capable of. "I need you in command."

Damnit, he thought, but there was no question about whether or not he was going to do it. There were the ships, there was Atlantis, there was duty, and there was just no question, so John turned and settled into the cathedra before he could think about it any more.

It was nothing like anything else, ever.

John's mind groped for comparisons for an instant, but there was nothing else, nothing even close, and he stopped bothering, stopped caring what it was or was not like almost before he'd started.

It was a bright, frantic moment of light and noise, of his cognizance of himself and everything around him fading into unimportance as his awareness opened and unfurled like a parachute catching air; the edges caught and reeled outward and away from the small, insignificant thing that was his body to encompass the whole of the brilliant, glorious macrocosm that was Atlantis.

He knew the extent of Atlantis' power measured in what he could do with it, grasped the entirety of her well-being measured in what she couldn't give him, understood the complexity of what she needed by the bright-hot sparks of malady he could feel scattered across the canvas of his perception.

He could hear himself laughing, was distantly aware that he was broadcasting his joy through the citywide comm, that people were stopping -- he could see them, Atlantis had no eyes, but she had several thousand cameras -- and looking up, and it was coming home at long last, more than the outpost or even those first weeks in the city herself, like coming to a home he'd never known he had but always should have.

"Rodney," he said, still laughing, because he hadn't known Rodney more than a week before his first impulse was always to Rodney, to show and to share, and John could feel Rodney, a blaze of entelechy, he felt like fire looked, bright tumult of energy and intensity, a vast and insatiable yearning to understand and a stark, almost shocking singularity.

"God," Rodney said over the comm, voice a low, unsteady counterpoint to the blazing immediacy of his attention, the awareness of the glad joy Rodney was broadcasting, a reflection of John's own, a result of it, and John wanted Rodney to feel what he could feel, and could hear himself trying to give it to Rodney, half in disjointed words over the comm, half in impossible-to-explain bursts of information that were neither strictly data nor emotion.

"The city, she--"

"Yes, I can, God, John, it's--"

"I can see everything, I can--"

"--beautiful, oh my God," Rodney breathed.

"I have the code uploaded, Rodney," Cheema said, and John hadn't been unaware of her there, but she had been as much background information as the rest of the interface until her voice snagged John's attention.

"Holy crap," he said faintly, feeling her abruptly, cool and still and all things pragmatic, instant connection and familiarity making her known, not her secrets and not her thoughts, but the essential things that she was, her strength and her loyalty and the exigency that drove her, that made everything into patterns for her to decode and dissect, all of her laid out for him like a map.

When John was seven, he'd had scarlet fever. He remembered very little of the four nights and three days in which he'd burned with fever, but he remembered his mother's cool, smooth hands on his face and neck. Maitreyi felt like the memory of his mother's hands, cool and soothing pressed against his awareness and holding him steady and calm amid feverish oddity.

"Maitreyi," he said, feeling it roll perfectly and easily off his tongue.

"John," she replied, affectionate and amused. He could sense the straight lines of her thinking, logic built into her cells the way the gene was built into his, and she showed him the code she had been working on; he saw how they would use it to override the safeties built into the ships, and understood the deep well of her concern.

The safety protocols were there to prevent remote start-ups because the ships used fusion, "a kind of fusion" he remembered Rodney saying, but it was as unlike the fusion John had learned about in school as a dog was from a piece of pie. The term only applied at all because it was meaningful to them, and even Rodney, with his exhaustive understanding of the Daedalus' propulsion systems didn't truly understand it; John knew the boundaries of Rodney's knowledge without having the knowledge himself, the same way that he knew what the Ancient writing in the diagrams and schematics said, but still couldn't read it. It was knowledge that was built into being interfaced in this way, but was not his own.

"When we do this, will it--" John said aloud, and let them glean the rest from the interface for the sake of the open comm and not making Elizabeth panic.

"It will take time..." Rodney said, and John understood that Rodney needed him to do things to the cathedrae themselves, override certain systems and give Rodney access to others. "--half the power to the defenses, half to navigation, or we'll be--"

"--target practice," John finished, amused, and Maitreyi murmured,

"Even so, it won't be enough, not power or time--"

"Wait, Maitreyi, can't you remotely access--" John started.

"Oh, like this!" Rodney said, the connection between them flaring bright and hot, so sweet and intense that John could hear himself gasping in his distant body, the three of them in perfect sync, the idea fully formed, clear and inevitable. It had to be what it felt like to be Rodney when he was having a genuine moment of brilliance, and Rodney's exultation pulsed hotly in the center of John's mind. Maitreyi's admiration and respect and affection tumbled together with John's own, and he knew the immensity of Rodney's esteem for them both. Maitreyi was already working, the incisive white precision of her mind carving out the angles and corners, the hard mechanics, Rodney pushing forward to supply the physics -- fluid and beautiful and melodic -- that she lacked. John could see the cause and effect of it, unfolding in perfect logical symmetry, and because he understood the strategic implications, they did as well.

"With enough power, I can open a big enough hyperspace window for--" Rodney muttered.

"If we are able to occupy the Hives long enough--" Maitreyi agreed, and both of them, or perhaps the interface itself, filled in the calculations, the measure of what was left of the power from the ZPM, less the estimated power consumption of the weapons and shields, over the time it would take for Rodney to coax the engines to power up slowly enough to minimize the danger and the time it would take to implement Rodney's hack to keep the safety protocols from kicking in. The time frame was precise enough to allow for very little error, but there was no better way they could find to do it; no action would mean the loss of the ships anyhow, and this, at least, meant they could deliberately destroy the ships if it became certain that they'd be taken.

"No, we have to be able to--" Rodney sighed, his dissatisfaction and displeasure bitter as limes.

"Yeah, they'll just plot the trajectories straight to Atlantis," John said, unnecessary for the three of them, but important for Elizabeth.

They were united in the grim understanding that there was only one way this could go and be considered successful, and that was with both Hives destroyed, whether they actually ended up with any ships or not.

Several seconds went by in silence, all three of them tangled together as they pushed and tugged and shifted variables and graphed possibilities until the whole interface tasted like math on the back of John's tongue, clean and precise and perfect.

"John," Rodney said, voice almost uncertain, his presence in the interface momentarily bright and still. But there was a faint taste of almost-humor to him when he said, "How good are you?"

John felt a flare of something hard and hot, felt the physical echo of it in his distant body, not unlike arousal, and told the truth. "I'm the best pilot in the galaxy, buddy."

"Okay," Rodney said and huffed out a laugh, but he believed John. Believed him utterly. "We set it up, make sure it can be done. Go."

"I need full access--" John said, and,

"The warships need full shield capacity, Maitreyi, can you route--" Rodney rapped out, and,

"The battlecruisers don't have the same complexity of protocols--" Maitreyi murmured, and showed them both while John stretched his awareness along lines that Maitreyi had already built between communications and the warships' cathedrae, feeling out the controls he'd have to work with.

"I need them," John said, and Rodney replied,

"I know, John, I'll get them for you," low and intent, warm reassurance through the interface. "It will give me a chance to test the work-around, with bonus less chance of melting my brain," he said, and John could hear him grinning, but still feel the dull flutter of fear, the blunt, stubborn press of his determination, not a knife but a hammer.

"Okay," John agreed, let his certainty echo in his mind and his voice, and felt Rodney's pleasure in it, warm spring sunshine, bright satisfaction, and that same broad determination.

"Thirty minutes," Elizabeth murmured over the open comm, and John could feel Rodney rolling his eyes, exasperation and impatience permeating his presence like fog, though it was firmly underpinned by something metallic and expansive, respect for Elizabeth and pale-gold faith in her essential worthiness.

"Can we route--" John asked, but then he figured out how to do it himself, giving himself full command over the ten battlecruisers through the cathedra of the undamaged warship.

"Maitreyi," he asked, and her presence retreated from the warship's navigation and offensive systems, and settled watchfully in power distribution and defense. Rodney redirected city systems through the cathedra John had control of, and then outward into the remote systems, spilling like water through the systems of each of the battlecruisers, slow and methodical. John could feel Rodney start to strain, knew the moment that city systems started to draw on the ZPM.

"These should be relatively easy," Rodney whispered over the open comm, but Maitreyi was wary as she monitored the safety protocols, and Rodney was tense, as he gingerly, cautiously pushed through the barriers blocking his access to the main power conduits that would enable him to fire up the engines. His mental touch was as delicate and precise as his hands cradling crystals and circuits, as careful as they had been inside the winged-egg and skimming John's hipbones as he slid John's boxers down--

"No," Rodney snarled, and John felt him go still in every sense, mind radiating icy black immobility and dim gray pulses of fear fear fear.

"What? Rodney--" John barked, and then knew an instant later, felt the hard crush of Rodney's shame, sorrow, guilt. John whispered, "No, Rodney, no no, that was me, it was mine..." and felt stupid for not anticipating memory-related complications while neurally interfaced even as he pushed support under Maitreyi, into her as she strained to keep everything in place and under control in the face of Rodney and John's preoccupation, while using a cathedra that wasn't remotely designed to handle it.

For long moments, Rodney didn't respond at all, nothing from the interface except the awareness of his presence, and then a rush of something too huge and impossible for either of them to consider, and a pale loose wash of relief.

"I-- You didn't feel--" Rodney whispered shakily.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to--"

"Shut up and keep your flashbacks to yourself," Rodney snapped, but the interface said relief and amazement, a cautious sort of happiness, and John thought, yes and knew he was broadcasting the same.

"I cannot hold it," Maitreyi warned, and they could feel the truth of it: she was straining and exhausted and command was telling John that her brainwaves were off the charts, her pulse erratic. They reached out as one, pulling her back from anything that might trigger safety protocols and redistributing everything essential, all crucial systems divided between them.

"Are you--" Rodney demanded, and,

"Yes, Rodney, I am fine, do not allow--" Maitreyi gasped.

"John, disable the low-level safety protocols before they--" Rodney ordered, and shoved instructions through the interface until they became unwieldy, and John merely transferred override authority to city systems. "Or that works," Rodney muttered. John felt several levels of the protocols fold under Rodney's commands.

"Maitreyi?" John asked, and he knew it wasn't exactly safe, but he trusted Rodney not to let them be permanently damaged; it was unthinkable, and it wasn't like there was a choice. Once, dozens of people had probably been intellectually and genetically capable of operating the cathedrae, but now there wasn't anyone else.

"Yes, John," she said, already sounding more herself, and John automatically increased the oxygen in the air she was getting, only realizing after he'd done it how much he could do from this cathedra, the expanse of his control over Atlantis and the people in it, from the profound to the insignificant. He could even...

"Hey, I can administer a mild stimulant," he told them, and Rodney snorted, but they were all tired, Maitreyi most of all, and things were about to get much worse before they got better. John triggered the stimulant to release through the neural gel without further discussion.

All three of them inhaled sharply, the effects immediate and obvious.

"Okay, yes, that's better," Rodney admitted, taking a couple of deep breaths. "Right, let's try this again."

It only took a few seconds for all three of them to fall back into alignment, take up their respective areas of responsibility, and John took care to concentrate on the ships' systems rather than on what Rodney was doing specifically, even if it was almost impossible not to feel the careful seep of Rodney into every nook and cranny of the 'cruisers under John's hands and mind.

"Slowly," Maitreyi whispered, and Rodney grunted, but John could feel him easing up, though he was already straining again, city systems pulling off the ZPM sharply.

"Rodney," Radek said over the open comm, and John felt Rodney turn inward, somehow, close off his awareness of everything else in order to hone his focus into something narrow and intense and powerful.

"It's okay, Radek," John told him, "He's almost--"

"John, I need--" Rodney interrupted, but John already knew, could feel Rodney's outward grasp for more power, and just pushed command until it acceded. Rodney's presence flared in the interface as he got the power he needed, all that narrow attention going sharp and still, and then all ten of the battlecruisers went bright and kinetic at once. "Do you--" Rodney gasped.

"I've got them," John murmured and eased Rodney back, pushed him gently away; he could hear Rodney panting across the comm, but John himself was having no such difficulty. The gene or the command cathedra, he didn't know, but it was like having ten hands, all perfectly under his control, his awareness extended but not stretched or strained. Of course, he wasn't actually doing anything with them. Yet.

Command was telling him that Rodney's heart rate was bordering on dangerous, and John turned his attention to soothing him, pushing calm at him and feeling Maitreyi doing the same, her icy pragmatism enveloping all three of them in a deep well of quiescence. "Deep breaths," John murmured.

"I'm fine," Rodney snapped, sounding just as pissy as he always did over the comm, but the interface said he was pleased, soothed, so John didn't stop. After a few seconds, Rodney muttered, "City systems wasn't meant for this; I'd trade you, but--"

There was no need to finish; they all understood that command wouldn't work for anyone in Atlantis but John.

"Okay, Elizabeth," Rodney said, and she was in the room with him, but he didn't close the open comm. There was no mistaking the guile behind it; Rodney wasn't even trying to hide it. John let his amusement and agreement be just as obvious, and he and Maitreyi continued to set up what they needed, juggling the code between them, just good enough together to do what neither of them would have been capable of alone, while Rodney relayed the plan.

"I don't have a lot of time to explain, so I'm giving you the short version. Given enough time, I think Maitreyi and I could power the hyperdrive on the undamaged warship. We'd need a big enough hyperspace window for all of the ships, and one ship doesn't have the power to make it. If it were possible to create a stable energy conduit between the two warships, we could essentially siphon power from one to the other to create a window large enough for all twelve ships, but that will take more time than we have, and ultimately more power than we managed to generate by draining the ZPM, because we'll have to divert some power to weapons and shields or the Hives will blow them all out of the sky before we can come close to finishing. It would also most likely leave one or both Hives to point themselves in the direction of the ships' trajectory before entering hyperspace, which will lead them right to our doorstep. Are you with me so far?"

"You're giving me the crazy plan that won't work so that I won't immediately veto the crazy plan that will, aren't you?" Elizabeth said, both weary and wry.

Rodney blazed indignant for an instant, and then impatient again, and sighed over the comm.

"Pretty much," he agreed, and John snorted.

"Don't help," Rodney snapped, but there was no heat behind it. "The alternative is to use the ships' engines as an additional power source; we should be able to power a hyperspace window big enough for all twelve ships utilizing the additional ZPM power aboard the warship with the working hyperdrive and the engines themselves. John should be able to engage both Hives with the ten battlecruisers while using the residual power from the ZPM to bolster weapons and shields, hopefully while running interference for the hyperdrive-capable warship, which will have shields but no weapons."

"I thought the seldom-utilized dark horse method of generating vast amounts of kinetic energy by processing the souls of human babies meant that working around the safety protocols would 'fry your brain,'" Elizabeth said, deadpan.

"Oh, yes, you're very witty," Rodney sneered, and John laughed out loud because Rodney did think it was funny. His spike of amusement was sharp and sweet, and deepened further when he carefully articulated: "Don't. Help. John."

"Sorry," John said, and didn't bother trying to sound genuinely apologetic or to stop laughing; it was a welcome distraction, honestly. He'd been working fairly diligently on not thinking about the aspect of the plan that included the possibility of Rodney's brain frying, but he kept finding himself calculating anyway, trying to figure odds that he didn't really have the data to factor accurately (while his connection with the city via the neural network tried to helpfully feed information that he most definitely didn't want directly into his brain).

"Really not helping now, John," Rodney said tightly, because the interface meant he could feel John struggling to think and not think about it simultaneously, and there was no way to hide his very real fear while the two of them were both in cathedrae. Even now, John could feel the static-buzz of Rodney's apprehension, though his voice sounded flat and almost bland, and his breathing was calm and even over the open comm.

"Yeah," John admitted. "I know. Keep talking."

Rodney sighed.

"It's dangerous," he said, and then did something that had to be deliberate, something similar to the way he'd tuned out Radek and refocused his attention; it made him feel... oddly blank in John's head, muted the crackle of his fear. "It could fry my brain, but I don't think it will. I think we've figured out how to work around them." Rodney paused, purely for effect (Rodney's smug certainty bleeding through the weird blankness; it felt familiar and comfortable, like the worn-thin, almost sleek feel of John's favorite t-shirt, and it was comforting to hear, reassuring to know that Rodney believed what he was saying), and added, "I was able to successfully remote-start the engines on all ten of the battlecruisers."

"Okay," Elizabeth said slowly, and John could almost see the expression on her face, familiar from innumerable briefings and debriefings. "What aren't you telling me?"

"The battlecruisers don't have the same level of safety protocols to hack, and the warships' engines will require more time to reach full power. A lot more time. Assuming that I don't fry my brain, successfully getting any ships at all back to Atlantis while still making sure both Hives are incapable of following depends almost entirely on John being able to use the battlecruisers to first slow the Hives' approach enough for me to get through the safety protocols, and then keep them occupied once I do to give the engines time to power up."

"No pressure," John muttered dryly, and felt a smug stab of satisfaction at knowing for sure that Maitreyi thought he was funny.

"No kidding," Elizabeth agreed, and took a deep breath.

It was Radek who slowly, hesitantly said, "The power usage for all three cathedrae operating at once in these conditions is... considerable."

"I know," Rodney said, but he didn't sound remotely apologetic. "But we don't have a choice. We can't let the Wraith capture even a non-functioning intergalactic hyperdrive."

"The warships are equipped with self-destruct capabilities," Radek murmured reluctantly.

And John couldn't blame him. There was no question that he was trying to consider what was ultimately best for Atlantis. But it still caused him a very real moment of furious, almost painful outrage.

"The engines are essential for a self-destruct sequence total enough to be safe," Rodney said, and this time he was the one soothing John; he could almost feel Rodney's big, competent hands on him in a way that wasn't physical, warm and a little awkward even like this, as though Rodney genuinely didn't quite get how to do comfort. He was aware of the more-expected swell of calm from Maitreyi, as well, and he could feel himself settling. "It will take nearly as much power to start them and blow them up as it would to start them and bring them home."

"We don't have time to debate it," John said, which was true. The more time they talked about it, the less time they had to work, and Rodney and Maitreyi needed every Wraith-free moment they could get.

Maitreyi echoed him almost immediately with, "Twenty-six minutes before our fleet is in range of known Hive ship weapons."

Rodney flared with something that was equal parts surprise and approval. It was a masterful bit of phrasing, reminding Elizabeth both that the ships were theirs and suggesting that the Hives might have other, unknown weapons, thus increasing the threat should they reach Atlantis. Maitreyi continued to radiate calm, though even she was beginning to chafe a little. She felt like one of those impossible-to-ignore eyelid twitches in his head.

"Time is not the only factor," Elizabeth said, soft but steely-voiced.

"Okay," Rodney said, voice grim and almost without inflection over the radio, but the feel of him in the interface was distinctly pre-meltdown. "You go ahead and think about it while I get to work on the engines. If you decide to half-deplete the ZPM and risk my brain-death in order to blow up a fleet of Ancient warships, let me know before I get to the part with the hyperspace window."

"Elizabeth," John intervened smoothly, because he'd known Rodney was going to erupt before it had happened, and had thus had time to think of what to say to fix it; it was too bad they couldn't do this off-world, really. "Strategically, this is our only decent shot. If we had more time, we might be able to come up with something else, but this is it. This is what we've got. If we don't do this, we need to dial up Earth and tell them the chances of a Wraith invasion are about to go way up."

"I know, John," she said, taut and frustrated and unhappy, and in a flash, John got what the problem was without being certain which of the three of them had actually triggered the realization.

"Maitreyi, give Doctor Weir the statistics," John said, aware of the slight edge to his tone, but not really trying to modify it, because, goddamnit, they deserved better. He got why Elizabeth wanted information from someone more impartial, less prone to hasty, reckless action based on sketchy odds, but it didn't stop it from ticking him off. John and Rodney both had damn good track records, and the neural interface necessitated a consensus that invalidated Elizabeth's assumptions.John

John didn't really listen; he already knew the odds. Instead, he settled himself into the navigation systems of the battlecruisers and started them in the right direction. It took less effort than a kid would use to push a matchbox car down a hill; the headings were already taken care of, everything waiting for John's go, and Elizabeth was going to agree or they were going to do it anyway.

All three of them knew it.

It was the only way, and with John in the command cathedra there wasn't a chance in hell that anyone could stop them.

It only really bothered Maitreyi, but John figured she'd get used to it.

Neither of the others said a thing as John maneuvered the 'cruisers into flight. They weren't single-pilot fighters like the F-302s, or small transport craft, like the Puddle Jumpers. They were the fighting ships, loaded with turrets on all sides and a moderate contingent of drones. Not enough to take out a couple of Hives, but each warship had a full contingent as well, and the battlecruisers' turrets shot energy beams. John knew all the minutiae, all the math that determined their strength, but he wasn't sure how much damage they'd actually do to a Hive.

He secretly couldn't wait to find out.

"All right," Elizabeth said over the comm, startling him a little. "Okay." She took a deep breath. "I hope you three know what the hell you're doing," she muttered, but she sounded resigned now, and he could hear the thread of hope in her voice, the desire to trust them.

"I love these ships," John said, mostly for Rodney's benefit. "They have energy cannons."

Rodney snorted. "Pavlovian," he muttered under his breath, and then, "Okay, Maitreyi, set it up."

Elizabeth said, "I should get back to the control room."

"Yes, yes," Rodney murmured distractedly. "You don't need to be here, less distraction is good."

Maitreyi was doing something that felt complicated through the interface, and said, "Stabilizing the code, Rodney." It felt like she was holding live electrical lines in her hands. With most of his attention routed through the warship's cathedra and into the battlecruisers' active systems, John could feel what she was doing like he could see something from the corner of his eye, imperfectly and without context. He could feel that it was dangerous -- far more dangerous than what Rodney had done to bring the battlecruisers' engines online -- and that Maitreyi was devoting all of her considerable determination to it, but beyond that, it was too abstract for him to really grasp. It felt something like bridge-building and something like balancing on a high-wire and something like the galaxy's deadliest game of Cat's Cradle, like she had the most volatile and dangerous of the warships' systems strung around mental fingers and was pulling them slowly and meticulously apart, forming an intricately convoluted pattern with gaps that Rodney would hopefully be sly and dexterous enough to slip through.

"Eyes on the road, John," Rodney said softly, and John jumped because Rodney was right. He'd been letting himself be distracted.

"Sorry, I'm--" he began, and only managed to bite it off at the last second, faintly horrified at how close he'd just come to admitting to nerves, how easy it had almost been.

He felt the sharp-bright edge of Rodney's amusement, and was pretty sure he was busted, but all Rodney said was, "I know, but you're distracting me. Quit looking over my shoulder."

"Yeah, alright," John muttered. He didn't need to watch, anyhow. Rodney would do it.

Rodney always did it.

"Thanks," Rodney said, momentarily soft-edged in John's mind.

"Luck," John whispered.

"Luck," Rodney echoed back, and John turned his mind away from them and let his attention fill the battlecruisers.

The Hives were close enough that he was getting all kinds of information from the sensor arrays, and he had time to think, Huh. I wonder if this is what being a Cylon feels like, because it wasn't like reading information off of a screen or from the HUD in a Puddle Jumper, wasn't even quite like getting information from Atlantis while in one of the cathedra.

During John's first tour in Afghanistan, he'd flown a night-recon mission low over the red dunes of the Rīgestān, south of Kandahar. The electrical storm had rolled down off the Hindu Kush like snow being shrugged off the shoulders of giants. John had seen it coming, but like many things in the desert, it had seemed further out. He'd thought he had time. He'd continued on according to his flight plan, and the first hint he'd had that it was a bad call was the sudden, oppressive drop in air pressure and a feeling like a thousand ants marching across his skin. The air had been so densely charged that it hovered between a painful, omnipresent prickle and a near-pleasurable ripple. He remembered tasting creosote on the back of his tongue even as the Scout had dropped like a stone, caught in eddies of conflicting pressure. His instruments had gone crazy, useless in the storm. John had got out of it, finally, by navigating by feel, without instruments, following the faint drop of pressure against his ear drums, the ever-so-slight lessening of the buzz of electricity skittering across his skin, flying so close to the ground -- it was worse higher up, lightning arcing across the sky, but never touching down -- that he'd had to zig-zag through the low dunes as though they were lanes of highway traffic.

This felt like that. He could feel the distance between himself and the Hives with his skin. It felt new and familiar at the same time, and he realized it was a matter of degree. If the Puddle Jumpers had cathedrae, he'd have done this already; if he'd flown the city into battle, he'd have felt it. He instinctively and immediately understood the sudden buzz of energy as the Hives powered up their weapons; he was in ten places at once, a tight, precise combat formation, but perceived himself as a unit, and he didn't have to think about anything. It was all as natural as breathing, his objective clear in his mind, so when they slowed to a speed more suitable to combat, he slowed on his approach as well, because it wasn't victory he was after, it wasn't destruction (though that would be a bonus), it was time.

Right before he was within weapons range of the Hives -- still not close enough to return fire, the energy canons had some range limitations that drones didn't, and he wasn't willing to waste his small supply of drones -- he broke formation spectacularly, sending himself off in ten different directions, combat maneuvers and full shields, and set about making himself as annoying as possible. It was all about being moving targets, too quick and light for the heavy canons to worry him much, drawing fire with part of his awareness and sliding along the underside of one Hive to strafe with his energy canons with another, and whatever ham-fisted morons they had in charge of weapons on the Hives really needed to be summarily fed-upon.

Someplace else entirely, someone was saying his name, but he didn't have time to bother with who or why. It wasn't Rodney or Maitreyi -- they were both deeply involved with what they were doing, the feel of them in the neural interface was almost a void -- and no one else mattered. He figured it was because he was laughing again, but he didn't much care about that, either.

The shock of impact, the arcing burn of near-pain across his shields the first time he was hit, surprised him so badly that it was nearly all over before it began. He was pretty sure that the only reason he managed to keep a mental grip on what he was doing was that he'd been hurt in the air before. He'd taken fire, been knocked around, he'd flown a six-hour rescue with a piece of shrapnel shaped like a fish and as long as his forearm threaded through the big muscle of his left thigh as though it were an abandoned piece of embroidery. He'd had the illusion of safety-in-flight stripped away from him long, long years ago.

If you got hurt when you were flying, you pushed through it, past it, ignored it if you could, because if you stopped what you were doing, you died. It was as simple as that.

Except if he stopped, now, they all died.

He gritted his teeth and kept going, and it wasn't that bad, really. It wasn't real pain; he could feel himself, whole and sound and still in the command cathedra, and he could tell that Rodney and Maitreyi hadn't felt anything at all, which probably meant he was getting feedback from the warship rather than from command. He didn't have time to see if he could figure out how to fix whatever was causing it -- he was almost sure it wasn't actually supposed to hurt -- and while Rodney could probably figure it out in under a minute, John didn't dare interrupt them.

It didn't matter; he could live with it, and if he squinted and looked at it sideways, it was almost helpful. It made it even easier to tell when his shields were grazed, when to move, where to route extra power.

John concentrated his fire on the aft sections of one Hive, battered single-mindedly in hopes of disabling an engine, though he'd already come to the conclusion that a spectacularly lucky hit with one of the battlecruisers' energy cannons was the only chance of doing substantial damage to the constantly-healing hull of a Hive ship, and he was going to have to figure out a way to bring a large number of drones into play to actually kill the fucking things. Eventually, both Hives launched squadrons of darts -- a full three minutes after John would've done it -- and then he was far too busy flying his ass off to worry about causing damage.

He was faster than the darts, if a little less maneuverable, and they were so completely outclassed that it was slightly pathetic. They were shieldless, so even a graze meant decompression and destruction. He was ripping through them in swathes, and while it wasn't exactly effortless, he was guiltily aware that -- even with the damage he was inevitably taking, even with the not-pain of every hit, because no one was good enough to out-fly sixty darts and be completely aware of all the Hives' cannons at the same time -- he was having the time of his life. His shields were holding, and he wasn't winning the fight, could never win the fight, but he was maybe helping to win the war: the Hives themselves had slowed to a crawl, and somebody working the guns must have become personally invested now, because they seemed determined, even though John was only desultorily returning fire at this point, was firing back out of habit and subterfuge. It was only a matter of time, which they didn't have enough of, and he turned more and more of his attention toward flight, toward making them chase him, getting in the way of the Hives while their inept gunners tried again and again to pick him off.

He knew down to the second how long he'd been fighting what was essentially a holding action (twenty-two minutes, forty-one seconds), but it felt like hours when the Hives began moving again; they'd either figured out what he was doing, or were just tired of trying to beat him. Whichever it was, they were moving inexorably forward at several times the slow crawl they'd been maintaining while engaged in combat, and John said, "They're on the move," even though he could feel both Rodney's and Maitreyi's abrupt awareness of the increased threat, their intensity and their haste.

"I'm almost there," Rodney said. John heard it in his ear and felt the reassurance like warmth and surety in the interface, but he was fighting and flying, doing his best to keep between the Hives and his warships while the darts buzzed and plagued him, and didn't have time to answer.

He'd been almost unaware of his own fatigue until he'd felt Rodney there, his voice like a hand on John's elbow, the kind of touch you couldn't ignore, that drew your attention whether you liked it or not. Rodney was wired tight and thrumming with nerves and weariness, but they were nearly there, John could feel how close they were, and John wasn't.

John was going to have to keep fighting, keep flying, long after they'd managed the protocols, buying time for the engines to power up enough to create a hyperspace window big enough, and his body was telling him he was tired, too tired. He administered himself another stimulant -- Carson would squawk in outrage, he was sure -- this one stronger than the other, and he wasn't sure if the cathedra didn't protest because he was fine, or if it was because Rodney had shut down that level of safeties. Probably the latter, because he could suddenly feel his heart hammering in his chest, though his body itself still felt impossibly distant.

"John?" Maitreyi said, sharp in his ear and like an icy stiletto in the interface, concern lancing clear and bright into John's brain.

"It's fine, I'm fine," John said, and instead of letting the awareness of his body grow distant, this time he pushed it away, threw himself into the familiar rhythm of combat-flight, the swoop and zig and fire and dodge. As long as he was conscious, it would be good enough. His body didn't matter except as a housing for his brain, and his brain was still working, so it was a win.

Some time later (twelve minutes, twenty-one seconds), John felt a hot, hard-edged moment of triumph, heard a distant droning, and it took several seconds for the sound to resolve into words: "That's it, that's it, I've got it." Rodney's voice, low and tight and fierce, and John blinked open his eyes, squinting against the glare and only then realizing he'd had them closed since he sat down. He closed them again immediately, but the dissonance was enough to make him fumble, something that had been natural, almost reflexive, abruptly skewed and rough-edged, and he lost something, lost his place, his focus. It wasn't long, just a few seconds, but it was long enough. By the time he had all ten battlecruisers in his mind again, shields were failing on one of them and minimal on another, and he could feel it, not pain but something like it, something that said danger danger danger.

"Goddamnit," he snarled, hoarse and harsh, and Rodney said, voice high and alarmed,

"John, Jesus, John?" and did something in the interface, something that felt like mainlining adrenaline, Rodney and Maitreyi abruptly bolstering him, surrounding him. They weren't combat pilots, couldn't fly like this, but Maitreyi was handling the shields and Rodney was rerouting damaged systems and just being Rodney, and John managed to bully the shieldless battlecruiser out of range, but he knew it wouldn't last. They had things they needed to be doing, too, things that had nothing to do with John's battlecruisers and everything to do with Atlantis's ultimate survival, and he needed another way.

Rodney was talking so fast his words where practically piling up on top of one another. "Jesus, ow, what the hell, what the everloving fuck is that? Is that a hit, did we, did I--" A pause that lasted just long enough for Rodney to suck in a breath and flare furious and indignant in the interface, the blaze of him nova-like, so intense it felt like it should burn John's mind. "What, you weren't go to tell us?" Rodney sneered, but the eruption of fury was short-lived, replaced almost at once with a cold-sweat sense of fear. "It's the safeties," he whispered, and John could feel Rodney accessing the protocols, but John had control of the interface, that was what command was for, and shut them down again the instant he had them up.

"You can't, Rodney, if you--" John began, but Maitreyi had already figured it out, was accessing their physical profiles, explaining for him silently, with data that Rodney couldn't fail to understand, and definitely shouldn't be said out loud.

"I'm fine," he said, and knew Rodney wouldn't refute him. Couldn't.

Rodney surprised him. "You need help, John," he said, low but determined. John hadn't even considered it, hadn't given it an instant of thought, but as soon as Rodney said it, there was a list of gene-carriers at his disposal, two of whom had been aircraft gunners at some time during their careers, one of whom was--

"Lorne," he hissed, "I need Lorne," and then, "Lorne!" he repeated, a thought sending his voice over the citywide comm.

"Christ!" Lorne half-shouted, and John received a momentary, cathedra-actuated image of him spinning on his heel and looking up, one hand clutched to his chest. "Jesus Christ, Sir!"

John spent a split-second mourning a perfect set-up that he didn't have time to take advantage of, and then barked, "Get your ass to the defense cathedra." Lorne was the best soldier John knew (not entirely a compliment), and he didn't hesitate, didn't pause, didn't ask for a sit-rep. He turned on the ball of his foot and ran.

"The warships," John demanded.

"The engines are powering up, they'll do that by themselves," Rodney snapped, prickling and bright, all his edges comfortable and familiar in John's awareness. John kept flying, kept dodging, kept fighting, aware of Rodney's abrupt, almost thunderstruck understanding of what John was juggling. He was helpless to stop himself from feeling distantly gratified at Rodney's incredulity, the way it focused Rodney's attention, made John the focus of his interest, though it was obviously the worst timing ever.

"Thought I had the easy job, didn't you?" John's voice was croaky and taut with effort.

"I did," Rodney admitted, and sounded almost baffled by it. "I, yeah. Jesus."

"Hive ships will have the warships in range in seven minutes," Maitreyi said, silky and cool, and John would never have known how deliberate if it weren't for the neural interface. They could not have done this without her for any number of reasons, but John wouldn't ever have guessed that calculated redirection would be one of them.

"I have to--" Rodney said, and,

"How long?" John wanted to know, because if he had a goal, maybe...

"Um," Rodney said, and John had to force himself not to pay attention to the slew of data he could feel Rodney accessing; he didn't have the attention to spare. "Shit," Rodney said, and John was pretty sure that meant too long in Rodney-speak.

"Make it faster," John said tightly, and Rodney didn't even protest, which probably indicated something thoroughly unpleasant that John didn't have time to think through.

"Working on it," was the extent of his commentary.

"Yeah, fuck off, you're distracting me," John muttered, going for pissy but just sounding weary to himself; Rodney snorted, but didn't argue.

Not very long after (one minute, nineteen seconds), John was concentrating all his fire on one of the Hives, and pondering whether he had enough mental resources left to bring one of the warships into the fray.

The Hives were in weapons range for the warships; the drones were insanely long range missiles, especially with John controlling them, since they seemed to keep going where they were commanded when fired from a cathedra as long as whomever was operating it kept their attention on them. But it meant, in essence, flying each and every one of them, keeping his consciousness with them as though they were ships, albeit small, comparatively simple ships with no secondary systems to speak of. It was far, far easier to fire them in a swarm, point them at a target and let them go, but their supply of drones wasn't unlimited, and both Hives were releasing more darts into the fray with depressing regularity. The drones were the only thing they had that could take out a Hive, and he couldn't afford to waste them. By Rodney's calculations, the swarm method only yielded effective strikes between twenty-two and thirty-six percent of the time against Hive ships with darts in the air to run interference. They couldn't afford the margins.

The darts were currently trying to gang up on one 'cruiser John had purposefully let lag behind to draw fire; it was actually fairly sensible of them, considering the way John was ripping them apart if they got anywhere near his main force. Or it would have been if John wasn't doing it on purpose, and didn't have a pair of 'cruisers taking the long way around the Hive he was working on, using the Hive to hide his approach from the darts' sensors.

He could feel the cumulative damage the Hive he'd been working on had taken, the buzzing sense of energy against the battlecruisers' hulls slowly being dialed down, not fast enough or complete enough. John's brain insisted on likening it to heat, and he didn't have time to get all metaphysical about it. He was never going to take it out with the 'cruisers, had to get some of the drones into play, and couldn't fucking figure out how to manage both without parking at least half of the 'cruisers behind the warships' shields and just letting the goddamned Hives take potshots at the warships themselves. He wanted the drones, knew they would be the deciding factor if only he could control them, but he wasn't quite willing to sacrifice any of his ships to do it. Not until he had to, anyway. Not until the Wraith pulled out their "Earth or Bust" t-shirts.

So he was regretfully dismissing the idea -- temporarily -- when Lorne abruptly elbowed his way into the interface.

It felt exactly like that, like someone trying to push their way into a too-crowded elevator, uncomfortable and unpleasant. Over the comm, Rodney said, "John, let him in!" sounding impatient and annoyed, and John thought, Oh, right, because that was what command was for, too; it was just that Rodney was so much better at manipulating things that John kept forgetting.

As soon as he became aware that the could do it, he did; the uncomfortable press vanished, and there was exactly the right amount of room for Evan, who felt like a mountain in the interface, strong and solid and dependable, physical in some abstract way that neither Rodney nor Maitreyi exhibited, and it was all there, his joy in duty so easy and natural that it made John's sense of duty feel lighter somehow. Evan's anxiety over joining them existed just long enough for John to notice it before it was replaced by understanding, awe, gratitude. "Oh," he sighed. "Oh, you're all--"

"Yes, yes, you too," Rodney interrupted, "Marvel at our staggering excellence later; do this now," and dragged Evan's attention through the preceding hour or so in fast-forward while Maitreyi more or less man-handled him straight through communications and into the warship's cathedra with John.

John caught Evan there, braced him while Maitreyi walked him through the basics until John interrupted with, "The guns, show him the goddamned guns and get out of his way!"

Because Evan was a soldier, and he was good on his feet, and John needed him right now, and ten seconds later Evan had taken over weapons on the six battlecruisers John was actively engaging with, leaving John free to fly and take potshots with the others. Five seconds after that, Evan initiated a volley of drones. It was a small volley, ten drones, but John wasn't worried; it just meant that Evan was as aware of their limited supply as John himself was.

John focused his efforts on taking out any darts between Evan's drones and the most damaged of the Hive ships, and the resulting impact -- seven of the ten drones had made it through the gauntlet of darts -- netted them a bright, brief explosion that substantially lessened the buzz of the Hive's power against the hulls of John's closest 'cruisers.

"Heal that," John growled with satisfaction, and Evan went bright and warm with pleasure in the interface.

"Maitreyi, kill life support!" Rodney snapped. "Why is that even--"

"The safety protocols consider it a primary--"

"Find a way," Rodney snarled. "I don't have the power to waste on space roaches, or whatever."

"Evan," John warned, but there was no good way to try and explain the not-pain of the impending hit, and then it was too late.

"Ow, fuck!" Evan yelped, and swiveled one of the energy canons around to vindictively obliterate the dart that had snuck up on them. "Take that, you dick!"

"The comms are open, by the way," Rodney pointed out helpfully.

"Um," Evan said, and then, "John, take the 'cruisers, I think I can--"

"Yeah," John agreed, because he could feel the fluctuation in the Hive's power levels, the stuttery, pulsing feel of imminent demise itching at his brain through the hulls of the 'cruisers. He could feel Evan riding the approaching wave of drones, and he fired all weapons, including a bunch of his own drones, both to conceal what Evan was doing and to take out any darts in the Evan's path, and snapped, "Don't ride them to--"

"--impact, yeah, I figured that out," Evan finished dryly, and then, "Fall back, John, fall back now!"

Even with the warning, he couldn't get two of the 'cruisers far enough away to avoid the entirety of the blast; he spent several endless seconds spinning on the wrong axis while simultaneously trying to out-fly the debris, and by the time he set them to rights both warships were close enough that John could feel them through the skin of his ships, cool and strong and the flip-side of the coin from the Hives. Well, Hive, now.

"The remaining Hive has taken severe starboard-side damage," Maitreyi told them, though John and Evan were getting the data directly through the cathedrae, and didn't really need to be told.

"Under no circumstances do we let that bastard run," John told Evan, even as he reassembled his little fleet (sans the battlecruiser without shields, which he parked behind one of the warships in the relative safety behind its shields) and started a run at the remaining Hive.

"Understood," Evan replied, sharp and jittering in the interface, nerves and adrenaline and the same half-guilty joy that John had felt earlier.

John was too tired for it now, though it was exponentially easier when he didn't have to fly and shoot (not to mention riding herd on drones), and he closed in on it even as Maitreyi murmured, "The remaining Hive is diverting power to its hyperdrive."

"Oh no you don't," John growled, and Evan made a sound of agreement and launched another dozen drones while John battered at the damaged starboard side thruster, trying to punch enough holes in it to disable it. It was more misdirection than anything, something to draw their eyes away from the drones closing in on their hyperdrive, and it worked almost too well; John's 'cruisers were taking a hell of a pounding so close to the Hive's weapons arrays, enough that the not-pain of repeated hits to his shields was affecting his flying.

"Just make me a hole," Evan muttered as John bullied, pushed and shoved his battlecruisers into the paths of the goddamned darts, "doesn't matter where."

"Six minutes," McKay announced triumphantly, and then did the equivalent of a double-take -- it felt very odd from within the interface -- and added, "We need to get the warships out of range of that thing; if it blows this close, there'll be so much collateral damage the shields--"

"I'm on it," John said, because he was the pilot, and that made it his show. "Evan, can you--"

"Not while I'm riding the drones," Evan denied, though John could feel him pushing carefully into one of the battlecruisers, trying, in spite of his words. "Maybe one or two, but--"

"All we need is to speed them up a little," Rodney said, and John could feel Rodney and Maitreyi sliding into the warships' cathedrae, neither of them quite comfortable, but both of them smart enough, competent enough in a crisis situation, to figure it out.

"You have to take mass into account--" John muttered absently, not really considering who he was talking to since he was also flying all ten battlecruisers and handling all ten weapons systems while simultaneously getting out of the blast radius of the drones Evan was eleven seconds from slamming into the Hive. He could feel Rodney's irritation like the distant prickle of returning circulation.

"I'm familiar with the physics, thank you," he huffed, but he felt tentative in the interface as he guided the warship carefully, pulling power from the engines a little too conservatively; Maitreyi already had the other warship several hundred yards further along, and she was no more a pilot than Rodney, but seemed to intuit the handling of the big craft in a way that Rodney hadn't.

It didn't occur to him to warn Rodney, and he didn't have the time to explain. He divided his attention (again, too much, maybe) and flowed into navigations with a flicker of thought, nudging at the engines and making a minute correction in course -- apparently the Puddle Jumpers weren't the only spacecraft Rodney couldn't fly in a straight line -- and was only aware of Rodney's distress once he'd already done what was necessary.

"I would've--" Rodney muttered, twitchy and dismayed, and John knew he didn't have time to worry about soothing him, but he was just too close to the bitter-sharp flare of Rodney's self-perceived failure.

"You're doing fine, just keep an eye on her," John told him, but the three seconds it had taken had cost him. He could see it from ten different perspectives, but there was nothing he could do. He jigged into a spin and jerked hard to port, knowing it was useless but unwilling not to try and fired off his full complement of drones -- "Catch them, Evan, catch them," he barked out -- in the split-second before he took the full brunt of the Hive's rear starboard weapons arrays.

For a long instant everything was offline, his brain and his mouth included, though he could sort of hear or feel the others as though they were at the end of a very long hallway, smudges of motion, snatches of distorted sound. It hurt in a way that wasn't physical pain but was just as real, and he struggled to breathe and think against the hard weighty push of what he intellectually understood was an explosion and viscerally understood was obliteration, the dichotomy leaving him twitching and breathless, helpless and blank.

"--make me come in and get you, John Sheppard, I swear to God," Rodney was shouting over the comm, and in the interface he was right there, blazing with outrage that barely concealed the jagged edge of fear, John could feel the heat of him and it felt real, it felt like heat and Rodney did something that felt like he reached into John's brain and twisted; something snapped back into place -- reality or cognizance, John had no idea -- as though his mind was nothing more than a vapor-locked engine that Rodney, of course, knew exactly how to fix.

He was abruptly in nine battlecruisers, one warship, two cathedrae, Atlantis, and Evan was cursing in a low, desperate stream as he tried to juggle the ships John had left spinning directionlessly without losing the small thundercloud of drones that was currently circling, a holding-pattern of destruction that he didn't dare try to deal with while he handled the battlecruisers.

The Hive was no longer powering its hyperdrive, so John assumed that Evan's volley had taken it out. He took the the 'cruisers back, gathered them up with his mind like a child might gather up a handful of jacks, mouth open to speak, but his voice emerged as a sort of soft-edged croak, and Evan's curses shifted without pause to, "Thank God, oh, thank God, John," and retreated from navigation so quickly it actually hurt a little, like a really ferocious case of the hiccups.

"Do not," John croaked, finally finding his voice, "even think about still being interfaced with something that's about to blow up; that's an order, people."

None of them actually answered, but he could feel all three of them crackling with fear and relief, and Rodney said, "Two and a half minutes," in a low, hoarse voice that John hated knowing he was responsible for and had zero time to do anything about.

"Both warships are out of range," Maitreyi told him, and oozed calm all over him with the same cool deliberation that she did nearly everything.

"Quit it," John muttered irritably, because he was in combat and a certain amount of excitement was fucking necessary, but he couldn't put any heat into it; he'd scared the shit out of himself, too.

"I'm programming in hyperspace coordinates," Maitreyi told them even though they all knew it, could feel her doing it, the math playing like music in her mind.

Evan was riding the drones again, splitting them into several smaller groups that buzzed at John through the skins of his ships; John scattered and opened fire, aiming at nothing and firing everything, because they were running out of time, and he meant for the remaining Hive ship to be nothing but atoms before they blew this popsicle stand.

"I've got a target," Lorne almost whispered, "starboard aft quadrant," and John understood it as a message of intent and a request for assistance, ran a few quick calculations through command, and got right in their goddamned face, full-on forward section with everything he could muster, including the shieldless battlecruiser, which he'd shove right up their fucking nose if it came to that.

It was, without prejudice, the most flawless, beautifully executed plan John had ever been a part of. There was no way to misunderstand, no possibility of error through miscommunication, and the Hive didn't know what hit them. Between them, he and Evan had cleared out all but twenty or so extremely wary darts, and all of them were focused on John's battlecruisers, dogfighting right on the Hive's front porch while Evan snuck around the back and stole the horses. John could feel him feverishly peeling off random drones to send toward the front of the ship, cutting them loose completely, distraction-misdirection-diversion; John had been bait before, was good at it with a collaborator he trusted, and the danger of friendly fire was nominal when you could feel the difference between your bullets and the enemy's with your skin.

John kept them busy, and Evan guided his mind-controlled army toward whatever weakness it was he'd sussed out; John sensed the fall-back order coming before Evan gave voice to it, and veered off in two directions, accelerating with the kind of celerity that would've made him certain that his chest was caving in if he'd actually been in any of the battlecruisers. The drones impacted with a noiseless flash, almost no fire, but the secondary explosion was huge, kinetic force like a hot, strong hand behind John's fleeing 'cruisers, increasing his speed and decreasing his control in inverse proportions.

He felt a moment of joy, triumph, elation from three directions, and then Evan was gone, absent like a switch flipped to off.

"Evan!" John screamed, and Rodney snapped,

"I can't find him," so ragged with fear and anger that it didn't even sound like Rodney's voice,

and it was Maitreyi -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- who said, "I have him on camera, he is not in the cathedra; I believe he is breathing."

"Carson," John shouted, too loud, and the citywide comm whined protestingly, feedback so sharp that even John flinched, though his body felt like it was in another solar system.

"He was riding the drones, he must have--" Rodney snarled.

"I'm on my way with a team, Colonel," Carson said, and the whole situation was clearly fucked, because for a second John didn't associate the word with himself, didn't recognize his own rank as applying to him. "We'll get him."

Because of course Carson had been monitoring the situation. Of course he had.

John felt a brief (three second) flare of relief, they were done, he was -- God -- so tired, and Evan was breathing; they had the ships, they had destroyed the Hives, and they were finally fucking done.

"No!" Rodney shouted.

"Another Hive ship has just dropped out of hyperspace," Maitreyi reported grimly.

"God damn it," John snarled, taking a wearily clumsy mental inventory of what he had left, and finding the results -- nine ships, two entirely without shields, the rest with shields under forty percent effectiveness, no drones, energy canons functional on all but one ship, but most of them at reduced strength, one ship with a minor hull-breach, two with more severe damage that would have rendered them useless if they'd had a live crew -- bleak. "Where are they? Can we run?"

But he already felt them closing in, felt the now-familiar buzz of weapons powering up, and Rodney said, "We don't know what they know," with a real note of despair in his voice, a sharp and ragged spike of emotion through the interface.

"The battlecruisers can't take down another Hive," John said, simple fact, but he already had the glimmer of an idea and was rifling through the systems of both warships with half of his attention while he calculated the chances of success with the rest. He wasn't totally crazy about the math, and Rodney would undoubtedly hate everything about it, but. What choice did they have? "Maitreyi, you have the hyperspace jump programmed in?"

"Yes," she affirmed immediately.

"No, John," Rodney said. "No."

John ignored him. "Before, Rodney said you could use the warship's cathedra to access the nav systems on the battlecruisers, basically get them to tag along wherever you lead."

"Like ducklings," Maitreyi said, and John let out a short, sharp bark of surprised laughter at the unexpected analogy. "But I cannot truly fly them, John. Not while flying the warship. I do not have enough skill."

"No, you shouldn't have to. Can you fly the warship towing the battlecruisers, and deal with the hyperspace window at the same time?"

"John," Rodney said, but John had already won. Rodney could see the shape of the idea by this time, and if he could have come up with something better he'd already be telling them all about it.

"Acceptable losses, buddy," John said quietly, and let Rodney's brief, resentful indignation slide off of him.

"It's dangerous," Rodney sighed, settling into resignation, and John sighed, too.

"Yeah, but at least we know it."

"What are you planning?" Elizabeth asked, and John wasn't even annoyed because she'd left them to it for longer than he thought she'd be able to, and this was a change of plans.

"Long range sensors don't show anything else in the area," Rodney said, "and their communications don't work any better in hyperspace than ours do. It's possible that they don't know anything."

"And it's possible that they weren't out of communications range before they entered hyperspace, it's possible that they already knew all there was to know before they ever got here," John retorted.

"It's also possible that they've got friends who will be dropping out of hyperspace any minute now to join them," Rodney grumbled.

"Rodney!"

"All right!" Rodney snapped. "Fine. I'll set it up."

"John?" Elizabeth said, a note of warning in her voice this time. "What's going on?"

"The battlecruisers won't stand up to another fight," John told her, clipped and quick; he was already helping Maitreyi transfer navigation, withdrawing from his battered little fleet one ship at a time, and it felt like losing pieces of himself, extra sets of eyes and hands that he hadn't even truly been aware of relying on, but which he clearly had been. It was like going deaf and blind by increments, and he hated it. "Maitreyi will get far enough out that the Hive won't be able to close the distance, and open a hyperspace window. She'll take one warship and the nine remaining battlecruisers through. Rodney and I will use the warship with the non-functional hyperdrive to engage the Hive."

"What he means," Rodney interrupted, voice full of snide derision that the feel of him in the interface belied, "is that we'll use the other warship as an enormous, mind-controlled, dangerously unstable explosive battering ram."

"Yeah," John sighed, exhausted. "Yeah, that's what I mean."

Elizabeth was silent for several seconds. "Carson," she said finally, proving that she was really far smarter than any of them gave her credit for most of the time. "Can you report on Major Lorne's status?"

Because, yeah. That was the crux of it, wasn't it?

"He's alive," Carson said, but his tone was far from happy; he was breathless, and there were the sounds of voices and movement in the background, several sets of footsteps moving at a run. "His pulse and respiration are strong, and there's no physical trauma, but he's unconscious. Preliminary scans show erratic brain activity, but I'll know more when we get him to the infirmary."

"Keep me updated," Elizabeth said, and for several more seconds no one said anything.

John didn't have time for loaded silences; he had taken over navigation from Rodney, and was turning the big craft in a wide, arcing circle that felt clumsy and slow compared to the battlecruisers. Rodney's attention was once again narrowed to a bright, fierce beam of intent focused on the engines. Maitreyi and the battlecruisers were moving steadily and purposefully away; John was moving purposefully in the other direction, course set to intercept the Hive. His shields were at full strength, and he had all the power he needed. He figured he'd have to make at least one pass to give Maitreyi time to jump, one exchange of fire; he had eighteen drones, nowhere near enough to do anyone any good, and the warships were only equipped with a half-dozen weapons arrays that fired the same energy pulses that the battlecruisers used.

When they got out of this, John was going to write a strongly worded letter about the Ancients' dependence on drone weapons.

Once Maitreyi had entered hyperspace, he'd have to get enough distance to make a good run at the Hive.

He suspected that the Wraith were exactly the kind of arrogant assholes who would never be the first ones to veer off in a game of chicken.

God, he hoped they were.

Elizabeth, who had apparently been processing pretty fast, skipped everything but the thing that was still in question. He was pretty sure she knew it, too, and there was probably going to be one of the truly horrendous meetings (John privately thought of them as Elizabeth's Come-to-Jesus meetings) in the aftermath of this particular crisis, in which Elizabeth guilted him and Rodney into being better subordinates. The humiliating thing was, it usually worked. Though eventually it wore off.

"Will you be able to withdraw in time?"

"Yes," John said, because any other answer was unthinkable. The fact that it was possible didn't matter; it was unthinkable.

"Rodney?" Elizabeth asked.

Rodney responded with the barest flicker of annoyance via the interface, and a, "Yes, yes, it's fine, we'll be fine," over the comm. It would have sounded reassuringly impatient if John hadn't been aware of the fact that Rodney hadn't actually been listening to anything the two of them were saying.

He really ought to be on the lookout for that in the future; it explained a lot, really.

Via the warship's sensors, he felt the Hive's weapons powering up; John raised his shields.

"Okay," Elizabeth said. She sounded relieved, which John thought was maybe just a tiny bit premature. "Good luck, gentlemen."

Rodney twitched rapidly through a series of systems and the warship began to shudder under John's control.

"Rodney," John said, with what he felt was a great deal of patience under the circumstances, since he could see all the little, quirky things Rodney had done, but Rodney hadn't bothered to tell him why.

"They'll be scanning us," Rodney muttered dismissively, barely a flicker of his attention acknowledging John in the interface. "I'm simulating engine difficulties to mask the buildup of power from the catastrophic failure I'm deliberately orchestrating." Rodney's voice was aggrieved, but it was all performance art at this point; he was deeply involved with what he was doing, his mind in the interface disinterested in his own dramatics. "If they figure out what we're up to, they'll run."

"Yeah, I get that," John agreed, but: "It's going to be a bitch and a half to engage like this," he grumbled.

"Only if you want to win," Rodney pointed out distractedly, and went back to ignoring everything but the engines.

He had a point, John admitted.

"Can you give me a time frame?" he asked, poking mentally at the warship's systems for the information as they closed the distance. The Hive fired on them, but John ignored it. They weren't actually close enough to do anything but splash barely-effective energy against John's shields, and if they were playing at being in trouble, it made sense for him to hold his own fire until he was close enough to do something useful with it.

"Stop that," Rodney snapped, and added, "Why do you have to poke at everything? I need to build up enough power so that the force of the blast doesn't allow for even the slightest chance of survival; there isn't a back-up plan for this. It has to work the first time."

"I know that, Rodney," John said; Rodney's impatience stung like fire-ant bites, which were unequivocally the worst thing John remembered about the summer he'd spent in Texas.

"Then shut up and let me work," Rodney snapped. "When I know, you'll know. Stall."

John sighed, aware of Maitreyi both close and distant, cool and amused at them.

"I am preparing to engage the hyperdrive," she told John; she knew as well as he did that Rodney wasn't listening.

John fired his forward guns and six of his remaining drones; it probably wouldn't make any difference, and almost certainly wouldn't cause much damage, but with the way the warship was juddering and bucking, he thought it might confuse the Wraith, make them concentrate more on what was going on right in front of them than what that other warship was doing just out of sight, but not out of sensor-range. The Hive responded with a wave of darts, and John adjusted his priorities slightly; they couldn't leave any darts behind either.

"They won't be able to reach her in time to do anything about it," Rodney said, and John grunted and shifted some of the surplus power Rodney was generating with his fiddling into the forward shields. "John!" Rodney snapped, exasperation flaring in the interface, though it was edged with something almost gentle. "If you keep using the excess power, the engines won't ever overload enough to explode! Do I have to run through the math for you?" His voice was briskly impatient, but he was solid in the interface, paying attention and entirely present, if only for a few seconds.

"All right, damnit. I'm sorry!" John snapped back, because Rodney was right, of course, and John was disgusted with himself, but he'd spent his whole life fighting to win, fighting against odds that were perpetually and ridiculously canted in the other direction, and he just didn't fucking know how not to try.

"No, I know, believe me," Rodney snapped back, bitter and irritable and shapelessly pissed off at the universe in general, and John felt a little stupid, but was nevertheless comforted at the fact that Rodney did know, was probably having just as much trouble with this as John was.

"Yeah, okay, carry on," John said, and Rodney huffed, but apparently believed him, because he tuned John out again, back to using his powers for... well, it all depended on perspective.

"I have successfully entered hyperspace," Maitreyi reported, and John relaxed a little.

"Okay, here we go," John said, and it didn't go much like John thought it was going to. He hadn't ever actually been in one-on-one combat in a spacecraft of this size, not while actually doing all the work -- and no fucking wonder the Daedalus had seven workstations controlling different systems on the bridge alone; John was going to have to rethink some of his opinions on that score -- and even with all his combat piloting background, he'd expected it to be slower, somehow, less messy. Like jousting. It had seemed that way, anyway, the few times he'd been an onlooker aboard other ships.

It turned out to be almost exactly like every space battle John had ever engaged in, frantic and messy and a million things to juggle from shields and drones and weapons arrays to vital systems like navigation and power distribution. The ship was bigger, clumsier, but once he was firing and taking fire, it didn't feel that way; it responded the way all Ancient tech responded to him, magnified by the cathedra, if John ignored the shuddering and bucking that was, once he got down to it, largely cosmetic.

And if he had to remind himself every three seconds not to reach for more power for shields and weapons, had to accept the gradual degradation of his aft shields, the damage to his port thrusters that forced him to figure it into his maneuvers to make them effective, had to entirely abandon the forward starboard weapons array because the gunners aboard this Hive were depressingly more effective than the previous two had been, well. Acceptable losses.

"Rodney," he muttered after a while, because he was out of drones, and it was getting harder and harder to do anything against the Hive. His aft shields were long gone, along with all the aft weapons arrays -- the Hive was clearly trying to take the ship intact, and wasn't putting anywhere near what it was capable of into blowing John out of the sky -- and his forward shields were close to failing. It was only a matter of time before his ability to return fire was completely destroyed. He'd been picking off darts, but if he lost all guns, what was he supposed to do? Fly close and moon them?

"Just another minute," Rodney muttered, and then, "Transfer power distribution to city systems, John."

John hesitated. "Can city systems handle--"

"No, no, not for long, but I only need it for a minute." Rodney would be hand-waving if he were in the same room; John could feel the kinesis of it in the interface. "You," Rodney snapped. "Yes, you, security guys. The power in this section is about to start fluctuating, and auxiliary systems could become dangerously unstable. Get out."

"Rodney," John objected, but Rodney bulldozed right over the top of him.

"Get them out, John." Rodney's tone was brusque and snappish, but it was the simple, pure-sharp concern in the interface that actually convinced John.

"Maitreyi," John said, and for a moment the two of them were united in their apprehension.

"Running out of time," Rodney reminded them.

"Langford, this is Cheema," Maitreyi said slowly; John could feel her worry, but Rodney was right. They didn't have time to disagree. "Clear the area immediately."

"Yes, ma'am," came the immediate response.

John initiated the transfer without further discussion; command resisted him a little, flashed data at him warningly, and John dismissed it. Rodney knew what he was doing.

"Radek, you're going to see spikes; it should only last a few seconds," Rodney said. He was breathing hard over the open comm.

"Rodney?" John asked. "Are you--"

"We're almost done," Rodney interrupted, and John wasn't unaware of the deliberate avoidance, but saw no real point in pursuing it. Neither of them really had a choice. "The timing has to be precise; I need to you impact no less than ninety-three seconds from... now."

John ran through a series of quick calculations, doing it with the cathedra rather than in his head because it didn't take any longer and he was tired; they couldn't afford mistakes. He bullied the warship into a long, slow circle and faked more damage to his port thruster than was really there. The Hive adjusted its course to compensate, but didn't accelerate. "I've got it," John murmured.

"Rodney--" Maitreyi began, disconcertingly agitated, though she wasn't quite panicking.

"No, not now," Rodney dismissed; "I know the numbers, Maitreyi; it's under control." Then, to John, "seventy-five seconds."

"Rodney, these readings are... extraordinarily volatile; are you certain--" Radek asked over the comm, but Rodney didn't let him finish either.

"Yes, I'm sure, Radek," Rodney snapped. "Okay, John, listen:" he said, but then he didn't say anything for a few seconds. John could feel him accessing systems in the warship, and waited as patiently as he could, but the Hive was looming closer over the sensors, a buzzing, alien presence closing in on John's warship; an alarm blared, but only lasted one and a half BWOOPS before John found it and killed it. "Okay," Rodney said again.

He felt harried and distracted in the interface, and if there was time, John would devote some energy into calming him down.

"In a perfect galaxy, the impact itself would trigger an explosion that would be exponentially more destructive due to the overloading engines."

"Right," John said, wry and exhausted. "In a perfect galaxy."

"Yeah," Rodney agreed, and for a second he reflected John's wry and exhausted back at him. "In this galaxy, we're going to trigger the overload manually about one second before impact."

"Jesus, Rodney, cutting it close much?" John accused; his mental countdown told him it was fifty-two seconds to impact.

"Yes, well, nature of the beast," Rodney snapped. "If we do it any earlier, we run the risk of the Hive recognizing the risk and running like hell; this Hive still has a functional hyperdrive."

"Yeah, I get it; get on with the part where you tell me what to do!"

"As soon as impact is inevitable, I need you to get out," Rodney said simply. "My calculations put that at six seconds, plus or minus one second."

"I am not leaving you," John said flatly, and Rodney went incandescent in the interface, so bright with emotion that John was momentarily overwhelmed by it, anger and impatience and a species of desperate, helpless dread coming at him in waves; it was like being in deep water and feeling the pull of a dangerous undertow.

His voice, however, was perfectly level when he spoke.

"I have to know you're out, John. The timing is vital; I can't concentrate if I have to make sure you're safe, as well."

"Rodney," John began, but Rodney once again talked right over him.

"If you are still in the warship's cathedra on impact, you will die, John," Rodney told him, quiet and harsh and grim. "The backlash will burn out your mind. I'm well acquainted with your propensity for self-sacrifice, but believe me when I tell you that I have no such impulse. When I tell you to get out, you will get the hell out so that I can do my job and then get the hell out myself."

"Goddamnit, Rodney," John snarled, but he was going to agree, had to agree. There wasn't time to debate it.

The interface made it clear that Rodney knew it, too; the riptide of his anger and fear retreated into something more focused, whitewater rapids dotted with rocks of jagged nerves.

"Ten seconds," Rodney said, and the Hive loomed huge in the warships sensors, but it was starting to turn, was veering in a too-slow and ponderous arc; the warship would hit them at an angle instead of head on, but they would still hit them.

"They're powering their hyperdrive," John warned, and dropped his own shields entirely.

"Too late," Rodney soothed, "They don't have enough time." Then, "Collision is imminent and inevitable. Get out."

And John let go of the ties between communications and the warship; he felt like a tape measure being wound rapidly back into its housing, the wholly imaginary sense of motion and scenery passing was bizarre and disorienting; then he was wholly removed from the warship itself, receiving secondary data from command, but unable to intuit exactly what was happening.

"Maitreyi?" he asked, breathless and exhausted.

"I am here, John," she reassured, but added immediately, "City systems power use is far outside of safe parameters."

With his whole focus turned back to the neural interface consisting of command, communications, and city systems, he became aware of a low, dull pressure, something that hadn't been present before.

"It was never meant to route so much power, is going to overload," Radek said. "We must get him out of there."

"Rodney?" John half-shouted.

"Detonation," Rodney whispered; command began spewing data into John's head, and he could feel Rodney retreating the same way John had, reeled back into his own cathedra as soon as he consciously let go of the warship's systems.

"Rodney, disengage from city systems at once, disengage immediately!" Maitreyi ordered in a rushing, alarmed voice that was the equivalent of a shout from her.

"What's the status of the ships?" Rodney wanted to know, but his voice was dull and a little slurred; John could feel him fumbling in the interface, presumably trying to undo what he'd done.

"Long range sensors show total destruction of both ships," Maitreyi reported, "Rodney--"

John shoved at command, ordered it to take back control of all systems he'd routed to city systems, but Rodney, goddamn him, had locked them down; command was working to override Rodney's code, but it wasn't instantaneous. "Rodney, give me back primary control, reroute power distribution to me, city systems is--"

"I am, I've got it, I'm--" Rodney muttered, and John could feel him trying, but they'd been quick hacks, utilitarian and unsightly, and there had been so many transfers that they were all tangled up now, and Rodney's mental fingers were clumsy and uncoordinated the way his physical fingers never were.

"His blood sugar is crashing," John said, informed by command, and, "Rodney, disengage from the cathedra right now! Get your ass out of that chair, McKay!"

"I have a massive power fluctuation--" Radek began, but John didn't hear the end of it because there was a sharp, bright burst of data, and then John was screaming, Maitreyi was screaming, Rodney was screaming. John was surrounded by their agony, receiving it from every direction: the headset, the citywide comm, the interface itself, pain on the same scale that everything else had been, immediate and urgent and inescapably intimate.

John did something, he pushed, but he could still hear screaming, could hear himself screaming, and then the entire world shifted, skidded sideways and up, and he was on the floor, face down on the floor, which was cool and smooth against his cheek and chest. He was shaking so hard it was like convulsing, and the first time he shoved himself up to his hands and knees his whole body revolted, muscles locking up in protest, and he was on his face again.

"Rodney," he croaked hoarsely, "Maitreyi?" and shoved up again, half-assisted by someone's hands, maybe several someones, but his eyesight wasn't working right yet, everything was blurry and distorted into a kaleidoscopic smear of color and motion; his body felt clumsy and unfamiliar, and someone was breathing harshly over the radio and right in his ear.

"Rodney?" He got his feet under him somehow, made them move, but he was pitching unsteadily, like walking across the rolling, bucking deck of a ship, and there were people crowding around him, voices rising and falling incomprehensibly, a radio station he wasn't quite receiving. He staggered forward, batting at hands and bouncing off bodies, aiming for where he knew the doorway to be without being able to really see it. "Maitreyi, goddamnit!"

"I am," she said, and her voice sounded as bad as his own, but John was so dizzily grateful to hear it, to be able to understand it, that he swayed alarmingly and had to catch himself against a wall. "I am all right, I am. I will be fine, John," and it was definitely her breathing he was hearing, hers and not Rodney's.

"Rodney," he said, and stumbled forward, dragging a hand along the wall to steady himself; his vision was clearing a little, and he could make out the transporter that was his goal.

"I," she said, "I cannot see him; all cameras and sensors in that section are offline!" Her voice rose steadily as she spoke, and cracked on the last word.

Someone caught at John's elbow, and he snarled and shook it off without pausing to see who it was.

"I cannot access city systems," she whispered, and John half-fell into the transporter, slumping against the wall as he fumbled at the screen to punch in a destination. As the doors closed, he saw at least a dozen people outside, Elizabeth among them, her face a pale smear topped with dark hair. She was saying something, but John couldn't make it out. "I am sending a medical team," Maitreyi said, and, "John."

"I'm almost there," he grunted, and staggered out into the corridor, longing for moving sidewalks or something as the ground shifted treacherously under his feet. Everything was dull and smudged, lacking solid boundaries, painfully kinetic, and he squinted his eyes mostly-closed to block it out, his stomach roiling unpleasantly. He nearly fell through the doorway into the cathedra room, took in the smoking, sparking cathedra listing to one side, the flickering lights and burnt smell, Rodney on the floor, so still, too still.

"Rodney!" he shouted, and took three huge and ill-executed steps before letting gravity drag him to his knees beside Rodney, prone on the floor, definitely too still, no rise and fall of his chest, he wasn't, he wasn't. "Carson!"

Carson said something, replied low and soothing and completely unintelligible, and John screamed, voice cracked and hysterical, "He's not breathing."

He fumbled at Rodney's throat, searching for a pulse, but his hands were shaking and his own skin felt numb and foreign and he couldn't tell if there wasn't one or if he just couldn't feel it.

"Rodney, goddamnit," he hissed, and shoved a hand under his neck to tip his head back, distantly grateful that he'd been through CPR cert enough times to make it all automatic, clear the airway, two deep breaths pushed past Rodney's slack but still-warm lips, one hand resting on his chest to be sure the air was going into his lungs, then chest compressions, counted aloud so he wouldn't lose track, as firm as his trembling, spasming biceps would allow, muttering numbers and thinking, No, Rodney, no, no, Rodney, please, no, Rodney... He shifted up to repeat the breaths, hands positioned for round two of compressions when Rodney made a choked, startled sound and sucked in a huge breath, eyes fluttering open.

John froze, dizzy, cold sweat on his face. "Rodney?"

"Hey," Rodney croaked almost noiselessly, and John closed his eyes, either swaying on his knees or the room swaying around him, and opened them again to see Rodney blinking slowly at him. His face was speckled with little cuts and what looked like might be pinprick burns; he looked dazed, but mostly aware.

"If you ever," John choked out, "Jesus, if you ever..." and Rodney's eyes went wide and round and startled, and John doubled over and kissed him, clumsy and inelegant and sideways, and gasped, "You fucker, Jesus, you, you asshole," and kissed him again, close-mouthed and chaste and junior high, and again and again until Rodney's lips curved beneath his in response, and John was cradling Rodney's face in both hands and mumbling, "...asshole," with his forehead pressed against Rodney's.

"John?" Rodney said, bewildered and small, and lifted a hand to pet clumsily at John's hair, and John wasn't even aware of anyone else in the room until firm hands gripped his shoulders and dragged him aside, his knees sliding across the floor, and then Carson was leaning over Rodney with a handheld scanner.

Rodney turned his head to keep John in sight; he was pale and exhausted-looking. They blinked at each other.

"Maitreyi," Rodney began, low and hoarse.

"Don't try to talk, Rodney," Carson said, reassuringly comprehensible, and motioned to some people that were hovering in the doorway with a gurney.

"I am fine, Rodney," Maitreyi murmured, and Rodney's faced eased a little as he closed his eyes.

They opened again, still fixed on John.

"Ships?" he wanted to know, and John fought back the urge to scream that he didn't fucking care about the fucking ships as Maitreyi answered,

"I have them; they will be emerging from hyperspace in less than ten minutes."

"His heartbeat is irregular and his blood pressure is through the roof, but I don't think he's in immediate danger. Administer 12.5 milligrams of Acebutolol and let's get him to the infirmary," Carson said, and there were abruptly several more bodies occupying the very limited space.

John watched, shivering and dizzy; his brain felt at least two steps behind, and his hands were shaking like he was palsied. There was something thick and angular lodged in his throat and the sour taste of adrenaline and fear lingered on the back of his tongue. He caught glimpses of Rodney's face occasionally as people shifted around him. He looked sleepy and a little annoyed.

"I'm going to kick your ass," John muttered thickly.

Carson turned to look at him, mouth open -- probably to scold him -- and then Carson was bending over him, eyes wide and concerned. "Colonel," he said, "Can you--"

**

John knew as soon as he woke up that he'd been out a while. He'd been unconscious kind of a lot over the course of his life, and the recoil was always a matter of degree. He was thirsty and his mouth tasted like crap, his tongue a dull, dry weight inside it. Several hours, at least, he was pretty sure. He couldn't bring himself to be alarmed by it, even though he recognized that was not quite right. He also couldn't quite remember how he'd ended up in the infirmary, which was probably not right either.

He blinked up at the ceiling for a while, not really thinking much of anything; he was still doing it -- maybe sliding toward sleep -- when Carson appeared at his bedside.

"Colonel," Carson said, and John blinked at him.

"Hi, Carson," he croaked; Carson smiled indulgently at him and produced a little plastic cup with a straw. He held it for John while John drank, and then put it within reach on the table beside the infirmary bed. "What's going on?"

Carson gave him a long look, head tipped slightly to one side. "It'll come back to you," he said finally. "The sedative I gave you sometimes produces disorientation on waking that mimics memory loss."

"Sedative," John repeated, frowning. It explained why he was so groggy.

"To counteract the dangerously high dose of stimulants you administered to yourself without mentioning it to anyone," Carson informed him pleasantly.

Uh oh, John thought, his brain rapidly providing a brief but fairly comprehensive slide-show starting with two Hive ships and ending with Carson half-crouched in front of him in the city systems cathedra room; his heart was abruptly hammering away inside his chest even though he knew, he knew that Carson would never start off a conversation with chastisement if... Nevertheless, he heard himself demand, "Rodney?"

"Is fine. Everyone is fine." Carson patted his knee. "You'll be fine, too, although you should probably know that if you administer any medication to yourself or anyone else ever again outside of field conditions, I'll most likely kill you, Colonel."

"I--" John croaked, so relieved that he wasn't even sure how he was planning to end the sentence; he didn't have to, because Carson held up a quelling hand.

"No. There is going to be no discussion about you administering stimulants all willy-nilly while in the city -- where I also was -- without bothering to discuss it with me, because then I might become angry, and you're still recovering." Carson was still giving him that indulgent smile, but his voice was quietly steely. "Of course, you're never to do it again."

"Uh, okay," John agreed. Carson gave him a long, suspicious look, but nodded.

"Good. Now that we have an understanding, I'll just go tell Rodney that you're awake." He made a sour face and stood up with a sigh, which was Carson-ese sign language for Rodney has been badgering me for hours. He paused after just one step, though, and turned back to John. "I'm not certain..." he began, frowning, and then pressed his lips together. "Some of your test results indicated that you may not have received the counter to the eilisi tea when you went back to Kurn, Colonel."

"Oh," John said. "I--"

Carson interrupted him. Carson interrupted him. "No, no, I just." Carson coughed, and ohfuck, John thought, abruptly aware that it had been Carson that had pushed him away from Rodney in city systems, Carson who had almost certainly come in at some point while John was cradling Rodney's face in his hands. Carson, who was currently studying the bag of fluids hanging on the steel pole attached to John's bed, not meeting John eyes and very definitely blushing. "Well, you should know that in all probability, it's too late to choose to do so at this point. Your window for doing so was finite, though much wider than Rodney's turned out to be, and. Well." He cleared his throat. "I'll just."

John blinked at the still-flapping curtain left in Carson's hastily-retreating wake, and thought, What?

***

"Oh my God!" Rodney blustered shrilly, ripping aside the curtain around John's bed at the same time. He was wearing white scrubs and towing an IV stand along behind him, and he looked furious.

"Oh my God, are you simple? Are you impaired in some previously documented but socially sensitive manner that I should have been made aware of before accepting an invitation to be on an off-world team under your command? Do you have a death wish? Is there some sane and well-thought-out reason you're practically falling all over yourself in your hurry to 'shuffle off this mortal coil?' Because I swear to whatever half-witted, hare-brained, under-articulate and overly-groomed higher power that governs the death-defying, freakish luck and undeserved well-being of demented, idiotic, irrational Air Force pilots, if you ever do something so blatantly stupid again, I will make you so sorry, John Sheppard."

Rodney had a couple of bandaids on his face, one above his left eye and one along his jaw on the right. He was barefoot. His hair was tufty and ridiculous.

John couldn't look away from him.

John smiled, eyes roving across Rodney's pale face, his gut twisted up with relief and horror at the dozens of tiny scabs scattered over Rodney's cheeks and forehead, and said, "Pot. Kettle." It came out far gentler than John had meant it to, but he couldn't bring himself to wonder or worry about it.

"You-- I--" Rodney sputtered, and dragged his IV stand closer to John's bed. One of the wheels, John noticed, squeaked rather alarmingly. "You," Rodney repeated, giving John his second-most disgusted look, and what was probably supposed to be a sneer instead came out as a hoarse, effortful croak. "You OD'ed, John. Like a junkie. An insane, stupid-haired junkie.

John stared at him; Rodney's grip on his IV stand was white-knuckled, and even though Rodney ranting usually equaled a Rodney that was essentially okay, John didn't have it in him to dismiss the unhappy slash of his mouth, couldn't ignore the huge press of both relief and near-grief behind his lungs.

"You died," John said, stark and horrible and helpless. Abruptly, John got -- after two-plus years of listening to it -- why Rodney ranted. He wanted to rant, wanted not to have said anything so bleak and awful, wanted the low, thick ache not to have been quite so plain in his voice.

Rodney went even paler, and then staggered awkwardly to the chair by John's bed, IV stand squeaking as he dragged it along, and collapsed into it.

They looked at each other for several seconds. John's gaze kept snagging on a tiny cut on the left side of Rodney's mouth, his fingers twitching with the reckless, indecipherable impulse to reach out and touch it. Rodney opened his mouth just as the curtain around John's bed was once again whisked aside, this time by Carson, followed by Elizabeth, Ronon, Teyla, Evan, and Maitreyi.

Rodney closed his mouth abruptly, giving John a long, silent look, and then turned toward the others. John couldn't sort out whether he was disappointed or relieved at the interruption.

"Heard you and McKay tried to kill yourselves while we were gone," Ronon rumbled, but he was grinning.

"The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," John deadpanned.

Elizabeth laughed -- relief easing the tension in her face -- and Rodney snorted. "Not that greatly," he sniffed, but the sideways look he gave John was devoid of anger or sarcasm.

"We are pleased to see you well, John," Teyla murmured, and curled her fingers around John's wrist briefly.

"Did you guys just get back?" John asked doubtfully.

"Hardly," Rodney huffed, sounding affronted. "Ronon's been pestering me all morning." He was smiling faintly as he said it, though, and about half the people present were giving Rodney fond looks. John was pretty sure he was one of them, actually. He couldn't stop looking at Rodney; he didn't want to stop.

Evan and Maitreyi were hanging back slightly, standing side by side at the foot of John's bed, close enough that their shoulders touched. They weren't among his usual just-regained-consciousness visitors, though he figured they probably would be from now on.

He looked them both over, couldn't quite stop himself from checking that they were both okay; it was coupled with an unfamiliar urge to reach for them, clap Evan on the shoulder, catch Maitreyi's hand in his. It had to be some kind of hold-over from the neural interface, and it was probably something he should be concerned about, but it didn't bother him. If the urge to physically reassure himself of their fundamental well-being was the only side-effect of being neurally linked, he'd count it a win. He couldn't bring himself to worry about the chain of command right now.

John had never been anyone's idea of textbook C.O. anyway; he didn't see how this was going to make it any worse.

"Hey, guys," he said, and grinned at them. Evan relaxed visibly, grinning back, though he had his hands conspicuously clasped behind his back. "No brain damage, I take it?"

"No more than usual," Evan agreed, and Rodney snorted again.

"Where are our ships, Maitreyi?" John asked.

"The warship is in a stable orbit; the battlecruisers have been put down on several piers to facilitate repairs," she told him. She wasn't smiling, but he could see the smile in her face anyway, the lightening of her eyes, some subtle lack of tension in her jaw. "I was unsure of my ability to land the warship, given my lack of experience."

"We should probably get it out of orbit as soon as possible," John said, looking a question at Rodney, who nodded.

"We can probably expect more Hives in the relatively near future; we aren't close enough to the quadrant the ship yard was located in to be in immediate danger, but yes." He gave John a brief, thoughtful look through half-lidded eyes, then turned the same look on Maitreyi and Evan. "We should send someone to the facility, also. It's not cloaked anymore, and we can't be sure what kind of information it contains."

"I can fly one of the 'cruisers," Evan suggested, and turned to Rodney, his gaze moving quickly over the cuts on Rodney's face, lips curling downward in the barest suggestion of a frown, before he met Rodney's eyes. "Take a science team?"

"Take Radek and Maitreyi," Rodney said, nodding at Evan. He tilted his head in John's direction in question; he had both hands curled around his IV stand.

John nodded his agreement and looked at Elizabeth. "The 'cruisers have more room and go a lot faster than the Puddle Jumpers. What do you think, Maitreyi? Two days round trip?"

"Approximately," she agreed. "Thirty-nine hours and three minutes travel time." Her hand was resting on the foot of John's bed.

"All right," Elizabeth said. "Major, get a team together and have them ready to go as soon as one of the battlecruisers is ready to make the trip."

"The Colonel should rest," Carson interjected carefully, giving Elizabeth an apologetic look.

"Of course," Elizabeth agreed, and turned a warm smile on John and Rodney. "Well done, both of you."

John and Rodney exchanged a look: She sounds serious, Rodney's eyebrows said. We're totally getting screamed at later, in front of fewer witnesses, John's replied.

Carson briskly herded everyone out; it looked briefly like Rodney was going to escape his attention before he turned to look over one shoulder and added, "You should rest, too, Rodney," pointedly.

Rodney grumbled, but struggled to his feet and followed, the IV stand squeaking along gamely beside him. John watched him go, unable to come up with anything to stop him that wouldn't be obvious, and not entirely sure he wanted to stop him in any event.

Rodney paused just inside the curtain, and turned to look at John. His expression was familiar, uncertain-but-determined, a look John associated with Rodney doing something heart-stoppingly brave. But Rodney just glanced briefly around the curtain, frowned at whatever he saw, and then gave John a crooked, cautious smile that John couldn't help responding to, the shape of it feeling too-soft, too clear, but maybe it didn't matter, maybe it was worth seeing the caution bleed out of Rodney's face, his smile going wide and genuine, his cheeks pinkening before he dipped his chin and gave John a little wave as he slipped away.

***

Carson wanted to keep him the rest of the day and overnight for observation, though he released Rodney just a couple of hours after John woke up. He knew this because Rodney showed up in uniform to gloat while John got poked and prodded relentlessly by a pair of nurses. It would have been a lot more annoying if he hadn't dropped a Snickers onto John's belly, and murmured, "For the egg-thing," at John's questioning look, giving him a crooked smirk before disappearing again.

John was so bored that when Radek showed up with a familiar spiral notebook and a laptop, John grinned helplessly at him.

They worked steadily for a while, John filling in the blanks in the math, things that he'd skipped over entirely in his haste to get his equations down on paper. It was all stuff Radek probably could have done himself, or even delegated to one of the math experts, but John was glad to do it. He almost certainly had Rodney to thank for the respite from boredom; he couldn't bring himself to be alarmed at the warm, fuzzy feeling that gave him.

Evan showed up an hour or so later clutching one of the datapads that had the little electronic pen-thingy attached. John and Radek were talking in polynomials, and John gestured him over with a grin, stupidly glad to see him.

"Want to sign off on my mission?" he asked, offering John the datapad with a smirk that wasn't quite natural enough to distract John from the faint vertical line between his brows. John reached for it, and wasn't surprised by the brush of Evan's fingertips along the back of his hand. He signed with a flourish and handed it back, repeating the quick brush of fingertips in reverse this time. He caught Evan's wrist in one hand, an impulse he couldn't quite suppress in time to stop it. Evan didn't even twitch in response, just looked blandly at John as though John grabbed him every day. John could feel Evan's pulse, reassuringly steady against his fingertips; the line between his brows had vanished.

"Don't get my head of security killed," John ordered, mock-serious, and made himself let go. Evan sketched out a brief salute, smiling, but with solemn eyes.

John settled back against his pillows after Evan left, and, okay, the touching thing might, at some point, become an issue.

Radek either hadn't noticed the oddity of the exchange, or was discreet enough not to mention it. He rattled the notebook at John and said, "I cannot read this symbol; your handwriting is as terrible as Rodney's. Is this subset or superset?"

John gave him a disbelieving look, but just said, "It's a superset, look at the rest of the formula!"

They bounced things back and forth, and while John had nowhere near Radek's level of mathematical understanding, he didn't seem bored; John figured it was refreshing for him to bat things around without being insulted. They streamlined what they could, but Rodney had been more or less right about that, too. It didn't need much. It wasn't pretty, but it would work with their current Earth tech, and that would do.

When they finished, Radek invited John to come down to the labs when he was released and check out Radek's attempts to build a working generator using John's equations.

Maitreyi showed up while John was shoving things around on his lunch tray; John wasn't really surprised.

"You still look pale," she told him with a tiny frown, and then proceeded to use it as an excuse to brush the backs of her fingers across John's forehead, curl her hand around his jaw and tip his face toward her. John didn't try to stop her. Her hands were cool and paradoxically familiar, considering that she had never touched John before as far as he could recall, and her touch made the back of his neck go loose and easy. He smiled when she dropped her hand to rest easily against his arm.

"I feel okay," he told her truthfully.

"You should rest, John," she replied sternly, and settled into the chair beside his bed without moving her hand away.

"Okay," John said, and closed his eyes obediently.

She was gone when he woke up, but there was a laptop on the table beside the bed with a note from Evan on top that said: I did all your paperwork. As usual.

John grinned and booted it up.

John's Amazon had just hit Level Forty -- and he would swear in front of God and the Joint Chiefs that Rodney's cobbled-together Diablo server was among the top three most important resources for an expedition to another galaxy -- when Doctor Tzavaras, a woman John only knew vaguely as one of the engineers, appeared at the end of his bed with a large stack of papers.

"Colonel Sheppard," she said, nodding gravely, her eyes curious behind her glasses. "If you have a few minutes--" she tipped her head and her lips pursed into a tiny smile that implied that she knew he did, and was merely being polite, "--Doctor McKay asked me to go over these documents with you."

"Oh," John said, and did a quick control-tab to the desktop, setting the laptop aside and firmly refusing to dwell on whether or not he'd cleared the area, or was going to get slaughtered while afk. "Uh, sure. What documents?"

She circled around to the head of his bed and dragged the bedside chair closer, apparently oblivious to the horrible, screeching sound the metal legs made as they dragged across the infirmary floor. John winced a little -- he had an overdose-induced headache; when he'd complained about it, Carson had looked pointedly at John's Amazon hacking her way through a bunch of ghouls, and John figured that meant "suck it up." Doctor Tzavaras handed him the stack of documents, which John flipped through curiously, only getting three pages into the stack before he stopped to give her a puzzled look.

"These look like U.S. Patent forms," he said.

"That's because they are U.S. Patent forms," she said dryly. "I'm currently licensed to practice law in several states; I specialized in patent-law." She grimaced faintly. "It seemed like necessary ancillary knowledge, given my specialty. Doctor McKay asked me to fill out the necessary paperwork for the patents on the Mark V generators."

John frowned. "What happened to the Marks III and IV?" he asked dumbly.

She arched both brows at him, tipping her head, but answered readily enough. "The designation Mark III and Mark IV were given to naquadah based nuclear warheads." Her mouth curled into a little pout of distaste.

John goggled at her for several seconds. "Can I-- I mean, can we even do that? I mean, the Air Force practically owns me, and technically do naquadah generators even exist as far as the U.S. Patent Office knows?"

"Colonel Carter holds patents on both the current naquadah generators," Doctor Tzavaras told him seriously, looking at him like he was possibly a little bit stupid. "The contract you signed when you joined the expedition recognizes your propriety interest in anything you invent, help to invent, or improve based on existing proprietary designs, including anything based on non-Earth-derived technology. It's fairly standard in the SGC due to the vast number of both civilian and military scientists that wouldn't look twice at a program that didn't allow proprietary gains. Of course, they're top secret, and the U.S. Government has the right to use anything you invent while you're with the program in whatever manner and for however long it wishes without compensating you. Didn't you read your contract, Colonel?"

John shook his head stupidly. "It looked like the same-old-same-old," he muttered.

Doctor Tzarvaras gave him a look that was faintly scandalized, with a side order of disbelief. "It was two hundred pages, Colonel," she pointed out.

"Yeah," John mumbled, and rubbed at the back of his neck self-consciously. "I thought it was kind of long."

She gave him another disbelieving look, but merely sighed. "Well, then I suppose it's a good thing that Doctor McKay is looking out for your interests. Not that it matters in the short-term, but there is evidence to suggest that there will eventually be a massive declassification of a great deal of the technology that's been developed over the last decade as relates to the Stargate Program, if not the declassification of the program itself. Doctor McKay holds several such patents; they're designed merely to preserve your rights as the patent-holder until such a time that they can be acknowledged publicly." She paused, tipping her head to one side and peering quizzically at him. "I'm going to be working with Doctor Zelenka using your equations to build a functional generator, Colonel," she told him. Her voice was oddly gentle. "Forgive me if I'm stating the obvious, but. This power-source has the potential to change everything. There's every chance that it will be one of the first things declassified, if only because of the immense benefit to humanity as a whole that it represents. If there was ever a chance of you not making it into the history books for being the military commander of Atlantis, this will get you there. In all likelihood, you will be fabulously wealthy within six months of declassification. It wouldn't surprise me if you received a Nobel nomination."

John stared at her, mute with horror.

She gave him a piercing look, and took the pile of documents out of his unresisting hands. She flipped through them with quick, competent motions, slid several pages out of the pile, deposited the rest on John's bedside table, and used her free hand to pull the wheeled table over and slide the table-part around so that it was positioned over John's lap. She arranged the pages she'd extracted on top of it, and stood up to fish in her pocket, eventually producing a pen.

"Sign these," she said firmly.

"I don't want a Nobel," John objected dumbly as she thrust the pen into his hand.

"You're not going to get a Nobel," she snapped, sounding unnervingly like Rodney. "Just a nomination, maybe; sign, please."

"Wait, does Rodney know about the Nobel thing?" John asked, and Doctor Tzarvaras rolled her eyes at him.

"Colonel Sheppard," she sighed, and gave him a look that clearly said she was losing her patience. "Doctor McKay is a genius. If you don't sign these, I'll send him here to see that you do. I believe he's currently aboard one of the battlecruisers, reviewing the repairs before Major Lorne tries to fly it." She gave him a significant look. "Shall I call him?"

"I'm going to get you assigned to an off-world team," John muttered sulkily. "Christ, you're vicious."

She let out a brief, surprised giggle that seemed bizarrely cute and girlish, considering the fact that she was clearly extremely bossy and also kind of mean. "It's been said," she agreed.

John signed.

After she left, John tucked an arm under his head and looked at the ceiling for a while, thinking about Radek coming to entertain John in the guise of detailing the math for the Mark V, Doctor Tzarvaras and the U.S. Patent Office, and Rodney McKay making sure John got his chance at a Nobel nomination.

***

John tried to doze for a while. He was tired, a cumulative result of the last several days, but couldn't seem to actually fall all the way asleep. The best he could manage was a light drifting state in which his mind seemed to turn to the first two minutes in the command cathedra again and again, the wonder of it, the all-encompassing awareness, the revelation of Atlantis, of Maitreyi, of Rodney.

He jolted awake repeatedly, aching a little at being so abruptly alone, missing it to a degree that verged on unsettling. The vision of Atlantis, the feel of it at his fingertips, his mind full of all of the things he'd ever needed or wanted to know.

He missed the interface. He missed the security of knowing they were there, they were all there together.

He missed it the way he missed his team after he hadn't seen them for a couple of days; like something indefinable was awry, and couldn't be made right without them.

Carson appeared after the fourth or fifth time John snapped fully awake, irritable and restless.

"How are you feeling, Colonel?" Carson asked, sounding far more cheerful than John was really capable of dealing with.

John rolled his head on the flat infirmary pillow so he could glare balefully at him.

"Let my people go, Carson," he whined; Carson rolled his eyes, but came the rest of the way into John's curtained-off alcove to fiddle with the notebook computer affixed to the end of John's bed in lieu of a medical chart. "This is punishment for the stimulant thing, isn't it?" John grumbled. "I said I wouldn't do it again!"

"No, Colonel, nearly dying was punishment for 'the stimulant thing.' This is merely me doing my job in order to insure your continued health and well-being," Carson replied absently, tapping at the screen of the notebook. "I won't clear you for duty until tomorrow," Carson began chidingly, but John was already swinging his legs over the side of the bed, so relieved at imminent freedom that he didn't even care that his pants were missing. "And you're to come to the infirmary first thing in the morning, and let me check you over," Carson added, sounding long-suffering, but he was at John's side and gently unhooking him from all the monitors, handing him a pair of scrub pants to go with the shirt he was already wearing. "And you're to get plenty of rest. Nothing strenuous. Don't try running with Ronon or sticks with Teyla or... well, whatever it is you do with Rodney!"

John arched a brow at him as he tugged on the thin white pants, and the tips of Carson's ears turned pink. "What have you got against computer golf, Carson?" he asked mildly.

Carson flapped a hand at John exasperatedly. "Go on, then, go bother someone else."

John escaped gratefully.

He stopped off in his quarters just long enough to shower; he was still tired, but he was too restless to sleep.

His BDU shirt, belt, and thigh holster -- still holding his nine mil -- were sitting in the middle of his bed; the pants he'd been wearing were MIA. Carson had probably cut them off of John. He had a dismaying tendency to do that.

He started to put on his sweats, but then imagined the look on Carson's face if he found out John had gone for a run, and pulled on jeans and a t-shirt instead. A walk would be good; Carson couldn't possibly object to a leisurely stroll, and it had been a while since he'd had a chance to just meander the city. It was a good way to give his restless body something to occupy it so that he had some space, and he could really use some time to think.

He snagged his radio on his way out, though; experience had taught him to treat it like his American Express Card.

When he walked through the open door of the security office of a few minutes later, Maitreyi was standing in her usual place in front of a bank of consoles, the light of the viewscreens throwing pale, kinetic light across her face.

She smiled at John, the bare curve of lips that was the equivalent of a beaming grin from anyone else, and John couldn't have stopped his answering smile if he'd wanted to.

"Hey," he said, circling the bank of consoles to stand beside her. He had an almost overwhelming urge to touch her, just to put a hand on her wrist or her shoulder. He turned his attention to the screens, intending to ignore it, but she caught his hand as he turned, curling her cool, slim fingers into his palm and squeezing gently.

"You look better," she said, and squeezed his hand again.

John squeezed back, smiling, something coiled and agitated relaxing a little in his midsection. "I--" he said, and stopped without finishing the sentence, not sure how he wanted to finish it.

She nodded though, one side of her mouth quirking a little upward, eyes narrowing ruefully. "I know," she said, and let go of his hand to gesture toward the viewscreens.

One of them was showing the interior of one of the battlecruisers, and Rodney, elbows deep in a console. Another displayed the mess, where Evan was sitting across from Ronon; they were both eating what appeared to be slices of improbably blue cake. A third, the infirmary and the empty bed John had been in until fifteen minutes ago, though the curtain was open now, and the one next to it showed the corridor just outside the security office.

"Evan has been here six times today," Maitreyi said, looking sideways at him. "Rodney has called Evan or me for something at least once an hour."

John nodded, but he was staring at Rodney on the viewscreen; Rodney turned an irritated look on one of the scientists working on the same console, and John grinned.

"I think it will fade," Maitreyi told him even as her bare forearm brushed against John's.

John cocked an eyebrow at her in question, and didn't move his arm away.

"It was much worse last night," she told him.

John nodded thoughtfully. He was pretty sure he was glad to have been unconscious during that part of it. "We'll manage. Try not to fondle anyone overtly in public."

"I will endeavor not to," she said, dry and solemn, and John smirked.

"I know how you are, Maitreyi," he said, and she bumped his shoulder hard with hers.

A couple of minutes passed in companionable silence while they divided their attention between watching Rodney alternately fiddling with the console and waving his hands angrily, and watching Evan eat blue cake; the anxious tension that had been riding John the entire time he'd been trapped in the infirmary was finally easing.

"So," he said after a while. "Who am I going to make head of security?"

She turned to give him another faint curl of lips, not looking surprised. "Are you familiar with Lieutenant Horton's service record?"

John didn't even have to think about that one. He'd been half-expecting it. Horton was Maitreyi's unofficial second in command, and Evan's very favorite Lieutenant. He'd gone to bat for the kid with John when they'd needed a field commander for SGA-3, making him the youngest team leader on Atlantis. He was a damned fine officer, and John only had one question.

"He's been here less than a year," he said slowly.

Maitreyi nodded. "I know." She gave him a serene look that made him wonder if she was ticklish, and then was slightly horrified that the idea had even crossed his mind. Yeah, this could definitely become a problem. "Nevertheless. He is the right choice."

"Is he as good as you?" John asked, knowing already that there was no way; no one was as good as Maitreyi. She was a mutant. A very very discreet mutant. "I have to be able to trust him, Maitreyi. No matter what."

The look she turned on him was equal parts knowing and sympathetic. "Lieutenant Horton is trustworthy, John. I trust him."

"Okay," John said, because that was enough. He trusted her. "Get him up to speed. I can have the paperwork done for both of you in a couple of weeks unless you need more time to get him trained."

He knew she wouldn't. "You're going to make Evan do the paperwork, and he'll have it done within twenty-four hours," she murmured, sounding more amused than concerned by it. "Why two weeks?"

John scowled at her. "I liked you better when you were creepy and never talked to me." One corner of her mouth tipped up in a barely-there smirk, obviously unrepentant. "I need a couple of weeks to get his promotion made official," he admitted.

Her eyebrows rose toward her hairline. "I do not recall receiving a promotion when I accepted the position," she murmured inflectionlessly.

John stared at her for several seconds before he realized she was teasing him. Reality as I know it is unraveling, John thought, not without amusement. He shrugged one shoulder, and decided to tell her the truth. She was too smart not to already know the reality of her position in her country's armed services. "I was told I didn't have the authority to promote you."

The amused gleam in her eyes faded, and she cocked her head. "But you tried," she said quietly.

"Yeah," John admitted. "Twice."

Her hand curling around his wrist felt utterly familiar, though the faint curve of a smile on her lips still looked strange. "Thank you, John."

He shrugged. "Yeah, yeah. I'm going for a walk. And I'm stealing this datapad."

She gave him a bland look. "Remember not to fondle anyone overtly in public."

"Insubordination," John grumbled darkly, and fled.

***

John took his stolen datapad and let himself wander not-quite aimlessly toward one of the large, unexplored buildings near the southeast pier, the pale, bloodless feel of it through the cathedra still fresh enough in his mind that he wasn't surprised to find it without power, the conduits along the corridor leading up to it empty and lifeless. He made notes for Rodney to have a team of engineers attend to it when time allowed. The hot, bleak feeling of unrest two floors below the unused jumper bay on the western edge of the city turned out to be a lab full of uninitialized equipment, the exception being a high, narrow bank of control crystals in the eastern wall of the room that were glowing a bright, uninterrupted blue-white. John carefully didn't touch anything, but the smell of hot plastic was thick in the air, and something was definitely not right.

He emailed a priority report to Rodney and Zelenka recommending that they have a team check into it ASAP.

The stark, blank feel of the stocky tower near engineering turned out to be a low-powered shield of some kind, something that John's datapad told him wasn't drawing power from the ZPM, but had some sort of external power source. His ATA gene didn't seem to be enough to get him inside, though John didn't try too hard. If it was containment, he didn't want to breach it. He added it to the list of things to check out.

He'd been making a slow, steady circuit of the city -- checking on the things he specifically remembered as he went, entering notes in the datapad -- for nearly two hours when Rodney's voice came abruptly over the radio. "Evan, I need you back out here," he said, voice tight and clipped and bleeding tension that two and a half years on the same team was more than enough to make John familiar with. Two hours in the neural interface only made more obvious.

John stopped where he was standing -- about two minutes away from the interesting buzz of energy he remembered from one of the unused residential areas -- and leaned up against the wall, closing his eyes as the familiar vertigo seized him, stronger than it had been since the first couple of days. He didn't try to resist it; it was the same span of seconds he'd bombarded Rodney with in the interface, and it seemed pointless to deny that there was a reason this was the memory he kept coming back to.

"I can't believe this is even happening." Rodney's voice was low and sharp with resentment and tension; he had one hand curled around the edge of the table, white-knuckled, and he was looking deliberately at John's neatly folded uniform sitting on the tabletop. His face was flushed, his mouth a straight line. When he finally turned and crossed the distance between them, he kept his eyes focused somewhere above John's shoulder.

Once he'd made the decision, though, Rodney didn't hesitate, and John's little hitching intake of surprised breath sounded loud as Rodney reached for him with the same certainty and competence that his hands always displayed. The tips of the index and middle fingers of both of Rodney's hands slipped lightly across John's hipbones as Rodney carefully hooked them into the elastic waist of John's boxers. His gaze flicked upward to John's face for an instant, but John was staring so fixedly at Rodney's hands on his underwear that he barely caught it, and couldn't quite decipher Rodney's expression. His hands shifted, the tendons standing out beneath the skin of the backs of them, and then he was pulling gently, downward and just a little bit outward, away from John's body, taking care not to catch the elastic on John's cock; John could see the tension in Rodney's forearms. John's thighs were just as tense, muscle bunching helplessly, as Rodney settled almost gracefully down into a crouch, breath ghosting hot and damp against John's belly, his hip, his cock. Rodney's hands continued downward, the sides of Rodney's thumbs skidding across the fronts of John's thighs, a little rough against John's skin. Rodney shifted as he settled, the hint of a wince crinkling the corners of his eyes, drawing his brows together as he leaned slightly forward -- breath a little fast just above John's left knee -- and drew his hands further apart so John could step out of his boxers.

John opened his eyes and tipped his head back against the wall; he was breathing heavily, and could feel the rapid thud-thud-thud of his heartbeat in his temples, the hollow of his throat, and his cock.

Rodney hadn't come to him the way both Maitreyi and Evan had, looking for an excuse to touch him, to reassure himself of John's presence, or well-being, or whatever it was that the aftermath of the neural interface had left the four of them needing from one another. Rodney hadn't come, and John hadn't gone looking for him.

John had let the nagging, restless need push him to find Maitreyi, because she was the safest, the easiest, but if she hadn't been in the security office, he'd have found Evan instead. Not Rodney. No sense in denying it.

Because it was different with Rodney.

John could still feel the sense of Evan and Maitreyi, the two of them close, the familiarity of them layered across John's skin, etched into his mind. His hands twitched, his skin itched with the need to touch them, to replace the loss of the interface with something, even if it wasn't the same something. He missed them, each of them individually, and all of them together.

But it wasn't the same way he missed Rodney.

He had already known Rodney, already loved him, and if he could feel the others layered across his skin, he could feel Rodney scored into his bones, threaded through every layer of muscle, curled around tendons and ligaments, and thrumming in his blood.

If he touched Rodney now, like this, there would be no stopping it. And it was dangerous.

It was potentially cataclysmic.

He didn't know if he would ever be ready to face what he had been forced to accept when he had seen Rodney, still and pale and not-breathing on the floor: the huge and terrifying wash of grief and fear, the way it had dragged John to his knees with his eyes burning and his mind blank with horror, his hands fumbling and helpless and desperate, the clear and irrefutable fact that John would do anything, anything.

For most of his life, he'd understood that he wasn't a man who said no, never to many things. He could kill, he had killed, he had done it because it had needed to be done, and because there was no one else, done it to protect his people and his city. He had sacrificed just as surely as he had killed; he had sacrificed his people -- though never without a fight -- and parts of himself, ideals that he couldn't afford, hope that he couldn't sustain. He knew that the things most people said they would never do were really the things they hoped they never had to do, whether they knew it or not.

The few convictions he had always held about himself were also the broadest.

He wouldn't give up or give in, he wouldn't surrender, he would never lay down and die.

But he had wanted to.

God, he had wanted to.

He turned his back to the wall and let his weight pull him down, knees cocked, and let out a sound that he couldn't even quantify, something harsh and ugly that echoed in the empty corridor. He heard the datapad clatter to the floor as he shoved the heels of both hands against his eyes and sucked in several deep, gulping breaths, unable to turn his mind away from the way the three of them had sounded, screaming, Rodney screaming, their agony and his own all tangled together and pouring directly into the pain centers of John's brain, seconds that felt like hours, the knee-jerk instinct like the mental equivalent of straight-arming Rodney, forcing him out of the interface, breaking it, forcing them all out with no way of knowing what it would do to them, to him, guided by need and panic of the kind that officers in the United States Air Force were trained not to feel, the kind that the regs against fraternization were designed to prevent.

It had worked, it had been the right thing to do, but that had been nothing but luck.

John could have killed all three of them just as easily.

"But I didn't," he said aloud, voice cracked and shaky. Bright squiggles and coronas of pressure-induced light were beginning to spatter the darkness under the heels of his hands, and he made himself drop them to the floor, sweaty palms sliding against the smooth, cool surface. He kept his eyes closed and took deep, steadying breaths, each one easier than the last as the pressure on his chest began to ease. Not this time, he thought, the old grief of Afghanistan still strong enough to make him ache, duller and less urgent than whatever this was. Not grief, exactly. Near-grief. Potential grief, maybe.

He had actually killed Rodney, but he had seen the twisted and half-melted, still-smoldering hulk of the city systems cathedra, and John had done the right thing. It had worked, and Rodney hadn't stayed dead, and that was what mattered. And it wasn't like it hadn't happened before.

John had been dead before a bunch of times.

"Okay, that's not helping," he muttered thickly, and thunked his head against the wall behind him. "Get it fucking together, John."

"I don't think a head injury is the answer."

John opened his eyes to glare at Evan. "Maitreyi has a big fucking mouth," he snarled.

"Yes, sir," Evan agreed cheerfully, and turned to settle down with his back to the wall next to John, their upper arms pressed firmly together.

"Sir?" John repeated and let his head fall back against the wall again.

"I should probably get used to it." Evan shrugged against John's shoulder.

A minute or so passed.

"So, I take it you don't want to talk about it?" Evan asked eventually.

John rolled his head to the side to look at him. "Do you?" he asked curiously.

"Not especially," Evan confessed, rolling his head to mirror John's position. "I might try and paint it, though. It was..."

"Yeah," John agreed. "It was." After a few seconds, he said, "Didn't Rodney call you out to the 'cruiser?"

"Maitreyi's handling it."

John nodded. "Do you think this was a problem for the Ancients?" he wondered aloud.

Evan snorted. "I really don't want to know that."

John considered that. "Me either, actually."

Evan grinned, but it faded after a few seconds. "You know you saved his life, right?"

"He was dead when I got there," John pointed out hoarsely, but it helped to hear it. He was only human.

"He got better," Evan quipped with a brief, faint smile, but his gaze was solemn and too-knowing. "Maitreyi told me you forcibly ejected both of them from the neural network, basically pulled the plug on it." He paused for a long moment, holding John's gaze. "She said it felt like she was being turned inside out. That it was so bad she couldn't stop screaming, and she didn't know how you did anything, John."

John remembered that, remembered feeling that. He didn't have an answer. "She was the one who got back into the cathedra."

"Yeah," Evan agreed, still fixing John with his gaze. "But you kept her alive so that she could."

"She can't know that for sure."

"Maybe she can't," he said, shrugging warmly against John's shoulder again. "But she believes it, and I believe her. And even if it's not true of Maitreyi, it's sure as hell true of Rodney. I've seen city systems."

John didn't say anything.

Evan looked at him, steady and shrewd and measuring, but in the end he just climbed to his feet, using John's shoulder casually to steady himself, and said, "Don't stay out here all night, sir."

John watched him walk away and tried not to think about what it had felt like when he'd vanished from the interface, gone like so much smoke.

Eventually, he got up and headed back toward his quarters.

Maybe he was ready to deal with Rodney and maybe he wasn't; it didn't matter because John had to see him. Fuck Kurn and fuck the eilisi, fuck everything, really, because he needed to see Rodney, to put his hands on Rodney and know he was alive. He needed that, and it didn't matter that it wasn't exactly the same thing that drove him to find Maitreyi or lean into the warm solidity of Evan's shoulder pressed against his own.

It was what it was, and it wasn't like it was a surprise; Rodney was archetypal in his nonconformity.

He was a thing unto himself.

**

He was unsurprised, and yet totally unprepared, to walk into his quarters and find Rodney sitting on the foot of his bed, elbows resting on his knees, head tipped forward wearily. He looked up quickly when John walked in, but didn't say anything.

John stopped, datapad gripped in both hands, hungry for the sight of Rodney, unable to keep himself from staring at the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.

"Hey," Rodney said after a long time, and John completely lost whatever control he'd been fooling himself into thinking he still had.

He shoved the datapad blindly onto the nearest flat surface and closed the distance between them without pausing to think it through. It was three steps, give or take, and John was painfully aware of the parallels of the situation as he let himself sink to his knees in front of Rodney and closed his twitching hands around Rodney's forearms, letting out a harsh, sighing breath as the heat of Rodney's skin shivered across his palms. Rodney's arms twisted around at once, his hands closing around John's forearms as well, his fingertips dull points of welcome pressure digging into John's skin.

"Hey," John finally managed to respond shakily, shifting so that his knees were touching the toes of Rodney's boots. He couldn't help it; it was ridiculous, but he genuinely could not resist. "How'd you get in here?"

"I didn't break in!" Rodney denied hotly enough to drag John's attention away from all the places where their skin was touching -- twenty fingers, four palms and forearms, roughly one hundred and twenty combined square inches of skin -- and up to Rodney's face. Rodney was staring at their hands and arms, his expression almost distant, his eyes unblinking. He looked faintly astonished. "Well, I mean. Obviously I planned to, but your door, um. Let me in." His gaze flicked up and snagged on John's, and they stared at each other silently.

"Yeah," John said after a while. Rodney's gaze dropped a few inches when John spoke, slowly tracing the shape of John's mouth. John's breath caught somewhere considerably short of his lungs, and Rodney met his eyes again.

"So," he said, hands tightening abruptly around John's forearms. "You. The, uh, touching thing. I guess--" he licked his lips and looked away, then back, then away again, and John tightened his hands on Rodney's arms, fighting the urge to drag himself even closer, to shove his face into the curve of bicep he could see peeking out of the sleeve of Rodney's blue shirt and curl his fingertips into the big muscles of Rodney's thighs beneath the khakis. "I mean, that's probably why you-- With the kissing. Thing."

Rodney's tone was uncertain and unsteady, his grip on John's arms nearing painful, but his eyes were wide and hopeful when he met John's gaze again, his chin tipped slightly up in a way that made John's chest go tight, made him think about the texture of Rodney's stubble and the shape of his jaw.

Cataclysmic, John reminded himself. Rodney's eyes were huge. It felt like there was no air in the room at all, and John had to close his eyes for a second, just a second, because he couldn't think with Rodney looking at him.

It was all there on Rodney's face, the possibility of it clear as day, and he didn't know how to turn that down.

"I--" he said, but when he opened his eyes, Rodney's chin was even higher, he looked braced for a blow, and he wouldn't, John wouldn't--

He couldn't.

"That was. Something else," John admitted thickly, and Rodney closed his eyes briefly and exhaled, tension retreating from his face, his hands gentling a little around John's forearms.

"Okay," he said a little breathlessly, and then opened his eyes again. John half-expected him to ask something else, try and further clarify the situation, but he didn't. He just stared at John, his eyes traveling the expanse of his face again, lips, nose, left cheek, right cheek, left eyebrow, right eyebrow, forehead, before pausing to meet his gaze for a few seconds. Rodney's mouth was slightly open, but he didn't seem to know what to say.

"It--" John began, and then had to stop and lick his lips, acutely aware that he was breathing too fast and that he probably wasn't hiding a fucking thing, but totally unable to do anything about it. "It wasn't the best kiss ever," he managed. It came out husky rather than shaky or, God forbid, squeaky, for which he was eternally grateful. "What with me in the middle of an O.D. and you still mostly dead."

Rodney's lips quirked briefly, but his breath hitched unsteadily, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed. "We--" he croaked, and then rolled his eyes and sighed, swallowing again and gave John a look that seemed simultaneously annoyed and embarrassed. "That is, if you wanted to--" He tried to wave a hand without letting go of John's arm, and just sort of tugged at it instead.

Cataclysmic, John thought, but it was happening, it was too late to even pretend he didn't want it to, and he sighed as he leaned in, conscious of his pulse thundering in his ears and the way Rodney went absolutely motionless, as though unwilling to spook him as he pressed a careful, soft-mouthed kiss to Rodney's slightly parted lips.

Rodney's breath hitched again, loud in the sudden still silence, and then he had his hands on John's face so quickly that John wasn't sure how it happened, his forearms abruptly cool and bereft of touch. Rodney's hands were hot and almost tentative, his fingertips brushing lightly behind John's ears, palms cupped around John's jaw as he tipped John's face up. John's hands tightened fiercely around Rodney's forearms as Rodney fitted their mouths together just as carefully as John had, his lips warm and soft and devastatingly sweet, which John somehow hadn't expected at all.

John's mouth stayed mostly closed, as did Rodney's, and it was all very eighth grade if he ignored the aching grind of desire in his gut and the fact that his cock was so hard he had to shift his legs wider to accommodate it, and also totally discounted the low noise that Rodney was making somewhere deep in his chest, a kind of rumbled moan that was nothing like the sex-noises John had got used to hearing from him, and thus meant he hadn't developed any kind of tolerance or defense against it. He wanted to shove closer, muscle his way between Rodney's thighs so he could rub the entire front of his body against Rodney's.

It was the best kiss John had ever participated in.

They broke apart, panting, and leaned their foreheads together in a not-even-close-to-platonic imitation of the Athosian greeting, Rodney still cupping John's face, John's hands still locked around Rodney's forearms. Rodney's breath was warm against John's cheek; both of their foreheads were a little slick with sweat.

"John?" Rodney whispered, thick and unsteady; his fingers curled slightly around John's face, fingertips dragging through John's hair and making him shiver.

"Yeah?" John's voice didn't sound much better.

"Why didn't you drink the tea?" Rodney asked softly. They drew back enough to look at each other, and Rodney's face was flushed, the hair at his temples damp, his eyes dark and familiar. John blinked back the memory almost effortlessly, and took in the faint downward tilt of Rodney's mouth, the slight furrow between his brows.

"I never drink the tea," John said stupidly; his fingers itched to smooth away the crooked dip of Rodney's mouth, and he actually stared at it for a few seconds before he realized that he probably could, if he wanted. He could touch; Rodney's hands were still on his face. So he did; he touched his thumb lightly to the corner of Rodney's mouth, and Rodney's eyelids fluttered closed, his face tipping toward John's hand, but the furrow between his brows deepened toward something almost pained, and uneasiness fluttered in John's belly.

"Don't get me wrong," Rodney said hoarsely, lips moving against the pad of John's thumb. "This is-- I want--" He opened his eyes again, still dark, but something aching and stark had replaced the heat in them, and his mouth was tight beneath John's thumb. "But if this is a... a difference in perspective, I can't do this," he concluded as though he'd actually finished a whole sentence in there somewhere that made sense.

John stared at him, stomach knotted, because this was not going down like this. "What does that mean, Rodney?" he demanded, wanting to be pissed but not actually able to manage it when he couldn't let go of Rodney's arm or drop his hand away from the warm curve of Rodney's jaw.

"I'm bad at this," Rodney blurted helplessly; Rodney's tone made it halfway between a confession and a warning, and just hearing it made John relax a little and smooth his thumb unconsciously along the corner of Rodney's mouth, dipping along the downward curve, more than a little tempted to put his lips against it, make it go away that way; he was almost sure he could. Rodney, seemingly without realizing it, turned his face a little more firmly into John's palm, saying, "I just can't, John, if this is just--" He closed his eyes again, and made a frustrated little growling sound that John was sure he shouldn't have found hot under the circumstances. "I can't have this just once," he admitted, low and taut, voice shaking a little. "If it's something to do with Kurn or with the interface, or if it's just because we didn't die or, or anything that you're going to... to get over at some point, once you're well-rested or whatever, I just, I can't do that, I can't, it would be--"

"Cataclysmic," John inadvertently said out loud.

Rodney's mouth closed slowly. "Excuse me?"

John shook his head, but Rodney's expression made it clear that he wasn't going to just let it go.

"Just," he said, and sighed. "You know, a one word guesstimate as to the worst-case-scenario here." He gave Rodney a wry half-smirk. "It doesn't have as much style as your Keystone Cops analogy, I know."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Rodney said. He sounded faintly amazed.

"If this," John said, stroking a hand along Rodney's bottom lip softly, "doesn't work. That's the backlash. I lose everything. That's the word."

Rodney blinked at him, expression shifting visibly to uncertainty. He opened his mouth, but John didn't let him get any further.

"It is Kurn. And the interface, and it's because we didn't die, but you know that's not all it is."

"What," Rodney said, and licked his lips. "What--"

"It's also your truly horrifying table manners," John sighed, and brushed the side of his thumb against Rodney's bottom lip softly again. "That's a big turn-on. Also, there's the way you mock my hair because you're jealous, and cheat at computer golf."

Rodney's eyes went wide, and his mouth was slightly open and actually twitching a little, as though longing to object.

"And you snore," John told him matter-of-factly. "And I don't know this yet, but I'm betting you hog the covers." Rodney's eyes narrowed in indignation, and John's lips wanted to curl even though his stomach still felt weirdly hollow and shuddery. "You feel like fire in the neural interface," he confessed, and Rodney's eyes went soft with surprise.

"But you've been the guy for two years, and I just spent a couple of hours tracking down a bunch of places that felt neat while I was in the cathedra and made a map so that you could go look at them. I have all your allergies memorized, even the stupid ones. And I saw you look at me on Kurn, and I couldn't forget it, and I don't want to forget it."

Rodney closed his mouth. His lips were soft under John's thumb, and he was looking at John like he was the only important thing in the room, in the entire city.

"Like that, exactly," John whispered huskily, and licked his lips. "If aliens kidnapped you, I'd burn down the galaxy to get you back."

Rodney's lips curved a little wryly, but the skin around his eyes was tight. "You'd do that for anyone," he said, only a little snidely.

John shook his head. His throat was tight. "I'd try to get anyone back, yeah. But."

Rodney looked away for an instant; John saw him swallow. When he looked back, he asked, "Burn down the galaxy?"

"Yes," John said. "Yes."

"Oh," Rodney whispered.

"I'm not going to get over it, and it's not a difference in perspective. I really want to know what color your nipples are, and what you sound like when you come," he added, his voice low and shaky, pushing words past his lips and into the air between them, "and I want to check again tomorrow to make sure I remember it right, and then the next day, too, because you probably sound different when I suck your cock than you will while you fuck me, or while I fuck you, or when you're tired or over-caffeinated or--"

"Okay," Rodney said, "Okay, I get it," and his lips curled up sweetly, though his tone was sardonic when he added, "Now you're Colonel Chatty? Aren't you worried you'll blow your wad all at once and never have anything to say again?"

"Real nice, McKay," John growled, but he was smiling too, and he had the jumpy aftermath of nerves trembling in the pit of his belly, the feeling of crisis narrowly averted, of the getting through the hard part, and the hand he still had wrapped around Rodney's forearm was close to cramping, he'd been holding on so hard.

They spent another span of several seconds just looking at each other, smiling what were undoubtedly sort of stupid-looking smiles, and John was just starting to feel a little twitchy about it when Rodney asked, "The guy?"

John blinked in confusion, and then. Oh. "Yeah," he said, shrugging a little. "The guy. You know." John's cheeks were hot. "The go-to guy. My go-to guy."

Rodney's mouth made a soundless 'O,' and John figured he'd done as much talking as he could reasonably be expected to, and leaned in again to slide his tongue along Rodney's lower lip, because, Jesus, he deserved to make out with Rodney.

Rodney, unexpectedly getting in touch with his inner neanderthal, dropped his hands to John's t-shirt and curled them into fists, dragging John into the space between his thighs at the same time that he tipped his head forward, forcing John's head back hard enough that he might have objected if Rodney's tongue hadn't jabbed hotly into his mouth, shorting out John's brain. He was distantly aware that the hand he'd had cupped along Rodney's jaw was now curled around the back of his neck, and that he was shoving Rodney's shirt up and out of the way with his other hand, fingertips tingling at the smooth, sweat-damp skin stretched over Rodney's ribs.

Rodney's mouth slid off John's long enough to make a gulping, shocked sound, and he groaned, "Oh, oh Christ!" and then he was shoving John backward -- John hissed out a wordless objection as his hand lost contact with Rodney's skin -- and struggling to his feet, his hands fisted in John's shirt pulling John up with him. John caught a searing, too-fast glimpse of the way Rodney's biceps bunched as he hauled John upward, but it was immediately displaced by the friction-heavy drag up the front of Rodney's body, the abrupt and excruciating awareness of Rodney's hard on pressed hot against John's chest for an instant, and then dragging downward across his belly. John's hips jerked involuntarily forward, shoving his own cock against Rodney's hard, warm thigh briefly and wrenching a low, grating sound out of John's throat, and then Rodney's mouth crashed into his again, wet and slick and open, his tongue clever and soft. Rodney manhandled John around and tipped them both over onto John's bed with John firmly on the bottom, Rodney's big thighs straddling John's hips.

John bucked up against the weight of Rodney, almost entirely reflexively, and Rodney made a growling sound into John's mouth and didn't budge even as he shoved John's t-shirt up and closed both hands around John's waist just above his jeans. John still had one hand hooked around the back of Rodney's neck, and Rodney's weight was pressed firmly against John's groin, enough pressure to make John have to fight back the urge to roll his hips up into it greedily. "Why do you get to be on top?" John panted, but it wasn't actually a complaint.

"I thought of it first," Rodney replied absently, his eyes roving across the skin of John's chest and belly. He'd gone still above John, and while being manhandled had never been something John had associated with being hot, John had never been so hard in his life and his skin felt over-sensitized and under-utilized; he could really do with some more manhandling.

"Rodney," he said, only it came out as a kind of breathless gasp that John was fully prepared to deny all knowledge of in the future.

Rodney ignored him, gaze still intent on John's chest and belly; his hands were sliding slowly up John's ribs. John craned his neck forward, trying to see what the hell it was Rodney was looking at, but then Rodney's gaze snapped up to John's face, bright and narrow. His cheeks were hectic with color and mouth was a little too red, wet and so fucking tempting. "You need to be naked right now," he demanded, his tone conveying the same snappish impatience it did when he was using it on a spectacularly stupid minion, and John probably should have been annoyed, but he was grinning instead.

John gave in to the urge to roll his hips up, press his aching cock against the heat at the vee of Rodney's thighs. Rodney's eyelashes fluttered and he sucked in a breath, let John's hand on the back of his neck drag his face back down so John could kiss him again, sliding his tongue into Rodney's open, panting mouth. John managed to get his free hand up under Rodney's shirt again, and this time he had a goal, the hard, sharp little peak of a nipple; he brushed across it with the side of his thumb deliberately, and Rodney's back bowed deeply, pushing his chest into John's hand. John groaned into Rodney's mouth and flattened his palm against Rodney's chest and pushed him back, both hands fumbling at the hem of Rodney's science team shirt. "Let me, I want to..." he breathed harshly, and Rodney shifted obediently, his ass pressing down hard, sweet and firm against John's erection. John's hands lost track of what they'd been doing and snapped tight around Rodney's hips instead, dragging him down as John's hips arched up, the roll of pleasure so thick and rough that John's head fell back against the mattress, mouth open and gasping, eyes closed tight.

"Oh my God, look at you," Rodney moaned, somehow sounding simultaneously dismayed and desperately turned on, and shifted far more deliberately this time, knees sliding further apart, one big hand abruptly splayed beneath the small of John's back, deepening the arch of it as he pressed his ass down against John's cock.

John hadn't been so close to coming with all his clothes on since he was a fucking freshman in high school, and the harsh, guttural sounds he was making were the same ones he made while he came, he fucking recognized them, and it might have been all over right then except that Rodney's weight was abruptly shifting again, and by the time John wrenched his eyes open Rodney had swung his leg over John's thighs, no longer straddling him but kneeling beside him on the narrow bed, and was chanting, "Get them off, off, off," as he gripped John's t-shirt and jerked it up over his head.

John struggled to help, barely ducking his face in time to keep his t-shirt from catching on his chin, and he caught a glimpse of Rodney flinging it violently away before Rodney's hands were on his shoulders, pinning him down so Rodney could dip his head and lick a broad swathe across John's right nipple. "You, damnit, Rodney," John demanded inarticulately, but Rodney was totally oblivious, his tongue sliding slick and wet down the middle of John's belly to dip into his belly button, jolting John's spine into a helpless curve that was half-protest, half-pleasure and left him propped up on his elbows and staring down the length of his own body as Rodney licked along the waistband of his jeans and then drew back to drag his fingertips through the hair below John's belly button.

"Your skin, your skin, I want your skin," Rodney panted, and snapped the button fly of John's jeans open one-handed with a pop-pop-pop of buttons that John would have never in a million years suspected Rodney of being smooth enough to pull off, giving one side of the fly a quick jerk that was just enough to free John's cock from the denim, leaving it trapped in the thin cotton of his boxers. Rodney sucked in a breath and leaned forward, just pressing his forehead against John's belly for several seconds, breathing hard and fast against John's hip. When he sat up again, he rested his palm warmly against John's belly and gave him a brief, sharp look. "Stay with me," he whispered, and hooked the fingertips of both hands into the elastic of John's boxers, tugging them down, fingertips grazing John's hipbones in a way that was wholly familiar.

John sucked in a breath of his own and fixed his gaze on Rodney's to keep from sliding into memory, watching Rodney's dark eyes dip down to John's lips and linger there. He didn't look back down until Rodney did, until he felt cool air on his cock where it lay against his belly, and then he couldn't look away from Rodney's hands as he tugged John's jeans and boxers down far enough to keep them out of the way, and then just left them there, one hand curling around John's hip, his thumb sweeping bright, sweet arcs across his skin. His other hand hovered just above John's cock, which twitched up off John's belly as though yearning toward it. Rodney froze, hand nearly touching John's cock, and turned his face slowly to look at John. "You're so fucking beautiful," he said, eyes wide, voice soft and amazed, expression oddly helpless.

John stared back, transfixed, and husked out, "If you touch me, I'm going to come."

Rodney's lips quirked up and he arched a brow. "That's pretty much what I'm going for," he said, low and warm, and curled his hand around John's cock.

John tried to hold back, he really did, but even if the reality of watching Rodney's broad, hard hand curl around the blood-flushed shaft of his cock hadn't done it, even if the sudden shock of warm, tight pressure hadn't been enough to practically fucking liquify John's spine, the sight of Rodney tipping his head down to lap at the wet head of John's cock was just impossible to withstand. He made a harsh sound, more shout than groan, and bucked up into Rodney's fist, elbows sliding out from under him at the soft, lush feel of Rodney's tongue, and his whole body went taut and overheated, sweat abruptly slick at the small of his back, the insides of his thighs, his chest, coming so hard his back arched up off the bed and he felt it at the base of his spine, prickling at the soles of his feet and the top of his fucking head.

When he collapsed limply onto the mattress, Rodney was blinking at him thoughtfully, one side of his mouth hooked upward. There was come on his chin, John saw. "Okay," Rodney said slowly, soft little smirk widening into a soft little smile. "I admit, I really thought you were exaggerating there."

John glowered half-heartedly at him, but it was fairly hard to be pissed while post-coital. "No, not really," he said.

"I stand corrected," Rodney agreed, and his smile went a little smug, which John had actually been expecting sooner.

"I hate you so much right now," John told him.

Rodney's smug smile stayed firmly in place. "Oh, because that's rational," he murmured against John's hipbone, and then dipped his head down to lick come off of John's belly with long, lazy swipes of his tongue, a move that was so intentionally dirty and hot that John's cock twitched exhaustedly and his breath hitched a little, and it took him at least three seconds longer than it should've to realize that Rodney was working John's jeans and boxers down his thighs while he did it.

"I think we should establish some mutual nudity guidelines," John said distractedly, watching Rodney's pink tongue slip out from between his lips and paint heated stripes along John's tingling skin. Rodney flicked a sly glance up at him, and then turned his face just enough to slip his lips over the head of John's cock. "If you were naked, you could fuck me," John moaned, and was gratified at the way Rodney's eyes went first wide, and then narrow, the whole thing made even more scorchingly filthy by the way Rodney's lips were stretched and pink around the head of John's still mostly-soft cock.

He pulled off John slowly, taking the time to lick once along the shaft, base to tip. John's hips twitched up in response, and then Rodney was at the foot of John's bed, jerking John's running shoes off and tossing them aside, jerking his jeans and boxers the rest of the way down and dropping them in a tangle of cloth. His hands went to the bottom of his own shirt, but he paused when John bent his knees, feet flat on the mattress and thighs wide open, and stared at John, the familiar razor-sharp focus, eyes intent on John's thighs, his ass.

John wasn't getting hard again for a while, but that didn't stop the electric shiver of it, buzzing ferociously over every inch of skin that Rodney's eyes lingered on. It would have been blistering all by itself, but it was compounded by the knowledge of what it felt like in the neural interface, and multiplied exponentially by the juxtaposition of Rodney on Kurn, this exact expression, fascination coupled with searing want, the feverish intensity of being the subject of Rodney's undivided attention, something that John was willing to stipulate that maybe he'd always wanted without ever having let himself understand it.

"C'mon," John breathed hoarsely, and rolled his hips a little, way past whatever shame he might normally have possessed.

If he'd ever thought about it -- which, okay, yeah, he'd been thinking about it -- he'd have guessed Rodney'd be shy about stripping down. The fact that he'd seen half of Atlantis naked while never even having seen Rodney without a shirt seemed a pretty strong argument in favor of shyness.

Either he was totally off the mark, or Rodney'd lost his own sense of shame at the same time John had -- in the interface, John thought in a moment of clarity -- because he jerked his shirt off and dropped it, popped the button of his khakis and jerked them down, boxers and all, bending just long enough to get his boots off and kick the whole pile away with one foot.

"You," Rodney said then leaned in, one knee on the mattress between John's thighs as he drew himself up John's body without touching, both hands planted above John's shoulders while John's eyes roamed across his broad shoulders, took in his pale pink (oh, fuck) nipples and the light patch of hair above his breastbone, the slight curve of his belly, and then snagged on the thick, deeply red length of Rodney's really ridiculously large cock.

"You're fucking kidding me," John muttered, one hand already twitching toward Rodney's cock; the other landed somewhere in the middle of Rodney's back to drag downward until he was palming the taut, warm curve of Rodney's ass. Rodney, still propped up above John on his palms, went still as John fisted his cock, exhaling harshly, and then shuddered. His biceps bunched with effort, and John turned his head to slide his lips along the left one, tongued the trembling skin stretched over flexing muscle, and tasted salt and skin, a hint of soap. Rodney's chin tipped up, teeth bared in a grimace that looked almost pained, the tendons on his neck standing out in sharp relief. He made a quiet, ragged sound as John slid his thumb across the silky head of Rodney's cock, and tightened his fingers around the width of it, which was seriously, really fucking big. "Where the fuck were you hiding this thing," John groaned, and tongued the tendon in Rodney's neck, closed his teeth lightly on it.

Rodney huffed out a breath that was part laugh, part moan, and choked out, "I'm a grower," even as he rolled his hips, pushing his cock through John's fist in short, stuttering jerks, like he couldn't help it. "God, John, God."

"There's lube," John gasped, abruptly needing, fucking desperate, "It's--"

"Not going to happen," Rodney hissed, as he let the length of his body finally press down on top of John's, John's hand still trapped between them, and muffled whatever protest John might have made with his mouth. John parted his lips for Rodney's tongue and hooked his calves around the backs of Rodney's thighs automatically, arching his back to get as much of his skin against Rodney's as he could manage while Rodney kissed him, his mouth wet and soft and luxuriant, a perfectly balanced confluence of sweet and needy and harsh and generous.

John had never been kissed so intently; he'd never kissed anyone back so recklessly. He felt simultaneously drawn in and pinned down, Rodney's weight heavy and welcome against his body, Rodney's mouth pressing sweet sounds against his, whispery little moans, winsome and defenseless.

Rodney had a hand pushed into John's hair, blunt fingertips dragging pricklingly along his scalp, big palm curled around the back of his head; his other hand cupped briefly around the curve of John's ass and then slipped heatedly along the back of his thigh.

"C'mon," John demanded, jumbled against Rodney's lips and tongue, not even sure what he was asking for now, just wanting, and the pretty little sounds Rodney was making went deep and rough in response; John's hips reacted mindlessly, rocking up, and Rodney spread his thighs, giving himself some leverage to work his cock through John's fist. The move pressed John's thighs up too, and he shoved his knees against Rodney's ribs and canted his hips up so that his half-hard cock was pressed against the inside of his own wrist, flexing as he jerked Rodney's cock with necessarily short, brutal strokes. "Yeah, Rodney, fuck, yeah."

Rodney's chest was sticky with sweat against John's, and he was shuddering, panting against John's lips and shoving his cock into John's fist. "John," he moaned pleadingly and Christ, that was so fucking hot, and then he said it again, drawing it out into a low, rasping groan as he tensed, head tipping back again, and John could see his fluttering eyelids and slack, wet mouth as his come pulsed hot and slick over John's hand and belly.

Rodney went immediately boneless, warm, sweaty skin pressed against John's; he was still shuddering a little, his cock twitching in the loose curl of John's hand, which was still wedged between them. Rodney kissed his shoulder, still breathing fast, and John tangled his fingers in the sweaty hair at the nape of Rodney's neck and stared contentedly at the ceiling for a while, enjoying a rarely experienced moment of all-is-right-with-the-galaxy.

After a couple of minutes, however, the boneless thing started getting sort of uncomfortable. Rodney's forehead was pressed into the pillow, his lips touching John's shoulder, and that felt nice enough that John managed to wait until Rodney's breathing had evened out to wheeze: "Respiratory distress is not an acceptable substitute for afterglow, Rodney."

Rodney let out a muffled snort, but obligingly rolled to one side, freeing John to take a complete breath for the first time in what felt like three days. John carefully uncurled his sticky fingers from around Rodney's cock; Rodney made a hrmphing sound of displeasure, but it morphed into a hmm of contentment as John pushed his face against Rodney's sweaty shoulder and closed his eyes. "You fail at following directions," John murmured, sleepy and feeling a little on the smug side himself, for once. "You were supposed to fuck me."

"Oh God, I knew you were going to be high maintenance," Rodney complained drowsily.

John's considered wiping his come-sticky hand on Rodney's back just to hear him squawk in outrage, but then decided against it, rubbing it on the sheet instead.

"I'm just saying," he drawled, and grinned against Rodney's shoulder, "that you had the chance, and now it's my turn to be on top."

Rodney opened one eye to look at him. "Wait, there are turns, now?"

"There've always been turns, Rodney," John grinned.

"There are not turns," Rodney scoffed, and closed his eye again firmly.

"Whose turn is it to pick out the movie?" John asked.

"Mine!" Rodney snapped automatically, and then opened the same eye again to glare.

"And it's my turn to be on top," John agreed placidly.

"Fine," Rodney sighed, and flapped an uncharacteristically lackadaisical hand at John. "Then it's my turn to get a blowjob."

"Oh, you so did not give me a blowjob!" John objected.

"You came in my mouth," Rodney pointed out smugly, the corner of the eye John could see crinkling up. "You very nearly came up my nose. It absolutely counts."

"It does not count," John growled. "And I warned you! How is it my fault that you didn't listen?"

Rodney smirked and closed his eye again. "I didn't say it was your fault, Colonel Hair-Trigger; just that it counted."

John sulked silently for a few seconds, and then wriggled over onto his side to bump his now mostly-erect cock against Rodney's hip.

"Sleeping here," Rodney grumbled, but shifted his weight just enough so that his hip was pressed snuggly against John's groin.

John slung his arm over the small of Rodney's back. His chest was a little tight, and he was feeling alarmingly pleased with the universe -- the kind of feeling that inevitably ended in an unexpected, galaxy-threatening emergency, in his experience.

He didn't give a shit; the galaxy was going to have to take care of itself for a while. Rodney was warm and pliant and still sort of half draped over John, and the corner of his mouth that John could see was curved firmly upward.

"You didn't drink the tea, either," John said, entirely without meaning to, though he'd been thinking it, of course. Since the moment he'd slipped into memory in the interface, since the moment he'd realized that Rodney had slipped into memory with him.

Rodney's visible eye opened slowly, and he shifted a little further onto his side so that John could see that both of Rodney's eyes were open. He didn't say anything.

"Look, it's never been my thing, but I-- We could try it. If you wanted," John offered awkwardly, wishing desperately that he could rewind the last ten seconds or so and just wriggle in closer and rub off against Rodney's hip instead of opening his mouth.

"Try..." Rodney repeated, frowning a little in what appeared to be genuine puzzlement.

"Your thing, Rodney," John huffed exasperatedly. "Your kinky-spanking-thing! I mean, I'd really rather wait until the rest of the bruising has faded, and I'm not sure how it'll work with the memory-thing..."

He let the sentence trail off because Rodney's eyes had gone big and round and shocked, and John couldn't quite figure out if he should be offended that Rodney was so completely surprised that John would be willing to try something Rodney so clearly liked, or what.

"You think I want to spank you?" Rodney asked, sounding so boggled by the notion that John was having a hard time not gaping stupidly at Rodney's gaping at him.

"I'm kind of confused about why you're confused here, Rodney," John said after several seconds, managing a fairly even tone in spite of his utter, utter bafflement.

Rodney shifted himself up to one elbow, apparently so that he could gape at John some more. "You--" he sputtered, and "I--" and then he gave John another wide-eyed look.

"What?" John demanded, and then actually did wave one hand wildly; it was surprisingly cathartic. "What, Rodney?"

"I don't want to spank you!" Rodney denied, still sounding completely aghast at the idea. "That isn't my--" He did big air quotes, which John thought was really fucking pushing it. "'--thing.'"

"Rodney," John said pointedly, just looking at him disbelievingly.

"Okay, yes, I don't mean to say that it wasn't blindingly hot, but that was because I undressed you, and then you were naked and sweaty, and then you were all stretched out and flexing and gorgeous, and okay, there might have been some element of spanking hotness, even, but that wasn't because I want to spank you, that was just the--"

He stopped abruptly, and John watched with bemused interest as Rodney flushed slowly, and he'd been right, Rodney's flush went all the way down to his soft, pink nipples.

"So..." John said, dragging his eyes away from Rodney's nipples. "So, wait. Do you or do you not have a 'kinky-spanking-thing?'" He even did the big air quotes just to watch Rodney narrow his eyes in irritation. "Because I really thought there was a whole conversation that pretty clearly implied that you did, except in the way it didn't just imply it because I actually said it, and then you actually said it. So give me a break if I somehow got the wrong idea here."

Rodney opened his mouth, and then closed it again, face still deeply flushed, brows scrunched together in a pained expression, and John abruptly felt bad for him.

"Hey," he said, and slid his hand around to Rodney's hip. "Hey, look. I nearly came up your nose, right? You can tell me stuff."

Rodney opened his mouth again, and then paused to give John a withering look. "Oh, that's your basis for intimacy, is it? Color me astonished," he snapped, and rolled his eyes.

"Or not," John soothed. "We could just forget about your kinky-spanking-thing."

"I don't-- It's not--" Rodney hissed, and then stopped to glare at John murderously. "It's really more of a theoretical thing anyway!" he spat.

"A theoretical spanking thing," John said.

Rodney sighed and flopped over onto his back, staring attentively at the ceiling. "Yes, a theoretical thing," he insisted in his nastiest tone, but he wouldn't look at John. "As in, the kind of thing you theoretically find arousing, but have gathered no practical data concerning."

"No practical data," John repeated dubiously.

Rodney waved a dismissive hand at the ceiling. "Other than that. And that wasn't the same thing anyway." He gave John a brief sideways look. "Contrary to what you may believe, it's not all about you." He smirked, but it was an odd little smirk, neither smug nor snide, but actually sort of, almost, inexplicably vulnerable.

"Hey," John said, and ran his thumb lightly across Rodney's hipbone; he really wished he'd just kept his mouth shut. "I didn't think-- I just meant--" He pressed his lips together tightly for a few seconds, trying to arrange a complete sentence in his head that both a) made sense, and b) meant what he meant it to mean, while also being c) impossible to mistake as meaning anything he didn't mean it to mean. Finally, he settled for: "If you hypothetically had a kinky-spanking-thing, and it was something you wanted me to be somehow involved in, um, making less hypothetical, I'd be okay with that even if it was also hypothetically something I wasn't sure about liking."

Rodney was giving him a faintly suspicious look. "This had better not be the part where you tell me you want to pee on me," he said seriously.

John rolled his eyes, but somehow his left hand had started rubbing little circles against the soft skin of Rodney's belly. "I don't want to pee on you, Rodney," he sighed.

"Well, I don't want to pee on you, either," Rodney asserted definitively, his tone seeming to indicate that the conversation was over.

Since John had no idea what, if anything, they'd actually concluded -- aside from their mutual disinterest in watersports -- he figured it might be a good idea to just keep his mouth shut this time.

A couple of minutes passed in silence, and John was just starting to feel a little sleepy again when Rodney wriggled over onto his side and unceremoniously curled a hand around John's cock, which was now only about half-hard, as John didn't typically find confusion or exasperation a turn-on.

Rodney gave his cock a few long, firm strokes. John opened his eyes a sliver to watch Rodney's arm, biceps bunching, the muscle and tendon beneath the skin of his forearm flexing. Rodney was looking down between their bodies at his hand on John's cock; John tipped his chin down, and watched as the dark red head of his cock was swallowed by the careful, competent curl of Rodney's long, blunt fingers, emerging even more deeply red and with a bead of moisture clinging to the slit as Rodney slowly dragged his fist down the shaft, tightening his grip slightly at the base.

John gave a leisurely, experimental roll of his hips on the next upstroke, and Rodney made a quiet, startled sound, his hand going hard and brusque and absolutely fucking fantastic. Rodney licked his lips, his gaze flicking up to John's face for a second before sliding back down to John's cock. He didn't move his hand, so John rolled his hips again, pushing his cock through the curl of Rodney's fist slowly; Rodney's grip was almost too tight, so tight that more than a few fast jerks would've hurt, would've burned, but the slow, deliberate roll of John's hips kept it sweetly rough, just on the right side of pain.

"Yeah, that's--" John sighed huskily and closed his eyes, letting his head roll back loose on his neck, the big muscles in his thighs flexing rhythmically as he worked his cock in Rodney's grasp.

"Keep your eyes closed," Rodney murmured throatily, and John barely managed to make some kind of inarticulate noise of assent in response. "God, that's hot," Rodney muttered almost absently, which did something bizarre to the heat slowly coiling in the pit of John's belly, made it go tight and jagged at the same time that it went oddly soft, spreading to his chest and face. "A little faster," Rodney instructed in a little whisper, and John hissed out a breath as he obeyed, but it was good, just enough to make the heat of Rodney's hand feel hotter, the rough friction feverishly good.

"It's like this, John." Rodney's breath fluttered against John's neck just before his lips brushed against his collar bone just to the left of the hollow of his throat; the base of John's spine went shivering and liquid at the way Rodney said his name, low and sultry and sweet. He could hear himself panting, fast and open-mouthed, and if his first orgasm had been fantastic, this one was building toward shattering.

"Yeah, just," he moaned, and Rodney licked a slick path up his neck and across his jaw, and nipped at his bottom lip.

"A little harder," Rodney breathed, fist tightening around John's cock; John's hips stuttered, and he was suddenly there, on the ragged, aching edge of coming, gasping hard and so close, and Rodney whispered, "When I think about it, I think about it like this; I jerk off like this, and I think it would be hot and it would burn and I might have bruises after, but it would be just right."

Oh, John thought, understanding unexpectedly rushing in his brain as his blood rushed in his ears, and, "Oh, oh, fuck," he groaned as he came, shoving his cock frantically through the ruthless curl of Rodney's fist as the sharp coil in his belly clenched into a hard, bright knot and then spiraled outward, a radiant wash of pleasure that snapped his whole body wire-taut, skin too-tight and shivering, and seemed to go on forever.

When he opened his eyes, Rodney was looking at him, eyes dark and hungry and completely familiar. He licked his lips once, breathing a little uneven, and said, "That was..."

"Yeah," John agreed, his own breathing even more ragged, voice low and rasping and stunned-sounding. John's skin was still tight and tingling, a startling counterpoint to the way all his muscles felt heavy and overheated and leaden, and even his joints felt extra flexible. His cock ached dully, like an over-extended muscle; the kind of ache that followed a hard workout. The kind that made you stretch and bend just to feel the bright pull of it with satisfaction. "Yeah," he repeated, and sort of melted over onto his back, one arm dangling limply off the side of the bed, blinking at the ceiling dazedly.

Rodney shifted beside him, and a moment later he was swiping at John's belly with what looked suspiciously like one of John's t-shirts. He scrubbed his own hand on it, and tossed it over his shoulder, and then scooted down the bed a little, one arm curled under his head and he stretched out on his side, gaze roaming lazily across John's body.

"I didn't have a choice about the tea," he confessed after a long time, voice quiet and uncertain. "When I went to the infirmary to get ice for my hand, Carson showed me the results from the big scanner. The effects of the eilisi on my central nervous system had progressed a lot further than your scans showed the progression to be. Carson seemed pretty sure that it was already too late; that past a certain point it was like Keenan told us. The memories were hard-wired." His voice had gone a little bitter. "Apparently there are draw-backs to having a brain that works like mine."

John rolled his head to look at Rodney. "And you weren't going to mention this?" He couldn't work out how he should feel about this additional information; he kind of thought he should be upset, but he was tired and relaxed and Rodney was a warm, reassuring heat pressed up against the entire right side of his body, and he just wasn't feeling it.

Rodney flashed a guilty look at John, chin rising a little, but just pressed his lips together and shook his head. "I thought-- It seemed like maybe you might not want to know," he said haltingly.

Which actually made more sense than John liked. He sighed. "It wasn't the best experience ever," he admitted. "But it was mine. And. Some of it, I... It wasn't all bad."

It wasn't the best explanation, maybe, but Rodney seemed to get it. "And you never drink the tea," he said, but he sounded amused this time, voice warm, with only the faintest trace of exasperated resignation.

For several long seconds, neither of them said anything. They looked at each other, and John could almost feel the flashback that had happened while they'd been in the neural interface hanging between them; he really didn't want to talk about it, honestly wasn't sure he even knew how to talk about it. The idea of trying to condense it into words seemed hopelessly unlikely. It couldn't be encapsulated in language.

Rodney must have agreed, because he didn't say anything at all, and after a while the tension around his eyes eased and the flat line of his mouth relaxed enough to quirk a little on one side.

Unexpectedly, John found himself on the receiving end of a long, absently fond sort of look, Rodney's mouth still a little kiss-darkened and hooked into a smile. It took John a little while, looking at it, to realize that Rodney looked happy. It wasn't the first time he'd seen Rodney looking happy, of course, but it was an uncommonly soft version of the usual expression, which was mostly laced with manic energy or smug satisfaction.

John's hands twitched, and he shifted over onto his side to face Rodney so he could curl one of them around Rodney's hip; Rodney pushed a knee between John's and slung his arm over John's side where it came to rest along the dip of John's waist.

"I could totally spank you," John said.

Rodney's mouth twitched, and for a moment John couldn't tell whether he'd said something stupid; then the quirk resolved into an upward slant, and one of Rodney's eyebrows arched. "Is that so?" he asked, hand warm and broad splayed across the small of John's back.

"Yeah," John said a little hoarsely, and licked his lips. His brain circled around the image of Rodney on his knees, ass in the air, and then helpfully inserted the low, beguiling sounds Rodney had made at first, and the way they'd deepened and roughened, and then something hot and logical snapped into place, and he knew how he could get Rodney over one knee -- he was too broad for John's lap to really work -- so that he could feel Rodney's cock against his thigh, and yeah. "Yeah," John repeated. "If you want."

Rodney's eyes had gone dark again, but he just pressed his hand harder against the small of John's back until John wriggled closer, Rodney's thigh warm and solid and comfortable between John's, Rodney's forehead almost touching his. "Yeah, okay," he said.

***

John woke slowly to the low murmur of Rodney's voice above him. He opened his eyes, and Rodney threw a sharp glance at him, saying, "Yes, yes, I'll be there in a minute; don't touch it until I get there."

John blinked, and Rodney unhooked the radio from over his ear and sighed. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, naked and unselfconscious; he had pillow-wrinkles pressed into one side of his face. He slid a warm hand along John's upper arm, and said, "That was Radek."

"Mrmm," John grumbled, and tried to pull Rodney back down onto the bed with sleep-clumsy hands.

Rodney grinned, showing his teeth, and leaned down to drop a kiss on John's shoulder. "I'll see you later," he murmured against John's skin, and then extricated himself, ninja-like in his deft avoidance of John's grasping hands.

"You suck," John mumbled grumpily, burrowing his face into his pillow.

"Yes, yes," Rodney said in the same tone he'd just used on Zelenka; John could hear him getting dressed. "That would be why it's my turn to get a blowjob."

"Hrmph," John said sleepily, Rodney dropped another kiss onto his shoulder before he left.

John pulled the covers over his head, determined to go back to sleep.

After a while, when the bed didn't get smaller or warmer or more filled with Rodney, he sighed and rolled over, kicking the blankets down around his ankles and stretching hard. His muscles ached a little, which made John warm with memory, and he looked at the ceiling for a while, smiling and still-sleepy. The room smelled like sex, and his bed smelled like Rodney, and it took far more effort that John wanted to consider to talk himself into getting into the shower.

When John stepped out his door, dressed in sweats but still not totally sure he wasn't going to just skip the run and go get some breakfast -- he hadn't managed to eat dinner the night before, what with all the sex, and he was starving -- the first thing he saw was Maitreyi at the far end of the corridor; there was a panel leaning against the wall beside her, and her hands and arms were busy doing something inside the wall.

He jogged down to her and stood there watching as she detached a couple of wires, then nudged a rounded node with her fingertips. It took John a few seconds to recognize it as an Ancient camera, and then he turned in the direction in which it was pointed and gazed thoughtfully down the hall, toward his quarters.

Maitreyi hooked a data pad up to the camera with quick, practiced motions, regarding the screen thoughtfully. She nudged the camera node again, and consulted the data pad, then nudged it one more time before making a small sound of satisfaction, unhooking the datapad and rewiring the camera.

"I thought you trusted Horton," John said, but he didn't sound worried even to his own ears.

"Lieutenant Horton isn't the only person with access to the security office, or to the video footage compiled," she murmured absently, and fitted the wall panel back in place.

When she was done, she turned and gave John a tiny smile. "Good morning."

John smiled back. "Good morning, yourself. You should probably do Rodney's, too." He curled a hand briefly around her elbow, and her smile widened slightly; that seemed to be almost enough to satisfy the tingle in John's palms this morning. She had been right; it was fading. Still, he found himself turning to face her and tipping his forehead down to hers. She leaned in easily, as though familiar with the gesture, even though he was pretty sure this was her first time.

"Of course," she said dismissively, her tone implying that she'd already thought of that, but she when they pulled back she was smiling almost a whole smile. "Take care to stay to the east, close to the wall," she said.

Which made sense; it would be reckless to disable the cameras entirely. "I'll tell him."

"Evan is in the mess," she said, and flicked her fingers at him, a gesture that was all Rodney, and made John grin. "You should eat something."

"Yes, ma'am," John agreed, and gave her a sloppy salute. "What time is your mission?"

"Ten o'clock." She gave him a brief look that was outwardly calm, but John could see the faint tension underlying it. "I have not been on an off-world mission."

"Evan will be there," he told her, and the reminder was enough to make her visibly relax. "I'll sit in on the briefing. You'll be great."

When he walked into the mess, Evan was sitting with Ronon and Teyla. John grinned, pleased, though he couldn't actually say why. It wasn't until after he'd filled his tray and sat down next to Teyla and across from Evan that it occurred to John to be somewhat belatedly weirded out by the insta-bond the neural interface had created.

Something that had taken time and trust and several near-death situations for his team to build had been recreated almost instantaneously with Evan and Maitreyi, and maybe the only reason he hadn't been freaked out by it before was that the whole situation had been entirely too fraught, too urgent, and then had been rendered unimportant by Rodney dying.

He stared at Evan over the width of the table for several seconds, and Evan gave him a brief, questioning eyebrow.

"It's just weird," John said, jolted into honesty. "It's just so weird how--" He made an awkward gesture, aware that both Ronon and Teyla were looking at him along with Evan. He had no idea how to end the sentence, so he shut his mouth.

Ronon gave Evan a long, speculative look.

Teyla looked from John to Evan -- now Evan looked a little freaked out, too -- and asked, "The experience was that powerful?" She sounded intrigued.

"Yes," Evan answered, even as John nodded. "It was. Yes." He and John exchanged an awkward look, and started eating again at the same time.

Ronon and Teyla watched them eat for three or four seconds, and then looked at one another. John pretended great interest in his eggs while they exchanged what were undoubtedly significant but enigmatic looks.

They were saved further discussion by Rodney appearing abruptly at the end of the table, clutching his giant travel coffee mug. "I can fix it," he crowed, and then stole John's biscuit.

"Fix what?" John asked, and forgot to try and steal it back because Rodney was dressed in yesterday's rumpled clothes, and there was a red mark on the side of his neck that John could remember putting there with his teeth, and he smelled faintly of sweat and sex (though it was possible that John was imagining that, since he had inside information) and John's chest went weirdly warm and tight at the sight of him.

Oh my God, he thought, silently mortified, and tried not to look to see if anyone else at the table noticed the bite-mark even as he tried frantically to remember if he had any bite marks he should be concerned with.

"City systems," Rodney snapped, with 'you moron' heavily implied. He stuffed John's biscuit in his mouth and chewed happily, washing it down with several gulps of coffee. He reached across the table and tried to steal Ronon's biscuit, but Ronon made a threatening motion with a plastic butter knife, and Rodney made an abrupt and strategic course change and stole Evan's instead.

"Hey!" Evan objected, reaching for it, and Rodney displayed his ninja-like abilities again with a neat little pivot and sidestep, already shoving half the biscuit in his mouth. Evan scowled. "Just get a tray, Rodney!"

"No time," Rodney mumbled around his mouthful, thankfully somehow not spraying them all with crumbs.

Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Teyla giving Ronon a sideways look, both eyebrows arched; Ronon tipped his head and shrugged in response.

"Rodney," Teyla said disapprovingly.

Rodney waved the half-a-biscuit dismissively in Evan's general direction -- this time there was a little shower of crumbs as a result -- and said, "He knew what he was getting into."

Teyla looked surprised, and then, ever the diplomat, gave Evan an apologetic look.

"No, he's right," Evan said, albeit a little grumpily. "I pretty much knew."

"Yeah," Ronon muttered, "but knowing isn't the same as having your breakfast stolen."

Oh my God, John thought again, and fought back the perverse desire to snicker.

The military commander of Atlantis did not have hysterics in the mess.

"Here," Ronon said, and offered Evan his plasticware. "He's going to go for your bacon next."

Evan accepted it, looking alarmed, holding it poised over his tray.

"Traitor," Rodney hissed, and made an abortive move in the direction of Ronon's bacon before remembering that Ronon was always armed with several real knives; John could see the train of thought chugging along behind Rodney's eyes and recognized the logical conclusion almost a whole second before Rodney reached out and stole John's bacon instead.

John sighed and didn't try and stop him.

"Major Lorne," Teyla said, and then carefully added, "Evan." Evan turned toward her, looking a little surprised, but also pleased. "I would very much like to hear of your experiences in the cathedra, if you would be willing to discuss them?"

The tone was oddly tentative for Teyla, and she threw a brief, cautious look in John's direction, and then Evan was looking a question at him as well.

"Your call," John told him, and Evan smiled broadly, and even John, who'd been told on several occasions that he was largely ignorant of the emotional needs of the people around him recognized the whole thing as a carefully worded invitation, and thank God for Teyla, seriously.

"Sure," Evan smiled. "Sure, Teyla."

They continued to smile at one another warmly practically forever.

Right as John was starting to feel a little like running away, Rodney took advantage of Evan's distraction to steal his bacon, one of those moves that John never knew whether to attribute to Rodney's genius, his complete aversion to anything that smacked of mushiness, or an ignorance of the emotional needs of the people around him that dwarfed John's into insignificance.

He was a little slow, however, and Evan managed to whirl around and grab Rodney's wrist; there was a brief scuffle, both of them attempting to gain control of the bacon. Evan jabbed Rodney in the back of the hand with his plastic knife; Rodney yelped, "Ow, ow, ow!" and rapped Evan sharply on the back of the knuckles with his travel mug.

The whole thing looked perilously close to devolving into a slap-fight, and John considered interfering.

But Evan's hand was actually pretty loosely curled around Rodney's wrist, and he hadn't even left a mark on the back of Rodney's hand with the plastic knife. Also, Rodney hadn't seemed to even consider his very favorite food-thieving ploy, which was to immediately lick whatever it was he'd stolen.

John revised his opinion on Rodney's motives accordingly, and ate some eggs until Teyla glanced in his direction and he could give her what was probably a somewhat wild-eyed look of gratitude. She made a sound that was suspiciously close to a snort, and held her cup of tea up in front of her mouth, but he could still see the corners of her eyes crinkling.

"Do you really want it back, now that he's had his hands all over it?" Ronon pointed out in a low, amused rumble.

They paused, both of them looking at the bacon, and then Evan sighed and let go of Rodney's wrist, slumping back into his chair dejectedly.

Rodney smirked triumphantly and stuffed both pieces into his mouth.

Ronon stood and gave Evan a friendly smack on the shoulder that nearly pushed Evan out of his seat. "You'll get used it it," Ronon told him encouragingly, and wandered toward the bussing station with his tray.

John stabbed absently at his eggs until he realized the table had gone oddly quiet, and looked up to find Teyla and Evan concentrating fiercely on their breakfasts, and Rodney looking at him.

"Do you, um. Have a minute?" Rodney asked, giving John a brief, nervous smile that didn't quite reach his eyes; John gulped down what was left in his coffee cup and stood up so quickly that the legs of the metal chair made a shrill, unpleasant noise as they scraped across the floor.

"Sure," he said belatedly. A glance at the table showed Teyla smirking at her eggs and Evan giving him a brief, sharp look from beneath his eyelashes, which John recognized from the aftermath of the confrontation with Mikelson. In hindsight, and with the understanding afforded by having been in the neural interface with him, it was significantly easier to recognize it as Be careful.

Huh, he thought. Out loud, he said, "I'll be right back. Don't let them take my tray."

Rodney led him to a transporter and stayed a careful foot or so away from John; the transporter doors opened on the corridor that led to city systems, and John wondered if maybe this was actually genuinely work-related until they were in the city systems room itself -- the cathedra was still listing to one side, but was no longer sparking, and there were two laptops and a naquadah generator wired into it -- and Rodney curled a hand around John's wrist urgently and let out a slow exhalation that was almost a sigh, like he'd been waiting days to touch John.

"This room's a dead zone right now," Rodney told him, his mouth tight. "No power, no cameras." He waved his free hand in an oddly brief, helpless flutter. It wasn't a gesture John had seen Rodney make before, but he was pretty sure he knew what it meant.

"Hey," he said, and curled a hand around the back of Rodney neck, tugging him in. Rodney came willingly enough, let John kiss him and kissed him back, the same slow, sweet kisses that had surprised John the night before. "It's okay," John murmured, stroking his thumb behind Rodney's ear.

"It just occurred to me while I was working on city systems," Rodney muttered, and pulled back; his eyes were a little too-wide, just a little on the panicky side. "How many cameras do you think Atlantis has? Most of them have sound. How are we even--"

"Hey," John interrupted; he could feel the rant building up in the tension of Rodney's body, see it in the unhappy slant of his mouth and the line between his eyebrows. "Carefully," John told him firmly. He wasn't actually surprised to find himself playing the part of the voice of reason if the choices for the role were him or Rodney, but he was a little surprised at how close to calm he actually felt about the whole thing.

There were reasons John didn't do this, hadn't done this in more than a decade. He'd spent a long time teaching himself how not to think about it, how not to look at guys, because it was just easier than sneaking around, easier and safer and he liked curves and soft skin and long, thick hair just as much. It wasn't that it hadn't seemed to be a sacrifice, but it had been a sacrifice that he could live with in exchange for the sky.

Acceptable losses.

There had never really been anyone important enough.

But he was used to making hard choices, and he'd always been willing to ignore the rules when the rules were wrong and the stakes were high.

And Rodney would never be an acceptable loss.

"There are cameras in the halls, John," Rodney said, low and tight, but his shoulders had gone straight and his chin had come up, and he had that look. "They could courtmartial you. They could send you back to Earth."

John gripped Rodney biceps in both hands and gave him a little shake. He wanted to kiss the slant of Rodney's mouth away. Instead, he said: "You're not thinking."

Rodney sputtered, expression going indignant, which was at least better than tense and miserable, and he opened his mouth to object; John leaned in and kissed his bottom lip. It was really too bad that it wasn't a tactic he could use in the field; it made Rodney's shoulders loosen and he just stood there, after, mouth still a little open, giving John a baffled look.

"You're panicking, not thinking," John said seriously. Rodney closed his mouth slowly and narrowed his eyes. "Who's going to bring me up on charges? Evan?" John gave him a pointed look. "Who's going to see the security footage?"

"Maitreyi won't stay in Security," Rodney said, but he was thinking now, John could see it.

"The camera near my quarters has already been handled," John told him. "Yours too, by now, probably."

Rodney nodded; he was staring at John intently. "You're not freaking out at all," he said after several seconds. "I really thought there'd be freaking out."

"So you thought you'd get some preemptive freaking out in?" John smirked; Rodney scowled but didn't deny it. "Look, I make it a policy not to freak out about absolutes."

"Absolutes," Rodney repeated, but he was giving John the look that meant John had surprised him with unexpected physics knowledge or technical insight or a bit of math trivia. "So, this is..." He waved a hand at John and flapped it at himself, and then sketched a haphazard circle in the air. "Absolute?"

John grinned. "Absolutely."

Rodney huffed and rolled his eyes. "That was almost a moment," he grumbled. "We almost had a moment, and you ruined it."

John shrugged and tugged Rodney in close again, and Rodney smiled lopsidedly at him. "Yeah, well. What would we even do with a moment if we had one?"

"Hmm," Rodney said. "You may be right. They're pretty much wasted on us, aren't they."

"Let's make out instead," John suggested brightly.

Rodney snorted. "I suppose," he muttered grudgingly against John's lips.

 

//