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By the time Teyla told them that they were nearing the settlement, Rodney's running-commentary-slash-litany-of-complaints (ranging from the ridiculous time differences made possible by 'gate travel, the likelihood of some heretofore unknown type of radiation poisoning from the planet's unusual double sun, the unfairness of a universe in which alien pollen was just as detrimental to his delicate sinuses as Earth-standard pollen, the deplorable state of the barely-there path that the team was only following in a cursory manner, the poor quality of the breakfast in the mess segueing into how much Ancient tech Rodney would be willing to trade for something bacon-and-egg-like from the natives, and, of course, the stupidity of humanity as a whole) had morphed into an absent grumble. John noticed because he could actually hear most of Teyla's 'about the natives' speech, which he usually only caught about every fourth word of. Once he connected that to the lack of bitter rambling, he pivoted until he had Rodney in his line of sight, just checking to make sure he was still okay, still with them. Bizarrely enough, Rodney's constant, bitchy monologue had become the aural equivalent of 'all is right with the world' in John's head, and he laughed silently at the idea, at himself. Rodney was with them, even more or less keeping up, though he was deeply involved in something he was doing with his data pad.

"… a very orderly society," Teyla was telling them, her tone clearly indicating her approval of such order. She threw John a long look over one shoulder, and John looked back with his 'politely interested' expression firmly in place. "Their technology level is low, and they are content with that. My people have long traded with them, most often for food when our own harvests were poor, but also for cloth and occasionally for metal…"

"Metal," Rodney muttered. "Hmm." But it was quiet, and only John heard him.

"Get to the part where you tell us what not to do," Ronon said, voice completely serious, but somehow resonating with laughter.

"Very well," Teyla agreed, face as serious as Ronon's voice, and yet still conveying an eyeroll. Ronon tipped his chin toward her, all blank and careful attention, and John turned away, grinning, keeping Rodney in his line of sight, just out of the corner of his eye.

The planet was in the fervent grasp of late spring, the part where the flowers were everywhere and the sun was hot-but-not-scorching, and the air held a hint of cool moisture without actually being muggy. In spite of himself, John thought, Well, it's about time we got an easy mission, and then winced.

"… believe that the age of reason begins when a child first begins to speak, and from that time on every citizen is held accountable for their actions, without exception…"

"Huh," Rodney exhaled, and John changed direction just enough to cause their paths to intersect. Rodney didn't notice. He was paying more attention to the data pad in his hands than to his forward locomotion, which made his gait uneven, almost staggering, in spite of the nearly-flat terrain.

"… almost entirely physical; law-breakers are rare, and repeat offenders almost unheard of. I must caution you all to take great care not to violate…"

"What have you got, McKay," he asked softly (not wanting to interrupt Teyla, or earn a scolding for not paying attention, because he was, sort of), falling in beside him. Rodney jumped and gave John a 'die, moron, die' look. John scratched his chin with the barrel of his P90. Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Maybe nothing," Rodney said with a little shrug, turning his attention away from John and back to the data pad cradled in one curled arm. He tapped on the surface with the fingertips of his free hand, eyes narrowed against the glare of the sunlight on the screen.

"Maybe something?" John asked.

"…simple enough to obey. Anything unusual is always conveyed to visitors immediately…"

"Maybe," Rodney agreed absently, eyes flying across the screen, fingertips slip-tapping nearly as quickly. "Go away, Colonel; your stupid hair is making muppet-shadows on my screen."

Rodney, still not paying any attention whatsoever to the ground, veered sharply enough to cross between Teyla (on point) and Ronon (on their six), falling in parallel to John and equi-distant to Ronon and Teyla. Accidental Rhombus? John wondered. He doubted it, but he couldn't actually ask, of course. Rodney would pull out one of his really very effective expressions of disdain, and then John would be tempted to smack him, or possibly start telling knock-knock jokes. That drove Rodney totally bugshit. He was actually opening his mouth to start the one with the aardvark when Teyla announced, "I believe our welcoming party approaches," and John closed his mouth reluctantly and followed her gaze toward the tree line.

The four of them changed course and drew together as one. Rodney still didn't look up from his data pad. John grimaced and decided to talk to him about it later, though not too harshly. A year ago he wouldn't have expected Rodney to take a moment to size up the situation before being sucked back into his data; the fact that John did expect it now, and was annoyed at not getting it, wasn't lost on him.

Teyla was waving at the approaching natives, three of them, and they waved back. Ronon's hand curled and uncurled restlessly around the butt of his gun, so John joined in the waving, just to be reassuring. Rodney's fingertips were tapping like hail against the screen of the data pad, and John watched, amused, as he took three steps to the right and spun in a slow circle, another step, a frown, and then another spin. A pagan dance to the deities of data, John decided, and then Rodney took three sideways steps, which brought him to John's side (disabusing him of the notion that Rodney was paying no attention at all to his surroundings), and said, "Naquadah."

There was a pause, a handful of heartbeats, while John considered. "How much," he asked, because he'd done enough research to know that for the most valuable metal in two galaxies, naquadah was weirdly ubiquitous in trace amounts.

"More than just ground soil," Rodney murmured back as the natives drew near. "I'm not finding any concentrated deposits, but the range on the data pad really isn't optimal without the Puddle Jumper's power supply to back it up; I doubt I'm getting more than a couple of miles out of it. But. More than trace amounts, definitely."

John nodded just as they all stopped in the middle of the path to say hi to the natives, feeling the topography of the mission altering in his mind, going from, ‘hey, fresh fruit prevents scurvy’ and ‘it’s nice to have friends’ to ‘reactors and nukes.’ He tried really really hard to resist the urge to drool and daydream about the possibility of McKay getting his hands on enough naquadah to actually build them a few more Mark IIs.

"Teyla," the most obviously important of the three natives said with clear pleasure. He was wearing a kind-of-robe and a big flashy necklace that John tried not to think of as 'native bling' for fear that Teyla would hear him thinking it. He enfolded one of her hands in one of his, free hand cupping her elbow. Teyla looked equally delighted.

"Keenan, I am happy to see you," Teyla replied, and she really did seem to be, her smile wide and real, but John was still surprised when they reached for one another's shoulders simultaneously and tipped their foreheads together.

Surprised or not, he grinned, because he couldn't see how this could be a bad thing. Not just a planet Teyla was familiar with, not even just a culture (because Teyla wasn't infallible, witness the Genii), but a person, a single individual she treated as a valued friend. John let his P90 dangle against his hip by the carry strap. His good mood ratcheted up a notch. Teyla smiling like that meant safety, just like Rodney's restless litany of dissatisfaction meant safety, like Ronon's roaming gaze and steady attention meant safety. No need to worry about anyone stealing their scientist, or their gene-carrier for that matter, no need to worry about anyone turning their former runner over to the Wraith. No need… well, actually, nothing too bad ever really seemed to happen to Teyla, a fact that made John grin a little ruefully and wonder what that said about karma, at least as regarded the rest of them.

"Colonel Sheppard, this is Keenan Brahan; he is an Arbiter among his people, a position not unlike Elizabeth's. He was a good friend to my father, and to me." She beamed at John, and then at Keenan. "Keenan, Colonel Sheppard is the military leader of a team of explorers, a team that I have joined. Also with us are Doctor Rodney McKay and Ronon Dex. We come in hopes of trade, and I will admit, in hopes that the Kurnei will show these people the same friendship they have always shown the Athosians."

"We are well met, Teyla," Keenan said, and then to all of them, "You are all very welcome among us." He shook John's hand firmly, though without the elbow-fondling, for which John was fairly sure he was grateful. Keenan correctly read the 'Do Not Touch Me' body language Ronon was constantly transmitting, and didn't seem offended at merely exchanging nods.

Rodney, still enraptured by his data pad, delivered the briskest handshake known to man and a muttered, "Yes, yes, charmed."

"I hope that you will all join us at the settlement for a meal and conversation," Keenan offered, which John really hoped translated to something like, 'eat yourself stupid and bullshit a while.'

"We'd be happy to," he said, and then had to actually nudge Rodney with one elbow when he didn't start walking when everyone else did.

Keenan and Teyla did most of the talking, walking some distance ahead with both of the other natives in attendance. John amused himself by getting close enough to eavesdrop without seeming to eavesdrop. His impression of the two of them trusting one another was reinforced by the extremely abbreviated business portion of the mission, which was completed within about ten yards and went something along the lines of:

"Your new friends wish to trade?"

"Trade, yes, and alliances. They are from far away, and very much alone."

"Not alone with you as a champion, Teyla."

"I do not champion, Keenan, truly. They have no need of it. You will see."

"I believe you. What do you seek from us, materially?"

"Much as the Athosians did, I believe. Food, some cloth. I remember my father bringing home things of metal; it may be that they will wish to trade for that as well, though I do not know if it is required. Much of what they wish for is simply good will and information, and what they offer in return is often sorely needed medicines and knowledge. Technology, to those who wish it, and the understanding to use it. They trade as allies do, Keenan. For the good of both peoples."

"Ah. Well, our crops were bountiful this year, and our good will is freely given, as you know. We will help you, if we can."

John believed him, which came as a pleasant surprise. And that was it, he was pretty sure, everything settled but the details, and he wondered why they hadn't come here before now. Teyla had been providing intel on likely planets for a while now, after all, and it seemed a little weird to him. But still, it was nice to know that Teyla's good relationship with the Kurnei would make things so much easier, a foregone conclusion, as long as no one did anything outrageously stupid.

**

The settlement wasn't far, and John looked around it with interest. It wasn't Atlantis, but it was pretty, in a pastoral kind of way. There was a fountain in the center of town, and a small, crescent-shaped park-like area with benches and flowers and large, shade-giving trees. A few larger wooden structures that looked to John like public buildings -- an inn, maybe, and a general store -- surrounded the park on two sides, and set back from the public buildings on the third side, was a long, low building with only one door and no windows. The houses were a little further out, and were all in good repair, with real glass windows and unpainted exteriors.

Keenan showed them around casually, introducing them to a few people, explaining the simple barter system the settlement used, and pointing out things of local significance. It was all going very well until Rodney stopped dead in his tracks, chin coming up. He threw a glance at John, and then at Keenan, and then back to his data pad for a moment, licking at his lips, his data pad practically quivering with excitement. "What's that?" he demanded, already moving in the direction he'd pointed without taking his eyes off the data pad.

The rest of them were several steps behind when Rodney stopped next to what looked to John like a native gazebo, open to the air but roofed over as neatly as the rest of the buildings in the settlement. Rodney tapped at the data pad screen, and murmured, "Hello, hello," hunkering down to take a closer look in that way he only did when he'd found something that made him forget about native germs or straining his lower back, a swift, purposeful movement that was precise and graceful and would've probably surprised the hell out of Rodney if he could see himself doing that on video or something.

"Please, Doctor McKay, I must ask you not to touch the tablet," Keenan said, appearing beside Rodney like magic. His voice was a little tight, but he didn't move to shield the object from Rodney, didn't sound upset or angry. His tone was as even and polite as it had been from the beginning. "It is not… appropriate to handle it."

"Yes, yes," Rodney conceded, craning forward to get a better look. "But what is it?"

"We do not know," Keenan admitted, watching Rodney tap at his data pad curiously, still looking not the least bit alarmed. "It was here when we settled here, and is not a thing made by our people. We keep it as we found it, aside from the enclosure protecting it."

"Huh," Rodney said, and John came closer so that he could see what they were talking about. The object was deep enough in the shadow of the gazebo that it was difficult to make out any details, even once John was standing directly over Rodney's shoulder; from what he could see, it was flat, about the size of a pizza, and was covered with what looked like corrosion of some sort. John was pretty sure it was metal by the dull gleam that shone through in spots. "You're standing in my light, Colonel," Rodney complained, but only absently, too absorbed in what he was looking at to sound truly bitter about it.

John moved six inches to one side to let the sunlight past him, and saw… "Hey, is that Ancient?"

And bit his tongue as soon as the words left his lips.

"Rodney," Teyla said warningly, and,

"Please, Doctor McKay--" Keenan exclaimed, but too late, of course.

Rodney's fingertips were already gently, dexterously rubbing at a corner of the object until it gleamed mellowly, revealing what was definitely a half-dozen Ancient letters scored deeply into the surface.

**

"And you yell at me for touching Ancient artifacts!" John hissed, glaring at Rodney, who was glaring not-at-all-repentantly back.

"Oh, please, is something wrong with your eyes? It's not an Ancient artifact, Colonel, give me a little credit," Rodney hissed back. The four of them were in a huddle, Rodney, John, and Teyla leaning together to 'discuss the situation,' while Ronon stared warningly at the natives over their heads. Several of the natives were in a similar huddle a few feet away, and the only good thing about the situation that John could come up with was that they hadn't been tied up, shot at, or even yelled at thus far. "It's something else, not something gene-activated. The fact that it's got Ancient writing on it doesn't necessarily mean it was left by the Ancients. We aren't the only people in this galaxy that can read and write in Ancient."

"Well, what is it then?" John demanded.

"I don't know!" Rodney hissed furiously. "Somebody jerked me away from it before I could even get a look at it. Something that merits further study almost certainly, especially if it was written by the Ancients, because in case you haven't noticed, they haven't left a whole lot of hard copy littered about the place, and what they have left has a tendency to be very, very helpful!" John opened his mouth to snap back, and Rodney added, "Also, it's made of naquadah."

"It does not matter what it is," Teyla interrupted, the only one of them not hissing, or even attempting to lower her voice, and John and Rodney both turned to look at her because she sounded completely unlike herself, voice clipped and edged with something that sounded whole lot like disappointment. "It is a thing under the protection of the Kurnei, a thing you were clearly instructed not to touch, Rodney." She shook her head once, sharply. "I thought that you understood clearly the kind of culture the Kurnei have, but I think you must not if you will stand here, now, and argue about this when reparations must be made."

"Reparations," John repeated, already not liking the sound of that. "What exactly does that mean, Teyla?"

She gave him a brief, exasperated look. "You were not listening to me." She sighed. "I went to great trouble to explain how we must behave while we were among the Kurnei, and you were not listening to me."

"I was listening," John objected, working to project an air of wounded innocence while he frantically tried to remember what she'd been talking about before he'd been distracted by Rodney's distraction. "You said they were very orderly, and criminals were all but unheard of." He looked to Rodney and Ronon for help, but Rodney rolled his eyes and Ronon gave him a smile with a lot of teeth in it. "I was listening!" John objected again, but Teyla just pressed her lips together and shook her head.

"I was listening," Ronon said, and John gave him a nasty look.

Keenan and his escort -- still the same two young guys with no weapons and no military feel, which he took as a good sign -- chose that moment to break huddle and start back in their direction.

"Teyla?" John's hands curled around his P90.

"We are in no danger, Colonel," Teyla assured him softly. "The Kurnei will offer no threat. It is not their way."

And then Keenan was in front of them, and John forced himself to let go of his gun and put on a grave-yet-non-threatening expression. He didn't look angry, just solemn, and John let himself hope that things hadn't already devolved past salvaging. "We have discussed it," he told John, and gave him a nod. "Your ways are not our ways, Colonel; of this we are keenly conscious. I have requested and been granted some measure of leniency for Doctor McKay in light of that."

"Thank you, we appreciate that," but he hadn't missed the carefully phrased 'some measure of leniency.' "What does that mean, exactly?"

"Minor discipline," Keenan said simply, as if that would be explanation enough. John shot Teyla a glance.

"Wait, what?" One of Rodney's hands gesticulated crazily while the other held the data pad protectively against his chest. "Minor discipline? What does that even mean?"

Teyla caught Rodney's crazy hand and forced it down, took a breath and just held it for a few seconds. "Keenan, I beg your indulgence," she said without letting go of Rodney's wrist. "I… believe I was not clear enough in explaining to my people the expectations of the Kurnei. I believe that this situation is a direct result of my failure. As the failing was mine, I should be held accountable in Doctor McKay's stead."

Keenan cocked his head, considering. "Your people, Teyla?"

"As much as the Athosians, Keenan," she agreed, chin coming up a little. "I would willingly accept responsibility for any or all of them. The fault is mine."

"Okay, just hold on now." John threw a glance at Rodney, who was being uncharacteristically silent, but Rodney was just staring at Teyla, looking a little surprised. He was behaving, however, so John let him be. "Before anyone is disciplined in anybody's stead, let's all just settle down. Let's start with the basics. Keenan, when you say minor discipline, what exactly do you mean?"

Keenan gave Teyla a brief, puzzled look, but Teyla had gone all tranquil and Zen (and John was very aware of just how much calm, methodical shit he was going to catch for this later, and couldn't even be righteously offended, because he so deserved it), so he looked back at John. "I mean it is the same kind of discipline one would require of a child, Colonel, to punish an offense that is not serious, but must be discouraged."

Rodney inhaled sharply, and then made a short, choked sort of sound, and John saw that Teyla's hand around his wrist had tightened so much that the ligaments were visible beneath the skin. "The same kind of…" John repeated, frowning a little as he tried to work out the specifics of that, and he abruptly remembered Teyla's voice in the background while he talked softly with Rodney: "The Kurnei are remarkably civilized. They believe it is in everyone's best interests that people be well-behaved, and they are expected to always be so. Any incidence of unacceptable behavior is dealt with at once, and their method of discipline is almost entirely physical; law-breakers are rare, and repeat offenders almost unheard of." And yeah, as it turned out, this was actually his fault, because McKay might have done the deed but John should have known the consequences, should have known to watch out for him. Shit. "You want to give McKay a spanking?" John made himself ask.

Keenan blinked at him, and then flushed a little unaccountably, but nodded. "It is not what we would call it, but yes, Colonel."

"Wait, what?" Rodney yelped, though it clearly wasn't a question. "You want to spank me? Are you people insane? Do you have any concept at all…"

Rodney's voice died as John turned on him. He was fully aware that he was actually far angrier at himself than he was at Rodney, but he wasn't above using that to shut Rodney the hell up. He clamped one hand around Rodney's elbow and dragged him close enough that there would be no need to raise his voice, close enough that he could feel the heat of Rodney's thigh all along the side of his own thigh; he didn't look at Rodney, just said softly, almost gently: "Stop. Talking. Now. McKay."

Rodney jerked his elbow out of John's hand, and John turned to look at him. Rodney's face tightened, and for a second John thought Rodney was actually going to do as he said, but then, yeah, how likely was that, really? "Colonel, if you think for one second…"

"Ifyou'd think for one second, McKay, we wouldn't keep ending up in situations like this," John hissed softly, low enough that probably only Rodney and Teyla could hear him, knowing it was both unfair and untrue even as he said it. Rodney's mouth snapped shut, taut and crookedly unhappy, and he didn't even glare at John in response, just swallowed hard. John let go, feeling like a shithead but unable to actually do anything about it right at the moment. He turned back to Keenan and said the only thing he could say.

"No."

"Colonel," Teyla said, low and earnest, and John waved a hand at her to shut up.

"No. No one lays a hand on my people." John hoped it came out flatly factual, but his voice sounded both wary and a little offended even to his own ears, so he frankly doubted he'd pulled it off.

Keenan looked at John for a long moment, head cocked, and maybe it was wishful thinking, but he looked almost pleased. "Of course," was all he said, though, and either he was going to drop the whole thing, or he really did understand what John was saying, because he gave John a nod that was almost a bow, and went back to his huddle. John hoped it was the latter, because he wasn't relishing the idea of spelling it out for anyone.

And seriously, how did shit like this keep happening to him?

He didn't sigh, and turned back to his own huddle. He didn't think he was imagining Teyla's neutral-close-to-pleased expression, or the slightly more relaxed angle of her shoulders. For a moment, none of them said anything. Ronon met John's gaze without any notable weirdness, which was a relief (though not entirely unexpected; if anyone understood the 'do what you have to do' and 'when in Rome' combination philosophy, it was Ronon). Rodney was looking from John to Teyla and then back again, his expression stating clearly that he knew something was going on, he just hadn't figured out exactly what yet.

"So," Rodney said, abruptly breaking the silence, and John watched, weirdly fascinated, as a slow flush spread upward from Rodney's collar. But all he said was: "Are we going?"

Teyla gave Rodney a long look. "We may choose to, I suppose," she said, but she was as relaxed and untroubled-sounding as she ever got, which was simultaneously a relief, and really irritating. It saved John the humiliation of explaining, yeah, but it was a little irksome at how… casually she was treating the whole thing. "We may apologize and go back to the Stargate, and they will do nothing to stop us. Violence of that nature is not their way. If we choose to do so, however, we must abandon any trade we might have hoped for with the Kurnei. To them, we would seem to be faithless."

Rodney turned and gave the native gazebo protecting the mysterious naquadah slab a yearning look, but then he just turned back and nodded. "Okay, all right," he said, and it was continually amazing to John how someone so damn smart could be so completely oblivious sometimes. Seriously, John was going to kill Rodney some day. He really really was.

"We wouldn't want to be faithless," John drawled, striving for normal. He was going to do this. Damnit. He was going to do this, because maybe there was naquadah, and there was an interesting Ancient something-or-other, too, but mostly because there was definitely the possibility of real friendship here, and because he felt more than comprehended that it was important to Teyla that her friend think well of them, and because. Because it was John's fault for not paying attention, and he wasn't going to shirk the responsibility of that just because it was embarrassing.

He unslung his P-90 from over his shoulder and passed it to Teyla, then shrugged out of his vest, pack still attached, and handed the whole bundle off to Ronon. "Just how public is this going to be, Teyla?"

Rodney frowned at him; Teyla said, "Because the transgression was a minor one, and because the Kurnei are unlikely to wish to damage future dealings with us, I believe it will be done as privately as custom allows."

Which didn't really answer the question as far as John was concerned, but was reassuring anyway.

"Wait," Rodney said, watching John remove his thigh holster with something like disbelief. Then: "You are freaking kidding me!" which came out as a sort of breathless, indignant squawk (and bizarrely, it was kind of a relief to hear it; selfish or not, Rodney or not, it was nice to hear someone vocalize the weird mix of resignation and baffled mortification that John was pretending he wasn't feeling). "Colonel, you aren't seriously considering this. Allow me to once again fill the role of 'voice of reason' in this scenario: this is insane. You don't have to prove anything to anyone!"

Because he honestly tried not to say more than one really mean thing to Rodney per mission, John did not say: "Actually, I do. I have to prove that I'm a stand up guy. I have to prove that you behaving badly is not a reflection on all of Atlantis. I have to prove, by proxy, that we're willing to bend a little, because that's what friends do." Instead, he said, "Let's get this done."

Which seemed to be the magic words, because suddenly Keenan was right there, accompanied by a huge, Conan-the-Barbarian-looking native carrying a box. "Colonel, have you concluded your… discussion?" Keenan's tone was polite, but John was pretty sure he knew what kind of discussion they'd been having.

"Yeah, we're done," John asserted, and stepped away from his team. Rodney caught him by the elbow, startling the crap out of John for just a second, but he managed to turn the flinch into a slow turn of his head and an inquiringly cocked eyebrow.

"Colonel…" Rodney objected, his face tight and unhappy. He shook his head once, sharply, and then confused John completely. "Don't do this. There isn't, really, you shouldn't. I can. Don't… I'll do it."

And truly, could Rodney pick a worse time to have one of his (increasingly common) moments of bravery? "We're done talking about this, McKay." The fierce expression was weird on Rodney's face only because it didn't look out of place. It looked right at home, ferocious determination and barely sublimated fear, and for a long, bizarre second, John fought the urge to smile, because he was standing here feeling proud of McKay. "Don't, Rodney. It's gonna be fine." He registered Rodney's face, flickering through confusion and annoyance and frustration, before he turned to Keenan. "Let's go."

It didn't matter that Rodney meant it. There were certain things that John wouldn't do, couldn't do, and letting someone else physically harm a member of his team was one of them. Even here, even now, in a situation in which John was as sure as he was capable of being that it was safe, that there was no real danger, he just couldn't. It was a bad precedent to set, and considering the fact that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of populated worlds in Pegasus, it was truly bizarre how fast the galactic grapevine seemed to spin gossip. John didn't want precedents like that racing before them. John wasn't letting anyone touch his team, not for any reason. But he had to admit, it was nice to know Rodney objected.

"You do us great honor, Colonel," Keenan told him solemnly, and gave a nod to Conan, who hurried away with the box.

"I do what I have to do," John replied after a few seconds of silence that made it clear that he was expected to say something. Keenan actually smiled faintly, which probably should have pissed him off considering the circumstances, but instead it was oddly reassuring. "Not to be rude," John added, "but do you think we could get on with it?" Before Rodney's head explodes, he did not add.

"Of course," Keenan agreed. "Leovar has just gone to prepare the hall. If you and Doctor McKay would come this way?" He gestured with one hand, and John supposed he really shouldn't have been surprised, but he was. Oh, he got it, but he was surprised.

He threw a quick glance at Rodney, and it was clear that Rodney got it, too. He had his data pad clutched to his chest and he wouldn't meet John's gaze, but he didn't voice a single objection. He didn't even look like he was thinking about it. John didn't sigh. He walked in the direction Keenan was indicating, not at all surprised to see that they were walking toward the long, low building with no windows. He could hear Rodney following, and chose not to look back.

"So, this is where you guys do all your… disciplining?" John inquired, going for 'establishing a rapport with the natives by exhibiting interest in local customs' but pretty sure he was only succeeding at 'mildly anxious babbling.'

"Not at all," Keenan replied easily. "Most discipline is done publicly." He gave John a sideways look that said he knew John knew why, and John did, of course. "The hall is used only in exceptional circumstances."

Behind them, Rodney snorted, but didn't comment.

"I don't guess you'd be willing to decide that a sincere apology would do the trick, considering the 'exceptional circumstances?'" John offered, not thinking for a second that it would work, but willing to try anyway.

Keenan's lips quirked, and unexpectedly, he said, "I like you very much, Colonel. I hope that our people will be good friends."

He opened the door to the hall and went inside, not pausing to be sure that John and Rodney followed. John blinked and followed him in.

The inside of the hall wasn't what John expected. Not that John had had anything specific in mind, really. Just something a little more torture-y, maybe. Instead, it was a single, long room lit by what looked like oil lamps (but weren't, he was sure, and even as he thought it, he could hear Rodney tapping at his data pad, and had to fight back a completely inappropriate smile - again) and a fireplace, which was warm and, with the fairly low ceiling and unstained wood walls, might have even seemed cozy under other circumstances. The end of the room near the door had a low, some-kind-of-leather covered couch bedecked with pillows, and three large, comfortable looking chairs situated around a coffee-type table which rested on a rug in vibrant geometric patterns. The walls were hung with soothingly-neutral tapestries depicting landscapes, and a low table ran the entire length of the back wall.

The far end of the room was occupied by only a single piece of furniture, which looked a lot like a kinky sex bench from where John was standing.

Of course, he thought, not quite able to swing amused but not actually alarmed, either. Because if spanking was something you did on a fairly regular basis, obviously you needed something better than laps to do it over. Which was good, John told himself. He didn't want to become any more closely acquainted with Conan's lap then he was right now.

"Naquadah," Rodney muttered, waggling his data pad at one of the lamps, not quite a question and not quite directed at Keenan, who nodded anyway.

"A minor technology," he said, and shrugged out of the robe-like outer garment he was wearing, probably in deference to the heat of the room. He handed it to Conan, who hung it on a hook on the wall. "Crushed ore mixed with certain chemicals will burn clean and bright for some time. We will show you, if you like." After, was unspoken, but implied.

"Yes, yeah, that would be," Rodney murmured, apparently not catching the implied after, already putting his data pad down next to a lamp and tipping his head to one side to study it, hand hovering near to gauge the heat output.

Keenan followed Rodney with his eyes, then looked at John, both eyebrows arched and clearly bemused. John shrugged helplessly. "Later, Rodney."

"Oh, yes. Right. I'll just." He backed away from the lamp, still tapping at his data pad's screen one-handed.

"It's not going anywhere, Rodney," John said, sighing. "Can we just do this, please?"

Rodney glared briefly, but with nothing like the usual degree of exasperating arrogance, and walked back to John and then commenced to just stand there, silent and waiting. John had fully expected him to say at least something cutting, probably directed at John rather than Keenan, because Rodney was sometimes an asshole, but one of the things you rarely had to worry about was Rodney making the same mistake twice.

John gave him a long look. Quiet-Rodney was starting to freak him out a little.

Keenan gestured to the furnished area, not smiling, and John noticed that the table in the center of the grouping had a tea service set up.

"We're having tea?" Rodney's voice was almost without inflection, a tone that only happened when Rodney was so surprised that he hadn't yet formed an opinion on whether or not whatever caused his surprise was idiotic.

"It is customary," Keenan agreed, and gestured again, without any appearance of being in a hurry. John shrugged mentally, and settled himself into one of the chairs, which was fully as soft as appearances had suggested. Keenan and Conan settled themselves on the couch, and Rodney perched on the edge of one of the other chairs, data pad clutched in both hands. "There are things we must discuss before we begin; things you must know before you make the decision to continue with this. I hope that you will have patience with me. The things I must tell you are things that my people learn over the course of years, things that I'm not often called to impart in this manner."

"And while we do this, we're having tea?" Rodney asked, only the tiniest bit sardonic.

"No, Doctor McKay. The tea will come later, when you understand what it is you're offering to drink." Keenan's expression was arch, still with that faint air of amusement. "Please. I have asked for your patience, and have done nothing to merit a refusal in this. You are a man who seeks for answers, for understanding. Do me the honor of allowing me to offer you some."

"Yes, yes, I was only asking. There isn't any citrus in that, is there?"

Keenan sighed, lips quirking, and John realized (frankly surprised) that Keenan liked Rodney. "This tea is called eilisi and is brewed from the leaves of the eilisis. It provides the drinker with improved memory for a short time."

For the first time, Rodney looked more interested than irritated. "How much improved?" he asked, leaning forward curiously, data pad dangling between his knees.

"Perfect memory, for a period of perhaps half an hour. The time depends on the quantity consumed and the strength of the draught."

"Perfect, really, or perfect according to the ancient stories of your people?" Rodney wanted to know, and John winced a little at how much dubious arrogance Rodney managed to infuse into the sentence, but Keenan didn't seem bothered.

"Truly perfect, Doctor McKay, but there is no need to take my word for it. You will see for yourself." He gestured to the tea service. "It's traditional for the penitent to serve all parties involved. If you would be so kind, Doctor?"

Rodney looked like he had more questions (when did Rodney not have more questions), but John murmured, "Just pour the tea, Rodney." There'd be plenty of time to interrogate the natives about tea and naquadah later.

Rodney shot him a narrow look, and huffed impatiently. He was probably the least penitent penitent in the history of ever, John was willing to bet, but Keenan was still looking amused by Rodney, his eyes a little crinkled from smiling, so John didn't mention it.

"I was serious about the citrus thing," Rodney insisted, and leaned his data pad against the leg of his chair to pour. Once everyone had a cup of tea, Rodney lifted his cup to his nose to sniff suspiciously at it. "Because I'm deathly allergic to citrus, and I know you're not very happy with me just now, but I really don't think poisoning me is the answer."

John rolled his eyes. "Rodney…"

"There is nothing but tea in it, Doctor McKay," Keenan assured, giving Rodney a look that seemed oddly indulgent to John. "The eilisis is not a fruiting plant at all. The blossoms are brewed into this tea, eilisi; when you return, you'll be offered tea brewed from the leaves, eilisum, which will offer relief from that which you remember."

"Is that… a ritual or something?" John wondered, and sniffed at his own tea. It smelled grassy and a little sweet. It actually smelled pretty good. He'd have tried it then, in spite of the fact that it was steaming energetically, except Keenan had specifically said there were things he wanted to tell them before they decided to continue, so he put his cup back on the table.

Keenan frowned thoughtfully. "No. No, not a ritual, Colonel." He gave a self-deprecating little laugh. "I’m trying to think how to tell this." He gave Rodney a wry glance. Rodney was eyeballing his tea. "Quickly," he added, and smiled at John. "So. My people believe that humans have two minds, and that discipline must reach each part of the mind in order for it to be effective. Do you understand this?" He looked hopeful.

"Er," John said. "No?"

Rodney snorted. "He's talking about the intellect and the lizard-brain, moron." Then, presumably for Keenan's benefit, he added, "The intellect being the part of the brain that allows for rational thought, and the lizard brain being the part of the brain that governs instinct and aggression."

"Yes," Keenan beamed. "Precisely, Doctor McKay. That part of your mind that you use to think and the part of your mind that reacts as an animal reacts. We believe that both must be reached, must be affected, in order for any sort of discipline to be useful. This is why we drink eilisi tea before discipline, so that it is indelibly engraved in the mind. It is helpful to both, I believe, but the object is to infuse the memory in the part of the mind that does not think, that merely reacts."

"Behavioral conditioning," Rodney muttered darkly.

Keenan shrugged. "We believe… I believe that in many, perhaps even most cases, improper behavior stems from acting without thought, acting from that part of the mind that does not think. If that part associates pain and embarrassment with improper behavior, such behavior is less likely to occur without deliberation. It is in the nature of people to forget pain as soon as it is over. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism. We drink the tea - both those who are disciplined and those who perform the disciplining - so as to remember the pain. For the same reason, our women drink eilisi tea during childbirth. Do you see?"

John did see, and yeah, Rodney was more or less right. It was behavioral conditioning, but it didn't necessarily seem like a big deal to John, just because of that. It seemed no more harmful than John's knee-jerk desire to open a door for a lady or salute someone with stars on their collar. It wasn't like he couldn't resist either urge, if circumstances demanded it. "I see," John said, and Rodney hmphed but didn't disagree.

Keenan nodded. "I tell you this so you will understand, but truly you won't understand until you've experienced it." He smiled sadly, and shook his head. "Perhaps that, too, is a survival mechanism. There are many things people would not risk if they truly understood the consequences, and some things must be done regardless of the risk."

"Like childbirth," Rodney said pointedly, but Keenan just nodded.

"Precisely. Some women choose never to bear again, with the memory of it always present in their minds. Most, however, choose to drink eilisum, and release the memory. A few keep the memories, and choose to bear again anyhow. But all are allowed to choose. What is worthy of the pain for one woman may not be worthy for her sister. All are allowed to choose."

He gave John a long look. "You are an honorable man, Colonel, and I already know you will do this, for many reasons. I am curious to know if you will find the experience to be worthy of the pain. If you find that it is not, then I will brew the eilisum for you myself."

"This eilisum, when you say 'release the memory' do you mean completely, or is it merely the… antidote for the eilisi, so the memory is still there, but no longer as a 'perfect' memory?" Rodney asked, appearing genuinely interested.

"The memory becomes as any other memory, Doctor McKay, which is to say that it will remain bright in the mind only for a few days or weeks, and then will dull in both detail and significance, over time."

Rodney nodded thoughtfully.

Keenan leaned forward and picked up his cup, which was only steaming gently now. "If you are ready, then?" he asked, and tipped the cup to his lips.

John picked up his own cup, aware of Rodney watching him and waiting for the okay from John before he drank. The tea was mild-tasting, more like green tea than English tea, though it was faintly sweet. It was good. John wasn't a tea kind of guy, mostly, but this was more palatable than most ritual native beverages, and he gave Rodney a little nod.

Rodney took a cautious sip, and then a deeper one. "All right," he muttered absently, "Good, okay. It won't ever replace coffee, I suppose, but it's exponentially better than some of the ritual 'teas' we've had to drink."

"So," John said, taking another swallow of his own tea. "It's obvious why we're drinking the total recall tea, but why do you guys need to drink it?"

"Can you truly think of no reason why it would be necessary for an Arbiter to remember exactly what is about to transpire, Colonel?" Keenan asked, raising one brow in a way that clearly indicated that he didn't believe it, but he didn't wait for John to reply. "All who are involved must remember; all must understand the consequences of what they choose to do."

It would be, John was sure, a pretty effective deterrent. If you could remember every second as clearly as Keenan seemed to think you could, you could never pretend that you hadn't known what would happen, even to yourself. If you could remember every second of delivering every punishment you'd ever delivered, he was betting you'd eventually be pretty proficient at every aspect. Maybe that kept it from going too far. He wondered how Arbiters were chosen.

"Do you ever trade this tea?" Rodney asked, gazing thoughtfully into his cup. He looked calm, maybe a little introspective, but John could almost see his brain hurtling along, compiling all the ways it would be useful to be able to remember everything that happened over a set period of time.

Keenan actually looked a little startled at the question. "No, it is not something we've ever traded."

"Is it, are you opposed to trading it for, for--" Rodney waved a hand, "religious reasons, or whatever?"

"No, not opposed." He gave John a long look, and then gave Rodney a slightly briefer one. "We haven't been asked within living memory. Those from beyond the Ring that become familiar with its use do so just as you are about to. Many of those do not return to Kurn. Most of them we would not consider trading eilisi with in any event. It is valuable to my people, of course, but it is not something others seek out. And why would they?"

Rodney looked at Keenan for a few seconds, and then arched one brow. "You can't think of any reason why it would be useful to someone who wasn't about to participate in corporal punishment to be able to remember things perfectly?"

"Rodney," John said warningly, though he had to admit that, for Rodney, the sarcasm had been fairly low-key.

"No, Colonel, Doctor McKay is right," Keenan interrupted quickly, presumably before John could berate Rodney. "It is a good thing to be reminded to look beyond one's own narrow views." He gave Rodney a deep nod. "I can think of many reasons, Doctor McKay. But how many of those reasons are worthy?"

"Yes, well," Rodney said a little stiffly. "Worthy is an entirely relative term."

He considered Rodney gravely. "When you return, if you wish to offer something in trade for the eilisi, then we will discuss it, Doctor."

John thought Keenan looked dubious.

They lapsed into a somewhat-uncomfortable silence as they finished their tea. Conan still hadn't uttered a single syllable (John was trying not to find his silent-threat thing either irritating or ominous), and Rodney kept shooting sideways glances at John, and then not saying anything, which was weird enough that John avoided thinking about it. He was already keyed-up with the promise of pain, adrenaline flowing liberally; now was not the time to try to decipher Rodney's motives.

Keenan might have been meditating with his eyes open. He looked completely serene, at least until he rose to his feet in a quick, fluid motion. Rodney flinched broadly in a way that would've left John dripping with tea, if Rodney's cup hadn't been the first one empty.

John stood, too, and it occurred to him to ask, "The effects of the tea, are they going to…" knock me on my ass, send me to the moon, cause me to have a snack attack in the middle of my spanking?

"You will not notice the effects until later, Colonel. At first the memory will be so fresh it will seem normal, just as anything else that just happened to you might. In a few hours, or perhaps in the morning, you will begin to understand what it means to have a perfect memory of the next few minutes." He gave John a long, intent look. "I will not pretend that it will not be… unsettling for you, but you will be in no danger, Colonel. You will become accustomed to it, as people do. Within a handful of days, you will have an understanding of what it means to carry it with you, always. If you decide not to keep it, you must drink the eilisum within a handful of days. Any longer and your mind may choose not to let it go."

"Great," John muttered, and ignored Rodney stealing another sideways peek at him. "Let's rock and roll."

Keenan smiled gently, and walked to the other end of the room; John followed, since it'd be pointless to balk now. The bench looked even more like a kinky sex apparatus up close, and Keenan gave John plenty of time to look it over. John eyed it for several seconds obligingly, and just nodded. Out of context, he guessed it might have been a little weird-looking, but considering the situation, he didn't have any questions.

Rodney, standing beside him, either didn't have any questions or was unwilling to ask them. He just looked at it, two bright spots of color burning on his cheeks while the rest of his face, especially around his eyes and mouth, showed nothing but strained apprehension. John couldn't think of anything to say that might reassure him, so he didn't say anything.

Keenan rolled up his sleeves and walked over to the table against the wall, where the box Conan had been carrying earlier was sitting. He opened the box and said, without looking, "To begin, the penitent is stripped, Colonel." Even as he said it, Conan started toward John.

John took a step back without thinking, and, crazily, Rodney stepped in front of him. He did it just as if it was something that happened every day, without hesitation, and (if John ignored the fact that the situation probably didn't call for it) he couldn't help a sharp swell of pride, even though he could feel his eyebrows climbing toward his hairline in surprise at the same time. But he just told Conan, "I think I can manage this part without help, big fella."

Conan hesitated, looking to Keenan, who had turned around holding what was unmistakably a big fucking paddle (John groped for another term for several seconds before deciding there just wasn't anything else to call it); Keenan frowned.

Damnit, John thought, because he could see the why behind every part of this process, including the part where someone else stripped him, and he'd essentially already agreed to this, the whole enchilada, but he honestly wasn't sure he was going to be able to stand still and let some strange guy strip him.

Rodney, he saw, was gripping his data pad in both hands, but holding it awkwardly off to one side, and John realized that Rodney was seriously considering using the delicate equipment to defend John's honor. The whole situation was just too surreal. John kind of wanted to sit down.

"Easy, McKay," he said instead, and put a careful hand on Rodney's shoulder, pulling him backward so that he was beside John again. "It's okay."

Rodney turned to look at him with frantic eyes, and snapped, "This, Colonel, is so far from okay that I can't even see okay from here." He poked John in the upper arm with a vicious forefinger. "Why do you have to be naked?" John frowned a little, taken aback by Rodney's abrupt descent into near-panic, not quite able to figure out what had triggered it, since Rodney had seemed more or less okay sixty seconds ago. He didn't have time to consider it, however.

"Please, Colonel, Doctor McKay," Keenan said with a placating gesture that was miles less effective while he was holding the paddle he was planning on hitting John with. "I do not understand your objection." Rodney hissed a little, and John tightened his hand on Rodney's shoulder, though not enough to hurt him.

He believed that Keenan didn't get it; his expression was openly baffled. John had no idea how to explain it, either. "I don't know how to explain it to you," John admitted, choosing honesty mostly because there didn't seem to be anything to lose by it. "But I have to tell you, if your guy comes over here pawing at my clothes, there's a pretty good chance that I'm going to end up breaking both his arms."

Conan flexed in response, looking interested, and John tensed, rising to the balls of his feet. Keenan just nodded, as if that sounded perfectly reasonable to him, though his brows were still drawn together in perplexity.

"We have," Rodney said hoarsely, but calmly, "some fairly deeply ingrained feelings about strangers forcibly undressing us, Arbiter." The fact that Rodney not only remembered Keenan's title, but was addressing him by it, made John distinctly uneasy.

"I can undress myself," John added.

"I see," Keenan said slowly, clearly not seeing at all. "It is that Leovar is a stranger to you that makes this… objectionable?"

"Yeah," John said, and raised his fingers to the buttons of his BDU shirt, but Keenan shook his head quickly, holding up a hand to stop him.

"Our ways have significance, Colonel," he said, looking pained. "I think that you know this." He gave John a long look, and John didn't deny it, thinking of basic training and of Academy hazing and of what it felt like to be rendered helpless, why it was psychologically a big deal. "I do not understand your ways, your… hesitance, but I accept that it is something you feel strongly about. May we… compromise on this matter?"

His gaze shifted to Rodney.

"No," Rodney objected, and gave John a brief, panicky look before turning back to Keenan. "No, no, no, absolutely not, I am not… will not… It's, it's completely inappropriate, he's my team leader, and there are rules about, about. No. It's out of the question."

"Yes," John said, and braced himself for Rodney's reaction. But there was no reaction from Rodney. He didn't move, didn't object, didn't even turn to glare icy death at John. "McKay," John said evenly, ignoring the flutter of apprehension in his belly. When Rodney didn't acknowledge him, he tried, "Rodney."

Rodney shot John a truly virulent look, and John relaxed into amusement. If Rodney could try and melt John's face off with the power of his furious gaze, then he probably wasn't close to a panic attack. "Jeez, McKay, it's not like I'm asking you to shave my ass, here. Just come take my damn clothes off."

Rodney's eyes widened, fleeting surprise like a beacon, then disbelief, which lasted somewhat longer while John thought, Wait for it, come on, Rodney, and then Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh for God's sake, Colonel," Rodney snapped, closing the distance between them with three quick steps, face folded into familiar angles, Rodney's I can't believe I'm wasting my superior intellect on this idiocy look. John didn't smirk, somehow, but actually had to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep himself from pointing out that compared to a minute ago, when Rodney had been ready to perpetrate bodily assault on Conan the Barbarian with a tablet computer, a little wardrobe help seemed like a pretty reasonable favor.

"This could only happen on an off-world mission with you, Sheppard," Rodney spat disgustedly, and bent to put his data pad on the floor. Then Rodney was in his face, blunt fingertips vindictively stabbing the buttons on John's BDU shirt through their holes. "You'll never read a mission report from Lorne's team that involves the scientist undressing the team leader as a precursor to ritual spanking." John thought it probably wasn't the best time to point out to Rodney that it wasn't 'ritual' spanking, really. Rodney paused to jerk John's shirttail out of his pants so he could reach the last button, then dragged the shirt off John's shoulders in a motion that could best be described as 'ripping,' only to have it stopped abruptly and a little painfully at John's wrists because Rodney had neglected to unbutton the cuffs. "You're lucky I don't put in for a transfer!" Rodney muttered, his fingers brusque and businesslike on John's belt, followed immediately by the button of John's BDU pants.

"Uh, Rodney?" John tried, but apparently there was some kind of momentum at work, because Rodney didn't seem to notice.

"I'm sure any number of 'gate teams would be thrilled to have me as an addition," Rodney muttered, "considering that my already-extensive off-world experience alone would be an undeniable asset, and, of course, I'm a genius." He unzipped John's fly, and then immediately hooked his thumbs in the waist of John's pants at either hip and shoved them down, where they bunched around his ankles. On top of his boots.

John said nothing.

He just stood there in his baby blue boxer shorts with his pants trapped around his ankles and his shirt hanging from both wrists and looked at Rodney.

"Oh," Rodney said anxiously, his eyes everywhere. "Um."

"Yeah," John agreed, going for blisteringly sarcastic and hitting, if he did say so himself, right on the mark. Over by the bench, arms crossed under his manfully bulging pecs, Conan the Barbarian looked alarmingly close to cracking a smile. John wondered if maybe he should have kept his mouth shut and let Conan undress him. Keenan didn't seem even close to smiling, but his eyes held a suspiciously Teyla-like twinkle. "Jesus, McKay, aren't you supposed to be a genius?"

"Oh, shut up," Rodney snapped, and sank to his knees at John's feet.

Which, yeah. Pretty effectively shut John up. He couldn't even tell if he was more horrified or amused, because he was naked and McKay was on his knees.

It didn't shut Rodney up, however. He scrabbled energetically at John's bootlaces, while muttering, "Oh, this is just typical, really, the foremost mind in the galaxy press-ganged into service as an Air Force valet prior to being an unwilling spectator to your ordinary, everyday corporal punishment three million light years from the nearest kink bar." And then, "Lift, please, yes, thank you very much," as he tugged off John's right boot and sock.

John just watched, bemused, as Rodney worked the knots out of the laces of John's left boot -- "I don't seriously have to instruct you twice, Colonel, Christ, thank you!" -- and then repeated the foot lifting to get his pants off. Then Rodney bounced to his feet and neatly folded John's pants -- no mean feat with all the crap John tended to keep in his thigh pockets -- and, after a few seconds of holding John's pants uncertainly against his chest, walked over and put them on the table.

John saw the exact moment Rodney ran out of steam. He turned away from the table and took an uncertain step back in John's direction, faltered, and was abruptly just standing there, staring wide-eyed at John. Not just staring, either, but actually looking, starting at John's bare feet and traveling all the way up to John's face. From anyone else, it probably would have been too fast to be considered a once-over, but Rodney was fast, he did everything at breakneck speeds, and John knew that. He couldn't mistake it for anything else.

He was irritated to find himself suddenly flushed and self-conscious, only slightly comforted by the fact that Rodney was visibly as flustered as he was.

"Jesus, Sheppard," he said uncertainly, and rubbed one hand over his face. "This is the kind of break between rational thought and action that precedes things like PTSD and schizophrenia." And because it was Rodney, it came out sounding like an accusation.

Oh yeah, undressing me will leave you scarred for life; all my exes say so, John didn't say, perversely insulted. He flapped his shirt-trapped hands at his sides, instead. "Can you get these?"

"Oh, yes, yes of course," Rodney agreed, looking like he'd only just noticed the shirt-bondage, which made John want to choke him just a little. He did take the three more steps required to bend and unbutton John's cuffs -- albeit in totally uncharacteristic silence, which just made the weird intimacy of the situation exponentially weirder, since there was no Rodney-babble to distract John from the fact that he could feel Rodney's hot breath puffing against his naked skin -- and peel the shirt off his arms. Rodney folded it carefully and took it over to the table to sit neatly on top of John's pants. "But I'm sure this violates several directives in the appropriate workplace behavior workshops I had to attend in Siberia," he added seriously, voice only a little wobbly.

"No kidding," John agreed, not really that surprised to find his voice wasn't exactly having its steadiest day either. In a just universe, John reflected, he would never have to utter the words 'Doctor McKay, come take off my underpants,' in any combination. In this universe, however, it was looking pretty likely, as Rodney seemed to be stuck three feet away, one hip wedged against the edge of the table as though it was blocking his retreat, hands fisting and unfisting repeatedly at his sides, eyes anywhere but on John.

"Rodney," John began, resigned, but Rodney held up an imperious finger, chin angling up, and actually looked at John, gaze carefully above the neck.

"Just… Just do us both a favor, Colonel, and don't say it," he bit out. "If you do, every time I look at you for the rest of my -- in all probability, very short -- life, I'm going to hear it in my head, and I'm reasonably certain neither of us wants that."

"Okay, Rodney," John said soothingly, because he was pretty good at body language in general, and even better at Rodney's body language in particular, and everything about the way Rodney was holding himself, the cocked chin, clenched fists, squared shoulders, even the crooked-tight line of his mouth, said very clearly that Rodney was holding on to his composure with both hands, and John was willing to do whatever he could do to help Rodney do that. The alternative, most likely, was Rodney making a mad dash for the door, and he was pretty sure even a guy as laid back as Keenan was demonstrating himself to be would take that as an insult.

"I can't believe this is even happening," Rodney muttered resentfully, and then, without actually looking at John at all, walked over to him.

Rodney McKay was not a coward, which John had known almost from the very beginning. He was prickly, prone to exaggeration, arrogant as all hell, and so bad with people that it was almost painful, but he wasn't a coward. Even without the truly stunning examples of bravery in his repertoire (which were getting more extensive all the time), Rodney was brave. John had never met anyone as full of fear as Rodney, had never known anyone so certain that he couldn't trust anyone or anything but his own mind. John got that Rodney was brave every day, just going through the 'gate at all, eating with natives and trusting the food, knowing that he wasn't good in a fight, but fighting anyway, knowing every day when he woke up that no one could really see things the way he could, that communication with other people would always be unsatisfying and inelegant, less than what it should be, knowing that too much of the time his brain was the only thing between Atlantis and extinction.

So John wasn't surprised at all, even as he was surprised, almost shocked, that Rodney didn't even hesitate. He slid two fingers into either side of John's boxers and slid them down John's legs, not hurriedly or frantically, but carefully, so as not to catch on anything tender, and then followed them down so John could step out of them without falling on his ass or having to get a bit of cloth under a foot to disentangle them from around his ankles.

Like it was nothing at all to do that, even after he'd been pitching a fit the whole time about things that were nowhere near as intimate, and John was irritated, but he was also distracted by the fact that for about two seconds he could feel Rodney's breath puffing warmly against parts of himself that had no business knowing what that felt like. John felt himself twitch in response, and was torn between being surreally amused or surreally horrified, either of which was just fucked up. He thought Wraith Wraith Wraith, taking a hurried step backward as Rodney lunged to his feet, John’s boxers clutched to his chest.

John had to fight back a titter. Rodney was breathing hard, and John probably wasn't the only one that was all too aware of how close Rodney's face had been to his crotch, but Rodney didn't do anything worse than breathe harshly and unsteadily for a couple of seconds. Then he took John's boxers over and dropped them on top of the rest of John's clothes.

Rodney stood there for several seconds, his back to John, shoulders curled into a pained hunch, and John couldn't think of a damn thing to say. They didn't exactly cover this at the Academy. He turned his attention deliberately away from Rodney, and arched both brows at Keenan, aware that his expression bordered on belligerent -- he could feel a muscle jumping in his jaw -- but unable to coax it into anything less edged. Keenan looked sympathetic; this time it didn't soothe John at all. As though he sensed it, Keenan merely gestured John toward the bench.

If he wasn't going to just say to hell with this and leave -- and they'd already established that he wasn't -- there was nothing else to do at this point, so John walked over to it and arranged himself on in it the only way that would work. He was intensely aware of the fact that several people, one of them Rodney, were watching his every move, and took steps to distract himself with details. The bench was plain wood, and didn't look particularly comfortable, though it was smooth all over, the corners all rounded and gentle. He jammed his knees into the bend that was clearly meant for knees, and bent over the L of the surface, hipbones pressed against the join, but not uncomfortably so. His chest rested on the slightly higher incline, and his arms dangled stupidly on either side. There was even a padded place to rest his chin, which inexplicably made John want to snarl. Some other padding would have been nice, but not very practical, he guessed. At least the lack of padding made it likely that the bench was clean, since his cock was squashed between the smooth wood and his own skin, and thinking of how many cocks before his had been resting in just that place didn't thrill him.

"Tell me you people sanitize that thing between uses," Rodney demanded from somewhere behind John, his voice a little hoarse and more than usually agitated, but not so much so as to alarm John. Rodney's voice echoing John's thoughts actually made him almost smile. He turned his head to get Rodney into his field of vision, because he was already nervous enough about not being able to see Keenan, also somewhere behind him. As if he sensed John's unease, Rodney moved around to one side of the bench, where John could keep an eye on him easily. John smirked at him; Rodney scowled back.

Something tight in John's belly loosened somewhat. He didn't pretend he wasn't comforted just by Rodney being Rodney, but he also wasn't keen on looking too closely at it. Maybe later. With less nudity.

Keenan assured them that the bench was carefully tended to, which John tried to pretend actually meant there was some kind of disinfectant involved even though he knew from bitter experience that it could have easily meant that goat urine was lovingly rubbed into the silky-smooth surface each full moon. He was trying very hard not to be freaked out; he could see Rodney doing the same thing, his chin tilted, looking determinedly away from John and toward the cozy tea-nook end of the room. He was in no real danger, he told himself; he trusted Keenan. He was pretty sure this was going to hurt, yeah, but he was equally sure he wasn't going to be hurt, so it was pointless to get worked up about it.

But he was. He could hear himself breathing, short and sharp. His palms were sweating. He could feel his heartbeat in his throat and hear it in his ears. He stretched his fingertips to see if he could brace himself against the floor, but they barely reached, so he shifted, hoping to find a position that was marginally more comfortable before the actual hitting began.

"Please be easy, Colonel," Keenan murmured from somewhere far too close-by, making John jerk, startled. "Directly beneath your chin, a hands-width above the floor, there is a place to grip."

John was pretty sure that Keenan's solemn and helpful dignity was no more patronizing than it had been before, which was to say not at all, and that the burst of irritation he felt was purely situational. It didn't help much. He groped for the grip anyway, finding a round, smooth bar which probably ran between the sturdy front legs of the apparatus. There was something leathery attached to either end, according to John's questing fingertips.

He realized what they were at the same time that Rodney said, "Sheppard," tensely unhappy, his gaze now focused on John's hands. "Straps," Rodney added, unnecessarily, though John appreciated the warning anyhow.

Rodney's face helped him get a grip. It was a look John had seen too many times, a kind of unhappy resignation. Never when they were running for their lives, though. Never when Rodney had minutes to pull something out of his ass or they were all going to die. Never when the shooting was actually happening. Afterward, sometimes when they were stuck in the infirmary. When they were being held prisoner, something that happened all too frequently. The look that meant that Rodney knew it was going to be bad, and there wasn't shit he could do about it.

"It's okay, McKay. They aren't going to use them." Which John had extrapolated by the fact that neither Keenan nor Conan had made any move to do so. This is not a big deal, he thought at Rodney, but Rodney just turned his eyes back to the other end of the room.

"Colonel Sheppard does not require them," Conan said, the first time he'd spoken as far as John could recall. "He is trustworthy."

Rodney just pressed his lips together and tapped his data pad against his thigh, as though impatient.

"Can we do this sometime today," John grated out, unaware that he was at the end of his patience until the words were already out. Then, to his horror, he heard himself add, "My feet are getting kinda cold here."

He wondered if that was what it felt like to be Rodney, and shut his mouth firmly.

It occurred to him that this might be the weirdest fucking thing that had ever happened to him, and that was including turning into a bug. He waited expectantly, trying not to tense up because he wasn't sure how much this was going to hurt, and he'd just as soon not appear overly worried about it at this stage in the proceedings.

Three seconds passed, then five, and he was about to say something pointed (okay, something else pointed) when Keenan very gently said, "You must look this way, Doctor McKay."

"No, I really don't think I must," Rodney disagreed, sneering sharp and brittle, and it was the first inkling -- prickling needle-sharp at the small of his naked back, between his shoulder blades, and, oddly, along the soles of his bare feet -- John had that they might have a real problem here. The sneer didn't pack much of a wallop with Rodney's eyes closed and his chin tucked almost into his chest, at least not in terms of blistering several layers of skin off of the intended target of said sneer, but it was effective enough in the way that sent John's heart rate through the roof and jolted all his muscles into readiness, hurtling him abruptly and unexpectedly into fight-or-flight mode.

Conan, who had been standing about three feet in front of John, took a step in Rodney's direction, and John's brain went still and bright.

"Don't," he said, and something in his voice must have drawn Conan's attention, because he stopped. I will kill you, John somehow managed not to say, but the way Conan was looking at him made John think he'd heard it anyway.

"Leovar," Keenan said softly, and Conan raised both hands in John's direction, and took a step back.

"Let's all just settle down," John said, but he didn't sound calm even to himself; he sounded tightly furious, and Rodney was staring at him like he didn't know him. John didn't say anything for a few seconds, and part of his brain was still going, wait, what? because he wasn't sure exactly what just happened. He knew, yeah, but he didn't understand. But he chose to ignore it, for now, because he was still fighting the urge to threaten Conan as well as berate Rodney (because, Christ, this was his fucking discipline, not John's, and he knew Rodney knew that, so how could he not get that he was going to have to just suck it up and watch), both of which would be ultimately useless. He ignored Conan, and focused on Rodney instead. "You have to watch."

"Colonel…"

"Shut up, McKay. Try to pay attention. This is your punishment. Don't even try to make me believe you don't get that. So just shut up and watch." Rodney's face underwent a series of unhappy emotions, none of which John particularly wanted to see, and he thought it was pretty unfair that a mission that had started out so promising kept veering determinedly toward potential disaster every eight minutes or so before sidling unwillingly back to something salvageable (albeit humiliating and frustrating, so far). Rodney's face had settled on that look John hated so much, resigned and hopeless, and John equally hated the fact that he could feel so goddamned bad for Rodney even though this was his fault to begin with. "Damnit, Rodney," he sighed. "When was the last time you ate?"

"The last time I. Wait. What?" Rodney's forehead went scrunched and his eyes widened, and not for the first time, John was grateful that Rodney was exceedingly distractible.

"Food, Rodney," John snapped impatiently. "You're freaking out on me here. Are you going to 'pass out' from 'manly hunger'?"

Rodney spent about two seconds looking baffled while John watched the idea circle in his brain, and then he grabbed onto it with both metaphorical hands like an equally metaphorical life preserver. "Of course, yes, it's been hours, I, yes. Let's--" He flicked his fingers dismissively in John's general direction, and John pretended that he didn't know that Rodney was way too smart not to know that John had just played him. "Obviously I'm in the grips of a hypoglycemic attack, and am not thinking clearly," Rodney said steadily, but he was looking at John, and clearly intended to continue doing so. "I need food. Get on with it."

Seriously. The weirdest. Thing. Ever.

A second later, he forgot even the faintest urge to roll his eyes, because Ow! Christ! and "Shit!" he announced, and curled his hands so tightly around the wood in his hands that it creaked alarmingly. Rodney's eyes went huge and round and he actually swayed in John's direction for a second. This was undoubtedly the worst time ever to be pondering again just how much Rodney had changed since the first time he'd gone through the Stargate, but John wasn't interested in reigning in whatever distractions his brain was capable of clinging to right at the moment. "Surprised me," John managed to gasp out, and then Keenan hit him again, and John bit down firmly on more profanity and locked his jaw, thinking, Jesus, holy crap, at the utterly unexpectedly enormous amount that it hurt.

He was too aware of Rodney staring at him to let himself shout, which was what he wanted to do at every blow -- pain and indignation for the first half a dozen, and then just pain because it hurt too much to bother with indignation. He fixed his eyes unseeingly ahead and just rode it out, focusing on whatever he could find as a barrier to the pain, which, thank God, was something he knew how to do, something he'd had to do before. His feet were no longer cold, at least. His hands were slick around the wooden grip, and he was sweating freely. His jaw ached with tension, and his ass fucking hurt.

Deliberately, he spent a few seconds cataloging things that hurt more than this: being shot, being stabbed, a broken leg, a broken nose, that time when he was seven that he'd fallen on the concrete outside a Stucky's near Oklahoma City and jammed one of his front teeth halfway back up into his gums. Tear gas. Sumner. Ford.

He decided that wasn't helping and concentrated instead on what he could do to alleviate some of his present discomfort. His knees ached a little, as did his shoulders, but both were negligible really, which was good since there wasn't much he could do about either of them. His hipbones slammed into the bend of the bench every time the paddle made contact with his ass, however, and he figured he could pull his hips back a little in anticipation of each blow, try to get a little distance and hopefully lessen the impact, which turned out to work pretty well, though it forced out puffing little breaths every time Keenan's paddle landed as his belly came in forceful contact with the bench. He was definitely going to have bruises tomorrow, and not just on his ass.

He could see Rodney at the edge of his field of vision, though he was deliberately not looking directly at him, uncertain he'd be able to keep his face neutral enough not to send Rodney into a panic attack. He kept his face turned just enough that he could see Rodney without actually looking at him, and wondered if whatever was on that damned tablet could be worth this, and then, surprising the crap out of himself, had an improbably good idea about how to find out. He couldn't quite steady his mind enough to think through the details however, the bursts of pain coming with regularity that should have been numbing, but really really wasn't.

When he saw Rodney move, he looked, had to look; he needed the distraction from the fact that his ass was on fire, and besides that, Rodney couldn't look away because if they had to start again because Rodney fucking wimped out on him, John was going to be really seriously pissed.

Rodney wasn't looking away, though. He'd just shifted his gaze from somewhere in the vicinity of John's face to somewhere further back, and John experienced a moment of bizarre clarity in which he thought, Rodney McKay is looking at my ass. And there was no doubt that that was exactly what Rodney was doing. Not even just looking, but staring, or maybe gazing; John didn't have the right word for what Rodney was doing, though he was very aware that he was doing the same thing in the direction of Rodney's face, because, just, just the way Rodney looked, and John stared, unwillingly captivated.

Rodney was still, for one thing, absolutely still and completely attentive for someone John had had to bamboozle into looking in his direction five minutes ago. He was flushed deeply, his face, yeah, but also his neck all the way down to the collar of his BDU shirt, and his mouth was open and wet and his eyes were wide and weird, intent, focused, but almost glassy, and the whole thing was just bizarrely, insanely mesmerizing.

John blinked, thinking, What the hell, McKay? but he was aware that he was reacting to something about the way Rodney looked, the heat of his ass and his face and the rest of his tense, straining body somehow coalescing and migrating to someplace south of John's navel. He was a little horrified and a little shocked and a little flustered, and yeah, a little turned on, and it had nothing to do with the spanking. John wasn't really into pain, and he'd had enough opportunity for experimentation to be pretty certain of it. Or rather, it had nothing to do with his own reaction to the spanking, but his brain still skittered uncertainly around the edges of the way Rodney looked, the way he was looking. There was nothing like pained resignation on Rodney's face now; he was very obviously looking of his own free will at this point, and looking with an intense and narrow focus that was both familiar and foreign. It wasn't a look John had ever seen before, not on Rodney or anyone else, but it still echoed in John's head in a way that said 'sex' and 'want' and he couldn't stop looking at it. He was so intent on looking at it that he forgot he was trying not to freak McKay out, and the next blow took care of the inappropriate erection, which was great, but it also wrenched a sound out from between his lips that was part groan, part gasp, and part shout.

Rodney's reaction was so immediate as to seem alchemical, transformation of something into something else entirely. His head jerked sideways, and his eyes locked with John's. His mouth snapped shut, a taut, crooked line, and he went white. John actually watched the blood drain out of Rodney's face, leaving him waxy-looking with sweat. The fierce focus blinked out, and left him looking abruptly shaken and off-balance, like he had no idea what was going on, but also humiliated and miserable, like he knew exactly what had just happened. He blinked at John, mouth tugging down a bit further, and then closed his eyes and swayed on his feet, hand drifting slowly upward from his side, palm-out, a warding gesture.

"Rodney," John said, and blinked because he'd managed to lever himself to his feet without noticing he'd done it, and he realized belatedly that Keenan had stopped hitting him. He took a step, and Rodney jerked back, clutching his data pad protectively to his chest, and then the room sort of shimmied around John, and he decided maybe he'd stood up too fast just as one of Rodney's hands clamped solidly around his upper arm.

"Colonel?" Rodney still looked like he might pass out at any second, his eyes too wide and his face too pale, but his mouth was curled downward in concern now, and he looked utterly familiar.

What the hell, McKay? John didn't say.

"A little head rush," John muttered, shocked at how husky and thick his voice sounded. He widened his stance until he felt sure he wasn't going to part ways with his equilibrium again any time soon. "I'm okay. Are you…?"

Rodney shook his head, but not as if he were answering John's question, and his gaze flicked down for a second, and then back up to John's face. He let go of John's arm, his gaze sliding away. "Uh. Maybe… pants, now, Colonel," he said, oddly tentative, and John remembered with genuine surprise that he was naked.

"Oh," John said, and when he turned Keenan was already there, holding his pants in one hand and the paddle of Major Fucking Ow in the other. It was, John noticed for the first time, intricately carved with designs. John guessed he'd be able to match those patterns up to the bruising on his ass tomorrow, if he really wanted to. "I take it we're done here?"

Keenan held out his pants in answer, and John spent several seconds shoving his legs into them and hissing in surprised pain as he drew them up over his ass.

He wouldn't be sitting down voluntarily any time soon, halfway between amused and vaguely pissed off. He was trying to figure out what, exactly, he was pissed about when Keenan pushed a warm stoneware mug in his direction, and it wasn't until he reached gratefully for it that John realized that his hands were shaking. He looked a question at Keenan, who answered, "It's tea. Not eilisi." Conan, John saw, was offering a similar mug to Rodney, who took it without looking up, and John bared his teeth and narrowed his eyes in Conan's direction until Keenan curled a careful hand around his forearm and drew his attention away. Keenan was giving him a look that John was only used to seeing on Elizabeth's face, calm and concern and warning all rolled into one.

It occurred to John that he might be just a little bit fucked up right now (endorphins, shock, adrenaline, yeah, he got it, he knew the aftermath of this level of physicality, he just hadn't expected it to be a part of this, which seemed a little dumb in retrospect), and he clenched his hands around his mug and took a drink of his tea, which was very sweet and very hot, and helped. He drank and took careful stock of himself, finding his body sore and tired but essentially undamaged.

He noticed when Keenan silently dismissed Conan, who slipped out without a word, but chose not to comment. Rodney carried his tea and data pad over to one of the naquadah lamps and began tapping away energetically, and John watched Rodney's shoulders gradually loosen, his face ease, and eventually John felt like he was more or less himself, as well.

Keenan must have thought the same. "You have done us a great honor, Colonel Sheppard. Is there anything further you require of me?"

John blinked and considered the question seriously for a moment. "Yeah," he said finally, surprised all over again at the way his voice sounded, but determined to ignore it. He knew this was probably one of those moments where he should just keep his mouth shut, was beyond certain that Teyla would think so, but he wasn't going to, so he considered what he wanted to know carefully so that he wouldn't get it wrong. The urge to use military doublespeak was strong, even as much as John disliked it as a rule. It would make things so much safer to be vague. "I want to know if what just happened here is going to be a problem for your people." Keenan cocked his head, brows drawing together, so John obligingly rephrased the question. "I want you to look me in the face and tell me that the fact that you just beat the shit out of me isn't going put me in a position of weakness when trading with your people."

Keenan's eyes went wide, and John felt some of the tension knotted in his gut retreat. It must have shown on his face, because Keenan's face relaxed into a wry sort of smirk. "Perhaps that is a question you should have asked before you allowed me to 'beat the shit' out of you, Colonel," he pointed out slyly, and John relaxed a little more, and shrugged.

"It didn't matter before," he said, and Keenan nodded his understanding, which, John thought, was kind of nice. Keenan wasn't military, but the way he thought kind of was. Close enough, anyway. They got each other, and that wasn't something John dismissed lightly.

"No, Colonel. If anything, I think your position with my people has been significantly strengthened by your willingness to adhere to our laws." He looked at John for a long moment, and then offered his hand. John took it, and wasn't surprised when Keenan stepped in close and cupped John's elbow, just holding both warmly for a long moment. "We know you better, now, than we ever could have come to know you from across the width of a bargaining table."

He stepped back, and gave John another slow nod. Unspoken, but clearly expressed, was the solid, comforting truth that Keenan approved of him, of them, and John was satisfied with that. "I will leave you to compose yourself, Colonel. My people will have lunch laid out by now, and we look forward to you joining us at your convenience."

John finished his tea, considering, watching Rodney fiddle with the naquadah lamp, his data pad, and some cables. He ached, his body was literally trembling a little with fatigue as it wound down from the action, but he didn't feel tired. He was hyped, in fact, his mind uncomfortably hectic with things he didn't particularly want to think about right at the moment.

He got dressed, getting used to the way he was going to have to move for the next day or two in order to avoid being really obvious about the fact that his ass hurt, and tried to compose the mission report in his head. It was going to be one of those mission reports, the kind that would have to be either so vague as to be useless, or so detailed as to be overwhelmingly mortifying. John suspected it was going to have to be the latter. If things worked out with the Kurnei -- and John was pretty sure they were going to -- then it would be important that every 'gate team that had dealings with them know exactly what was expected of them, and what they could expect in return.

They had fucked up this time, fucked up and somehow handled the fuck up just right, but they couldn't count on that happening again.

He put himself back together with the sound of McKay tapping away in the background, strangely soothing and business as usual, and he wasn't surprised when McKay said, "I've got something here." That was business as usual, too, even if the stilted, even tone was not.

It wasn't lost on him that the announcement didn't come until John had finished lacing his boots.

John walked obligingly over and rested his hip against the side of the table. Rodney glanced up at him, then down, then made a gesture that could have meant anything. "By, ah, killing all the data pad's other functions, and also siphoning residual power off of a lamp -- they aren't using these things to anywhere near their potential, by the way, just one of them could easily power enough lights of this size to light most of the village with the right conduits in place -- well, I managed to boost the sensors about thirty-eight percent." Which explained the cables. "It only, there's only so much I can do under the, ah, circumstances, but it does give me almost another mile, and I found, there's at least one solid--" He tipped the screen toward John, tapping at the bright mass in one corner with nowhere near the jubilation it deserved if it was what John thought it was. "Well. There's at least one large deposit near the edge of my range. It's impossible to tell the size of it, but it definitely surpasses the confines of the scan."

"Maybe we'll bring a Jumper when we come back, scan the area from the air."

Rodney nodded, and started unhooking the data pad from the lamp without John having to prompt him.

Teyla and Ronon were outside, looking grimly patient while the natives bustled around setting up tables, some of which were already loaded with food. Teyla curled an arm around John's arm, brows together, eyes practically radiating concern. "Colonel. You are well?"

John wasn't sure if he was happy that she'd been worried or aggravated that she didn't think he could handle it, which was enough all by itself to make him sure that he was still kind of fucked up. In light of not having a straightforward answer for the question, he cracked a joke. "A little bruised, frankly. For a little guy, Keenan's got a hell of an arm." He smiled, and Teyla smiled too, but her eyes were a little too alert for John's taste. "Honestly, I was relieved when it turned out his giant pal wasn't going to do it, but in retrospect I don't think the big guy could've hit that much harder."

Ronon smirked, and clapped John on the shoulder. "I could hit you harder," he said with absolute conviction. "If that's what you're into."

John snorted, and made a mental note not to let Ronon hang out with the marines so much. "Thanks, Ronon, you're a real pal," John grinned, and for a few seconds things felt almost normal. Then he caught a glimpse of McKay's still, pale face as he turned toward the fountain, his data pad held in front of him like a shield.

**

They made the walk back to the 'gate in the early evening. It wasn't that far, but they ended up doing the tail end in the dark anyway. It wasn't unusual on missions like this one for them to spend the night off-world -- Keenan had offered, of course -- but Rodney had objected haltingly, muttering something about simulations he had going in the lab, and John had been just as happy to defer a sleepover until the next visit.

He was jumpy and achy and just ready to be home. He was sure that Rodney was just as ready. He had been too quiet all evening, which John had been able to ignore since he'd spent the evening discussing grain and blindenberry wine and naquadah with Keenan. It was harder to ignore as they traced their steps back to the 'gate on the same bad path they'd followed earlier, this time without a word of complaint from McKay. It would have worried him any other time -- hell, it worried him now -- but this time at least he was pretty sure he knew what was going on with McKay, so he just kept his mouth shut and ignored it. He didn't want to discuss it, and he knew Rodney well enough to be fairly certain that he didn't want to discuss it either.

They were going to have to deal with this, but he was really hoping it'd keep a day or two. He was tired, and he was starting to think he knew what the effect of the eilisi tea was going to be like, and he was pretty sure it was going to suck. It wasn't what he would have called a perfect memory -- at least, not yet, though Keenan had said it would take some time -- but it was… distracting.

As long as he was doing something, actively thinking of something else, it was fine, but sometime around the end of supper, as John was sipping something that tasted a little like apple beer and idly watching sparks drift upward from one of several outdoor hearths, there had been an almost vertigo-inducing moment of disorientation (during which he'd spilled his beer, though he hadn't noticed that until later), and he was abruptly watching Rodney's hands on his BDU shirt. They were shaking, he noted, and some part of his brain that seemed to get what was going on pointed out that he hadn't noticed that the first time around, while the rest of his brain flailed in panic for several seconds until the moment passed.

It had happened again when John had ducked off into the wooded area on the outskirts of the village to take a piss, and there were few things in life as disorienting as leaning against a tree with your cock in your hand, pissing and thinking about nothing at all, and then a twist of motion even though he knew he wasn't actually moving, and the sudden feel of the smooth, body-heat warmed wood of the bench under his chest, feeling horizontal even though he knew he was standing up, feeling the abrupt pain of the paddle as if it were actually hitting him that very second, and everything else that had gone with it the first time, the helpless, reactionary tensing of every muscle in his body, the sound of it, the feel of the groan he was trapping in his throat, the creak of the wood his hands were curled around and the counterpoint of Rodney's harsh, fast breathing. John fell, that time, and came back to reality when he hit the ground. He supposed he should be grateful he hadn't pissed on himself, considering.

That was about the time he figured out that it only happened when he wasn't consciously thinking about something else, and he'd spent the rest of the evening keeping his mind otherwise occupied in whatever way he could manage it.

But he was concerned. He wasn't sure if it was even possible to keep his brain working actively every minute of every day, and he was very conscious that it was getting harder already, probably because he was so damned tired. He wanted to get home and get the debriefing out of the way. The mission report could wait until tomorrow, but a few essential facts needed to be communicated to Elizabeth ASAP. Which would be easier, he admitted to himself, with Rodney elsewhere, but probably wasn't going to happen.

The 'gate was in sight when Rodney went down -- and damn everything, John really hoped that particular reaction was just due to them being unaccustomed to the experience, because neither of them could afford the kind of all-encompassing distraction that made you randomly fall over -- and John was on one knee beside him, one hand cushioning Rodney's skull from the ground, so quickly that he realized, somewhat after the fact, that he'd been expecting it.

"McKay," he said brusquely, aware of Ronon and Teyla hurrying over, but preoccupied with Rodney's open, empty eyes, his blank, slack face. Rodney didn't answer; it was like he'd stepped out. "McKay," John snapped again, and gave him a gentle slap upside the head with his free hand. Rodney blinked up at him, breath hitching and gusting out as if he'd been holding it, and then he looked okay again.

"Ow, Colonel," he said, but without rancor, and then he just blinked up at John for another handful of seconds.

"He's all right," John said, tipping his chin to talk over his shoulder. "Teyla, dial the 'gate."

"Shall I have a medical team…" Teyla began, but Rodney sat up quickly, waving his hands energetically enough that John had to dodge out of the way.

"No, I'm fine. It's fine. I." He threw a quick glance at John, and licked his lips. "I misstepped. It's dark out here."

John didn't contradict the lie, just helped Rodney to his feet, and wasn't surprised when Rodney brushed John's hands away from him as soon as he was upright. He took a couple of steps away from John and occupied himself resettling his pack. "I'm good," he muttered, and John pretended not to notice Ronon and Teyla exchanging a look.

They made it back through the 'gate without either of them falling over again, and Elizabeth was waiting, even though it was well after midnight Atlantis-time. Havildar Cheema was beside but slightly behind her, less intrusive with her position than Bates had ever managed to be. John caught her eye and gave her a nod, and she didn't stick around to see any more. She never did.

"Ronon, Teyla, you guys go ahead and turn in. McKay and I will take care of filling Elizabeth in."

"Doctor Zelenka requested that Rodney come to the lab as soon as he arrived," Elizabeth said, frowning when John shook his head.

"Is it an emergency?" he made himself ask, though he wasn't actually sure it mattered.

"No." She looked from John to Rodney and back again. "One of the simulations Radek's been working on is done. He seemed to think Rodney would want to see the results immediately."

"I don't think so," John said, and Rodney frowned, but didn't argue. "Let's go to your office."

Elizabeth just nodded, no questions asked, which was one of the things John liked about her.

John refrained from sitting down, bracing his hands on the back of one of the chairs situated in front of her desk. She gave him a quizzical look, but she didn't ask about that either.

It didn't take that long to fill her in on what had happened, which seemed a little unfair, considering that it seemed to have taken forever to have actually lived it. John didn't leave anything out. He wasn't opposed to editing for television -- he'd been in the military long enough to have a firm grasp of the fact that at least ninety percent of the time the civilians didn't even want to know details of what it took to implement their agendas -- and he'd done his share of it in both debriefings and mission reports, when he felt it was necessary. This time, unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you looked at it, he couldn't justify withholding anything. Too many people were going to be going back to Kurn, and not just 'gate teams. Engineers and miners and people to run the equipment needed to transport the naquadah, and it was essential that every last one of them know exactly what they were getting into, because if even one of them got into it with the Kurnei and ended up getting discipline, John was going to choke the life out of whomever it was with his own two hands.

So, he told Elizabeth what she needed to know, and she regarded him solemnly over her clasped hands, elbows resting on her desk, chin resting on her thumbs.

Rodney sat silently in the other chair and didn't offer anything at all to the conversation, which Elizabeth clearly felt was as bizarre as John would have under any other circumstances. But he'd seen Rodney's face, and he'd already had a couple of memories that felt like flashbacks, and he wasn't surprised.

"I think you should see Carson," Elizabeth said finally, and John sighed.

"No."

"John…"

"No."

"It's just a precaution."

"I am not going to see Carson about my bruised ass, Elizabeth!"

Her lips quirked, but she contained it quickly. "I was actually more concerned with the memory tea, John."

"Oh."

"I," Rodney said. "I got a sample. From. For Carson to take a look at."

"Good thinking, Rodney," Elizabeth nodded. "I want both of you to get checked out, though. Rodney, did you have any experiences like John's, with memories of the incident overwhelming the present?"

"I. No." Rodney licked his lips. "Not yet."

John blinked, but didn't say anything. It bugged him, but he wasn't going to call Rodney out in front of Elizabeth. Not when he didn't understand why Rodney felt the need to lie about it.

"It stands to reason that he will, though," John drawled, "and I think the lab would be a bad place for that to happen."

"I agree. I think you'd better both take a day or two to figure out how this is going to affect you. Then we can make plans about how you'll function in your regular duties." She frowned and straightened. "Rodney, I don't suppose you…"

"Yes, yes, I got samples of both kinds of tea," Rodney muttered impatiently, and John smirked, reassured by Rodney's pissiness. "Hello, genius!"

Elizabeth smiled. "Of course," she agreed mildly, which told John clearly that she'd been worried about Rodney's unusually passive role in this particular debriefing. "I'll have Carson meet you in the infirmary."

"It's late, Elizabeth. Tomorrow will be soon enough." John could tell she was on the verge of insisting, and he grinned. "The Kurnei have been drinking this tea for hundreds of years. I agree that knowing exactly how it works and how it affects Rodney's extremely valuable brain are very important things, but not important enough to wake Carson up in the middle of the night. Tomorrow morning, first thing."

"Fine, fine, but if either of you even suspects any kind of complications…"

"Yes, yes, as if I'm going to risk it if I think there's even the remotest chance that something's wrong." Rodney stood up abruptly. "And on that note, I really am very tired, what with the beating and all, so if we're done here?" Rodney stomped out loudly enough that his footfalls were clearly audible for a good ten seconds after he was out of the room.

John and Elizabeth just looked at each other for several long seconds after Rodney left. "I suppose the whole thing was… uncomfortable for him," Elizabeth said eventually.

John snorted. "Yeah. My heart bleeds. Look, Elizabeth, the thing is. What I'm trying to say here is that we weren't prepared. I mean, we've run into weird cultural stuff before, but these people are very nice, and they're very happy to trade us their naquadah, and I think Keenan actually likes McKay, so I think it would be a very bad idea to let this happen again. And not just because it kind of sucked for me."

Her lips quirked again, but she was already nodding. "No, you're absolutely right. Another incident could complicate things irreparably. We should probably be grateful this happened our first time there. If we'd set up trade, started mining, and then there'd been this sort of a misunderstanding. Well. Thing's could've been much worse."

"Teams should be hand-picked and carefully briefed." He shook his head. "We managed to mess it up and then handle it just right, somehow. I don't think we can count on that happening again."

"I agree, John. You don't have to convince me."

But John thought he kind of did, because in some weird way it had become his responsibility to make sure no one else ended up on the wrong end of a Kurnei paddle. It wasn't that he thought the Kurnei would punish anyone that didn't deserve it, and it wasn't even that he was worried about the naquadah, although he was, a little. It was that John had staked his reputation with the Kurnei on the fact that Atlantis was a worthwhile friend and ally, and he gave a shit about that. He gave a shit because he liked the Kurnei, he like Keenan, and he'd done things he most certainly wouldn't ordinarily do in order to give Atlantis an opportunity to keep this alliance, and he was going to be a whole world of pissed if any of his people fucked that up.

"I think. Yeah. I think I should go along with whoever you decide to send back. My team, I mean. We know what to expect, and we'll be able to…"

"John," Elizabeth interrupted, leaning forward to frown at him. "John, are you wigged about this?" She sounded surprised, but only mildly so.

He grinned at her choice of words, and felt himself relaxing a little. "Yeah, maybe. Maybe a little. I feel… responsible."

She smiled a little ruefully. "You're supposed to feel responsible, Colonel. You're in a position of authority."

"Yeah, but more responsible than usual. I like the Kurnei, and not just because they've got naquadah and fizzy apple-beer. I like Keenan."

Elizabeth's smile faded, and she nodded slowly. "I see. Okay, one last thing and I'll let you get to bed. Do I need to talk to Rodney about this? As his supervisor?"

John just looked at her for a moment. "That just sounds painful for everyone involved." She didn't deny it, but gave him a long, level look that plainly said that she was just as aware as he was that he hadn't actually answered the question. He shrugged. "And do what? Write up a report and stick it in his file?" He shook his head. "Do you think that would do more to affect his future behavior than what happened earlier today? Rodney's… Rodney. It doesn't do any good to be upset about that. We all know…" and he floundered for a moment, trying to find the right words and failing completely. "We all know he's worth having around, even when he's not." Which made no sense at all, of course, and yet Elizabeth looked as though she got it completely.

"I'll leave it to your discretion as his team leader, then. Especially if we send your team to oversee other personnel, I do not want a repeat of this from Rodney."

"I don't think that's likely to be a problem," John told her honestly.
**

John made his way to his quarters through nearly empty corridors, occupying his mind with details of the next couple of days, thinking of meeting with Lorne and having him handle the drills he'd planned for the marines the day after tomorrow in the event that John was still falling over randomly. He pondered whether training with Teyla and running with Ronon would be things he'd have to give up, and regretfully decided it was probable. He didn't think much while doing either of those things; that was kind of the point of doing them.

He smelled Rodney before he saw him, and even had a moment to think how weird it was that he apparently knew what Rodney's fear smelled like. Rodney was sitting on the end of John's narrow bed, his elbows on his knees, his head hanging loosely on his neck, and then John was lost in his head, the bright wash of memory accompanied by that same sensation of falling, vertigo, surrounded by the sharp smell of fear-sweat and the sound of Rodney taking deep, carefully spaced breaths filled the room. He could hear the crackle of the fire in the fireplace and feel the sweat on his chest, sticking a little to the wood of the bench beneath him, and maybe some of that fear-stink was coming from him, but most of it was Rodney; even if he hadn't been able to smell it, he could see it in the way Rodney's hands were clenched, white-knuckled, around the data pad he was holding against his chest, and in the way his head was tipped determinedly down and away from John (as though if he didn't see any of it, it wasn't real), in the strain around his tightly-closed eyes and the sneeringly curled-up corner of Rodney's normally mobile and always-expressive mouth. John's flesh crawled and prickled, the back of his neck, his lower back, all the exposed and vulnerable places where the air touched his naked skin, and his hands tightened on the wood he was gripping in sympathy.

This time, at least, he recognized what was happening when Conan took a step toward Rodney, knew the steps his body took to prepare for a fight. He even understood that it was only peripherally Conan who had twigged him, that he'd have reacted the same way to anyone, anything, that targeted Rodney when Rodney was so clearly vulnerable and afraid. It didn't change the weirdly brittle, cold fury that settled into his brain, and the word, "Don't," felt sharp sliding out of his throat, as though it should bloody his lips. And Conan's face was a revelation as he swung his head to look at John, his brows lowering into a frown that never reached completion as his eyes met John's, morphing into a flutter of fear, his eyes wide and totally aware of the 'I will kill you,' that John didn't actually say, his hands coming up, both to defend and to deny being a threat.

Keenan's voice was both a warning and an order, a softly murmured, "Leovar." Relief and regret in equal parts curled in John's belly as Conan took a step back, because what he wanted, what he really wanted was to bloody the big motherfucker for daring, for daring, when John had said, had made it perfectly fucking clear that no one was touching any of John's people, and if it hadn't been for the lessons learned over the last two years in Pegasus, if it hadn't been for John's rueful understanding of his own responsibility and Atlantis's need, he would have done it, would have demonstrated his fury with great pleasure.

But there was a mission, there was Atlantis, Rodney was afraid, and instead he said, "Let's all just settle down," the right words, even if he couldn't make his voice right. He looked at Rodney, at Rodney's surprise -- which made him even angrier because how could he look at John like that, like he thought John might not protect him when John always protected him -- and fear, though now it was John he was afraid of. It was fear shot through with relief and uncertainty and gratitude, but that made John want to snarl as much as anything else, at the superfluity of it, because Rodney was his, Ronon and Teyla were his, Atlantis was his, and he didn't want or need gratitude from any of them for doing whatever was necessary to protect them, damnit.

"Colonel," Rodney's voice murmured close by, and there was a weird moment of temporal confusion, a discordant space of seconds in which John couldn't actually grasp what was real and what was memory. He found himself reaching for Rodney in a place he wasn't standing, hand closing on nothing; he blinked and it was gone. No, not gone. But retreated enough that he was aware of himself, on his back on the floor of his quarters, and aware of Rodney on his knees at John's side. The anger crouched in his chest was misplaced, chronologically speaking, if not in actuality, but he still sat up quickly, startling Rodney enough that he flailed backward a little, and flinched when John caught both of his upper arms and shook him a little, leftover anger that John couldn't let go of. "Colonel!" he squeaked, eyes wide, mouth pulled down into a frown that was pure misery, no petulance or arrogance in evidence; John got a hold of himself and let go.

"Christ," he spat, and raked both hands through his hair; only then did he become aware of the way he was sitting on the floor, knees up, all his weight pressing really very painfully down on his bruised ass. He struggled up to his knees, which lessened some of the immediate pain, but he still ached all over, bruising and tension and just a long, hard day. "Will you… Christ, what do you want, McKay?"

Rodney flinched back, shoulders hunching like he was expecting a blow, and he waved his hands, part dismissal and part habit, his eyes skittering from some point over John's shoulder to the front of John's shirt, then settled on his own hands, which he wound together in his lap. "Nothing, I just, just thought I should tell you. I just wanted to tell you I didn't mean for this to happen. I didn't think, I never thought. I didn't know."

"You didn't know what?" John grumbled, but he wasn't paying attention, didn't really care what had Rodney's panties in a bunch. Rodney was always sorry after, and John didn't have the patience to deal with it tonight. He was too intent on dealing with the flashback that had just happened, trying to push it away, because he got that he was seeing things in memory that there hadn't been time to consider when everything had actually been happening, and he really just didn't want to have to think about those things right now.

"The, the, the," Rodney stammered, and waved his hands broadly, an encompassing gesture, and then just looked at John helplessly. John looked back, brows raised in question, impatient, and Rodney's face tightened and he shook his head. "No, you know what, no, just. Nevermind." Rodney stood up abruptly, and then swayed on his feet, taking a quick sideways step and bracing a hand against the wall. John noticed for the first time that Rodney was pale, and there was a fine sheen of sweat at his temples. Rodney blinked slowly and cocked his head.

"Did you eat, McKay?" John asked, and tried to remember if Rodney had been eating at supper with the natives. He couldn't remember; he'd been avoiding Rodney as much as Rodney had been avoiding him, after the thing.

"It's fine, I'm," Rodney mumbled distractedly, but John still only barely managed to get to his feet and brace Rodney when his knees buckled.

"McKay," he grated out, spreading his feet to take Rodney's weight because Rodney certainly wasn't supporting any of it. He wasn't surprised when Rodney didn't react. His eyes weren't blank and empty like they had been on the planet, but they were distant, unfocused. He looked like he sometimes looked when he was thinking hard or had just had an idea of ass-saving magnitude. John turned his body enough to get him braced against the wall, which helped; Rodney outweighed him by twenty pounds, probably, and was broad and awkward to boot. Up close, he smelled like PowerBars and shampoo and sweat; John could smell the sour fear that had hit him in the face when he'd first walked into his room, too, but it was less now, not more, so whatever it was Rodney was remembering must have been less scary than… Than what? Than waiting for John to get home and apologizing? John frowned at that.

"Oh," Rodney breathed, and for a second John thought Rodney was with him again, but Rodney just breathed in once, a sharp inhalation, and said, "Oh," again, and John wondered, abruptly uncomfortable, if he had talked during the last flashback, because he didn't want to know what he might have sounded like if he had. Rodney… He sounded wrecked. He sounded close to desperate.

"Rodney," John said, and shook him as much as he could with Rodney wedged between the wall and John's shoulder, but there wasn't much else he could do except hold him there and wait for it to be over, listen to Rodney's fast, almost whistling breaths. He wasn't sure if he thought it would help or if he just didn't want to hear it if Rodney said anything else, but he heard himself saying, "Hey, Rodney, hey, buddy. You're all right, I've got you, I've got you."

He kept repeating it until the sudden tension in Rodney's frame told him Rodney was with him again. John fought the urge to back away immediately, and said, "Can you stand up?"

"I am standing up, Sheppard," Rodney pointed out nastily, and John felt himself smirking tiredly. He pulled back carefully, slowly, and Rodney stayed put, still leaning against the wall, but upright under his own power. "This is just great," Rodney sniped, and rubbed at his face with one hand. "This is just. Really great."

"Yeah," John agreed. "Great."

Rodney sighed. "Not that it hasn't been fun, Colonel, but I'll be turning in now, if you don't mind?"

John didn't point out that Rodney had come to his room. He also didn't ask what specific bit of memory had just played out in Rodney's head. It felt… too personal, in light of the intensity of his own most recent flashback. "Is it going to get better, or worse, do you think?" he asked, as a more-or-less innocent substitute for what he really wanted to know.

"Worse, I imagine," Rodney grumbled without a single snippy comment about voodoo. Then, grudgingly, "But better, eventually. I think. Well, it's not my area, obviously, but if we extrapolate what we can from the information Keenan gave us, there's a period of adjustment; the human brain works a certain way, there's a certain distribution of chemicals and electrical impulses that governs memory, and the tea probably alters that somewhat in this specific instance. It only makes sense that our brains would take some time to incorporate the way this memory works. Or the tea makes the memory work. Or." Rodney glared balefully at John. "You know what, ask Carson tomorrow. I'm going to bed."

John spent a couple of minutes just standing there after the door whooshed closed behind Rodney, anchoring himself in the present with predictions of just how much tomorrow was going to suck.

 

**

It had occurred to John that sleep might be difficult, but it turned out to as easy as lying down and closing his eyes. There was no sense of time having passed at all when he opened his eyes and saw that it was morning.

"Huh," he said out loud, and then it hit him.

He was already lying down, so he didn't fall over, and it was less like a flashback this time, and more like sinking. Maybe because he'd just woke up, or maybe just because the tea had taken full effect while he was sleeping, there was no fighting it.

The mug of tea Keenan handed him was warm and solid in his hands, and the air smelled like wood smoke and sweat. John sipped at his tea, and watched Rodney. He was a little too cool now that all the exertion was over, sweat drying in prickles on his skin, his muscles trembling in the aftermath of adrenaline. He drank tea and watched Rodney's competent hands as he ran cables between the naquadah lamp and his data pad. He got that Rodney was using the work to anchor himself, calming himself down by occupying himself with the routine, and John didn't try to deny that he was doing the same thing, watching Rodney's hands and listening to Rodney make little humming sounds, and using the very familiarity of those things to counteract the craziness of the last twenty minutes. He ached, but it was no worse than he'd get from a hard workout with Teyla. He didn't feel tired. His mind wasn't winding down at the same rate as his body, and he couldn't stop himself from seeing the faint tremor in Rodney's hands as he worked, and the way he was hunched into himself over the data pad. He was uncomfortably aware that this was going to affect them, but he couldn't guess at how. He didn't like the way Rodney looked, though, and he wished he'd been paying more attention when it had actually happened.

That was about the time that he realized that he was aware of exactly what was going on, that he could feel his sheets against his skin and smell the salt-smell of Atlantis. He wasn't caught the way he had been before. He sat up to test that theory, and the memory fell away.

"Huh," he said again, blinking at his quarters thoughtfully, and lay back down.

It took no effort at all to slip back into memory. He spent maybe a second thinking about the cool prickle of sweat drying on his skin and the vertical frown lines between Rodney's brows, and he could see it all, down to the unhappy line of Rodney's mouth as his fingertips skittered over the surface of the data pad.

He dressed slowly, taking the opportunity to stretch a little, feeling where he ached and thinking about how it was going to affect him over the next couple of days, how he would compensate for it if it somehow came to a fight while he was still hurting.

There was a slight quaver in Rodney's voice when he said, "I've got something here." Rodney sounded tense and uncertain, and John relaxed, some of the tightness at the base of his neck fading, because he had been waiting for him to say something, which he hadn't actually realized at the time. In retrospect, it was a little dense of him; he'd been waiting for Rodney to say something because Rodney always said something. John wasn't the one that filled uncomfortable silences. He wasn't the one that tried to fix things between them when they went weird, either. That was always Rodney.

How had he not known that?

It gave him some perspective on last night's little visit, though, and not the good kind. The kind where you become aware, far too late to do anything about it, that you were kind of an asshole. And really, how bizarre was it to suddenly realize that McKay was the one bearing the brunt of the daily maintenance when it came to their friendship.

"Shit," John muttered, and blinked at his ceiling when he heard himself speak and realized he could see his ceiling.

He'd come up out of the memory without realizing it, apparently, slipped out of it easily and without even trying. Well. That was promising, at least. Maybe he was getting a grip on the situation.

His radio beeped at him from the bedside table, and John turned to look at it for a second, surprised, before he fumbled for it, distracted for another second or two as he caught sight of his watch, which told him that it was late. "Sheppard," he said, once he'd fumbled the radio over his ear.

"Colonel," Carson greeted him cheerfully. "Doctor Weir informs me that I should be expecting a visit from you this morning?"

"Yeah, yes," John said, and rubbed at his face with one hand. "I didn't realize it was so late. Let me grab a shower."

"Take your time," Carson agreed.

John fumbled the headset off again and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

He managed to shower and dress without incident, and was on his way to the infirmary when it occurred to him to wonder if Rodney had already made it there with the sample of the eilisi. For about four seconds, he considered stopping by Rodney's quarters to check, and then decided against it. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he owed Rodney an apology, and he didn't even want to think about how aggravating that was probably going to turn out to be before he had some coffee and breakfast in him.

And maybe Rodney had already been to Carson, in which case it was moot anyhow.

He spent a small eternity in the infirmary, of course. He repeated everything he remembered Keenan telling them, related everything about how the memories worked so far, submitted to blood tests and a brain scan in an Ancient machine that presented a fairly cool 3D model of John's brain for them to look at, though he was less thrilled by the way it sliced John's brain into sections for them to examine more closely.

Rodney had, indeed, already dropped off a sample of both kinds of tea for Carson (apparently in the very early hours of the morning), and Carson promised to let John know immediately if he found anything weird or dangerous, either from the samples or from the blood tests and brain scans.

He also refused to allow John to escape without examining what he delicately referred to as "... the physical results..." of the mission, which made John snort even as he bitched bitterly about having to drop trou and lie face down on an exam table while Carson poked him in the ass and muttered about deep muscle bruising, sounding disgruntled, and even more Scottish because of it, as though John's bruised ass was a deeply personal affront.

He firmly refused to clear John for even light duty when John made hopeful sounds in that direction. John wasn't surprised, and couldn't even argue the case in favor.

As John put his pants back on, Carson leaned so close to the display on which John's brain currently rotated in all its 3-D glory that his nose was practically touching it. After a few seconds of that, he flipped another display around, moving them until they were side by side, and stood looking between the two, hands on his hips. Both images showed a lighter splotch in the same general area, weirdly yellow against the varying shades of blue-gray. The splotch on the second screen -- which had to be Rodney's -- was slightly bigger.

"Is that...?" John asked, and Carson nodded and hmmed, nose nearly on the screen again, so John stepped closer, because surely if there was some kind of confidentially thing that meant John couldn't look at Rodney's brain Carson would have yelled at him by now. "Mine looks different than McKay's," John pointed out, tapping the yellowish splotch and frowning a little at the disparity. "His is... bigger."

Carson snickered.

John pivoted toward him in surprise, and Carson waved both hands at him in apology, but he was still clearly trying to suppress laughter. "Sorry, sorry," he half-gasped, lips twitching. "Doctor humor!"

John snorted. "Twelve-year-old-boy humor, you mean," he accused, but he could feel his lips wanting to curve as well. "Jesus, Carson!"

"No, I'm sorry, Colonel. You're absolutely right, totally inappropriate," Carson agreed, schooling his features into solemnity. John made his mouth stop twitching.

They looked at each other.

Carson snorted and dissolved into soft, breathless chuckles, and John grinned, shaking his head and sighing theatrically.

"Something I should know?" Elizabeth asked, rounding the curtain set up in the corner of the infirmary they were occupying. She arched the eyebrow of indulgence at both of them, lips quirking, waiting to be let in on the joke.

"Ah, no," John said hurriedly, and Carson snorted softly again, though at least he was making an effort to conceal his smile by turning back to study the two brains. Both of Elizabeth's eyebrows went up this time, and John mumbled, "Uh, doctor humor, I guess."

"Okay," Elizabeth said, drawing out the word, her tone making it clear that she was allowing them to get away with whatever it was they were getting away with. She turned her attention pointedly toward the brains. "What am I looking at here, Carson?"

"Well, I know it's hard to believe, but this is conclusive proof that Colonel Sheppard has a brain," Carson assured her, and Elizabeth's mouth was now twitching.

"Hey!" John objected; they both ignored him.

"It's bigger than I was expecting," she observed, dead-pan, and then threw John a smirk.

"Now, Elizabeth, that's just mean," John drawled.

"Anyhow, getting back to the matter at hand," Carson said. "Colonel Sheppard had just observed that the affected area of Rodney's brain appears to be slightly larger than the affected area of his own, and I was about to reassure him that it probably didn't mean anything."

"Probably?" Elizabeth asked, which was great, because it was exactly the question he'd been thinking.

"Aye, well, the brain is a complicated thing, and we don't understand a lot of what it can do. We do know that the area affected in both cases is the hippocampus, here," Carson pointed, "And in Colonel Sheppard's scan, the pre-frontal lobe, here. Both are associated with memory in different ways. The pre-frontal lobe handles very short term memory, while the hippocampus handles long term and associative memories. See here, the activity in Rodney's pre-frontal lobe is nothing more than his usual baseline operation, while the Colonel's is still a bit above his baseline readings from past scans. The activity in the hippocampus, too, is somewhat higher in Rodney's case than in Colonel Sheppard's. All this means is that Rodney is processing somewhat faster than Colonel Sheppard, which -- forgive me, Colonel, and no insult intended -- is simply not that surprising. Rodney's baseline pre-frontal activity is already at the upper end of the spectrum, anyhow, which just means this is normal for Rodney."

"Right, Rodney is smarter than me. Alert the presses," John grinned. "But don't alert Rodney. I don't want to listen to him brag about his faster brain-processes or whatever."

Carson smiled wryly, and Elizbeth smirked. "So basically, the tea is doing what the Kurnei say it does, it's not hurting them as far as you can tell, and Rodney's giant brain works better than John's slightly smaller, but still perfectly adequately-sized one?" Elizabeth quipped, smiling. John scowled. He should have known she'd been hiding behind the curtain and listening. Elizabeth was sneaky.

"Basically," Carson agreed, shrugging a little. "The chemical compound of the eilisi tea is going to take some time for me to really decipher. It's not anything we've come across before, not that that's surprising, really. New galaxy and whatnot. Once I've got some progress on that, I'll compare it to the scans, just to be sure that the reactions conform to the chemicals involved. I would like both the Colonel and Rodney to come back at least every twenty-four hours until this runs its course, both as a precaution, and because the data could be extremely useful in understanding memory function. If we can figure it out, anyhow." He tapped at John's brain with his pen thoughtfully. "Maybe even more often, if you've the time?" He gave John a look that contained more hopeful-puppy elements than John was really comfortable seeing in a grown man. "I know you're a busy man, and it's probably not necessary from a health perspective, but. Well, just look." He waved a hand at both brains. "It's a matter of timing. If I had only Rodney's scans to go on, I'd have never known the pre-frontal lobe was even involved in the process. I'd speculate it was, of course, but I'd rather have the hard data."

So John found himself promising to come get his head examined every twenty-four hours at least, but to come by any time he had twenty minutes, as well.

It was early for lunch, but he'd missed breakfast, so he headed to the mess anyway. Sitting down to eat proved problematic; there was no way to sit on the hard plastic cafeteria-type chairs that was even remotely comfortable, and while the discomfort wasn't impossible to live with, it meant that John was thinking about what had caused it pretty much constantly, and fighting not to slip into the tangle of memory that he could feel somehow, lurking just beyond what he was consciously thinking about. He managed to get through the first part of the meal by eating quickly, shifting his weight often, and trying to identify each dish along with what planet they'd traded with for the ingredients. He was trying to come up with something identifying, anything all, about the gelatinous green stuff that wasn't Jell-O and tasted a little like peaches when Ronon and Teyla came in together, and the rest of the meal passed more easily in conversation.

No one mentioned the events of the day before at all, which John considered ideal, until he was toying with the remains of the not Jell-O and trying to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of the day that wasn't work, but somehow occupied his mind enough to keep him from slip-sliding into memory-ville, a prospect that he was slightly less worried about since his experimentation earlier, though he still didn't particularly want to spend the rest of the day wallowing in it.

"You seem distracted, John," Teyla said, giving him one of her familiar too-perceptive gazes. "Are you well?"

It occurred to John that he hadn't even asked Teyla what she knew about the eilisi, because he was clearly a moron. Or because he was embarrassed about the whole thing, and was never a fan of appearing to be at a loss in front of people who were, at least nominally, under his command.

"Yeah, I'm okay. It's the eilisi," he said, watching her face to gauge her reaction. If she didn't know, he figured there was no real reason to enlighten her, since she wouldn't have any helpful information.

"Ah," she nodded, brow clearing a little. "I have never experienced the effects of the eilisi, though I know of it, of course. I was not certain it would be required of you."

John thought about that for a second. "It was requested," he said finally, and shrugged. "And I didn't object."

Teyla smiled. "You behaved with honor, Colonel. I was," and she paused, as though trying to decide how to complete that sentence. "I was most gratified." Which, from Teyla, was a ringing endorsement of his behavior, and enough to make John smile.

"Yeah, tell it to my ass," John muttered, but without any bite to it. He was pleased that she was pleased, and she'd have to be blind or stupid not to know that; Teyla was neither of those things.

"The tea, I believe, is meant to create permanent recollection of the discipline dealt," Teyla said, half-questioning, and John nodded, thinking that was more or less accurate as Keenan had told it, but seemed… inadequate as far as his own experiences thus far. "I regret that I have never witnessed the effects of the tea personally. Are you experiencing difficulties?"

John rubbed at the back of his neck self-consciously. "Not difficulties, exactly, no," even though he was, of course. "It's just distracting, mostly. It comes and goes."

Teyla gave him a long look, and finally offered, "The Kurnei meditate the day following discipline, perhaps until the better part of this 'distraction' has passed?"

Which made sense if the goal was, as Rodney had termed it, behavioral conditioning. In that case, meditating was probably double-speak for remembering. He could see the benefit just from the couple of things he'd remembered that morning, and from the flashbacks the night before. Meditating would mean plenty of time to go through everything, start to finish, with the option of seeing all the little things that he had seen the first time, but which he hadn't had time to register for whatever reason. Which John didn't actually want to do, if he could help it.

He'd already seen more than he really wanted to see, and understood more of it than he wanted to understand. Any more understanding was likely to just make things awkward with Rodney. There were parts of the memory that he didn't want to see again at all, things he was struggling not to allow to edge into his mind even slightly.

He was inclined to think this might be one of those situations in which a little willful ignorance was the only workable solution.

It was like when John was twelve, and walked in on his parents having sex. The best thing to do, the only thing to do, maybe, was for everyone involved to pretend it hadn't happened.

He could do that; John was good at selective memory. There was already so much that he chose not to think about, and not just things that had happened since they'd come to Atlantis. Some memories were razorblades: likely to cut you up if you handled them too much. But too much understanding could make it impossible to set boundaries.

He no longer remembered exactly what his parents had been doing when he walked in on them. The memory was blurred and imperfect, and now, years later, all John really remembered about it was that it had happened, and how mortified they had all been. But there were other things -- Sumner's death, for example -- that John remembered in aching, hateful detail, things that he couldn't forget because every damn day something reminded him, because every damn day he had to think about the Wraith, how to protect his people from them, how to beat them. It was impossible for those memories to grow soft and hazy in his head, impossible to let them become less sharp. And that sucked, yeah, but it was also okay because their survival made it necessary.

But this thing with Rodney was something neither of them had asked for, neither of them had wanted, and the less he allowed himself to think about it, the less awareness he had of what it really meant, the better. For both of them.

Even if John kind of did want to know, in that helpless, train-wreck sort of way.

If meditation was just double-speak for deliberately remembering, it would make it impossible to ignore the things he had no right to know.

Since it was impractical to explain that to Teyla, John just nodded. "I'll think about it," he said.

**

John managed not to spend the day thinking by doing all the random odds-and-ends things that he never had time for when he was allowed to do the part of his job that was actually cool. He spent nearly two hours with Lorne going over training rosters, reviewing 'gate team assignments, and brainstorming how to get as many of the scientists at least nominally field tested in the safest way possible. He spent another hour and a half, at least, simultaneously horrified and impressed with Havildar Cheema's ability to contingency plan disaster scenarios ranging from: Special Protocol 31-C Catastrophic Flooding - Stargate Inoperable to Special Protocol 41-X-D Commanding Officer Possessed - Command Overrides Rescinded.

 

He genuinely couldn't decide whether he was glad he never had time for a detailed review of all of the contingency plans she sent him (to date, there were forty-two), or whether he ought to make time, because rather a lot of them seemed vaguely threatening to him specifically. For example, Special Protocol 19-R: Violation of Quarantine Measures - Neutralize with Extreme Prejudice.

The first time John had met Cheema, he'd thought she was hot. Smart and Hot. It wasn't a thought he'd had in conjunction with her since the first of the Special Protocols had crossed his desk.

Well, he still thought she was smart.

Eventually the horrified fascination at his Head of Security's paranoid streak wore off, so he headed down to the labs to work on initializing the gigantic pile of low-priority Ancient tech. Rodney wasn't there, which made the whole thing a hell of a lot more peaceful than John was used to, but it took enough concentration and mental intent to stave off any undesirable strolls down memory lane.

And it needed doing. It was one of those things that inevitably got back-burnered in favor of saving the galaxy or procuring trade partners or rescuing SGA-5 for the third time in less than a month, so there was an unnervingly huge quantity of it to initialize. It was all at least tentatively identified as non-dangerous via exhaustive database inquiries, but judged to be not likely to be necessary to the day-to-day functioning of the base.

It turned out to be mostly gadgets that were fairly specific in purpose, like the blue-green wand-looking thing that projected any fairly simple thing John could visualize, which he figured was the Ancient version of a laser-pointer-cum-slide-projector, and the small, silver-white globe that parroted back anything he said to it in several languages (some that John recognized, some that he didn't), which was maybe part translator, part digital voice recorder. Some of it was useful, and most of it was interesting, but he'd made it halfway through the two-dozen carefully packed cases without finding anything he'd term vital, so apparently whoever was sorting this stuff (Rodney, most likely) was doing a pretty good job of it.

The coolest thing by far was something that looked like a fancy version of a View-Master, which showed him images of various parts of the city when he looked into the eyepieces. It took him a few minutes to figure this out, because the first few times he looked, all he saw were dark, empty rooms, maybe because he wasn't thinking of any place in particular. It wasn't until he was getting a little bored, and thought he'd head over to the 'gate room just to see what was going on -- and found himself watching Chuck surreptitiously playing with his iPod behind the console -- that the purpose of the device became clear. Or what the device did became clear, anyhow, because even once they figured out what something did, it was often impossible to figure out what the hell the Ancients had needed it for. Though this one was maybe a little clearer than most. He played with it for a little while, and then had Zelenka look through it to see if someone without the gene could use it once it had been initialized. It turned out that he couldn't, which put Zelenka in a snit.

John figured the whole session would be worth it if he got to watch Rodney's malicious glee at being able to use the toy when Zelenka couldn't. As mean as it was, watching Rodney gloat tended to be a lot of fun. It was the gloating thing that made him remember the idea he'd had about how to find out what the naquadah tablet on Kurn said, mostly because he didn't get the chance to have an idea that good before Rodney that often, and he figured it deserved some gloating.

Considering when he'd come up with the idea, it shouldn't have surprised him when it triggered a corresponding chunk of memory, but it did.

Later, he would think that maybe it happened like it did because he'd been working his ass off all day to avoid remembering. Whatever the cause, it wasn't the easy, sinking feeling from that morning, and it wasn't the abruptly helpless falling into the memory of the night before.

This was more like being viciously bitch-slapped with memory, and John heard himself let out a choking little cry of surprise, felt himself falling over (again, damnit), and then:

Rodney was visible, but only barely, just a shape John was holding at the edge of his field of vision. He hurt, it hurt and each blow was enough to startle him all over again, enough to challenge his control over his body, which wanted to jerk and flail away from the paddle. He deliberately kept his face turned mostly away from Rodney because he was using too much of his self-control just to keep still, and he was pretty sure his face was showing far more than Rodney could handle seeing. But he needed to see Rodney, too, needed the distraction it afforded, so he kept his face turned just enough that he could see Rodney without actually looking at Rodney, and he sincerely doubted whatever was on that damned tablet was worth this, though he'd dearly like to find out. The corrosion on the surface made that next to impossible without being able to clean it, however, and John had no intention of making all of this for nothing. On the other hand, the Kurnei hadn't cared about Rodney looking at it, just the touching part, and if he could just figure a way to get a look at the metal beneath the surface filth -- a molecular scanner, maybe, something tuned to the naquadah itself, might work…? But he lost the impetus to further consider the idea when Keenan's paddle landed again, flinching helplessly at how loud it was. He could hear Keenan breathing heavily with exertion; his own breathing was like an echo of that, half a second and the loud crack of the paddle behind.

It surprised him when Rodney moved, and his first reaction was a bolt of almost panicked fury, because they couldn't afford for Rodney to get squeamish now goddamnit, John couldn't afford it and wouldn't tolerate it. He was not doing this again. He turned his head to follow the movement -- a couple of deliberate steps, he realized, not just Rodney turning away, so what was Rodney doing? -- some kind of harsh demand curled and waiting on his tongue, but Rodney hadn't turned away.

No, not away, just away from John's face. The data pad he'd been clutching was hanging loosely, apparently forgotten, in one hand; in fact, all the tension in Rodney's body, that brittle stiffness that was a hallmark of Rodney when he was afraid, was also conspicuously absent. His shoulders were neither painfully stiff nor hunched and rounded. He was focused, though, watching intently, but instead of John's face, he was looking somewhere further back, and for a second John felt a little like he had at the tail end of his third date with MaryAnne Feinberg, right after she'd slapped him resoundingly across the face for sneaking a hand under her sweater. His ears were filled with a surprised, droning ringing, and Rodney McKay was undeniably staring at his ass. Not just looking, but staring, watching, even studying, maybe. He wasn't sure what to call it, but whatever it was, it was deliberate, it was filled with intent that made John's mouth go dry and his brain buzz with bright, if mostly senseless, intensity as he looked back, stared back, whatever-ed back, because, just, just the way Rodney looked, and John couldn't drag his eyes away, couldn't pretend not to be fixated by it.

Rodney was very still, but it was different, nothing like the stiffness he'd been forcing himself to maintain in spite of his obvious desire to run for the hills. This stillness didn't speak of fear and unhappiness, but rather was attentive, even rapt, as though somewhere in the course of the last few minutes things had changed in some way that John wasn't aware of. Rodney had gone from pale to deeply flushed; not the blotchy exertion-and/or-injury flush John was used to seeing on his face either. This flush looked far healthier, less like an impending stroke. It traveled all the way from the tips of his ears down until it disappeared into the open throat of his BDU shirt, where it presumably continued down across his chest. Crazily, it looked good on Rodney, it was bizarrely flattering, and not just the flush, either. His lips were parted and slick, like he'd just licked them; while John watched, his tongue snuck out and slid delicately along his lower lip and something low in John's belly clenched warmly.

What the hell, McKay? John thought, and made a concentrated effort to look away, uncomfortable and unsettled, but Rodney's eyes were huge and dark and… and ravenous, and John couldn't look away. He was suddenly monstrously overheated, and not just his burning ass and his heated face. It was as though all the kinetic energy he was denying his tense and straining body was trying to escape through every pore of his skin simultaneously, and the twisting heat in his belly curled and spiked into something that was nearly pleasure.

John didn't get off on pain; he'd had the odd experience with it, since he was nothing if not adventurous with a willing partner, and it had never done it for him. He'd never been a fan of exhibitionism, either, and he didn't think that was it. In spite of some pretty crushing embarrassment and a side of surprise and confusion, he was hard. And he still couldn't look away from Rodney's face, from the look on Rodney's face, the focus there, which was bizarrely familiar considering the situation. Except it didn't really look like anything John had ever seen before. Never in his life had someone directed a look like that at him, and the experience was bewilderingly yet undeniably mesmerizing. Rodney's eyes were a little narrowed with the strength of his attention, looking at John like he looked at equations or schematics, as though he were bending all of his considerable mental capacity toward solving for x, remembering, knowing everything about what he was looking at. John knew well enough what want looked like; he'd just never seen it look like that, never seen it on Rodney like that. He was looking back so hard that he wasn't even thinking about self-control, so when the next blow fell (killing his hard-on and reaffirming John's certainty that he wasn't a closet masochist), he cried out with it, a choked shout of objection that devolved quickly into a hoarse gasp.

It was enough, apparently, to break Rodney's concentration on John's ass. He flinched, a full-body recoil, and clutched his data pad to his belly. His head snapped around and his eyes met John's. For a long, weighty moment, his eyes were dark, the pupils blown, and he was looking at John with blatant desire. John blinked, off-balance and uncertain, which was unpleasantly unfamiliar in regards to Rodney; he had never had to guess at how to react to Rodney. Nobody did; he was an open book. Then Rodney blinked and his eyes went wide and shocked. His mouth went tight and crooked, and the flush leached out of his face all at once, leaving him looking pale and bleak. He blinked and for a few seconds he looked bewildered and unhappy, as though he wasn't sure what had just happened. John watched as something flickered in his eyes, knowledge and self-loathing pushing the confusion back. Then he closed his eyes and swayed on his feet, strain appearing like malevolent magic around his mouth and eyes, and the flush returned, shame this time, so different that John couldn't imagine ever confusing the two, and he lifted a shaking hand toward John, palm out, an unmistakable gesture of self-defense.

John came to himself with a grunt, and blinked up at the ceiling of the lab before Zelenka appeared above him, hovering and wispy-haired and obviously worried.

"Colonel?" he asked, and poked John in the arm.

"Rodney," John said, and Zelenka's eyes went wide behind the lenses of his glasses.

"Oh dear," Zelenka said. "No, no, no, I am Radek! Rodney is taller and more insulting!"

John's lips twitched into a smirk in spite of his aching head and dry mouth. "I know who you are, Zelenka. I mean, has anybody seen McKay at all today?"

Because at some point while he'd been out, John had realized a couple of things that he really should have already known.

The first thing was that he hadn't seen Rodney all day, and that just never happened. Rodney hadn't been on duty, but that had never stopped him from being in the lab before, and it wasn't like Elizabeth had confined them to their quarters. The second thing was that Rodney had delivered the eilisi and eilisum samples to Carson sometime in the early morning, a time of day that Rodney never encountered consciously if he could help it. Those few times that Rodney was up with the dawn were invariably times when Rodney was merely meeting it from the other direction, usually because he was deeply in the grips of science, or had just escaped from said grips and was on his way to bed.

All of which meant…

Fuck, John had no idea what it meant. It meant that Rodney holing up in his quarters wasn't even remotely surprising. And the fact that John hadn't even consciously noticed that Rodney was MIA probably meant that he had known that, somewhere in that place that John tended to avoid. He'd known it had been embarrassing, God, he was there, and he'd known that Rodney wouldn't want him to have seen the things John had seen on his face. He'd like to think that was one of the reasons he hadn't let himself think about it since then, but realistically, John didn't really want to know those things either. He had no idea how to deal with that look on Rodney's face, with the memory of having had it directed at him. That understanding had no place to go in John's head. It couldn't be consigned to any of the normal categories that comprised his interaction with other people, not even people he actually had slept with at some point, people that had looked at him with recognizable want, because that look, what he'd seen...

He didn't know what the hell to do with that.

But that aside, neither he nor Zelenka had seen or heard from Rodney all day, and that wasn't just passing irregular. That was downright bizarre. What if something was wrong? What if Rodney had had some kind of reaction to the eilisi?

He shook his head and twisted around to get one hand beneath him, grabbed Zelenka's shoulder with the other, and hauled himself upright, ignoring the dull throb of his ass, which he'd clearly landed on again. "Help me up," he huffed, unnecessarily, because Zelenka was already hauling John to his feet with both hands.

John wobbled a little bit, but remained standing.

"I could radio the infirmary," Zelenka suggested, waving one hand a little wildly, but the look on his face said clearly that he wasn't hopeful.

"No, I'm good. Thanks, though."

Zelenka muttered something in Czech as John left the lab.

**

Rodney answered his door by yelling, "Fuck off, please." If by answering you meant didn't answer at all, and just yelled abusive things from the other side in an oddly polite way.

John rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet for a few seconds, considering. He could get in if he wanted to, of course, and not by 'sweet-talking' the city, as Rodney often accused him of doing. He could get in because he'd been working elbow to elbow with Rodney for a couple of years now, and he'd seen Rodney jack a dozen Ancient doors in that time. He was even pretty sure he could manage a door on a Hive ship by now.

But he'd never heard Rodney use the word "fuck" before, and that deserved a moment of consideration. John used it, of course, and Lorne was occasionally known to belt out the f-word in tense situations. Ronon had taken to it like a duck to water. John had even heard Elizabeth use it one time.

But Rodney was strictly soft-core as far as swearing went. In Rodney vernacular, on the upper end of the cursing scale there was a three-way tie between "bastard," "asshole," and "son of a bitch." All of which John had had tossed in his direction at one time or another, come to think of it, though none of them very often. John thought maybe it was a Canadian thing.

And, strictly speaking, just having Rodney answer him was enough to satisfy John's primary purpose for showing up at Rodney's door. He was clearly okay, and no further interaction was really necessary, right? He was conscious and aware, not trapped in memory and helpless to respond, or possibly concussed from having fallen over during a flashback, so John could just keep on walking.

Except that there were degrees of okay, and using the word "fuck" out loud might be an indicator of a fairly low degree of okay coming from Rodney. And, actually, Rodney didn't sound okay. Granted, three words was a fairly small data pool, but that in itself was a fairly strong indicator from Rodney. And for a guy that continually hovered obsessively just a hair shy of hypochondria, Rodney had occasionally shown a disturbing tendency to push his body past what was healthy or even sane, and yeah, those times were usually prefaced by the knowledge of certain death, but still.

And the truth was, John was worried. And slightly freaked out, although that kind of went without saying. The point was, he got why Rodney might not be asking for help even if he needed it right now. The whole thing, from start to finish, made John's scalp prickle with uncomfortable, enforced intimacy, and the more he remembered -- or the more completely he remembered, maybe -- the worse it got. He'd really like nothing better than to hole up in his own quarters and not come out until he'd figured out how to feel normal again.

But Rodney was his team, damnit. Even if this wasn't John's fault -- and he wasn't quite able to believe that it wasn't -- it was still his responsibility.

John shook his head and sighed. To hell with it.

"Let me in, McKay," he said, just loud enough to be sure Rodney could hear him on the other side of the door. After a full minute of nothing but silence, John added, "I'm coming in." Just in case Rodney was naked.

He didn't actually make any attempt to open the door, just waited another handful of seconds, and sure enough the door opened.

Rodney was sitting in the middle of his bed with two laptops and a data pad arranged on the desk, which he'd pulled over close to the bed. He wasn't actually using any of them. Instead, he had a spiral notebook balanced on his bent knees. There were three others, all open, scattered at the foot of the bed.

Rodney looked like crap. His face was drawn and pale, and he was sporting at least a day's growth of stubble. There were dark circles under his eyes, which had a hollow look to them, a look that John recognized from one of Rodney's not infrequent marathon sessions in the lab, most often induced by a pressing need to save all their lives.

Rodney observed him warily as John crossed over to the foot of the bed and peered at one of the notebooks upside-down. He'd expected equations, but instead it was just a long string of numbers, line after line of them, broken occasionally by a semicolon. The notebook was on the last page, and John flipped back a page, then two, then several at once, frowning at the filled pages. It was filled that way all the way to the first page. When John flipped it closed, he saw that a large number "1" had been written on the cover and circled. He flipped through the second notebook, backward again. It was filled with equations, cover to cover. Familiar equations.

The third notebook was also equations, about half full.

He looked a question at Rodney, who was regarding him with less wariness now, one brow arched in what would have probably been amusement if Rodney hadn't looked quite so much like shit on toast. Rodney flipped it closed and tipped it so that John could see the cover, which had "2" circled on the front. John flipped one of the notebooks of equations right side-up and skimmed the first couple of pages.

"So, have you proven it yet?" John asked, since he had to start the conversation somewhere.

Rodney blinked at him. "Proven what?" he asked mildly, though he had that sly look that he got when he was attempting to force John to prove him right.

Usually John liked to bait Rodney ruthlessly when he got that look, but Rodney'd had a hard couple of days. He gave it up without a fight, and without a second thought, drawling, "C'mon, Rodney, don't be like that. If you've proven that the Euler-Mascheroni Constant is actually transcendental and/or irrational, you have a responsibility to mankind to pass on your infinite knowledge!"

Rodney smirked tiredly, and something loosened in John's gut. "It hasn't even been twenty-four hours, Colonel. Even I need longer than that to prove the 'unapproachable.'"

John sighed theatrically. "Honestly, I'd have figured you for a Feigenbaum kind of guy, anyway." He stacked the notebooks into a pile and set them on the edge of the desk, and invited himself to sit down, curling one leg up under him to keep as much weight off his ass as he could.

Rodney's eyebrows climbed up toward his hairline. "And you'd be right, normally, but not if I'm doing it on paper. You do realize it took a supercomputer ages to calculate Feigenbaum's to only 300 decimal places, right?"

John shrugged one shoulder. "Yeah, but I'd put money on your giant brain over a supercomputer any time." Rodney smirked again, and John smirked back. "You ever wish you actually had a piece of paper as big as the universe?" he asked, grinning; Rodney snorted as if to say of course he'd never thought something so ridiculous and impossible, but he was still grinning, a happy, surprised kind of grin, which made something loosen between John's shoulder blades. For the first time since the thing, John started to feel almost okay.

"So, I had this idea," John said, because Rodney was prickly and difficult on his best day, which John was pretty sure this was not, and if he merely launched into the sleep and food lecture portion of the visit Rodney would balk like a three-year-old confronted with naptime. Rodney's brows arched in question, and he sat forward, putting the notebook in his hands on top of the stack John had put on the desk.

"Amaze me," he invited wryly, and he still looked tired, still looked like shit on toast, but John could read the incremental slide toward relaxation in Rodney's body language.

John smirked in satisfaction. "Okay, think about Carson's medical scanner."

Rodney did, eyes going a little distant; he was the only person John had ever met that either could or would do that without knowing the why behind it. He could practically see Rodney composing a list in his head, ticking off all the things he knew about the scanner. "Okay," Rodney said, a hint of impatience coloring his voice.

"Now think about a smaller version of it, hand held, preferably."

Rodney frowned, brows drawing together, but it was his problem-solving frown rather than his 'we're all going to die' frown, which was good. "And what am I doing with this hypothetical scanner?" Rodney wanted to know.

"Well, assuming it works the way I hope it will, you're configuring it to ignore everything but naquadah and creating an image of the tablet on PX8-994, which you can then digitally display without the corrosion factoring into it."

Rodney's mouth dropped open. John pretended the heady rush of pleasure and triumph that reaction triggered was not absolutely ridiculous, but he could feel the grin stretching his lips. Rodney's gaze went sharp on John's face after only a couple of seconds of surprise, and he scowled at John's grin, but it was more habit than anything.

"You, yes, hmm," he said, and turned to the laptop closest to him and began tapping away at it. "The right idea, but the wrong equipment," he told John absently, eyes narrowed as he scanned the screen in front of him. "The medical scanner is specific to organic material." John didn't respond, since it wasn't really a question. It was just what Rodney did when he was thinking. "But, yes, yes, here it is." He slid the laptop around so that the screen was pointing at John, and John leaned forward to look at the image it was displaying. "I can't believe I didn't think of it, it's exactly what you want; it's a diagnostic tool, something to detect stress fractures or impurities in certain heavy metals, but we haven't got to the technical level needed to require the device on anything but an experimental basis since it doesn't work on anything we brought with us from Earth, not even uranium." He gave John a crooked grin. "Even if naquadah isn't one of the current metals in its database, it shouldn't take much to write it in."

John gave him a long look. "We brought uranium from Earth?" He found the idea faintly scandalous, though he wasn't sure why, since they'd also brought nuclear reactors from Earth, and one seemed hardly worse than the other.

"Only a little!" Rodney said.

John snorted, and held out a hand and wiggled his fingers.

Rodney gave him a narrow look. "What?"

"You know what," John said, and smirked when Rodney scowled.

"I don't know how you heard about the incentive program, Colonel, but it's intended for members of the Science Team, not random Colonels who very occasionally happen upon ideas that aren't totally stupid."

"Rodney," John wheedled, and Rodney rolled his eyes.

"I don't even have any here!" Rodney snapped. "I keep it in the lab."

John snorted his disbelief and made gimme hands at Rodney. "Candy baaaaaaar!" John demanded, a la Little Shop of Horrors. Rodney let out an oddly delicate little snort of surprised laughter, but he reached around behind his laptop and grabbed something that crinkled in his hand, tossing it at John before he could see what it was.

"Infant," Rodney huffed, but he was still smirking a little with amusement, so John was willing to call it a win.

"Milky Way," John grinned. "Score." He opened it and bit off approximately half the bar, and seriously, John fucking missed being able to run to the convenience store for chocolate any time he wanted. Even with the Daedalus making regular runs these day, chocolate was a scarce commodity. He handed the remaining half to Rodney, who didn't object to John's generosity or his cooties, though his smirk did soften slightly.

"So, I presume that at some point you'll get around to telling me why you're here?" It would've been a lot more pointed, John figured, if Rodney wasn't speaking through half a candy bar.

John considered prevaricating as he chewed, and decided against it. Even if the whole spanking thing didn't put them past the point where packaging the hard stuff was necessary, two years of nearly getting killed side by side on a weekly basis did. "You need to sleep, McKay." He gestured to the pile of empty PowerBar wrappers beside the bed. "And eat some real food."

"Yes, well," Rodney muttered, licking chocolate off the edge of his thumb while balling the empty Milky Way wrapper up in his other hand, "I'll certainly take that under advisement, Colonel."

"Uh huh," John said, and shifted a little, trying to find a more comfortable position for his bruised ass on Rodney's rock-hard mattress. He braced his elbows on his knees and settled for leaning as far forward as possible. "You're just going to get so tired you'll eventually fall over anyway. Also, I don't think what you're doing is going to help, ultimately."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Rodney said flatly, and leaned to one side to drop the Milky Way wrapper on top of the pile of PowerBar wrappers.

John sighed. "I think sleep is safe enough. I didn't have any problems last night at all."

"Consider me reassured," Rodney sneered. "If that's all, you should feel free to get out." When John didn't immediately move, he added sweetly, "Unless you're planning to stay and tuck me in?"

Which was the kind of thing John normally would've answered with amused mockery, and he opened his mouth to riposte appropriately, but what he actually said was, "Rodney." Rodney went still, a slow flush painting his cheeks and forehead, which was enough to send heat rushing to John's face in answer. "Look," he said, low and urgent, "I know the whole thing was, well, freak-worthy, but do me a favor and try not to freak out anyway. It's. We can just. I mean, it's not that big a deal."

Rodney gave him a withering look that wasn't at all mediated by the fact that he was still blushing scarlet. "Oh, well that's very reassuring, Colonel, happy to know that my crushing humiliation 'isn't a big deal' to you." Rodney's tone was just as pissed off and snappy as his withering glare, but his hands were nervously mauling his sheets, and John had no idea what to say to make this okay.

"No, listen, McKay," he tried. "Nobody knows a thing that happened in there except you and me, and nobody else is going to. It's nothing either of us wanted to happen, and it doesn't change anything."

Rodney rolled his eyes, but he looked so tired it wasn't even insulting. "You're an idiot," he said wearily. "It's already changed everything. Now get out."

John frowned and tried to look determined rather than clueless.

"Sheppard," Rodney sighed, but his voice was oddly gentle. "Why don't you tell me what it is that you think you want to accomplish here so I can make it happen and you can leave me the hell alone."

John blinked, and it actually took him a few seconds to come up with a response to that. "I know you, Rodney. You're sitting in here freaking out."

But he didn't need Rodney's answering eyeroll to know that he was on shaky intellectual ground; Rodney looked tired, but he didn't actually act like he was freaking out. God knew he'd seen it often enough to recognize it by now.

"I'm not, actually. At least, not at the moment. What I'm doing is, at worst, practicing some practical avoidance, which is a time-honored McKay tradition. Which, by the way, your presence here would be rendering rather difficult, if that were the case. At best, I'm coming to terms with the events of the last day or so. If that's the case, by the way, your presence would be just as unwelcome. But leaving that aside for the moment, hypothetically speaking, if I was sitting in here freaking out, what would I be freaking out about?"

"Uh," John said, and blinked again, because he had no idea how to put into words the things he'd been thinking about. Or remembering, at least, since he'd actually been fairly careful to do as little actual thinking on the topic as he could manage.

"Yes, precisely," Rodney agreed. He didn't actually roll his eyes this time, but John was fairly sure it was implied. "Which makes two of us doing whatever this is, the options being a) freaking out, b) avoidance, or c) coming to terms with recent events."

"I'm not freaking out," John insisted, even though he was a little, and had been for a while.

"No, of course not. Which is why you can't verbalize why you're actually here, aside from the obviously peripheral 'food and sleep' angle." Rodney gave him a long look that was equal parts tired and impatient. "Tell you what, Colonel. When you can tell me why you're doing any one of those three things in actual words, come back and bother me. In the meantime, do please feel free to get the hell out of my quarters."

And John left, because he wasn't a super-genius like Rodney, but he wasn't actually an idiot, either, and Rodney wasn't wrong.

**

Twenty feet from the door of McKay's quarters was a cross corridor that led to the mess (eventually) in one direction and to the infirmary (rather more quickly) in the other. Since he didn't really have anything better to do, John figured he'd go get his brain scanned.

He wasn't what you'd call unobservant as a rule, so he was a little irked when he caught a movement from the corner of his eye and turned to find Havildar Cheema walking beside him, looking like she'd been there for a while now and had just been waiting for John to notice her. Great. "Havildar," he said, because he felt obligated to acknowledge her in some way, and calling her Cheema outside his own head never sounded right.

"Lieutenant-Colonel," she responded briskly, but didn't offer anything else in the way of conversation. It didn't particularly surprise John, although it did reinforce his opinion that the Havildar was more than a little odd. He was familiar with this habit of hers, and more or less understood what she was doing and why, even if it was just another thing that made her pretty seriously odd. Not that he had a problem with odd. John didn't have a problem with anyone that could do their job without constant hand-holding, really, and in spite of the weird-factor (and what John considered to be a healthy dose of terror as regarded her emergency protocol reports), John had never regretted slotting her into the position after Bates had shipped back to Earth.

She wasn't Bates. Bates had been a cop, pure and simple, and as much as John had disliked him, he'd been good at it. He'd been good as head of security.

Havildar Cheema was better. If Bates was a cop, Cheema was Secret Service. She wasn't a warrior the way Teyla was, but she didn't need to be. She was coolly intelligent, ruthlessly pragmatic, and eerily effective.

Truthfully, John was kind of glad she hadn't been in charge of security when he had been turned into a bug.

"Hey, if I turned into a bug, would you shoot me?" he asked, mostly just for something to say.

She didn't smile, but it still sort of sounded like she was smiling when she replied, "Of course, sir. Special Protocol 9-I: De-Evolution or Counter-Evolution of Command Staff."

John didn't remember reading that one. Still, he totally believed her. "You're a really comforting person, Havildar, have I mentioned that?"

"I don't believe so, sir," she said.

John snorted. She stopped in front of the infirmary when John did, wordlessly waiting for him to either tell her they had a problem, or tell her nothing at all. By now she had either read his mission report and this was her way of checking in with him. She almost never asked him any questions when she put herself in his path like this. She just assumed that if there was something she needed to know, he'd tell her. It was unsettling as hell only because she was right; he just didn't get how she knew she was right, considering the fact that they'd only ever had one conversation of any appreciable length.

"I'm not possessed or otherwise mentally incapacitated," he said.

"Wonderful," she said, though the word was so inflectionless she could have just as easily said Platypus and it would have sounded equally sincere.

"This is my stop," John drawled, waving a casual hand at the infirmary door. "That'll be all, Havildar."

"Yes, sir," she agreed, and spun smartly on one heel, heading back the way they'd come at a brisk clip.

John watched her go for a few seconds, wondering more or less idly what she had made of what had happened on Kurn. The thing that he found weirdest about Cheema was that he was pretty sure she wasn't speculating on it at all.

He shook the feeling off and steeled himself to let Carson play Doctor with his brain.

Carson excitedly pointed out that John's temporal lobe and frontal cortex were beginning to show elevated activity in isolated areas, which probably meant that the eilisi genuinely, somehow forcibly wired a specific time period into semantic memory, which was apparently "absolutely fascinating" if you were Carson.

The image on the monitor now showed three brighter white-yellow spots against a field of various shades of blue.

John's brain looked like it was coming down with chicken pox. Or possibly acne.

**

About halfway through what John was willing to admit was probably a fairly sullen ramble in the general direction of his quarters (if one was willing to allow that 'in the general direction of' was a very broad qualifier), John's stomach let him know that he hadn't eaten since his ridiculously early lunch and it wasn't all that happy about it. The mess hall seemed so very very far, but the alternative was dining on whatever he could find in his quarters, and since he didn't tend to stock up on things like Rodney did, it was likely to be either very old, very stale PowerBars, or MREs -- Vegetable Manicotte or the dreaded Sloppy Joe. He zagged left instead of right at the next intersection, and came at the mess hall from a slightly odd direction, which might have been the reason that Rodney didn't seem to notice him as he breezed past the doorway John was standing in. That was probably why, John told himself, noting that Rodney had showered and changed into slightly less disreputable looking clothing. He still looked like hammered ass, but at least it was a slightly more presentable version of hammered ass.

He couldn't actually say he was surprised to see Rodney. Statistically speaking, it was totally in line with the way his luck was running. He sighed and grabbed a tray, not really looking forward to the moment when Rodney realized John was standing just behind him, but resigned anyway, since it was beneath him to turn around and head back to his quarters to see if he could dig out a Sloppy Joe MRE, even if he kind of wanted to.

"Oh my God, are you stalking me, Colonel?"

"Yes," John said, surveying the room and finding Ronon a few tables away, his usual small mountain of food piled on his tray. "Yes, McKay, obviously that's the only rational explanation of why I might be in the mess hall at dinner time," he shot over his shoulder as he edged between tables toward Ronon. He ignored Rodney sputtering behind him, or that was the plan, but there was the abrupt and discordant sound of something clattering to the ground, and before he really knew it he'd deposited his tray on the nearest table and turned back, suspecting what he'd see strongly enough that it felt like certainty.

Rodney was down, the contents of his tray strewn in a jumbled mess on the floor around him. John took three seconds to slide a hand under the back of his head, checking for bumps and bleeding; there was no need to check for vitals, as Rodney's eyes were wide open, as though in surprise, and his breathing was clearly audible. "Sheppard," he said, clearly enough that for the second time John thought that Rodney was aware, but then hard on the heels of that, he gasped, "Ah, Jesus God," and closed his eyes.

The slow, rich flush that suffused his face was familiar, utterly so, and John blinked, head swimming a little. Distantly, he wondered again if he talked when this happened (and if so, what had he said in the lab, earlier, with Zelenka looking on).

More immediately, he could hear people babbling around him, Ronon barking McKay's name, and himself muttering, "Damnit, Rodney." From the blush alone he could guess what was going on in Rodney's gigantic brain, and the mess hall seemed like a pretty crappy place to do it.

"Oh," Rodney whispered, low and breathy and disturbingly sexual, "Oh, oh god," and Jesus, the talking just added another level of humiliation to spanking flashbacks in the mess hall; he had to get Rodney the hell out of here. "God, so--" Rodney gasped out, and John slapped a hand over Rodney's mouth, because he did not want to know how that sentence ended. He jerked it back almost immediately, but too late to pretend that he hadn't felt the delicate, barely-there brush of Rodney's tongue against the spot where his middle finger joined his palm. John's skin prickled with awareness of the way Rodney smelled, sweat and lack of sleep and sex, and he could feel himself hardening in his BDUs.

He turned to find Ronon, but before he got that far his gaze snagged unexpectedly on Rodney's crotch, at the very visible erection pressing against the fly of Rodney's pants, and he blinked and thought, oh, and then a bizarre erection montage was flickering through his brain: Rodney dropping to his knees to struggle with John's boots, erection causing the front of his BDUs to bind in a way that John was intimately familiar with so that Rodney bit out a little gasp as he folded down (and Jesus Christ, how had he not seen that the first time?), Rodney staring at Keenan's paddle connecting with John's ass, wet mouth, hot eyes, cock straining at the front of his BDUs, Rodney flushed with shame, eyes closed, hands fumbling his data pad down to hide his groin, and each memory was like a photograph, if a photograph had not only sight, but depth and sound and scent and texture, if you could inadvertently fall into a photograph.

Ronon's legs abruptly appeared in front of John, and he dropped into a crouch at Rodney's side; for a second, John could clearly see Ronon's face, the concern as he reached for Rodney, but John was still only half-present, still trapped in a weird halfway state. He blinked against the feeling, thinking help me get him out of here. But it was Conan behind his eyes, stepping toward McKay, and he was filled with that same and brittle ire, possessive and indignant, and he struck out without thought, the heel of his palm slamming into Conan's solar plexus with the whole force of his body behind it, hard enough that something in John's shoulder blazed with a bright twist of pain.

Which was what snapped him out of it. He was starting to think fondly of the days when he just fell over.

Ronon flew backward and landed on his ass, skidding a foot or two, a feat John never would have managed had Ronon not been crouched like he had been and taken by surprise, and which would have been absolutely hilarious under any other circumstances. Ronon's gaze was fixed on John measuringly, though he looked neither angry nor surprised.

"Shit, Ronon," John said by way of apology, but Ronon merely shifted up to his knees and then knee-walked gracefully back to McKay's side. John glanced around, and there were a good ten or twelve people looking on now. John found himself leaning awkwardly over Rodney's midsection, blocking the obvious tent there from everyone's sight (he hoped), though from where he was kneeling, Ronon wouldn't be able to miss it. The position made his shoulder throb dully, which seemed to awaken the abused muscles of his bruised ass, and John was abruptly pissed and tired and miserable in general.

"Christ," Rodney choked out, but a glance at his face made it clear that he was still in absentia.

"I'll explain later; help me get him out of here," John hissed at Ronon, who merely nodded, eyes flicking from John's face to Rodney's. He leaned in and shoved his arms under Rodney's knees and shoulders, and John leaned back barely in time to avoid getting Rodney's hard-on shoved into his face. He scrambled to his feet at least ten times more awkwardly than Ronon, which was horrendously unfair, considering that John wasn't picking up a grown man, and hadn't just got punched in the solar plexus, and noted that Ronon had managed to angle Rodney in his arms in such a way that his crotch was tipped toward Ronon's chest and not easily visible to anyone. It occurred to him that real friendship was being willing to conceal your sorta-unconscious friend's inappropriate erection by pressing it up against your own chest.

They were outside Rodney's quarters within sixty seconds and without running into anyone else, for which John was absurdly grateful. Ronon might have been the only person in Atlantis who wouldn't insist on a trip straight to Carson, which John was beyond certain was the last thing Rodney would want when he came out of it. John didn't even think about rigging the door the hard way (though he could, if he wanted to, thank you very much); he used his powers for evil, thinking Emergency, and Open up rightthefuck now, and Atlantis opened Rodney's door for him with barely a hesitation.

Ronon lowered Rodney carefully onto his unmade bed, and Rodney whined, "Colonel," low and tight, sounding almost like an objection, if porn flicks featured objections; for the rest of his life, John would never be able to hear Rodney use his rank without hearing that, and damn. Rodney was right after all. It changed everything.

Christ Jesus, John thought, and raked a hand through his hair, trying to figure out what the hell to do next. He could feel Ronon looking at him, and made himself meet Ronon's gaze. His face was hot, but he refused to look away; the situation was weird enough already without acknowledging that it was actually far and away weirder than it seemed even at first glance. "It's the tea," John said harshly. "The memory tea from Kurn. The memories come like... like flashbacks." John paused, wondering if Ronon even knew what he meant by flashbacks, but Ronon was nodding, because he'd been a runner for seven years, so of course he knew. Flashbacks were probably universal. "I didn't mean to... You were someone else, in my head." Ronon raised an eyebrow, lips curling a little. John snorted, because yeah, that had sounded weird. "Look, if you want you can twenty-questions me later," John offered, though Ronon hadn't actually asked a single question. "But I think it'd be better if you aren't here when Rodney comes back. He..." But he let the explanation die because there was no good way to explain it.

Ronon just looked at him, head cocked slightly. "But you don't think he'll care if you're here?" he rumbled.

John sighed. "Oh, he will, but." He shrugged one shoulder. "I'm not leaving him alone."

"Okay," Ronon agreed and left without another word.

From mess hall collapse to the door sliding shut behind Ronon was less than two minutes, and it wasn't anywhere near enough time to come up with any kind of solution to what was turning into a fairly big problem.

At least Rodney had shut the hell up.

But as soon as John realized Rodney had stopped making noise, he was abruptly paranoid, wondering if maybe Carson would have been the right place to take Rodney after all, and never mind Rodney's embarrassment. He propped a knee on the bed beside Rodney and leaned over, but didn't touch him. He didn't have to. Rodney was still visibly breathing, and it felt weird and wrong to touch him when he was like this, so John hovered uncertainly instead (which Rodney certainly would have mocked had he been in any shape to do so). Rodney's eyes were half-open, heavy-lidded; John could barely see the glitter of blue behind his lashes. "Rodney?" he asked, hand hovering just above Rodney's shoulder, half-wanting to give him a little shake. He wasn't sure exactly how out of it Rodney really was.

He was almost sure that it got worse, more overwhelming or more encompassing or something, if you resisted, and Rodney had most likely been deliberately and determinedly not giving in since he'd left John's quarters last night. God, almost twenty hours ago, and after only ten hours of avoidance, it had hit John like a sledgehammer. He wondered how long he'd been out. He should've asked Zelenka, damnit. "Rodney?" A little louder this time, and Rodney shifted, breath hitching a little in his throat, and made a soft, distressed sound that made John feel weirdly frantic, five seconds from screaming for Carson over his headset. "Hey buddy, come on, McKay. Talk to me."

"Colonel Sheppard," Elizabeth said abruptly in his ear, and John jerked in surprise.

"Crap," he said, because he didn't have to guess at what she wanted; news of Rodney falling over unconscious in the mess was certain to have traveled fast. He tapped his ear-piece and answered, "This is Sheppard."

"John, I just heard there was an incident in the cafeteria?" Elizabeth's tone was cool and professional, and more tellingly, the question was unusually vague, which just confirmed how few people knew about what had happened on Kurn, and how much Elizabeth wanted to keep it that way. Not that John didn't agree completely.

He hesitated a moment, and then went with, "Yeah, McKay had a reaction. It's nothing to worry about."

There was a brief moment of silence, and Elizabeth said, "Not to something he was served here, I hope?"

"No, something he had off-world, but it's nothing serious. It wasn't entirely unexpected."

"All right," she said, and John made a mental note to go talk to Elizabeth fairly soon, just for the sake of reassurance. "As long as he's fine."

"Yeah," John lied, eyeballing Rodney and wondering how long he was willing to wait before he called Carson. "He's good. If anything changes, I'll let you know."

"Do that," Elizabeth agreed, and the soft hiss of an open mic clicked into silence.

John frowned down at Rodney's flushed face; his eyelids were fluttering a little. "I really hope this isn't one of those times that you prove me wrong just to be contrary," he said. Rodney didn't actually answer, but did make a soft distressed sound, followed three or four seconds later by a throaty, desperate moan. John swallowed and tried not to think about what might be drawing that particular sound out of Rodney's throat; he kept his hand off of Rodney's shoulder and kept his voice calm and gentle, but John was quietly freaking out, Jesus, surely he'd been out too long by now. "Rodney, goddamnit, if you don't answer me I'm calling Carson," John snarled finally, and his hovering hand settled on Rodney's shoulder of its own accord, feeling the line of Rodney's collarbone against the heel of his palm with something that was like both relief and disquiet at once. He gave in to the urge to shake him sharply enough that Rodney's head snapped forward, and Rodney hissed, an unmistakable sound of discomfort that was reassuringly related to something happening someplace other than in Rodney's head.

"Don't," Rodney said hoarsely, eyes narrow but alert as he glared at John. Rodney's hand clamped hard around John's right wrist. "I'm good, I'm fine." Then, "God, my head." He shut his eyes, but the hand on John's wrist tightened until John could feel the little bones in his wrist scraping against each other. "What the hell happened?" John bit his lip to keep back what was either a semi-hysterical laugh or a furious, McKay-esque rant about Rodney's absolute stupidity.

"Easy, McKay," John muttered instead, twisting his forearm in Rodney's grip until Rodney got the hint and eased his grip. But he couldn't quite stop his gaze from skittering down McKay's body just long enough to note that the inappropriate erection was still present and accounted for. "You passed out from manly flashbacks."

Rodney squinted furiously up at him for a few seconds, and John tried out a smile, because, hey, he'd made a joke, right, which was perfectly normal, but he was still prickling with adrenaline and fright, and he really doubted he pulled it off. The lights in the room dimmed by themselves, and Rodney's glare slid up to the ceiling while John tried to pretend he hadn't just done that without even really meaning to, a helpless reaction to Rodney's squinting. The reprieve from the glare proved to be short-lived; Rodney focused on him again a second later, and, God, he looked like crap, exhausted and unhappy, and just like utter crap. "Christ, McKay, just let it happen!" John growled, and raked a hand through his hair, shifting on the edge of Rodney's bed just enough so that his thigh wasn't pressed up against Rodney's hip. "It's got to be better than letting it bitchslap you around like this!"

"No," Rodney said, short and sharp enough that John shut his mouth, feeling an unexpectedly bright flash of anger. "Spare me whatever comforting drivel you're about to attempt to pander in my general direction, Colonel," Rodney muttered, eyes flickering away from John's face, his lips a bitter curve. He blinked at his hand, still curled around John's wrist, and let go abruptly, frown deepening. "I'm not interested in an intervention, as I believe I've already made abundantly clear. Just get out."

"If you don't let it happen, it just builds up, like a static charge," John said, forcing his voice to stay calm and measured, even though he kind of wanted to scream and wave his hands around just to see if maybe that was what it took to get Rodney to listen. He blew off Rodney's furious sneer, continuing full speed ahead, before Rodney could belittle the analogy. "If you just let it..."

"Are you simple?" Rodney interrupted impatiently and sat up, though the motion lacked Rodney's normal whirlwind effect since he had to struggle upright and was wincing fairly obviously. "Are you deaf? I don't want your advice, Sheppard. It's none of your business how I deal with anything. Get. Out. Now."

"Damnit, will you just listen," John shouted, finally losing his grip on his temper completely and grabbed Rodney by both shoulders to shake the shit out of him. Maybe it was the memory of how Rodney had looked for the last few minutes, more helpless than John had ever seen him, even when he'd been unconscious and bleeding, or maybe it was just the last twenty-four hours catching up with him, but for about ten seconds John genuinely wanted to plant his fist in Rodney's face. From the look on Rodney's face, wide-eyed and shocked, mouth slightly open, Rodney knew it, too. They were both breathing hard and John's fingertips were sunk deeply into the dense flesh of Rodney's shoulders. His eyes were still dark with whatever he'd been remembering.

He wasn't making any effort to pull away from John's hands, though, and John didn't let go. They stared at each other for a handful of long seconds during which John wasn't conscious of having a single lucid thought.

Rodney licked his lips.

Deliberately, carefully, John forced his hands to let Rodney go, fisting them at his sides. "What the hell, Rodney?" he finally asked, a question that had been circling in John's head for the last day at least. It came out sounding a lot more bewildered than John had expected it to, and he was aware that he didn't even know what the hell he meant by it. "What...? Why?" But he didn't know what he meant by that, either.

Rodney closed his mouth, swallowing visibly, and turned his face away.

John's anger drained away as he looked at the tense line of Rodney's jaw, and he just felt tired and wired and a little sick to his stomach. "Okay," he said. "Okay, then."

**

John was many things, but hypocritical wasn't usually one of them.

When he got back to his own quarters, no longer even remotely hungry, he sat down on the edge of his bed and took off his boots. He felt edgy, unsettled almost to the point of being anxious, which wasn't something he had a lot of helpful experience at handling. He was far better at edgy and angry or edgy and determined. This was... the whole thing was just so far outside his realm of experience that he wasn't even ready to guess at what he should be doing about it. If anything.

McKay was a genius, after all. It was pretty likely that he'd work things out without John's apparently intrusive and unwanted assistance.

He grimaced, still aggravated, and did the only thing he knew he could do. If he could figure out the mechanics, the exact formula necessary to slot the memories into place solidly enough that he wasn't tripping all over the damn things given even the slightest parallel stimuli, maybe Rodney would listen. And even if he wouldn't, well, John needed to do it anyway, if only so that he didn't spend the next few days randomly horizontal.

He lay down on his bed and just let the memories come, all of them, just let them swallow him.

There was a lot to see, and John watched it all. He didn't know how long he was lost in it, and he didn't register the slide into sleep; he dreamed of surfing and of the way McKay smelled.

He woke in exactly the same position, flat on his back and on top of the covers, itching and anxious, vaguely hungry, distantly needing to pee. He wasn't surprised when he slipped into memory again, and he didn't fight it. By the time he'd gone through it all again, it was pretty clear that there was always something he hadn't seen before, something that he hadn't been able to devote his attention to. Not when it had been actually happening, not even when he'd gone through it again. It made him wonder -- not quite idly -- if every interaction he'd ever had in his entire life had been completely one-dimensional up to this point.

He knew that he kept his relationships superficial. Most people were just not worth the work of letting things go deeper. He wasn't so different from McKay in that respect; Rodney did it by insulting, belittling and ignoring all but a handful of people that he didn't consider to be a complete waste of time. John did it by deflection, by smiling and projecting an air of obliviousness and lack of concern, but it was the same result. He had his own handful of people he gave a shit about. It wasn't a big deal, mostly, and he was content with keeping things easy. But, still. It was unnerving to think that there was so much more, that it was possible that he might be missing that much of what was going on pretty much all the time.

On a slightly less depressing note, he was pretty sure he could function like this. It might be a day or two before the inadvertent strolls down memory lane stopped entirely, and he could be sure he'd react to what was actually going on as quickly as he needed to without having to fight against the tide of memory that seemingly random things triggered, but he was pretty sure he wouldn't be falling down again any time soon. Or hitting people mostly accidentally.

He was totally sure that if he didn't take a piss soon, he'd be lying in a pool of his own urine.

He felt surprisingly good when he rolled out of bed, physically speaking. For someone who'd been lying in one position for the last twelve hours or so, and who'd recently had his ass whacked with a paddle the size of West Virginia, of course.

He pissed for what felt like ten minutes, showered without incident, and called Teyla while he was getting dressed to see if she was free for their usual morning workout.

She beamed at him when he entered the gym.

"Hey, thanks, Teyla," he said, letting her guide him into a forehead brush. "Sorry for the short notice."

"Do not concern yourself," she said, and flipped both of John's sticks at him with the end of one of hers. He caught one, and had to chase the other. "I was pleased to hear from you. I take it you are feeling less distracted?"

"I think so. I thought this would be a good way to find out." He whirled one of the fighting sticks experimentally; it was comfortably familiar in his hand.

She gave him a knowing look. "And you have recovered physically?"

John shifted uncomfortably. "I'm bruised and sore," he admitted. "Probably not up for more than a couple of rounds today."

She nodded, accepting his assessment without question; he liked that about Teyla. Then she ruined it all by giving him a tiny, fond smile, and asked, "Shall I go easy on you?" apparently not above teasing him.

John rolled one shoulder. "Just don't hit me if I fall over and just lay there," he grinned.

"Agreed," she said, and came at him with both sticks whirling in a fashion that John was pretty confident did not fall under the "taking it easy" category, and for long minutes it was all movement and breathing, the sharp crack of their sticks coming together and the smooth pull of muscle, mostly comfortable, though his ass and thighs still ached dully. He expected to do a hell of a lot worse than he did, to be more distracted than he was, but if anything the physical exertion honed his attention, focused it on Teyla and the way she moved, gorgeous threat, and his own reactions to her movements. After a few minutes, he was comfortable enough to try for more than just keeping her from braining him.

Teyla laughed, as she always did when John chose to go on the offensive, a bright sound of pleasure. He was better at defense -- which he blamed on having done a hell of a lot more practicing on that end, as Teyla was the best hand-to-hand fighter he'd ever seen -- but offense was more fun. He managed two fairly good hits, and cracked the back of her hand once, which made her snarl, before she sidestepped neatly, executed a slithering, sideways slide that John was nowhere near nimble enough to emulate, and swept his ankles from behind, sending him down on his ass. He landed with a jolt of pain that rivaled the actual discipline itself.

He shouted, less from pain and more from surprise, and the room went soft-focus around him. He had the presence of mind to let go of his sticks, knowing Teyla would get it, but otherwise just lay there, caught.

"Shit!" he said, surprised to hear it come out of his mouth, grateful it had been that instead of a yelp. He resettled his hands around the wood of the crossbar, holding tight, but he couldn't stop his arms from flexing and jerking, and the wood creaked and groaned from the pressure of his hands. He was still looking at Rodney and Rodney was still looking back, though he'd lost the almost haughty impatience he'd been projecting when he'd said, "Get on with it." Rodney's eyes were absolutely enormous, his face slack with surprise and dismay. Apparently John hadn't been the only one that hadn't really given much thought to how it would sound in here, the acoustics of the room maybe, but the sound was almost as huge as the pain. Rodney's hand twitched toward him, and John saw his mouth shape his name, and for a moment it looked like he was going to take a step forward, his whole body yearning in John's direction, though he didn't move his feet.

John knew that look, understood it in the basest sense; he knew what it was like to watch someone hurt, to have no way to help except by acting as a witness. He recognized it, and for a moment, between blows, he was proud of Rodney. He had changed, Atlantis had changed him. Atlantis had changed all of them, of course, but none of them as much as McKay. None of them so obviously as Rodney. Honestly, he was grateful for the distraction. "Surprised me," John told him, which was as much comfort as he could manage at the moment, and then the next blow landed, and John locked his jaw. When Rodney's mouth dipped down at one corner, he let himself look away because he couldn't reasonably expect to withstand the shockingly bright pain and Rodney looking at him like that at the same time.

"John?" Teyla asked, and he felt her hand curl around his forearm gently. He pushed the memory away, and it went fairly easily. Teyla looked concerned, but not really worried.

"I'm here," he said. "I'm okay." Though actually his ass hurt like hell. "How long was it?"

Teyla cocked her head, brows drawing together for just an instant, and then relaxing. "Ah. It was but a moment. Perhaps two seconds?" She gave him a long look. "That was a distraction?"

John huffed out a laugh. "Yeah, a memory." He accepted the hand she offered, and let her help drag him to his feet. "But, I think it's getting better."

Teyla straightened and rolled her shoulders, transferring the stick in her left hand so that she was holding them both in her right. "It would seem so," she agreed, but she was frowning a little again. "I believe Doctor Weir was correct in her decision to keep you and Rodney on Atlantis until this has passed, however. Off-world, such distractions could be dangerous."

John nodded, and bent to pick up his sticks, wincing a little as he bent. "Yeah, I'd already figured that out. But that was way better than yesterday in the lab, so by tomorrow or the next day I'll probably be right as rain."

Teyla smiled. "And Rodney? Is he becoming less distracted?"

John didn't know what to say to that, and wasn't willing to lie, so he shrugged. "I want to shower and grab some breakfast pretty soon, but I'm good for another round if you are."

She merely grinned and whirled a stick over the back of her hand.

**

He hadn't actually showered or had breakfast, but oddly enough, he still felt better about nearly everything that had been making him nuts for the last two days. There was a certain amount of perspective to be had in having Teyla hand him his ass three or four times running. It didn't actually change anything, but it was enough to settle him down some, give him some much needed distance. He'd never managed to pick up the knack for meditation. Actually, that wasn't entirely true. He'd never managed to pick up a taste for mediation, which was another kettle of fish entirely. Stick-fighting with Teyla and running with Ronon were his versions of meditation. It worked for him, and didn't make him feel slightly crazed the way actual meditation always did.

He'd also had his brain scanned again. There were now four hotspots, which had made Carson hmm and mutter and flip through a gigantic textbook (which, honestly, someone should tell him was not at all reassuring to see) and then blather at John for twenty-five minutes about the way his frontal lobe, temporal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala were all doing something completely medically opaque (to John, anyway), and no, it wouldn't hurt him, and yes, it was probably what the tea was meant to do, and if John didn't care about the advancement of humanity's understanding of the brain then run along and let him work.

Definitely brain acne, John decided. It was far too emo to be anything else.

He was on his way back to his quarters to tackle the showering part, not really thinking about much of anything, when he found himself standing outside McKay's quarters. He wasn't exactly surprised. McKay's quarters weren't that far from his, off the same corridor, and while he hadn't planned on checking in on him, it had crossed his mind. It wasn't the best idea ever; McKay had made it plain that he didn't want to see John, and John wasn't generally a person who inflicted himself on others when it was clear he wasn't welcome.

And the truth was, he was still pissed off at Rodney. His tolerance for Rodney was fairly high, at least comparatively speaking, but he was just about fed up with this whole situation. It wasn't that he didn't get it; not even close. He got it far more clearly than he wanted it. And as long as Rodney wasn't dealing, John was stuck here, right in this weird mental halfway-state, working hard not to think about all the things he knew, to ignore them so that someday soon, hopefully, he'd be able to look at Rodney and see a friend, a coworker, a teammate. He needed to be able to let go of this if they were ever going to get past it, work around it, whatever it was they had to do so that every time John looked at or thought about Rodney, the first thing that came to mind wasn't that look on Rodney's face. And he couldn't do that unless McKay did the same. He was just about out of patience with Rodney being stubborn as shit, and so goddamned self-involved that he couldn't see that this wasn't just about him dealing.

But even still pissed off, he was worried about Rodney. And if he didn't check on McKay, he'd spend the whole day continuing to worry about him. He knocked before he could talk himself out of it.

He was surprised when the door slid open.

McKay was kneeling on the floor at the foot of his bed. There were bits and pieces of tech scattered around him in a semi-circle; John could see a few crystals, a lot of wires, some blue-white metal pieces in various shapes and sizes, and something that looked a lot like one of the naquadah lamps they'd seen on Kurn, though smaller and sleeker in appearance. Also a little more octopus-like, due to the sheer number of wires running out of it, most of them ending in small boxes that looked to be made out of single sheets of blue-white metal with bits of black and red plastic soldered to them. He was wearing a welding mask and holding a lit blowtorch.

"Oh, it's you," he said, and turned back to what he was doing without another word.

"You're using a blowtorch in your quarters," John said, and really, it boggled the mind that this guy was a goddamned genius.

McKay didn't stop, hands guiding the blue flame of the torch through a smallish sheet of metal, cutting it precisely in two. He thumbed the knob that shut the blowtorch down, setting it to one side. He flipped the welding mask up so he could bring the pieces of metal up close to his face, fingertips smoothing over the edges carefully. "Hmm," he said, and put the pieces down beside the blowtorch. "You didn't see Zelenka coming this way, did you?" But he didn't wait for John to answer before bending down to the lamp and using a tiny screwdriver to flip open the base. He fiddled with something inside for the space of at least a minute, and then shut it again. Then he pressed a button and the new-and-improved naquadah lamp glowed like a tiny sun. John could feel the heat of it from across the room, and looking directly at it was out of the question. McKay absently flipped down the visor of his mask. Several of the little boxes attached to the lamp beeped, and John could see a tiny blue dot of light on the faces of the ones that were pointed in his general direction.

"Blowtorch. In your room," John said, even though the blowtorch seemed a little inconsequential as compared to what seemed to be a tiny, unshielded naquadah generator posing as a lamp.

"Yes, thank you, I hadn't noticed that, Colonel. Your powers of observation thrill and amaze. Go away now, I'm busy." McKay pressed the button on the base of the lamp-generator and it went dark again. He flipped the visor up and bent nearly double again to re-open the base of the lamp.

There was an instant of disorientation, the perception of motion that he knew wasn't physical (but wasn't anywhere near the kind of vertigo-inducing slide that it had been every other time it had happened unexpectedly), and he was looking at Rodney from another angle entirely, one hip propped against the table that Rodney was bending over, looking at the mess of wires connecting the Kurnei lamp to his data pad. Rodney gave him a nervous, sideways glance and licked his lips, then looked down again, hands waving in a way that encompassed the lamp, the wires, and the data pad. "By, ah, killing all the data pad's other functions, and also siphoning residual power off of a lamp -- they aren't using these things to anywhere near their potential, by the way, just one of them could easily power enough lights of this size to light most of the village with the right conduits in place -- well, I managed to boost the sensors about thirty-eight percent." Rodney's cheeks were still dully flushed, and his eyes skittered restlessly, gaze settling on nothing for more than a second or two, not settling on John at all. Rodney's hands were the same, fluttering rather than the more customary flailingly-broad gestures, and yeah, now that he had the chance to really watch and pay attention, they were pretty recognizable signs of Rodney in distress. And it wasn't that he hadn't known that at the time, either; it was more that he hadn't known what to do about it, not while he was still dealing with his own fairly large helping of distress.

At the same time, he could see Rodney kneeling on the floor, fingertips briskly sorting through a jumble of crystals that he was only looking at in quick, precise glances, most of his attention still focused on the open base of the lamp. He made a small sound of satisfaction as he apparently found what he was looking for, and then one hand went sliding through the mess of wires in the same way until he located one of the familiar short lengths of wires with clamps on either end, which Rodney used in repair work and to marry Ancient tech to Earth tech. He clamped one end to the crystal without looking at it, and then brought the other end to the base of the lamp, moving aside a dozen or so wires with the screwdriver. He attached the clamp to something inside the lamp, and then thumbed the button on with one hand while flipping down his visor again with the hand still holding the screwdriver. John squinted against the glow, tilting his face to the side when that wasn't enough to keep his eyes from watering against the light, which was now bright enough to white out everything in the room, heat pressing against the side of his face.

The memory was unsettling, what with the weird double-exposure thing, but it wasn't debilitating, and there was no confusion about what was real.

Good enough, then.

A moment later the lamp went dark again, and John blinked against the more normal Atlantis lighting, which now looked dim in comparison. McKay flipped his visor up and rubbed at his face, which was now a little red, probably from the heat, though John could only see his face in profile so he couldn't be sure. "Shielding, shielding," McKay muttered, and reached for the blowtorch again.

John crossed the room in three steps and hunkered down, putting a hand over Rodney's to stop him from turning on the blowtorch. "Have you slept?" he asked, and braced himself for the inevitable explosion the question would provoke.

Rodney just looked at John's hand on his and blinked for a couple of seconds. Then he tugged his hand away, though instead of thumbing the blowtorch on and going back to what he was doing, he set it carefully aside. "Please don't touch me," he said, voice lacking any kind of inflection whatsoever. John frowned and pulled back a little, angling his body and ducking his head so he could see Rodney's face.

Rodney pulled back in response, and waved a hand at John, eyes fixed somewhere to the left of where John was crouched. "Just. Just." He rubbed at his face with one hand and pulled the welding mask off his head with the other, setting it down just as carefully. Rodney's hair stood up in an improbably comic fashion. "Look, you're not helping, Colonel. I know you're... concerned, and your hero-complex is urging you to fix this, to save me or whatever--" he waved his hand again, this time wildly enough that John had to lean away to avoid getting poked in the eye, but Rodney didn't notice, as his other hand was covering his eyes, thumb and middle finger pressed into either temple firmly enough that the skin around them was pale and bloodless, "--but you're really not helping."

"Then tell me what to do to help, Rodney," John grated out, still pissed off, yeah, but sincere. "To really help, I mean, not just leave you alone to wallow in this like it's... some kind of fucked-up penance." Which startled Rodney enough that he dropped his hand away from his face, staring at John with wide eyes. John scowled at the expression, and resisted the urge to shake Rodney like he'd done yesterday, for the pure, visceral satisfaction of it. Even without being eilisi-assisted, the memory of his fingertips sunk into Rodney's shoulders, the look on Rodney's face, was very clear in John's mind. "Have you called me stupid so often that you believe your own bullshit, McKay?" he growled. "I was there, I know you're trying to figure out how to deal with what happened, and I have to tell you that from this direction, I'm not the one who's not helping."

"You, you," Rodney said, face open and shocked for two seconds before it shifted into more familiar lines of irritation, though it was heavily laced with frustration. "The fact that you were present doesn't mean you know what I'm dealing with, Colonel," and there went the hand-waving. "The fact is, we have two very different perspectives on, on." He blinked, mouth softening into a crooked line for a moment, and John recognized the look on his face.

"Damnit, McKay," he sighed, and stiffened two fingers and jabbed them (fairly gently) into Rodney's throat right below his Adam's apple. Rodney's made a choked, alarmed noise, but his eyes lost the thousand-yard-stare. He coughed, one hand going up to cradle his throat, and gave John a look that said quite clearly: I hate you, you utter Neanderthal. John's lips curled in helpless response to such a familiar expression on Rodney's face, and Rodney scowled and wheezed at him.

"Oh yes," Rodney spat, voice still a little choked. "Assault me, that's very mature; why would I not be simply ecstatic that you're here to help!" The tone was right, but there was no hand-waving at all, and Rodney's shoulders were hunched, his eyes once again obviously avoiding John's face.

John sighed again and shifted himself on one hand and the balls of his feet until he was sitting beside Rodney instead of crouching in front of him, so Rodney didn't have to work so hard at not looking at him. His bruised ass throbbed dully in protest, and John ignored it. Neither of them said anything for a maybe a minute. John could feel the heat of Rodney's shoulder an inch or two away from his own shoulder, and fought the urge to put more space between them. He glanced sideways at Rodney, and saw that he'd picked up one of the Ancient crystals and was turning it over and over in his hands, his gaze fixed on it. He was swaying a little where he sat, and even in profile John could see how drawn and pale his face was, and the way his eyelids looked almost bruised purple with exhaustion. "You're driving me bugshit, here," John said conversationally.

Rodney snorted, the side of his mouth hooking upward for a moment. "Yeah, you have no idea what you're talking about. You don't even know bugshit." He looked sideways at John, still not meeting his gaze, but at least looking in his general direction. "I'm not exaggerating the different perspective thing, you know, Colonel." He blinked, and directed his gaze downward at John's shoulder, and John only realized after he'd looked away that he'd been staring at John's mouth. Something tightened and curled in John's belly, and yeah. He really did get the different perspective thing, not that Rodney was likely to believe him. "Jesus, I'm exhausted," Rodney said, and John's lips twitched because he sounded surprised, and that was just so Rodney. Then Rodney's shoulder was pressed against his, and John had an instant to try and decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing before Rodney added wistfully, "And couldn't you have showered before you showed up for the daily intervention?"

He turned to look at Rodney, something sarcastic and normal skating lightly along his tongue, already anticipating the relief of hearing Rodney snort and jibe back in kind, but Rodney's face was tipped toward John, Rodney's cheek a half-inch from resting on his shoulder, so close that the tip of his nose was almost touching the sleeve of John's t-shirt. Just breathing, soft and relaxed, and John had been seeing the lines of tired tension in Rodney's face, yeah, but he hadn't really registered how deeply they'd etched themselves.

John breathed out once, slowly, keeping his body still while his mind raced, and opened his mouth to say something ("Hanging in there, McKay?" and "If you'll just sleep, I'll give you my Jell-O for a month," and "Carson says your brain processes better than mine," all tangling up in this throat). He was too aware of the way Rodney smelled, sweat and lack of sleep and the underlying scent of fear, which was becoming almost familiar, but was muted now, like Rodney couldn't put the same kind of effort into anxiety that he'd been able to exert just yesterday.

"God, you smell..." Rodney said thickly, and not even a Herculean effort at denial was enough to let John think Rodney was insulting him.

John's mouth snapped shut and he jerked away from Rodney, startling at the feel of fingertips skating along the bare skin of his forearm as he pulled away. He was as surprised as Rodney appeared to be when his fingers curled around Rodney's wrist, palm against the too-hot skin of the underside.

"Don't touch me," Rodney said, but he didn't actually pull away.

"Rodney?" he asked hoarsely, and Rodney's eyes, focused on John's hand, slid closed for a long moment. When he opened again, he met John's gaze with a look that was simultaneously desperate and uncertain. He twisted his wrist out of John's hand and curled both hands together in his lap.

"Listen, Colonel," he said, his voice a little raspy, but still clipped and precise. "In this one instance, I'll stipulate your lack of abject stupidity, if you'd be kind enough to stipulate the same in regards to me. Just... believe me when I tell you that your presence is not helpful. I can't, I can't even think, you, you're... everywhere, and it's too much to... process when it's so--" He shook his head, mouth straight and grim, no crooked little downturn or upturn, circling one hand broadly in a typical Rodney gesture of formless frustration. "Just."

"Yeah, I get it," John snapped, temper flaring hot, and he didn't even bother trying to rein it in this time. He stood up so quickly that both knees popped and rolled both shoulders in a way that he knew didn't look remotely like his usual careless shrug. "Get out, don't help, forget how shitty you look, don't bother being fucking concerned, ignore that I'm the only person in Atlantis that's dealing with the same shit; I get it, McKay. I'm leaving." Which he immediately turned to do, because it was a lot less satisfying than he'd expected to see Rodney looking up at him, shocked and strained, eyes like burned holes in his face. He paused at the door without looking back, and added quietly, "But I hope you've thought about what we're going to do if we need you, and you're still like this. If you aren't going to deal, we can go back to Kurn any time you're ready and get rid of at least part of the problem."

"Sheppard," Rodney said, quiet and laden with weariness, but John was too pissed off to let it move him beyond a brief tightening at the corners of his mouth, no matter how uncharacteristically meek it had sounded.

The door closed soundlessly behind him, and John headed away, out, as far away from other people as he could get and still remain in the city.

**

John still hadn't showered or eaten. He ran instead, since he needed to do something to clear his head, and he was already dressed for it.

What he really wanted to do was take a Puddle Jumper and just go, just fly, graze the blue-purple line of the atmosphere, slip seamlessly into space and be really and truly alone for a while. But that was obviously out of the question, so he ran.

Sometime after he'd been running a while, Ronon fell into step beside him, apparently alerted to John's unscheduled exercise by the ever-efficient Atlantis grapevine. He'd been running long enough not to have the wind for anything but a grunt of greeting, but he gave that much without much hesitation. Ronon's presence was hardly ever intrusive, even when John wanted to be alone. Ronon was one of those people who could be alone in other people's company, and the reverse was equally true.

John had been succeeding fairly well at running and nothing else, no thinking or brooding, no remembering, clearing his head, which was just what he'd been wanting, but something about Ronon's counter-point strides -- both longer and louder than John's, what with his mass -- somehow stimulated John's brain in unwanted ways, which was just par for the goddamned course, this week, and somehow he was thinking about Rodney. Again, because, damnit, he had tried, he did try, to keep the whole fucking mess at arm's length in his mind, but he'd never really stopped thinking about it since it had happened. It was just there, lurking in the shadowy corners, waiting for John to trip over it inconveniently, and he couldn't even blame that on the eilisi.

Because this wasn't the inexorable drag of chemically enhanced super-memories; this was just his fucking brain, circling Rodney's face, then, yeah, but also that night in John's quarters, the scent of fear and the hunched misery (and, God, could he have been any more of an asshole, fucking bulldozing over Rodney when he'd come to apologize for what was clearly, at least in retrospect, a big problem for Rodney), the day after in Rodney's quarters, the wary way Rodney had watched him until John had distracted him with math and Ancient gizmos.

An hour ago, pale and pinched and manic with lack of sleep (a blowtorch, Christ help them), what amounted to pleading with John (in that unique Rodney way) to leave him alone...

When it's sowhat? John wondered, and then there was the fleeting, tickling warmth of Rodney's fingertips skating along the sensitive skin of his inner arm, what the hell was that, anyway, and John was apparently paying too much attention to what was going on in his head and not enough to what his feet were doing, because he stumbled hard, arms windmilling crazily for two long seconds, and probably would have fallen -- and the catwalk was a very unforgiving surface to fall on -- if Ronon didn't have near-superhuman reflexes. John would probably have bruises on his arm right above his elbow, but Ronon managed to keep him upright by the simple expedient of dragging John forward with him until his equilibrium reestablished itself. They staggered to a stop in tandem, both of them breathing hard.

"Thanks," he panted, and wow, he was spectacularly out of breath, and had no idea how he hadn't realized it before. He bent forward and braced both hands on the railing, abruptly aware of the burn of his thighs, calves, and lower back, and the sharp-cool prickle of sweat drying on his skin for the second time today (third, if you counted panic-sweat in McKay's quarters). His skin felt sticky, as though coated with a thin layer of icing, like donut glaze. Gross.

Ronon tipped his head in acceptance, and watched John with a blatant interest that John suspected he'd never get used to. He wasn't sure if it was a part of Satedan culture, this complete unselfconscious watching thing that Ronon did, or if seven years as a runner was just long enough to make anyone forget about awkwardness, and shed certain niceties as unneeded, like a snake shedding dead skin. Then Ronon said, "Too much, too soon," neither a statement nor a question, and John recognized it as Ronon letting him save face, just in case such face-saving was necessary.

"Maybe," John said, accepting the excuse provisionally, since he wasn't sure if he needed it or not at the moment. He wasn't sure what the hell he needed right now, frankly.

Ronon accepted that, too. McKay would laugh if he ever found out that John thought of Ronon as a gentle man, but John had known soldiers all his adult life, and he understood all the ways in which career soldiers often couldn't allow themselves or others to be merely human. The few that John had known that had any idea of how their own minds worked had been a lot like Ronon: solemn, but not without humor; solid, but not overbearing; private, but not exactly distant. He didn't know – couldn't know, now – what it had meant to be a soldier on Sateda, but he hoped they had mostly been like Ronon. Being a career soldier himself, he was intimately familiar with all the ways it could fuck you up (he knew, God, he knew it had fucked him up), and Ronon was a little bit like a revelation. That he could be what he was now, that he could be real and present and human after seven years of hell attested to what he had been before pretty strongly. That Ronon had been career military was obvious, and John liked to think about the possibility of a military structure that could put together a man like Ronon, who was more than just a survivor. All military structures everywhere taught you how to be that, but few of them, in John's experience, taught you how to be all the things that Ronon was.

McKay would laugh, yeah, but most of the soldiers John knew wouldn't ever have accepted Rodney in the field the way both Ronon and Teyla had, and John was just as happy that Rodney didn't know that.

"How's McKay?" Ronon asked, tactfully changing the subject. He was standing still and loose next to John, close enough that John could feel him there, but far enough away not to crowd him.

John let out a short bark of almost-laughter and shook his head.

"I have no fucking idea," he admitted. "He's... well, he's McKay." Which was the best John could do right now. Ronon nodded, which struck him funny for some reason, and he laughed again. "Thanks for that, by the way. Yesterday." By which he meant more what Ronon had done for Rodney, yeah, but also for not asking difficult questions when John had been in no shape to answer them, for trusting John's judgment, for being solid.

"Sure," was all Ronon said by way of a reply, and, "You ready?"

**

John showered forever, urging the Ancient shower 'hotter' and 'harder' until it balked, and then just stood under the spray until he felt some of the knots at the base of his neck and on either side of his spine begin to untangle. His ass still ached dimly, but it wasn't bad. If he bothered to look in the mirror, the bruises would be green and purple, on their way to healing.

He didn't look. God knew he didn't need any more reminders, physical or otherwise. When he came out of the shower, absently toweling his hair dry with one hand and scratching his belly with the other, the first thing he saw was the Ancient scanner Rodney had showed him on his laptop. It was smaller than he'd expected it to be. It was sitting on the end of his bed, and John couldn't remember if it'd been there when he'd come in or not.

There was a post-it note stuck to the top of it.

He could feel himself grinning a little even before he was close enough to read what it said, recognizing Rodney's blocky, precise, all-capital printing from halfway across the room. He didn't even bother to pretend it wasn't relief he was feeling, or that he was unaware that it was Rodney, once again, who'd made an effort to repair what it had taken both of them to fuck up. If Rodney was leaving Ancient gadgets in his quarters, they were okay; John had no problem recognizing a peace offering when he saw one.

Sheppard, the note said. I've configured your little toy. If you have time, I recommend you test it out on one of the Mark IIs. Think fractals.

John's grin widened until he could feel his cheeks straining, and he tossed the towel aside in favor of tearing his quarters apart in search of clean pants.

**

John spent more than an hour with the closest naquadah generator.

Fractals didn't begin to really describe what naquadah mid-fusion looked like, and John was feeling decidedly warm and fuzzy toward McKay right at the moment. Rodney always gave John the absolute best toys. John might've stayed a hell of a lot longer if Elizabeth hadn't interrupted.

"Colonel Sheppard, can you report to--" John could hear someone in the background giving a location, and Elizabeth repeated it. "--level six, subsection eight?" John knew her well enough to hear in her voice that they weren't currently under the threat of impending death, and that she was excited about something. John still found himself taken by surprise at finding himself under the command of someone like Elizabeth, someone who was so free with what she felt about whatever was going on, the exact opposite of pretty much every other C.O. John had ever had.

Regretfully, John thought the scanner off and tapped his headset. "I'm on my way," he said. "What have we got?"

But it was Zelenka who answered that, not Elizabeth. "There are no words," Zelenka enthused, and John could hear the beaming smile in his voice. "Bring your beautiful, beautiful gene with you!"

Elizabeth laughed. Over the open comm.

Even for Elizabeth, that was weird.

Stockpile of drones? John wondered. Ancient ferris wheel?

"I'll meet you there," she said, and John could hear the smile in her voice as well. She sounded so pleased and full of just-under-the-surface laughter -- the kind of thing that was pretty rare these days -- that John made a command decision not to call her on it. He'd find out soon enough, anyway, though he did pick up the pace a little. Apparently whatever had got into Elizabeth and Radek was highly communicable via radio waves, because John was grinning with anticipation.

"Why don't you use McKay's beautiful, beautiful gene?" John asked, because anything that had Zelenka crooning over John's DNA with giddy delight was absolutely something Rodney had to be involved in, and John couldn't resist tweaking him a little (which he was allowed to do now that things were okay again, under the unspoken rules of Ancient-gizmo-peace-offerings).

He expected something caustic and witty from Rodney in response, but there was only a second or two of dead air, and then Zelenka insisting that only John's gene would do, but doing so without any sly, dry insults that would make Rodney squawk with indignation, which John took to mean that Rodney wasn't with him. Which was weird, but might have meant that McKay was finally getting some sleep, so John only allowed himself to be a little disappointed. New and exciting discoveries weren't as much fun without McKay, but he really needed the sleep.

John knew where he was going – they'd gridded Atlantis within days of arriving, and John had memorized the grid so he could find his way quickly anywhere, even if he'd never been there – but it still took a while to get there. Level six was actually only one floor below water level, and thus not one of the floors affected by flooding, but subsection eight was entirely unexplored, a gray area on the grid. Early on – sometime in the first year, though John couldn't remember exactly when – McKay had compiled all the data from the explored subsections and crammed it into an algorithm meant to predict what they would find in any given subsection based on location, room size and configuration, and, of all things, plumbing. By John's calculations based on data gathered after the compilation of the original formula, the algorithm was about sixty-six percent likely to correctly determine what unexplored subsections were likely to yield useful discoveries. And, of course, every newly explored subsection increased the accuracy by a little less than point nine percent, as new data was added. Rodney bitched about it pretty much incessantly, but John actually thought the accuracy was pretty damned good when one factored in the mathematical probability-approaching-certainty that the Ancients were fucking batshit-insane.

Rooms were oddly shaped and/or arranged, living quarters were neatly divided into little subdivisions in some places, and liberally sprinkled at random in others, labs were the size of airplane hangars, and also tiny cubbies equipped with built-in toilets. Sixty-six percent was pretty good, with the insanity factor taken into account.

However, as Rodney liked to point out, sixty-six percent was barely average statistically speaking, and even grading on a generous curve, was probably only going to get you a C minus at best.

So John really shouldn't have been surprised when he skidded past a couple of marines and at least five people in science uniforms, halting outside the doorway of a tiny, wedge-shaped room that had the feel of a glorified closet and saw a control chair sitting incongruously between a plain, almost empty table and a dead tree in a pot. Zelenka and Elizabeth grinned identical grins at him – John really hoped they were enjoying the open-mouthed surprise, since that was clearly what they'd been going for – for about 7/10ths of a second before their grins were turned back to the chair.

John blinked at it and closed his mouth.

The table caught his eye, and for a second he couldn't figure out what he was even looking at, why he was staring at the table instead of the powerful Ancient technology, and then he realized that there was an empty glass sitting on the edge of the table within arm's length of the control chair that he couldn't quite look away from. It was the first time he'd seen anything like it here, a sign that the people had left in a fair amount of hurry. Because they hadn't left in a hurry, not really, or not relatively speaking, anyway. Not with three fully charged ZPMs and shields at full strength. They'd had plenty of time to close up shop, to take everything they had wanted or needed along with them. They'd closed Atlantis down like a seasonal resort, everything they were leaving behind tucked carefully away in its place, furniture --or consoles, anyway -- sheet-draped and put to sleep, lights turned down low.

In more than two and a half years, John hadn't come across a single thing that had been left out like this, like someone had just got themselves a drink and neglected to tidy up afterward. Like... like it was something somebody did every day, and they'd just left it, thinking they'd get it tomorrow. It wasn't that it was a sign of hurried departure that made it bug him; it was that it was a sign that someone had lived here at all.

It was weird, and weirdly significant. It weirded John out so much that he didn't even mention it when he forced himself to look away, even though Zelenka and Elizabeth had both just watched him stare at it for half-a-minute. Instead, he said, "Why would they need a second chair?" even though he himself could think of two good reasons right off the top of his head, and half a dozen more if he was willing to stretch plausibility to varying degrees.

"We don't know," Elizabeth said, sounding a lot like she didn't really care, either. She was still grinning.

"Redundancy, perhaps," Zelenka said, naming the first of John's two good reasons, spreading his hands in a gentle, fanning 'who knows' gesture that was pretty much the diametric opposite of what Rodney's gestures would have been in the same situation.

John took a good, long look at the chair and came to two conclusions: 1) this control chair looked a little different than the others John had come into contact with so far; and 2) Rodney was going to be pissed as hell when he found out what they'd found without him.

The room lit up the moment John took a step inside, and the whole wall directly in front of the chair was suddenly a viewscreen, like the ones in the 'gate room, except huge. There was nothing on the display, not even a blinking cursor, but John gave himself a minute to look at it anyway, working fairly hard to shove aside thoughts of making McKay hook it up to a laptop so he could watch movies on it, and concentrate instead on why this chair had a viewscreen when none of the others had. Why would you need a viewscreen when the chair could project holographic feeds of whatever you wanted to see?

Zelenka said, "Colonel, if you would?" gesturing toward the chair, and John saw that he already had the panel off the back of it and wires running between it and his laptop. "It hasn't been initialized," Zelenka told him, following the line of John's gaze. "I can get nothing from it until it's on," and John could hear the wealth of impatience and eagerness in that last word.

Still, he hesitated. "Rodney's going to be pissed," he heard himself say. Zelenka made a dismissive gesture, but didn't deny it, and Elizabeth shook her head.

"Rodney is... off radio for a few hours. And there's really no reason to call him down until we've got some idea of why it's here at all. If it's just another control chair, a backup system, then there isn't much he can do with it that he couldn't do with the chair we've already got."

It was all true and completely reasonable, but John still balked a little. Elizabeth wasn't wrong, but Rodney would still be pissed. John knew it.

"Yeah, okay," he said, however, because Elizabeth wasn't wrong, and Rodney would get over it. "Who found it, anyway?"

Elizabeth and Zelenka exchanged an amused look, and Elizabeth said, “Actually, it was Botany. They were tracking down a reference in the Ancient database on how to regulate the temperature in the greenhouse off the hydroponics lab.” John frowned
at that, and Elizabeth arched a brow at him, smirking. “I know: Rodney will be pissed."

"No, actually. I mean, yes, he will, but I was actually wondering why a control chair has anything to do with greenhouses. So far the chairs have all been mainly defensive and tactical interfaces aside from flying the city, and even that could be considered a defensive capability. All of them, even the one in the Antarctica." He circled the chair thoughtfully.

Zelenka's mouth popped open, eyes widening behind his glasses as if to refute the observation, but then he said, "Actually, that is a very good question."

John rolled his eyes at Zelenka's surprise and wished again that Rodney was here.

"This whole set-up is pretty weird, actually," John added. He gestured to the viewscreen. "What is that for? None of the others have had their own home theater system." John walked over to the chair itself, still frowning. "And it's a little smaller than the other one, looks a little different. Look at the arms; they're curved weird. Like half-pipes. And the, the... gel-plate-thingies are usually smaller; these go all the way up the arms. When you rest your arms there, pretty much your whole arm will be in it from the elbow down." The words were barely out of John's mouth before Zelenka was bent nearly double over one arm of the chair, nose nearly touching the gel-plate-thingy in question.

Elizabeth was looking at him oddly, head cocked and mouth pursed.

"What?" he demanded, and she smiled.

"It's just. Well, two years ago you'd have been sitting down with one leg flopped over the armrest before anyone could blink, John." John stared at her for a minute, thinking, huh, because she was right. She was absolutely right, and apparently McKay's paranoia was rubbing off on him. He grinned a little and shrugged one shoulder, feeling a little self-conscious, but not like she was making fun of him. "It's okay, John. We can take this as slow as you want, if you get a... a..."

"A vibe?" John supplied with a smirk. "No, it's not that, really. It just strikes me as weird, is all."

"We could take some time before you initialize," Zekenka offered. "There must be something in the database, though I cannot think where it could be located, as we have searched exhaustively for anything having to do with control chair." But John could see Zelenka gazing longingly at the chair, and Elizabeth's perusal of it was only different in degree, which was really pretty funny, since Elizabeth was usually the number one proponent for caution above all else.

John shrugged again. "It's fine. I wasn't objecting to turning it on. I was just making an observation." And he turned and sat down before he could think of any further reasons not to.

The chair responded instantly to his touch just like every other command chair John has ever encountered, though there were some immediate differences. This one didn't recline as far as the others, leaving the viewscreen in easy line of sight. Also, as soon as John's forearms hit the gel-substance, there was a whir-chuck noise, and the odd-looking half-pipe arms of the chair rotated around his arms from underneath, leaving his hands free on the round gel-plates while encapsulating his forearms and wrists entirely. John blinked, aware of the feel of the gel surrounding his forearms, the tingling feel of which (Rodney said it was a low-grade neural interface) was different, the prickle deeper, almost an itch under the skin of John's palms and bare forearms, though that might just be because so much more of his skin was in contact with the stuff than in the other chair. The glow, too, was different; it was still blue, but it was a deeper blue, and not as bright. And there was something, some kind of low, rhythmic hum throbbing beneath his thighs and against the soles of his feet through his boots.

"I can fly the city from here, too," he heard himself say, the sound of his own voice distant and unimportant as he cautiously prodded at the interface, which didn't feel like the other chair at all, aside from the basic similarities of the mind-control factor.

"Can you tell us what else it does, Colonel?" Zelenka asked, and John could hear him tapping at his laptop.

"Just wait," John breathed, and he was struggling with the interface, was having to figure it out, because it wasn't the same, it was sharp and almost Byzantine, not the flawless, intuitive flow of the other chair, the... oh. Oh shit, the defense cathedra.

The viewscreen in front of him blazed to life suddenly, and there were specifications for the control chair, the other chair, and John couldn't read the Ancient writing, exactly, but he knew what it said, that it was all the technical detail for the defense cathedra, detail they hadn't been able to coax out of the database no matter how hard they had tried, and this was why.

"They called them cathedrae," he heard himself say. "Holy shit."

Zelenka was crowing something exultant in Czech while Elizabeth asked question after question that nobody answered.

"Colonel!" Zelenka moaned in rapture.

"I know," John agreed, and, "There are seven of them," as more schematics flashed rapidly across the viewscreen, which now made perfect sense to John, because this chair had no need for holographic displays -- though it could create them, if necessary -- because it was designed for a very specific function; it was a tool, and more practical than the defense cathedra in many ways, its purpose narrower and more refined. "Jesus, I know. This one is the city systems cathedra," and he knew why the neural interfaces surrounded his forearms all the way up to his elbow, now; delicate repair work required fine motor control, and, "There's a medical..." He brought it up on the viewscreen as fast as he could, which wasn't fast enough, fighting the interface which didn't seem to like him much, but grudgingly coughed up locations and capabilities. "We need Carson to... they're meant to work in tandem, all of them at once if necessary, they're all networked through the neural interfaces," but there was so goddamned much, and John was smart but he wasn't Rodney; this thing needed Rodney, and he knew without question that the interface, unwieldy and somehow too-angular for John's brain, would work perfectly for Rodney, would be as simple and perfect as the defense cathedra had been for John, and, oh, oh God, there was... "There's a flight cathedra, Elizabeth, a flight cathedra," and all he could think about even as he pushed more information toward the narrow bridge of cable linking the cathedra to Zelenka's laptop was that Rodney was going to love this, he was going to... he needed to... God. "I need Rodney in this chair."

"Rodney is..." Elizabeth began, but John didn't need her to finish the sentence.

Nearly as soon as he'd made deliberate mental-motions toward calling Rodney, getting him here now now now, the viewscreen brought up a blueprint of the area most of the Atlantis personnel were currently occupying, and Rodney's room was a big red block in a sea of blue-green. "Quarantined?" John heard himself ask, distantly puzzled, and then the image of Rodney's quarters zoomed in and rotated, lines of scrolling vertical text superimposed over the image, and John could see Rodney's fingerprints all over the code, metaphorically speaking; they even felt like Rodney in John's brain, brusque and precise and frenetic. "He quarantined himself?"

Even as he thought it, he could feel his brain disengaging from the cathedra, and the chair dimmed, arms rotating back underneath as it drew itself upright, taking John with it. The viewscreen flickered, but didn't power down; John guessed it was designed to hold images until directed in the event that whoever was operating the cathedra needed to show it to someone else. Or like a bookmark, maybe, something to keep tabs on the last thing the operator had been working on. Because they'd done it in shifts, hadn't they?

Yeah. Not all of them, but the city systems and the medical cathedrae, at least, had been designed to operate full time, always working, keeping up with the day-to-day maintenance and care of their respective areas of responsibility.

He turned his head and looked at Elizabeth. She looked back steadily, but the skin around her eyes went just a little bit tight.

"He quarantined himself," he repeated, and she gave him a single slow nod. Zelenka had his face buried in his laptop which wasn't uncharacteristic in the slightest, but the way he wasn't muttering was, too intent on not paying attention to really be oblivious to what was going on. John leaned forward and propped his elbows on his bent knees; the chair hummed beneath him, muted, at rest now, but on in a way that it hadn't been before. He was breathing heavily, and hyper-aware of every inch of his skin, the way he always was after he used the control chair. Defense cathedra. Whatever.

He didn't ask, but Elizabeth said, "He said he needed some time to work on overcoming the effects of the eilisi-assisted memories. Uninterrupted time." There was no disapproval in her voice, not exactly, but her tone made it clear that she knew who had been 'interrupting' Rodney.

He had the almost overwhelming urge to explain, to tell her about the thin, bruised skin under Rodney's eyes and the smell of his exhaustion, about the goddamned blowtorch.

On the screen, the red block of Rodney's quarters blinked at him. There was no question of whether he could use the cathedra to break the quarantine. Now that he understood how they worked, he could probably even use the defense cathedra to do it, though his access wouldn't be as comprehensive. There was no way McKay could have factored the cathedrae into his calculations while he'd been plotting how to avoid John.

But he wouldn't. McKay had gone to quite a bit of trouble to make sure he was left alone; more specifically, to make sure John left him alone, because a medical quarantine was maybe the only truly effective barricade against him on Atlantis, and Rodney had added his own code on top of the standard security measures of a medical quarantine. Without the cathedrae, John didn't think he would've been able to get around it. He might as well have put up a sign: Sheppard, Keep Out.

The scanner sitting on the end of his bed now seemed less like a peace offering and more like a preemptive strike, a tactical exercise in misdirection.

"I can have a preliminary report on the capabilities of the various cathedrae ready in two hours," John said. "Not heavy on the details, but the information I siphoned into Zelenka's laptop should fill in most of those." He stood up and grabbed the scanner. "One of them is underwater, but I think we can drain that section. If not, they're movable, though it won't be easy." Elizabeth looked like she was thinking of saying something that John was fairly sure he wasn't interested in hearing, so he offered, "Oh, and there's one in the 'gate room. The big one, actually, the command cathedra. The Ancients locked it down before they left; it'll do anything any of the others can do, and a few other things. It'll be in the report."

"John," Elizabeth said, and John looked at her. Her frown deepened, but she didn't say anything else.

"I'll send the report to all the command staff," John said, "but you should really get McKay in this chair as soon as you can."

"Even if Rodney can use the chair, it's unlikely he'll be as effective," Zelenka said, apologetic but determined. "His gene is simply not as strong as yours, Colonel. We will need you for further tests."

"You really won't," he said, smiling but not at all amused. "This thing isn't for me. McKay will know exactly what to do with it."

He was halfway down the corridor – and incidentally out of earshot of the lingering marines and scientists – when Elizabeth caught up with him, announcing her presence with a hand on John's elbow. He'd been expecting it, or at least considering it a possibility, so he didn't jump even though he hadn't heard her coming. She'd had that tone.

He stopped -- because really, what else could he do? -- and turned around. He put on his most attentive listening expression, and anted up with eyebrows of concern and confusion.

She responded with her best stern expression, seeing his eyebrows and raising him narrowed eyes. "Is everything all right, John?" He frowned and went with generally clueless; she countered with exasperated and worried. "I know that what happened on Kurn must have been... incredibly awkward for both of you."

"You think?" John snorted, lips quirking because the alternative was to growl, and he wasn't quite far enough gone to take his fury out on Elizabeth. "Look, it's fine. I'm fine. McKay will be fine. It'll be fine."

"I know, John," she sighed, less worried but just as exasperated, and it would be a lot easier to blow her off, John knew, if it weren't so obvious that her concern was completely genuine. "I'm not implying that it's not. But clearly Rodney needs some... time to figure this out. We shouldn't hold that against him."

"I'm not holding anything against anyone," John replied flatly, and tugged his elbow carefully out of her hand. He forced his posture into a casual slouch and gave a practiced shrug, doing his best to pretend he couldn't feel his heartbeat in his temples, and made himself drawl, "McKay's welcome to take whatever time he needs doing whatever it is he needs to do." He gestured back toward the room and the chair and gave her a bland look. "It's not like it's going anywhere." Her frown deepened, and it looked like she was thinking about pushing, so John ducked his head toward his watch for a second and added, "Hey, I've got to go. I haven't eaten today." And that was enough, as he'd known it would be.

**

The report only took a little more than half of his two hours to write, and John still hadn't eaten. He pounded it out non-stop, which he hated doing, but forced himself to do anyway just to get it done. By the time he'd finished, the sharp edge of his anger had been blunted enough for him to tell himself that he didn't give a shit if Rodney wanted to lock himself in his room and hold his breath until he turned blue, and pretty much believe it. He forwarded the report to the command staff, and only wondered briefly how long it would take McKay to find it in his inbox, and if his head would explode from a combination of vicious jealousy that he hadn't been the one to find it, and fury at John's very general explanations of what the cathedrae were and what they could do.

John was almost disappointed that he wouldn't get to see it.

Assuming that things went well on his vision quest, or whatever the hell he was calling it, John was betting on less than twenty-four hours before McKay found a way to get his ass in that chair. Which was good, a good thing, because where John had been able to fumble through the interface and get maybe most of what he was looking for, Rodney was going to make it scream like an SR-71, and Atlantis needed that. They all needed that. Nothing worked like fun new technology to motivate McKay, and John wasn't petty enough to take that personally.

Still, it was John's responsibility to make worst-case-scenario plans, so he spent a couple of hours reviewing mission schedules and swapping things around to make room for a return visit to the Kurnei, both for his team and for a team of geologists and technicians, for day after tomorrow. McKay would either be ready for off-world travel by then, or it would be time for him to stop trying to 'figure it out.' He took care to ensure that the mission could be bumped up or moved back a day in either direction without serious scheduling conflicts with any of the other off-world teams or pending missions, just in case it became urgent that Rodney get rid of the effects of the eilisi as quickly as possible. He emailed Elizabeth and Radek about getting the second team selected and ready, and indicated his desire to do the briefing personally.

He finally got to the mess long after all the hot, freshly prepared food had already been cleared away, and was stuck eating a pre-packaged sandwich and stale crackers by himself until one of the botanists showed up and joined him, full-to-bursting with bubbly excitement over the cathedrae. John looked at her and tried to remember if she'd been one of the people in science uniforms standing in the hall, or if news really traveled that fast. He couldn't tell; her face wasn't unfamiliar, but the days of knowing everyone by name on sight had passed with the first shipment of new personnel from the Daedalus. John knew his marines by sight, could give names and details and even missions they'd been on, but that was a matter of survival rather than convenience. He just didn't have time these days to keep up with the science staff.

Since he couldn't remember and was unwilling to give out any details until they'd at least had a senior staff meeting about what was going to be public knowledge and what was classified, John mostly listened and nodded and made interested noises in the right places.

He excused himself as soon as he could, and called down to have Cheema send a team to the city systems cathedra even though Zelenka was almost surely still there working on it.

She didn't sound like she'd been sleeping, in spite of the time, and she didn't seem surprised by his call, though it was kind of hard to tell with Cheema. She also didn't ask any questions. It was impossible to tell if she knew what was going on by her tone -- it was nearly always impossible to tell anything from her tone -- but John thought it was likely. Cheema always knew what was going on.

He had her secure all the cathedrae, and she asked all the right questions: namely, whether or not that included the cathedra formerly known as the control chair (which they'd never actually bothered to secure too carefully, since there were only a handful of people who had ever really been able to get it to do anything, and even then only John and Lorne were any good at it), whether senior staff should be permitted to come and go at will, and whether he wanted marines with the ATA gene kept off the roster.

John answered yes to all of them, and left it up to her to handle the details, but he made sure to pull up the report once he got back to his quarters and forwarded it along to her. The cathedrae were clearly going to fall into her purview.

Only five of the seven needed guarding currently, but even only five of them would strain Cheema's resources if the need for security went on for any length of time, and John made a mental note to meet with her and discuss whether she'd need more people.

He hated the idea of having to secure sensitive equipment from his own people, but he liked to think of himself as a fairly practical guy, and even with the limited knowledge he'd managed to glean from city systems, it was clear that someone with the gene in one of those chairs could have virtually unlimited access to everything Atlantis had.

They hadn't had to think too much about securing most of the tech. Rodney kept anything both mobile and dangerous in a locked lab, and Atlantis had failsafes. Granted, they weren't always the best failsafes in the galaxy, but they were there. And there were protocols in place to "keep the morons from initializing weapons of mass destruction." Rodney's turn of phrase, obviously. But mostly, it had been because almost everything passed through Rodney's hands before it went anywhere else, and Rodney's raging paranoia was enough to make it certain that it would be secured if necessary.

This was going to be something else entirely, however. A control chair that responded better to the aptitudes of another specific gene carrier than to John's stronger gene -- a fact that John was completely certain of even if Zelenka didn't get it yet -- meant that it was possible, even likely, that the other cathedrae would, too.

John didn't want any other gene carriers anywhere near any of cathedrae until he had a chance to figure out what each of them could do. It was as much about being unwilling to risk someone doing something stupid without having the slightest idea of the dangers as it was about someone without Atlantis's best interests at heart gaining control of one of them.

For the first time ever, he thought about what kind of research the Ancients might have done into human genetics. Maybe getting Carson into the medical cathedra was nearly as important as getting Rodney into the other one. It suddenly seemed dangerously unfortunate that only half the command staff had the ATA gene.

Zelenka was still with the cathedra when John showed up with his laptop under his arm. The two marines at the door gave John bored-looking salutes. Zelenka barely looked up when John came in, so caught up in whatever he was doing that he apparently couldn't be bothered to wonder about John transferring all of the location specifications and security protocols they'd downloaded from the cathedra directly to John's laptop at two in the morning.

It took John just under three hours of combing through the information to track down how to lock the cathedrae, linking them to specific individuals rather than to just any gene carrier. In the process of doing that, he figured out how to unlock the command cathedra, which had to be done from either city systems or communications. He emailed the file to Mckay, and then fell into bed with his clothes still on. He fell asleep thinking that Rodney could have figured out how to do it much faster, even without the information from the cathedra.

**

John's radio beeped, dragging him blurrily out of a dream in which Rodney was flying the city; it wasn't even dawn yet, so John shoved the headset under his pillow and struggled out of his boots.

It was probably McKay calling to berate him for the report on the cathedra anyway. Inexplicably lacking in anything remotely resembling actual information. Ineffectual and poorly phrased if the intended purpose was to communicate anything. Only better than the blurb on the back of a romance novel because it didn't actually provoke bleeding from the eyeballs. More useless than DVD player clock instructions. And punctuation matters, Sheppard; without it, all you have is a string of unrelated and meaningless nonsense characters.

He'd heard it all before.

If they really needed him, they'd page him on the citywide comm.

**

He woke at least four hours later, grainy-eyed and aching the kind of ache that meant he hadn't relaxed even while he'd been asleep, which totally sucked. He blinked at the wall for a few seconds, seriously considering just closing his eyes and pulling the covers up over his head, and then his radio gave a muffled chirp from under his pillow, which was probably what had woke him up. He groped under his pillow blindly for several seconds before tossing it off the side of the bed to get it out of his way. He wrestled the radio over his ear -- the damned thing was way too small to screw with on this little sleep, and he was thinking a nice hand-held for his quarters would be a totally justified requisition -- and tapped it to life, and finally managed to grate out, "Sheppard," before flopping back onto the bed, spent.

"Good morning, Colonel," Elizabeth said sweetly and without a trace of disapproval, which almost certainly meant she knew he was still in bed and was about to fuck with him mercilessly. John groaned almost silently and waited for it, because more than two years and innumerable confrontations had taught him the simple truth that he could not outmaneuver Elizabeth Weir. "I just thought I'd let you know that I'm postponing the staff meeting scheduled for this morning," she continued pleasantly.

Unspoken, but plainly audible to John, was: "Which you are late for." He scrabbled at the top of the bedside table for his watch; yep, he was late. Shit.

"Uh, okay," he said.

"Are you free in twenty minutes or so?"

Translation: "Get up, get coffee, be here or else."

"Sure, yeah, of course," John agreed, as though he had a choice.

"Good, I'll see you then." "Where I will smirk at you from across the table throughout the proceedings, and then hold you after to ask carefully casual questions about the state of your emotional well-being because I know it makes you intensely uncomfortable, which is a more or less innocent substitute for what I'd really like to do, since I can't let the rest of the expedition see me kicking you repeatedly in the shins." "Weir out."

"Shit," John muttered, and rolled over on his back to stare at the ceiling for a minute. "Fuuuuuuuck," he groaned, and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

In his defense, he decided as he dug around for clean BDUs and got dressed as quickly as was humanly possible, being medically off-duty had really messed with his schedule. And also, debilitating flashbacks should be considered as mitigating circumstances. He'd remember that in case anyone said anything to him.

He managed to make his way to the mess, still only half-awake, and was midway through wolfing down something with the consistency of paste that bore a passing resemblance to oatmeal when he realized that his ass was only softly protesting the hard plastic chair he was sitting in. He paused with his spoon stuck in a hillock of fauxt-meal to shift around experimentally, and yeah. Very minor discomfort, only barely enough to register as pain, which was probably mostly due to the fact that John's tolerance had been ramped seriously upward in the last few years. Still, enough discomfort to trigger a memory, and John noted interestedly that he knew what it felt like when it was coming, that weird almost-motion feeling, but it didn't bring about the same vertigo or even disorientation any more. He knew exactly what was happening.

He didn't jump at the first blow, not even reliving that moment of surprised amazement at how much it hurt. It was weird, immediate and somehow not at the same time; the hurt was still real, though, a visceral shock that stilled his breath in his throat, and it would never be just another memory. He got it now, maybe because it finally wasn't making him fall over, maybe because he finally could both relive it and poke at the fauxt-meal in his bowl with his spoon at the same time, but he finally got it. It would always be like this, not something that would physically hurt him, but that he would always be able to feel nevertheless. His hands slid, abruptly sweat-slick around the smooth wood, and it creaked at the force of his grip as he barked out surprised profanity, feeling the word in his throat even though his mouth was closed, feeling the smooth, cool metal of his spoon clutched in his sweaty palm at the same time.

It was bearable now, less overwhelming, even almost interesting to be able to look around him and see the familiarity of the mess with its bright, steady lighting, and also see the firelight casting shadows in the corners, turning the unpainted walls golden. To smell both woodsmoke and sweat and sausage. The sound of the blows and the white noise of people in conversation all around him. It was weird, and there was some adjustment necessary to the oddity of simultaneous feedback, but that would probably get easier, too, with time. When he started eating again it felt almost effortless, nearly normal, so he ate his breakfast and let the memory play out somewhere in his temporal cortex, because if there was one thing John had come to understand about himself since coming to Pegasus, it was that he could handle weird.

He was watching Rodney hook his data pad up to the naquadah lamp and scraping the last bit of fauxt-meal out of his bowl when he saw McKay enter the mess, making a beeline for the giant coffee pot while clutching a similarly sized travel mug. The sight of him sparked an instant of dissonance, and things shuffled around in John's head a little too abruptly, the hallucinogenic equivalent of dragging the needle across a vinyl LP. It only lasted an instant before it settled into the memory of Rodney's blunt, abrupt fingertips stabbing at the buttons of John's BDU shirt. He could smell Rodney's sweat, could see it dotting his temples and upper lip.

Across the mess, Rodney practically body-checked someone in front of the coffee pot, and John felt the side of his thumb glance lightly across the side of John's neck as his hands closed around the collar of John's shirt. Smirking over his shoulder, Rodney proceeded to transfer the contents of the pot into his travel mug, keeping his body carefully in between the pot and the chemist behind him, who was scowling and looking like he was thinking about braining Rodney with his empty regular-sized coffee cup. Rodney paused to drink his coffee down a little before topping it off with the last of the pot, and also shoved John's shirt off of his shoulders, breathing hot and quick against the side of John's neck for a moment when he leaned close.

Slow, pleasant heat curled at the base of John's spine; he couldn't honestly say which of the things he could see had caused it, and he didn't really care. It lasted about three seconds. Then John thought about Rodney, exhausted and desperate, writing sloppy, frantic code to keep John away from him, and the feeling twisted and inverted, becoming something else entirely.

Rodney turned back toward the door, smirking smugly as the outmaneuvered chemist squawked indignantly when he noticed that the coffee pot was empty. Rodney's hands busily secured the lid of his coffee cup, and his hands were fast and competent on the fly of John's BDU pants. He only took one step before he turned his head and saw John sitting there, and abruptly stopped walking.

Rodney had showered and shaved, was neatly dressed and his hair was fluffy. He was jerking John's pants down his legs, wincing and shifting uncomfortably mid-crouch as his own BDUs tightened in delicate places. It was too far to tell if Rodney had actually slept, but John guessed he had from his body language, the lessening of tension in his shoulders just since the day before. He looked so dismayed as his eyes skittered from the shirt hanging off of John's wrists by the still-buttoned cuffs, to the pants bunched on top of John's boots -- pausing in between as though surprised to see John's boxers sitting low on his hips, then jerking his eyes back up to John's face -- that John smirked just to reassure him.

John gave him a perfectly blank look.

Rodney turned, coffee cup gripped between both hands, and hurried away.

John blinked the rest of the memory away and realized he was holding his spoon halfway to his mouth, though the fauxt-meal had fallen off and plopped back into the bowl at some point.

He decided that last spoonful just wasn't worth the effort, and dumped his bowl and spoon on his way out of the mess.

**

He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the last person to arrive for the briefing. He considered mentioning that it wasn't his fault, since someone had cleaned the mess out of coffee and he'd had to wait until they brewed more to fill his modestly-sized coffee cup, but he couldn't quite bring himself to fire the opening sally in the usual round of bickering this morning. He took a seat and concentrated on his coffee and on not playing with any of the tech that he now knew was sleeping behind the walls of the briefing room. He was aware of Elizabeth throwing significant looks in his direction, but ignored it for the moment. She'd corner him later no matter how much work he put into appearing to be fine, so fuck it. He was too tired to bother.

McKay had his laptop already open, and was going to town. Zelenka, seated beside him, was half-slumped unselfconsciously against Rodney's shoulder, murmuring excitedly at whatever was on the screen. He was rumpled and wild-haired, but looked better rested than Rodney, who was still sporting purplish, bruised-looking half-crescents beneath his eyes. Still, he looked so much better than he had the last time John had seen him that he had to assume Rodney had got at least some rest, however. His hands, John noticed, weren't entirely steady on his keyboard; he wasn't sure if he'd have noticed that a week ago.

It was just John, Elizabeth, Lorne, Carson, Rodney, and Zelenka, which was smallish for a meeting about something this big. John pondered the necessity of Cheema's presence, given the security issues involved. And yes, okay, because Cheema drove McKay crazy. He considered it an 'intergalactic travesty' that someone with her mathematical skills was not only military, but a member of a military body that boasted fewer than a thousand women within its million-strong ranks.

It was fun to watch Rodney berate her for her unbelievably poor judgment, but the real fun was watching as her complete lack of reaction sent him into meltdown territory, complete with flailing arms and red face and that weird, high-pitched tone that was practically two octaves higher than his speaking voice and only came out when he was terrified or beside himself with fury.

Then again, provoking a meltdown was likely to extend what already promised to be a lengthy meeting into the territory of interminable.

John could brief her on it later, if she wasn't already monitoring it.

McKay, undoubtedly impatiently awaiting his chance at the cathedra, started the meeting off with an abrupt and acerbic, "You all received the Colonel's admirably succinct email; why don't we just go ahead and start with questions and get the abject stupidity out of the way early."

John summoned a smirk he didn't feel and added an eyebrow for good measure, but didn't say a word. He could've skipped it for all the effect it had on McKay, who didn't even look in his direction.

It went downhill from there.

Sometime between Carson wanting details on the medical cathedra that none of them actually possessed yet -- though in his defense, he looked more intrigued than terrified, most likely to everyone's relief -- and Elizabeth's inquiries about a time-frame on getting all of the currently-accessible cathedrae initialized. John realized that Rodney was quite deliberately not looking at him. John watched him throughout Rodney's response to Elizabeth, which was more or less a long, bitchy monologue that boiled down to "I don't know, but soon," just to be sure he wasn't being paranoid, and concluded that he wasn't.

John clenched his back teeth and didn't throw his pen at Rodney in a fit of pique.

Eventually it was Lorne who brought up security, addressing the question to the room in general; it was nearly an hour into the meeting, and was the first time John had been called on to speak.

He was seething again, but he schooled his voice into a slow drawl, because there was no point in advertising his fury, and because drawling drove Rodney crazy, and since Rodney had been driving John steadily out of his goddamned mind for the last three days now, it seemed only fair.

"I covered initial security with Cheema last night; there are marines at every entrance to the five cathedrae that could be reasonably accessed by the population, including the defense cathedra. The others are either unreachable or already locked down, and we can deal with them later. I also sent lock-down protocols to Doctor McKay that will allow him to key the cathedrae to certain personnel rather than leaving them open to all gene-carriers in general, if we decide to go that route. I don't have to tell anyone here that it would have a definite downside."

"Rodney?" Elizabeth asked, arching a brow at him.

"I'll be able to tell you more about the adequacy of the Colonel's protocols once I've had a chance to get down to city systems," McKay said flatly, and that was it.

"All right," Elizabeth said slowly, but she gave Rodney a long look that made John think he wasn't going to be the only one Elizabeth cornered after the meeting. If he could get out of there fast enough, John might be able to avoid Elizabeth entirely. He didn't have a single compunction about throwing Rodney to the diplomatic lions at this point. Then Elizabeth turned her level gaze on John, and he had to pretend he hadn't just been hatching an escape plan.

"The only control chairs -- cathedrae -- we've come across before yesterday were basically identical in purpose to the one we've been using here on Atlantis for the last two years." She paused, and John raised his brows at her, partly because it was what she expected, but also at least a little bit because he wasn't sure why she was pointing the question at him rather than at the dynamic duo, who were once again huddled together behind Rodney's laptop. "Why?" she finished simply.

John frowned, and it was on the tip of his tongue to tell her to ask the genius when he caught Rodney sneaking a look at him from the corner of his eye. He paused, pressing his lips together to keep from snarling, and actually turned his attention to the question.

"Because," he said slowly, the reason snapping into his brain easily, so effortlessly that he knew he must've been thinking about it on some level ever since they found the second cathedra. "Atlantis is a city, not just a ship or an outpost. A city needs more than just the ability to mount an offensive or protect itself from attack in order to function successfully. Ships and outposts have specific and limited functions. Research. Defense. Offense. Experimentation. Whatever. Atlantis' function is to cater to the needs of people. People need: communications, life support, plumbing, protection, transportation, information, healing, food, power, entertainment, a hundred other things. And they need those things all the time, way too much time for one cathedra to handle the workload in a city the size of Atlantis, with the kind of population Atlantis probably supported when it was built. And sometimes people need more than one or two or three of those things at a time, sometimes they need all of them at once." Elizabeth just blinked at him, so he went on. "The Replicators probably have multiple cathedrae, and the Atlantis-clone on MP4-447 probably did before we drained all the power out of their city, but I'm betting any other cathedrae we come across will be the same."

"If there are six more than the one we've been using, how is it even possible that we haven't found one before now?" Elizabeth wanted to know, which was an easy enough question that John was answering it before he had time to think about it.

"Location." He leaned forward, nudging at the room a little with his mind, and a viewscreen whirred down from the ceiling, smaller than the one in the city systems cathedra, but bigger than any of the ones in the control room. Zelenka murmured appreciatively. John called up a schematic of the city and inserted big red dots indicating the cathedrae.

"From the information the Colonel was able to transfer to Radek's laptop," Rodney said, scowling at the viewscreen while simultaneously picking up the explanation smoothly, "it looks like the cathedrae were all intended to back one another up. Atlantis is a hexagon consisting of a central mass surrounded by six additional protruding areas of mass."

"Looks like a snowflake," Carson said, and Rodney gave him a look that was clearly designed to melt the skin off his face; Carson merely smiled beatifically.

"Hmph. Anyway, the cathedrae are located in protected areas, one under the central area of the city, and one under each of the spokes. They're designed to back each other up in the event of the destruction of one or more cathedrae, so spreading them out makes tactical sense; all of them integrate elements of the primary functions of each of the other cathedrae. The one located under the central mass is the defense cathedra; its primary function is to control the city's battle systems, but as you all know, it can do a lot more than that. It is, incidentally, also the cathedra that can be left behind when the city engages the stardrive, leaving outposts like the one in Antarctica. Chances are fairly good that any time we find an outpost like the Antarctic one, it's someplace Atlantis has actually landed and stayed for a while."

Rodney looked so excited by that prospect that John feared he might flee the conference room immediately to start looking for outposts. Elizabeth was giving Rodney a fond look; John rolled his eyes, but nobody noticed.

"And we've never found any others because we've never looked! I mean, why would we? We can do everything we've needed to do from that one. We don't have the kind of manpower necessary to explore just to--" he waved a hand dismissively, "--explore! Well, I mean, obviously we have been exploring, but that is neither quick nor especially easy to do, seeing as city schematics and the information from the database both seem to be less than optimally helpful in determining what we're going to find. I think things got moved around," he added, and Zelenka nodded, giving Rodney a sympathetically frustrated grimace.

John made a face; nobody noticed.

At this rate, he was going to develop a fucking complex.

"I've been trying to figure out why it's so hard to track down things we can use, and aside from the fact that apparently big chunks of the database are inaccessible to us due to the prohibitions put in place when the Ancients locked down the command cathedra, which of course we didn't know at the time, it's the only explanation that makes sense. We know they were trying to Ascend, and they were mostly succeeding. And they were at war at the same time. It makes sense that their population would be steadily decreasing, probably fairly rapidly. I think they were moving certain things closer to their population center, moving other things further away, and apparently didn't see the necessity of keeping track of what they were moving where." He looked scandalized at the short-sightedness of the Ancients.

"If we can do everything from the chair we've got, why initialize the other chairs?" Lorne asked.

"Because we can't do everything," Rodney said slowly, as though he was speaking to a not-terribly-bright child. "The cathedrae can each access all the main functions of each of the others, but not all of them. Not even close." For a moment his eyes were dreamy and far away, his mouth curling upward at one corner. "The information alone, Major. Sheppard spent three minutes in the city systems cathedra yesterday, and provided us with more hard data than we've managed to compile over the last month. There are chunks of the database we can't access from any of the consoles, and the database itself is so enormous that we didn't even notice."

Lorne nodded easily, but still said, "What about the command cathedra, then? Didn't Colonel Sheppard's report say that you could do anything with that one that you could do with any of the others?"

It could do more than that, actually, but John figured it was best not to cloud the issue right now.

"The chair on MP4-447 was located in what would have been the control room here in Atlantis, wasn't it?" Rodney asked, apparently forgetting that he was ignoring John.

"Yeah," John drawled, and slouched lower in his chair. Rodney's eyes narrowed, but he still wasn't looking at John, so John waited until he'd opened his mouth to say something else before continuing, because he was a dick, and Rodney was asking for it. "I wondered how they had moved it, at the time. It's all so clear now. Thanks, Rodney." Rodney rolled his eyes at John's facetious tone, and opened his mouth again. John added, "If the Ancients hadn't locked it down, it would've been the first thing we found when we got here."

Rodney threw him a death-glare so brief it barely singed John, and snapped, "At which point you'd have initialized it within ten seconds, thereby draining the remaining power from the ZPM in about three minutes flat, and we'd have all drowned when the shields failed."

John decided not to mention time-traveling Elizabeth and the fail-safes, mostly because he wasn't sure time-traveling Elizabeth would have had time to reach the Delorian of Puddle Jumpers in order to actually time-travel and cause the fail-safes to come into existence if he had, in fact, found a control chair waiting for him in the control room.

Also, actual Elizabeth was giving him a reproving look. John gave her a look of wide-eyed innocence.

He didn't actually have time to mention it anyway, because Lorne immediately asked, "So the Ancients locked it down when they left; it makes sense, if you can access basically everything in the city from it. Do you know where it is?"

"It's under the floor," John told him. "McKay will be able to unlock it from the city systems cathedra, but for the time being it might be best just to leave it where it is. Securing the other five is enough trouble right now." Zelenka made a small sound of distress, and Rodney absently patted him on the arm. John kind of wanted to hit him just a little bit.

Lorne gave him a look that meant that he forgave John for sometimes being a little bit slow. "Actually, I was thinking we could initialize only that one. It's not like we've got a lot of people that can use the chairs anyway, right? If we only turn that one on, we've only got one to guard."

"And we also only have one to use," John pointed out, grinning, at the same time that Rodney, completely predictably, squawked,

"I hardly think the inconvenience to the marines outweighs the potentially unlimited possibilities for scientific advancement, Major!"

"And you know McKay would totally bogart the chair," John added.

"Oh, forgive me, Colonel," Rodney sneered, looking directly at John for the first time, if by looking you meant leaning forward over the edge of the table and glaring, "if I'm the only person in this galaxy with the technical experience and understanding to even begin to grasp the potential..."

"Oh for fuck's sake, learn to recognize when someone is on your side,, McKay," John interrupted furiously, and it was suddenly very quiet in the conference room, making the weird aural echoes of John's shout seem even weirder. He was aware of everyone in the room staring at him, but he was too busy glaring at Rodney to give a shit.

Rodney was staring at him as well, eyes wide and mouth slightly open, which made him look bizarrely defenseless until he cocked his chin and cut his eyes away, lips twisting in a way that made John's head start to throb, and that was just it.

John stood up, his chair scraping across the floor, and forced himself to look away from McKay. "Elizabeth," he said, a request for dismissal that neither of them even pretended was a question. She opened her mouth, and John just looked at her, flat and icy, and she pressed her lips together and gave a fractional nod.

He was almost to the door when Zelenka tentatively murmured, "Colonel, we were planning to, that is, we may need your help with the city systems..."

"I keep telling you, you won't," John said without stopping.

**

John headed toward the security office, and only realized as he was passing the infirmary that his head was killing him. He ducked inside for some aspirin or something, and the nurse on duty assumed he was there for another brain scan. She had him on the table before John even thought about protesting, and it took him forever to convince her that he was only there for some goddamned aspirin.

By the time she forked over some ibuprofen, John could have got his brain scanned twice, and was feeling uncharacteristically pissy toward her, even though she was young and cute and just doing her goddamned job. He managed to mutter something vaguely reassuring when she asked him if the meeting was almost over, as she was off duty whenever Carson returned, and got the hell out of there before he lost control of his mouth and said something Rodney-ish.

Cheema was in the security office, standing where she was always standing; she did not, John noted, look surprised to see him. He gave her a quick synopsis of the meeting -- assuming she hadn't been watching the whole thing, which was a bet John wouldn't take, though he couldn't tell at all from her face -- and double-checked that the security measures he'd requested had been put in place.

They had been, of course, because Cheema was almost scarily competent. The long look she gave him when he asked was just as neutral as her expression always was, but still somehow managed to make John feel bad for even asking. She didn't comment other than to answer John's questions and offer suggestions about how to rotate the detail, considering that half of the security team had the gene since it behooved security to be able to get around in the city.

They were discussing the likelihood of drafting a dozen or so marines from other areas and giving them a crash-course in security procedures when McKay called Doctor Kusanagi on the radio, requesting that she have the equipment he'd prepared transported to level 6, subsection 8.

Just hearing McKay's voice over the radio was enough to make John's jaw clench.

Cheema gave him a look he couldn't interpret; John responded with as much blank affability as he could muster, considering how he'd spent the last couple of hours. Judging from the way Cheema's eyebrows rose infinitesimally, it wasn't his best attempt ever. He turned back to the console she was standing in front of and asked, "Don't you have a fairly strong expression of the ATA gene, Havildar?"

There was a brief, but noticeable pause before she answered, something odd enough that John turned back to look at her. "Yes. It is the reason I was allowed to join the expedition, though it is not as strong as your own."

John nodded, but it was an empty gesture designed to buy himself a few seconds to think about the phrase 'allowed to join the expedition.'

She gave him a sideways glance that looked almost sly as she reached for one of the security consoles, deftly flicking a switch and tapping something else to bring an image up on one of the screens. The security office was a weird conglomeration of Ancient tech and Earth tech, some of it married to work together and some of it not; it had come to be in its current location by the simple expedient of already being the place to which all the security cameras naturally dumped data. Since it was central to the control room and big enough to hold the equipment, they'd never bothered to change it.

Cheema had her own office adjacent, but John had never seen her in it. In fact, since she'd become head of security, he most often saw her right where she was standing, dusky face bathed in the blue-white light of the security feed displays. The feed she had brought up showed Rodney's lab, and Kusanagi checking a pile of equipment off against a tablet she was holding. Cheema threw another glance in his direction, narrow-eyed.

"You know, sometimes you're just a little bit creepy, Havildar," John told her sincerely.

Her eyes narrowed the slightest bit further, but her lips actually quirked into an unprecedented near-smile right before she killed the feed. "Yes, sir," she said, apparently unruffled. Her slim, long-fingered hands breezed across the console, bringing up the mess, the control room, the city systems cathedra room.

She paused there, undoubtedly by design, and John obligingly indicated the cathedra on the feed, and said, "Can you get feed on the other ones?"

"I can get feed on almost anything, but those I already have in queue." Seven seconds later there was a cathedra on every screen, including the underwater one, though it was only a dim outline.

"Huh," John said. "I didn't know the cameras were waterproof."

"Some of them," Cheema said. "Many of those below the waterline have been rendered inoperable."

John nodded. "So." He looked at them, trying to figure out which was which; after a minute or so, Cheema tapped out something else and a city schematic appeared on one of the Ancient viewscreens. She didn't say a word. "That one," John said, pointing to the northeast section of the city, and she tapped the panel beside one of the images, which sent it to the bigger Ancient viewscreen.

It looked pretty much like all the other chairs, though John knew that it had a neural interface at the back of the neck as well as the hands, and retractable neural connectors that rested against the temples of the operator.

John considered the screen for a few seconds, but he'd already decided. Maybe he'd decided before he'd even headed here to talk to her.

Maybe he'd decided months ago, when his request for her promotion had been summarily dismissed by the Indian government, or maybe it had been when even Elizabeth had failed to get it pushed through, though he couldn't have known exactly what he was deciding then. Just that she deserved better, that it was somehow his responsibility to make sure she got it.

John knew what it was to be the black sheep; he'd been that for most of his life. He didn't understand her, barely knew her, really -- she wasn't exactly someone who invited camaraderie -- but he got some of why she was who she was.

He turned to give her a deliberate look.

He was aware that most of the marines -- maybe even most of the expedition -- thought that Cheema had been a compromise choice that John and Elizabeth had worked out after Bates had shipped back to Earth never to be seen again, and John hadn't done anything to quash the rumors. They worked in her favor, as Cheema herself had pointed out. He'd never asked Cheema herself what she thought.

The truth was, John had been looking for something better for Cheema for a while before Elizabeth called him into her office to talk about security, and he'd found himself making the suggestion and lining up all the reasons it made sense without even having to think about it. The fact that Cheema was a woman and not an American had been big selling points for Elizabeth, since she was the one who had to justify to the IOA the fact that the command staff was, with the exception of the unofficial alien members, made up entirely of citizens of western nations. She hadn't really known enough about what a Chief of Security did to grasp the unlikely light in which most C.O.s would have viewed the suggestion, which had been a bonus. John suspected, but would never mention, that the fact that Cheema hadn't been one of John's marines had probably been a bonus from Elizabeth's perspective.

Cheema's lack of experience or specialized training hadn't even come up, and it hadn't been a concern for John.

The first time he'd met her, back when she was still a supply officer, Lorne had been laid up in the infirmary and John'd taken his own pretty decisively botched stab at the requisitions form down to her. She'd scanned it, handed it back to him (he'd only taken it out of surprise), and then asked without preamble, "Do you think in numbers or in spaces, Lieutenant-Colonel?"

"Numbers," he'd told her, with a blink.

"Major Lorne thinks in spaces; I had to write him a program. This will be much faster." Then she'd tugged the form out of his his unresisting hands, flipped it over, and scrawled out a long sprawling equation. After a few seconds' hard squinting, he'd realized it accounted for every factor determining what could be fit into his allotment of the Daedalus' freight capacity. When he'd left the office, it was with the suspicion that her abilities significantly outstripped her current position.

The second time he'd gone to her, Rodney's Jumper had been stuck at the bottom of the ocean. It had taken her seventeen minutes to do all the calculations he needed for the precise physics of hauling it safely out via jumper-mounted magnetic grapple. Just like that, with no request for an explanation, and his suspicion became conviction. The fact that they hadn't used the grapple in the end didn't weaken his conviction in the slightest.

He'd put her where she was based on the strength of two encounters and a hunch, and he'd been right.

And he was right now.

John knew it would work the same way he knew that the city systems cathedra was for Rodney, that Lorne would be assigned to defense. If he could pick anyone in two galaxies to put into that chair, it would be Havildar Maitreyi Kaur Cheema, and if she wanted it, he would give it to her.

"I'm going to need someone for that cathedra, Havildar," he said quietly. Cheema blinked at him, appearing genuinely surprised, and swung her gaze back toward the screen in question, eyes narrowing in thought. "Our contingent of gene-holders with the level of skill and clearance needed won't be enough to use all of these things to their potential no matter what we do; you know that."

She stared at the cathedra for several more seconds, then turned that inscrutable look on John. "Is that an order, sir?"

John shook his head. "Do you miss being a supply officer?" he asked.

"Never," she answered at once, baring her teeth a little in what John was pretty sure was an unconscious gesture. After a few seconds, she asked, "Why that one?"

John shrugged. "The Ancients called it communications, but if I'd been naming it, I'd have gone with intelligence."

She looked at him, eyes still a little narrowed, and then nodded once, tightly. "I will consider it."

She was still looking at him when her gaze went abruptly unfocused and she reached up to tap her earpiece. "Cheema," she said, and was silent for several seconds, listening. She must have been on the security band, since John's own radio was quiet. "Five minutes." She focused on John again. "If you will excuse me, Lieutenant-Colonel?"

"That'll be all, Havildar," he agreed, consciously choosing to do her the courtesy of not asking what was going on, since she clearly didn't think it was anything he needed to be involved with.

"Yes, sir," she said, and snapped a salute at him, fingertips to her hairline, full palm showing in the exact way John had been trained never to salute, which made him grin. Different strokes, after all.

He was turning to follow her out the door when he saw movement on one of the security feeds of the various cathedrae, and it was McKay, of course, along with his team and Carson. John paused, watching them bustle around and set things up on the small screen. John frowned at the screen; Rodney was waving one hand animatedly, the other arm curled protectively around two laptops. He looked nothing like he'd looked yesterday, holed up in his quarters with that goddamned blowtorch.

He looked perfectly normal.

John should go, of course. He had things to do... okay, well, there was nothing pressing to do as far as he knew, but still. He should go.

He tapped the corner of the screen, and the image obligingly transferred itself to the big viewscreen, giving John a might-as-well-be-there quality view of the room. There was no sound, everyone doing their thing, Zelenka hooking up his laptop to the cathedra, Rodney waving both arms, now, Carson poking at the neural gel on the arms of the cathedra, all in utter, eerie silence. John cast a thoughtful look at the console, but nothing was marked volume, so he touched the viewscreen instead and thought volume, and was treated to Rodney's voice demanding: "...need someone in the power distribution center monitoring power drain on the ZPM, Radek; there isn't anything you can do here that I can't do just as well."

"Anyone can monitor power usage, Rodney," Zelenka said placidly. "We don't know yet how you will react to the cathedra, and you will be essentially shackled to the device while interfacing with it. It's quite possible you will need me here to pass on data or run tests on the device itself."

"You aren't fooling anyone, you know," Rodney sniped. "You just want to play with the cool Ancient tech."

Zelenka rolled his eyes, and muttered, "Of course, unlike anyone else present," and continued running wires between the control panel of the cathedra and three laptops, a tablet, and, John saw with amusement, a naquadah generator. "It is safer if I stay, Rodney. There could be complications."

"Oh, please," Rodney scoffed. "Sheppard used it yesterday, and he's fine."

John thought the door to the security office closed and resigned himself to spying on the test.

"Considering the strength of the Colonel's ATA gene, I'm afraid that isn't really a useful comparison, Rodney," Carson said apologetically.

"Were you not listening at the staff meeting?" Rodney sneered huffily, hands twitching as he leaned over Zelenka's shoulder and watched him hooking things up, clearly resisting the urge to shove Zelenka away and do it himself. "The Colonel says it's fine."

Zelenka and Carson exchanged a look that Rodney was oblivious to, even though it was happening right under his nose. Zelenka arched both eyebrows. Carson pursed his lips and shrugged one shoulder. For three or four seconds, it looked like neither of them were going to call him on it, but Zelenka finally said, "The Colonel is not qualified to make such judgments, Rodney; he is very smart, but he is not a scientist."

Rodney snorted. "Radek, nobody in this galaxy is qualified to make that kind of judgment. Well--" Rodney sniffed. "Nobody human, anyway."

"And yet you will still bet your safety on Colonel Sheppard's opinion," Zelenka pointed out, but he looked more puzzled than worried.

Rodney rolled his eyes, but his voice was almost mild when he answered. "We've all been betting our safety on Sheppard's opinion about once a week for the last two and a half years, Radek." He patted Zelenka awkwardly on the shoulder. "Stop worrying. Sheppard wouldn't in a million years let me sit in this thing if he wasn't sure." He transferred his patting from Zelenka's shoulder to the back of the cathedra instead, giving it a smug, possessive little smile.

Zelenka grumbled something that John didn't catch; he was too busy watching Rodney and thinking: Of course I wouldn't.

And it wasn't that he hadn't known that; or even that he hadn't known that Rodney knew that. It was more the way he'd said it, almost casually, like it was so elementary it didn't bear mentioning.

"Ah, Elizabeth!" Rodney said happily. "You're here, excellent. Let's do this."

"Rodney--" Carson began, but Rodney waved a dismissive hand at him, stepping over the wires and the generator to get to the front of the cathedra. Carson moved in front of him, expression going mulish, and Rodney stopped long enough to let Carson stick a couple of round white sensors to his temples, probably because it was faster than actually arguing about it, though acceding with good grace wasn't in Rodney's nature, so there was much rolling of eyes and gratuitous, long-suffering sighs.

"We've been through this; it's fine," he said, finally batting Carson hands away, and sat down.

John found himself leaning forward, one hand braced on the console in front of him instinctively, feeling the thrum of the city distantly and the buzz of the security systems more presently. The image on the viewscreen obligingly changed angle and zoomed in, cutting Zelenka and Carson entirely out of the image, leaving Rodney in the center of the frame and Elizabeth slightly visible behind him.

Rodney hadn't spent much time actually interfacing with the defense cathedra even after the gene therapy; he'd done enough time in it to be competent as backup in the event that there wasn't anyone else, but John knew he'd been disappointed by it. For John, the defense cathedra had been a perfect fit; everything about it had come as naturally as breathing. He'd once heard Rodney tell Zelenka that the chair made him feel like he was in a barely controlled fall.

He understood it a lot better now that he'd been in city systems, had been entangled and confined within its interface, like whatever it took to use it the way it was meant to be used was just not there. In light of that, he was probably far more prepared for it than Rodney was, but he still jerked a little in surprise when Rodney settled into the cathedra.

The chair tipped back and blazed with blue light, brighter even than the defense cathedra with John in it (which made him long desperately for the flight cathedra, because that was his the way city systems was Rodney's, flight would blaze like that for him). Elizabeth made a startled sound and averted her face from the glow, and John heard Zelenka and Carson echoing her surprise. It only lasted a handful of seconds before it dimmed slightly, bright but no longer dazzling, and Rodney said, "Oh, oh yes," low and breathy and so unexpectedly familiar that John shivered a little.

"Rodney?" Zelenka asked, voice tinged with worry, and John knew why. Rodney's eyes were closed, his head tipped back, and he was flushed and breathing heavily. There was no way to explain that feeling to anyone who hadn't used one of the cathedrae, but it was unmistakable. It was one of the best rushes John had ever experienced, ranking after only flying and sex, and then only if the sex was really good.

"Wow," Rodney said, lips quirking into a goofy little smile, and opened his eyes. He turned his head a little, presumably looking at Zelenka. "Sheppard's right; it can't hurt me. It can't hurt anyone; none of them can. They monitor all vitals, and disengage automatically in the event of any unsafe readings." His goofy smile widened a little.

"He was right when he said we wouldn't need him for this one, too, wasn't he? You do know exactly what to do with it," Elizabeth said, smile in her voice and on her face, though her brows were still a little furrowed as she looked at Rodney.

"Of course I do," Rodney said, tone a little indignant, but rendered totally ineffective by the way his flushed cheeks turned a little pinker in pleasure. John couldn't stop the smile, still pissed as hell at Rodney, but smiling at the transparent pleasure on Rodney's face anyway. Damn it all, he wished Kurn had never happened, naquadah aside, because he was no good at complicated, had never let things get complicated like this before, and didn't really have the slightest clue about what to do about it now.

Probably the best thing to do, the easiest thing, would be to just let the whole thing go; walk out of the security office now and make a conscious effort to go on just as he had before. Drink the eilisum when it was offered to him, and put all the weirdness behind him. Rodney would let him; Rodney had been trying to do exactly that from the very beginning.

But he didn't walk out, and he had no real plans to have a steaming cup of forget-all-about-it back on Kurn, either. Half-wishing it hadn't happened wasn't actually the same thing as wanting to forget it. And he didn't drink the tea.

He never drank the tea.

On the screen, Rodney's gaze fixed on something in front of him, and his face stilled. "What is--" he said, and then stopped. The view zoomed out a little, apparently obeying John's wishes even if he wasn't specifically aware of making them, and then he could see what Rodney was looking at.

The viewscreen in the cathedra room was still showing the blueprint of the personnel quarters, Rodney's room highlighted, though no longer showing as a big red block; the lines of code John had accessed were still blinking on the screen.

Shit, John thought. He could see everyone in the cathedra room, now, all of them looking at the viewscreen. Elizabeth's frown had deepened again, and the look on her face said she was consciously not saying anything even though she really wanted to.

It was Zelenka who said, "He wanted you here," in a soft, careful voice that, in John's experience, people rarely directed at Rodney. "Almost the moment he sat down, he insisted you should be here. There was no time to explain before..." He waved one hand at the viewscreen. "We did not know it could do that, obviously."

"Obviously," Rodney echoed, but his mouth slanted unhappily. After a beat of silence, he said, "He saw the code?"

Zelenka pressed his lips into a line and nodded, while Carson and Elizabeth exchanged a look that was puzzled and a little worried. Zelenka was probably the only one in the room who got that the code was what made it obvious that the quarantine had been self-initiated, and fairly specifically aimed at John. And that, sitting in the initialized cathedra, John couldn't help but know it.

"Well," Rodney said, one side of his mouth tugging further downward as he swallowed visibly. "Well. I've got work to do."

He closed his eyes and the cathedra brightened around him, the viewscreen going dark for an instant before it began to shuttle through images so quickly that it was nearly impossible to get a look at anything before it moved on to the next image, everything moving at least three or four times faster than it had with John in the cathedra. John had time to feel a little smug about being so categorically right about the whole thing. Rodney's eyes were moving rapidly behind his closed lids, but his body was completely still, which was just weird. "Hmm," Rodney murmured, and Zelenka, eyes glued to the viewscreen, said,

"Oh! Yes, yes, you..."

The lights went out, both in the security office and in the cathedra room, though that was still well-lit with the glow from the chair. The cameras didn't cut out, however, the screens didn't flicker, and John could still hear the soft hiss of the air purification system, so he wasn't worried.

"Doctor Weir!" someone squawked over the headset, shrill with alarm, and Rodney answered without keying his radio, his voice coming from the citywide comm, which John guessed was something the cathedra was responsible for.

"Everything is under control," Rodney said, low and mellow, but with a jubilant edge that John didn't miss. "All main systems will retain their integrity; no active systems have been circumvented. Will the botanists in the main hydroponics lab please either vacate the premises for approximately six minutes or suffer a painful and grisly death?"

John snorted, and Elizabeth hid a smile behind her hand. Zelenka was typing furiously at first one laptop and then swiveling to pound at the keyboard of another, and the naquadah generator was chugging gamely along. "Twenty percent, Rodney," Zelenka said.

"Mmm, I know," Rodney agreed, and John could see Rodney's biceps flexing, muscle twitching incrementally as he did something none of the rest of them could see, but that Atlantis would undoubtedly respond to. Fixing something in the hydroponics lab, probably. With his brain.

John leaned into the console in front of him with both hands and let his awareness of the city slide to the forefront of his mind, something he didn't do very often since the first few weeks after their arrival when he'd realized that he was losing minutes, sometimes more, every time he did. He could feel the difference, the city more active, more alive with Rodney interfaced with the cathedra, creating a low-grade buzz of kinetic intent. He was putting things in motion, though John couldn't tell what; it was all just feeling, no real information, though he was pretty sure he could take a seat in any of the other cathedrae whenever he wanted and get the details.

"How's he doing?" Elizabeth asked Carson softly, leaning forward a little to peer at the medical scanner Carson was frowning at.

"Good, he's good," Carson muttered absently, but he was still frowning. "Better than good, actually." He threw a puzzled look at Rodney. "His heart rate and blood pressure are both down, his red blood cells are more oxygenated than his baseline readings indicate as normal, and his brain activity is up seventeen percent." He sounded a bit sulky about it, actually.

"He can hear you, you know," Rodney said without opening his eyes, but he was smirking. "And he clearly recalls telling you all that he didn't need on-site medical care. Zelenka, do you see that?" he demanded, and something flashed on the screen, the same image repeating several times before moving on, proving that Rodney was well aware that he was moving more quickly than anyone not interfaced with the cathedra could keep up with. "Shunt that directly to Miko, have her drag Leonard off whatever crackpot theory he's currently working on and get down to, there, level 4, subsection 14; it's gray on the grid, get them some marines for the sake of protocol, but it feels safe from here." He let out a short, surprised little bark of laughter that made the hair on the back of John's neck stand up; he'd never heard anything like it from Rodney. "Jesus, if they can just. I want that in my lab in twenty minutes, I want that fixed, do you know--"

"I know, Rodney," Zelenka insisted, but he was grinning so wide he looked half-crazed, and Carson and Elizabeth were exchanging an indulgent look. "You're at fifty-four percent," Zelenka told him, and then, almost as an afterthought, "And all three of these hard drives are now full."

Rodney made a low, growling noise of frustration and it jolted through John's his palms braced on the console, buzzing against his skin; he snatched them back quickly, and rubbed them against his pants. It didn't actually help. He could feel the buzzing tingle all the way to his bones.

"It will take us weeks, months even, to get through just what we have here, Rodney," Zelenka pointed out pragmatically. "Sixty-one percent."

"Fine," Rodney huffed, fingertips flexing slightly against the gel. "Two more minutes."

John smirked at Zelenka's eyeroll, but noticed that he didn't try to talk Rodney out of it.

Thirty seconds later the lights came on, and Rodney crooned, "Good, yes," fingertips flexing in the neural gel.

John had to look away for a second, and he caught Elizabeth looking at Rodney, wide-eyed and with a faint blush fanned across her cheekbones. So, John mused, at least it wasn't just him. It was absurd enough to make him chuckle, which he thought really should have made everything seem a little more normal, but the chuckle came out hoarse and unsteady, and instead just made him feel like he was losing his goddamned mind.

About ten seconds after that, a voice in his ear inquired, "Colonel Sheppard?" with a soft, gentle Japanese accent, and John muted the security feed with a thought and tapped his earpiece.

"Sheppard."

"Colonel, I need a marine escort to, mmm, level 4, subsection 14, please," Miko asked, and John shook his head and smiled tiredly because they'd set up a rotation for this kind of thing over a year ago, but no one ever remembered that.

"What have you got, Doctor?" John made himself ask, because it would be out of character if he didn't, and it wouldn't do to let anyone know he'd been spying.

"Something Doctor McKay found from the cathedra," Miko told him. "He said he didn't think it was dangerous, but it's a gray area, and protocol..."

"Yeah, okay," John agreed. On the viewscreen, Rodney was saying something to Zelenka while the chair dimmed and returned to an upright position. "Do you want them to meet you in the big lab?"

"There's a transporter on level 4 in subsection 6; that would be closest."

"They'll be there in ten minutes," John told her. "Sheppard out."

He called down to the ready room and told the marine that answered to gear up and where to meet Miko's team, passing on the intel that it probably wasn't dangerous, but reminding them to treat it as a live exercise anyway. The marine patiently accepted the reminder, his tone conveying that he didn't need it, and John turned back to the viewscreen in time to see Rodney peeling the little white medical sensors off his temples. He unmuted the feed, and Zelenka was saying, "... depleted the generator in just under eleven minutes, and switched to ZPM power for approximately one. I will want to recheck the data dependent on what you were actually doing at the time, Rodney, but if we add to it the data from Colonel Sheppard's few minutes in the chair, it seems that this one draws considerably less power from the ZPM than the defense cathedra."

Rodney nodded, stepping over a tangle of wires to bend over one of the laptops and tap at the keyboard. "Hmm, well, yes, that makes sense, doesn't it? Weapons and shields are always more of an energy drain than day-to-day systems, and this cathedra was designed to be in constant use, unlike defense. Probably a low-level but constant drain on the ZPM accompanied by spikes of power usage when the operator handles anything outside the realm of mundane maintenance. Get me the readings from the generator, too, Radek. I want to see what the energy usage for fixing botany's little problem looks like."

John rubbed at his face with one hand and slouched one hip against the console. He couldn't work out whether it was a relief to watch Rodney act so Rodney-like after the last couple of days, or if it was just aggravating.

"So, is that what this cathedra is meant to do?" Elizabeth asked. "Day-to-day maintenance?"

"Mm-hmm," Rodney answered without looking up from the laptop he was working on. "Well, more or less. This one ties in to all of Atlantis' systems, of course, but it's a..." he paused to make a twirling gesture with one hand, "a monitoring thing, for the most part, and a repair and adjustment thing, and has more to do with the code that keeps Atlantis running than with the mechanical aspects of maintenance. The technical cathedra would be the one responsible for any physical repair work necessary, if something, some part or machine, actually stopped working. Tech is like defense, which is to say it isn't meant to be in use except when specifically needed. City systems is designed to keep it from being needed more than occasionally, to monitor and repair small problems before they become big problems. If we ever decide to implement entirely new programs, they'll have to be initiated here. It's, ha, mission control, so to speak." He looked away from the laptop to gaze with obvious longing at the chair, hands splayed and hovering over the keyboard. "Even so," he said, clearly hating every word, "we can't afford to use it the way it was meant to be used. We just don't have that kind of power. Even at a fraction of the drain of the defense cathedra, we just don't have it."

"We will figure something out, Rodney," Zelenka said, resting a hand on Rodney's shoulder for a moment. "Perhaps there is something in the data..." He gestured at the laptops, giving the cathedra his own wistful look. "We will figure something out."

Rodney nodded, but he looked tired again. "Given enough time, I can streamline our use of key systems in a way that will ultimately yield maximum usability with minimum power drain, but spending that kind of time in the cathedra right now would probably drain almost as much power as I could save us." He straightened up from his hunch over the laptop and rubbed absently at his lower back. "For it to be really effective, we either need another ZPM or an alternate power source, something other than a Mark II, which just won't power one of these things for long enough to make a difference. I could drain every naquadah generator we have and get no more than a couple of hours in the cathedra. Even with the naquadah we're going to be getting from Kurn, making it a semi-renewable resource, it just isn't going to be enough."

"In that case, should we even initialize the other cathedrae?" Elizabeth asked, her brow furrowed in thought. "Aren't they likely to be comparable in power usage?"

"Probably, yes, but I still think it's worth it to get them online," Rodney said, losing a little of his weariness in excitement again. "Especially tech. If we're going to find an alternate power source already here on Atlantis, tech is where we'll find it, or find plans for it. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of schematics in the database, and I only got a chance to look at a few of them. And if we end up needing them, having them ready to go will be worth the power it takes to get them initialized." He smiled faintly, crooked-mouthed and humorless, and waved a hand at Elizabeth. "'Life or death situations trump normal projections for acceptable power usage,' isn't that what you keep saying about Carson's energy-sucking scanner? Besides, I need to be prepared for the next time saving the galaxy depends entirely on what I know."

It should have been funny, but Rodney didn't look amused. John wasn't all that amused, himself.

"Of course," Elizabeth agreed, but she was still frowning. "How soon can we get them online?"

"As soon as we can get Sheppard to make the rounds," Rodney said with a little shrug. "He's still our strongest ATA gene, and while I might have been able to initialize this one, we don't know that for sure."

"Rodney is right," Zelenka agreed. "It's impossible to truly theorize with only one data point, of course, but with this cathedra the Colonel seemed to intuit immediately that he was not the best one to operate it. If that holds true of the others, and the Colonel is able to offer suggestions as to who would be best suited, it could save time."

"The interface for this one doesn't feel anything like the interface for the defense cathedra," Rodney said, his tone one of agreement, but his brows drawn into a frown. "It's possible that the interfaces themselves were designed to be best used by those with the skills necessary to make the most effective use of the cathedrae. If that's the case, Sheppard should have very little trouble with defense and flight, I would probably handle city systems and technical, and maybe even communications equally well. Carson would be the obvious choice for the medical cathedra. As much as it pains me to say it, Sheppard is probably our only real option for the command cathedra. Hmm. Aside from power, our ridiculous lack of qualified gene-carriers will undoubtedly end up being our biggest problem. Carson, get me a list of our people with the ATA gene. I can cross-reference that with their skill-sets and see what I can come up with."

"Aye, I can do that," Carson agreed.

"Good, good," Rodney said briskly, rubbing his hands together, for a moment before crouching to pluck cables out of the control panel of the cathedra, absently winding them into loose coils with brisk, competent motions of his broad hands. "If we're done here, I need to get to the lab before Miko and Leonard start poking at the broken tech."

"I'll want to see you before you go off-world tomorrow, Rodney," Carson said almost absently, and Rodney's eyebrows shot upward toward his hairline.

He straightened and looked at Elizabeth. "You scheduled a mission tomorrow?" he demanded, looking betrayed. "Do you know how much I have to do..."

"Rodney," Elizabeth interrupted, amused and impatient at once. "Colonel Sheppard scheduled the return trip to Kurn for tomorrow; it's my understanding that you have a limited window on an antidote for the memory tea."

"Oh," Rodney said blankly, his face going slowly but deeply flushed. "Oh. Right. Of course." His hands twisted at the coil of cable he was holding, and John looked away.

There was another headache building at the base of his neck, and he could see Rodney's face in the instant in which he'd realized that John was looking at him, Rodney's head jerking around, eyes locking with John's, huge, dark eyes widening further with realization and mortification, the way his mouth had snapped closed, a tight, flat line, the way the hectic flush on his face had faded in seconds, leaving him pale and wan, confused and utterly utterly miserable. The way he'd closed his eyes, like it was the only kind of retreat he was capable of. The way his upraised palm had looked, pale and broad and unsteady.

"Rodney," Elizabeth said, and John started a little, but he hadn't gone away exactly, not all the way away, and he didn't have to look back toward the screen to know what her face looked like; he'd seen that look directed at him enough times.

"What, no," Rodney said tightly. "It's fine, I just. I'd forgotten."

"Yeah, right," John muttered aloud, and decided the whole spying thing had gone on long enough. He tapped at the screen, and it obligingly transferred the image of the cathedra room back to the small screen, leaving the big Ancient viewscreen dark.

Carson said, "Are you certain you're feeling all right, Rodney?" and John thought the volume "off" before he could hear the answer to that; it wasn't any of his business. Rodney had made it perfectly clear that none of this was any of John's business, and he'd be pissed as hell if he found out that John had been spying on the cathedra test.

Not that John couldn't justify it perfectly well, of course. It was clearly a matter of security, and he was monitoring from the security office, and it was all part of his job, really.

He sighed and rubbed at his face and wished he knew what the hell he was doing.

He thought the door open and was completely unsurprised to see Cheema standing outside waiting, her face a patient mask. Jeez, John thought, because he really hadn't meant to lock her out; he just hadn't wanted any random person walking by to see him. Which indicated pretty strongly that he'd known damned well that was he was doing had nothing to do with his job, of course.

He considered an apology for three seconds or so, but in the end he merely nodded as he passed her on his way out the door. She nodded back and repositioned herself behind her console as John turned in the direction of the mess.

Chapter Text

graphic

Coffee was the next order of business, because John was not going to survive the day without a higher caffeine-to-blood ratio; he wasn't much of a coffee drinker normally (and certainly nowhere near Rodney's twelve-cup-a-day habit), though he liked a cup of coffee in the morning to get his brain moving. But on days like today, when he'd slept too little and was irritable and disconnected, coffee was absolutely essential. He could remember what it was like to sleep four hours and feel just fine, but only vaguely. The older the got, he more he used coffee to close the gap between not getting enough sleep to function and needing to be alert enough to be effective, just in case.

The mess was more or less deserted, so he actually sat down for the first cup, accompanying it with a piece of linjin fruit, which looked like a pink orange and tasted something like a pear, and had the texture of an avocado. They'd traded for the linjin on P8P-919, twelve crates for twelve crates of grigis fruit, which John had been delighted to get rid of. Grigis looked like tiny pineapples and tasted like chewy, gristly, totally repugnant raw liver. Ronon and Teyla seemed to like it just fine, but everyone from Earth had boycotted it after the first time it was served in the mess. John had actually gagged on his first and only bite, and considering how much time he'd spent deployed (and at McMurdo, where fresh fruit went to die), that was saying something. Linjin was pretty good, though, and Monroe had been known to make a mean linjin smoothie given the right incentive.

He took his second cup with him back to his quarters, because clean BDUs were great, but no substitute for an actual shower.

He was twenty feet down the hall from the mess when Rodney turned into the corridor from the direction of the closest transporter, once again carrying his economy-sized insulated travel mug, though it was clearly empty now, since it was dangling by the handle from one hand, the other holding a tablet computer that Rodney was scanning rapidly, the contents apparently far more important than watching where he was going. John spent a petty moment being glad he'd decided to have two cups, since it meant that there wasn't anywhere near enough coffee in the mess to fill Rodney's mug.

John made sure he was close enough to the wall that Rodney wouldn't run him over, and just kept walking, though he did briefly entertain a fantasy of shoving Rodney into the opposite wall and screaming at him until the sour-bile feeling that had been lurking in John's stomach since yesterday finally went away. He only really stopped himself because he had an idea that the reality would be nothing like the fantasy, in which John did all the screaming and Rodney mostly gaped at him in dismay. In reality, the bitter words rolling around the back of his mouth ("You locked me out!" and "What is your fucking problem, McKay?" and "For fuck's sake, can't you just be normal?" and "Don't youever fucking lock me out again.") would not only make him sound like a crazy person, but would more than likely garner him some razor-sharp verbal abuse in return. It was never pleasant to be the focus of Rodney McKay when he was genuinely angry, and John especially didn't want to do it when he was also genuinely angry. Ending up in a screaming match with Rodney in a public corridor was just bad news.

And he really didn't want to fight with Rodney. He was too goddamned tired to fight with Rodney.

Of course, at this point John wasn't sure he could even manage a civil greeting. He'd start out with, "Hey," and end up with, "Hey, jackass, fuck you right up the nose," so he went with not saying anything and hoping that Rodney would walk on by without even looking up from whatever he was so engrossed in.

So, inevitably, Rodney looked up and saw him and stopped right in the middle of the corridor. "Colonel," Rodney said, tone tense and uncertain at the same time, and John had to remind himself that sticking his tongue out and blowing Rodney the loudest, most insulting raspberry he was capable of wasn't going to solve anything.

Instead, he nodded, back teeth clenched so hard he was probably in danger of a jaw cramp of epic proportions, and kept walking.

He was most of the way to his quarters before he realized that his neck was so tight it ached, and it occurred to him that he was waiting to hear Rodney's distinctive footsteps (Rodney walked in either a shuffle of distraction or a stomp of agitation ninety-eight percent of the time) following him. He shook his head, forcing those muscles to relax, and opened his door without letting himself glance back to see if Rodney was creeping up behind him, because of course Rodney wasn't, and thinking that he might be was more than merely paranoid, it bordered on delusional. Rodney was most likely still standing in the middle of the corridor where John had passed him, or he'd made it to the mess by now and was howling at the injustice of less than adequate supplies of coffee.

John gulped half of his cup down -- with yet another side helping of petty satisfaction -- while he checked his email. He left the rest on his desk while he stripped down to his shorts and socks and did the sniff test to see if he could put his BDUs back on after he got out of the shower, or if he was going to have to forage for clean ones. They smelled fine to him, but truthfully he pretty much always smelled fine to himself, so he figured he should re-test after he was actually clean. He laid them out across his bed to fend off wrinkles, just in case, and stripped off his boxers, catching them on one foot and transferring them into one hand with the intent of shoving them in the overflowing basket hidden in his closet.

So, of course, the door slid open and Rodney walked in.

"Christ, don't you knock!" John snapped, clutching the flimsy cotton of his boxers in front of him, a meager and somewhat embarrassing (they were white with little chili peppers on them) defense against being totally-naked-except-for-socks in the same room as McKay.

Again.

Rodney swayed on his feet for a second, blinking rapidly, and then shook his head sharply, expression going tight, eyes clenched shut. Shaking off a memory, John guessed, and just knowing that Rodney was fighting it off was enough to make John have to do the same, shoving away the image of Rodney breathing hard, John's boxers clenched tightly in both hands.

By the time John managed to center himself in the present, Rodney had done the same, and was opening and closing his mouth as though trying to decide what to say, eyes wide and gratifyingly dismayed, face bright red. He waved one hand frantically while attempting to surreptitiously angle the other one behind his back, apparently to hide the small tool kit that he was holding. As if his very presence in the room didn't scream "I broke in using my vastly superior intellect and mad Ancient tech skills!". And John had to remind himself that he was still pissed at him, because seeing Rodney do something so patently McKay-ish was almost enough to make John snicker even now. Christ, John thought. I'm losing my fucking mind here.

"I didn't think you'd let me in if I knocked," Rodney muttered, as if that made it perfectly okay to break into his quarters, and John rolled his eyes.

"No, McKay, I wouldn't have let you in," John shouted, and then had to resist the urge to choke Rodney to death at his look of triumph, as though being right in this instance had something to do with his vastly superior intellect rather than the fact that John was naked. He added: "Because I'm naked," just so Rodney would be aware of that as well.

"Oh, well, yes," Rodney acceded gracelessly, somehow giving the impression of immense embarrassment and utter impatience with John's clear idiocy at the same time. "But how was I supposed to know that?"

"If you had knocked," John pointed out through gritted teeth, eyeballing his pants, but unwilling to sidle around Rodney in order to get to them, "I'd have mentioned it."

"Yes. Well," Rodney admitted, eyes on the carpet. "But, look," he added urgently, and rushed along before John could point out that he wasn't, in fact, looking. "I thought, what with the way things have been the last couple... you know, with the weird? I thought, maybe, we, you and I, should. We could. Talk. About." There was a lengthy pause. "Things," he said finally, sneaking a look at John's face and looking a lot like he'd really rather be ritually disemboweled on their next off-world mission.

"You want to talk about things," John repeated, and Rodney immediately started to squirm in discomfort. "In actual words," he added, because yeah, he was an asshole, and he was still pissed about Rodney kicking him out. Repeatedly. And the thing was, John wasn't sure he actually had anything to talk about. The things he'd been thinking about saying didn't make sense, and the rest was all stuff that Rodney had made quite clear that he didn't want to talk about, and John wasn't sure that left a whole lot of conversational avenues to mosey down. Yet he heard himself saying, "Like 'practical avoidance' things and 'coming to terms' things? Those kinds of things, McKay? Freaking out things?"

"Yes, all right, yes, already!" Rodney snapped, and then immediately recanted, adding broad skyward gestures that might have meant 'the sky is falling' or might have been Richard Lewis-like expressions of pained lack of understanding. "Well, no, because obviously you and I having a conversation about... about feelings is just. Just. Well, on a scale of seriousness from emergency brain surgery to Keystone Cops is clearly going to be something along the lines of emergency brain surgery performed by Keystone Cops. Probably wearing giant foam fingers, even. So. No, Colonel, I absolutely do not want to have that conversation."

And John found himself a little nettled by the metaphor, even knowing that it was probably scarily apt, so he snapped his mouth shut on something edged and accusatory and just looked at Rodney until he finally gave up staring at his hands and looked back. His face had settled back into nearly its natural color, but he still looked disturbingly tired and transparently unhappy.

"Then why are you here?" John asked, forcing his tone to come out as something less than a shout, though it wasn't what anyone would have termed as a normal conversational tone, either. "If we're not having that conversation, then what was so damned important that you had to break into my quarters? Even I never did that." Okay, so that last bit could have come out more bitterly, but it would have taken some effort.

"I never said we weren't having that conversation," Rodney denied heatedly, taking refuge in aggravation. "I said I didn't want to have it, not that we weren't going to. We are so having that conversation." He jabbed a finger at the door, which completely confused John until he said, "That, out there in the hall. That. There has to be something better than that." And he sounded so weary and sad that John couldn't even be pissed at the accusation.

He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and said, "Okay, fine."

"Fine?"

"Yes, fine. Let's go. Let's have the conversation." He smirked, though he wasn't actually even faintly amused. "Bring on the big foam fingers, Rodney."

Rodney bit his lip and looked away, then looked back quickly. "Really?"

"You have got to be kidding me," John growled, and Rodney held up both hands in an 'I surrender' sort of gesture.

"No, right. Okay. I mean, yes, let's. Do the thing. The talking thing."

John rolled his eyes. "Do you even have any idea what you want to say, McKay?" he demanded.

Rodney looked shifty. "Well, no. Not really, I mean. Once I decided we had to do it, I was mostly just worried about how I was going to get in here, and then you were naked, so forgive me if I got just a little derailed!"

"Jesus Christ, McKay," John growled; he was pretty sure if he choked Rodney to death with his chili-pepper boxer shorts, not a court in two galaxies would convict him. "You're like an alien! No, wait, because I know some aliens, and they're all way more normal than you!"

And bizarrely, Rodney crooked a smile at him, a crazy, lopsided and insanely charming smile, and said, "You know, I actually get that kind of a lot."

John briefly fought the urge to throw his boxer shorts at Rodney's face, half infuriated and half helplessly amused. Who the hell knew that fighting with Rodney would be the emotional equivalent of ping pong?

Okay, well, maybe he should have known that.

John took a deep breath. "Okay, you know what? I'll start." He ignored the way Rodney's eyes went wide with surprise. "The thing on Kurn was freakish and impossible, and it sucks that it happened, and we're both probably freaking out to some extent -- which is totally justified, by the way -- but you and I are going to keep working together and seeing each other every damn day for the foreseeable future, and so not figuring out how to deal with it is not an option. So why don't you tell me what your fucking problem is before I have to kill you and hide your body in one of the desalinization tanks!"

"You can't hide my body in one of the desalinization tanks, Colonel. You'll contaminate a third of our potable water!" And he actually looked shocked that John would suggest such poor planning in his impending homicidal rampage.

"Rodney! Focus, goddamnit!"

"Right, sorry. Uh." He looked back down at the floor, hands twisted together tightly; right about the time that John was about to say something pointed (or maybe make a lunge for his pants), he held up a finger. "Just give me a moment, Colonel," he said, quiet and unsteady, shooting John a look from beneath his eyelashes. After another minute or so, Rodney said, "Okay," and looked up again, meeting John's gaze. "Okay. So, clearly what happened is a problem for me."

John didn't roll his eyes, and he really thought he should get some kind of an award for being able to resist in the face of an understatement of that magnitude.

"No kidding," he said, but without any real heat behind it. God, he was already tired of this conversation. "Look, we don't have to do this. We can just forget it ever happened." He didn't need Rodney's snort to remind him that they couldn't actually forget, and that was part of the problem. He waved one hand, dismissive. "You know what I mean, McKay. We can just... move on. We. I mean, I know you've got a thing, and you're wigged that I know you've got a thing, but I can't change that."

"A thing," Rodney repeated, brows arched as though in question, even though John was dead certain Rodney knew what he was talking about. "I have a thing?"

John glared, but okay, fine, whatever. "A thing, Rodney, a kink-thing, a kinky spanking thing, okay?"

"Oh," Rodney said. "A thing. Right." Except he looked a little bit like John had just kicked him in the nuts.

"Right," John repeated, maybe a little desperately, and okay, he was willing to admit that Rodney's metaphor had been dead-on. "Right, but it's fine, okay? Neither of us could have known when we went through the 'gate that anything like that was going to happen, so it's nobody's fault, and I'll just forget about knowing anything about your thing."

Rodney was nodding, but it was mechanical, and rendered pretty much meaningless by the look on his face, which was tight and strained and deeply, deeply miserable.

"Yes, you see, this is the difference in perspective I was talking about. Because it was, in fact, my fault, which I think we both are well aware of. And while I would obviously prefer that you not be aware of my 'thing,' that's not the problem here."

"It wasn't your fault," John said; Rodney just sneered in silent derision. "McKay, it wasn't your fault," John insisted, because it really wasn't. "It was my fault for not paying attention when Teyla was telling us about the Kurnei, and it was my decision to handle it the way we did after that. This was not your fault, and if your problem with what happened on Kurn is the result of some kind of misplaced sense of respons--"

Rodney said, "Sheppard," and his voice cracked on the last syllable of John's name, which made John snap his mouth shut. "Okay. Try to listen." Rodney's voice was so hoarse and strained that John found himself merely nodding helplessly, unexpectedly willing to do almost anything to get Rodney not to sound like that. "My problem with what happened on Kurn," Rodney said, and it sounded like some kind of fucked up essay title, What I Did on My Summer Vacation to the Planet of Corporal Punishment, by Doctor Rodney McKay. "It's not even that you were hurt because of something I did." He was speaking slowly, but not in the usual way, which was a I'm speaking slowly and in words of two syllables or less, because you are all morons, and it is a complete waste of my genius to even have to breathe the same air as you people, thing, whereas this sounded a hell of a lot more like he was fighting for every word. "I mean, you were, obviously, but that isn't it. I hate that it happened, that I... I could have stopped it, and I... I didn't, for what seemed like a good reason at the time. But that's not it." He gave a little shrug, but his mouth was twisted into something painful and desolate that hurt to look at. "It's... I... I had to watch, and." He swallowed, and John only didn't interrupt because Rodney was meeting and holding his gaze, and the deliberateness of it was enough to make it clear that he wasn't done, and wouldn't appreciate an interruption one bit. "And I got off on it."

"Rodney--" John tried, but Rodney shook his head and glared, and John shut his mouth.

"And as if that wasn't enough, I couldn't, I can't." He stopped, breathing fast and uneven, his hands were clenched into fists at his sides, flushed and miserable-looking, and gaze still fixed on John's face, making it impossible for John to look away without it being an obvious retreat. "I can't not remember every fucking second of it, like, like in technicolor, with Dolby surround-sound, and I can't, I can't stop getting off on it." He let out a short, agonizing little laugh that made goosebumps spring to life all over John's body, accompanied by a lackadaisical hand-wave that somehow conveyed that he was fully aware of how ridiculous and fucked up the whole thing sounded, and would be amused by it if he wasn't so horrified.

"Look, Rodney," John tried, because he got how hard this had to be, but he didn't want to hear any more. If he never again heard the weary, bewildered edge in Rodney's voice that came from Rodney feeling betrayed by his own brain, that would be just fine with John.

Rodney just kept talking, either oblivious to the interruption or aware but heedless. "I got off on it, Sheppard, even though it was so, so very obvious that you didn't." He laughed again, and it was no less terrible. "And I can't stop. So. That is my problem with what happened on Kurn. And before you do whatever it is you do inside your head to turn the very natural inclination toward loathing and anger into the need to somehow fix this, let me save you some time: you can't. I am very much aware that it can't be fixed, and that I didn't actually do anything. But from where I'm standing, it feels a lot like I've perpetrated an extremely depraved and horribly cerebral version of date rape."

And then he turned and tried to walk out the door, as if there were any variation of any universe, no matter how absurd, in which John would let him do that. John was closer to the door anyhow, and Rodney was staring at his feet so fixedly that he nearly didn't stop in time to keep from running him over.

"McKay," John said, and Rodney's head snapped up at the same time that he flinched bodily backward, as though expecting a punch in the face. John ruthlessly squashed the urge to shake him; he'd never been the most socially conscientious person in the world, but he was pretty sure that answering Rodney's expectation of physical violence by different-but-no-less-physical violence was not the way to go.

"Yeah, no," John said, face as blank as he knew how to make it, because he was pretty sure Rodney wouldn't believe anything other than disgust or condemnation at this point, anyway. "You don't just get to blurt that out and run away. No. Sorry."

"Colonel," Rodney stammered, and took a large, staggering step backward, so obviously apprehensive that John had to fight off the urge to take a step back of his own, give Rodney a little room and make it clear that John wasn't about to take a swing at him. He didn't; he knew well enough that scared-McKay and belligerent-McKay were kissing cousins, and he wasn't sure enough of his temper right now to risk even such a small concession. The goddamn thing of it was, he knew Rodney, and he knew exactly how much it must have taken for him to verbalize something so... personal, so telling. His face said everything there was to say about how he thought this was going to go, but he was here.

The fact that it didn't bother John, that he could give a shit whether Rodney had gotten off on something that John had merely endured, didn't change the significance of that in the slightest. But it also didn't change the fact that this entire intensely uncomfortable conversation could have been avoided if Rodney had been just a fraction less stubborn at any point in the last three days, and John couldn't quite forget that. He had no urge to throw the punch that Rodney was obviously braced for, but he was still tempted to sink his fingertips into Rodney's improbably thick biceps and shake the living shit out of him.

"No, you get to listen to my uncomfortable confessions first, McKay. Isn't that how this is supposed to work? You show me yours and I show you mine?" And John was still just pissed enough that his drawl came out sounding edged rather than careless, and he didn't give a shit about that, either.

It was enough to tweak Rodney's temper, apparently, because he snapped, "Thanks all the same, Colonel, but I can already see most of yours." And he dropped his gaze to John's feet and quite deliberately worked his way all the way back up to John's face, sneering. Which would have worked, maybe, except John had all but forgotten that he was naked up until then, and he was pretty clear on why. Also, the sneer didn't work all that well when paired with the hot flush on Rodney's face, which alleviated a lot of the embarrassment factor.

John didn't bother pointing either of those things out to Rodney; in the face of John's silent regard, he was already losing the sneer, too frayed and weary to hold on to his usual disdain.

"Okay. Fine, then. What?" Rodney finally snapped, and then literally snapped, fingers quick and clicking.

"I already knew that, Rodney."

"You," Rodney frowned, brows drawing together, snapping fingers going still with his hand still a little stretched out, mid-snap. "Oh." And he didn't look that surprised by the information, John noted. Because he wasn't an idiot, and John had all but said so the last time Rodney had kicked him out of his quarters.

"Pretty much from the moment it happened, McKay, because I've got eyes," he pointed out a little more gently. "I'll admit, the date-rape metaphor caught me by surprise, but the rest of it isn't news."

Rodney's mouth went crooked and unhappy, and John sighed.

"I don't give a shit," he said.

"You don't give a shit," Rodney repeated blankly, sounding less surprised than just... well, blank.

"It doesn't bug me. I get that you feel bad, and if you want to keep raking yourself over the coals for a reaction that was obviously outside your control, I can't stop you. But don't feel bad for me. Not about that." He considered crossing his arms over his chest to glare at Rodney's uncomprehending expression, but that would require he drop the chili-pepper boxers, and in spite of the fact that being mostly naked wasn't actually bothering him much, he could think of a couple of good reasons not to discard the fragile remnants of his modesty at the moment, not the least of which was that Rodney, for all the bravado, would likely have a stroke. So he didn't cross his arms, but he did pull out a fairly sharp glare, though perhaps not a very effective one since all Rodney did was blink. "If you really want to feel bad, McKay, you can feel like a shitheel about being a dick for the last three days."

That snapped Rodney out of blank and flung him headlong into indignant, complete with hand waving. "I beg your pardon, Colonel, if my ethical crisis in some way inconvenienced you," he sneered (way more effectively this time). John was revisited by the urge to shake him, which was pretty funny -- if by funny, you meant less 'ha ha' and more 'what's that smell?' -- since he usually found Rodney being totally oblivious to the fact that he was being an asshole to be sort of eccentrically endearing, like his great uncle Zed, who had worn his bathrobe over his clothes to every family event as far back as John could remember, and if you mentioned it, looked at you like you were the crazy one.

"You locked me out, McKay," John snarled back, and the twenty-four hours between finding that out and now hadn't lessened John's anger one micron. Rodney took a step back, hands dropping to his sides as though suddenly weighted, and his mouth -- open, probably to continue to berate John -- snapped shut. He swallowed visibly, and had the good grace not to pretend it wasn't a big deal; either that, or he had the good sense to know that John might actually hit him if he tried it.

John's mouth was full of things he'd never needed to know how to say, and he still didn't, goddamnit. But Rodney had already shown John his, and the only way to answer was in kind, so he tried.

"We're team, Rodney," he said, low and tight, reining back on the anger as hard as he could. "You and me and Teyla and Ronon, even Elizabeth and Carson and Zelenka, we're team, and you don't get to lock us out." He shook his head, still too pissed to be amused, but willing to admit that maybe he was, in fact, a Keystone Cop performing emergency brain surgery here. "We're all that we have out here," he tried again, and even then he couldn't bring himself to try to explain what he'd learned in Afghanistan, what it was like to lose that. "You don't get to cut us off like that, like we don't have a stake in whether or not you sink or swim."

"That's not what I--" Rodney started, but he was back to dodging John's gaze, and they both knew better.

"Don't give me that bullshit," he interrupted, just giving in and letting himself shout, because he'd been wanting to for most of three goddamned days, and maybe he'd feel better if he did. "Don't you stand there and feed me that goddamned line, McKay; Elizabeth might buy it and everyone else might let you get away with it, but I know you, and that's exactly what it was. You were so goddamned freaked out about the whole thing that you weren't even thinking about anything else, and if you ever lock me out again, I'll pull the fucking city down around your fucking ears!"

"What is it you're actually angry about, here, Sheppard?" Rodney shouted back, but he was looking at John, or glaring at John, rather, though at this point he'd take what he could get. "Is it truly my appalling disregard for the safety of everyone in this city, demonstrated by my taking, God forbid, less than a day to overcome my inability to leave my quarters without falling over? Because it sounds like you're taking the aforementioned and extremely alleged disregard rather personally!"

"I saw your goddamned code, McKay," John bellowed, and Rodney scowled, chin coming up right on cue. "It wasn't anything but ATA fucking Kryptonite! If you don't think that wasn't personal, maybe you should take another look at it."

"If you'd just left me the hell alone any one of the, oh let me see, three times I asked you to, I wouldn't have had to lock you out!"

Which John couldn't exactly argue, since that was totally true. And Rodney was red-faced and yelling and clearly irate, but he also looked miserable as shit about the locking out thing, and had pretty much since it had come up.

In addition, he suspected things were about two, maybe three more exchanges from somebody calling somebody else a doody-head, and Rodney getting a face-full of John's slightly used boxer shorts. Nevertheless, he couldn't quite keep from yelling when he admitted, "I was worried about you, you cranky shithead! Blowtorch in your quarters! The last time I saw you, you had a tiny unshielded naquadah generator in there with you! You scared the shit out of me!"

Rodney pointed one finger and actually shook it at John, and screamed, "Don't you--" before stopping abruptly, mouth still a little bit open, and blinked. He dropped the finger-pointing hand and rocked back on his heels, chin still thrust defiantly forward, but head also slightly cocked, wary and hesitant at once. Like he thought he might have misheard and was reserving the right to scream again at any second. "I, you. Oh," he said, and blinked again, chin lowering a fraction. "Yes, well, it's possible that was somewhat poorly thought out," he mumbled diffidently.

Which was probably as close as Rodney was going to get to admitting that John might've had good reason to be worried. As apologies went, it was kind of crappy, but it would do.

"Yeah. Well. I shouldn't have..." He borrowed a page from the Rodney McKay School of Communication and finished the sentence with a 'you know' gesture.

Rodney nodded and gestured ('yes, yes, it's fine') back.

They looked away at the same time.

John thought the fight might be over, and if that was the case he didn't want to say anything stupid and throw fuel on live coals. He made himself relax a little instead, easing the aggressive incline of his upper body, going for something akin to the easy slouch that he didn't normally have to actually try for. Rodney shuffled from foot to foot, avoiding John's gaze, but since John wasn't exactly maintaining eye contact either, he figured he'd ignore it. Rodney also wasn't saying anything, though, which just figured; the one time he needed McKay to fill a (rapidly becoming awkward) silence, he went uncharacteristically mute.

And just in case that wasn't enough, the naked thing was starting to bother him a little.

"So, uh," he said finally, groping for a topic that wouldn't involve either nudity or feelings. "Emergency brain surgery performed by Keystone Cops?"

"Er." Rodney gave him a frowny sideways look. "Yes. You know. The whole--" he gave a vague, subdued hand wave, "--horrified terror interspersed with moments of stunning absurdity and a statistically infinitesimal chance of survival."

John actually felt his face go slack with surprise for the space of maybe three seconds; Rodney was just opening his mouth to say something, brows beginning to scrunch together expressively, when John gave a small, helpless snort followed immediately by an even stupider-sounding bark of choked laughter that was totally unexpected. Rodney's eyebrows un-scrunched and he was just starting to look faintly amused (and relieved) when John lost his goddamned mind or something, and was just laughing, loud and inelegant -- and yeah, also relieved -- and totally unable to stop.

Rodney boggled at him, which really just made it funnier, and by the time John got it together Rodney was smiling a little, looking amused and bemused. He waited until John had settled down to merely 'grinning like a moron' to add, "I'm very witty," a little too nervily to come off as dry as he probably meant it to, but John snorted anyway. Rodney smirked, but it faded after a couple of seconds. "So, we're...?"

"Yeah, McKay," John said, and was glad to be able to say it and mean it. "We're cool."

Rodney's brows arched upward, and he smirked again, crooked and easy. "Maybe you are; I'm wearing pants." He paused, as though giving John time to scowl; John obliged. "Those are very... unique boxers, by the way."

And it all seemed so much like their normal, comfortable squabbling that John shot back, "Yeah, I wore those just for you, McKay; fodder for the spank-bank," and didn't even realize how it probably sounded until Rodney flinched, abruptly and obviously, like once again John had verbally kicked him in the nuts. "Oh, crap!" John said, dismayed. "I didn't mean it like that, Rodney, I swear."

But Rodney was backing away, and John was a total asshole, obviously, Christ, maybe he was a goddamned moron. "Seriously, I didn't, I just--" and he might have devolved into a truly Rodney-esque fit of babble if Rodney hadn't interrupted him.

"Hands, Colonel No-Pants!" he snapped, and John blinked at the apparent non-sequitur. Rodney made a shoo-ing gesture with both hands.

"What?"

"Hands," Rodney repeated, and looked down pointedly. John followed Rodney's gaze down to his own hands, which were reaching for Rodney and only about three inches outside of grabbing-distance, boxers still hanging from one of them ridiculously.

"Uh." John returned the boxers to their former position, though at this point he thought the nod toward modesty might be little more than reflex. "I." His face was about ten degrees too warm, and really, couldn't he just catch a break? Just one? Surely the universe owed him something for all those times he'd saved the galaxy.

"Forgot you weren't wearing pants?" Rodney supplied, always right there with the helpful sarcasm.

"Sorta," John managed, and wondered if maybe he should attempt another (incompetent, in all likelihood) apology.

Rodney stared; John shifted awkwardly. "Look, I really--"

"You did," Rodney interrupted (again). "You forgot you were naked!" He stared at John some more, and John shrugged uncomfortably.

"Rodney--"

Rodney interrupting him a third time did not come as a surprise. "You really don't give a shit," he murmured, still staring, gaze searching, but something had shifted in his face or his voice, or both, and John could feel the knot of guilt and tension in his belly beginning to loosen. "You really don't," he repeated, and the look he gave John was still piercing and uncomfortably intent, but John could see the relief in the set of his shoulders and the easing of the tension around his eyes.

"I told you I didn't, Rodney," John said, but gently.

"Yes, yes of course, but. People lie about things like that. They just." He sounded like he was only half-aware that he was even talking, a little smile quirking his mouth, like John had solved for an impossible x. "They lie," he repeated, and shook his head, finally looking away. He looked a little dazed.

"I wasn't lying," John said, even though it was obviously not necessary at this point, because he wasn't sure what else he should say.

"Hm, no," Rodney agreed absently, and leaned over to pick up John's pants. He wasn't smiling when he turned back, but he looked better, more at ease, than he had since they'd come back from Kurn. He tossed John his pants, and John managed to catch them without dropping his boxers. "New rule: any reference to anyone's spank-bank, ever, requires you to be wearing at least two layers." He smirked.

"I'll make a mental note," John replied slowly; Rodney's smirk didn't actually get bigger, just smirkier somehow, and John rolled his eyes, giving in to the urge to throw his boxers at Rodney's head, albeit obviously enough that Rodney had plenty of time to duck out of their flightpath, turning around at the same time with the vague idea that McKay might appreciate not getting another look at his junk today.

"I can't believe you just did that!" he objected. "Do you have any idea how unsanitary that is?"

John snorted again, the back of his neck prickling with awareness of Rodney's eyes on him; he ignored it, dragging his pants on as quickly as he dared (since the only thing more absurd than somehow winding up in a situation where he was mooning McKay while trying to get his goddamn pants on would be falling over while mooning McKay while trying to get his goddamn pants on).

"Oh, Jesus Christ," Rodney said, low and hoarse, and goosebumps erupted across every inch of exposed flesh on John's body so quickly that it felt a little like a low-grade electric shock. He turned his head just in time to see Rodney sink down on the end of John's bed, misjudge his angle of descent, and slide off the edge of the mattress and onto the floor, dragging all of John's bedclothes with him. He blinked, clearly baffled, but he didn't look away from John.

It wasn't quite like it had been the last few times Rodney had fallen over; he was obviously aware of everything, for one, and still upright, which was a plus. But the way he sounded and the look on his face were otherwise eerily similar; voice a throaty almost-whisper, face soft and vague, wet, open mouth, blown pupils.

Rodney said, "You're black and blue," and John jerked his pants up the rest of the way so quickly that they dragged across his bruised ass with enough friction to make him hiss. Rodney made some kind of sound, something low and choked off at the back of his throat, and John shoved his cock to one side and managed to get zipped up in spite of his unsteady hands and his too-snug BDUs.

"Okay, that's..." Rodney muttered, sounding more present, though equally breathless, "that's really very disorienting, isn't it?"

"Yeah," John managed, and suspected he sounded at least as weird as McKay did. He gave himself a few more seconds to avoid embarrassing himself completely, and then turned around to face Rodney, who was shoving himself up to his knees and batting at John's blanket to get it out of his way. John stepped forward and grabbed a corner of blanket, dragging it out of the way, but it was half-underneath Rodney, who flailed for balance with both hands until John dropped the blanket and grabbed Rodney's shoulder instead; he had a flash of okay, wait, bad idea an instant before it was too late, but what was he going to do, let McKay faceplant on the floor?

And then he was looking at Rodney who wasn't looking back at him, looking at the fine sheen of sweat glistening at Rodney's temples as he tucked the first two fingers of his faintly trembling hands under the elastic waistband of John's boxers, feeling the backs of Rodney's knuckles skim lightly along his hipbones, incidental contact as he drew the boxers down, gentle tug as he eased the elastic out from John's body to keep it from catching on his cock. Rodney sank down to his knees as he drew them down his legs, the tips of his thumbs grazing John's thighs, and he felt, he remembered the quick heat of Rodney's breath close to his cock, and thinking about the Wraith wasn't going to do him any good this time, and maybe had only worked before because there had been other people in the room and John had been about to get spanked, or, more likely, because he hadn't let himself think about it.

His cock was bent at a nearly painful angle, and he could see Rodney watching him, very still, like he wasn't sure if he was allowed to move. He was radiating uncertainty, but his eyes were still dark and his mouth was still wet, his bottom lip a little red, like he'd bitten it, frowning a little in that way that made his mouth slightly crooked and drove John insane with the urge to... "Sheppard?" Rodney said at the same time that John realized that he was seriously considering licking Rodney McKay's lower lip. "Is that, are you--" Rodney paused to lick his lips, and his voice was hoarse and low. "Was that a memory? I mean, were you...?"

John straightened so quickly that he had to take a little step back to keep his balance. Even so, he was standing way too close to Rodney, whose eyes were still a little glazed, though John wasn't about to speculate on why.

"Yeah," he said. "It was. Yeah." He could still see Rodney on his knees if he let himself, and there was definite potential here for a sort-of endless feedback loop (not speculating he insisted), so he grabbed McKay by both shoulders and hauled him bodily to his feet and just pretended there was no hitching little gasp from Rodney in response. "You okay there, buddy?" he asked, his voice a little deeper than normal, maybe, but otherwise sounding okay to his own ears, and took a couple of careful steps back. "Do you need some water or something?"

Rodney blinked, and said, "No, I--" and then blinked again, this time shaking his head slightly at the same time. He was flushed and looked a little unsteady, but he was looking at John with something that approached his normal focus, though maybe a little more intently than normal. John did his best to relay concern rather than holy shit, I almost, licked you, Rodney, and he must have succeeded at least somewhat, because Rodney relaxed minutely. "Uh, sorry. I thought I was... I didn't. Well. It took me by surprise."

John waved it away. "No, you're right. It's disorienting. I'm almost used to it, but sometimes it still catches me off-guard." And, Jesus, talk about understatement.

"Is it, uh, will it always be so...?" He gestured enigmatically, but John wasn't about to press for details, so that was okay.

"Nah, it's. I can mostly..." He hesitated, trying to find the right words to describe it, but then gave up; either Rodney knew by now, or he'd get it soon enough. "I can function alongside it, mostly. It's there, but it stops being so there."

He half expected Rodney to call him on that (considering that one time they'd had an hour-long argument that consisted largely of Rodney mocking him for explaining some native fruit by saying "they're blue berries, but they're not blueberries"), but Rodney merely nodded as though that was an effective explanation.

"Ah. Yes," he said. "Good. I'm. Just going to--" He made a broad gesture toward the door and punctuated it with a finger-wiggle. "I've got so much, what with the cathedra, and Zelenka--" Both eyebrows shot up toward his hairline in an almost comical expression of startled realization, and then his expression abruptly went thunderous. "That little weasel had better not be--"

John barely had the presence of mind to step out of the way as Rodney stomped to the door, eyes cutting away from John in a way that might have been merely preoccupation with whatever Rodney was afraid Zelenka was messing with, though John doubted it, honestly. It didn't especially surprise him that the last twenty (extremely unfortunate) minutes hadn't been enough to set Rodney's mind at ease, because it was Rodney, and John was pretty sure his mind didn't have an 'at ease' setting. He'd settle for 'slightly less anxious,' and do his best to work it down to 'occasionally apprehensive' over the next few weeks. So he just nodded, and said, "Yeah, I've got a briefing for the group heading to Kurn," and hooked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the bathroom. "I was just, uh--"

"Yes, yes, of course, you should do that. And anyway, we--" He stopped abruptly and flushed, and John was pretty sure he was making a weird face while trying to figure out what the hell Rodney was trying to say (without notable success). "Anyway," Rodney finished decisively.

"Right," John agreed nonsensically.

"Colonel," Rodney said with a brief, formal little nod. John stared at him, but thought the door open politely when Rodney started walking again.

He stood rooted to the spot for a good two minutes or so after Rodney was gone, not really able to think about any of it yet, but also unable to kick himself into gear to do anything else.

**

Eventually, he took a very long, very hot shower and tried very hard not to think about anything at all.

Which turned out to be inhumanly difficult, apparently, if one happened to have perfect recall regarding the events that, while three days in the past, had actually triggered the events that one was trying not to think about.

"Come on, John," he muttered aloud and ducked his head under the spray. "You're good at this, damnit."

Meaning the whole not-thinking thing, and he was, he was really good at it, but he'd never had to be good at it with eidetic memory before. And even without the eidetic part, he remembered explicitly what it felt like to look at McKay's shiny lower lip and want to slide his tongue along it. It was situational, of course, but telling himself that (repeatedly) wasn't actually that helpful. The truth was, it mattered almost not at all that it had only happened because of Kurn,,,because he'd seen what Rodney looked like when Rodney wanted something, and because, thanks to the tea, he couldn't banish that knowledge from his brain. It was one of those things that made an intellectual impact, but not a visceral one. He knew why, but it just didn't matter.

He'd been half-hard when he stepped into the shower (and he was pretty sure Rodney hadn't meant for his confession about getting off on it to trigger the nagging, itching desire to know if Rodney had meant merely a physical reaction he couldn't control, or if he had literally, at some point, got off on it), because he'd known that there was something about Rodney's reaction to the whole thing that he had responded to. Up until that moment, touching Rodney's shoulder and remembering what it felt like to have Rodney's hands on him, even incidental and fleeting, he'd been ignoring it pretty successfully.

It didn't mean anything. Rodney's reaction was based on a predilection for spanking, and John's reaction was based on Rodney's reaction, and even if John was a casual sex kind of guy -- which he wasn't, and never had been, despite Rodney's assessment of the matter -- he'd know that basing even casual sex on that particular combination of factors was just idiotic. And McKay was McKay, which just made it laughable. The two of them were already decidedly not casual. They were team.

John hadn't spent any time thinking about Rodney sexually before Kurn, and was fairly certain the reverse was equally true. He'd become very practical about the people he worked with about a month into bootcamp; there were people you were allowed to want and people you weren't, and it was far better for everyone involved if you never even looked at those you weren't allowed to want in a way that encouraged speculation. He recognized it as compartmentalization, and Heightmeyer would probably not approve, but he was okay with that. It worked for him.

He wasn't even sure that Rodney had any interest in guys under normal circumstances. In spite of that, he knew what would have happened if he'd given into the urge to taste Rodney's mouth, which was, ironically, like a very sharp slap in the libido, because he also knew what the aftermath of that would've been like. He knew Rodney, and it would have been awkward and awful and guilty, both of them certain they'd taken advantage, both of them correct to some degree.

It was impossible and impractical, and just asking to complicate the situation even further. The smart thing to do was to keep operating under the premise that Rodney drinking the eilisum would return everything to mostly-normal, and what remained weird would eventually fade in importance given a few months, even if John would still know what Rodney's arousal smelled like. Once all of the things that Rodney couldn't forget now had faded, there was a better-than-average chance that they'd both be grateful that John had resisted any and all licking impulses. And the impulses themselves were almost certainly transitory, and once Rodney had stopped falling over and making sex noises in John's vicinity, the urge to lick him would pass. And sure, it would pass a little faster, maybe, a little easier, if John himself were to also drink the eilisum, but he'd known almost from the beginning that he wouldn't be doing that.

Keenan had never said so, but John knew, nevertheless, that he had taken John's measure and judged that John wouldn't take the out when it was offered. Just something about the way he'd said it when he'd told John that if he chose to drink the eilisum, Keenan would brew it himself. And he hadn't been wrong. John never took the out when it was offered. He just didn't, and this was no different. He'd keep the things he'd got from Kurn, and he'd figure out a way to deal with them.

But curling his hand around himself and remembering the way McKay's breath felt, hot and fluttery, against his throat and the thin skin of his cock was not the way to start doing that, no matter how easy it would be.

**

It didn't actually occur to John that Rodney was avoiding him until after the alleged avoidance was well underway. Even on an average day, John only saw him a handful of times unless there was a mission scheduled, and a couple of those times were usually in passing. The team tried to eat together at least once a day, though they didn't always manage it. There was senior staff, but that wasn't an everyday occurrence (which was due in large part to Rodney, who'd brought a graph to the meeting sometime in the first month of the mission that demonstrated exactly how much time he was wasting every day having to be there). John wandered into Rodney's lab every other day or so, sometimes to turn things on, sometimes just to poke around and see what was going on, but most often to lure Rodney away from science with the promise of whatever culinary delights the mess hall had to offer that day.

For the first time in three days, however, John had things to get done, so he didn't even notice that he hadn't seen Rodney in passing or by chance in the mess. Rodney hadn't been in his lab when John had swung by on his way to grab something to eat, and hadn't been in the big lab either, when he'd stopped by there after not finding him in his own lab. Not for a while, anyway. Even if he had, he might not have realized what it meant.

It wasn't an average day, after all. Newly discovered kinda-command chair plus recovered-but-broken Ancient tech plus reams of new data downloaded from a wildly expanded Ancient database equaled absent Rodney. It was math so basic that John didn't even need to think about it to grasp it.

Sometime after briefing the team heading to Kurn (and just to make things more complicated, at least two of the engineers and one marine seemed to find The Planet of Corporal Punishment to be more funny than anything else, necessitating that John track them down one by one afterwards to impress upon them that no matter how amusing they found it, anyone incurring discipline on Kurn would end up Milky Way-bound before the bruising had faded), after his second McKay-free meal in the mess (counting breakfast), zero glimpses of McKay in the corridors (or overheard berating someone just out of sight), and his third fruitless trip to both labs, a different equation began to take shape in John's head. One that was also pretty basic, and John felt a little stupid for not considering it earlier.

Staggeringly embarrassing conversation in which more personal information than either of them had gotten from the other in more than two years in Atlantis plus Rodney McKay equaled militantly avoidant Rodney. And because Rodney was smart, and knew John, chances were good that he'd been counting on John grasping that first equation without considering the second.

John sighed and left the lab (again), ignoring the shifty looks he was getting from Zelenka, who undoubtedly knew exactly where Rodney was and had by now worked out that he was avoiding John. Not that Zelenka would comment on it. At least, not to John.

He kinda hoped Zelenka would give McKay an earful, though he figured after this morning's briefing, Zelenka might feel that Rodney avoiding John was justified.

It would be great, John thought, if things could be normal, just for five goddamned minutes.

Three seconds after he thought it, Carson said, "Colonel Sheppard? Might I see you in the infirmary for a wee moment?" in his ear. John stopped en route to... well, wherever he'd been going, he hadn't actually decided yet.

God. Damn. It. John thought.

"I'm on my way," John said, and changed direction.

The infirmary was dim and quiet. John would've thought it was deserted except for the low, murmuring sound of the big scanner coming from the far side of the infirmary, where it lived in a secluded nook and only came out when someone was nigh unto death, because -- according to Rodney -- it caused the ZPM to "hemorrhage power like an undergrad hemorrhages IQ points." John was only vaguely aware of the difference between the big scanner and any of the myriad other scanners; he only remembered anything about it at all because Rodney's bitter, bitter ranting on the subject -- when his suggestion that it be returned to the deserted lab in which it had been found due to its power-sucking ways had been soundly beaten down by Elizabeth's "bleeding-heart and misguided altruism" -- had caused him to bite through his bottom lip in an attempt to hold back laughter.

He could hear Carson as he got closer, but was caught completely flat-footed when he rounded the corner and saw Rodney standing next to him, their heads tipped close together while they looked at one of the monitors.

Rodney was sputtering, "What is this, some kind of voodoo-related pop-quiz? I'm perfectly healthy, thanks for noticing, and I don't need to get in the scanner, which shouldn't be frivolously utilized anyhow, considering the power consumption--"

"Rodney," Carson interrupted with a sigh, finally looking away from the viewscreen. "I don't know why you're so surprised, you were supposed to come in at least every twenty-four hours, for the sake of safety at the very least. It isn't at all like you to be so cavalier with your brain!" His mouth was tight with exasperation and John would've bet he was about two seconds from rolling his eyes, but he managed to sound cajoling rather than impatient when he added, "Just take off your clothes and get into the bloody scanner!"

Rodney narrowed his eyes at Carson, but his hands went to his science-team jacket and obediently unzipped, though not without muttering, "This had better not have anything to do with prurient curiosity, Carson."

This time, Carson did roll his eyes. "Yes, Rodney, because I've nothing better to do than abuse ten years of education and priceless Ancient technology in order to see you in your Mighty Mouse boxers."

"They were Danger Mouse boxers," Rodney hissed furiously, "and we were never going to speak of that!"

"Oops," Carson said, lips curling in an unrepentant smile that was both amused and threatening.

John found himself smirking, too. His chili pepper boxers suddenly seemed much less humiliating in light of recent developments, and Rodney was uttering a stream-of-consciousness flurry of invective while he folded his jacket and set it aside, and those were always funny. Things felt normal for the first time since Kurn.

For about six seconds.

Then Rodney jerked his shirt abruptly over his head, revealing a broad expanse of pale, naked back.

"Er," John said, and turned hastily away. "Why is he getting naked?" he demanded, and really, there had already been too many weird moments involving less than optimal amounts of clothing in his day.

"Because that scanner doesn't like clothes," Rodney sneered caustically, and John could imagine the accompanying eyeroll even if he couldn't see it. "It scans on a sub-molecular level, so clothes are too dense and cause interference. Which you'd know, if you hadn't been nearly-dead both times you've been in it."

"I've been in it?" John asked, genuinely surprised; Rodney ignored the question, and John threw a glance over his shoulder in time to see that Rodney was glaring at him over his shoulder.

"Ah, there you are, Colonel," Carson said mildly, but he was giving John the same look he'd been giving Rodney.

"What?" John asked. "I got mine scanned a bunch of times!"

"Aye, but not in the last thirty-six hours," Carson said, thoroughly disapproving, and John had to actually think about that because it felt a lot like he'd spent practically every waking moment in the infirmary in the last three days or so. But Carson was right.

He should have let that nurse scan his brain after the briefing, obviously.

Well, shit.

"You might as well 'get comfortable,' Colonel," Rodney said, and John could hear the smirk in his voice clearly.

He resisted the urge to ask Rodney if he hadn't seen enough near-nudity today. If there was one thing the two of them did not need to talk about, it was the fact that they were not going to talk about talking. He turned to glare at Rodney instead -- aware that Rodney probably wouldn't even notice, but feeling like he should go for it anyway, just on principle -- and took a clumsy and entirely involuntary half-step backward.

Rodney had stripped all the way down to his shorts (plain white, and John was oddly disappointed) and was folding his pants and ranting about the ambient temperature in the infirmary (didn't Carson know that this was where sick people came?), and all John could think about was that he somehow, in more than two years, had never seen Rodney even close to almost-naked. In fact, excepting that one time on ML1-978 (which didn't really count since he'd been unconscious for all but about twenty extremely sketchy minutes of that mission, and he only actually knew what he'd missed because he'd read the mission report later), he'd never even seen Rodney without a shirt.

Which, when he thought about it, seemed pretty damned unlikely considering the amount of skin he'd seen belonging to the other half of his team. He literally couldn't remember how many times he'd seen Ronon naked or mostly naked. Hell, he'd seen Teyla totally nude at least twice (once during actual combat, which he remembered as being simultaneously hot and completely terrifying). John had seen Lorne naked. Lorne's whole team, actually.

John had seen Kavanaugh naked.

And it almost went without saying that most of Atlantis had seen John in varying states of undress, what with all the trips to the infirmary and turning into a bug and whatnot.

How was it even possible that he'd been risking his life with McKay on a bi-weekly basis (on average: Rodney had a chart) for two years, and he had no idea whether his nipples were pale pink or dusky.

And it was unfair that Rodney was undeniably... appealing. He was thick all over, solid, and pale in a way that John's brain insisted was milky rather than pallid. All John could see were the muscles working under the smooth skin of his back as he folded his pants, the bunch and shift of his biceps, the oddly hairless and vulnerable backs of his knees, broad shoulders and heavily-muscled thighs, and even with his boxers on, there was no denying that Rodney had a truly exceptional ass.

Was he cut? It seemed ludicrous that John didn't know that, had never even thought about it. And, Jesus, he was staring, he knew he was and he couldn't stop it; he had a mental bet going with himself, ten to one odds that McKay's nipples were the same pale pink as his lips, soft and sweet as candy.

He was waiting for Rodney to turn around so John could see, so he would know, waiting impatiently and expectantly, weight shifted forward onto the balls of his feet, heels hovering a quarter-inch above the ground, waiting to... what?

He'd never find out (thank God); Carson said, "Up you go, Rodney," and John jerked like he'd been pinched and looked over at Carson, which gave him a much-needed moment to force himself to just settle the hell down. By the time he felt a little less like he was poised to leap, Rodney was already under the scanner, nipples safely concealed from John's brief descent into utter insanity. All that was visible of Rodney beneath the canopy of the scanner were his lower legs, slightly knobby knees down to oddly shapely feet. Carson was peering at the Ancient viewscreen with what appeared to be rapt attention, and it occurred to John to wonder when the hell he was going to stop having moments like these.

Thankfully, the scan took a minute or so -- much slower than the ones John had been subjected to previously, which were more or less scan-bam-thank-you-man. It was long enough for him to get it together, but not so long that he had to think too hard about exactly why this kept happening, and the fact that it didn't seem to be getting better now that he could push the memories from Kurn away when he needed to, but actually seemed to be getting worse. Or more frequent, at least.

The hum of the scanner changed in pitch and let out a little chirp to indicate that the scan was complete. The canopy began to lift away, revealing Rodney's thighs all the way up to the edge of his boxers before John managed to gather up enough willpower to avert his gaze. He had enough on his plate right now, what with the memory tea and the near-licking and the sudden awareness of the shapeliness of Rodney McKay's ass. The last thing he needed was to get a glimpse of something as apparently crazy-making as Rodney's nipples.

He immediately forgot about that resolution when Carson said, "Just settle, Rodney, I've got you. Deep breaths."

As soon as he said it, John became aware of Rodney's too-fast, too-harsh breathing, and snapped his head around to look at him.

"There we are," Carson said gently, body conveniently (or inconveniently, John honestly didn't know) blocking John's nipple sightline as he eased an arm under Rodney's shoulders and helped him sit up. "Better?"

"Yes, yes, I'm fine," Rodney rasped out, face flushed and still breathing heavily, but already visibly settling down, voice more wobbly than snappish. John frowned a little as Rodney closed his eyes for a few seconds; he was listing a little to one side, like he was dizzy, hand braced on the edge of the scanner, fingers curled hard enough around it to make the tendons in the back of his hand stand out beneath the skin. "Claustrophobia," he muttered bitterly; it came out sounding like a curse word, without the slightest edge of a whine in his voice. Then: "I hate this damn thing."

"I know you do," Carson said, still speaking gently, and handed Rodney his shirt.

Rodney dragged his shirt over his head, making his hair stand up crazily and destroying John's chances of resolving his mental bet. In light of the fine sheen of sweat John could see beading at Rodney's temples and the anxious vertical furrow between his brows, he couldn't really feel that disappointed about it. "Could I get a glass of water, Carson?" he asked, and rubbed at the sweat on his face with one hand without trying to make it seem like he was doing anything else, which spoke volumes as to how wigged he was.

"I got it," John said, because his obsession with Rodney's nipples was making him feel more than a little bit like a prick, considering the anxiety attack thing, and he wanted a couple of seconds without Rodney directly in his sight to think.

John filled a little paper cup with water from one of those weird plastic hospital pitchers that apparently spanned galaxies, and didn't try to pretend he wasn't a little freaked out as he handed it to Carson to pass to Rodney.

"And my pants," Rodney added, and then, as if to make up for several consecutive non-sarcastic utterings in a row: "I'm a little less inclined toward semi-public nudity than some."

Carson gave Rodney an odd sideways glance, then looked at John, brow furrowed in puzzlement.

John bit his lip to keep back a biting retort (because it was hardly public nudity when it was in his goddamned quarters), shook his head and shrugged one shoulder, pretending ignorance. He was inexplicably and aggravatingly stung by the comment, which was just. Rodney never got under his skin. Not like he did with other people, at least. What the hell?

John wondered briefly if his new obsession with McKay's nipples was likely to die of natural causes if he kept it up.

Then he wondered if his life was actually so fucked up that he was having this mental conversation with himself. He was disgusted to realize that it really was.

John sighed and peeled off his t-shirt and went to work on his pants; he was ready for Rodney to go back to avoiding him, and the most expedient means to that end was to let Carson scan him as quickly as possible. Rodney obligingly slid off the edge of the scanner and struggled into his own pants, taking a wide path around John while carrying his socks and shoes in one hand.

It didn't occur to him that there was all sorts of inconvenient Rodney-shaped baggage involved in him being nearly-nude in McKay's presence until he'd shoved his boots off and skinned down his BDUs. Carson said, "Jesus," -- though it was so Scottish as to come out more like Jaysus -- "Biro, get over here!" in the briskly effective tone he seemed incapable of producing except during a medical emergency, and brushed past John at a run.

John looked around in time to see Carson shoving an unsteady Rodney backward, one hand hooked efficiently under an elbow until he was leaning heavily against one of the examination tables, the other already working him over with a hand-held scanner that was not dissimilar to the one Rodney had found for John to take back to Kurn.

"I'm fine," Rodney muttered, but his eyes were fixed somewhere over John's shoulder and his color had gone hectic; it was no wonder Carson was worried. It was only the fact that John had become unfortunately familiar with the way Rodney wore lust over the last few days that kept John from worrying. Well, worrying about Rodney's health, anyway.

He managed to wrestle his pants the rest of the way off while he marveled at the surreality of being so indisputably familiar with Rodney McKay's hot, dark eyes and wet mouth. And, Christ, if he didn't start to think about something else right the hell now, he was going to embarrass himself mightily in front of his coworkers.

"Just let me see..." Carson said distractedly as he waved the hand-held around near Rodney. John jumped up onto the edge of the big scanner and cocked one knee to conceal everything between his breastbone and thighs.

Doctor Biro skidded to a halt next to Carson and Rodney, gaze snapping from Rodney to John -- with only a brief pause at finding him in his underwear -- before settling on Carson. "What do you need?" she asked, succinct and professional.

"I'm fine, Carson," Rodney snapped, and slapped at his hand where Carson was trying to unobtrusively steady him. "And stop touching me; being the resident voodoo-practitioner doesn't give you any kind of rights to my person."

"Good Lord," Carson said, scanner held motionless about two inches from Rodney's temple. John could see the agitated flash of the scanner screen from across the room. "Rodney, these readings are--"

"Are because of the tea," Rodney said, rolling his eyes and already sounding much more like himself. "Remember, brain currently under the influence of chemically induced flashbacks? Hello? Why is it I'm having to tell you this; isn't this the sort of thing you people are supposed to keep track of?" He waved the scanner away impatiently. "It's just a memory, it's nothing. I'm fine."

Carson blinked at Rodney, for a moment just looking flummoxed. "That was a memory?" Carson said, voice a little too slow to sound normal, a little too controlled. He threw an odd sideways look at John, frowning slightly, before he turned back to Rodney. "That's what happens when you remember something from the planet?"

Rodney just nodded, looking abruptly tired. "That wasn't even a very strong one; it's getting easier to stop them if I need to." He didn't look at John.

Carson threw another of those inscrutable looks in John's direction, and began, "Rodney--"

"Look, I'm just tired. I haven't been sleeping all that well, and if you don't need me here for anything else, I'll just." He waved a hand in the general direction of the door. "Honestly, I'm fine. I just want to go to bed."

Carson nodded slowly. "All right, then, if you're sure you're fine?" His tone made it a question, but Rodney just waved a dismissive hand at him, and stalked off without another word.

There were several seconds of silence that bordered on uncomfortable while Carson stared after Rodney, brows furrowed into a thoughtful frown. Uncomfortable for John, anyway; Carson appeared to be too wrapped up in whatever he was thinking to be aware of it. On the other hand, the discomfort made quick work of John's potentially embarrassing problem, which was great because the position he'd been sitting in was making his left foot go to sleep. He swung his leg down to dangle next to the other one and said, "Can we do this now? Rodney's right, you keep it pretty cold in here, Beckett."

He had a vague suspicion that Carson would pepper him with questions (about Rodney's flashback, about the memories in general), but he just said, "Aye, just--" His gaze settled on Biro, and he cocked his head. "Do you have time to see to Colonel Sheppard's scan, Doctor?"

Biro gave him a puzzled look, but nodded readily enough. "Thank you," Carson said absently, and walked away in the direction of his office, his eyes intent on the screen of the handheld scanner.

Biro said, "If you'd lie down, Colonel, this won't take more than a few minutes."

**

The truly fucked up thing of it, John decided, was that it was only goddamned dinner time.

There was no way he could get away with going back to his quarters to hide for the rest of the day. Not that he was truly considering it, even if it did seem the safest option. And even if he had been (in the back of his mind, in a sort of furtive, guilty way, since he'd never been the sort to run away and had always been comfortable with that fact), he was barely a hundred yards out of the infirmary when Zelenka hissed into his ear, "Colonel Sheppard, please, can I see you in the big lab."

He sounded so un-Zelenka-like that John actually stopped in his tracks in surprise. He tapped his earpiece, and said, "I'm on my way; what's the situation?" There was silence on the other end long enough for John to shake off inertia and spin on his heel, heading in the direction of the labs at a jog.

Zelenka eventually responded, speaking very quietly, with an extremely vague, "I believe Rodney may need some... assistance," and John went from jog to sprint immediately, because he couldn't really imagine what kind of assistance Zelenka could mean, but it sounded bad. And he didn't like the almost-whispering, like Zelenka didn't want to be overheard. It smacked of danger of the invasion variety, which was probably impossible, but made John's heart rate spike anyway.

The big lab occupied the entirety of the ground level of one of the towers on the central mass of the city; there were several smaller labs on the floors both above and below the big lab. Rodney's lab was one floor down, in a secured area. There really weren't many secured areas on Atlantis, or much need for them. The people who lived here were uniformly trustworthy. Still, there was a lot of Ancient tech, a lot of Earth tech, even, that could be dangerous if handled, in Rodney's words, by "the untrained, unwashed, and utterly brainless masses." Rodney spent about sixty percent of his time in 'his' lab -- though it was actually sizable enough for several people to work in, and Zelenka had complete access to it as well -- but claimed there were some projects that required either more supervision than he could maintain from the other lab, or more cooperative effort. So it wasn't unusual to walk into the big lab at any time and see McKay hunched over his laptop, berating various scientists, or both at once.

It was unusual to skid around a corner into the long, wide corridor off of which all the labs on this level branched, and see Rodney standing toe-to-toe with a marine. John didn't recognize him from the back, but after a few seconds of mentally thumbing through the duty roster for today, figured it had to be Lieutenant Mikelson.

The thing about Atlantis was, even the marines here were smart. The initial expedition had been loaded with military personnel with a huge cadre of secondary skills because everyone involved had been aware that they were taking a potentially one-way trip, and doubling and tripling up on essential know-how in every area was just good planning. Once they'd re-established contact with Earth, John had braced himself for the inevitable influx of less superior personnel, and had been pleasantly surprised when it hadn't happened. Eventually, after a few conversations with Lorne designed to elicit information without displaying too much of his vast ignorance, he'd decided that it was just the SGC. John hadn't worked in the SGC before the incident in Antarctica, so he hadn't quite realized that the SGC only recruited the best and the brightest, right down to the grunts guarding the doors. Once he did, he spared a moment of gratitude, and then forgot about it.

Mikelson, for example, was a Second Lieutenant with a degree in Mathematical Engineering. He'd been doing post-grad work toward his Master's when the SGC had offered him a tour in Atlantis, and he'd taken some time off from school to take them up on it. The science and military contingent had been mixing and matching pretty much at will since the second week they got here.

There had been very few problems stemming from that sort of integration, and John thought the whole thing was more or less a successful field experiment. Hell, he had more trouble with the marines getting bored and antsy and getting into fights among themselves than he'd ever had with any of his people working in the labs. The whole thing was more or less voluntary, and dependent on each individual's skills, so everyone doing it was doing it because they wanted to be there, not because they had to be.

Mikelson hadn't been here more than a few months, and John didn't know him well, but he had volunteered for lab duty less than a week after the Daedalus left him in Atlantis, and had seemed pleased as punch to get the chance. He hadn't heard a negative thing about the Lieutenant so far, so had assumed things were working out.

Except it sure didn't look that way right at the moment; Rodney was flushed and furious and glaring fiercely enough that he didn't seem to notice John standing there.

He snapped, "Unless she was stark naked and had 'feel me up, Lieutenant' written across her tits in sharpie, you're out of here. The men and women on my staff are some of the most brilliant minds in science, and you and every other person on this base will treat them with professional courtesy and respect or I will see you shipped back to the Milky Way so fast the intergalactic jet lag won't ever wear off. Now get the hell away from my lab, and don't come back."

Mikelson took a step forward, fists clenched and leaning aggressively, firing back with, "You can't do that! I do good work here, and I didn't try anything with her that half the marines on this base haven't already done!"

"I don't care if you're halfway to building a functional ZPM, and she's done everyone on Atlantis plus half the Pegasus Galaxy, you misogynistic fuck," Rodney snarled, and John's eyebrows tried to shoot right off his face in surprise. Mikelson, who was either desperate or stupid, took another threatening half-step forward. Rodney laughed mirthlessly. "I think you'll find that I have absolute authority over whether or not you do rotations in my labs, Lieutenant," and John saw that his hands were knotted into fists at his sides. "Now, I don't have time for this crap. Why don't you dredge up your three functioning brain cells and exercise an iota of common sense by leaving before I call Colonel Sheppard and he assigns you to KP or lavatory duty, or whatever it is you military monkeys get for being idiots."

Mikelson hissed, "You've got a lot of fucking nerve, talking about respect, Doctor," sneering the last word into a slur. "Like everyone on this base doesn't know you treat Sheppard like your own personal bodyguard, now you want him to be your fucking hall monitor, too? The military commander of Atlantis? But that's what you do, isn't it, hide behind him and let him put his ass on the line, let everyone else put their asses on the line because you're not man enough to clean up your own--"

He didn't get to finish that sentence because Rodney twisted on his left foot, hauled back with his right arm, and planted his fist squarely in the middle of the six-foot-four marine's face. John could hear the crunch of bone from where he was standing, and winced. It was a textbook perfect punch, shoulder behind it just the way Ronon had been trying to teach Rodney to do it. Mikelson went down like Rodney had taken out his knees rather than his nose, and Rodney stood over him, practically vibrating with rage, looking like he was seriously considering kicking Mikelson in the head a few times since he was down there anyway.

John started forward reflexively just as Mikelson shoved himself up to one knee, the lower half of his face a bloody mask, and growled, "I guaran-fucking-tee you that not a single marine is ever lifting a finger to protect your fat ass again, you cocksucker." He staggered up the rest of the way to his feet and took a step toward Rodney, who sensibly took a step back, and John regretfully resisted the urge to sweep Mikelson's feet out from under him and beat his head against the floor repeatedly.

"Is that so, Lieutenant?" he asked quietly instead, and Mikelson spun like a top to face him.

"It's about time you showed up," Rodney sniped, albeit a little shakily, and then added: "Get this moron away from me before I disintegrate him."

"Sir--" Mikelson started, and dropped his hand away from his face; blood was still pouring from his visibly broken nose.

"Shut the fuck up, Lieutenant," John said, and turned to Rodney, who looked a little gray. "How's your hand? That was a hell of a punch, McKay."

"It's fine," Rodney said flatly, and didn't meet John's eyes.

John frowned, but chose not to press. It wasn't every day that Rodney punched someone in the face, after all. He tapped his earpiece. "Cheema, I need a security team outside the big lab."

"Sir!" Mikelson objected.

"I believe your commanding officer ordered you to shut the fuck up, Lieutenant," Lorne said grimly, and John turned around to find both Lorne and Cheema standing two yards away, Lorne looking pissed as hell and Cheema looking icily displeased. Either one of them heard Zelenka call John, or Cheema had seen something she didn't like on one of the security feeds, John figured.

"When did you get here?" John drawled, taking special care not to look as though he was holding in reserve the possibility of kicking Lieutenant Mikelson in the face until he lost consciousness.

"Just in time," Lorne said, giving John a long, appraising look.

"Could you really disintegrate him, Doctor McKay?" Cheema asked, looking intrigued. "I should like to see that."

Rodney blinked at her, and then managed a very small and not very steady smile; he still looked way too tense and pale. "In a just universe, I'd be able to disintegrate him with the fury of my immense brain, but in this universe I'd have to build something first." He paused. "Not that I couldn't, you understand, but that was a statement expressing desire rather than actual intent."

"Of course," Cheema agreed solemnly. She turned to John expectantly.

Huh, John thought, because he was almost, almost sure that she'd done that on purpose. He was good at recognizing 'distract Rodney from being freaked/scared/insulting' maneuvers. At least half the time, he was the one employing them.

"House arrest, Havildar Cheema." He turned to Lorne. "And if you could get the Lieutenant's walking papers ready, Major?"

Lorne snapped off a quick salute. "Yes, sir." And then he ruined it by giving John another long, significant look that John didn't have the slightest idea how to interpret.

"Sir, if I could explain," Mikelson started again, but let the sentence die when John turned on him.

"Explain what, Lieutenant?" John asked, deliberately keeping his voice both soft and bland. "Explain that you sexually harassed and physically assaulted a member of the science team?" John took a step toward him, and Mikelson took a matching step back, which just raised John's hackles even further. "You want to explain to me why when asked to leave the lab by a member of the command staff, you instead slandered one of his subordinates and then verbally assaulted him?" He took another step forward, and Mikelson's back hit the opposite wall of the corridor; John had to count slowly to fifty by primes to keep himself from fisting his hands in Mikelson's jacket and jamming him up against the wall hard enough to make his teeth rattle and his bloody nose throb. "You're somehow going to justify a member of the military command structure of this goddamned base threatening Doctor McKay's well-being in the field? To me? You think you can offer a reasonable excuse for being two seconds away from physically assaulting him when I interrupted you? Is that what you want to explain, Lieutenant?"

"Sir," Mikelson said, and John snarled,

"Shut. The fuck. Up. Havildar Cheema is going to escort you to your quarters, Lieutenant. Major Lorne is going to accompany her, and then get started on the paperwork that will get your stupid ass out of my city, and most likely court-martialed. You're going to go with them quietly, because so-help-me-God, soldier, if you don't, I'm going to put you in the goddamned infirmary until the Daedalus comes to get you. Is that in any way unclear to you?"

"Sir, no, sir," Mikelson snapped, face pale and covered in tacky blood, eyes wide. The salute wasn't the best John had ever seen, but he didn't want to look at Mikelson for one more second, so he let it go.

"Get him the hell out of here," John snapped, and Cheema was right there with a pair of zip-cuffs; Mikelson balked and looked like he wanted to object, but he threw a glance at John and apparently decided against it. "Cheema, I want two men on his door. The Lieutenant is not to have visitors. Lorne, I want a mandatory briefing scheduled day after tomorrow; this bullshit better never happen again."

Lorne gave him a tight nod, threw a quick look at Rodney, and then followed Cheema, who was already bustling Mikelson off down the hall.

When he turned back to Rodney, he was leaning against the wall by the door of the lab, head tipped back to rest against it, eyes closed. He still looked far too pale.

"Hey, buddy," John said, and realized with surprise that he was fucking livid with rage, that his hands were shaking with it, that he had an almost irresistible desire to see Mikelson in the infirmary with as many cuts, contusions, and broken limbs as John could inflict without actually killing him. Rodney had both palms flat against the wall behind him; the knuckles of his right hand were already starting to swell. He really should get some ice on them. "You okay?"

"He touched Miko," Rodney said dully, without opening his eyes. "If I'd walked in ten seconds later, I wouldn't have known a thing about it." He grimaced. "I heard her tell him to 'please excuse me' twice."

"We don't have to do this now, Rodney," John said quickly, because he didn't want any details from Rodney. He was going to have to interview the staff in the lab, and Mikelson, and eventually Rodney, but right now Rodney looked a lot like he was about to keel over, and there was no hurry. "Why don't you go see if Carson can give you something for your hand and then get some rest; I can take care of things here."

Rodney opened his eyes and rolled his head to one side to fix John with a narrow look. "She's Japanese, and very shy," he said. John wasn't sure what to say, so he said nothing. Rodney gave a little huff of impatience, but added, "It isn't in her nature to draw attention to herself, or come to someone if she's scared." He closed his eyes again. "I have no idea how long this has been going on, John. What if he...?"

"Rodney," John interrupted, ignoring the physical start at hearing Rodney use his first name. He could count on one hand the number of times Rodney had called him John, and still have enough fingers left over to strum a guitar. "I'll take care of Miko. You just--"

"Yes, of course," Rodney sneered quietly. "You take care of everything, very white-knight to the rescue, et cetera." He waved one indolent hand without opening his eyes.

John opened his mouth, and then shut it again. Since there wasn't a good way to respond to that, and it bugged him more than he wanted to think about, the best thing to do was say nothing at all. Except he heard himself sigh out, "Damnit, Rodney," anyway.

Rodney opened his eyes without looking in John's direction. "Yes, well. A tiger and his stripes I suppose," he muttered. "I'm going to see Carson."

**

John spent three hours with the science team, most of that with Miko, who was too polite to say anything outright accusatory and thus was difficult to interview. About halfway through the rest of the staff, Zelenka brought him a tray from the mess and coffee in Rodney's gigantic travel mug. The look he gave John was both approving and concerned, and John waved him away with a smirk and a shrug.

John delegated Mikelson's interview to Lorne. It was the kind of thing that would normally get Lorne to grumbling good-naturedly about passing the buck, but this time all he said was, "I'm on it, sir."

John suspected that Lorne didn't think leaving John alone in a room with Mikelson was a good idea any more than John did.

Two hours after he finished in the labs, he had a report for Elizabeth, which he chose to hand-deliver. He watched Elizabeth's face become grim and still while she read it, and managed not to laugh out loud when she got to the part where Rodney punched Mikelson and her eyebrows shot up toward her hairline. He knew just how she felt.

When she finished, she folded her arms on top of her desk and gave John an assessing look; she looked disturbingly like Lorne when she did that.

"Do you want me to take care of Rodney's interview?" she asked, and John let himself sigh in relief.

"Yeah, I do," was all he said; from her expression, she'd already thought through at least some of the reasons why it would be a bad idea for John to do it. She was pretty smart, after all.

She didn't ask, though, for which John was grateful. She just gave a brisk nod, and said, "I'll handle it."

After several seconds of awkward silence, John managed a sincere, if slightly strangled, "Thanks, Elizabeth."

She gave him a tiny smile and a sardonic eyebrow. "I'm his direct superior, John. I'm not actually doing you any favors."

"Yeah," John agreed, even though they both knew she was.

"I know this isn't something you care to discuss, John," she began carefully, her expression somewhere between worry and that mulish, set look she got when she was determined to butt in anyway, "but. Are you and Rodney... all right?"

John rubbed a hand over his face. There was no real answer to that question, and he suspected she knew it. "Sure," he finally said, because that was the only possible answer.

She nodded, and John fled her office and the gentle sympathy on her face.

**

After that, John said fuck being stoic, and hid in his quarters until he was tired enough to go to sleep, and to hell with feeling guilty about it. Considering his lack of sleep the night before, that actually wasn't that long. Unfortunately, that meant he was awake and restless well before dawn, too early for even Ronon or Teyla to be awake.

He dressed in cut-off sweats and a t-shirt and went for a run, one both longer and more leisurely than the ones he normally took with Ronon; by the time he made it back to his quarters, other people were up and moving around the halls, and Teyla answered her comm right away when John called to inquire about a workout.

When he got to the gym, she was already there, hair tugged back into a ponytail with a ragged strip of leather, eyes still a little sleepy.

"Oh, hey. It could have waited..." John began, and she poked him gently in the belly with one of her sticks.

"I was not asleep," she assured him, smile tugging gently at her lips. "I merely had not managed to convince myself of the necessity of no longer being horizontal."

John snorted and fetched his sticks, whirling them thoughtfully. Teyla mirrored him, the two of them circling the room, and each other, slowly, unhurriedly. She lunged and swept in, and John knocked her stick aside easily, but didn't fall for the faux-opening she'd left him. He was familiar with that trick from her, and almost always fell for it anyway, less because he didn't recognize it than because every time he saw it, he was optimistically certain that he'd be quick enough to take advantage of it in spite of the set up. She arched a brow and smiled, tipping her head slightly in acknowledgment of his unusual restraint.

"You are awake early this morning," she noted, spinning a stick across the back of her hand, dodging left and batting John's exploratory jab away with the other stick. "Did you not sleep well?"

Which was a fair question; he wasn't known as a particularly early riser in spite of the demands of being the military commander of Atlantis. His team, at least, was aware of the fact that given the opportunity, he liked to sleep in.

"Nah, I actually went to bed early last night," he told her, and danced in just close enough to bat one of her sticks out of the way and slap her lightly on the wrist with his other stick, taking advantage of his longer reach -- which, really, was one of the very few advantages he had over Teyla -- to stay out of reach of her retaliatory swing. "Woke up a little earlier than usual," he added, dodging her whirling advance breathlessly, parry, parry, duck, before managing to poke her in the shoulder with one stick and bat away blows from both of her sticks at the same time.

She took a step back, breathing heavily, both brows arched in question. "You are angry this morning," she said, not frowning, but looking thoughtful.

John took his own step back, also breathing hard, and considered his answer. He was angry, yeah, and it didn't surprise him at all that she could see it. He rolled one shoulder in a shrug. "Is that a problem?" he asked, careful to make it sound like an actual question, like he meant it, rather than as a verbal deflection.

The thing was -- and yes, he was aware that it was pathetic and ridiculous at the same time -- that the beauty of talking to Teyla was that he didn't actually need to do much in the way of talking. It wasn't just that she knew him well and was intuitive, although that was part of it. It was more that she was the only woman John had ever met that didn't expect him to be anything other than what he was. That she knew he wasn't comfortable with certain things, and didn't expect him to be. That she was willing to listen to what he did say, and let that be enough.

She smiled a little more sharply than was usual for her, and surged forward, a series of rapid, snapping swings that forced John to bend and twist and sweat to the limit of his abilities to hold her back. When she stepped back again, circling, giving them both a chance to recover their breath, she merely said, "You know it is not."

John nodded and sprung forward, muscles sliding strongly, burning a little as he put everything he had into keeping Teyla on the defensive, reveling a little in the ability to manage it, even if only for a minute; when he fell back, she pursued, grinning, and John held her off more with brute strength than anything else, until she skimmed sideways in one of those low, fluid slides that John had never been able to mimic and slapped him hard across the belly. "Ow," he managed once he got his breath back, watching her stalk lazily around him, slim and barefoot and beautiful, face glowing with honest sweat and affection. It was abruptly easy to say, "McKay punched a marine in the face last night."

She fell back a little further, sticks swinging idly at her sides. "I had heard of the incident," she admitted, watching him as he straightened and whirled the stick in his left hand.

John wasn't surprised that she'd heard; all of Atlantis probably knew about it by now. He swung in low, and she leapt nimbly over the sweep, anticipated his follow-up, and avoided it by planting the tip of one of her sticks against the ground and pulling some kind of weird, cartwheel-like maneuver out of her ass.

"Jesus, that's cheating," John gasped as he beat back a flurry of blows that he hadn't been expecting from that direction at all, and she laughed at him and fell back to circle some more.

"From my understanding of the situation, Doctor McKay had ample reason to react as he did," she remarked almost casually, tipping her chin just enough for John to read the unasked question.

"He did," John agreed, and meant it. He whirled one of his sticks a little. "It was a good punch, too; Ronon would have been proud."

She gave a little nod, but qualified it with, "Ronon is already proud of Rodney, as am I. He has done much in the last two years to be proud of."

It gave John pause, because he wasn't sure what she was getting at exactly, but knew there was something there beyond the words. Teyla didn't say things just to say them. But he wasn't sure what it was, so he just said, "Of course he has," because hidden meaning or not, he agreed implicitly with the sentiment as expressed. It took him another exchange, this one including a skin-of-his teeth escape from a stick to the back of the head before he got it.

"I'm not pissed at Rodney," he told her, once they were back to circling, which was more or less true. Not about that, anyhow.

She smiled a little, and he smiled dopily back.

"That is good," she said, and whacked him on the back of his hand, sending one of his sticks flying.

He scowled, but pressed forward, which seemed to take her by surprise (no mean feat, in his experience), and got her once across the thigh before retreating, trying to look for his other stick without taking his eyes off her. She didn't give him the chance, of course, keeping him moving until he caught sight of it just behind her to the left. She arched a brow at his scowl, and came at him with both sticks whirling, an attack John didn't really have any hope of withstanding with only one stick of his own, but attempted anyway. He was as surprised as she was when he managed to deflect one of her sticks with his, catch the other in his free hand (which stung like hell), and jerk her in close enough to hook an ankle around one of hers, sending her down to the mat on her back with John half-kneeling on her chest.

"Holy shit!" John said.

She shoved him off and laughed, bright and uncomplicated. "That was well done, John," she said warmly, accepting his offered hand and letting him help her up, though she almost certainly didn't need help. She kept his helping hand, turning it palm up to examine it. "Hm. This will bruise."

He grinned. "It was totally worth it," he told her honestly, and she laughed again.

"Perhaps, but you should have Doctor Beckett look at it before the mission."

He nodded, feeling better, easier, than he had in days, and not just because he'd actually managed to get Teyla down to the mat.

"Excellent." She let go of his hand and placed it on his shoulder instead, and he met her halfway, ignoring the now-drying sweat on both their foreheads. She smelled sweaty and warm and familiar.

"Thanks, Teyla," he said.

Even with his eyes closed, he could feel her smile. "You are most welcome, John."

**

John was in the mess, halfway through an omelet the size of his head, when Havildar Cheema sat down across from him. It was so unprecedented that he froze mid-chew to stare at her. It might have gone on for some time if Cheema hadn't been the sort to get right to the point.

"I was trained in the functions of the control chair when I became the Chief of Security for Atlantis," she told him. "I have no particular skill at it."

It looked like it pained her to admit it. John finished chewing, thinking hard. "Not the same thing."

She gave him one of the familiar long, cool looks that John had decided meant she was thinking, though he didn't have the first clue what about. If he went by the expression on her face -- or lack thereof -- it was probably about where she could hide the body. "I don't understand," she finally said.

John grinned. "The defense cathedra is for people who think in spaces, Havildar. The communications cathedra is for people who think in numbers."

She stared at him for long seconds. "You operate the defense cathedra exceptionally well, I am told."

John shrugged. "I'm a pilot. I learned to think in spaces as well as numbers a long time ago."

She nodded thoughtfully. "I would like to do this."

John touched his earpiece. "Sheppard to Weir. You got a few minutes?"

**

The communications cathedra was under the northeastern section of the city, which was largely unexplored. The two marines guarding the door to the room saluted John and gave Cheema an informal nod. John wondered how that worked -- Cheema wasn't exactly an informal person, in John's experience -- but didn't ask. He wasn't ever going to be on of those COs that messed with shit that worked just because they could.

Communications felt a lot less like an oddly-shaped closet than city systems did. The room was surprisingly square, four walls with 90-degree corners, which wasn't common for Atlantis. It was clean and empty aside from the cathedra itself, no tables, cupboards, dead plants, or anything else. As per usual, the moment John stepped foot inside the room went a little brighter, but nothing else happened, so John ignored it. He raised his eyebrows at Zelenka in silent question.

"I believe that Rodney is still sleeping, Colonel. He was in the lab for much of the night. I would prefer not to wake him."

John sighed, because of course Rodney was up half the night when they were going off-world in a few hours. But he just said, "Works for me," and turned to take a long look at the communications cathedra. Like city systems, it was familiar enough that the differences were glaring. It was already wired into a couple of laptops, and this time there were two naquadah generators shoved into one corner of the room.

"Havildar Cheema," Elizabeth said, giving Cheema a nod. "I can't tell you how pleased I was when Colonel Sheppard told me you'd expressed an interest in one of the cathedrae. As you know, our contingent of gene carriers with the skills to use the cathedrae is quite likely to be insufficient to our needs."

"I am happy to be of assistance, Doctor Weir," Cheema said, though the look she gave John was knowing.

"Radek was just telling me that he believes that at worst, this cathedra will draw power at a similar rate as the city systems cathedra," Elizabeth told them. "That gives us some latitude with the amount of time we can use it, but I don't want power usage bleeding over onto the ZPM without Rodney's go-ahead, so let's keep it short."

"At worst?" John asked Radek, who grinned and bounced up on the balls of his feet.

"Yes, well, this cathedra is designed primarily to interface with the city's security system and sensor arrays, both internal and external," he told them. "Both of these systems have been up and running to their apparent capacity for some time. Thus, is possible that the cathedra itself will cause very little change in the amount of power consumed. It is only a theory, but the data from Rodney's restructuring of the code governing the function of the main hydroponics lab yesterday suggests that the cathedra itself drew very little power except when being used actively. I believe much of the power expenditure recorded when you used the cathedra was due to initialization, Colonel. If data from this test is corroborative, it becomes much more possible for us to use cathedrae in the manner in which they were intended, which is to say nearly any time we wish. We will still be forced to regulate actual repairs, but--" He bounced again.

"But you'll have unlimited access to the data and the passive functions of the cathedrae," John concluded, and Radek bounced again, his face threatening to split open from the force of his grin.

"Rodney will have kittens!" he announced happily.

John snorted. "Great. Why don't I initialize this so he can get started on that."

"Actually," Elizabeth said, and gave him a half-guilty look. "I was thinking Havildar Cheema should attempt to initialize the cathedra."

John shrugged. "Sure." He stepped back and waved Cheema around him. "Knock yourself out," he invited. It made sense to know if John was going to have to initialize every one of them, actually. And if it turned out someone else could do it, then he wouldn't have to worry about a schedule for bringing them all online.

Cheema gave John a long look. "I have never initialized anything."

John shrugged again. "It really isn't that hard. Just sit down, and--" He paused, trying to figure out how to articulate something that was beyond verbalization. "Just. Think about where we are in the solar system, Havildar," he said finally. He could practically feel Elizabeth looking at him, but chose not to look back.

Cheema gave him one of her trademark inscrutable looks, but sank down obediently into the chair.

John could feel the pulse of it gearing up through the soles of his feet, and while it didn't come online as quickly as city systems had for him, or as nova-bright as it had for Rodney, it was obvious that her gene was strong enough. The cathedra tipped back, taking a wide-eyed Cheema with it, and slowly began to glow white-blue. It made a low noise as the glow grew, almost a hum, and then a louder pulse-pulse-pulse answered from the walls and ceiling, and viewscreens -- ten or twelve of them -- descended from the ceiling. The chaired hummed a little louder, and then John had to jump back out of the way of the footrest as the whole thing rotated twenty-five degrees or so.

"Oh," Cheema said, and Lantea's solar system appeared abruptly on the screen that she was now facing. A second later, the other screens flickered to life, this time showing more familiar scenes, the mess and the armory; John recognized them as views from Atlantis' security cameras.

"If you would try not to rotate again, it would be appreciated," Radek said from the floor, where he was trying to sort out the wires the movement of the cathedra had tangled up and eyeballing the screen of one of the laptops simultaneously. "Power usage for initialization was as projected; additional usage is minimal thus far."

Elizabeth's gaze was fixed on the display of the solar system. "Wow," she said simply.

John silently agreed with her.

"I am able to access all security protocols," Cheema said, and John saw that she'd tipped her head back and the cathedra's neural interface had expanded to cradle the back of her head, all the way around to her temples. She looked, John decided, a little bit like Lobot. With hair. John followed her gaze to the ceiling, and wasn't even slightly surprised to see that it was one giant screen. "Also the city sensors, both short and long range, and several hundred quarantine and lockdown features." Her gaze flickered in John's direction. "I will prepare a report."

John grinned. "You do that, Havildar. In the meantime, I've got a mission to prepare for, if you folks don't need me here?"

**

Which wasn't strictly true, since they weren't going to Kurn for at least two more hours because of the time difference. John made it a point to make it as true as possible by visiting the locker room and meticulously checking through his mission gear, and then reviewing the briefing materials one last time along with the roster of personnel for this visit, making mental notes on who to keep an eye on.

The alternative was to admit that it felt weird to be doing things with one of the cathedrae again without Rodney's presence, and he'd just as soon not draw Rodney's wrath by hanging around. Things were weird enough already.

It didn't take much more than half an hour, no matter how slowly he repacked his gear, so he headed back to his quarters for a shower and BDUs. He sat on the end of his bed to shove his feet into his boots, and then just sat there for a while trying not to think about Kurn, both in the past and future sense, and not really succeeding.

It was freaking him out to be going back there. Things had been fucked up since they'd come back, and John couldn't help the feeling that the change was irreversible, irrevocable. And yes, in the grand scheme of things -- Replicators and Genii and Wraith, oh my -- having things fucked up between him and Rodney didn't exactly have galaxy-spanning implications, but.

But it fucked him up, left him floundering, and he hated feeling like that. It was obvious, regardless of what he'd been trying to make himself believe, that things were not going to go back to the way they were before, even if Rodney did what John wouldn't, and drank the eilisum.

Nothing would ever change the fact that this had happened, and John couldn't see a future in which it didn't color the way he and Rodney acted around one another. It wasn't like Rodney would forget everything, even with the eilisum, and it was just one more thing. As if living in another galaxy didn't already put them all practically in one another's pockets half the time.

Just one more thing.

**

He wasn't a freak about checking his email the way McKay was, so it was pure chance that he even got the message. Okay, maybe not pure chance, since he was killing time before Kurn and the actual plan had been Diablo-related. But when he booted up his laptop, his mail client loaded automatically. This wasn't actually standard, but a McKay-centric modification, since Rodney seemed to feel that John didn't check his email anywhere near often enough unless prompted by a screen that wouldn't let him access anything else on the laptop until he'd cleaned up his inbox. On the one hand, annoying. On the other hand, he got yelled at by Elizabeth and the SGC a lot less since Rodney set it up.

Right at the top of his inbox -- another little modification from Rodney, his emails were always at the top of John's inbox -- was an email from Rodney with the subject line: Do not ignore this; I know where you sleep, Sheppard.

John snorted softly and double-clicked obediently.

For an email from Rodney, it was almost terrifyingly succinct.

I need you for something in the lab. Come find me the instant you get this.

It was timestamped 5:01 a.m., which made it about ten or fifteen minutes after John had left for his run this morning.

His watch said it was ten minutes after ten in the morning, and John pondered the logistics of waking Rodney up after five hours of sleep. Any other time he wouldn't have hesitated -- sometimes Rodney, like John himself, got only five hours of sleep even on the good days -- but he knew just how little McKay had actually slept since they'd got back from Kurn, and he wasn't crazy about waking him if he could get a couple more hours in before the mission. On the other hand, Rodney's email. It was short enough to actually feel out of character from Rodney. Obviously it hadn't been important enough that Rodney had called him, but.

He compromised by heading to Rodney's lab first. Zelenka still wasn't there, which meant the cathedra test was probably going well. The piece of tech Rodney had sent his team to retrieve was on a table in the middle of the room, the whiteboard that normally lived there shoved back against the wall to make space. There were snippets of wire and several tools scatted about the surface of the table as well, which spoke of something in progress. Rodney wasn't exactly tidy, but he was more careful with his tools than the mess indicated, unless it was something he intended to get back to quickly.

John could feel the device when he directed his attention to it, but could tell immediately that it wasn't working, or at least wasn't working entirely correctly. It was like a flickering light bulb in his head, or a radio caught between two stations, broadcasting gibberish and static. Probably that was what Rodney wanted him for.

He resisted the urge to fondle it to see if he could figure out what was wrong with it, or at the very least what it did.

Contrary to popular opinion, John could learn.

Rodney's gigantic travel mug was sitting next to his closed laptop, and John appropriated it without a second thought and headed to the mess.

If he was going to wake Rodney, he wanted fortification at hand, and coffee first thing in the morning was likely to keep Rodney from being too horrendously cranky. Or that was the theory John was working under, anyway; he hoped the hell it worked. He wasn't sure he could take too many more conversations like the one outside the lab last night.

Just thinking about it made John grimace and want to kick Mikelson in the face twenty or so times.

Rodney answered the door in a t-shirt and boxers. White ones. Apparently Danger Mouse was getting no love lately. His hair was smashed flat on one side, and there were sheet wrinkles impressed into his left cheek. He was sleep-flushed and bleary-eyed, and yet freakishly ninja-like as he lunged for his travel mug, snatching it out of John's hand before John had even finished saying, "Rise and shine, McKay."

He gulped at it, though John knew for a fact it was still so hot that his esophagus was in danger of second degree burns. Only after several long, noisy swallows did he pause to glower balefully at John over the rim. "Where were you at ten to five in the morning?" he demanded croakily. "I knocked for eleven minutes."

John swallowed a pointed remark about breaking-and-entering, and said, "I woke up early and went for a run."

Rodney grimaced. "That's disgusting." Then he waved his travel mug past John, apparently indicating the corridor. "Lab now."

It was distinctly satisfying to be able to retort with: "Hold on just a minute there, Doctor No-Pants."

Rodney glared, but looked down at his bare feet for several seconds. "Hold this," he grunted, and shoved his travel mug into John's hands. Then he turned and went back into his quarters, the door whooshing shut behind him.

John sighed, but he was cautiously optimistic. While he wouldn't go so far as to say Rodney was in a bright and sunshiney mood, he didn't seem any crankier than usual. After the last four days, John would take what he could get.

He helped himself to Rodney's coffee while he waited, and less than two minutes later, the door whooshed open again. Rodney snatched the mug out of John's hand, now wearing crumpled BDU pants and the same t-shirt, his feet stuffed into his boots, the laces of which were stuffed into the tops rather than tied, and started off down the corridor.

"Come on, come on," Rodney muttered. "Keep up, Colonel."

John started after him, smirking just a little, because Rodney was practically being civil this morning, even if it was probably only because he wanted something from John.

They ended up in the lab, Rodney flipping open his laptop, eyes flicking carefully over the schematic on the screen. He turned his gaze to the tech on the table for a moment, glaring, and then gulped down several more mouthfuls of coffee.

"It looks right," he finally admitted, voice low and irritated. "Everything looks right, and when I try to initialize it, I can feel it trying to power up, but it doesn't actually do it. There has to be something I'm missing, something..." He let the sentence trail off and wandered over to the device, one hand hovering just above it.

"It feels like a short," John said, and Rodney gave him a sharp look. John shrugged one shoulder. "There's power there, but it's not getting where it needs to go." He thought of clogged fuel lines and loose connections.

Rodney waved him toward the device with a complicated gesture. "Try to initialize it," he demanded.

"What does it do?" John asked, but moved obediently over to the table and let his hands slide over the smooth surface of the device.

It was fairly large and complicated, John understood, for a free-standing piece of Ancient tech. A lot of the things they'd found -- and John's willing to bet that there will be more things, now, with the cathedrae available to them -- have been small and interesting, but not always obviously useful. Most of the good stuff, the really important stuff, was built right into Atlantis itself. Aside from the medical equipment, a lot of the devices they've come across so far have been, comparatively speaking, baubles. This device was two and a half by three or so feet, and shaped a little like a winged egg, with a long, somewhat oval-shaped main mass and two irregularly-shaped 'wings' that splayed out from either side.

"These are the controls, I think," Rodney told him, the fingertips of one hand tapping along one of the wing-things. "And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that it's portable, because the Ancients had control crystal driven outposts, DHD's on every planet with a gate, ships and satellites, and--" He paused and gave John a tight smile. "It repairs and reformats control crystals."

His tone was perfectly even, but John could see the manic gleam in his eyes, and he didn't have to wonder why. He literally couldn't count the number of times he'd heard McKay bitching about the impossible-to-reproduce crystals, which apparently contained elements that the chemistry labs couldn't identify, and he'd seen McKay hot-wiring things often enough, when they didn't have the right crystal or the best crystal for the job, making it work like he always made things work, even when it was "practically impossibly and ludicrously complex." Rodney pointed almost casually at an open munitions crate, lid propped up against one side, filled near to overflowing with damaged crystals.

"It requires extant material, but it's not like we have a shortage of things that don't work," Rodney said bitterly. "If I can make this work, my life becomes exponentially less complicated."

John gave him a nod -- aware that Rodney wasn't exaggerating even a little -- and then turned his attention to the device. He could feel it thrumming under his hands, shifting sluggishly at his insistence that it turn on, trying to oblige but not quite able.

"I can feel that something isn't right, but I can't tell what it is," he said, frustrated and oddly loathe to admit that he didn't think he could help. "I'm not an engineer, Rodney."

Rodney huffed out a breath. "I'm well aware of that, thank you." He circled the table to stand by John. "Think about the sequence of initiation," he said. "Try to get it to go step by step." There was a click and a whirr at John's elbow, and John glanced over to see Rodney holding the scanner he'd found to take to Kurn, pointing it at the device and peering at the screen.

"Hey!" John said indignantly. "That was in my quarters!"

"Yes, I'm a pilfering scoundrel," Rodney sniped, and jabbed a finger at John's face, snapped twice, and jabbed the same finger in the direction of the device. "I needed it. You can berate me later. Right now, just do as I tell you."

And, bizarrely, he sounded so normal, so Rodney that John found himself relaxing, the tension of the last several days retreating.

"I better get a candy bar for this," John muttered, scowling, and turned his attention back to the device.

Rodney snorted, but didn't bother with a reply.

John focused his intent, working hard to convey to the thing what he wanted it to do, and it somehow wound backward in his mind, going to the equivalent of the boot screen on his laptop. Beside him, Rodney breathed, "Right, just like that." John could see Rodney at the very edge of his vision, scanner in one hand, eyes still intent on the screen, and when Rodney reached out for the device John felt his fingertips distantly like they were slipping across John's skin over several layers of clothing. Rodney's fingertips did something technical, and the device let out a soft hiss and the top half of the egg split just above where John's hands were resting, sliding open to reveal the wires and crystals inside. Rodney reached in and nudged a wire to one side to peer at one of the softly glowing crystals.

John made a choked noise before he could bite down on it, part surprise and part dismay, and Rodney froze, gaze moving from the scanner to John. "Colonel?"

John shook his head and said, "Nothing, it's fine."

There was no way to explain it without sounding insane, and it wasn't exactly new. He'd felt something like it before, though only a couple of times, when both he and Rodney had touched the same tech at the same time. A thin frission of recognition. He'd felt it through the security console when Rodney had been fucking with Atlantis' systems from the cathedra. But he'd never been touching something small like this at the same time that Rodney was poking around inside it, and it was different, not the same at all. Not just the distant sense of connection, but rather like Rodney had nudged something inside John when he'd nudged the wire with a blunt fingertip. It didn't hurt, didn't actually feel either good or bad, but it did feel weird, almost intimate.

John ignored Rodney's furrowed brow and concentrated on the next stage of initialization, and after a few seconds Rodney turned back to the scanner. John focused fiercely on the brighter glow of the crystals with his eyes, and didn't let himself make a sound when Rodney slid more wires aside, leaning in so that his face was inches from the guts of the device, pausing every few seconds to check out the display on the scanner.

"Keep going," Rodney muttered absently, and John obligingly nudged the device a little further along in the sequence, and there, he could feel it going sluggish in his mind; he almost felt bad for it, honestly. He could feel the thing trying to obey John's gene and failing, feel it repeating the sequence again and again, like an engine that couldn't quite turn over.

"There," John said tightly. "This is where it stalls."

"Hm," Rodney said, and put the scanner down on the lab table to push the both hands into the open console. John bit his lip -- jesus, it felt like Rodney had his hands jammed under John's ribs or something, pressure and movement in places where neither of those things ought to be -- and sweat prickled at his temples and the back of his neck. He could see what Rodney was doing, wide thumb sliding along the top edge of each control crystal, slight pressure to ensure that each was seated correctly, one at a time, while he held wires out of the way with the backs of the fingers of the other hand, and he knew, could feel that the crystals weren't the problem, that it was something else further back, further down.

"It's not the crystals," John said, and wasn't really surprised to hear his voice come out taut and brittle. "It's deeper in, further back."

Rodney's hands froze, and he turned his head slowly to look at John. His eyes were narrowed, gaze almost cuttingly sharp, and John saw him take in the sweat on his forehead and the tension around his eyes. But Rodney was a fucking genius, thank God, and he really wanted to fix this thing, so he didn't ask. He just gave John a long look, and then turned back to the device, abandoning the control crystals and easing his hand further back. "I can't see what I'm doing," he groused, which John figured was probably why Rodney hadn't found the problem in the first place. "What kind of morons would make something so intricate in the shape of an egg, anyway?"

The bitching was oddly comforting. "Further," John grated out harshly, and Rodney moved his left hand entirely out of the way so that he could slide the questing fingertips of his right further in. John could feel it just behind his navel, the careful fumble of exploration, gentle pressure and John was not even a little surprised when his cock started to stir in his pants.

God. Damn. It. he thought, but then Rodney's questing touch was momentarily interrupted, an absence of sensation that was weirdly jarring, and John almost shouted, "Stop. There, right there."

Rodney froze again, and then grabbed the scanner with his left hand and stared at the screen for long seconds, frowning. "Can you tell what's wrong with it?" he asked, and John could feel Rodney's fingertips again for a few seconds, first on one side of the blank space in his interior perception, and then on the other. "It feels like it's seated, it's not loose or anything."

"I can't feel it at all," John said hoarsely. "It's like there's nothing there."

Rodney turned to look at him again, his gaze more thoughtful than cutting this time.

"Okay," he said, and did something with his hand that felt to John like he'd opened his fist in the middle of John's stomach, and John choked out a sound like a cough and Rodney frowned a little, but didn't actually stop what he was doing. Then he was pulling his hand out of the device, which was even more hopelessly bizarre than when he'd put it in, and then he was showing John something small and cylindrical -- it looked a little like an old-fashioned fuse -- and John felt weirdly hollow. "Take a break."

John let his hands fall away from the device, frankly relieved. He scrubbed a hand through his hair while Rodney took the little round thing over to a magnifier and peered at it. Rodney's coffee was still sitting on the edge of the table, so John invited himself to have some. After a few minutes of sipping at Rodney's coffee and watching him do something to the little round bit with what looked like long tweezers and a needle, John felt a little less weird.

He was almost relaxed when Rodney, without looking up, said, "What does it feel like?"

Tension twanged back into its rightful place at the base of John's neck, and he sighed. "Weird."

Rodney snorted.

"Thank you, that's extremely precise and scientifically helpful."

John shrugged uncomfortably.

"It's hard to explain."

Rodney cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Try."

John, aggravated and a little embarrassed, snapped, "It felt like you had your hand shoved up behind my ribs, McKay."

Rodney's mouth fell open, and he looked up, eyes wide and shocked.

"Seriously?" he asked after several seconds, his look of surprise morphing into one of intense interest. A mad scientist kind of look.

John rolled his eyes.

"Can we please just do this so I can never think about it again?" he growled.

Rodney's eyes widened again, and he turned back to whatever he was doing with the little fuse-thing.

John had worked his way through about half of Rodney's coffee when Rodney finally made a satisfied noise and brought the little cylinder back over to the work table. John turned back to the device and slid his hands into position, waiting, but Rodney hesitated with his hand not quite touching the device.

"Does it hurt?" Rodney asked, low and tight and hesitant, and John was surprised into looking over at him. The tension around Rodney's eyes and the unhappy slant of his mouth made John feel like an asshole.

"No, Rodney," he reassured. "It doesn't hurt. It's just... weird."

Rodney nodded once, though he didn't look reassured.

John was ready this time, and didn't make a sound when Rodney worked his hand back into the depths of the device. It didn't feel much different; the pressure and presence starting just behind John's ribs and working slowly downward until it fluttered behind John's navel. John relaxed slightly, relieved, until Rodney's wrist twitched sharply, and there was a small click that John heard with his ears a fraction of a second before he felt it in his brain and in his belly. The device flared, bright and vital, a pulse of rightness in the middle of his brain that was accompanied by an unexpected pulse of pleasure at the base of his spine. John gasped, hands tightening on the smooth surface of the device, and Rodney's hand went still.

"Colonel?" he asked.

"That's it," John breathed, "That did it."

And apparently the fact that the device wasn't fully powered had had some kind of dulling or dampening effect, because when Rodney's hand twitched John had to bite his lip to keep from yelping with surprise.

"Jesus," he hissed. "Get your hand out of there."

Rodney's hand twitched again, and he accused, "You said it didn't hurt!" even as he was easing his hand out, slow and careful even in his certainty that he was hurting John, because Rodney was pragmatic enough not to want to break what they'd just fixed.

"Doesn't," John gasped, shuddering a little as Rodney's hand moved and twitched and twisted inside the device, because he could feel every inch of it, the calluses on the tips of Rodney's fingers and the bump on the first knuckle of his middle finger from where he held his pen and the rounded, short edges of Rodney's fingernails. He was gasping and sweating by the time Rodney pulled his hand free, and John shoved the device through the rest of the initialization through sheer brute mental force, and was relieved to be able to stop touching it when it hummed and blue white characters appeared on the wing-things, glowing dimly.

"Sit," Rodney barked, and John was surprised to feel something nudge at the back of his thighs. It was Rodney's desk chair, and John sank gratefully into it, feeling weirdly wired and simultaneously wrung out.

Rodney shoved his mug of coffee into John's hands, mute testament to his worry, and then tried to examine John's pupils while John gulped at it. John slapped him away forcefully enough that Rodney just hovered beside him and wrung his hands until John finally sighed, "Rodney. I'm fine."

"You said it didn't hurt," Rodney said, more unhappily than accusingly this time.

John sighed again. "It was just... weird, and when it powered up fully, it was way more... intense."

Rodney gave him a suspicious look, but it only lasted a handful of seconds. His usual nigh-unstoppable thirst for knowledge re-exerted itself, and he said, "Hey, there's this pork-chop-shaped thing I haven't been able to--"

"No." Rodney looked mutinous. "Mckay. It felt like you had your hand inside my body," John said harshly, looking away. "This is so not something we're ever doing again."

Rodney was quiet long enough that John finally turned to look at him, and found Rodney blushing from his hairline all the way down his throat, looking almost apoplectic in his embarrassment. John had to actually think back to figure out what he'd said to cause it, and then he was grinning and rolling his eyes.

"Jesus, you're filthy," he snorted helplessly.

Apparently, it was exactly the right response, and it'd been so long since John managed to say the right thing that he found himself almost gleeful at Rodney's snort and rolled eyes and genuine smile, though he was still noticeably pink. John found himself thinking, surprised and a little grateful, that maybe it would be okay. Maybe not the same as before, but still okay.

Rodney flicked his fingers along the bottom edge of the device and the top folded back down, until it looked once again like a seamless winged egg. His hands hovered over the wings for a second, and then he was humming and tapping at the controls. Something that looked a lot like a DVD drive popped out from under one of the wings, and Rodney grabbed a slightly blackened control crystal and slipped it into the slot. He tapped at the wings some more, and the crystal disappeared into the egg. The device hummed.

John watched curiously for about a minute, and then was thoroughly bored.

"How long is this going to take?" he asked.

Rodney shot him an annoyed look.

"Well, let's see. It's realigning several hundred elements on a sub-molecular level, so I'd say however long it takes, Colonel."

Then he was grinning again, feeling like a total dumbass but helpless to stop, because the whole exchange was so normal, and for the first time in what felt like forever, he was almost not freaked out at all. Even better, Rodney's freak-meter seemed to have been dialed down to 'no more than usual,' which equated to practically normal in Rodney-world.

John's shoulders loosened, and he slouched back into Rodney's desk chair, settling in to watch Rodney work.

"John," Elizabeth said over his headset, and John went still because there was definitely something weird about her voice, something unsteady and almost a little breathless. Something either very good, or very bad.

Rodney froze, one hand holding John's scanner in front of his newly-repaired tech, and turned to look at him, eyes a little wide and apprehensive, which meant she was broadcasting on the command staff frequency at the very least, if not the main channel. And using his first name. Which was just.

"Sheppard," John replied, keeping his own voice steady.

"Come back to the cathedra room," Elizabeth said, and Rodney dropped the scanner on the table and stood up, hooking the stool out of the way with one foot even as he was turning toward the door. She sounded even freakier than she had before, her voice almost quavering, and, Jesus, was Elizabeth going to cry over the radio? The idea appalled him and scared him in equal amounts. In the last two years, he didn't think he'd ever seen her even close to crying.

He was out the door at a sprint, and it took him several seconds to realize that Rodney was two steps behind him, and not even complaining about having to run. He'd paused long enough to grab his laptop, but was still managing to keep up, which spoke volumes as to his concern. They skidded to a halt to wait half a second for a transporter door to open for them, and John had to catch Rodney's hand before he took them to the wrong cathedra.

"What, you started messing with another one without me?" Rodney demanded, clearly outraged, but he left the transporter at a run at John's side. "What is with you people?"

"Yeah, Rodney," John agreed, rolling his eyes. "It's all about you."

They burst into the room together and stopped dead, both of them, as they tried to take in what the dozen viewscreens in the room were showing them.

What? John thought dumbly, and Rodney echoed him, saying, "What?" out loud.

Radek beamed at them, and Elizabeth did indeed look like she might like to cry, though she was smiling just as widely as Radek, was practically glowing at them, in fact. Even Cheema looked flushed.

"Oh my God," Rodney breathed, and John saw that he was looking straight up, and let his gaze be pulled upward by Rodney's attention.

His mouth fell open.

His heart was abruptly pounding in his chest, half a dozen best-case-scenarios skittering chaotically through his brain in spite of the Pegasus Rule -- this galaxy's equivalent of Murphy's law, only multiplied by a factor of life-sucking space vampires plus special bonus super-robots, and cubed -- which rendered best-case-scenarios null and void, only suitable to be the subject of pipe dreams and fond and distant memories of the Milky Way.

"It's a ship yard," Cheema said, splitting open the shocked silence with her cool and steady voice.

"It's not even that far," Rodney muttered absently, gaze flicking from the ceiling and down to various other viewscreens, then back again. "Why haven't we... ah."

"Yes," Radek beamed, jubilant and jittery. "It is cloaked." Then, fiercely, "It is still cloaked, Rodney, after all of these years!"

"ZPM," Rodney said, and John could almost hear him clicking through the equations, estimating the facility's size and the known power consumption of the cloak. "If it's just the cloak, no shields or other equipment, maybe just one, but." Rodney looked like he was fighting down the urge to play 'best-case-scenario' just as fiercely as John was.

And it wasn't that John didn't care about the ZPM, but there were at least a dozen ships, ships, two of them big enough to be Aurora-class, and he heard himself saying, "Are they all functional, are they armed, do they have power, what are the smaller ones--" and he might have continued on like that for a while, except Elizabeth curled a hand around his wrist and laughed.

"Take a breath, John," she chided, but she was grinning at him like he had literally never seen her grin before, and he was apparently grinning right back just as fiercely, his cheeks aching with it.

"Pavlovian," Rodney muttered under his breath, but he was grinning, too.

"Most of them are fully operational, Colonel. One of the warships has sustained damage that limits its hyperspace capabilities, but Doctor Zelenka believes it to be--"

"Wait, what?" Rodney interrupted, and was abruptly standing in front of the cathedra, one leg on either side of the footrest so that he could lean forward, face urgent and elated at once. "How do you know that?" he snapped, and then rocked back, face going a little comical in surprise. "You look like Lobot," he told Cheema very seriously, and John somehow didn't snort. Cheema opened her mouth -- probably to ask what the hell he was talking about -- and Rodney shook his head and waved a dismissive hand practically in her face. "Nevermind, nevermind. The interface, what kind of access is it giving you to the facility? Can you--"

He looked a lot like he was thinking about grabbing Cheema and yanking her bodily right out of the chair, and Cheema was staring up at him, eyes so wide that the whites were visible all the way around the irises. John had never seen her look so startled. "Do you have detailed enough access to tell if the facility is being powered by a ZPM? What about the warships, both of them should be ZPM-compliant, even if they aren't exactly standard-issue as far as armament goes?"

"Rodney--" Elizabeth began.

"Doctor McKay--" Cheema said.

And, "Oh, nevermind," Rodney snapped, and then Rodney was nudging her hands out of the way and pressing his palms flat to the neural gel on the armrests of the cathedra.

For a moment, nothing happened. John had time to think, Maybe that's not such a good idea...

And then the cathedra began to pulse. John could feel it through the soles of his feet, hard and steady like a heartbeat, and the room was abruptly awash in light. Elizabeth gave a short, bitten-off cry of surprise and John had to squint his eyes against it. It was brighter than any of the cathedrae had ever glowed, for any of them, and John realized for the first time that they didn't all glow the same color.

When Cheema had initiated communications, it had glowed white-blue, and defense was a deeper, richer blue; city systems was paler than defense, but not as pale as communications, and also had maybe a little more green in its spectrum.

This was different than all three, still more white than blue, but bluer than it had been with just Cheema driving it, and it was at least three times brighter.

"Some of us are going glare-blind here," John said, his voice sounding more normal than he had any right to expect, and put a hand on the wall closest to him to send the same message to Atlantis, Dim it, too bright, because he honestly wasn't sure either Rodney or Cheema could hear him over the cathedra pulsing. Either they did, or Atlantis did, because the glow went softer immediately. Once it had, John could see that Rodney and Cheema had both gone absolutely still, staring fixedly at one another.

Cheema's expression was distant but intent, a deep vertical furrow etched between her dark, elegant eyebrows. Rodney's face was, conversely, completely unguarded, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, familiar enough that John leaned heavily against the wall he still had his hand on and closed his eyes for a second, swallowing hard and muscling through that moment of disorientation, forcing it back.

"Oh," Rodney said almost silently, and John opened his eyes in time to see the cathedra recline even further, until Cheema was almost lying flat on top of it, the footrest coming up; Cheema silently slid her feet entirely off of it, one leg dangling on either side, and Rodney, equally silent, sank down onto it, straddling the footrest like a bench, his knees pressed against the insides of hers, still leaning forward. Cheema's hands were resting alongside Rodney's on the neural gel, thumbs and index fingers of both of their hands overlapping.

"Rodney?" John asked, looking uneasily at the two of them.

"Be quiet now, Colonel," Rodney said almost gently, and then he and Cheema raised their eyes to the ceiling as one.

Zelenka muttered something that sounded almost reverent in Czech, and John and Elizabeth exchanged a look.

All of the viewscreens, ceiling included, flashed once, the same color as the glow from the cathedra, and then began to flicker like strobe lights, and John could only stare, understanding that he was seeing split-second shutter clicks of images, visuals, but unable to actually make any of it make sense with his eyes. It went on like that for fifteen or twenty seconds, and it was like holding a book and using a thumb to just flip through the pages, like you could see the words but not read any of them.

Then it slowed down, and John could catch occasional glimpses, a schematic here, lines of code, what was obviously camera footage from somewhere, more code, a ship's interior, then the exterior of one of the Aurora-class warships, another schematic, then an exterior shot of one of the smaller ships, which was shaped like a Reuleaux triangle, code, code, code, and the facility itself, which seemed to be built into a huge chunk of space-bound rock, but the image was too close for John to be able to tell if it was a moon or an asteroid or what. Even at the slower speed, he was pretty sure each image was displayed for less than a second, and it was honestly making John a little dizzy to try to pick things out, so he turned his attention to the cathedra again.

"Yes," Rodney said, and

"There," Cheema said, and then something else, something that might have been Hindi, and,

"Sublight isn't possible, look at branch sixteen, subsystem nine," from Rodney, and,

"Major failings, six systems, twenty days and nine hours, unless--" Cheema said, and

"At least, best case. What a mess, the engines are impossible, can we, there, right there," Rodney said, and

"It would be dangerously unwise to--" Cheema murmured, and Rodney snorted.

"We need more power," Rodney muttered, and Cheema gave a noncommittal hum.

And then they fell silent again, and John and Elizabeth and Radek managed to exchange a complicated three-way look.

"Neural network," Radek said softly, his face pale and still in the flickering light of the viewscreens. The images had sped up again, and John didn't even bother to try and make any of them out. Radek wasn't even looking at his laptop anymore, was just staring at Rodney and Cheema, first one and then the other.

"Like," Elizabeth said, and paused for a long couple of seconds. "You mean, like a form of telepathy?" She sounded uneasy.

John, who had been in the cathedra, wasn't uneasy about that at all. It was definitely weird, no denying that, but he wasn't worried. The cathedra literally could not hurt an operator. The Ancients had some odd priorities, and John thought their safety protocols were sometimes a little hit and miss, but the cathedrae were loaded with them. So that wasn't bothering him.

But there was a definite coil of something sour and unhappy lodged in his belly as he stared fixedly at Rodney and Cheema's overlapping hands.

"No," Radek said slowly. "No, I do not believe so. Not precisely. I do not think they can read one another's thoughts. It is more that they are both linked so closely within the confines of the city's neural network, its 'brain,' if you will, that verbal communication becomes mostly superfluous."

John looked uncomfortably away from the cathedra and made himself pay attention to the conversation.

Elizabeth's lips quirked. "And how is that not telepathy, exactly?"

"They aren't in each other's minds," John added, because he got it, he understood it implicitly. "They're together in Atlantis' mind." Elizabeth arched both eyebrows at him, but he wasn't sure he knew how to explain it better than that. He'd been in the cathedra, not just once, but dozens of times, and he'd been in other cathedrae, in the Ancient outpost on Earth, and he didn't know how to explain to her that they were the same but different, that linking with the city on that scale was like expanding the limits of your own skin, like... well, like flying. Another thing he'd never had the words to adequately explain.

Elizabeth gave him a doubtful look, and John shrugged helplessly.

"Think of it as though it were a virtual command center," Radek said. "One from which they have mutual access to whole city." John didn't disagree, even though it was nothing like that at all, because he couldn't think of a better way to describe it.

"It will take--" Cheema said abruptly, and,

"I know," Rodney snapped, "Try to access--" and,

"I have it," Cheema replied, and several of the screens lit up at once with schematics, vertical code scrolling across one side of the screens that displayed them, and,

"Christ, we're talking terajoules in terms of kinetic force required--" Rodney muttered, and,

"Rodney!" Cheema interrupted, like she was excited, and John went still, close to being shocked. He'd never heard her sound anything other than cool and maybe a little bored, and he'd certainly never heard her call anyone by their first name.

"Oh," Rodney said, and he was smiling softly, face simply and transparently happy as he stared upward. "Oh, that's brilliant," he murmured with obvious sincerity.

"Perhaps Major Lorne," Cheema said in tones of agreement, and,

"No, no, it's all remote, we'll--" Rodney snapped, and,

"Shifts, of course," Cheema murmured.

John took a step toward them, not really sure why, and Rodney turned to look at Elizabeth at nearly the same moment, eyes slipping past John like he wasn't even there.

"We can bring them here," he said, giving Elizabeth a broad grin. "We can fly them to Atlantis remotely. The warships have subroutines in place to control the smaller ships, and Maitreyi has full access to the navigation systems of the warships themselves, which already have protocols in place to get them to Atlantis. She can interface directly with the ships' cathedrae through this one to initiate them."

John didn't say anything, and worked hard not to let himself goggle stupidly at Rodney. He would have bet nearly anything that Rodney didn't even know Cheema's first name, which, frankly, John had never been sure how to pronounce, and hearing him say it like that, easy and fluid, was just. He didn't know what to think of that.

"What sort of power consumption--" Zelenka wanted to know, and Elizabeth was nodding her agreement; John glanced at Cheema, who was looking back at him.

"Minimal," Rodney said. "Almost nothing at all from Atlantis. The facility is powered by a single ZPM, but diagnostics show it's down to less than six percent."

"Is still a ZPM, Rodney," Radek said philosophically, and Rodney snorted.

"It's insignificant as compared to the ships, Radek! They're all armed with a full complement of drones, they are all nearly completely functional, and we're going to have to kill the ZPM anyway. We can cannibalize the remaining six percent to jump-start the sublight drives and provide them with enough power to reach Atlantis."

"What's wrong with the engines? And how are you going to use the ZPM-power to get them here without thrusters to get them started?" John wondered aloud, and Rodney waved a hand in his general direction, the other hand still tangled with Cheema's atop the neural gel of the armrest, but he didn't look at John.

"Nothing, the engines are fine, but there are safeguards in place to prevent them from being powered up remotely. The sublight drives are equipped with thrusters that are autonomous of the engines themselves. They won't be fast, and they'll be next to useless for anything but the most minute of heading changes, but they'll move, and we've got enough power from the ZPM to get them up to a decent speed. The engines would be several times faster, I'll grant you, but it would be supremely unwise to try and work around the safety protocols due to the not insignificant possibility that it would fry my brain."

"You can fly them remotely, but not start them?" Elizabeth demanded, sounding... well, sounding as annoyed as Rodney, actually.

Rodney flapped a hand at her.

"Yes, yes, those wacky Ancients. It apparently never occurred to them that... oh, forget it. I don't have time to explain the very technical and complex dual-aneutronic system of fusion used in Ancient warship engines. Suffice it to say, it's yet another example of Ancient failsafes gone horribly awry, and can we please focus on the problem, people?"

"The Ancients used fusion?" Elizabeth asked, and John somehow did not slap his own forehead in exasperation, because that was sure to set Rodney off.

"No, Elizabeth, they went with the seldom-utilized dark horse method of generating vast amounts of kinetic energy by processing the souls of human babies," he snapped, and John bit his lip and did not laugh at his boss. "Yes, they used something that is not unlike fusion, but that's not important right now. What is important is that in spite of the inexcusably short-sighted deficiencies of the engineering, we can get them here by sacrificing the ZPM."

"You are thinking of routing power directly into auxiliary systems of the sublight drives and bypassing the engines entirely," Radek murmured thoughtfully, not a question, exactly, but Rodney nodded anyway. "It could work."

"It will work," Rodney said, and gave Cheema small, crooked smile. Then he turned back to Elizabeth and added briskly, "And it's the only way."

"You're saying you can basically... jump-start the ships without the engines?" Elizabeth sounded dubious. Rodney stared at her for long seconds; John could almost see him counting.

Thankfully, Radek saw the potential for disaster in letting Rodney explain, and stepped in.

"In space-faring craft, the engine exists to create power for the drives to utilize in ship's propulsion, to produce opposing forces for maneuverability. If course changes are not needed, if changing speed of progress is not a factor, then power can be channeled directly into warship's sublight drives. The engine is not needed for additional power if the initial burst of energy channeled is enough to produce enough forward momentum."

"In space, you don't have the same kind of resistant forces as you do in atmosphere," John added, because scientists were scientists, and even their simplest explanations tended along the esoteric. "If you start something moving, it'll keep moving without losing a lot of velocity until it hits something else."

"But it will require draining a partially charged ZPM." She frowned and took a deep breath. "You said it wasn't that far," she said slowly, like she was thinking aloud. "Couldn't we send a Puddle Jumper with a crew of engineers to power up the ships' engines?"

"Relatively speaking, it's not that far," Rodney told her. "In the sense that it's within the range of our long range sensors, and thus something that we would have noticed long before now if the facility hadn't been cloaked. In terms of actual distance, point A to point B, it's far enough. It would take weeks for a Puddle Jumper to get there."

"Twenty days, nine hours," Cheema murmured.

Rodney nodded.

"They aren't equipped for that kind of distance." He paused, as though waiting for another round of questions. When none were forthcoming, he said, "While I'm fully sympathetic with your desire to have your cake and eat it, too, Elizabeth, trust me on this one. We can't have both unless we wait four months for the Daedalus to get here."

They all waited while Elizabeth pondered that for a few seconds.

"The tactical advantage of having those ships if the Wraith show up before the Daedalus..." John said quietly.

"Okay," Elizabeth said finally, blowing out a breath in a sigh. "Okay. Do it."

To Rodney's everlasting credit, he didn't crow, even though his smirk made it was clear he wanted to. He just turned back to Cheema and said, "Go ahead." Cheema gave him a long look, and Rodney slid the hand he'd been waving around back onto the armrest, half-beneath hers. "It was your idea," he told her, his voice so lacking in its usual acerbic brusqueness that Elizabeth gave John a look, complete with raised eyebrows and a speculative smile aimed at the occupants of the cathedra.

John blinked, and turned just as they both tipped their gazes ceiling-ward again. Everyone else in the room followed suit. The ceiling was displaying the exterior of the shipyard, still too close for John to get a clear idea of what the rock surrounding it was like. The cathedra pulsed quietly, but otherwise the room was very quiet, everyone very still.

"Easy," Rodney murmured, and John looked down. Cheema's eyes were closed, brows drawn together in concentration. "Use the extant conduits. It doesn't matter if you blow them out; I can fix them later," Rodney told her, low and soothing, and Rodney wasn't looking at the ceiling anymore. He was looking at Cheema like he looked at Ancient tech, like he'd looked at the winged egg earlier, intense focus mixed with interest, curiosity, and John hadn't even known that Rodney could do low and soothing. He could feel himself frowning a little, and he was staring at Rodney so he totally missed the ships powering up, though he knew as soon as Rodney started to beam that it had worked.

He looked at the ceiling. The ships were definitely getting some kind of power all right, since they were moving slowly away from where they were arrayed in front of the facility.

When he looked down again, Cheema was grinning triumphantly (grinning, and generally speaking Cheema made Bates seem jolly in comparison), and Rodney was beaming back at her.

"Excellent," Rodney said. "Perfect."

"How long will it take before they get here," Elizabeth asked without looking away from the ceiling.

"I was able to channel 8.91 x 10 to the 13th power terajoules," Cheema said, and Rodney's smile went soft and oddly proprietary.

John said, "Nineteen hours and eleven minutes."

Everyone in the room turned to look at him with varying degrees of surprise, and John looked up and watched the ships on the ceiling until they stopped staring at him.

After several seconds of silence, Elizabeth asked, "Will Haviladar Cheema have to stay in the cathedra the entire time?"

"No, no," Rodney said. "Well, yes, actually, someone will have to be in the cathedra the whole time, basically just to monitor. She isn't actually piloting them, precisely. We just initiated what amounts to a 'come home' protocol that got them pointed in the right direction. They'll do the rest automatically. She won't have to do anything unless something goes wrong, and we'll take it in shifts. I was thinking we could have Lorne on stand-by, in the event that she has to... take a break, and I should be back in plenty of time to take the last several hours."

"And that's it?" Elizabeth asked. "There isn't anything else...?"

"No, we're pretty much done here," Rodney said, sounding immensely pleased with himself.

"Excellent," Elizabeth said. "Very good work, Rodney, Havildar."

"I will stay," Radek said decisively. "It will be good to have someone here to monitor while you are off world, Rodney."

Rodney jerked as though startled, and looked around wildly, as though there might be a clock hiding somewhere in the room.

"Crap," he said. "I haven't even showered yet." Then he gave Cheema a wide-eyed look, clearly dismayed. "Uh, sorry if I smell."

Elizabeth hid a smile behind her hand, and Zelenka snickered. Cheema gave Rodney a small smile, and said, "I have not noticed anything offensive, Rodney."

"Oh, good, that's," Rodney muttered. "Good." He glanced around, and took another long look at the ceiling, and then frowned, and said, "I should really--"

"Of course," Cheema said, one corner of her mouth curling faintly as Rodney stood up and slowly withdrew his hands from the cathedra's neural interface.

The low pulsing softened, became more of a hum, and the glow of the cathedra went paler again, more white than blue.

"Hrm," Rodney said thoughtfully, head tilted slightly. "I wonder if the color of the glow indicates operator compatibility."

John's current theory was function, but he didn't mention it. They had a mission.

"We should get geared up, McKay."

"Yes, yes, of course," Rodney agreed absently, and stepped back. The cathedra immediately rearranged itself back into the normal recliner-like position, and Cheema slid her feet back onto the footrest. Rodney sighed and shook his head.

"Come to work for me," he said abruptly, and John's head snapped up so quickly that there was real danger that he'd pulled something in his neck. Elizabeth, halfway to the door, stopped walking and turned slowly back around. Zelenka blinked at Rodney over the top of his laptop screen.

Cheema didn't look as surprised, but she'd just spent the better part of the last ten minutes or so doing the Vulcan Mindmeld thing with Rodney, so maybe it would have been weird if she was.

Rodney's voice was low and intent, and he was very still, even his hands unmoving.

"I can't promise you a doctorate at this point, since we're all stuck in a galaxy that doesn't seem to host any of the usual centers of higher education that offer them, but I can make certain you've got the time and the tools available to you to lay the foundation..." He stopped, his mouth a tight line, when Cheema glanced over at John.

"McKay," John said quietly, and really hoped that would be enough to convey that they should go somewhere and talk about this before Rodney said another word.

Rodney gave him a brief, dismissive glance and turned back to Cheema.

"I'm confident that I can guarantee you at least twice your current pay-grade, 401 K, your own lab space, and the time and attention of at least half a dozen of the most brilliant minds in advanced mathematics and physics."

Zelenka stared disbelievingly at Rodney, and flickered a wide-eyed look in John's direction.

"McKay," John repeated tightly, unpleasantly aware of the roil of anger in his belly, and made the effort to put it aside, slotting his voice into a drawl. "Are you trying to buy one of my officers?"

Rodney ignored him.

"Maitreyi, there might be six people in Atlantis that can do what you just did," Rodney said seriously, speaking slowly and softly enough that it was clear that he was doing so deliberately. He sounded almost earnest, and John thought, Jesus, he's fucking wooing her, with such an ugly flash of heat that he was literally speechless for long seconds. "I'm being generous in that estimate," Rodney added. "I'm only actually sure of four. You should be, I can't imagine that you're--" he made a vague twirling gesture with one hand, then leaned forward and laid the hand on her forearm instead, fingers curling possessively around it, and John could feel his face furrowing into a frown, "--content with what you're doing. Let me at least show you the labs, let me show you--"

"Rodney," Elizabeth interrupted, but she was looking at John when she said it, the skin around her mouth tight, eyes wary, obviously anticipating -- and trying to abort -- an impending explosion. "Havildar Cheema isn't going anywhere. Why don't you let her take care of the fleet of Ancient warships, and you can speak to Colonel Sheppard about his personnel..."

John lost the thread, watching the reactions play across Rodney's face, aggravated and determined, obviously impatient, still standing there with one hand curled around Cheema's arm. He fought back the sick, tight feeling that was crouched in his belly. He had literally never in his life spent more time being pissed at anyone than he'd spent being pissed at Rodney over the last four days. He'd always been almost pathologically laid back (commanding officers) at best, indifferent (his ex-wife) at worst, and he was just never prone to sustaining any serious level of real anger.

"That's crap, Elizabeth," Rodney snapped, and Elizabeth's brows shot upward in surprise.

In fact, John had been angry more times since he'd come to Atlantis than he had in most of the rest of his life put together, and he even got why. It took a fairly serious level of investment in something to get that worked up about it, and he'd never tried to pretend that he wasn't invested in Atlantis.

"Be that as it may, Rodney," Elizabeth said sharply, "it's inappropriate to attempt to poach personnel who are already directly under the authority of another department without a private consultation with the head of that department."

When John actually took the time to think about it, probably eighty percent of the times he'd been truly, genuinely furious since coming to Atlantis could, in some way, be traced back to Rodney. Rodney, apparently, had mad skills at just about everything.

"You don't understand," Rodney snarled, and waved both hands toward the ceiling as though miming a request for divine intervention. "She's not just a mathematical prodigy, Elizabeth, although that would obviously be reason enough for me to 'poach' her. She's a genius, she's--" he pressed the heels of both hands to his temples and then flung them outward, which was probably meant to convey something about her genius, but looked a lot like a head explosion to John, which would be a lot funnier if it didn't make him think about how Rodney's hands had looked tangled with Cheema's on the cathedra's armrests, "--well, not as as smart as me, but still, genius. She's at least as smart as Zelenka, and every second she spends saluting or spit-polishing or whatever it is Sheppard has her doing is a criminal waste of her mind!"

Fuck. He was in trouble here. Jesus, he thought helplessly, because it was one thing to physically react to Rodney when he was having flashbacks of Rodney staring at him with hot eyes or falling over and moaning in his vicinity, but hating the way Rodney's hands looked with his fingers curled beneath Cheema's fingers, hating the way Rodney's gaze had been sliding past John without even pausing ever since he'd sat down with his knees pressed up against Cheema's, those things were not the same. Those things couldn't be traced back to Kurn, those things just were.

John closed his eyes for several seconds, the hot knot of anger in his belly unraveling abruptly. He was just so goddamned tired.

He'd never believed in fate, destiny, or a higher power that had a plan for him; he had serious doubts about astrology, reincarnation, and karma, too. But he was really genuinely beginning to wonder if the universe hated him.

He considered sneaking out of the room while everyone was distracted.

It wouldn't have worked, anyway; everyone in the room was staring at Rodney except for the actual person Rodney was shouting about.

Cheema, he was fatalistically unsurprised to see, was looking at John.

John took a deep breath, and forced himself still. He didn't have time for this. He was too old for this, too old and in the fucking Air Force, and the military goddamned commander of this base, and he didn't get to take time off to freak out, and he was just going to have to figure out how to deal with, with. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a breath.

"I have her operating one of the most sophisticated pieces of Ancient technology in the galaxy, and locating a small but functional armada of Ancient spaceships, Rodney," John said, keeping his face blank and his voice bland, even if he couldn't ease the stiffness of his spine into a casual slouch. He was certain enough that everyone here would take it for anger, even if all he was really feeling at this point was tired. "Obviously a shameful waste of her time."

Rodney's head snapped around as though he'd only just remembered that John was still there, and he looked genuinely baffled for an instant, staring at John with his mouth a little open, eyes wide and wounded. Another little flare of completely pointless fury burned in his belly, this time accompanied by a half-hysterical urge to laugh at the fact that Rodney's wounded look actually worked, a little, actually made him feel a little bit bad, even though he was clearly not the one being an asshole here. Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it again, apparently speechless.

John smiled tightly.

"Havildar," he said, turning to Cheema. "If you take Doctor McKay up on his offer, you have my full support. I'll make the arrangements with the Indian Army; don't worry about your term of enlistment. It won't be a problem."

"I'll consider it, Colonel," Cheema replied quietly.

John hesitated, and added, "The cathedra probably goes with either position, Havildar. If you want it to."

"Colonel," Rodney began uncertainly, and John turned to Elizabeth, checking his watch.

"Are we still a go in twenty-five minutes?" he asked.

"Yes, John," Elizabeth said, staring at him with a worried look that he was seriously starting to get tired of.

"Then I have things to do."

**

John went straight to his quarters and directly into the bathroom, where he stood with both hands braced on the edge of the sink for a minute or so.

He didn't actually think he was going to throw up, but this was one of those moments where he was pretty sure he'd feel a little better if he did.

Eventually he washed his face and brushed his teeth, though it didn't do much to alleviate the sour-metal taste lingering on the back of his tongue. In the mirror, his face looked pale and strained and a little startled.

He snorted mirthlessly and wondered how long it would take before someone asked him if he was okay. He figured he had about three minutes before he needed to be gearing up in the locker room to figure out how he was going to answer that question.

He scrubbed at his face with both hands and wandered out of the bathroom. It was actually kind of funny, he told himself. Because, seriously? Rodney fucking McKay?

But it wasn't actually funny at all. Of course it was Rodney. He ran one hand through his hair and sighed. Who else would it be?

Atlantis was the only thing in John's entire life that had ever been pretty much exactly what he wanted. His father, the Air Force, his marriage, people in general, everything just not quite right, not satisfying, not enough. John had figured that was the way it was for everyone until the outpost, that click of recognition in the middle of his brain when he'd felt the chair under him and that moment of yes when Rodney had laid out what to do with that connection in one sentence.

He stared at his watch, and then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.

"Because my life," he muttered aloud, "was not complicated enough."

**

John swept into the locker room as Rodney was buckling on his thigh holster. He looked up as the door banged closed behind John, startled, but John only caught the look out of the corner of his eye. He was already grabbing his tac vest and shrugging into it.

"Everybody good to go?" he asked, addressing the room at large.

Teyla and Ronon were just standing there, bored, of course -- John honestly wasn't sure why they even bothered with the locker room part of the mission, since Ronon never used Atlantis gear, although he'd been issued it, along with an improbably huge tac vest, and Teyla only rarely did, and never when she was comfortable with where they were going -- but there were four marines in one corner (who were along for the heavy lifting more than protection, and were unhappily aware of it) and Rodney was still fumbling into his vest.

The marines chorused an automatic, "Yes, sir!" to the question. John's team regarded him with puzzlement (Teyla), boredom (Ronon), and a tight-lipped frown (Rodney).

"We are ready," Teyla said after several seconds of silence, while John buckled his light field pack (for missions unlikely to include the need for C-4) to the clasps built into his vest.

"I," Rodney said, holding out the scanner he'd found for John with both hands.

"Thanks," John said, scooping it up and immediately handing it to Teyla. "Can you stow this for me?"

He bent his knees so she could get to the opening at the top of the pack, and tightened the waist cinch while she shoved things around to make room for the scanner, his hands automatically checking the pack for fit, jerking his tac vest into something approaching comfortable, or at least something that wouldn't end up chafing if he sweated through his shirt, and patting at the reassuring lump of his sidearm.

When she finished, he grabbed a P90 off the rack, checked the clip and the safety, and attached it to the strap on the vest.

He did a visual sweep of Ronon and Teyla, and then went through the usual pre-mission check with Rodney and the marines, jerking on straps and checking buckles, and triple checking the velcro that held Rodney's electronics -- two laptops and a data pad this time, the Rodney equivalent of being loaded-for-bear -- to his tac vest, which he'd been especially diligent about since M2S-471, when Rodney had lost a laptop running for the gate, and had been bitterly and vocally unhappy about it for a week afterward.

He slapped Rodney's back when he was sure they were secure, just like always, and Rodney didn't make a snide comment about assault and battery.

He twirled a finger, and said, "Let's go, people."

It looked like half the science staff was milling around in the 'gate room, murmuring and hovering anxiously over sleds of equipment.

John hadn't seen the point in making them gear up. Less than half of them had any field experience, and he really didn't want to arm them. The paperwork for civilian-injury/death-due-to-friendly-fire was a nightmare.

He took a quick stock of faces, checking off his mental list to make sure everyone who was going had attended the briefing, and then glanced up to where Elizabeth was watching him from the upper level, both hands braced on the railing. She was smiling slightly.

"Any questions?" he barked, again to the room at large.

The two engineers nearest him jumped when the marines responded smartly with, "No, sir!"

John sighed. Yeah, this was going to be so not fun.

"Good luck, Colonel," Elizabeth said, still looking a little amused. "Dial the 'gate."

The path was much worse if you were trying to wheel gigantic sleds of electronics and digging equipment along it, apparently, and they hadn't made it even a quarter of the way to the settlement when Keenan and his two ubiquitous escorts appeared on the path.

John had one swimmy moment to think, Crap, because he really should have expected something like this, and then swayed dizzily against one of the sleds, just barely managing to catch the pushbar with one hand and cling tightly to the smooth, familiar metal, anchoring his attention on it with all his might. His brain flashed determinedly to Keenan, heavy robes discarded in the heat of the room, bare arms fairly heavily muscled for such a slender guy, one of them banded around with a wide strip of a copper-colored metal. The paddle in his hands was wide and thick and made of some dark wood that gleamed and threw light sleekly. There was a deep furrow between Keenan's brows, but his chin was cocked a little, which made him look more puzzled than anything else.

John was on the balls of his feet, tense and wary, belly knotted with anxiety while he kept a careful eye on Conan, though Rodney was blocking most of his view in that direction, back straight, broad shoulders tense, but apparently determined to keep himself between Conan and John.

And then he was staring at his white-knuckled hand clenched around the pushbar, blinking at the brightness of the sunlight, and hearing the ominous, ratcheting click of several marines pointing sub-machine guns at the nice people who were going to give them a big pile of naquadah.

"Stand down," John barked hoarsely, and forced himself to let go of the sled and square his shoulders. The marines shame-facedly lowered their weapons.

"Are you all completely stupid?" Rodney snapped furiously, and slapped at the hands of one of the geologists, who was trying to get him to his feet. "How do they let you people even have guns?" He threw up a hand in disgust, the other braced against the ground. "What, do you think they made us fall over with the power of their minds?"

Keenan, who was calmly standing with his hands slightly raised, was smiling fondly at Rodney. His two escorts looked a little spooked, but seemed willing to follow Keenan's lead.

"Er," John said, abruptly a little sad and a lot tired. "Sorry about that."

"It is good to see you again, Colonel," Keenan said, as though he hadn't just been held at gunpoint by John's people, and stepped forward to grasp John's hand and cup his elbow warmly. John was abruptly assaulted by the smell of him, a scent he didn't even realize he knew, a little spicy and warm, and he had to shift to set his feet wide to compensate for the way that made him reel a little. Keenan, as though aware of exactly what was happening, held firmly to John's hand and elbow until John managed to pull it together, distracting everyone else by greeting Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla while he steadied John.

Teyla was offering Rodney a hand up, which he accepted gracelessly, but without much grumbling.

"You know, some warning that it was going to be like this might have been nice," John said quietly, sorting out the here-and-now from the things the smell of Keenan had pulled to the forefront of John's mind, firmly pushing away the awareness of Rodney's distress, his wide, tense shoulders, the way his face had looked, chin tipped down and eyes clenched shut.

Keenan gave a low laugh and gripped John's elbow tighter. "How would I have warned you of this, Colonel? Would anything I could have said truly have prepared you?" He gave John's elbow a squeeze and then stepped carefully back, releasing John only when he was sure John had his feet under him.

"Nah," John said, and rubbed at the back of his neck where tension was once again singing merrily. "I guess not."

On Kurn, it was only mid-morning, and John was already exhausted.

Teyla, bless her, handled this round of introductions while Keenan sent the dynamic duo back to the village for more muscle. Rodney waved his hands a lot, and indicated things that needed to be handled with extreme care (with the very unsubtle message that the Atlantis people should be allowed to handle those items), and John basically stood around cradling his P90 in both hands and trying to stay out of the science team's way. By the time the muscle returned from the village, things had been divvied up into piles of less-than-fragile and extremely-delicate, and John was wishing mightily for a glass of that apple-beerish stuff from last time.

He caught himself watching Rodney stride importantly around and gesture impatiently, and couldn't figure out how long he'd been watching before he'd become aware of doing it. Which just lead him to wonder how long he'd been watching Rodney before Kurn. Every gesture was familiar, every expression well-known, and he couldn't figure out how long this had all actually been going on. It was easy enough to attribute it to the immediate and undeniable intimacy of the discipline, but that only explained so much, really. It explained the abrupt and wholly distracting awareness of Rodney's sensuality, maybe, the breadth of his back and the inescapable sense-memory of the feel of Rodney's hands on John's body, but it did nothing to explain away the familiarity of everything else.

He'd known Teyla almost as long, Elizabeth, Carson, others. He'd known all of the first wave for just as long as he'd known Rodney, and he didn't have an encyclopedic understanding of the difference between you are just too stupid to live and holy crap, we're all going to die communicated in nothing but the way their hands moved.

John left a marine at the gate, since he had some extra and was (justifiably, he felt) a little nervous about having a gaggle of unarmed civilians along. He assigned himself to everyone else's six for the remainder of the slow-moving trek to the village for the express purpose of brooding silently. He was kind of hoping to get it out of his system.

The first sight of the village itself was enough to set off another string of inescapable images, but John was more or less ready for them this time, and staggered gamely forward while his eyes told him one thing and his brain told him something else entirely. This semi-vertigo settled some once they were actually in the midst of the Kurnei, as friendly and welcoming as they had been the first time, or maybe more so. Several of them asked after John's well-being in carefully vague terms coupled with understanding looks. They all wanted to clasp his hand and elbow; some of them leaned in and placed chaste, closed-mouthed kisses on his jaw which he'd have avoided if he hadn't been so surprised the first time it happened. After that it seemed rude not to let the rest of them do the same, if they were so inclined. Some did and some didn't.

When a glass of the apple-beer-stuff he'd liked so well the last time was pressed smilingly into his hand, John had mostly lost his capacity to be surprised. It looked like Keenan had been right; they seemed even more inclined to trust Atlantis and her people, and there didn't seem to be any doubt about why.

Rodney was receiving much the same treatment, though with decidedly more determined attempts at avoiding it than John had managed. He was everywhere at once, as though Kurn were as much his domain as one of the labs, directing his people and ducking away from a crowd of Kurnei that wanted to greet him, snapping his fingers and making broad, inclusive gestures.

He wasn't going out to the mine -- "I'm an astrophysicist," he'd snorted at Elizabeth, "They don't need me there; I'd just get in the way" -- but he was throwing the full weight of being Rodney McKay behind Doctor Perlman, the geologist Elizabeth had put in charge of the site, apparently just to terrify everyone else involved into hurrying things along.

Rodney probably thought of it as professional courtesy. The scowl on Perlman's face said that he was thinking of tackling Rodney to the ground and beating him about the head and shoulders.

John wondered if he should find Keenan and ask him whom he had who was good with science -- specifically, who handled whatever needed doing with the Kurnei's lamps -- in the hopes of sending whomever it was over to distract Rodney. Then Conan (Leovar, he reminded himself sternly, as it wouldn't do to accidentally call him that out loud) appeared at Rodney's elbow and murmured something John couldn't make out from a distance.

Rodney's back went abruptly straight, chin tipping up, but when he turned to face Leovar, it was slow and deliberate. For a few seconds, Rodney just looked at him, swaying a little on his feet. John sympathized; he could imagine what was playing out in Rodney's head, and figured he was only avoiding an instant-replay himself due to distance and fierce concentration on the here and now. Leovar curled a hand around Rodney's elbow and said something else, leaning close to do so, very close; his lips might actually have been touching Rodney's cheek, he was so close.

John had the not-unfamiliar urge to smash his fist into Conan's face.

It's the tea, it's fine, he told himself, and looked away. He was looking back less than five seconds later, of course, and now Rodney's face was flushed and tipped to one side; his mouth was crookedly uncertain, and he'd taken a step back, though Conan still had a hand around his elbow. John only became aware that he was walking toward them when Rodney's voice resolved itself out of the general noise of the crowd. "--ah, no, no, I don't think--" Rodney was saying, voice high and a little reedy. Conan leaned in again, voice too low for John to make out, and John found himself thinking that discipline would be a small price to pay for the immense satisfaction of beating Conan's face into ground beef.

He was still a good ten feet away when Conan looked up and saw him coming; he let go of Rodney's elbow and took a step back at once, eyes wide and alarmed. John wasn't sure whether he was more gratified to be the reason for that look on Conan's face or disappointed that Conan clearly understood when retreat was the best option. Rodney, of course, looked around as well, and John wasn't actually sure what was showing on his face, but whatever it was made Rodney's eyes widen, and he took a step back of his own.

Fuck.

He somehow managed to reroute his brain from on-the-verge-of-assault to keep-McKay-from-freaking-out between one step and the next. He schooled his face into something that was, if not pleasant, at least mostly neutral, and instead of growling at Conan to keep his goddamned hands to himself (Yeah, I'm so totally fucked here, he thought morosely), he uttered a tight, barely civil, "I need to borrow McKay for a minute," and hauled Rodney after him by one wrist.

Rodney followed him without a single indignant sputter -- absolute justification for interfering, as far as John was concerned -- or snide comment about being manhandled for nearly thirty feet, before he dug in his heels and jerked his wrist out of John's grip.

"Thank you, Colonel, I'm quite capable of forward locomotion without your assistance," he snapped when John stopped and turned to face him.

John bit down hard on the urge to snap out something like Stay away from that guy, and that's a fucking order, McKay, because he wasn't quite so far out of his fucking mind that he was willing to blatantly abuse his authority to keep Rodney from screwing around with one of the natives because it made John feel sweaty and sick and something close to desperate just thinking about it.

He opened his mouth, but then closed it again when he realized he had no idea what to even say to Rodney about what just happened. In lieu of speech -- which would clearly be a colossal mistake at this point -- he gave a short, abrupt nod and turned away. He needed a new apple-beer-thing and he needed it now. He had no idea what he'd even done with the last one.

"Colonel," Rodney snapped; John seriously considered ignoring him, but then couldn't quite make himself do it. He stopped again, and pondered whether his feeling of impending doom was an actual hunch, the kind that made people not get on planes that later crashed, or just cowardice.

Goddamnit. He turned around.

"What?" he asked tiredly; Rodney looked tense and unhappy and nervous. John sighed. No good could come of this, he was sure. "What, Rodney?" he repeated with what he hoped was a little more patience and a little less dread.

"I wanted to..." Rodney began with a sad, restrained little hand wave. "That is, I shouldn't have, with Maitreyi, before. It was... unprofessional, and I--"

"Just stop," John interrupted, and God, he was just so tired of this already. Christ, he'd almost rather be life-sucked at this point. "Forget about it; I'm over it. There isn't any point at being pissed at you for being you, McKay."

Rodney's chin jerked up, and for a long couple of seconds he looked surprised, maybe even hurt, and then his mouth went flat and tight.

"Yes, well," he said, and waved a dismissive hand at John. "Of course, no point at all. Excuse me, Colonel."

He slipped by John without looking at him again, striding off in the direction of the gaggle of science uniforms, shoulders squared, spine straight.

"Way to say the wrong thing again, John," he muttered aloud, disgusted with himself.

**

He was nursing his second fizzy fruity near-beer when Keenan settled himself across from John at the table. He gave John a long, disturbingly perceptive look, and offered, "We have something much stronger."

John huffed out a little laugh, mostly genuine.

"I'll come visit some time when I'm not on duty, and I'll sample everything you've got," he promised. Bizarrely, he meant it.

Keenan smiled back. "So: it has been difficult for you."

It wasn't a question, and John was just too tired to bother prevaricating. Or maybe it was the like thing, again. He didn't much care one way or the other.

"It sucked." Keenan's brows rose in question, but there was something like a faintly dirty smirk hovering around the corners of his lips, and John huffed again and shook his head. "Not in the good way," he added.

"Alas," Keenan said gravely, the corners of his lips still looking suspiciously twitchy.

They sat there in companionable silence for a few minutes while John watched the science people shuffling around a long, low workbench some of the Kurnei had dragged out and covered with maps of the 'mines,' which actually turned out to be shallow natural fissures in the rock of the nearby mountain side. Apparently, there wasn't actually a lot of digging involved in relieving the rock of veins of naquadah ore. Mostly just breaking away the rock around it.

Aside from the whole spanking incident, the whole planet was like hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded; a grand slam with a side of hashbrowns, even.

It sucked more than a little that John still somehow felt like he was playing for the losing team.

Rodney had one of his laptops set up on the far end of the workbench and was hooking it up to the improved naquadah lamp; John recognized it from the shielding. He glanced over to find Keenan McKay-watching unabashedly alongside him.

"Hey," he said. "McKay made you guys something. Who usually fixes the lamps or makes new ones when they're broken?"

"They rarely require care, but my niece, Yeira, has some talent with technology." Keenan nodded in Rodney's direction. "Shall I send her to Doctor McKay?"

John wondered briefly if she was easily offended, but then rolled one shoulder in a shrug. "Sure."

Keenan gestured for one of the ever-present... what were they, exactly? John wondered. Henchmen? Hangers-on? Keenan told the guy to find Yeira and direct her to assist Doctor McKay; John decided they were minions.

"That was very kind of him," he told John after the guy scurried off to obey.

John thought about Rodney's hollow eyes, and how his face had been pale and drawn, but his hands had still been steady. He shrugged again. Still, he found himself saying, "It's what he does when he doesn't know what else to do. He works. Tinkers."

"I see," Keenan said, regarding John solemnly.

Over by the workbench, one of the engineers was bent at the waist, peering at the redesigned lamp. As John watched -- shaking his head a little in pity -- the engineer reached for it. Rodney's tone was strident enough to carry all the way to them, even if the actual words didn't. John suspected that the pointing and hand-waving was probably accompanied by words like "absolute moron" and "radiation poisoning" and less-than-polite inquiries as to where the engineer -- John thought his name was Curtis -- got his "degree," and yeah, there were big air-quotes.

John couldn't not smile.

It only lasted a second, though, as things looked like they could escalate into a slap fight.

"Um," John said, half-rising to his feet just as a young, pale-haired woman inserted herself smoothly in between Rodney and the engineer, diffusing most of the obvious hostility merely by being both present and pretty.

Awesome, John thought, sinking back onto the bench. I was hoping for a blond. He tipped his glass back and drained the contents without bothering with rationalization. When he looked back, Yeira and Rodney were both talking at the same time; her hands were nearly as voluble as Rodney's.

John looked away, and couldn't really bring himself to be surprised that Keenan was watching him intently.

"This has been a really shitty week in all the ways that don't matter," John muttered.

Keenan tipped his head a little.

"And the things that do matter?"

John smiled tiredly. "Allies and naquadah," he said simply, but mentally added, and spaceships, oh my, just so he wasn't trying to kid himself, because yeah. In all the ways that mattered to Atlantis, this had been a great week.

Keenan nodded. "Colonel?" he asked softly, "will you have tea?"

"No," John said, and rubbed at his eyes. "No, I don't think I will, thanks. But why don't you call me John."

Keenan gave him a knowing smile, but he looked pleased. "I am honored, John."

**

Chapter Text

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.

 

//