by Speranza

Author's Note: A lot of people helped with this: Thank you Lim, Merry, Mia, Resonant, and Terri.

Part One.

The Nubrati had put them all in the same cell; that alone, John figured, raised the odds of their escape at least the difference between four and four factorial. Surely one of them would think of something, and John couldn't stop himself from glancing optimistically between Teyla's quiet contemplation, Ronon's feral pacing, and Rodney's deeply furrowed brow. Nobody looked back with anything like an idea, though.

"All right," John said finally, clapping his hands together briskly to get their attention; he'd learned that brisk handclapping was a good four-fifths of the whole leadership thing. "Let's go over what we know, brainstorm a little. Who the hell are these guys?"

His team glanced at each other, and then Teyla began, "They do not strike me as an advanced society—" and Ronon snorted and said, "They've got technology, though—" and then Rodney interrupted, "It's not theirs. And it's mostly broken." Teyla leaned toward Rodney with interest and said, "Yes. Yes, I noticed that as well," and John raised his palms and said, "Wait, what?" He looked at Teyla, who looked at Rodney, who impatiently circled a hand and said, "Well, just look at this place. Nothing matches," and when John tilted his head, Rodney rolled his eyes and said, "I'm not talking about interior design, Colonel. I'm talking about—well, actually, yes, interior design, but literally design: architecture, structure, form, function. I mean, look at this room; these guys are primitives, but this is a pretty nice building—"

"Was," Ronon said flatly. "It was a nice building."

"Yes," Teyla sighed. "This world must have been beautiful once."

"—and if you tell me that those guys designed it, well: I won't believe you," Rodney concluded. "Same thing with the technology; I mean," he said, turning to Teyla, "am I crazy, or was that one guard wearing Ancient uraza crystals around his neck?"

"Yes," Teyla replied. "I saw them, too. They were broken. Dark at the core—"

Rodney was nodding excitedly. "Right. Like old Polaroid flashbulbs," and when Teyla looked confused, John interjected, "It's nothing. Rodney's just really old and from another galaxy," and Rodney glared at him and said, "So are you, you know."

"Forget the necklace," Ronon said. "Their weapons; they have energy blasters and percussion grenades and Wraith stunners—"

"Yes, exactly," Rodney said, and wheeled on John triumphantly: "—and really big sticks. See, it doesn't add up."

"You're saying they're scavengers," John said, frowning.

"Invaders," Ronon agreed. "McKay's right: they're probably not from around here."

Rodney looked anxious. "So what happened to the people who built this place?"

"Culled, maybe," Ronon suggested. "Or fled. Left the city, and the Nubrati moved in."

"Okay," John said, absently raising a hand to rub at his temple; his head hurt. "So what do they want from us? Technology? Know-how?"

"They've got some know-how already," Ronon said. "They got those blasters working."

"Yes," Teyla agreed. "And their communication system seems to be advanced."

"Advanced, yes, but held together with string and bits of wire." Rodney was snapping his fingers. "It looked cobbled together; partly electrical, partly crystal-based. I mean, look at this door; it's Ancient, but there's no power, so they've shoved an old-fashioned bolt in. They're using whatever's not broken, I guess. So radios, yes, but no lights—" There was a clang and a screech of metal as their cell door was laboriously unlocked. John instinctively reached for a weapon that wasn't there, and then stood, tensed at the ready. Around him, the team had moved into what had become standard position: Teyla and Ronon flanking him, Rodney pretending not to hide behind them.

The Nubrati were some seriously ugly guys; tall, mean-looking, and wearing a kind of metal and leather armor that, yeah, okay, didn't exactly match the aesthetic of the city's elegant buildings. Now that John knew what he was looking for, he saw it right away: the bits of Ancient technology hanging off their belts, the antennae of Wraith transmitters welded to the headpieces of their radios, other familiar-looking bits of machinery fused together, or tied together, or wrapped together with the Pegasus galaxy's equivalent of electrical tape. The Nubrati, John decided, were a people in desperate need of a Radio Shack.

"Okay, look," John said in his calmest voice. "We don't want trouble," except he could see right away that trouble was coming. The lead guard, who could have fronted a respectable metal band with his leather eyepatch and hideously crooked scar, was aiming his eye at each of them in turn, and John knew what he was doing: he was looking for the weak link. Behind him, Ronon and Teyla were slowly moving together to protect—

"Take him," Leather Eyepatch said, jabbing his finger, and John didn't need to look to know he was pointing at Rodney. John moved fast, hand already balled into a fist, and he actually managed to get one satisfying punch to the guy's jaw before the stunner blast hit him and electricity shot through his skull and he fell back, hard, onto the floor. He lay there, aching and jittering, aware in his peripheral vision that the Nubrati guards had stunned Ronon and slammed Teyla against the wall and were dragging Rodney out, boots skittering desperately against the stone floor.

It was a while before he or Ronon could move—Christ, it hurt like a motherfucker, and they'd had to stun Ronon twice before he went down. The blast was like a persistent toothache, like someone had been drumming on his bones; he could only imagine how Ronon felt. Eventually, he got to his knees, and then to his feet, and started pacing. When he looked across the cell at Teyla, he saw his worry reflected on her face.

One hour became two, two became three, and John's hands were helplessly balled into fists. "What the fuck are they doing with him?"

Ronon slowly raised his head from where it rested on his forearms. "If they're smart, they're getting him to fix stuff," and John felt a weight lift off his chest: right, okay, that made sense. They were making Rodney rewire the lights or something. John's sense of relief lasted until Teyla said, in a soft, pained voice: "I do not think so."

John jerked to look at her, and only then did he see that she was sitting against the wall, arms wrapped around herself to stop herself from shaking. In an instant, Ronon was beside her, taking her hand. He looked up at John suddenly: "She's ice cold."

John couldn't remember if Ronon had been with them when Teyla had visions of the Wraith, or if this was new to him. "Teyla? What's the matter?"

But Teyla looked at him with unseeing eyes. "I—" she began, and she was slowly shaking her head. "I do not know how this is possible..."

"What?" Ronon demanded, squeezing her hand. "What's happening?"

Teyla's expression was suddenly full of horrified awareness. "I can feel him."

Right then, he knew. "They're hurting him," John said in a low voice.

"Yes," Teyla whispered back. "Yes, I believe so."

"Can you..." John began helplessly, but he didn't even know what to ask. "Can you reach him? Can he feel you?" and Teyla obediently closed her eyes and concentrated, a fierce vertical line appearing between her brows. "Tell him to hang on," John said, dropping down to crouch on her other side. "Tell him it's going to be okay."

Teyla looked despondent when she opened her eyes. "I have tried," she told John, "but I do not know if he could sense my feelings. I do not even understand why I am sensing his; he is not Wraith." She shuddered violently, and Ronon slid an arm around her and pulled her close. She closed her eyes gratefully and leaned against his shoulder, and John got up and began to pace, mind searching for—and not finding—a plan.

It was another two hours before they heard the cell door being opened, and John was half-determined to rip their heads off or die trying. But the Nubrati guards just waved their weapons and herded them back to the wall. John stood there, hands clenched and furious, and watched as guards began to stream in, carrying...a large, soft-looking mattress, and trays of meats and nuts and fruit, and two large pitchers of some kind of beverage. Ronon shot a skeptical look at John, as if to say, McKay's done all right for himself—except here he was, being hauled under the arms by two guards like a sack of flour and dumped unceremoniously onto the mattress.

Rodney looked terrible, his face pale and shadowed and shiny with dried sweat. He didn't seem to have any energy, just sank down where they put him and closed his eyes.

"Rodney," John said, checking his pulse, which was too rapid, then pushing his eyelid back to get a look at his pupils. He checked Rodney's nose and ears for blood, and then ran his fingers over Rodney's scalp. "Rodney, say something."

"I'm fine," Rodney managed, without opening his eyes. "Tired. Just give me..." and even as they watched, Rodney's head tilted slowly to one side, and he began to breathe deep.

John sat back on his heels and stared at him. "What the hell?"

"Beats me," Ronon said. "Is he drugged?"

"Possibly. Or else he is exhausted," Teyla said, frowning.

John slid his fingers down to Rodney's jaw and gently turned his head from side to side. "Rodney," he said in a low, steady voice. "Wake up. You need to tell me what happened."

Rodney's eyes opened blearily, the blue seeming almost to glow in his deeply shadowed eye sockets. "Can't. Please. Let me sleep, just a few..."

But John couldn't do that. "Where did they take you?" he asked.

Rodney answered automatically, if not exactly articulately. "Down the..." His hand came up, flailed, fell. "A room..."

Good enough. "What did they want? Did they interrogate you?"

"No," Rodney managed, and that was a relief. "They"

"They want tech support?" John said. Rodney jerked a nod, and okay, so Ronon had it right after all; they had McKay fixing stuff. "With what? What did they ask you to..." John stopped, because Rodney's lips were moving slowly, like he was trying to answer, but he wasn't managing to make sound come out. John guiltily pressed his fingers over McKay's mouth and said, "Shh, it's okay. It's not important," and Rodney sighed in relief, his eyes fluttering closed. "Just," John added quietly, "how bad did they hurt you?"

"I'm fine," Rodney said, without opening his eyes.

It wasn't even two hours before the Nubrati came back. John had only just begun to discuss contingency plans with Ronon and Teyla, but the despondent, half-asleep noise Rodney made when they dragged him up off the mattress made John feel helpless and nearly blind with rage. He would have rushed them, weapons or no weapons, except for Ronon grabbing him roughly around the torso and mashing his lips against John's ear. "You can't help him if you get killed," he muttered, and that was all too fucking true.

Ronon half-flung him across the room once the door clanged shut, and John wanted to launch himself back to punch him, except that would have been stupid. It took everything he had to get a hold of himself, and, instead of flinging himself at Ronon, John braced his palms against the wall and took deep breaths and tried not to think about how he was probably the shittiest military commander in the history of ever. It wasn't made any easier when Teyla gasped softly and shuddered against the far wall, pained by her direct line to Rodney: living proof of everything that had gone wrong. Ronon curled his arms around her protectively, and that's where they were when the walls lit up.

"McKay," John said, looking up at the brightly glowing ceiling.

"Yeah," Ronon said approvingly. "Got the lights on," except these were more than lights; Rodney'd powered up the Ancient circuits inside the walls. John ran his hand over the door; it didn't open for him, but there still was a trail of faintly glowing light. He found the panel nearest the door and began trying to pry it up with his fingernails.

Ronon watched him curiously. "What are you doing?"

"I don't know," John grunted. "Something. Haven't you got—a knife or—" and between Ronon's knife and his belt buckle, they got the panel open and began messing with the hideously melded jumble of crystals, magnets, and wires.

They hadn't yet managed to get the door open when they heard the metal-on-metal scrape of the door being unlocked, which gave them just enough time to slide the panel cover back in place; it wouldn't pass scrutiny, but they'd get by at a glance.

They didn't even get a glance: the guards just pushed Rodney in and slammed the door. Rodney stayed on his feet, but now it was obvious he'd been drugged: he was flushed and sweating and jittering like a cokehead. There was something terrible about this unnatural energy, but John tried to look on the bright side: at least he was mobile.

"Okay," Rodney managed, and he was pacing the cell frantically, like he couldn't stop moving, "okay, okay, so we really need to get out of here, all right?" And then Rodney turned, grabbed Teyla's arms and practically shouted into her face, "For Christ's sake, do you hear me?" and John had to cross the cell and drag him off her.

"Rodney," John said, feeling sick, and Rodney wheeled on him, and God, he looked terrible, like he might pop a blood vessel; what the fuck had they given him? He tried to sound calm. "We're going to get you out of here, pal, we're going to—" and it was then that he saw the bloodstain seeping through the front of Rodney's shirt.

"Sheppard," Rodney breathed, raising his palms and pulling away like John might hurt him, like touching John might burn him. "We—we have to go now," he said, the words rushing out of him. "Like—now. Right now. Absolutely right now, not a second to waste, come on, chop-chop—"

Well, amen to that. "Yeah," John agreed carefully. "Yeah, Rodney, we're going. Look over here: we're going to rig the door to—"

"Screw that," Rodney said, lifting his hand and waving it over the panel. There was a flash of light and then the sound of the bolt turning; a moment later, the door slid open. "See? Look! Two hands! No waiting! All right, now, come on; we have to go now now now now now now," Rodney said, and rushed out, into the hall.

Ronon followed instantly—Ronon could never stand to be caged anywhere—but John hesitated and looked at Teyla. "It is all right," she murmured, and then Rodney was calling, "Come on, people! Let's go!" in a horrible, strained voice, and so they ran after him, following him down the hallway and through the beautifully designed passages of the city, back toward the Stargate, as the walls slowly lit up around them.

"Hurry," Rodney said, sounding tight and out of breath, and fuck, he looked like he was going to have a heart attack or something. He stopped a couple of times to clutch at his chest, but John just grabbed him by the shoulders and tugged him relentlessly onwards, exhorting him to "...c'mon, Rodney... just hold on..." for just a few more minutes.

John had never been so happy to see a Stargate. Crazy bastards; he had half a mind to come back here with a serious whup-ass contingent of Marines. Rodney was bent over the DHD, bracing himself with one hand and gasping for air as he dialed, and then there was the reassuring whoosh of the event horizon blazing blue and strong.

Rodney yelled, "Go! Everybody just go!" and they all ran toward it. Teyla and Ronon disappeared in two plops of blue light, and John was close to passing through himself when Rodney grabbed him violently by the arm.

"What—?" John said, whirling around, but Rodney tugged at his shirt with both hands, pulling him close and kissing him wet and sloppy. John felt fear, and a stab of arousal, as Rodney's hot, clumsy hands clutched his face, then slid up to caress his hair. Rodney's tongue in his mouth was shockingly, staggeringly intimate.

When Rodney pulled his mouth away, his eyes were wild, his hands sticky as they slid down John's neck to grip his shoulders. "I've learned so much from you," Rodney said, tugging him forward for another quick, hard kiss, and before John could get his head together to say, "Huh?" or "What?" or "Wait!" Rodney's hands were tightening on his shoulders and he was grunting and pushing John hard, shoving him backwards. John plunged back through the gate, landing hard on his ass in the Atlantis gateroom and staring up at the event horizon in horror as it abruptly winked out of existence.

Part Two.

Everything devolved into chaos. "Dial the gate," John yelled, scrabbling to his feet. "We have to go back; Rodney's still—"

Elizabeth was hurrying over; so was Lorne; so were the Marines. "John," Elizabeth said breathlessly. "What—"

"We have to go back," John said. "Rodney's still there," and Elizabeth, bless her, instantly turned and called the command up to the gate technician. He turned to Lorne and said, "Get your squad together—"

"Sir!" the gate technician called down. "That address is blocked."

What the fuck. "That can't—" John called back. "We just came from there."

"Yes, sir!" the gate technician replied. "It's blocked on their end, sir!" and John just stared at him as his mind shuttled through the possibilities. Had the Nubrati shut down the gate? Had Rodney—for some goddamned inexplicable reason—shut it down himself? He felt a hard, visceral memory: Rodney's hands gripping his shirt, Rodney's mouth against his. I've learned so much from you—and fuck, what did that even mean?

"Get me the address of the nearest open gate," John called up, and then, turning to Elizabeth, "I'll take a jumper and—"

A hand landed on his arm, and he turned and saw Teyla's serious face. "No," she said. "Not you."

John could only gape at her. "What?"

"You can not go on this mission," Teyla said implacably. "Rodney said—"

"Rodney said?" and right then, John could have punched Rodney's incredibly irritating face in. "When the hell did Rodney—"

"It was in his mind," Teyla answered, and honestly, anybody but Teyla, he'd have thought they were cracked. "He was insistent; I did not understand, but—"

Elizabeth was staring at them like they were both crazy. "You have to slow down. Both of you, you have to—"

"—he was insistent: not you. No one with the gene can be allowed to participate in the rescue mission," Teyla clarified, her eyes locked with his, "but especially not you."

"Oh, I see," John said with childish bitterness. "So McKay's in charge now?"

"All right, that's it," Elizabeth said sharply. "Both of you—and Ronon—upstairs in my office right now. Major Lorne," she said, turning to him, "assemble your team in the gateroom and await my orders."

"Yes, ma'am," Lorne said, two fingers scraping his brow.

Upstairs, John forced himself to sit still and listen to Teyla's account of their imprisonment by the Nubrati, even though it read to him like a catalog of his own personal failures: caught with his pants down—check; let them capture and torture his teammate—check; unable to orchestrate any sort of escape—check.

Teyla was saying, "...but that I could feel his emotions, and later, his thoughts, suggests to me that at least some of this technology was Wraith-based..." John stared down at his hands. "When Rodney returned," Teyla continued, "he had evidently been given some sort of stimulant, and when he grabbed hold of me, I heard his thoughts clearly—"

Not you.

"—and he was quite firm that no one possessing the Ancient gene should be allowed to return to M80-4908." Teyla glanced briefly at John and then said, chin raised, "He made particular reference to the Colonel."

Elizabeth folded her hands in front of her. "Teyla," she said with deep seriousness. "Can we be sure that...well, you said yourself that Rodney had been drugged and was under considerable stress. Can we be sure that he was in his right mind?"

"Wasting time, wasting time," John muttered.

Teyla ignored him. "Yes," she said. "I believe that Dr. McKay was trying to warn us of a genuine danger. I believe that the Nubrati were exploiting Rodney's own possession of the ATA gene, and that he wished to prevent anyone else from suffering as he did," and John had to look away, because Jesus, this was worse than a court-martial.

"Very well," Elizabeth said decisively. "John, I'm sorry, you're off this mission," and then she flicked her communicator and said, "Major Lorne. Please see to it that the search and rescue team is composed only of soldiers who lack the ATA gene," and, when Lorne copied that, Elizabeth sent Teyla and Ronon down to brief the troops.

When the door closed behind them, Elizabeth turned to him and said, with soft, unwanted sympathy, "You were with him at the gate. How did you get separated?"

John couldn't look at her, so trained his eyes slightly to her right. "He ambushed me—pushed me through the gate and then didn't come through. No," he added, grating the words out before she could ask the question, "I don't know why."

Elizabeth frowned. "Do you think he was in his right mind?"

John remembered the way Rodney's eyes had been fixed on his, wild and kind of sad. John groaned softly and let his head roll forward. "Yeah," he said, sighing and scrubbing at his hair. "He knew what he was doing."

"All right," Elizabeth said in her grave schoolteacher voice, the one she used when she'd let you work your own way through an argument and hoped you now saw its inevitable conclusion, "so let's assume Rodney knows something we don't. Major Lorne's out, too; who's the highest ranking officer without the gene?"

John stared at her narrowly, feeling like a delinquent schoolboy. "Highest ranking? Or best qualified? Because the best qualified person to lead this mission is Teyla."

Elizabeth nodded slowly and then said, cautiously, "Will the Marines take orders from—"

John cut her off. "They'd damn well better."

"All right," Elizabeth said.

It was petty, but John waited until Elizabeth reached for her communicator before saying, with a lazy shrug, "Of course, that's not your biggest problem." He was meanly gratified when Elizabeth's hand froze in mid-air. She shot him a sharp, inquisitive look and John added, not at all helpfully, "With the mission," because, damn it to hell, he was going to make her ask him the goddamned question.

Elizabeth pulled her hand back, looking worried. "What problem are you referring to?"

"Well, you can't gate through," John explained, adopting Elizabeth's own, restrained, I'm-going-to-let-you-work-this-out-for-yourself tone, "because it's blocked from their end. So you're going to have to gate to a nearby planet and fly over. Except..."

Now it was Elizabeth's turn to groan. "No pilot."

"Mm," John agreed, and slouched back in his chair.

"All right, John," Elizabeth sighed; she knew he was fucking with her. "What do you suggest?" and then she added, in a quiet voice, "You understand that time may be a factor," and John blindly stumbled to his feet, fighting to control himself.

"You think I don't understand that?" John nearly shouted. "I understand that! You're the one who doesn't understand," and she couldn't, of course she couldn't, because he hadn't told her the part where Rodney had kissed him before shoving him through the gate, which was about as close to a suicide note as John had ever gotten from anyone. "Rodney doesn't think we're going to make it in time! And he may be right," John added, gulping raggedly for breath and trying to rationally tick the points off on his fingers, "because the fact is that the gate's closed on their side, which means we've got to fly in, and it's already bad enough that we've got to fly to Kabul by way of fucking Detroit, but if we follow Rodney's bullshit idea about not sending a jumper and a pilot—well, we'll never get there," and there, there it was.

Elizabeth looked wide-eyed and shocked, and she said, "Yes—I—I take your point."

"Well, good," John said, still trying to catch his breath. "I'm glad we understand each other. So I'm going. I'm taking a jumper and a full complement of Marines—"

John bit off the words as the door opened and Teyla came in carrying a computer tablet and a stylus. "Yes?" Elizabeth asked, and Teyla showed her a quick, thin smile before turning and addressing her report to John. "Colonel," Teyla said, "we have, as you requested, compiled a list of the gates nearest to M80-4908. We have searched within that list for industrial worlds," she added, glancing down at the tablet, "which have air travel or some other advanced form of transportation."

"That won't be—" John began, thinking, fuck, but Elizabeth quickly said, "Yes, yes; of course. Good thinking, Teyla." John sighed and sat down.

Teyla referred again to her tablet. "There is one promising candidate. The people of M8Y-6893, known to its inhabitants as Klara, have developed a shuttlecraft, which they use to make trips to their lunar colony, Vista. These craft are not quite as advanced as our puddlejumpers, but Dr. Zelenka believes that they could be rigged to make the journey. Estimated time: three days."

John winced involuntarily, and Teyla gently pointed out, "A jumper would take nearly as long." This was true, but not comforting. Rodney didn't think they were going to make it in time, and Rodney had the annoying habit of being right about everything.

"Dr. Zelenka also thinks he can fit the Klaran shuttlecraft with a cloaking device from one of our jumpers," Teyla continued. "The cloak can be operated by remote and does not require the gene. Moreover, it would restore to us the element of surprise."

Elizabeth turned to him with raised eyebrows, and John nodded slowly: it was a crappy plan, but not really crappier than him flying a puddlejumper. It would still take days.

"Okay, yeah," John said finally. "Better get on that." Teyla ducked her head and withdrew. John looked away and mumbled, "Like I said, she's pretty good."

"Yes," Elizabeth agreed. "Yes, you were right about that."

"I guess I'm back on the bench," John said.

"Yes. Yes, I'm sorry, John," and then, as they both stood, Elizabeth bit her lip and added, hesitantly, "You know, it's all right to let other people carry the ball now and then."

"Yeah," John said, and left.

The rescue team assembled in the gateroom: Teyla, Ronon, Zelenka, twelve Marines (who had never trained together because the goddamned gene crossed both team and squad lines), and Dr. Rosser, because of course Beckett was off-limits, too. But they looked good, John told himself, trying to stem the rising panic. They looked stealthy and dangerous in their tac vests; armed and ready.

Three days, his mind whispered, and he clenched his hands on the balcony railing and tried not to freak out. Three days to get there, and Christ knew what state they'd find Rodney in. And then maybe they could gate back to Atlantis, but then again maybe they couldn't, in which case it would be another three days back to Klara. John raised his hand to his earpiece and asked, "Dr. Rosser's got a full kit of medical supplies, right? Because McKay could be in bad shape—"

Beckett's voice was reassuring. "Yes, Colonel; we're sending everything we can."

Down on the gateroom floor, the Marines were in position. Teyla came forward and looked up at him. "We're ready, Colonel." John gritted his teeth and nodded, leaving it to Elizabeth to give the actual command. "Dial the gate," she said, and John could only stand there and watch as the rescue team turned and walked through the event horizon without him.

The days that followed were among the worst of his life. John tried to go about his business, except everything reminded him that he was the only member of his team still in Atlantis. Nobody dragged him off to target practice; the gym was empty; the lab he haunted was dark aside from the soft glow of abandoned computer monitors. Nobody came to his room. He sat at their usual table when he went to the mess, and people had the good sense to leave him alone, to know those empty chairs weren't any sort of invitation.

Without anyone to shoot with, spar with, or eat with, John took long, solitary runs and played Tetris until his hand cramped. Eventually, he found himself reduced to meditation, unrolling one of Teyla's neatly coiled tatami mats and sitting in the familiar, sweat-spicy air of the empty gym. If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could almost hear Teyla murmuring, Ronon snoring, and Rodney huffing away in anti-spiritualist contempt.

It all felt like a judgment; like everything else had only been preparation for this moment, this particular failure. His whole life, everyone assumed that his father was pulling strings for him, that he would never have made the Academy on his own, or his first commission, or his first promotion. He'd tried overcompensating for a while, but seriously: undercompensating was a lot easier. People still thought his father was pulling strings, but consistently underachieving at least left him with time to work on his hobbies. By the time he made Captain, he had a 2.5 handicap.

He'd thought he'd adopted mediocrity as a political position, but now he had to confront the idea that maybe he just really sucked. It was easy to convince yourself you were slumming among the numb-nuts of the 40th percentile, but here, in Atlantis, you didn't get far on long-nourished feelings of smug superiority; Rodney could have told him that. No, you had to pull miracles out of your ass every goddamned day, and Rodney could have told him that, too.

He had to stop thinking about Rodney.

Still, he couldn't help replaying the mission in his mind: Why the hell had they gone there, anyway? (Because the Ancients had left technology behind.) When should he have figured out the Nubrati were batshit crazy? (A hell of a lot earlier.) Should he have let them take his gun? (Hell, no.) Should he and Ronon have thrown themselves in front of McKay? (Hell, yes.) The worst part was remembering Rodney stuttering and sweating and hurrying down the hallway, and how the hell had he let Rodney (kiss him) get the jump on him like that? He should have grabbed him and physically pulled him through the gate; he should have—

He should be using his time better. He should be drilling the Marines, catching up on his paperwork, doing all the things he normally never had time for. He should wander around Atlantis, do the leadership thing: talk to people, get to know them, show them that he was accessible and friendly, even though he wasn't really accessible or friendly. But he could smile and make small talk. Elizabeth did it. It couldn't be that hard. Except somehow, for him, it was; he got just about as far as asking two of the newer scientists, "So, hey. How's it going?" when he was nearly crippled by the awful fakeness of his own question and had to go and lock himself in his office.

By the third day, John was nearly manic with suppressed adrenaline and spent the morning pacing within earshot of the main communicator, because hey, maybe they were early; maybe Zelenka'd found a way to soup up the shuttlecraft; maybe there'd be—

"John!" and he was brought up short by the exasperation in Elizabeth Weir's voice. "Please come in and sit down. Or go see Dr. Beckett; he can give you something to—"

John just shook his head. "I'm fine. I feel fine—"

"That may be." She came closer and lowered her voice. "But you're driving everyone crazy."

He wheeled on her, half-angry and half-pleading. "We're finally going to get some news, right? One way or the other, there'll be news. I'll take all the Valium you like once this is over, once all this goddamned standing around and waiting is—"

Elizabeth showed him a cold wry smile. "Welcome to my life, Colonel."

John shot back, "Yeah, well, I don't know how you stand it!"

Elizabeth sighed. "Look, Colonel; go and get something to eat," and before John could protest, she said, sharply: "I could make it an order," and then, more kindly, "I'll call you right away if we hear anything," and so he really had to go.

Besides, Elizabeth was right, of course; a watched pot never boiled, and so he went down to the mess and filled his tray and waited to be interrupted. He found a table, sat down, chewed everything thoroughly, got a second cup of coffee—and still there was nothing. Three days; seventy-two hours flying time. Now it was seventy-three. Seventy-four. Seventy-five. He shoved the tray away and braced his head in his hands, wanting to puke it all up.

He went back to the command center, and noticed with mean satisfaction that Elizabeth was now worriedly hovering near the radio, too. "They're a little late for check-in," she said, trying to sound casual about it. "It's probably nothing."

"Probab-ly," John repeated, falsely cheery. "Because I can tell you from personal experience that when I'm late for check in, it's never because I've been staple-gunned to a wall or trapped in an avalanche or under attack by Godzilla or anything. Usually I've just stopped for a latte."

The look that crossed Elizabeth's face said, clear as day, "I think I liked you better when you were antisocial and uncommunicative," and John was already preparing a retort of, "Yeah, you and everyone else," when she surprised him by taking his hand in hers and squeezing it; Elizabeth rarely if ever touched him. He twitched but did not pull away.

"It's going to be all right, John," she said in a soft, firm voice, and while she was totally unconvincing, he felt a sudden, horrible urge to cry. "We'll get through this; we've faced much, much worse," and John was saved from gnawing his own arm off by the sound of the communicator connecting through the gate.

"It's them, sir!" the communication officer called.

He got to his radio before Elizabeth did. "Teyla," he began. "What's happening?"

"I'm sorry, sir, this is Sgt. Lampert," and fuck, that was not a good sign, where was— "Teyla's asked me to report to you that we've encountered some difficulties, sir. We've infiltrated the Nubrati compound, secured the gate, and located Dr. McKay—" and John jerked to look at Elizabeth, sure that the relief he saw on her face was mirrored on his own—"but it's not going to be so easy to get him out of here. They—sir, they have an Ancient command chair," Lampert said, in a rushed, shaken voice, and John braced himself; he had to be calm, impartial, clear-headed. "Except it's not like our chair. It's like a hybrid, made of spare parts and—sir, Dr. McKay's been bolted into it."

John heard Elizabeth's soft gasp before he could make sense of what Lampert had said. Bolted? What the hell did he—? "Sergeant, explain," he said tersely.

"Dr. Rosser and Dr. Zelenka are working to free him, sir. They think he's all right, but they're obviously trying to get him out with minimum injury, and it's slow going. Teyla's with them," and suddenly John felt sick—really sick—and had to turn away and hide his face.

Elizabeth had gathered herself, and was sharp and together in a way that made him feel embarrassed for himself. "Where are the Nubrati?" she asked. "What's the military situation?"

"They're not happy, ma'am, but we're holding them at bay; Dr. McKay as much as anyone. He's blowing out their power systems—and sir," Lampert said sharply, and John jerked his head up, "I'd like to request formal permission to blow that chair to holy heaven once McKay's out of it."

"Yeah," John said grimly. "Yeah, Sergeant, you do that."

The rescue team made their next report forty minutes later, by which time John was seriously thinking about taking that Valium. But now it was Teyla on the line—and Teyla was team, Teyla was part of him. He knew all the subtlest nuances of her voice, and so he had the substance of the story—she was frustrated, but not desperate, which meant McKay was alive and basically okay—from her tone of voice within three words.

"Colonel, this is Teyla. Dr. McKay is all right, and the machine has been destroyed," but John's mind was already clicking ahead. McKay was alive, they were probably secure, so—

"Can you gate back?" John asked, pacing. "Because I can have a medical team—"

"We cannot bring Dr. McKay through the gate," Teyla said grimly. "The Nubrati have implanted him with a device that prevents it; it does not de- and re-materialize properly. They have devised it," and that was anger rising, he could hear it, "to stop their slaves escaping."

"Oh, that's just great," John said, and it was a relief to know that Teyla heard everything he couldn't say, which was along the lines of fuck these guys, I could kill them all.

"Yes," Teyla agreed. "It is not as deeply embedded as was Ronon's tracking device, but Dr. Rosser would prefer not to do even minor surgery under these conditions. I am inclined to agree, as the Nubrati are no doubt rallying for an attack. They do not wish us to take Dr. McKay from them, and I would not like to be here when they discover that we have destroyed their command chair. Its restoration has been their proudest achievement," Teyla said bitterly, "and they have been desperately seeking an ATA carrier to operate it."

The world went out of focus. They had needed a gene carrier. "Put him on," John heard himself saying. "McKay. I want to talk to McKay."

Teyla sounded surprised. "He is not—John, there is not time for—"

"Just for a second," John interrupted. "I want to hear him say a complete sentence," and a moment later, he heard Rodney say, in a voice that was weak but reassuringly full of sarcasm, "This spaceship you sent me, what is it: the hotel courtesy van?"

John felt relief so strong it nearly knocked him over. "Yeah," he said, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. "Yeah, you're taking the bus; it was cheaper."

"Go Greyhound," Rodney sighed, and then, obviously straining for menace: "I'll get you for this, Sheppard." His voice broke a little bit on "get," but John appreciated the effort.

"Yeah, yeah," John said, lightly punching the radio console. "Just get your ass home, all right?"

It was another three days before the rescue team reached Klara, but at least the news was mostly good. The surgery was more complex and had taken longer than expected, but Dr. Rosser had successfully removed the device the Nubrati had inserted into Rodney's chest, apparently quite near the heart. It had turned out to be a jagged oval about three inches wide and two inches high, and made of no element they had ever encountered. Zelenka requested Elizabeth's permission to remain behind to study it; he had a theory that the device would, over time, eat its way into whatever organ it was nearest, thus functioning as a kind of patch. When a person went through the gate, the device would fail to materialize, thus leaving the person on the other side with a sudden, gaping hole in their heart, or lung, or stomach. Rodney's device had already begun to work its way in, but thankfully hadn't yet embedded itself in the thoracic cavity. He was going to be fine, Teyla told John three or four times, and then she put Rosser on so that John could hear it from him a couple of times, too.

Nevertheless, John had a full medical team waiting in the gateroom. John took up a position behind them, arms crossed so that he wouldn't keep looking at his watch. They'd be here. Any minute now. They'd be here, and this would be over. He'd been making notes to himself, thinking about what to say to Rodney, things like, "Don't you ever," and "We don't split up the team," and "Your job is science, McKay; leave tactics and strategy to me," but suddenly the gate attendant was yelling, "Offworld activation! Sgt. Lampert's IDC," and John's mind went blank. As the gate klaxon sounded and the event horizon whooshed into being, John found himself moving helplessly forward, past the nurses and the gurney and Beckett. The Marines were the first through—Lampert and Kinney and Wilson; Robertson, Dodge, and McCormick—and then there they were: Teyla and Ronon, flanking Rodney, who was on his feet and moving under his own steam, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He looked like shit—old and exhausted and with a week's worth of scraggly gray-brown beard, and John pushed past the Marines and slung an arm around his neck. John's other arm slid blindly around Teyla's waist, and Rodney let out a breath and sort of fell against him, and he felt Ronon's hand on his back, and then they were pulling together, tightly, into a warm secure mass, and John had never felt this way before; never; not in his entire life.

Part Three.

That should have been the end of it. Beckett took Rodney, grumping and whining, to the infirmary. Elizabeth gave Teyla a formal written commendation and a medal, which Teyla proudly pinned to one of her tiny leather tank tops. Ronon showed up at his door at 0530 and made him run for what felt like a hundred miles. So things were normal, and that should have been the end of it, except somehow it wasn't.

So he went to the infirmary, prepared to launch into his "Don't you evers," and "From now ons," but he was distracted by the gauze peeping out of the gap in Rodney's hospital gown, the fraying white bandage wrapped around his left forearm. And then Rodney disarmed him completely by looking away and mumbling his thanks. John had barely managed to say, "Yeah—of course—I mean—we don't leave people—" when Rodney turned back, looking vastly relieved, and seized control of the conversation, letting John off the hook with a wave of his hand, then we're even, fine, great, no problem, and informing him in a tone of smug superiority that the Daedalus had arrived and brought sports news. John groaned and slumped back in the visitor's chair, knowing this couldn't be good, and of course it wasn't; based on the last two months of Canadian football scores, Rodney's model had been more accurate at predicting both the winner and the point spread. John stared at the ceiling and seethed with resentment; probably his mathematical model was for shit, but right now it felt like a vast Canadian conspiracy.

"Let me see that," John snarled finally, yanking the tablet out of Rodney's hand, and dammit, Rodney's model had predicted the winner almost 59 percent of the time, which was pretty statistically significant. His own model was hovering at a pathetic 52 percent; he would have done better flipping a coin. "Well, how the hell is a person supposed to predict a sport that sucks this bad?" John asked, shoving the tablet back at Rodney, who was leaning back against his pillows and grinning and humming something that sounded terrifyingly like "We Are The Champions."

"Fine, then," Rodney said with an airy wave of his hand. "Pick your poison, Sheppard. American football's just started, or we can do the World Series, or—hey, it's almost hockey season," and by the time John left the infirmary, racking his brain about how to alter his model so that it a) now predicted baseball and b) actually worked, he had forgotten that he hadn't come here to be thanked by Rodney, but to be mad at him, to find out what the hell he'd been thinking back there on M80-4908.

The mission report Rodney filed was no help; it was frustratingly, uncharacteristically, vague. Rodney could usually be counted upon to describe every blister and hangnail in loving detail, as well as miles walked, pounds lifted, hours wasted, and forms of stupidity encountered. But this time, he was aggravatingly brief. The Nubrati, Rodney explained, had not chosen him for his scientific genius, but because they'd assumed that the others' protective stance marked him as a valuable ATA gene carrier. In this, they'd been correct, and after thrusting a series of crystals into his hands and watching them light up, they'd begun giving him orders. When he had balked—and John didn't have to read between the lines to know that Rodney had balked; Rodney always balked at orders—they had drugged him to make him more pliable and taken him to the chair by force.

Rodney's report got a little hazy then, and Rodney claimed that this was because he had gone a little hazy then—and yeah, all right, John remembered Rodney being dumped on the mattress very nearly unconscious. But Rodney was claiming not to remember much of anything between those first injections and Teyla's arrival with the Marines, and John just didn't believe that. For one thing, he'd talked to Rodney during that time, remembered Rodney saying, we've got to get out of here and two hands! no waiting! and I've learned so much from you. Moreover, he remembered how Rodney had looked—twitchy and hyped, but cogent and rational and (sad, Jesus, so sad)—and knew that Rodney was lying.

So John had to piece the story together from other people's reports. Sgt. Lampert described finding Rodney semi-conscious in the command chair, arms and legs bolted down and an I.V. taped to each wrist. This matched Beckett's description of Rodney's injuries, so John guessed that the Nubrati had locked Rodney down after their escape, which meant he'd been in that chair for days. Beckett had also found a staggering array of chemicals in Rodney's system—not only a rainbow of depressants and stimulants, but Wraith enzyme and several unfamiliar psychotropic compounds. This seemed to fit with Ronon's claim that while some of the technology was Ancient, most of it was Wraith, and some of it was something Ronon called "Aemelian": apparently a Pegasus technology controlled by brainwaves. Rodney had been altered to interface with all of them.

So now he knew what had happened. In the back of his brain, he'd hoped that having the facts would give him command of the situation, or at least make him feel like a part of it. It didn't, though. He couldn't seem to get back in the game; hell, he couldn't even get offworld until Beckett cleared Rodney for duty.

So he did paperwork. He requisitioned personnel. He looked for military applications for the scientists' latest discoveries. He rewrote his betting model for baseball, cribbing from an article on exponential frequency distributions he'd found on the scientists' database, altering the formulas so they accepted baseball stats instead of data on the frequency of solar flares. It was something to do, anyway.

So was pestering Rodney. "Rodney," John said absently, chewing on the end of a pen as he watched his model churn through the 1990 World Series, Cincinnati vs. Oakland.

The radio crackled in his ear. "Yes, what?"

He'd been meaning to suck it up and ask Rodney about the math, but something in Rodney's tone made him stop, tilt his head, and drawl, "What are you doing?"

"Hm? I'm—" Rodney's tone was distracted, and then suddenly he seemed to really hear John's question. "I'm working; what does it matter what I'm doing?"

"I dunno," John said, speaking as slowly as he could manage without giving the game away. He leaned back in his chair and smiled, pen still in his mouth. "I was just curious."

"Well, if you must know, I am trying to take advantage of what is, sadly, the only period of 'down time' I am likely to get in the near future, which I am using to catch up with the actual scientific research that only I am capable of doing, never mind that I purchased this time with my health—"

John sat up, took the pen out of his mouth, and frowned. "Yeah, how are you feeling?"

"Fine," Rodney snapped. "Better. Thanks for asking."

"Oh yeah? How much better is better?"

A long sigh came over the radio. "Listen, I'm perfectly aware that we're grounded until Beckett clears me, and that you're roughly two and a half centimeters from snapping," and John cringed so hard that he jerked in his chair. "But Beckett's keeping an eye on the one scar; he just wants to make sure it won't pop open if, say, I have to run away from something really fast. Not that that ever happens."

There was that too-familiar sick feeling. "Rodney—"

"Look, I'm having a check-up tomorrow. I'll tell Beckett he has to—"

"—no, don't. I'm not rushing you. I don't want you to be—" and fuck, the pen had snapped in his hand, and he dropped it onto his notebook, ink smearing everywhere, blotting out his formulas, and okay, this was not normal, there was nothing normal about this. John took a deep breath and stared down at his blue-smeared hands. "I need to talk to you," he said.

"Hi!" Rodney snapped, obviously out of patience with him. "Hello! McKay on the radio, here—"

"No, I mean," John began, distractedly looking around for something to blot his hands with, "what are you doing? Where are you?"

The words were practically shouted into his ear. "Busy! Science! Working!"

"Okay, fine, later. Dinner. We'll get something to eat," and then, when Rodney didn't say anything, "Don't tell me you're not going to eat," and then, when Rodney still didn't say anything, "Or after dinner's all right, too."

"No, no, no," Rodney said quickly. "Dinner's fine. See you at six."

Rodney always went in for an earlyish dinner, mainly because he often grabbed a late second dinner if he was planning a long night in the labs. Ronon and Teyla usually ate early, too, but that was just them being all healthy and stuff, whereas John, left to his own devices, probably would have forgotten to eat at all, or would just have swung by the mess whenever his stomach rumbled. But if the others were committed to an early dinner, he was happy enough to show up and eat with his team.

He showed up early, partly to ambush Rodney and partly because if he spent another five minutes in his office playing computer games, he was going to kill somebody, very possibly himself. Teyla and Ronon were already there, smiling and talking to each other and piling their plates with exotic local fruits. Rodney arrived soon after, and John couldn't tell if he was imagining Rodney's brief moment of hesitation before he picked up his tray and got in line.

"So. What are they serving?" Rodney asked.

"Oh, you know, the usual," John replied. "Roast beast, that purple thing they keep telling us is a vegetable, and all the Kraft macaroni and cheese you can stand."

Rodney's mouth quirked up happily. "You know, you just can't have enough fake cheese sauce," he said, gesturing expansively. "Seriously, life would be great if they just put it over everything."

"Right, and then your arteries would clog and harden and you would die," John said.

"I love how you pretend to be a man who doesn't eat junk food," Rodney said, pushing past him and snagging a bag of potato chips. "You must have me confused with someone who hasn't seen you hoarding Cheetos—"

"I do not hoard—"

"You do, you really do, so shut up," Rodney said, and then: "Oh, look, it's Teyla," and he was off and heading for their usual table before John could grab his arm; he'd really been hoping to steer Rodney somewhere more private. John sighed, balancing his tray on one arm, and nobly bypassed the chips for a piece of local fruit.

"—missed you at meditation this morning," Teyla said with a wry smile, and Rodney laughed and said, around a forkful of macaroni and cheese, "Ah, yes, well, you see, Teyla, when and if I'm actually lucky enough to snag a few minutes of time for uninterrupted thought, I'd like the results to be somewhat more productive." "More productive?" Teyla replied with a wide-eyed seriousness that meant she wasn't serious at all. "But Rodney, meditation reorganizes the psyche," whereupon Rodney went into a long, fork-waving diatribe about how he'd need more than a couple of hours of yoga and humming to reorganize his psyche, it was so crammed with stuff: two Ph.Ds worth of knowledge and theory, endless bits of potentially useful trivia, and more personal baggage than a person could shake a stick at; very possibly special shelves needed to be built. "Seriously," Rodney finished, "I couldn't reorganize my hard drive in a couple of hours, let alone my psyche."

Ronon shrugged and licked his fingers. "Good time for a nap, though." Teyla glared at him and threw him an elbow to the ribs. Ronon grinned at her.

John abandoned the pretext of eating his roast beast and said, to Rodney, "You never told me what happened. When you were captured." The whole table went still, and then Rodney went on shoveling macaroni into his mouth, and Teyla continued peeling fruit. Ronon slung an arm over the back of his chair and arched an eyebrow at him.

"Sure I did," Rodney said, doing a really passable imitation of normal. "I filed a report."

"As did I," Teyla said, and John jerked to look at her; he hadn't expected her to run interference for Rodney. "Our mission went well; the Marines you chose had obviously been extremely well trained—"

"I don't mean the mission," John said, more sharply than he'd meant to.

But Teyla retained her usual composure. "Oh, I see. Of course, we all share your concern for Rodney's welfare," and John was suddenly furious and embarrassed, because he hadn't exactly been thinking about Rodney's welfare; not exactly. Teyla turned to Rodney. "Have you been seeing Dr. Heightmeyer?"

Rodney let out a snort. "Had to, yes; one session. For what it's worth, I'd rather meditate," and before John could say anything more, he lifted his hand and said, "If we're going to have this conversation, I need more coffee."

"I will go with you," Teyla said, and stood up, too.

That left him with Ronon, who just looked at him. "All right, what?" John demanded.

Ronon shrugged. "Cut him some slack. He thought he was going to die, Sheppard. People say stuff they can't live with otherwise." He got up, tossed his napkin onto the table, and walked out, intercepting Teyla on the way. Rodney came back to the table alone, carrying a cup of coffee and a plate with two donuts.

"Here," Rodney said, shoving the plate at him. "They're gone, you can stop faking."

"You lied on your report," John accused.

"I didn't," Rodney protested.

John clenched his hands. "Fine, you omitted. Hell of an omission, Rodney—"

Rodney shook his head. "I don't remember anything," he insisted. "It's all a blur—"

"God, you're such a fucking liar," John exploded, and Rodney looked around, obviously worried that people would overhear them. "You can't tell me you don't remember coming back to the cell, and you can't tell me you don't remember orchestrating our escape. You knew they'd implanted a device in you, you knew what it did—"

"Yes, yes," Rodney hissed, lowering his voice and leaning over the table. "All right, yes, I wanted you guys to get out before they implanted you, too; after all, somebody had to organize my rescue. Which I believe I already thanked you for," Rodney added, glaring at him pointedly, "any number of times, so what do you want from me, blood?"

John felt a pang of disorientation so sharp it was almost a physical pain; that wasn't what he remembered, that wasn't how he remembered it. "You're driving me crazy," he said in a low, sincere voice. "No, really; I mean it. If you don't say something that makes sense to me in the next five seconds, I'm going to lose it, I swear to God—"

An expression of guilt flashed across Rodney's face. "All right," he said in a low, hurried voice. "I remember the cell, I remember the gate. But I'm not lying about the drugs; ask Beckett. I was really messed—Jesus Christ, not now!" Rodney shouted, and John jerked to see two scientists hesitantly approaching their table. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of something?" and the two scientists cringed and ran for their lives. Around them, people averted their eyes and began eating with great concentration.

John turned back to Rodney and hissed, "Why didn't you tell me what was going on? You knew you weren't coming with us, but you just stood there and—"

"You're priceless, you know that?" Rodney demanded. "Like you'd have gone if I—"

"Me," John repeated, stabbing a finger at him. "Admit it; this is about me. Not Ronon. Not Teyla."

"Fine. Fine. You," Rodney said tightly.

"You withheld information from me, pivotal information, so you could lead me, mislead me—"

"Fine, yes; it was all about you; of course, you! You crazy asshole!—the whole point, all that mattered, was getting you out of there before you started lighting things up. They'd never have let go of you; you were the goddamned jackpot." Rodney took a breath, then said, flatly: "You wouldn't have gone if I'd told you—"

"You're damn right I wouldn't've!" John shouted. "Because it's my job to protect—"

"You wouldn't. Have gone." Rodney's voice was relentless. "You would have stayed there and let them hook you up to machines and—" Rodney's voice had risen to something almost hysterical, and he had to stop and take another deep breath. "I didn't do anything you wouldn't have done," he said. "For the team," he added, giving the word an unexpectedly hard spin. "Or even for me." Rodney stared down at the formica tabletop. "And you have to know that we—me, Ronon, Teyla—we would do anything to stop..." Rodney frowned and trailed off, apparently losing his train of thought. And then he found it again, and lifted his head. "We would do anything for you," he said. "If you don't know that, you're even stupider than we think you are."

John felt a violent hammering in his chest; he didn't know what to do with that. "So this was a team thing," he said slowly. "You and Ronon and Teyla. Saving me from myself."

Rodney turned away, and John saw his ears were almost painfully red. "Yes."

"Well, hey, thanks for that," John said.

Rodney bit his lip. "Yes, well. Any time."

John bent forward over the table and whispered, "Except they didn't kiss me. You did."

The completely wrecked expression that flitted across Rodney's face almost made him sorry he'd said anything. "That was—a mistake," Rodney said, and then he was scraping his chair back, and standing up, hands coming up between them like he was trying to protect himself. "I was overwrought," he said, backpedaling. "Understandably. It won't happen again," and then he snatched up one of the donuts and fled the mess.

John watched him go, then slowly ate the other donut, washing it down with Rodney's abandoned cup of coffee, and thought about how Rodney had kissed him. He stared at his teammates' empty chairs, and thought that he really had all the facts, now.

John waited until it was very late, until Atlantis had gone still and quiet and he was sure that even Rodney had called it a night. Then he walked the dim, gleaming hallways to Rodney's room and paced in front of his door for a while, trying to work up his nerve. It had all made sense in his head, but now that he was actually here, it seemed crazy, like a dream after you wake up. He would knock on the door—and then what? He had no idea, none at all; if only he could make a mathematical model to predict Rodney. And then he remembered that his last model had picked Oakland, Oakland in a rout, just like everyone had picked Oakland for the World Series back in 1990. It struck him funny, and John leaned his shoulder against the cool, silvery wall and laughed.

He raised a hand to his ear and tapped his radio. "Rodney?"

There was a moment or two of silence before Rodney clicked on. "Yes, Colonel; what?"

"My new model predicted the Oakland As would win the 1990 World Series."

Rodney made a soft, interested hmming noise and then there was the sound of rapid-fire typing. "Oakland...Oakland..." and John let his head thunk against the wall as he waited for it. "Ah-ha! Okay! Not good! The Oakland As won precisely no games in the 1990 World Series, so I would say your predictive model is—well, 'broken' is the word that springs to mind. Also 'failure.' 'Decorative,' perhaps—"

"Lay off me, will you?" John groaned softly, wishing it didn't sound so much like a whine.

Rodney wasn't listening, though. "Huh, wow, complete upset; actually, I'm not sure the model exists that could predict this. It was supposed to be Oakland in a landslide—though, I mean, total runs, 22 to 8? Somebody must have spiked their Gatorade. I mean, Jesus, baseball's boring enough when it's not in slow motion—"

"Rodney," John said softly, but Rodney surprised him and cut him off.

"Okay, so, I think we've talked enough for today, all right? We've had a nice day of talking, you and me. We've talked, we've bonded, we've had some food, and now maybe we could not talk for a while, because you know that tomorrow something really important's going to blow up and—"

John forced himself to say it. "I'm standing outside," he said.

"—we'll have to, you're what?"

"Yeah, I'm like three feet away," John mumbled. "On the other side of the wall."

"What?" and then there was a thump and a muffled curse and Rodney said, "Seriously, what is the matter with you?" The door slid open, and John turned to see Rodney standing there in his bathrobe, looking wild-eyed and a little perplexed. "What are you doing?"

"I don't know," John said honestly. "I just... Can I come in?"

Rodney's expression turned serious. "Honestly, Sheppard," he said, sounding more than a little cautious, "I think we've said everything that needs to be said, today—"

"I don't want to talk," John said. Rodney's eyes went wide and startled, and so John said it again: "I'm not here to talk."

"Oh. Oh. Well." Rodney's hands launched nervously into motion. "I'm not sure that I—" John stepped toward him, and Rodney instantly backpedaled, keeping distance between them as John walked into the room. The door slid closed behind them, and Rodney said, all in a rush: "Look, I think you should know that my feelings toward you are preposterously complex. I mean, most days I can't tell if this is love, or lust, or some obscure and abnormal version of Stockholm Syndrome—no, no, wait, hear me out!" Rodney protested as John rolled his eyes. "We're on a very dangerous mission in another galaxy, and my life depends on you; that is to say, my life is literally in your hands most of the time. So I mean, I don't think it's strange that I would begin to develop feelings of—" and John was close enough that Rodney had to stop moving his hands, "—you know, dependency, need, a sort of desperate, hopeless feeling of—"

The lapels of the bathrobe were soft in his hands as he tugged Rodney close and kissed him, and Rodney's preposterously complex feelings didn't stop him from immediately grabbing John tight and sliding his tongue into John's mouth. And then it was like they were back at the gate, with Rodney's hands hot on his face and the intimate feel of his mouth, and John swayed in the rush of relief, because it was like something clicking, like the circle closing, like everything in between that moment and this had been some kind of bad dream. But Rodney had him, and John could feel muscle, packed hard under fat, and the solid strength of his shoulders. He was also a really good kisser—hot and dirty, with lots of teasing and lots of tongue. By the time they broke apart, John was breathless.

"Why," John managed, "why didn't you tell me?"

"What?" Rodney wasn't listening; he was far away and blinking slowly—looking at John's mouth, John realized a moment later. Then Rodney frowned. "I told you," he said uncertainly. "You wouldn't have gone if I'd—"

John nearly groaned when he understood. "No—why didn't you tell me you wanted to kiss me?" and Rodney whipflicked an eyebrow and said, "Oh yes, because that would have been a brilliant idea for a thousand reasons," and when John just stared, Rodney said, in a slow, patronizing voice, "Commanding officer. In the military. Out of my league," and then, shoulders slumping a little, "I didn't think you'd want to have sex with me. So few people do," and then, "Oh my god, is this Stockholm Syndrome? I just saved your life—"

"Rodney, Jesus, shut up!" John said, and kissed him again, letting his hands drift over Rodney's warm, stubbled jaw. Rodney slid his hands up under John's shirt and, still kissing him, steered him back toward the bed. Instinctively, John fought him for dominance, pushing back and holding him at bay. Rodney drove forward, his mouth working forcefully, and they stood there, vibrating, bodies hard against each other. John ground his dick against whatever parts of Rodney he could reach, and felt the helpless answering nudge, needy against his hip. He groaned, gave way, let his body relax, and Rodney immediately seized the advantage, shoving him back and down onto the small bed and crawling on top of him.

John didn't care, didn't care—it was hard enough to breathe, to focus on breathing, with Rodney half-sprawled on top of him, one leg over his and a hand down his pants. Rodney was warm against his side, mouth hot against his face, one arm crooked around his neck and—Jesus, Rodney's hand was like a miracle. John groaned and pushed up into it. Rodney worked him expertly, fingers tightening, palm sliding over him, gliding down to rub over the root and gently squeeze his balls every few strokes, easing off whenever he was on the verge of coming. It was agony, it was it was amazing, it was—fuck, Rodney's face was pressed against John's temple, and he was moaning softly, and John arched, gasping and grunting and coming hard.

Rodney smothered most of the noise by sliding his mouth over John's, kind of kissing and sucking and talking, all at once. "God, what I want to do to you, what I could do to you if—I mean, if you like it," and then Rodney was lifting his head and saying, breathlessly, "Tell me what you like," and then: "Oh my God, you've never done this before."

"Sure I have," John said quickly, defensively, because hey, Rodney hadn't said anything about being sober. "Lots of times," but Rodney was giving him the kind of penetrating stare he usually reserved for broken bits of important Ancient machinery.

Rodney's eyes widened. "You're totally one of those two beer queers, aren't you? You probably go to bars in military towns and get drunk and make out with other soldiers against the back wall and—oh my God, are there pictures?" John thumped him, but Rodney hardly even noticed: just said 'ow' and added, almost apologetically, "Because I would be totally psyched if there were pictures."

John thumped him again.

"No, seriously," Rodney insisted. "I mean, there are those cell phone cameras now, and I mean, if you ever saw fit to document your skanky gay closeted military lifestyle, I would understand that. And forgive you! As long as there was, you know: honesty. And full disclosure."

John just looked at him. "This is probably why people don't want to have sex with you."

Rodney's face did something complicated and then crumpled. "Do you think?" he asked earnestly, and John sighed and cuffed the side of Rodney's head before curling his arm around Rodney's neck, yanking his head down, and kissing him. Rodney made a happy, surprised sound, and John rolled over, on top of him. He was still wearing his blue terry-cloth bathrobe, but the belt had come untied. Underneath, his t-shirt had holes and his plaid boxers were tented, and John reached into his fly, wrapped his fingers around Rodney's cock, and gently pulled it through the gap. It was thick and flushed dark except for the soft head. John mindlessly rubbed it with his thumb and Rodney's breath hitched, his eyes drifting closed before suddenly snapping open again. John eased up, wondering if Rodney was really sensitive there or something, and then realized that no, Rodney just didn't want to miss anything. He stifled a smile, slid his thumb beneath the lip of Rodney's cockhead, and began to massage the soft skin there.

"You don't have any beer, do you?" John asked, as seriously as he could manage.

"What?" Rodney managed, and then his eyes went saucer-wide as John bent to take his cockhead into his mouth. It had been a while since he'd sucked anyone off, and Rodney's snapshot of his skanky military sex life had been annoyingly on-the-mark. So he had to remind himself that there was no rush; he could take his time, make it good. Slowly, he found a rhythm, and Rodney's cock began to glide over his lips, slick with saliva and come. Rodney stroked his hair and never stopped talking, though it was more along the lines of "yes, suck it, oh God, oh, God, yes" than anything coherent. It was gratifying, though, and it reminded him that he liked sucking dick, even if it maybe had been easier after a beer or two. And Rodney was nice; he didn't yank on John's hair, or try to fuck his face, and when he was near to coming, he yelped, "Stop! Wait!" and pushed at his shoulder. John slid his mouth off and Rodney grabbed himself, chest heaving for air, and came and came. John's eyes drifted up Rodney's body—his eyes were shut tight, his face flushed and contorted—and thought that Rodney maybe had a point about pictures.

John hadn't been able to talk after his own orgasm, and he was still inarticulate now. There were things he wanted to say—"I know what you did for me," and "Nobody's ever been there for me," and "I couldn't do this without you,"—but they all got stuck in his throat or sounded stupid. Rodney himself seemed to have no such problems, saying, with almost infuriating ease, "I didn't mean to piss you off; God, Sheppard, I never do," and "I just couldn't let anything happen to you," and "I love you, you see," and John could only curl an arm across Rodney's body and bury his face in the soft, brown hair above Rodney's ear and hope that Rodney would know what he meant.


"Let's go, people, come on!" John said, briskly clapping his hands as Teyla hooked her radio onto her belt and Ronon slid yet another knife into his boot. "We're going halfway across the galaxy, and I'd like to be home by dinnertime." Rodney would back him up on this, he was sure of that: tonight was meatloaf night.

"Where's McKay?" John asked, looking around, and then he turned impatiently, hands on hips, and called up to the gate attendant. "Where the hell is McKay?"

"Dunno, sir!" the attendant called back. "Last he checked in, he was on his way!"

John rolled his eyes and tapped his radio. "Come on, McKay. We're leaving."

The answer came back immediately: "I'm coming, I'm coming!" except John knew Rodney well enough to know that that meant he wasn't ready yet. When Rodney was ready he said, On my way, or better yet, God, don't be such a fascist! John sighed and said, "All right, everybody hang on," and went back to the locker room.

There was Rodney, one foot on the bench, hurriedly tying up his boot. He looked up quickly. "I said I was coming."

John straddled the bench beside him. "Yeah, yeah. I'm just keeping the pressure on."

"Sure, right. That'll make me tie my shoes faster." Rodney yanked down his pant leg and stood up, then reached for his tac vest. "Look at you," Rodney said, flat mouth quirking up at the corner. "You're practically bouncing, you're so happy."

John grinned at him. "Sure I'm happy," he said. "We're heading off-world, where everything will go wrong, because—"

"Because it always does," Rodney said with a sigh.

"Yep," John agreed. "Something horrible's just waiting to happen out there, probably to you, but I'm going to stop it, McKay." He pulled his sidearm from his thigh-holster in one swift motion and twirled it around like a gunslinger. "I'm going to blow its head off," he added earnestly, and meant it with his whole, entire heart.

Rodney didn't meet his eyes; he was focused on fastening up his vest. Still, he seemed to be stifling a grin. "You say the sweetest things," he said.

"I'm serious, McKay." John got to his feet.

"Oh, I know you are," Rodney said, holstering his own sidearm and fastening the straps. He straightened up and grinned wryly, tilting his chin up. "My hero."

"You bet your ass," John Sheppard said.

The End

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