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There's some amazing cover art for this story, thanks to [info]monanotlisa.

Converging Cover Art by monanotlisa

 

John was keeping one eye on the seven water-loving but swimming-impaired kids of the family that had set up their blankets and chairs just below his tower, while his other eye was on the rowdy group of college kids who'd been pounding beers all afternoon. He somehow found another eye to scan the rest of the beach as well, his tension easing as he recognized that few people were venturing into the water now.

The dense crowds from earlier in the day had eased considerably. The sun was low on the horizon, people clearing out as darkness approached.

"Some of us are getting together at the Roost after work," a voice behind him said. A woman stepped up next to where he stood at the tower railing. She was shrugging into a blue uniform jacket. "I'm off; I just came over to tell you that you're welcome to join us."

He glanced over at her. "Cahill, right?"

"Call me Vicky," she said.

"John," he said. "John Sheppard."

"I know," she said. There was amusement in her voice, and he could feel an itch starting up between his shoulder blades.

He scanned the sand below them, and forced his face to relax into a smile. The new job meant new people to get along with, to learn to work with, and John's anti-social streak had gotten him into trouble before.

The intensity of the smile she returned made him groan a little on the inside. She was attractive: warm brown eyes, smooth skin the color of coffee, fit and strong like all the lifeguards, and John felt not a flicker of interest. She'd learn. They always did.

"That's really nice of you," he said. It only made him feel worse to realize that she was being nice, and it all probably wasn't just to get into his pants. "I've got some stuff to do right after work, but if I'm done early, I'll catch up with you guys, okay?" John could lie like he breathed: not a skill he was particularly proud of, but one that got him through the day.

Her face brightened even more. "Later, then," she said, before turning to head back down to the sand.

It was almost a relief after that to scan the waves and see the telltale sign of a swimmer thrashing in the water. He was down and onto the beach in a second, grabbing his rescue can as he left the tower.

The deep sand dragged at his feet, tough to run in, triggering a flash of memory before he clamped down on it. The split-second mental blank almost made him stumble, but he was used to this shit by now. Easy, easy, and his body didn't fail him, and he was pulling the rescue can's strap over his head as he hit the water.

When he was deep enough, he dropped the can to float behind him and dove into the gentle surf. Five hard strokes, and then he came up for breath and to get a sight on the swimmer. Everything looks different once you hit the water, the instructors had drilled into them, and it was true. His stomach lurched for endless seconds before he caught sight of frantic movement.

Shit. The swimmer was really struggling now, and he ducked his head back down and swam, hard.

The flailing was much weaker by the time John was close enough to hear the ragged wet gasps of someone struggling to breathe, someone swallowing more water than taking in air. It was a man, he realized, his face pale beneath a bad sunburn and shoulders bulky enough to make John extra careful to stay out of his reach.

"Grab hold," he shouted, pushing the rescue can over. The man didn't respond until John shoved the can right into him, and then he clutched at the buoy, practically hugging it. His grip on it looked firm, and his panic visibly eased as the buoyancy of the can reassured him.

Once the man had gotten in a few good breaths, John asked, "Can you hold onto that while I tow you to shore?"

The man nodded weakly, powerful coughs still racking him as he clung to the rescue can, and John started back in, stopping several times to check on the man.

Back on dry land, the man crumpled to his hands and knees, coughing and puking his guts up. John rested a hand on the man's back, the skin chilled beneath his soaked cotton T-shirt. "You're cold."

A crowd had gathered to watch the rescue, and John gestured at one of the gawkers. "Can he borrow that towel?" he asked, and the woman draped it around the man's shoulders without a word. The man clutched at it gratefully, glancing up at her with bright blue eyes as he thanked her, his voice a croak.

John took a moment to size up the rest of him: a tilted mouth in a sunburned face and thinning hair, probably a much lighter shade of brown when it was dry. Ragged khaki cut offs, drooping and water logged, took the place of trunks, and a blue cotton T-shirt topped it off. As John had noticed in the water, he had bulk in his shoulders and chest, but his face looked a little gaunt, his eyes bruised.

The crowd around them started to disperse. Turned off by the puking or bored by the lack of serious injury, John thought cynically. He rested his hands on his hips, taking a moment's satisfaction in how well the rescue had gone off.

His good mood disappeared when the man threw a wrench in his clockwork rescue, refusing to seek medical care.

"No ambulance," the man said, shaking his head. When John protested, the man reached out to clamp a hand around John's wrist. The man then tried to stagger to his feet, but had to sink back down onto the sand. He sat on his heels, still clutching at John. "I'm fine, I'm fine."

"Ever heard of 'parking lot drowning'?" John said. "You could still have water in your lungs. We should get you to the ER."

The man's grip on John's wrist tightened to the point of pain. "No hospitals."

John's jaw clenched, and he snatched his hand free with more force than was probably necessary. "You've been drinking; I can smell it. Is it drugs, too? You don't want to get arrested?"

The man laughed, the sound cut short by another coughing jag. The spasms eased and he wiped at his mouth. "Don't be an idiot," he said sharply. "I didn't aspirate anything. I'm drunk, but not that drunk." His speech was barely slurred, backing up his claim. "And I'm certainly not a drug addict."

He seemed to run out of steam then, closing his eyes. "I'm just," he said, waving a vague hand at John, "sick of hospitals."

A shadow passed over the man's face as he sat there, rubbing at his chest, lost in thought for a long moment. Then he seemed to shake it off, slanting a look up at John with a lopsided smile on his face.

"Rodney McKay," he said, holding out a hand. "Thanks. Sorry for the bother." He jerked his head out to sea, and John blinked. Maybe it was the booze, but McKay's reaction to near-drowning seemed a little off, more casual than John was expecting.

John frowned, then shrugged. "John Sheppard." He shook McKay's hand, then gripped it harder, hauling him up to his feet. "There you go. Up and at 'em." When McKay seemed steady on his feet, John let go. "And it's no bother; it's my job. Comes with the uniform."

McKay shivered and pulled the towel tighter around him, his blue eyes wandering down John's body. John was used to people looking at him and generally liking what they saw. It wasn't something that he enjoyed, even as he'd used it to his advantage more than once in his life.

McKay's gaze was different, idle, almost clinical, even when it settled below John's waistline. "They're very fetching, by the way," he said dryly, nodding at the red shorts.

John couldn't quite stifle his laugh. "So I've been told," he said. When he wasn't losing his lunch or being stubborn about seeing a doctor, McKay wasn't half bad. "Look," he said abruptly. "If you don't want to see a doctor, at least come up to the tower, let me keep an eye on you until I'm off duty." He glanced at his watch. "Which is in less than ten minutes, by the way. Maybe get you something warmer to wear than that towel, too."

McKay was staring at him, an odd look crossing his face. John took in McKay's bloodshot eyes and air of suppressed misery. "I'll even drive you home," he surprised himself by offering. "Your blood alcohol can't be legal," he added, talking more to himself than to McKay.

"You're kind of a mother hen, you know that?" McKay said, sounding halfway between exasperated and amused. Before John could say anything, McKay continued, "Anyway, there's no need to drive me anywhere. I walked. I live right down there." He nodded at a cluster of lights that belonged to the houses perched up on the cliff.

John tried not to let his surprise show. McKay was either way richer than his clothes suggested, or he was splurging on a pricey vacation rental. Either way, it was none of his business, he reminded himself.

"Those cliff paths are tricky, especially when it's dark," he said. "You're tired and not entirely sober. I'll drive you, make sure we don't get called in later for a cliff rescue when you fall ass over tea kettle."

McKay let out a snort, but gave in with a shrug.

They swung by the tower, where John tossed McKay his ancient black sweatshirt and then pulled on his own uniform jacket over a spare T-shirt.

"Go ahead and strip off the wet one first," he said when McKay started to pull the sweatshirt on over his T-shirt. "You'll be a lot warmer."

McKay hesitated, his fingers twisting in the sweatshirt fabric.

"I promise, you'll feel warmer," John repeated, rather patiently, he thought. "You're getting chilled as the water evaporates."

"I'm quite familiar with the process, thank you," McKay snapped. His mouth was pulling down on one side as he stared at the floor.

John felt his eyebrows go up. McKay hadn't seemed like he'd be the shy type. Then McKay's chin came up, and he swung around so that he could strip off the wet shirt with his back to John.

"Jesus," John breathed when he glanced over and caught a glimpse of McKay's bare back. He looked away quickly, biting back the obvious question, What the hell happened to you?

Scars criss-crossed McKay's back. A few looked precise and surgical, but most of them were not so neat.

"Car accident," McKay said, in a quiet voice. He gestured towards his shoulder, a vague fluttery movement with the fingers of one hand, and avoided John's eyes

McKay couldn't lie for shit, and he seemed to know it, tensing up like he was expecting an interrogation. John said nothing, though, just wordlessly closed up the tower. "Let's get you home," he said finally.

The sound of the waves accompanied them as they headed for John's car. McKay was quiet as they walked, shoulders hunched. John closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting the salt breeze fill his lungs. It tasted clean somehow, like memories of summer vacation and possibilities.

The parking lot was deserted except for his Toyota. "You surf?" McKay asked, eyeing the surfboard strapped to the Toyota's roof.

"Nah, that's just a really fucked-up hood ornament," John said, surprising a sharp bark of laughter out of McKay.

"And did you surf this morning, or do you just like driving around with that on your roof?" Like a poseur, McKay's raised eyebrow seemed to add.

"You're pretty feisty for a guy who needs a ride," John said mildly, covering his internal wince. No, he hadn't used the board that morning, and it wasn't good to keep it on his car roof, but it wasn't like he had much choice in the matter.

He went around to unlock the passenger door. "Just a second," he said. He hurriedly wadded up the sleeping bag that he'd draped over the seatback and tossed it into the rear of the SUV.

"Been camping?" McKay asked, as he eased himself into the seat carefully, looking cold and stiff.

"Something like that," John said. He shrugged a little, hoping the darkness was hiding the flush he could feel heating his face. When he started up the car, he flipped on the heater, and McKay shot him a grateful look.

He figured it took them three times as long to drive to McKay's house as it would have taken them to walk it, even with the heavy beach traffic easing up. McKay didn't seem interested in conversation and spent the trip huddled up to the warm air pouring out of the heater. The quiet felt comfortable and oddly intimate, McKay's breathing going slow and deep as he started to nod off with his head settled against the window.

A sharp braking brought McKay's head up with a start and a groggy, "Wha--?" He tensed, blinking at the bright headlights of oncoming traffic, but then appeared to remember where he was.

The bobbing of John's dashboard hula girl caught McKay's attention; he reached over to poke at her, setting her in motion. The plastic swaying hips seemed to mesmerize him, his concentration strangely intense. "How did I know you'd have one of these?" he asked quietly. The question sounded rhetorical, so John just laughed.

After that, McKay didn't say much except to give directions.

"This one." McKay was pointing at one in an endless line of anonymous garage doors that lined the street.

"You got your keys?" John asked, pulling over to the curb.

"Don't need keys. There's a code," McKay said as he got out. He leaned back inside the car. "Sorry, I think I got your seat wet."

"Happens all the time. You take care of yourself," John said, and was startled to realize he really meant it. There was something about McKay that triggered John's instincts. Maybe he was imagining it, or reading more into those scars than he needed to, but something about the man intrigued him.

McKay was staring at him warily. There was a strange expression on his face that was broken with a nervous laugh. "Well. Thanks again, John Sheppard. Maybe I'll see you around."

"Just not in the water, okay? One rescue's enough. And no more swimming when you've been drinking." He rolled his eyes at himself.

"I didn't--" McKay started to say, but stopped himself, his mouth quirking a little. "Yes, mother," he said and slammed the car door shut.

John watched until McKay was inside his garage, and then pulled away from the curb, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

*

The next day John was up at dawn. He was always up early these days, by necessity if not by choice. It wasn't hard to fill the hours: beach runs, surfing, or swimming in the early morning, and the VA hospital when the sun got higher in the sky.

A swim this time, he decided, the water cold enough to take his breath away at first, and the taste of salt and iodine almost like coming home. His body bobbed with each wave, and the catch and pull of his strokes was regular, soothing as a heartbeat. At the turnaround point, he always paused, jackknifing his body to pierce the water's surface.

Deeper and deeper he dove, the pressure building in his ears. Gravity-free, he floated and glided through the dark water until his lungs burned. When he couldn't hold his breath a second longer, he headed back up. He broke the surface with as much reluctance as relief, gulping air desperately.

Half an hour later, he was staggering back onto shore, stiff from the chill, his skin goose pimpled. He snatched up his hooded sweatshirt, pulling it on before the wind could start him shivering in earnest. His stomach rumbled as he headed for his car, the towel wrapped around his waist.

A drive-through artery-clogging breakfast burrito took care of the hunger pangs. The salt dried itchy on his skin as he drove to the gym for a shower.

Clean and dry again, he headed up to the VA hospital.

It wasn't one of Holland's better days when John got there. He was sitting up at least, but his stare was vacant, mouth hanging open a little. Sometimes Holland seemed to have some awareness of John's presence and his eyes would follow John around the room, but not today.

"How you doing, Holland?" he asked. There was no response. There never was. The injuries from the helicopter crash had been just the start. Taliban bullets during their escape had finished it, had killed the Holland that John had known and left this ghost in his place.

This was all that was left of his friend. John stood at the foot of Holland's bed, his eyes closed, waiting out the anger that tried to drown him every time, the self-disgust in its wake. He took a deep breath finally and moved to the window. Propping himself against the wall, he ran a finger over the glass.

"Had an interesting day yesterday, Hol." John stared out the window as he spoke, at the cloudless sky of what was shaping up to be another beautiful day. "I met the strangest guy at the beach. In fact, I saved him from drowning."

John stopped, looking over at Holland's vacant face. John had thought he'd saved Holland, too, way back when.

He cleared his throat and went to get the thick paperback from Holland's dresser. "How about I read some more of this?" he asked, sitting in the chair by the bed.

They were in the middle of Nicholas Rostov's first battle on the Danube when someone interrupted.

"Keeping up with your schedule?"

"Annie," he said. He stood up to greet her and tried not to stiffen when she hugged him. She smelled like coffee and baby powder, and her eyes--clear gray, Hol's eyes--were tired and red-rimmed when she stepped back to smile at him.

"I don't know how you do it, reading that thing aloud. All those names." She had Hol's smile, too, teasing, almost sly, as if they shared some big secret.

He dog-eared the page where they'd left off. "I sound out the first few letters and then kind of fake the rest." He dropped the book onto Hol's bedside table. "How're you doing?" he asked. "How's the new baby?"

"Great, John. She's great. Peter's watching her right now. She's keeping us so busy," she said, her mouth turning down in a rueful almost-frown. "I haven't been making it over here as much as I'd hoped. What's the point of moving closer to the hospital if you still don't visit?"

He snorted. "Cut yourself some slack. You did just give birth."

"Oh, she doesn't let me forget about that little fact," she said. "Kate's got big lungs on her." She moved to the bedside. "Jason, it's Annie," she said to Holland, taking his hand in hers. "It's your sister." Holland didn't react, and Annie sighed. "I keep hoping one day he'll squeeze my hand or something. That the doctors were wrong."

John shrugged. "Doctors have been wrong before."

"I hope. I hope so," she said. She made a sound that was more of a hiccup than a laugh. John looked over and realized that her eyes were wet.

Oh, crap. "Annie, what's wrong?" He moved over to pat her shoulder awkwardly, grimacing. He so sucked at this.

She scrubbed at her eyes. "It's nothing, John."

Under his skeptical gaze, she crumpled a little. "I was on the phone on the way over here, trying to work something out with the mortgage company. And they weren't nice about it, and it's all my fault, and now I just feel awful."

"Work what out?" John asked.

"It doesn't matter. I'm fine. Really." Her smile was way too watery to be convincing.

John narrowed his eyes at her. "Are you guys short on money?" he asked gently.

She flushed, leaning over to push Holland's hair away from his face. "The bank isn't happy with us. The offer for the old house fell through, and we're already a month late on the new house note. We're bouncing checks all over the place. It's so much more expensive here than we're used to, and with the baby and all--"

She stopped and took a deep breath. "Just tell me to shut up, John. We'll figure something out. I shouldn't be dumping this on you. We still owe you from when you chipped in to fly our grandparents out here to see Jason."

"You don't owe me for that. It was for Holland," he said, cutting her off. "I can't even tell you how much--" He stopped and took a deep breath, trying to relax his shoulders. "Look, you guys have enough on your minds without money adding to it. I can help with that. My checkbook's in the car."

He'd have to hold off on regularizing his living arrangements a while longer, but he'd bunked down in worse places than his car.

"No." She closed her eyes. "I can't let you do this."

"Annie, let me help. I'm doing pretty well, what with the new job." A new job that didn't pay for shit, but Annie didn't need to know that. She could probably teach him a thing or two about shit-paying jobs, with her teaching high school chemistry and Peter giving piano lessons.

John continued, "And I don't have a kid to spend money on. Holland asked me to look out for his little sister."

Another lie, but it was easier to explain it that way. "He asked me to look out for you, and that's what I'm doing."

She didn't say anything, looking him right in the eye, and John did his best to project an air of financial wealth. He probably ended up looking more constipated than anything, but often the two weren't far off, in John's experience.

He must have pulled it off, because she sighed. "Thank you, then. Thank you so much, John," she said. Her entire posture relaxed, as if the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. He looked down at where she still had her brother's hand clasped in hers and sighed.

*

John found someone waiting for him when he opened up his tower a few days later. It was McKay, shifting from foot to foot, his sunburn now at the itchy-looking, peeling stage. He looked a lot drier than when he'd been puking his guts out, but his face still looked pinched. His clothes were from the same thrift-store as before, baggy brown cargo shorts and another cotton T-shirt, green this time.

"Hi," McKay said, his gaze flickering away from John's face out to the water and back again. He seemed nervous.

"Hi, yourself," John said. He lifted his coffee cup. "If you're planning on swimming today, could you wait 'til I finish this first?"

McKay rolled his eyes. "Oh, hah, very hah. A lifeguard and a comedian."

"I'm just talented that way." His shrug was the one that used to annoy commanding officers. It didn't fail him this time, either, and McKay narrowed his eyes at him. John smiled. It was kind of fun getting a rise out of the man.

"Well. I stopped by to give you this back," McKay said, shoving a cloth bundle at John.

His black sweatshirt, John discovered, unfolding it with a shake. Something in his expression must have struck McKay as dubious, because he said defensively, "Don't worry; it's been washed."

John couldn't help laughing, and McKay's face went red. John made a calming gesture. "No, no, I'm sure it is. I just wasn't expecting to see it again."

"I actually tried to return it a few days ago, but there was another lifeguard on duty."

Raising an eyebrow at him, John said, "You could have just left it here."

"I wanted to see you--I mean, thank you." McKay crossed his arms across his chest and said more firmly, "I wanted to thank you. Again, I mean."

John didn't say anything. He was distracted by the short sleeves of McKay's T-shirt, which had pulled up high on McKay's arms to reveal firm, solid biceps.

"What, what is it?" McKay's eyes followed John's gaze. When he looked back up his expression had turned knowing.

John rubbed the back of his neck and cleared his throat. "It's really not necessary to thank me again, but you're welcome. "

"Anyway, I've got people coming over for steaks this weekend," McKay said in a rush. "You're invited."

"I am, am I?" John drawled, which made McKay blink rapidly at him. His expression was flustered, his lopsided mouth like an emotional barometer. It felt a little unfair and made John feel jaded, dealing with someone who left himself so vulnerable.

McKay tilted his head to the side. His eyes dropped down briefly to John's chest, the movement highlighting McKay's long lashes.

"Yes, you're invited," McKay was saying. "You saved my life, after all. That's worth a slab of beef, don't you think?" He had a half-smile on his face as he stared over at John. He seemed more at ease now, his arms dropping to his sides.

The relaxed state was broken when McKay's eyes went wide and his hands flew up into the air. "Oh, god, you're not a vegetarian, are you?" His tone seemed to classify vegetarianism as a serious moral flaw.

His eyes are really blue, John thought. He started, realizing he'd been silent again for a little too long, and shook his head. "No, I'm not a vegetarian. And your life's gotta be worth a steak at the very least," John said. "Maybe even a party platter, you know with those little baby carrots?"

"Baby carrots," McKay repeated cautiously, as if he thought John was joking.

"I like baby carrots. Crunchy," John said.

"Yes, I guess they are." McKay sounded as though he was trying not to laugh. "We can do that."

"Then you've got a deal," John said, raising his coffee cup to seal the bargain.

If McKay's party sucked, he could always bug out after the free food. There was something about McKay, though, his secrets, his mobile, revealing mouth, his blue eyes weirdly pale against his developing tan, that made John think he might be sticking around awhile.

*

"I'm bearing gifts," John said, lifting the six-pack when McKay opened his door.

"You came," McKay said, looking pleased and maybe a little surprised.

John shrugged. "'Never turn down free steak,' that's my motto."

After a flurry of settling the beer in the fridge, grabbing a few carrots from the promised party platter, and getting introduced to four or five people whose names John immediately forgot, they made their way out onto McKay's deck.

The view was incredible, bright blue sky and endless ocean, and John might have felt a pang of envy for someone who could afford a place like this. A scruffy, fluffy-haired guy was drinking a beer as he fiddled with McKay's grill. He glanced up at them, peering over his glasses.

"John Sheppard, Radek Zelenka," McKay said, gesturing with his beer bottle. "Where's Carol?" he asked Zelenka. To John, he explained, "Carol Freeman. Radek's lady friend."

"She's inside," Zelenka said, rolling his eyes at McKay, then turning to John. "Call me Radek. You are the lifeguard who saved Rodney's life," he said, putting down his beer to shake John's hand. He had an accent, Russian or something, and was a little shorter than McKay.

"Guilty as charged."

Radek glanced over at McKay. "Only you could almost get yourself killed here of all places." He stopped short at a quelling glance from McKay.

John frowned at the interchange. "You mean the beach? You'd be amazed how many people get themselves in trouble at the beach."

"Ah, yes, the beach, that is what I meant," Radek said, nodding. "I'm going inside to get another beer, I think. Either of you need anything?"

Radek scurried to the kitchen when they shook their heads, John watching him with narrowed eyes until he disappeared inside. Then he shrugged and turned back to the ocean. He settled his aviator shades in place, sliding them down from their perch up on his head.

McKay stood with his back to the view. His eyes flickered over at John several times: the shades seemed to bother him.

"You guys work together or something?" John asked, jerking a nod inside the house.

"Not...anymore," McKay said, his expression freezing for a split-second.

Huh, John thought, touchy topic. "So what do you do?"

"Nothing." McKay shrugged. "I guess I'm retired. I still consult every now and then." At John's questioning look, he added, "Physics. I'm a physicist. So is Radek. Actually, we both have multiple doctorates, so calling ourselves physicists is a bit limiting, but it'll do as a descriptive label. Not that I have some obsessive need to label things."

McKay babbled when he got nervous. It was...kind of endearing, John was startled to realize.

"I'm having steak with the brain trust, looks like," John drawled. "Is everybody here a Ph.D.?"

"No, no," McKay said, "just Radek, Carol, and myself. The rest are graduate students. Radek and Carol both brought their graduate students."

As if McKay had called them, two of the students rushed out onto the deck just then, talking a mile a minute: N-dualities and strings, all in a language that sounded not entirely dissimilar to English. At McKay's glare, they moved to the far end of the deck and quieted down.

McKay rolled his eyes at John. "Those are two of hers. Their names escape me," he said airily. "Carol's a mathematician."

"Topology, right?"

McKay did a huge double take, his eyebrows climbing up to his hairline, and John laughed.

"Oh, my god, you've got a brain," McKay blurted. His surprise might have been insulting if John hadn't been distracted by the sudden laser focus of McKay's eyes. "I just didn't expect--"

"No, it's okay. Why should you?" John said blandly. He used to get angry about stuff like that. Now it was just kind of fun, confounding people's expectations. "What does a lifeguard need with a master's degree anyway?"

"In what?" McKay asked, looking at John with a gleam in his eyes that John usually reserved for 42" HD plasma TVs.

"Aerospace engineering. Not that I ever got to use it." Before McKay could ask anything that would involve John having to get into his military background, he said casually, "Even passed the Mensa test." The distraction worked perfectly, and seeing McKay's eyes bug out was pure gravy.

"You're a member of Mensa?" McKay asked, his eyes moving over John's face and body in a way that was anything but clinical. Check, John thought. McKay's turn-on: brains.

John shook his head, suppressing a smile. "I never actually joined."

McKay's mouth dropped open until John reached over to tap on his chin. "Catching flies there, buddy."

McKay blinked at him, a flush rising on his cheeks. John returned the gaze, staring at McKay's mouth, the way he licked his lips. John held his breath just a little as he waited for what McKay would do or say next.

"I have the steaks." They both jumped as Radek wandered back out onto the deck.

"Ah. Well, it's about time," McKay said. He sounded a little shaky as he turned to Radek, who was cradling a tray of steaks and burgers. "What took you so long, you had to go all the way to Milliways for the Dish of the Day?"

"Rodney, you promised not to make Hitchhiker's references," said the tall thin brunette who was right behind Radek. The Carol that McKay had talked about, John thought. "It gets the students all stirred up and rowdy."

She ignored McKay's muttered, "Like they're not, already," and said something into Radek's ear, her head bent down close to his. The smile and open affection on her face lit up her plain features.

McKay made a vague gesture. "Fine, fine." He snapped his fingers. "Radek, meat."

Radek and McKay loaded the grill, bickering amicably about the flame height and the dry rub Radek had used and the burgers Carol had brought. "Veggie burgers?" McKay said, his tone horrified. "Et tu, Radek?"

The afternoon slipped away as they ate and talked, and considering how hermit-like he'd been lately, John surprised himself by having a great time. McKay was goofy and interesting, prickly, but funny as hell, and John liked him more and more.

More than that, he found himself liking McKay's friends, too. He talked surfing with one of Radek's students, a wiry, tattooed woman with a punkish hairdo. McKay and one of Carol's students got into a huge hockey debate comprehensible only to those hailing from north of the 49th parallel.

"I've heard of that Gretzky guy," John said to McKay during the thick of it, just to stir things up a little.

Carol grilled him on his knowledge of Italian motorcycles, and then there was movie talk with Radek and McKay, about geeky movies John usually never admitted having watched.

The graduate students cleared out after the steaks and burgers were gone, making noises about grading papers.

At one point, he found himself in the kitchen, grazing on leftover snacks and sipping at his beer. Carol was there, standing at the sink. A frown marred her face as she stared out the window. John glanced at what she was looking at: McKay and Radek, sitting at the patio table, deep in conversation.

"Everything okay?" he asked, soft-voiced, but she jumped anyway.

"Oh, yes," she said. "I'm fine." Her expression didn't lighten.

He looked out at the two men, who sat with their backs to the ocean view. McKay's mouth had an unhappy tilt, while Radek talked, looking earnest and serious. "Did McKay used to work at the university with you and Dr. Zelenka?"

She shook her head, idly running water over the dishes in the sink. "Radek's been teaching less than a year. It's where we met," she said, a trace of a smile easing the lines of her face. "He and Rodney worked together on some government project before that."

"Government project?"

She looked over at him, her gaze sharply assessing. John smiled and tried to look harmless.

"I'm not sure what it involved," she said finally. "All very hush-hush. Radek won't talk about it."

John took a guess. "Is this project the reason McKay's sick of hospitals?"

She shut the water off and wiped her hands off on a towel. "Probably," she said with a sigh. "Whatever it was, it still gives Radek nightmares. He wakes up sometimes covered in sweat, shouting. And no, I never know what he's saying; it's all in Czech."

Outside on the deck, McKay was holding his hands up defensively, shaking his head. John took a deep breath, snagged a bowl of chips and dip and headed outside. He made sure to make lots of noise as he headed over to them.

McKay sent him a barely suppressed look of relief when he thumped the bowl down on the table. "More chips," John said brightly.

Radek shot John an odd look over his glasses, then slid his chair back. "Carol and I should be going anyway, Rodney. I'll leave you to your peace and quiet. And ocean view." He gave the last two words a strange pointed twist that sent McKay's chin up.

McKay said nothing in response, and Radek let out a worried, resigned sigh.

When Radek and Carol had left, John stood with his hands in his pockets of his jeans as McKay slumped on the couch in his living room.

"Want another beer?" John asked, figuring he could do that much for McKay before he cleared out and left the man in peace. McKay didn't answer, but John pulled a bottle out from the fridge anyway and brought it out to the living room where McKay sat with his head in his hands.

"Here." He stood over McKay, dangling the cold beer in front of him like a carrot.

The bottle almost went right to the floor when McKay's arms suddenly shot out and wound around John's midsection, gripping him so tightly he could barely breathe.

John stiffened, his mouth open to protest, when McKay spoke. "You want this, right? You want me? Please, tell me I didn't get the wrong idea," McKay said, his voice muffled against John's stomach.

McKay was strong, solid arms and need, his breath hot even through John's shirt, and he just sounded so fucking desperate. It hit something inside him, a moment of arousal or recognition or the need to have bare skin against his, after so long without. Too long with too much space around him, and wariness got old sometimes.

Whatever the hell it was, he found himself saying, "You didn't get the wrong idea," and reaching down and grabbing onto McKay. The beer bottle fell carelessly to the floor and landed unbroken. Unbroken and unnoticed, it rolled under the couch beneath them, beneath where John tasted salty skin and orgasm for the first time in what felt like fucking forever.

*

They lay tangled together afterwards, the smell of sex in the air. Their pants were hanging open, and John's shirt was pushed up and out of the way, but they were otherwise still clothed. And that right there was probably three-quarters of John's sexual experiences, which maybe skewed his basis for comparison, because it had felt damn good, quick and clumsy as it had been.

The couch wasn't large, and the tight space was arousing and awkward at the same time, filled with elbows and knees, their awareness of each other almost too intense.

"Come to bed," McKay said, when John put himself together and sat up, his eyes and thoughts already focused on the front door.

"I should go," John said, because the offer was tempting. Too tempting. He had pared down his needs ruthlessly, and the things he wanted weren't ever the things he could have. He'd accepted that, or thought he had, had gotten used to it, even the taste of second thoughts and regret.

"Stay," McKay said. His hands moved up under John's shirt, warm against the bare skin of John's waist. One hand moved to cup the nape of John's neck, pulling him down to press their lips together. It wasn't a perfect kiss; they were clumsy, their skills rusty, and something about that made John's chest hurt.

"Stay," McKay repeated. "Please." When he rose and moved toward the bedroom, John followed.

It was quiet and dark in McKay's bedroom, and John didn't say anything when McKay left the lights off. They stripped without a word, and the domesticity of sliding under the covers together felt deeply weird.

McKay seemed to sense it too, laughing nervously as they tried to fit their bodies together again. "This is ridiculous," he said when he made John yelp with a knee to a sensitive place.

"Hold still a second," John said. "Let me just--"

He tilted McKay's head to just the right angle and sealed their mouths together. It was better this time, and McKay kissed with an almost scary focus. They'd skipped over this part entirely in their rush to orgasm on the couch, and McKay seemed determined to make up for it.

In the darkness and between the sheets, they took their time with each other. The first round had taken the edge off, and now it was an easy heat that rose between them. The arousal was unhurried, spreading over John's skin.

When John's hands moved down below McKay's face and shoulders to his chest, though, the ease between them faltered. McKay was scarred there, too; John could feel it in the raised skin under his fingers and the way McKay tensed up, his hands going clumsy on John's body.

"Relax," John said, running his hands over McKay's ribs. "You're tying yourself into knots."

McKay lay still beneath the caresses for a while, passive, but then he let out a harsh sound, his muscles clenching even tighter. He was muttering under his breath, "Fuck, fuck, fuck," in a stretched-thin voice that made John think of missions gone to shit and friends lost and the times he'd needed to scream or puke or disobey orders, and--

"Oh, it's like that, is it?" John said, nowhere near casual, and hell, he thought he'd gotten over the shakes by now.

McKay shoved his face into the hollow of John's shoulder, his breathing ragged, almost gasping. John grimaced, and almost before he'd realized it, he was pulling McKay closer, his arms wrapped around McKay's back. "Easy, McKay."

John was about to say more, but McKay spoke then, in a strangled voice. "I can't. Oh, god, I'm sorry."

"It's been a while for me, too, you know," John said, deliberately misinterpreting, because one freak-out in the bed was more than enough, thank you very much. He ran a hand through McKay's hair. "You're doing just fine."

"No, I'm not. I can't," McKay said. McKay's grip on him was tight enough to hurt, but John didn't say anything. "I haven't. Ever since the, the car accident," and John could hear him stumble over the words, "I haven't..."

Been the same, John thought, but that wasn't something he'd ever say out loud.

"Haven't what? Had sex?" he asked instead, trying to make his voice sound light. "I beg to differ, my friend. I think that's what we just did. Or doesn't couch sex count?"

McKay actually laughed, and John could breathe again.

"You are so weird," McKay said with a snort, rolling off to lie on his side beside John. He left one hand on John's chest, moving his fingers through the chest hair, and the tension eased slowly from John's muscles.

"Gee, thanks," John said, a little breathless with relief.

"That's a compliment, you know," McKay said. "I like weird."

"Same here," John said, stretching lazily. "Here's a wild idea. How about we just sleep," he offered. "I'm pretty tired, myself."

The mattress was ridiculously comfortable, and John was still feeling good from his earlier orgasm. As McKay's fingers traced soothing designs on his chest, the food and beer and John's habitual early rising all caught up with him. John had started to drift off when McKay spoke.

"The scars," McKay whispered into the darkness. "I lied. They're not from a car accident."

He didn't reply for a moment, finding that still place behind his eyes by pulling air into his lungs and then letting it out. "I know," he said finally. "Go to sleep."

*

John woke groggy and confused, scrambling for his clothes as usual. He relaxed as he realized he wasn't in the cramped back of his Toyota, the air clammy and heavy with his breath, in a rush to clear out of the previous night's parking spot.

Stay too long in one spot and the cops tended to come visit, and it was kind of sad that John had already been living in his car long enough to know that in more than theory. He'd managed to talk his way out of it that time. The cop hadn't believed a word of his I'm just taking a nap story, but she'd let him go anyway.

I have a car; I have a job, damn it, he hadn't said. I don't need your fucking pity. The look in her eyes had made him want to punch something, but he'd learned that lesson only too well less than a week back from Afghanistan.

No danger of that this morning, though. He was in a real house, a real bed. McKay's bed. McKay was still asleep, sprawled on his back next to John. The sheets were pulled down to his waist, and the sunlight through the blinds painted bars of illumination on his chest. On his scars, which were bad enough to trump the ones on his back.

John looked away. He closed his eyes and pulled the covers up to his chin. McKay's sheets were thick cotton, soft under his fingers, and they felt like heaven after the slippery nylon confines of his sleeping bag. Being able to relax, to just burrow his way back down into the covers and doze, felt like some exotic luxury.

He meant to get up after a few minutes, maybe beg a quick shower, and then clear out of McKay's hair, but his doze went deeper, turning into true sleep.

The next time he woke was to arousal and warm lips low on his belly. "Yeah," he mumbled, stretching luxuriously. "Feels good."

He looked down. McKay had a serious case of bed head, his thinning hair sticking up every which way. It made John smile for no good reason, and he gave into the urge to run his fingers through it.

He raised an eyebrow when he realized that McKay had gotten dressed at some point, in a T-shirt and boxers. But he still looked like sex when he poked his head up, wet and shiny lips and flushed cheeks, no longer tensed up into knots. "Just wait," McKay said, his voice morning rough. "Not to brag, but I'm really good at this."

"You can talk the talk, McKay, but can you--oh. Oh, god, yeah, that's good." His voice went breathless and high on the last two syllables. "Fuck," he said when McKay swallowed him down.

Something slid into McKay's mouth alongside John's cock. Fingers, John realized when they wandered behind his balls, wet with saliva. "Oh, yeah," John said, giving in to the urge to spread his legs wider.

"You like 'at," McKay said, and if his words hadn't been garbled by John's cock in his mouth, he'd probably sound smug. And, yeah, the first time someone had done that to him, John had surprised himself with how much he got into it.

"Hmmm," John agreed, stifling a groan when McKay slowly pushed one finger inside him.

McKay hadn't lied: he was good at this, sliding his mouth down so far that John really hoped he wouldn't choke, pulling back to swirl his tongue over the glans.

McKay crooked the finger inside John, pulling a raw sound out of him. It had been forever since someone had played with his ass, and McKay seemed to sense it, not moving beyond the single finger and keeping his movements slow and steady.

It didn't take much of that almost painfully good feeling, suspended between McKay's finger and his hot, wet mouth, and John soon felt the shivers start in his scalp and toes. He tried to make a warning noise before he let loose in McKay's mouth, but McKay didn't let up, sucking greedily when John came with a shout.

John lay there for a few minutes, just enjoying the floaty-headed feeling of a really good orgasm. He was proud of how quickly he turned his attention to McKay, and there maybe was a part of him hoping to get McKay's clothes back off to have a little meet and greet with McKay's cock.

Except that McKay was sprawled between John's legs, his head resting on John's thigh. He looked loose-limbed and sleepy-eyed, a hand shoved down the front of his boxers, not at all flustered that he must have come in his pants.

Just then, McKay sat up, his eyes scarily bright. "So. Breakfast?"

*

John left McKay's house buzzing on afterglow and a morning-after that was only slightly awkward. McKay's blowjob was followed by a hot shower and breakfast, and John couldn't even remember the last time someone other than a short order cook had scrambled eggs for him.

Sitting in McKay's kitchen in last night's clothes, John felt almost comfortable, drinking McKay's really good coffee and watching the man himself move sleepily between the fridge and the stove and the breakfast bar where John sat.

"Do you think we could do this again?" McKay asked, not looking up from the frying pan.

The tight line of McKay's back didn't match his painfully casual tone. John put down his coffee cup and took a breath. "Sure," he said, matching McKay's tone. "You've got my cell."

When John was leaving, there was a weird moment when they couldn't seem to decide on an appropriate good-bye. McKay suddenly got all formal, reaching out for a handshake just as John was leaning in with his head tilted. They both froze for a second, and John couldn't help laughing at the stark panic that flickered over McKay's face.

"Quit laughing, you jerk," McKay said mildly, his mouth twitching, and his hand moved over to clutch at the fabric of John's shirt. "So I suck at this part." And with that, he pulled John forward and pressed their lips together.

John's good mood lasted through his visit to see Holland, where he read another few pages of War and Peace and kept thinking about McKay until he started to annoy himself. His post-orgasmic sense of well being lasted throughout his work shift, in fact. It buoyed him up through finding a good spot for the night in the parking lot of a busy all-night gym and his return to the confines of a sleeping bag.

His buzz started to fade during next morning's staff meeting, where John doodled through an excruciatingly detailed discussion of the new radio dispatch system. Two pages of doodling and an hour later and they were nowhere near done, but John was ready to exchange a kidney for some caffeine. He ended up in the break room with Vicky Cahill, awkwardly hovering over the coffee maker as they waited for a fresh pot.

"John," she said. She looked nervous, playing with her silver thumb ring.

"Yeah, what's up?" he said, watching the carafe fill. He made himself look over at her, sliding his hands into the front pocket of his sweatshirt. "Sorry I couldn't make it to the Roost the other night," he added, going in for an easy smile.

She shot him a look that he couldn't quite decipher. "That's okay," she said, biting her lip. "John," she said again. She stopped after his name and took a deep breath.

"Vicky," he said evenly, raising an eyebrow at her.

"John, are you okay?" she asked, a tense expression on her face..

He could feel his smile going brittle. "What do you mean? Of course I'm okay," he said.

She wasn't budging, half-shaking her head. "I'm sorry to be pushy. You're kind of a loner; I get that. But I have to ask...honestly, are you okay?"

"What makes you think I'm not okay?" His tone was mild, if a little too flat.

"I go visit my uncle sometimes, up at the VA hospital," she said, holding his gaze with hers. "I saw you there once. The nurses said you're a regular. And sometimes you just get this look, like you're a thousand miles away, and it's not someplace happy, either."

He couldn't even speak and was turning towards the door, when her hand reached over, grabbing his wrist to hold him in place. His other hand shot out, but he stopped himself before he broke her hold. Something in his expression made her eyes widen, but she didn't let go.

"I've seen kinky movies that start like this," John drawled. He pointedly stared at her grip on his wrist until she released him with a flustered apology.

"I'm serious, John. You worry me."

"What business is it of yours?" he snapped, and then had to take a deep breath. "Look--"

"No, you look," she interrupted, and she looked more tired than pretty now, her face wind-burned. "I'm sorry. I'm probably messing this up; I know that. But I just wanted you to know that you're not alone. The lifeguards, we're kind of a big family here. We take care of each other. If you need anything: someone to talk to, a place to crash, hell, a ride if your car breaks down, just ask. Okay? That's all I wanted to say."

John's mouth was hanging open, until he shut it with a snap. "I can't do this," he said finally. "I'm not doing this."

Not waiting for her response, he turned and fled the room.

*

John felt off kilter all shift after that, so it was good that all he had to deal with was a case of heat exhaustion and a few jellyfish stings.

"This'll make it stop hurting," he said, holding up the spray bottle for the latest sting victim. The stricken little boy was white as a sheet but holding back his tears, almost solemn. The boy's dad wasn't nearly as calm, looking an inch away from a sobbing breakdown.

It was like that more often than not, the parents looking way worse than the kid John had just rescued. Just part of the whole parental package deal, he supposed and was kind of relieved that his own chances of reproducing were slim to none.

John sprayed the vinegar mixture onto the reddened skin of the boy's legs and tried to soothe father and son with a smile that felt distracted. "Better?"

The boy nodded. "Thanks," he said in a tiny voice, and for some reason that was when he let loose with the waterworks. The dad lifted the crying boy into a bear hug, and they wandered off on promises of ice cream and Nintendo, leaving John scratching the back of his neck.

"The wonders of chemistry." It was the sarcastic voice of McKay, turning up at John's tower again like he just couldn't stay away. That sort of thing usually made John want to change zip codes fast, but with McKay, it felt...strangely gratifying.

"It's mostly placebo effect," John said, trying not to smirk as he turned around. McKay's mouth had a self-deprecating slant, and John was trying not to think about how good he looked in his wrinkled linen shirt.

McKay met John's eyes, the tension around his mouth belying his air of bravado. "I was going to wait a few days to call. Play hard to get or something," he said. "Then I remembered that I screwed that up first thing and said to hell with it."

John laughed. "You're just the epitome of smooth, McKay." Not that John was much better; it wasn't like he'd gotten much practice actually dating guys during his Air Force days. Furtive fucks and quickie handjobs, yeah, but not so much on the dinner and a movie thing.

McKay shot him a well, duh look, shaking his head impatiently. "I know you're on the clock here, so I won't take up too much of your time. You, uh, busy this weekend?"

"I dunno, McKay," John said. "Maybe I should play hard to get."

"Absolutely not. Three words, my friend: Star Trek marathon. You were doing your Spock impression at the party, so don't tell that's not tempting."

John raised an eyebrow. "Fascinating, Dr. McKay."

"Geek, I tell you," McKay crowed, his eyes lighting up. "You're a geek in surfer's clothing."

"And Ray-Bans," John agreed, and he could feel how goofy his smile was. He couldn't help it; it'd been so long since he'd felt like playing, so long since there'd been someone he felt like playing with. "You going to have popcorn at this geek fest of yours, McKay?" he asked.

McKay rolled his eyes. "Do I need to dignify that with a response?" He looked down at the ground suddenly. "You could even, you know. Stay over. Bring a bag." When John didn't say anything, he glanced up, his eyes not quite meeting John's. "If you want."

"Hmm," John said. His Vulcan deadpan was tough to maintain without cracking up, but John managed it. "I believe your suggestion warrants further study."

 

*

They ended up necking on the couch and missed half the Star Trek marathon, because debating the relative merits of the Kirk versus Gorn episode--"C'mon, he looks like a Sleestak," and "Land of the Lost? Jesus, you are a geek"--was weirdly hot, and John gave in to the urge to blow McKay right then and there. After that, McKay offered to reciprocate, but he pled bad knees and for a change in venue, and John couldn't argue with his reasoning.

John stayed over, and things heated up again in the wee hours of the night. He emerged from an erotic dream, achingly hard, and he was lazy and horny and only half-awake when he rolled over to let McKay fuck him.

McKay spooned up against his back, and it was like a continuation of the dream. McKay was hard, his erection poking John in the back, his mouth coming down wet and hot on John's shoulder. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to press back against McKay, growling a little when the tip of McKay's cock slid into the crease of his ass.

"Go ahead," John said, half-drunk on the need to feel someone on him, in him, a man's weight on his back.

He hadn't done that in years, and hadn't really planned on doing it with McKay, but things happened that way sometimes. Giving in to that need to get fucked probably wasn't smart. It tended to mess with his head, but even his dumbest ideas tended to make more sense in the quiet pre-dawn darkness.

"Just a second." McKay moved, clambering over John's body to get to the bedside table. He rooted around in the drawer around for a long time, cursing under his breath. "I know I saw it in here somewhere," he added, sounding impatient.

John breathed in the comfortable smell of McKay's sheets, his drowsiness held off by the prickle of nervous anticipation and the heat rising in his gut. Just the thought of having McKay's intensity channeled into fucking him was doing strange things to his insides.

"Aha, found it," McKay crowed. Something thumped onto the sheets next to John's shoulder, and then McKay himself was back, sliding into place next to John, propped up on his side. John followed his lead, lazily rolling onto his right side so that his back was against McKay's chest.

He pushed his ass back against McKay's groin. "Oh, fuck," McKay groaned, rocking his hips against John's ass. McKay's erection hadn't softened during his bedside rummaging, and John felt his groin tighten at the thought.

Arousal was cutting through John's drowsiness, and he moved his left leg forward and out of the way. It left him wide open, no hiding his eagerness to get fucked, and it was part of why he hardly ever did this. There was no distance here, no protective surface. This was too real, too intimate for deception.

"Wait, jeez, wait," McKay said, pulling back a little. John heard a plastic-sounding pop, and then a cold, slick finger was pushing into his ass, making him hiss.

"Don't stop," he whispered. McKay didn't, and they were both breathing hard, the quiet of the room cut by the sounds of their gasps and groans. Here and now, he didn't have to bite back the sex sounds, he realized, and that was a rush, something that turned him shy and slutty at the same time. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth and let himself go, groaning as loudly as he could.

"Want to fuck you now," McKay said on the heels of the sound, and after that McKay wasted no time, careful in spite of his shaking fingers. Heat rushed to John's face and his groin at the thought of McKay's fingers inside him, getting him ready for McKay's cock.

There was the crinkle of a wrapper being ripped open and the unmistakable latex smell, and the cold touch of more slick. And then John's unspoken wish became reality, the blunt push of McKay's cock into him, the head popping just inside. John froze, and McKay froze with him. He'd somehow forgotten this part, the momentary crawling panic, oh, christ, too big, that'll never fit, and he made himself breathe through it, made himself relax.

Easy, easy, and the moment felt endless. Let go, and his ass unclenched a little, and then a lot, and then McKay was sliding into him, and it was, yes, so much better. McKay slid into him slow and easy until he hit the spot inside, and John let out a sound at the spark of sensation. "Yeah, right there. C'mon, McKay."

McKay didn't break from his deliberate pace, nudging the spot lightly, and easing out with excruciating slowness. "Christ, come on, McKay," John growled, pushing back against the solid body behind him. "We're fucking here, not having high tea."

That got through, pushed McKay into finally putting his back into it. Goaded, McKay had a feral side and wasn't afraid to use his teeth and strength to pin John to the bed and fuck him silly.

John came so hard he saw stars. As sweaty and gross as they were, they slept like the dead after that, and it was the best night's sleep John had had in weeks.

He was still feeling it in the morning, tired and sore and relaxed, and McKay could fuck like a champion and hadn't freaked out on him once. It all felt comfortable and almost domestic in a way that John tried not to think too much about.

The next morning, they kicked back on the deck in nothing but boxers and sweatshirts, drinking their coffee and watching the sun on the water. At least, John was watching the water. McKay never seemed to enjoy looking out at the ocean. In fact he'd actually gone white when John invited him down for a swim. Which made his possession of an expensive beach house just one more piece of the puzzle that was Rodney McKay, John mused, glancing over to see that McKay was watching him.

"How long have you been a lifeguard?" McKay asked, his casual tone a little at odds with the serious look in his eyes.

John deliberately took a big swallow of coffee, burning his tongue. After a moment, he said, "Not long."

McKay nodded, as if to himself, and John felt his shoulders tensing. "What made you...choose that line of work?" The question was cut by a long pause that made John sure McKay'd been about to ask something else.

John shrugged. "I happened to be at the beach when they had open try-outs. Seemed like a good idea at the time. It's an okay job."

Too strapped for a hotel and tired of the fruitless search for a cheap apartment, he'd taken to parking at the beach, crashing in his car. He'd been bumming through another morning by the water when he'd been caught up in the crowd of lifeguard hopefuls. He'd done the swim test on a whim and ended up qualifying easily.

McKay looked down at the deck. "You like to save people," he said softly.

Blue eyes caught his before he could shrug again, and then McKay was smiling. Without any warning, he leaned over and stole a coffee-flavored kiss. It started quick and light but tripped over into hot and nasty, coffee sloshing as their mugs slammed down onto the patio table, strong tongue and then hands and groping.

The idea floated up from the base of John's brain, crazy and hot and irresistible, and he didn't even try. He pulled away from the kiss and slid down to his knees--the old instincts screaming at him, too public, this is stupid--and one of the few good things about being asked to resign his commission was that he could tell his instincts to go fuck themselves.

McKay's violent gasp made John smile, and a shudder went though the man when John's hands slid up bare shins, ruffling the hair there. He pushed McKay's knees apart and shouldered his way into the space between McKay's thighs. Shooting one last look up at McKay's saucer eyes and gaping mouth, he leaned in to shove his face into the crotch of McKay's boxers. The musky smell was all male and all McKay, and he scrubbed his unshaven cheek against the cloth covering McKay's swelling hardness.

"Oh, my god," McKay said, sounding stunned. "We're having sex on my deck."

John's laugh was muffled; he was mouthing McKay's cock through the fabric of his boxers. The spreading wet spot on McKay's underwear was a mixture of John's saliva and McKay's pre-come; the faint detergent taste of the cloth mixed with the mild bitterness of McKay.

McKay was making breathy little moans that went right to John's cock. It thickened between his thighs, trapped by his shorts.

"Please, please," McKay muttered under his breath, and John decided to take that as direction. He spread the flap of McKay's boxers, sighing when McKay's stiff, red cock poked through the opening.

John let out an appreciative noise. He didn't tease, just leaned in and wrapped his mouth around the head of McKay's cock. It felt dangerous and exciting, sucking cock in the open air, everything about them exposed for the world to see. It felt like freedom.

Freedom to move McKay like this, to pull these sounds from him, and John's knees were reminding him he wasn't twenty anymore, but he ignored them.

He sucked until his cheeks and jaw were sore, but he didn't stop when McKay stiffened in his chair, swallowing him down as McKay came and came.

"Jesus," McKay wheezed, and slid right out of his chair, clutching at John as he joined him on the deck. "Oh, Jesus, let me," McKay said and fumbled inside John's boxers, and god, finally, a warm, strong hand wrapped around him.

He grunted and sighed as McKay's fingers slid up and down his cock, McKay's mouth pressed into his neck, warm tongue tasting his racing pulse. "You're so hot, so fucking hot," McKay muttered, leaning in to suck on John's neck.

McKay bit down, hard, into the vulnerable flesh of his neck, and that was what tripped John over, made him stiffen and come all over McKay's hands.

They knelt there on the deck, still clutching at each other, their breathing slowing. The come was going cold in John's shorts by the time they pulled away enough to look at each other. McKay stared over at John, a smile twitching at his lips.

"What?" John asked, trying not to laugh.

"What, 'what'? " McKay said, a contented look in his eyes as he tilted his head at John. "I like looking at you. You should stay here tonight, so that I can look at you some more."

It was a very McKay thing to say, bald and straightforward, and John surprised himself by flushing a little. The smart thing would be to turn McKay down, to get some distance, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to cut himself off from McKay, from whatever was developing between them.

John finally shrugged. "Sure."

"You'll come back here after your shift?" McKay asked, a strange look on his face, almost relieved, but sad at the same time.

"I said I would, didn't I?" John said patiently.

McKay leaned forward to slam a hard kiss onto John's mouth, more desperate than possessive.

"Easy there," John said when they parted. He cupped the side of McKay's neck with a hand, a little confused by McKay's reaction.

McKay offered no explanation, just nodded and led them inside. They cleaned themselves up, and John changed his underwear before they headed back onto the deck. Rounding up some fresh coffee, they went back to sunning lazily on the deck.

There wasn't much talking, but the silence felt natural, and John was again amazed by how comfortable he was with McKay. It was frighteningly easy to just sit with him, even when they weren't getting all sweaty together.

"You run, don't you?" McKay said, when he caught John eyeing the packed sand of the low-tide beach.

"I'll go later," John said, but McKay flapped a hand at him.

"Go, do your disgustingly healthy thing. Gotta keep that girlish figure of yours."

John rolled his eyes and went to change. He winced his way through the run, but he'd be damned if he was changing his routine because of enthusiastic sex. Trekking back up the cliff path to McKay's house, he paused at the base of the deck stairs, knocking the sand off his running shoes.

McKay must have left the glass doors to the deck wide open; voices drifted down from inside the house.

"...got nerve, sending you. What part of 'no' do they not get?" That was McKay's voice, a trace of panic sharpening his words beneath the surface exasperation

"They need you. I need you," a deep voice replied. "We all need you, but you're busy here playing beach bum with that slacker lifeguard--"

"Leave him out of it," McKay interrupted, low and fierce.

Leaning against the stair railing, John went still. Someone was keeping tabs on McKay, someone good enough that John hadn't even noticed.

McKay's response had silenced the other man for a moment, but it didn't last. He spoke, in a softer tone. "I don't want to go back without you, McKay."

"That's too bad," McKay said, his voice going a little shrill. "I can't go back. The Genii--" He cut himself short. "You should know better than anyone that I can't go back."

A long stretch of silence, and then the deep voice said, "It scares the shit out of me, too. I saw what they did to you. They made me watch. Christ, I should have stopped them." The flat, colorless tone was one that John knew all too well.

McKay's voice softened. "You did all you could. They would have killed you. Who would have saved my ass, then?"

The deep voice kept going, "I hate having to ask this, McKay. I know you deserve a rest. But I'll tell you straight up...we need you. We really need you. And maybe sometimes you just have to face your fears."

"On the contrary, I'm quite content with my fears staying far, far away, in another galaxy, as it were. And yeah, you dragged my ass out when the city was coming down around our ears, and I owe you for that. But not this. I can't do this."

City? Carol's mysterious government project was looking even more mysterious. But he didn't have time to try to puzzle it out: McKay sounded like he was about to have an aneurysm, and John had had enough. He loudly thumped his way up the stairs.

"McKay, I'm starving," he called out before he reached the top.

Two faces swiveled towards him when he stepped onto the deck. John slouched his way into the house and narrowed his eyes at the man with McKay. Dark and solid, he stood with painfully perfect posture, and his short, tightly-curled hair was just starting to recede to reveal a high forehead. Dark brown eyes glared right back at John, and even without a uniform, there was a no-nonsense, suspicious air about him that screamed NCO.

"Ah, John," McKay said, sounding flustered. His hand went up to gesture towards the stranger. "This is Se--" McKay stopped himself at a sharp look from the man. "I mean, this is, um, Bates. Mr. Bates."

Yeah, right, thought John. "John Sheppard." He held a hand out and unobtrusively slid between McKay and Bates, whose face was growing a disgruntled frown. He looked like he had a stick shoved right up his ass, and John so would've gone for a macho knuckle-buster of a handshake if the man hadn't apparently saved McKay's life at some point.

Bates' expression was skeptical as his eyes moved from John's sweaty, tousled hair down to his ratty T-shirt and running shorts. It triggered John's contrary streak; he slouched even more, hooking an elbow onto McKay's shoulder, leaning into McKay's space.

"How do you know McKay, Mr. Bates?" he asked. He made sure his voice was low and careless, flippant enough to make Bates' frown deepen.

McKay had jumped a little when John got so close, but he didn't move away from the contact. He stared over at John, looking pleased and flushed.

"We used to work together," Bates said, tight-lipped. He turned his attention to McKay. "I should be going. You will consider what we were talking about?"

"You already know my answer," McKay said, his mouth pulling down on one side.

Bates' narrowed eyes bounced between him and McKay as they showed him to the door. "Bye, now," John said, in a bright tone, which earned him one last glare.

McKay slammed the front door and leaned back against the door's surface. He closed his eyes with a sigh, but they popped open again when John leaned over to cup McKay's chin in his hand. His thumb moved back and forth over McKay's mouth, and McKay's eyes widened.

He was leaning in for the kiss when McKay spoke. "How much did you overhear?" he asked carefully.

John pulled back with a sigh, the hesitation deepening McKay's frown. "Enough to know you've earned your retirement," John said. "You were tortured. Sergeant Bates should leave you alone."

It was a guess, but it made sense. Some of McKay's scars had looked deliberate, placed with a malicious care that made John insides go cold just thinking about.

McKay's expression went still, and then he shouldered his way past John to hover at the center of the room. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he closed his eyes. "It's not that simple. Sergeant Bates saved my life."

"He kept a civilian safe. That's the job," John shot back.

McKay opened his eyes. "You used to be military." There was no surprise in the quiet voice. John felt his lips tighten, but McKay wasn't done yet. "A pilot, right? I bet you wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid. Aerospace engineering," he added, waving a finger at the sky as if to support his reasoning.

John gave a short jerk of a nod but didn't let himself be diverted. "And you were a scientist working in some kind of war zone," he guessed. "Until it all went bad."

McKay sighed, scrubbing at his face. "That's...a pretty accurate description, actually. I'm not supposed to talk about it."

"Signed your life away, I know," John said. He shrugged. "Talk if you need to. Or don't."

"I think I'll make breakfast," McKay said after a pause. He was clattering around in a lower cabinet, his face hidden, when he spoke again. "I don't think I'm ready. Not yet. But thanks all the same."

"It's just...I can relate," John said through stiff lips.

McKay stood up from his crouch, a skillet in one hand. His eyes met John's, his expression shadowed. "I thought you might." Ducking his head, he set the skillet on the stove. "John, on the topic of needing to talk--"

"I'm good," John said quickly. "I'm good. Now, was that bacon I saw in your fridge?"

*

It was a bad shift. Three exhausting rip current rescues were followed by an allergic reaction to a bee sting. John couldn't do much as they watched the little girl struggle for breath, as frantic for the arrival of the medical team as the helpless parents.

He was glad to have McKay's undemanding company after that. John talked about the little girl, and McKay took a breath and pulled out his own epi-pen and revealed an up close and personal knowledge of anaphylactic shock.

There was beer and Chinese delivery and a slow decompression after that, and then the welcome distraction of bending McKay over the breakfast bar and fucking him within an inch of his life.

"We eat here," McKay said afterwards in a disgusted voice, eyeing the bar stool he'd decorated with come. John couldn't stop laughing, punchy as hell and lightheaded, and McKay shot him a fond you're such a freak look that set him off again.

Maybe because he was dead tired, the dreams came back that night. The smell of aviation fuel mixed with the taste of desert dust, choking him, and the heavy weight of Holland rolled off his shoulders onto the sand--sightless eyes, dead, oh, god, dead but wait, this isn't the way it happened--and the flash of wrongness was what brought him out of it.

He woke, his heart racing, still trapped in the frantic images. He vaguely thought he'd heard a shout and wondered if it had been his own.

"Ow, damn it, John." McKay's voice came from the floor.

John was finally catching his breath; he reached over to flick on the bedside light. He looked over to see McKay sprawled on the floor, clutching at his nose. He frowned, gesturing towards McKay's face. "I did that?" He couldn't stop the shake in his voice.

McKay pulled himself back up onto the bed and nodded. "Knocked me right out of bed," he said, pinching his nostrils. He peered at his fingers. "It's not bleeding." McKay looked over at him, eyebrows raised. "That was some dream."

"Yeah." John turned out the light, ignoring McKay's implied question.

They were settled back under the covers, the room dark and quiet, when McKay moved closer. He slid a heavy arm across John's chest, and his mouth was soft and wet on the skin where John's neck met his shoulder.

"Your dreams." McKay's voice was muffled against John's skin. "Iraq?"

"Afghanistan," John said after a long silence, his voice rough. He could hear McKay let out a sigh.

"You said the name Holland," McKay said cautiously.

John had pulled himself out of McKay's arms and was sitting up on the edge of the bed, the light flipped on, almost before he'd realized it.

"Jesus, John." McKay was sliding a hand up his bare back. "We don't have to talk about it."

Rooting around on the floor for his boxers, John barely heard the words.

"Shit," McKay muttered. "John, calm down; I won't push you. I told myself I wouldn't push you. But please don't leave. Come on, you don't have anywhere to go." The last sentence was almost shrill, McKay sounding frantic.

John froze. "What did you say?"

McKay was silent; John looked over to see that he'd buried his face in his hands. "What did you say?" John repeated, his tone oddly calm.

"I wasn't going to say anything. It slipped out, I swear."

"McKay."

McKay's head snapped up, his eyes narrowed. "You're living in your car," he said, his voice gone sharp, almost angry. "You don't need to do that. I can help. Look, you can stay in the guest room, if you want." His voice went low, persuasive. "You don't have to leave."

McKay's hands eased their way up John's spine, comforting and warm in a way that John wanted to shrug off. But walking away from McKay had somehow become impossible, and John let himself be coaxed, relaxing back into McKay's embrace.

Lights out once more, John sighed and let McKay arrange them both under the covers.

"What gave it away?" he asked, sounded resigned.

McKay sounded sleepy. "The sleeping bag. The surfboard that's always on your car. I guess I just put things together."

John nodded. It was awkward with McKay half-lying on him, but he didn't move. He reached over to weave his fingers with McKay's.

"Guest room, huh?" he said finally, going for an arch tone.

"Don't even think about it," McKay muttered, already mostly asleep.

*

At the VA hospital, John was ahead of his reading schedule. They were up to Book Five and Pierre Bezukhov was drowning his guilt in Freemasonry, ready to renounce his atheism. John's voice stumbled and he finally had to stop reading. His grip on the book tightened, crumpling the pages and cracking the book's spine.

He looked over at Hol, silent and still on the bed. "I think it must be easier," he said finally. "To be able to believe like that."

Holland breathed in and out, slowly, softly, and didn't even flinch when the book hit the window with a thud.

*

"You can't see it from here." McKay sounded pensive, his words almost too low for John to hear.

"See what?"

John's question made McKay start, as if he hadn't realized he'd been speaking aloud. McKay sucked in a noisy breath but didn't answer. "There's Vega," he said quickly. "That one." He wrapped a hand around John's wrist, shifting the finger John had pointed at Perseus to another part of the sky.

They were lying on their backs out on the deck, trying to stargaze through the light pollution. McKay's shoulder was warm against John's, and he hadn't moved the hand on John's wrist.

"White main sequence star, about seven parsecs away." John let out a smug bark of a laugh at dredging up that bit of trivia from the cobwebbed corners of his brain.

"Closer to eight, smartass. Paaaarsec." McKay stretched out the first syllable and rolled the word off his tongue. "I've always liked that word. Makes me think of Han Solo."

"Geek." John nudged McKay's knee with his own. Before McKay could start huffing, John used a finger to trace a line between Cygnus' tail and head. "Deneb. And Albireo." He nodded up at the sky, even though the gesture was probably lost in the darkness. "My mother taught me these," he said quietly.

"So did mine." McKay sounded startled, his head turning to look over at John.

The stars stood out weakly here, but John was remembering the inky black of a rural Georgia sky. "I said I wanted to visit every star in the sky, and she told me that would take a long time. I was nine."

His chest had ached with it, the need barely formed, but powerfully real. He'd wanted to go, to see, to be free to fly to each of those distant points of light.

McKay chuckled, the sound low and warm in the darkness. "My parents were fighting like cats and dogs, so my sister Jeannie and I used to stay up half the night in the backyard with the telescope. The neighbors thought we were freaks, figured we were teenage voyeurs trying to watch all the suburban moms and dads not having sex."

"Where'd you grow up?" John asked. He knew some pretty intimate things about McKay that it seemed strange to think he'd missed some of the basic getting-to-know-you stuff.

"Toronto. You?"

"All over. Texas and Hawaii for high school," John said.

"Hawaii's where you learned to surf?" McKay gave John's wrist a squeeze.

"Yeah." John smiled as he thought about that first time on a surfboard, the sense of rightness. There'd been one perfect second of balance and speed and the power of the wave beneath him, before he'd wiped out spectacularly. It had made up for the suckitude of being the new kid, again, for the billionth time in the middle of his junior year.

It wasn't until McKay let out a breath and said, "You make surfing sound sexy," that John realized he'd said all of that aloud.

"It's almost as sexy as sex." John made sure his smirk came through loud and clear.

McKay propped himself onto his side, facing John. John shut his eyes to enjoy the warmth pressed against him, the glide of McKay's fingers up his arm from his wrist to his shoulder.

They ended up making out there in the darkness, until the chill and the unforgiving surface drove them inside, to a comfortable bed and John on his back, his legs draped over McKay's broad shoulders.

Being folded up like a pretzel with McKay's weight pressing down on him made it a little hard to breathe, but John didn't care. McKay slid into him, filled him up, stretched him out. John growled, his head slamming back against the pillows, and McKay's mouth sought out the exposed line of his neck, mouth and teeth working at his skin. He could feel the marks already. They'd turn into dark bruises by morning, and a part of him welcomed the thought of wearing such obvious signs.

When he came, long and loud and hard, the clenching of his ass muscles around McKay's cock set him off even more, deepened the intensity of the orgasm. He got come everywhere, on the sheets and on his chest and even in his fucking hair.

McKay held on until John was down to lethargy and shivers, and then McKay let out a ragged sound and slammed into him, over and over, shoving him into the sheets and almost painfully into the headboard.

"John, John," McKay said, and then, "Fuck." John's ass was really starting to hurt when McKay pushed into him one more time, a ragged, stuttering thrust, and then let go, coming with his teeth clenched against his shout.

John didn't realize his face was wet until after McKay had pulled out, his fingers going out to trace a line from the corner of John's eye to his ear.

"Did I hurt you?" McKay blurted, and then, "What?" when John started laughing, strung-out and well-fucked and hugging McKay with arms that felt like noodles.

*

They continued in that vein, strangely careful with each other. McKay didn't question when John left early most mornings, hours before the start of his shift. They danced around certain subjects, like the dreams they both had and the whispered, angry way McKay sometimes answered his phone.

One night turned into two, and then a week, and then somehow they were going grocery shopping together. The argument over milk was the kicker for John, skim or whole, and he nearly freaked out right there in the dairy aisle. His knees went wobbly, and he had to sit, the cold edge of the milk cooler cutting across his ass.

"John, you okay?" McKay asked, and he looked so normal, harmless, hair fluffy and sticking up from where John had smacked him for dithering over melons, for crissake, and the grocery list on a post-it note stuck to one hand. The rush of affection was unexpected but not unwelcome, and John managed to hold in the hysterical laughter that threatened.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," he said finally, pushing himself upright again. It's just that I never expected this, but he didn't say it out loud, because he couldn't imagine having that discussion anywhere, much less in the middle of Albertsons.

There was another weird moment at the cash register, when John beat McKay to the punch, pulling cash from his wallet while McKay was still fumbling at his back pocket.

"I got it," McKay said, pulling out his credit card. He was shooting John a strange look, concern hovering under annoyance, and John wanted to snarl that he wasn't a charity case.

He stopped himself from ripping into McKay, just barely, because fair was fair and McKay didn't actually deserve it. Living in his car didn't present a picture of financial stability, and he had to admit that there wasn't a trace of pity in McKay's gaze.

But John couldn't help the stiffness that took over his face, and McKay's chin came up in response.

The clerk broke the tension, taking McKay's credit card and then snagging two twenties from John. "Here," she said, leaning over to slide the money into McKay's shirt pocket. "Split it between the two of you. That's fair, right?"

"More than fair." McKay shot John an apologetic glance, mouth quirked. He tucked the bills away into his wallet, his eyes not leaving John's. "We good?" he asked.

"We're good," John said slowly, and he didn't think they were just talking about the grocery bill.

*

That wasn't the end of it, since it turned out that neither of them had good track records with playing well with others. But the divots and bumps of their personalities meshed more than clashed, which seemed to be a new experience for both of them. They managed surprisingly well.

John found himself waking up too warm and tangled around McKay, thinking huh. His usual urge to untangle himself, to keep his personal space his own, seemed to give McKay a free pass.

He decided to take McKay's dislike of the ocean as a personal challenge, and a judicious application of wheedling and sex got McKay down onto the beach. The sea breeze had died some time during the night, and the ocean was dead calm, and John's blowjob turned out to be highly persuasive.

The sun beat down comfortably warm onto John's shoulders, offsetting the chill of the waist-deep water that he stood in. Stiff as the surfboard beneath him, McKay floated next to him, nearly motionless on the still surface of the ocean.

"It's fine, see?" John said, one hand on the board and the other on McKay's shoulder.

A snort was the only response. McKay's eyes were squeezed shut, his mouth an unhappy slant, and he was wearing a T-shirt. McKay hardly ever went without a shirt, even in bed.

The shirt was soaking wet and clung to his chest, his nipples standing erect under the cloth. John tried to ignore the distraction; this was about dealing with McKay's phobia, not his sex appeal.

McKay's fingers had a white-knuckled grip on John's surfboard.

"Relax," John said. "You're not going to drown."

John felt McKay's laugh more than heard it, the jerk of his shoulder followed by a mumble.

"What?" John asked.

McKay pried open one eyelid, the glare making him squint as he looked up at John. "I said that I'm not afraid of drowning. Well, I am afraid of that, but not more than anyone else."

John kept silent, waiting, and McKay continued, sounding almost dreamy. "I can hear them sometimes, even when I'm awake. Voices, carried over the water."

Flashback, but John said only, "Hear who?"

"Atla--" McKay stopped himself and started over. "All the people I should have saved." He sat up, straddling the board. "People died because of me," he said, his expression crumbling a little, and there wasn't much John could say to that.

John managed a small nod. "It happens. Sometimes no matter what you do, people die." Or worse, he thought and had to close his eyes for a second.

He opened them to find McKay watching him. "John?"

John shrugged it off, shaking his head. "When we first met," he said slowly. "Was that why you were in the water? You heard them?"

McKay nodded, his eyes closing.

John leaned forward, and the kiss was almost chaste. Closed mouth and dry, and the only comfort John could offer.

*

John went back to reading War and Peace during his next visit to the hospital, a little ashamed of his outburst and subsequent book abuse. He'd found the paperback in its usual spot on the dresser, the wrinkled pages and the creases in the cover smoothed out.

"You found your book?" asked one of the orderlies, the harried lines of his face molding into genuine concern. "I saw it during Captain Holland's last PT session."

John nodded, trying not to flush. "Thanks," he managed.

"It's good, you reading to him," the orderly said, and John tried not to cringe. The man seemed unaware of John's discomfort. "If I was ever, you know... I'd want someone visiting, reading to me, like you do."

I'd rather be dead. John couldn't help the flash of thought. It should have been me. He almost said the words out loud and came close to losing it right there. The blood drained from his face, and he had to bite the inside of cheek so hard he tasted copper.

Holland's thirst for flying had been even deeper than John's. They'd had more than one drunken bull session on the subject: flying like sex, freedom and razor sharp control and moving through the air, the faster the better.

They were tight, friends with a shared love of scotch and poker and with twin needs to push the limits of machine and man. They were buddies. At least that was what John had told himself when he looked at his friend and some treacherous part of him couldn't help wanting more.

The orderly's smile was fading. John had been silent too long.

"We're buddies," John said finally, managing to smile back. "It's no big deal."

*

"I don't feel so good," John said to the speckled vinyl floor of the ER waiting room. Bent over, his head between his knees, he was trying not to spew the contents of his stomach and maybe wishing that he hadn't been so quick to brush off the lifeguard who'd dropped him off--Richard or Roger, something starting with R. John's head was spinning too much to pursue it.

Noise made his head hurt, and the other lifeguard had been talking, talking, a background buzz of words that John couldn't quite make out through the fog that gripped him.

"I'm fine. You can leave now," John had said finally. He'd had to repeat it twice, which triggered more talking, which triggered a wave of something that must have shown on his face, because the guy had said something else, softer, quieter, and left.

Bright red drops spattered onto the tile below him. He stared at them, confused for a second before he realized he was bleeding all over their nice clean floor. Head wounds bled like nothing else, but the rational side of him couldn't squash the twinge of queasiness. "Shit," he said and pressed the wadded gauze more firmly to the back of his head.

Of all the dumb ways to earn a trip to the ER, a beach volleyball game turned violent had to be one of the dumbest. John had been trying to break up the fight when he caught a beer bottle to the back of the head, and there should be a special place in hell for stupid fuckers who brought glass onto the beach.

Shivering, he huddled into his lifeguard jacket and then had to stifle a groan as he realized he was probably bleeding all over it.

The man sitting in the chair next to his was talking and pointing at him. "What?" He sounded muzzy, even to himself.

"I said your phone is ringing," the man said, eyeing John a little warily.

"Oh," John said, fumbling at his pockets. He finally got the phone out and open and right side up, all with a ridiculous degree of difficulty, and he was pretty sure the last time he'd had a head wound, he hadn't felt this bad. Getting old sucks, he thought as he mumbled something into the phone.

It was McKay, and the conversation that followed was surreal, moving quickly from, "Hey, you want Thai tonight?" to yelling and John losing track of what McKay was saying, and then, "Hospital? Which hospital, John?"

John kept repeating, "I don't know," until the guy next to him snatched the phone out of his hand and started talking into it.

He sighed in relief at the relative quiet and let his head drop back down. The peace didn't last long, though. The guy started waving the phone in front of John's nose until John reached out and pocketed it.

"He's coming down," the man said, sounding out of patience. "He says you're a moron, by the way."

John blinked. "Okay. Thanks, I think," he said. A nurse finally called his name, and he staggered to his feet, cranky and hurting and tired, and his one last hope was that they weren't going to shave his entire fucking head.

*

John was cleaned up and stitched up and was trying to ease back into his jacket when he heard his name called from two different directions.

"John?" McKay and Annie both said at the same time.

"Oh, crap," John said. Compartmentalization meant sanity and peace of mind for him. Even without a head injury, he was in no way prepared for this meeting of the disparate parts of his life.

"Someone called me," Annie said in a rush and then she let out a startled sound when McKay moved close, his hands fluttering over John's face and shoulders and chest.

"Damn it, John," McKay gritted out, and his hands settled on John's shoulders, pressing their lips together in a quick, harsh kiss. McKay pulled away and went dead white when the blood stains on John's T-shirt caught his eye. "Oh, jeez."

"Don't puke on me, McKay," John said gently. "I'm okay. Really." Annie kept silent through the exchange, but her expression was worried.

McKay stepped back a little, his hands still moving in the air between them as if he hadn't been quite ready to let go.

"Don't really like blood." McKay's voice sounded strangled, and he took in an unsteady breath. He was frowning as John winced his way into one sleeve and reached over to help John into the jacket.

He left one hand on John's shoulder and said, "You scared the shit out of me." McKay shot a wary look at Annie. "And who the hell are you?"

Annie ignored McKay's surliness. She put on a brave smile and stuck out her hand. "Annie Sinclair."

"Dr. Rodney McKay." McKay shook her hand. He seemed rattled, judging from the too vigorous handshake and the formal introduction, and John tried not to sigh.

"This is Holland's sister," he said. McKay was smart, scary smart, so it was no surprise that comprehension dawned almost immediately, his eyes widening. "She's a friend. So is her husband," he told McKay pointedly.

"Oh." McKay seemed embarrassed. "Sorry to be so grumpy," he said to Annie.

"You were worried," she said, shrugging it off. "I know exactly how that feels." She was smiling at them, the expression indulgent, and John wanted to squirm.

Rubbing the back of his neck, John suppressed the urge to let his hand stray up to the shaved patch around his stitches. The skin was still numb, so it was ridiculous that it already felt a little itchy. He squinted; even with the drugs the doctor had given him, his headache was nearly blinding.

McKay looked disheveled, his rumpled T-shirt one that John knew was worn and soft. John was feeling stretched thin and breakable, and he had a sudden fierce urge to be back at the beach house, to lie down on the couch, his head in McKay's lap. Something must have shown on his face, because when McKay glanced over, he did a little double take, his expression softening.

"Annie, McKay can take me home. I'm really sorry they bothered you," John said finally, ready to get the hell out of there, but not wanting to be rude. "I'd forgotten I had you down as my emergency contact."

She shoved stray wisps of hair back from her face, her forehead scrunching up. "Jesus, John, please don't apologize. You saved Jason's life. We owe you so much; we can't even repay you--"

She faltered, something in John's expression cutting her off. "You're injured. You should go home and rest."

McKay was silent in the car on the way home, his eyes darting over at John every few seconds. John drooped in his seat, trying to find a position that jostled his head the least.

"Go ahead and ask; I can hear you thinking over there," John said tiredly.

McKay flapped a hand in the air. "Holland's alive?" he blurted. "She said you saved him. I thought..." He trailed off, sounding frustrated.

John took in a breath and let it out. "Hol's lying in a bed up at the VA hospital. He's a vegetable, McKay, and he won't get any better." It sounded angry, but his harsh tone faded fast. "Any questions?" he whispered. McKay flinched at the break John couldn't keep out of his voice.

McKay was silent, his hands clenching on the steering wheel. "I'm sorry," he said finally. "I'm so sorry."

*

John's captain called him up, to check on his health and to give him three days off to recover. The asshole who had thrown the bottle had been arrested, ratted out by his friends. The news was less satisfying than John was expecting, although McKay smiled a vicious little smile when he heard.

He spent the time off doing absolutely nothing, lazing around the house. McKay only tried to baby him for the first day, backing off after John snarled at him a few times.

"You should put your surfboard in the garage," McKay said on the second day. He was going for casual, not looking up from his laptop, but John could hear the tension in his voice. John raised an eyebrow but didn't need much convincing, and then his board was no longer suffering the indignity of being strapped to a car roof 24/7.

Whatever was between them--sex, geeky companionship, shared denial--worked scarily well. They joked and argued over the remote and fell asleep on the couch together and had great sex.

It felt weird but good to have clothes that didn't smell like his car, and to sprawl on a big bed, and McKay calling from the store, "Hey, I'm picking up doughnuts, you want anything?" It was friendship and affection and something that felt suspiciously close to happiness.

It was...good. John felt like he belonged somewhere, for practically the first time in his life. He should have known it couldn't last.

*

When everything went to hell, it went scarily fast. One minute John was coasting along, letting himself get complacent, almost content. The next minute, he was coming home from getting his stitches taken out to find McKay packing, stuffing underwear and a T-shirt-wrapped laptop into a backpack.

"McKay?" John's voice made McKay start. He turned to face John, and he looked almost as bad as the first time they'd met, tense and wild-eyed. "McKay, what the hell?" John prodded, his stomach starting to churn.

McKay's mouth worked silently for a few seconds, his eyes desperate. "I have to go back," he whispered. "I have to go back right now."

John gaped, speechless, and McKay continued in a rush. "I don't have much time, John. Sergeant Bates is coming to get me."

Mouth open to protest, John didn't manage to get a word in before McKay continued, "John, I want...I'd like you to stay here while I'm gone. I promise to come back as soon as I can." His expression went twitchy, his mouth twisting as he talked. McKay never had learned to lie worth a damn.

"You don't think you'll be coming back," John said. "Do you?"

McKay said nothing for a moment, a grimace crossing his face. "I don't know. It's bad, John."

Fuck, fuck, fuck. This is not happening, he thought, ignoring the dry voice from the base of his brain that whispered, But it's what you deserve. "Why? Why you? Why now?"

Zipping up the backpack, McKay shot him a helpless look. "Trust me, it's important. I wouldn't do this if it weren't. There is no one else who can do this."

"It's Bates, isn't it?" John said, his voice going flat. "He pulled another guilt trip, and you fell for it. McKay, it wasn't your fault. You don't have to--"

McKay was on him, stopping the flow of words by covering John's mouth with his. It was not at all like a kiss, too brutal, with all the strength of his bulky chest and shoulders. John let out an angry, stifled sound, trying to slide out of McKay's grip. He managed to get his hands between them and shoved, pushing McKay away.

John glared over at McKay, pale except for two spots of color high on his cheeks. "What the fuck was that?" John said, exploring the inside of his lip with his tongue and tasting blood.

"You don't know." McKay was shaking his head. "You save people without even trying, and you don't know anything."

John's hands went up and into fists, and it was the closest he had ever come to punching someone he knew didn't deserve it. McKay's eyes opened wide, but he didn't back down, scrubbing his hands through his already wild hair.

"John, that's not. I'm not." McKay took a deep breath. "I used to be that person, too, someone people counted on to save their asses. Until one day I couldn't, couldn't do anything but scream and tell them what they wanted, and then I had to blow the city because I couldn't keep my damn mouth shut."

"Jesus, McKay." John reached out, fists uncurling, and his fingers brushing down the line of McKay's chin provoked a shudder. He had a moment's hesitation, and then he settled his hands on McKay's shoulders. McKay warily leaned into the grip, reminding John of the sick cat that he had dragged home when he was ten, the cat he'd fought his mom to keep but that had died a week later anyway.

"The city, I had to blow her up, god, but they found a way to fix her, make her the way she was before." McKay's words spilled out, too fast and breathless, trying to cram everything in with a clock ticking down. And John had thought they had nothing but time, and it was taking his breath away to know just how wrong he'd been.

"Only...only they needed my help, and when I refused to go back." McKay stopped, his eyes closing. "It should have been me, but they got Radek to go instead, and something's gone wrong, and if he's dead because of me--"

"Breathe, McKay," John said quietly, sobered at the thought of the scruffy Czech scientist in trouble. They were tight, closest friends kind of tight, McKay and Radek.

And now Radek needed McKay's help. John swallowed as he realized he couldn't win this one, couldn't stop McKay from leaving. He didn't think he would have wanted McKay if it had been otherwise.

He flashed on the conversation he'd overheard way back when. Far, far away, McKay had said to Bates. In another galaxy, his voice shaky and high, and John had pegged it as a geek joke or a figure of speech, but...but, but, but, and all the puzzle pieces that had been nagging at him clicked into place, the realization fully-formed.

"I shouldn't be telling you any of this," McKay added, his voice cracking.

"Because this city you're talking about isn't even on Earth," John blurted. "Is it? It's some top secret government space project." He winced: it sounded like a bad sci-fi flick, but his instincts didn't lie, crazy as it all seemed.

His knees too shaky to hold him up, he collapsed onto the corner of the bed. "That argument with Carol about non-trivial topological change to the spacetime manifold wasn't the result of any thought experiment. And the other day, when you were ripping to shreds that paper on the Krasnikov stress-energy tensor--it was really all about spacetime bridges, wormholes, whatever. Traversable wormholes."

McKay froze, staring at him with a laser focus that made John feel a little twitchy. McKay's fingers flexed, and his hands came up in a helpless shrug. "That is so fucking hot," McKay said in a breathless voice. "I just have to fall for the smart ones."

John's mouth was open, lips forming the words--Fall for?--when McKay interrupted. "You can't tell anyone. You really can't tell anyone."

John snorted. "Like anyone would believe me."

Easing close, McKay tentatively leaned into his space. John looped an arm around McKay's waist, pulling him closer. "Damn it, McKay," John said, the words muffled against McKay's chest.

"I wish--"

"Yeah," John said, cutting him off.

McKay pushed him back onto the bed, knocking a stack of clothes to the floor. They kissed and kissed some more, and he eased a hand up under McKay's shirt, tracing the scars and soothing McKay through his flinch.

It was all wet heat and tongue, movement and friction, in a futile bid to mask the fear. McKay's solid body against his wasn't enough to ease John's churning gut, and his cock barely stirred. All his muscles just got tighter and tenser, and he hissed in frustration.

"It's fine," McKay said. "This is fine." He leaned down for another kiss, and didn't stop even when a flash of noise and light came from the living room, making John start.

"It's time, McKay." It was Bates, calling from the other room. McKay pulled away reluctantly and didn't seem at all surprised by Bates' dramatic appearance in the middle of his living room.

"You guys have fucking transporter beams?" John asked, and he sounded a little hysterical even to himself.

"Cool, huh?" The words were more casual than the tone, and McKay's eyes were red and wet.

"McKay," Bates said when they made their way into the living room. He nodded at John. "Sheppard."

John's hands clenched at his sides, like they wanted to hold onto McKay and never let go.

Bates glanced at his watch. "You got everything you need, McKay? We should get going."

John was expecting smugness; the man was getting his way, after all, getting McKay. Instead, Bates sounded tired, a little reluctant, and there was something in his eyes when he met John's gaze, understanding, or god forbid, sympathy, that made John want to throw something.

McKay slung his backpack over one shoulder and moved to stand beside Bates. McKay kept his eyes locked on John's as Bates spoke into a radio.

"Take care of yourself," John said, and it wasn't at all what he really wanted to say.

McKay looked like he was halfway to crying, his mouth twisted and unhappy. He didn't wave or say good-bye, but in the split-second before he flared brilliant white and out of existence, he blurted out, "Love you."

"Fuck," John said and collapsed on the couch. He sat there, staring at the empty space they'd occupied for a long, long time, until the first hint of sunrise lit up the room once more.

*

John was numb the first few days, following his routine mechanically. He stayed at McKay's house, because McKay had asked and he couldn't bear the thought of leaving. A squeaky-clean airman descended upon him there, all nervous smiles and, "Really, sir, they weren't supposed to let you see that," and "Sign this, please," and John didn't even bother to read the damn thing before he scrawled his name as directed.

He ran on the beach in the mornings, trudging back up the cliff when he was done, sweaty and breathless, and didn't think about McKay, morning and coffee and McKay, or sex and McKay, or necking on the deck with McKay.

He went to work, where he tried not to notice Cahill shooting him looks, and was extra vigilant on tower, so he didn't have to think about anything else. He visited Hol and finished another chapter and started swimming longer and harder.

After the first week, the numbness went away, and that was even worse. He'd been careful for so long that he'd almost forgotten this place, the raw, split-open feeling that ambushed him, slammed into his gut and turned him into one of the walking wounded, someone who couldn't even change the sheets on McKay's bed.

He slept poorly, in the bed that still smelled like McKay. Dreams plagued him, dreams that faded as soon as he opened his eyes. Sometimes he awoke shivering, with a throat that felt raw, the cold bone-deep no matter how many covers he piled on. Other times morning brought arousal, aching and hard, and he'd reach for his cock.

Closing his eyes, he tried to pretend that the hands on him were McKay's, even though he pinched his nipples more viciously than McKay had ever dared. Stroking himself to completion, his sob echoed in the empty room.

At the VA hospital, Annie took one look at him and started asking questions that he couldn't answer. He could barely string a complete sentence together, and she sounded more and more worried, until her forehead scrunched up tight. "John," she said, and he let her hug him, and he was pathetic enough that her arms wrapped around him, strong and smelling like chalk and chemistry lab, made him feel a little better.

He was flipping through the papers on McKay's desk, proposals and article reprints, smiling at the notes scrawled inside: I hope you're a religious man, because this idea would require a miracle to get off the ground and The idiocy of this proof is so profound that capturing the epic scope of it is beyond the space available in this margin, when Carol Freeman turned up at the door, looking as fucked up as he felt, a bottle of scotch clutched in one nail-bitten hand.

They avoided the deck as too obnoxiously sunny for serious drinking, and John cleared a spot on the coffee table for the bottle and two glasses.

"They haven't told me a thing," she said after the first drink, and, "I'm sure they're fine." After the second drink, it was, "You know about the wormholes, right?"

Much later she said, "Radek knows what he's doing," her enunciation a little over precise after the fourth or fifth drink, John wasn't sure which, because he was feeling warm and loose and had stopped counting. "So does Rodney."

"I miss him," he blurted before he could stop himself and Carol nodded. He continued, because once he'd broken his silence he couldn't seem to stop. "That damn city of theirs better be important."

"Atlantis," Carol said, and when he looked confused, "Radek called it Atlantis. He said she was beautiful." She snorted into her glass. "He said they'd found a 'factory ship,' whatever that is, and if there was a chance to fix her, he had to do it. Almost made me jealous."

"Did anyone tell you what went wrong?"

She shook her head. "Not really. Just that they had run into trouble, and that he might not--" The control she'd kept on her expression slipped a little, her mouth twisting into a grimace.

"They're going to come back," John said, because Carol's hands were starting to shake. She set her glass down, liquor sloshing onto the table.

"Shit," she said, and then the tears were sliding down her cheeks. "Shit."

*

It got a little better after that, or at least John learned how to breathe though it.

He made a list of chores and tackled one after the other with a fierce determination, organizing McKay's garage and fixing the leaky kitchen faucet. The bubbling paint on McKay's front door was next; he sanded it down and repainted it, getting the paint store to match the old color, an ugly shit brown, because it felt wrong to think about changing it.

He decided turning down Annie's steady stream of dinner invitations was getting too rude even for him and went over to her house one night. In the end it wasn't nearly as bad as he'd feared.

Peter greeted him at the front door with a beer and a baby, and John ended up with Kate plopped into his arms as soon as he was inside. Gingerly cradling her, he was grateful that she was quiet, no crying or throwing up or other baby stuff, because he was not up to going there. She just stared up at him with solemn eyes as blue as McKay's, her face crinkled up as though she wasn't quite sure about him.

John raised a dubious eyebrow right back at her, and Annie laughed at him. He followed them into the kitchen where pots bubbled on the stove, and they tactfully avoided any questions beyond asking if he wanted wine with dinner.

Kate fell asleep in his arms just as Annie was draining the pasta, and Peter swooped in to put her down. Dinner was salad and spaghetti, and John slowly twirled his fork, letting the warmth seep into him.

His shift had left him ragged and dead tired. Combine one drunk kid on vacation with a borrowed board and some rough surf, and it was the closest he'd come to losing someone yet. Only the second time he'd actually had to use his CPR skills, it'd felt like fucking forever before the kid had gasped in a breath. There was one point he'd thought he was just going through the motions on a corpse, but he hadn't stopped. Don't stop until help arrives, the instructors had said, but John wasn't one to give up anyway.

"You okay, John?" Annie's question penetrated his thoughts, and he sensed that she had been trying to talk to him. "You look cold; we can turn the heat on."

"I'm fine," he said, shrugging. "The temperature's fine. Just tired, I guess."

She gave him a searching look, but his smile seemed to convince her. After that, he let their conversation roll over him, easy and quiet, about Peter's new students and the firebug in Annie's chemistry lab.

"I had to talk her down from reenacting the Hindenburg for her science fair project," Annie said, getting up to put coffee on.

The evening had been a total shift in gears for him, baby-holding and socializing, and John had let his guard down. "You should hear about the nuke McKay built in the sixth grade," he said, and then he remembered, and the smile slid right off his face.

Annie bit her lip, and a look passed between her and Peter. It felt like a slap in the face, that look so obviously built on years of intimacy and wordless communication. His gut tied up into knots, and he was more than a little surprised at himself. His response didn't make any sense, but John didn't feel up to trying to sort it all out. He slid his chair back and hurriedly thanked them for dinner.

"I should head out," he said, after turning down coffee and dessert.

"John," Annie said, but Peter's hand on her arm stopped her. John made his escape, and it wasn't until he was behind the wheel, headed for home, that he felt like he could breathe again.

*

The days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and there was no word from or about McKay. John had told himself to keep calm and expect nothing, but some part of him had forgotten the first lesson he'd learned in Afghanistan. He'd been dumb enough to hope, and hope just made things worse. Time healed, so the saying claimed, and hope faded, and John had learned a long time ago that he could stand just about anything.

Summer was coming to a close, and with it John's seasonal job, and he half-heartedly began to scan the classified ads. He couldn't work up much energy for a serious job search, and the need wasn't all that pressing. He didn't have many expenses, and Annie and Peter had finally sold their old house and had started to pay him back. He'd tried to turn it down, but Peter had said something about buying back his dignity, and John had given in.

Up at Holland's, he'd finished War and Peace and started on The Fellowship of the Ring. He'd found a copy in a sidewalk bargain bin and it had brought back so many geekish high school memories that he'd bought it on the spot. He decided Russian names had nothing on those of Middle Earth and skipped the songs as too weird to read aloud.

Carol came over now and then, but they'd finally stopped talking about Atlantis or the lack of news. To John's surprise, they sat out on the deck and talked mathematics. Carol sketched in the air as she talked, the abstract made concrete by the movement of her hands.

John slouched back in his chair, shades on against the glare, and basked in the sun and set theory. Carol's math sounded kind of pretty, filled with transformations and multiple dimensions, and even though they were nowhere near on equal footing, the half that didn't fly right past him was actually interesting.

Overall he was fine; they were fine, and if sometimes Carol paused a little too long and stared off into space with a tight, lost look on her face, John was pretty damn sure there were times he himself wore looks just like it.

Carol had started hinting about John going back to school, but he kept putting her off. Half of him wanted it, but the other half knew better and refused to want anything, anything at all. He drifted, ticking off the days left at his job, and managed to ignore the classifieds for another week.

Everything changed again on a Thursday morning, when two airmen rang the doorbell, in dark and somber uniforms like the funeral he was already imagining. He felt his insides try to drop through the floor at the sight of them, and his knees went weak, the blood draining from his face.

One of the airmen moved forward, her hand sliding under his arm in support.

"It's good news, sir," she said earnestly, ignoring his attempt to pull away. "But you'll need to come with us."

*

Which was how John ended up in a top-secret base buried beneath NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain, trying not to have a freak out. There was security all over the place, and it had taken forever to even get through the front gate. The elevator carried them down into the facility, built inside a huge manmade cave, and it was too cold and dark and claustrophobic for John's taste.

Being surrounded by uniforms again was bringing back memories, not many of them good, leaving him off-balance and jumpy. Add in the uncertainty of waiting to see McKay, and the alien-looking sidearms that some of the security personnel were packing, and John felt himself retreating into that space behind his eyes, cruising on autopilot.

"Where's McKay?" he kept asking, and they put him off, going on about debriefing and medical, and finally stuck him in a room that looked somewhere between military quarters and a hotel and asked him not to leave the room.

"Nah, I think I'll wander around, try to find the Roswell ship," John drawled, because his gut wouldn't believe McKay was okay until he'd actually seen him, and after fucking months, the delay was maybe wearing on him a little.

The airman escorting him shot him a sympathetic look. "That's at Area 51, I'm afraid," she said, so deadpan John couldn't tell if she was joking at first. She left him there, her smile apologetic.

The door wouldn't open for him, and it took less than five minutes to scope out the room: boring walls, a utilitarian desk against one wall, and a surprisingly wide bed covered in a puke green blanket. He paced the length of the room for a while, and then threw himself onto the hard bed and waited, patiently at first and then less so. He had nothing to read, and the phone next to the bed was a direct line to an unhelpful military operator.

He was cursing at his cell phone, the forlorn hope that he might get a signal beneath a thousand feet of rock fading, when someone spoke.

"You going to kiss me with that mouth?"

The question out of nowhere scared the shit out of him. "Gah," he shouted, and the phone went flying, and he fell off the bed and managed to bang his head against the corner of the bedside table on the way down.

Stifled laughter was followed by, "You okay, John?"

"Gah," he repeated intelligently, clutching at his forehead. He twisted around and blinked, then scrubbed at his watering eyes with his sleeve. "McKay?" he said. He'd been primed for bad news too long; he sounded incredulous.

John pulled his hand away from his face, not taking his eyes off McKay. Dressed in faded BDUs a little too big for him, McKay looked too thin and harassed. He shifted from foot to foot, with the hyperactive energy of someone mainlining caffeine and too little sleep, but the grin on his face practically lit up the room. His blue eyes darted eagerly over John's body, settling on John's face, and his grin got even wider.

"In the flesh," McKay said. "And as nice as you look down there on your knees, maybe you could get up from there." There was uncertainty mixed in with McKay's smugness, and John felt something twist deep inside.

"McKay," John repeated, his voice close to breaking. He felt light-headed and dizzy and didn't know whether to laugh or cry or pinch himself.

His eyes were watering, and he knew it wasn't just from the knock on the head, and then he was climbing to his feet and launching himself unsteadily at McKay, pushing him back against the desk. "You're such an asshole." He wrapped his arms around McKay and squeezed the snot out of the man, and then John squeezed even tighter, to make sure he was real and solid and reassuringly warm.

McKay laughed, an unsteady sound of relief tinged with hysteria. "Did you miss me?"

"Asshole." John reached up and clamped his hands around McKay's neck, his thumb resting over the flutter of the jugular, strong and steady and quickening and the best thing John had felt in months. His fingers tightening dangerously, John spoke, in a voice he almost didn't recognize. "You were gone so long, Christ, I thought you were--"

"I'm not," McKay said, his voice rough and triumphant, and his hands came up to join John's, just touching, not trying to break John's grip. "I did it. Well, we did it, Radek and I, and can I say I'm never letting him forget that I saved his ass? We did it. I'm okay, and I'm right here." McKay's hips pressed against John's on the last word, and his hand moved up to cup John's cheek, the gesture weirdly rough and tender at the same time.

John sucked in a gulp of air, taking in the familiar contours of McKay's face, right in front of him, healthy and whole, pushy hips and eager heat. John shoved him back against the desk and tried to kiss the smug expression right off his face. McKay smelled and tasted a little off, not quite like John remembered, and he wondered if it was his memory that was wrong or if that was how McKay's trip had left its mark.

They stumbled, tripping over each other, and McKay would have fallen except that John hauled him up by the belt. John reeled him in closer and couldn't stop laughing, so happy to see McKay triumphant and home again he was almost drunk on it.

"John," McKay said, pinning him against the wall. He sounded horny and desperate, his fingers scrabbling at the buttons on John's pants, and the little sounds he was making went straight to John's cock. "Yeah," McKay said once he'd gotten John's pants open and his cock pulled out. "Missed this," he whispered, and then the soft brush of lips on John's cock was making him groan, and his head thumped back against the wall.

"Missed you." John had to push the words out past a throat so tight it hurt, because that was just one of the promises he'd made to himself if McKay ever made it back, and then McKay was sucking him down. John tried to brace himself, but his jeans trapped his legs, and he could only gasp and curse unsteadily at the boring beige of the far wall.

He ran shaky hands through McKay's hair, cupping the back of his skull. He hadn't planned it, but his touch was gentle, like handling something fragile, and McKay let out a needy sound around the cock in his mouth. McKay seemed inspired, going down like he was on a quest for pubic hair, wet lips and tongue and fingers pushing John over the edge.

John was strung-out and weak-kneed after that, and McKay had to manhandle him over onto the bed.

"Can I fuck you?" McKay whispered, and John nodded. He felt pliant and happy, and he let McKay do the work, stripping him naked. McKay kept pausing, first after John's shirt was gone and then after the jeans. John lifted a lazy eyelid after the second pause and caught McKay staring at him, his expression vulnerable, wide-eyed and staring.

John half wanted to close his eyes against the look on McKay's face, but he made himself meet McKay's stare, matching the heat and emotion there with his own.

McKay blinked, saying, "John, I--" and then he was kissing John's neck and mouth, wet and greedy.

"Like this," John said, pulling away to sprawl facedown onto the sheets. "There's stuff in my bag. Just like this."

McKay fumbled with the zipper and inside the backpack. "Come on," John said impatiently, and then slick fingers slid into him, opening him up.

"Okay?"

At John's grunt, McKay eased into him without stopping, the burn making John tense and gasp, "Don't you fucking stop."

McKay kept moving, steady and inexorable, until he was inside balls-deep and trembling, draped over John's back and arms and legs like a blanket, heavy and warm. McKay's palms pressed onto the backs of John's hands, interlacing their fingers, and it felt like a full-body hug, reassuring and safe.

John closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing, on the feel of McKay all around him, over him and in him, McKay's warm breath on the back of his neck. Weighty and solid, McKay's body pinned him down, kept him together, all those pieces of himself that'd been drifting for years, probably. The whole time McKay was gone, John had been asleep or dreaming again and now he was finally waking up.

"How about you get on your knees?" McKay said after a while, shifting a little, and John reluctantly stirred, because yeah, this felt pretty damn good, but the position sucked for thrusting.

John managed to push up and onto his knees without McKay having to pull out. He could feel the tension in the body behind him; McKay was on the edge, more than ready.

"Go for it," John said. McKay's strong hands grabbed his hips, bracing for the first thrust, and John was suddenly dying for it, hungry for it, for McKay's cock to slam into him. "Come on," he managed to growl.

McKay didn't hold back, shoving into him until John saw stars, and pulling almost all the way out before sliding home again. John pushed his ass back, and McKay's fingers dug into his hips so tightly John could feel the bruises already. Another deep thrust hit that spot inside, lit him up and left him panting.

"Harder," he heard himself rasp, his back arching to lift his ass higher, and McKay obeyed, sliding out and pushing in again, deep and undeniable. "Again," he said, and McKay was almost sobbing with it.

"God, John," McKay said. "John."

It was life-affirming and raw, and McKay's mouth between John's shoulder blades was the only thing gentle about it. John knew he'd have trouble sitting tomorrow or probably into next week, but the thought was lost in the mind-blowing sensation of McKay's hand reaching around and wrapping around his cock.

McKay stripped him once, twice, and that was it. John was coming, on a whiteout of sensation, and McKay's cock inside him felt fucking enormous as his ass muscles clamped down around it.

The contractions tipped McKay over, and John could feel McKay's thrusts go ragged and shallow. McKay bit down hard into John's shoulder, muffling his shout as he came.

There was nothing but sweat and skin-on-skin and the ragged sound of their breathing after that, until John grimaced a little. "Could you--?"

"Sorry," McKay mumbled, pulling out, and John couldn't stop his wince.

Still panting, McKay fell back against the pillows. "God, that was good," he groaned. John mumbled his agreement into the sheets, casually reaching over to run a hand through McKay's chest hair--and then shot up to flick his ear, hard and fast.

"Ow, what was that for?" McKay glared at him, clamping a hand to the side of his head.

"You know what that was for. Asshole." John was too happy and well-fucked to sound really pissed off, but he gave it his best. He threw in a glare for good measure, until his neck started hurting and his head got too heavy, and he let his forehead drop onto McKay's chest.

McKay draped an arm over his eyes and sighed. "Maybe I do know." He stopped there, but John waited him out. "I'm not sorry I said it," McKay finally said in a rush.

"Your timing sucked."

McKay's free arm draped over John's back, the movement almost tentative. "I do, you know," McKay said easily, arranging the sheets around them, closing his eyes.

John lay there silent for a long moment and then managed a one-shouldered shrug. He hadn't missed the underlying generosity, McKay's lack of expectations, and that pissed him off a little.

Taking a breath, he rose to the challenge. "Same here," he said quietly, the words muffled against McKay's chest. He could feel his face flushing red hot, and when he looked up, McKay was smiling a smug, happy smile.

And it was only the truth, John thought as McKay's pleased silence spiraled into sleep. There was no use denying it, whether McKay was lost in another galaxy or right beside him in bed, all warmth and sweaty skin and slowing breaths, alive, alive.

*

"It'll take a day. Then we can leave. Three days, tops," McKay was saying to John the next morning at breakfast, his mouth full and a smear of syrup on one cheek, and John was manfully resisting the urge to lean over and lick it off. The mess of the top-secret base--SGC, McKay called it--served a mean Belgian waffle. "Just until we get the ship--"

"Phoenix," Radek said, from his spot next to McKay. Radek was looking scruffier than the last time John had seen him. There was something in his eyes and in his slow, deliberate movements that hinted at a deep well of fatigue lurking behind his surface alertness.

Looking happy but wary, Carol sat on Radek's other side. Her hand kept darting out to touch, a fleeting grip on Radek's forearm, his shoulder. Radek's left hand was under the table, probably resting on Carol's knee. The touching was something he'd caught himself doing with McKay, the compulsion barely held in check by their surroundings and his own aversion to public displays.

Carol had sounded disconcerted when she described how they'd whisked her out of an academic conference in Denver, and John couldn't blame her. He was feeling a little like that himself.

"We call her the Phoenix," Radek insisted.

"That's just a name you pulled out of nowhere, going all English major on me," McKay said, his tone implying an insult of the highest order. Ignoring Radek's eye roll, he waved a fork in the air. "The Ancients didn't name factory ships. You know that."

"And the Asurans called her CV-761," Radek said. "Pardon me if I'd prefer to break with their practices."

McKay stopped chewing and then swallowed, hard. "Phoenix it is," he said, his voice quiet, and John and Carol exchanged a look.

"You brought the ship back here?" Carol asked finally.

Yep." McKay sounded smug. "My idea. Towed the ship behind us, just like Triple A. That's part of what took so long."

"It's down in one of the hangars. We," Radek said, pointedly looking over at McKay, "decided to bring it back here to work on. It is not responding as we expected, even with Dr. Beckett helping out." He paused, glancing at all the uniforms around them. "And I suppose this is on the list of things we're not supposed to talk about."

McKay gulped down a mouthful of coffee and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "You mind sticking around a while?" he said, his eyes widening at John enquiringly.

"Sure." John shrugged, already a little antsy, but not wanting to put a crimp in McKay's fun. Because there was no doubt that McKay seemed to be having fun, riding high on the successful mission and the puzzle presented by the Phoenix. It was good to see McKay cocky and happy, John told himself, ignoring the vaguely unsettled feeling in his gut.

*

McKay and Radek disappeared after breakfast, heading down to work on the ship, and John tried not to feel like a fifth wheel. He went for a short run through the corridors, mostly just to see if he could, and felt a mild wave of irritation that the security escort trailing him managed to keep pace without breaking a sweat. After a shower, John spent the rest of the morning cooped up in the room, bored out of his mind. Carol dropped by for a little while, but she was headed back up to Denver to spend the afternoon at her conference.

It was closing in on lunchtime, and John was heading to the mess to meet up with McKay when sirens started sounding. Red bubblegum lights mounted up near the ceiling strobed the corridor, and the security escort who'd continued discreetly shadowing John took off at a dead run.

It's McKay, oh, shit, John thought and followed, hard on his heels. The escort shot him a chilly glance, but John raised his eyebrows in his best we're all just friends here look. The escort's radio squawked just then. "Hangar Six," John heard through the static and took advantage of the distraction to follow the escort onto the elevator. They went down and down, and John's stomach felt like it was dropping faster than they were.

"What's going on?" he asked tightly, and got only a shrug in answer.

The downward ride stopped finally, and as soon as the doors opened, they piled out of the elevator--and right into the middle of chaos.

In the midst of everything going on, John almost didn't notice the--holy shit--spaceship that rested in the middle of the vast hangar, bulky and gray, but smaller than John was expecting, and looking disappointingly nothing like the Millennium Falcon.

The scene around the ship was something out of a Dali painting. A lopsided, organic-looking tower grew into the air, like a demented two-foot-thick metallic beanstalk. Right before John's eyes, it pushed into one side of the hangar, cracking the wall with an ear-splitting shriek.

Movement throughout the entire hangar revealed the scope of the problem: the beanstalk was one of many, growing uncontrollably, most already penetrating the ceiling and walls.

A chunk of the ceiling crashed to the floor just then, provoking a chorus of screaming and a small stampede towards the elevator. John fought the tide of people, moving closer to the ship. A door gaped open on one side of the ship, a ramp extended. From the opening, he could hear raised voices, McKay arguing with someone with a Scottish accent.

"Damn it, Carson, stop it," McKay shouted. "The nanites are out of control!"

"I hadn't realized that, Rodney," was the sarcastic reply. "I'm trying here. I'm doing the best I can."

"That's not good enough, Carson."

"I'm thinking at it as hard as I can." The Scottish voice sounded frantic. "But it doesn't want to listen."

John ran up the ramp to find McKay and Radek standing over someone stretched out in a mutant Barcalounger, all glowing blue and metal and singing a dissonant, whispered song that filled John's head with possibilities.

Longing like an ache, a sense of incompleteness, and John was moving forward without a thought. "It's all wrong," he said to the man in the chair. "Get up. You've got it wrong."

"Gladly," said the man as he vacated the chair.

"John, no," McKay was saying, but John heard nothing but the chair's whispered potential. He lowered himself down into the blue metal embrace of the chair--completion, rightness--and closed his eyes, and saw...everything. Carson's beanstalk towers felt deformed and sick, the uneasy scratch of nails on a chalkboard, and he dissolved them with barely a thought.

A thousand possibilities opened up: a fleet of ships to explore the depths of space; a defense satellite, to protect his home; a city growing around them, bigger and better than the claustrophobic cave that was SGC.

He almost didn't hear McKay's words beneath the pictures inside his head. "John, listen to me. If you can't stop it outright, then you need to think of something small. We can't build a city in here."

The city. It reverberated in his head, and the stab of longing was almost painful, and John knew the feeling wasn't his own. Soft words filled his head, sweet and tempting, and John got the feeling if he just stretched a little, he could understand them.

"John. John."

Home. It was a sensation, not a word, the tug of family, safety, mine. And that was something that struck a little too close to the bone, the ache feeding seamlessly into his own.

"John." McKay's insistent, familiar voice cut through everything, and John thankfully latched onto it. McKay's hands were on him, gripping his shoulders, and that pulled him free of the chair's fog even more. "John, please. We can't build a city here. Make something small. For me."

For McKay, he thought at the chair, putting a sting in the mental words, and whatever it was that was fighting him stopped. He didn't even know where the image came from, but it was suddenly there, fully formed in his head.

Go, he thought, and when he heard gasps from all three men, he opened his eyes and sat up.

At McKay's feet lay a glowing, moving model of a solar system, tiny planets orbiting and spinning in thin air around a sun of shining metal.

"It's a toy," John said. "It was the smallest thing they had." And he wasn't even sure who they were, or how he knew what he knew, how he'd done what he'd done, but he was feeling too euphoric to care.

He looked up from the spinning planets to see all three men staring at him in amazement. Worry marred the wonder on McKay's face, and that killed John's buzz, bringing him out of the weird mental space he'd occupied.

There was still a hum just at the edge of his awareness, though, a sense that the chair beneath him was ready, no, eager, to obey his command. It made his skin crawl, and he jumped to his feet. He kept an eye on the chair, suspicious of its alien, Spider-Man-on-steroids lines.

He finally looked over at McKay's strange expression, one that John couldn't get a read on. "I did that?" he asked, gesturing at the toy at McKay's feet.

"Yeah," McKay said breathlessly, his eyes moving over John's face as though he'd never seen him before. "You have the gene."

Radek was rubbing his hands together, practically licking his chops. "It's like he has a supergene. It took Carson an entire day just to access the construction database. This is amazing."

"Yeah," John said, stretching out the word, feeling the same rush of panic as when he got volunteered for something back in the Air Force. "This can't be good."

*

Tall and thin and articulate, Dr. Elizabeth Weir cornered him in the infirmary, where he'd been trapped for what seemed like hours. She introduced herself as a diplomat, the civilian head of Atlantis, and talked about restoring the city with a gleam in her eye that even her State Department poker face couldn't hide.

Accompanying her were Bates and Lieutenant Colonel Lorne, Weir's surprisingly fresh-faced military counterpart. Compact and muscular, Lorne had tired eyes and seemed as wired as McKay. John tensed up at the sight of the uniforms and Bates' frowning face, even as Lorne gave him a genial nod.

Lorne's hand darted up to his collar, to what John assumed were brand new oak leaves, and his expression had the combined smugness and suppressed panic of the newly promoted. The movement hadn't escaped Weir's notice, and she ducked her head to hide her smile. There was a history there, based on the familiar ease between the two of them, and John found himself relaxing a little.

Lorne certainly didn't seem wound as tight as his sergeant, his smile in contrast to Bates' flat expression.

Weir's spiel was smoothly delivered, but she seemed a little intense for John's comfort as she tried to turn him on to the wonders of intergalactic discovery and exploration. "The results of your tests are extraordinary. You could be the key to rebuilding Atlantis, Mr. Sheppard."

John blinked at her. "You've seen my file, right? I doubt your military colleagues," he said, waving a lazy hand towards Bates and Lorne, "seriously want me anywhere near this project."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "I have seen your file, and in the end the only thing that matters is a restored Atlantis. But I think you might be surprised," she added, arching an eyebrow at him.

Lorne leaned forward. "Mr. Sheppard, we're used to dealing with...independent thinkers, should we say? You're a civilian now, and we'll treat you as such. We really do want to have you on board."

Bates shifted his weight at that but said nothing.

Weir gestured towards John. "I need you and Dr. McKay on my team. The question is...do you want to be on it?"

"Um, yeah, about that..." John stalled, all the details of the program she'd described flying around his head.

A flicker of something passed over the pleasant expression she wore like a mask, almost rueful, and she took a careful breath. "I'm rushing you, aren't I? I'm sorry, but you have no idea how very rare your expression of the gene is. And how much we need someone like you. Take some time," she said, and the smile looked genuine, if a little stiff. "Think about it."

Shooting him one last inscrutable look, she left and managed to leave his thoughts in a whirl as well. Alien monsters, spaceships, wormhole-traveling to another galaxy, and building shit with his mind, but John was trying not to think too hard about all that, or how McKay kept poking his head into the room, his body language agitated.

"Still okay," John said with a smile, when McKay popped in to finally spring him from Dr. Beckett's clutches, but McKay didn't smile back. They were headed down the corridor when McKay spoke up again.

"Elizabeth came to see you," McKay said, frowning a little, the words a question.

"She said she wants us on her team," John said, watching McKay's face go still. "I didn't give her an answer," he added, giving in to the urge to reach out and put a hand on McKay's shoulder. McKay sighed and leaned the tiniest amount into John's grip, but his expression didn't lighten.

Back in the room, McKay fell back onto the bed, to stare up at the ceiling.

"McKay?" John said, moving cautiously to sit at the foot of the bed.

"Atlantis was invaded," McKay blurted without preamble, and John sucked in a breath.

"McKay," John started to say, but he was cut off.

"You need to hear this," McKay said to the ceiling. "Just listen. We were down to a skeleton staff, and the Genii found out about it somehow. They wanted Atlantis, and they knew I could give it to them."

McKay sounded remote, as if it all had happened to someone else. "I can still see the knife. Big and shiny, so sharp I didn't even really feel it at first. Bates was there, yelling his head off, but when he tried to stop them they used him for a punching bag. After a while, he couldn't do anything but lie on the floor and puke."

McKay made a disgusted noise. "It was sick. I think...I think they were getting off on it, making us beg. Even after I told them what they wanted, they didn't stop, not for a long time."

John reached out to touch, pushing his hand up under McKay's pants leg until he felt the warm, hairy skin of McKay's shin.

"That's not even the worst of what Pegasus can offer up." McKay sat up, staring at John intently. "There are far worse ways to die out there, believe me. That's how command fell into Lorne's lap; our first military commander died in the first week, sucked dry by a Wraith. But on the other hand...on the other hand, it's the most beautiful place you ever saw." McKay sounded quiet, almost reverent in a way that reminded John of stargazing and flying. "There are these gateships. We didn't lose all of them when Atlantis went down, and I bet the Phoenix can make more--you'd love these things, John. You fly them with your mind."

"Cool," John said, and this time McKay matched him smile for smile. It felt good, even as it didn't help his confusion much at all. He couldn't tell which way McKay wanted him to jump on this, couldn't tell if McKay himself wanted to be back in the thick of things again. Maybe McKay didn't know.

"We go together," John said abruptly. "If you go, I go."

McKay winced. "Don't. Don't put this all on me. If it goes bad again--"

John crawled up McKay's body, pinning him down onto the sheets. He ground their hips together, making McKay arch off the bed and groan. "A week, then," he said into McKay's ear, his hand sliding between their bodies to work at McKay's belt. "A week to decide."

*

They grabbed a flight back home and didn't leave the beach house for the first two days. They had welcome home sex in every position and room they could, including the garage, McKay's bare ass against his dusty Honda Accord and John going down like a trooper. McKay ended up complaining about the gas fumes and his back, and the concrete floor scraped John's knees raw, but even so-so sex with McKay was worth losing some skin.

They made it back to McKay's bed finally. Sprawled across the sheets afterwards, his hand a warm spot in the small of John's back, McKay told the story of their clash with the Asurans--"Psychopathic robots with daddy issues," McKay said, "and sure, I'm first in line when it comes to parental issues, but I've never wanted to go back and burn down the old homestead just for spite. And did I mention how I single-handedly saved Radek's ass?"

"Maybe once or twice." John smiled, stretching in the afternoon warmth. He was fucked out and tired, his eyelids drifting shut, but he managed to poke McKay in the side with an elbow. "And 'single-handedly'?"

"Well, mostly," McKay said. "Okay, not entirely by myself. But I sure didn't have any help coding the virus that fried their creepy nanite brains."

At odd moments over the next few days, John found himself drifting, remembering the sensation of being in the chair. The memory was disjointed and strange, but powerful, and it nagged at him like an itch begging to be scratched. He daydreamed about channeling that power again, fulfilling that deep longing he'd shared, letting go, watching the city (home) heal itself, towers reaching up towards an alien sky.

McKay noticed his distraction, watching intently each time John surfaced out of the memory. "She really got to you, huh," McKay said, his voice as soft as his eyes, and John couldn't do anything but shrug.

By the third day, McKay was getting restless. He stayed on the phone, talking shop, and typing on his laptop, and John's morning runs got longer and harder, as though he could exercise to the point of forgetfulness, outrun the itch.

McKay was scrambling eggs on the morning of the fourth day when he looked over at John, who was leaning against the counter beside him. "I think I miss it." His voice sounded strange, relief mixed with fear, and John leaned over to press his mouth to McKay's nape.

"I think you do."

The kicker came later that day, with a phone call from Radek. "Carol, too?" McKay said, and almost dropped the phone. "She's giving up tenure?"

Which was how they found out that both Radek and Carol had signed on to Dr. Weir's project, and John exchanged a long, wordless look with McKay.

That night they lay on the deck shoulder-to-shoulder, stargazing in near silence. It felt like a farewell, saying goodbye to the constellations John had known his whole life. McKay inched his way down to John's midsection, pulling his sweats out of the way. The press of hands on John's skin and the damp sea air moving over his exposed cock made him shiver.

McKay sucked him in and sucked him off, slow and easy, wide mouth and strong tongue. Eyes closed, blocking out the dark sky and stars above him, John came, and when McKay's throat muscles swallowed around his cock, John's fingers clenching tightly in McKay's hair, it was the question and the answer at the same time.

*

John went up to the VA hospital, and even though it would be his last visit for a really long time, he ended up sitting there dumbly, watching Hol breathe. He searched for something to say, but kept coming up empty. No book this time, and it'd been easier when he just had to read words off a page to fill the silence.

"Sheppard."

John tried not to jump, but he wasn't entirely successful. He looked over to see Sergeant Bates standing just inside the doorway, his stiff demeanor contrasting sharply with the casual jeans and cotton sweater he was wearing.

"Colonel Lorne is already at McKay's, but I wanted to talk to you here." Bates' posture was picture perfect, his arms still at his sides.

John slumped artfully in response, and then shoved his hands down into his pockets, just to see the trace of a frown chase across the man's face.

"Bates." John nodded warily at the man, but Bates had turned his attention to Holland.

"Captain Jason Holland," Bates said, not looking away from Hol's slack face. "Went down near a Taliban stronghold in April of '03." Bates glanced over, expressionless except for a hint of gruff sympathy in the line of his mouth. "You disobeyed orders, flew in after him."

John unclenched his jaw. "Someone's been doing a little reading," he said, his tone as light as he could make it.

Bates didn't blink, his gaze assessing. "I like to know the measure of a man I'm going to work with."

"So, which are you leaning towards, 'insubordinate rogue' or 'crazy fuck-up'?" John said evenly, his arms crossing across his chest.

"Don't be stupid," Bates snapped. "Stupid gets you killed in Pegasus."

John felt his eyebrow go up. "I was quoting, actually. And stupid gets you killed in a lot of places."

Something changed in Bates' face, and it took John a second to realize the man was hiding a smile. The flicker of humor in Bates' eyes was more than a little unsettling. "So it does," Bates said. "And I don't think you're a crazy fuck-up. Here's what I think, since you seem eager to hear it: you're a contrary bastard with authority issues out to here--"

"Nothing slips by you, does it?" John deadpanned, but Bates ignored him.

"But when you see something that needs doing, you go and do it." Bates jerked his head over at Hol. "If you hadn't been that kind of man, your friend would be dead now."

John couldn't stifle the flinch, and Bates' eyes narrowed. "No, Sheppard. Don't think that. Once you start thinking that way, you'll go crazy. Believe me." Bates seemed to sink into himself for a second, a shadow chasing over his face. John looked away, giving the man a moment.

"Anyway." Bates cleared his throat. "We had to get some things straight, you and I, but I think we can work together. And as much as nobody likes to think about it, Atlantis is more than just an exploration outpost. If the Wraith ever find their way to this galaxy, Earth'll make a nice, fat smorgasbord for them. Atlantis is the first line of defense; they need us out there, they need a restored Atlantis."

Bates didn't miss John's involuntary glance over at Hol. John was starting to think the man didn't miss much at all. "He'll be in good hands," Bates said. "And if his sister needs any help, we've got it covered."

After a pause, John said stiffly, "You've been doing more than reading, I see."

Bates kept silent, shrugging a little. His eyebrows rose minutely. Your move.

John nodded and rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, then," he drawled. "I guess it's Pegasus, here we come."

*

"This is Gateship Three. Buoyancy has stabilized." The relief in Radek's voice was obvious even over the static of the radio. "The readings look good."

She's huge, John thought in surprise, taking in the blackened towers and shattered windows of Atlantis, gleaming wetly in the sun. Even in its current state, the alien architecture was spectacular. Something twisted inside him, a hollow sort of nostalgia for the city that had been, gleaming, delicate and strong. He could see it so clearly, the city whole, its spires reaching high up towards the sun.

Nothing they'd said had prepared him for this, the rush of emotion inspired by the damaged city. A part of him wondered how much of it was the ship's influence, and if he'd ever again be completely alone in his head in this galaxy.

Steady. John lightly touched Phoenix's controls until they hovered over the newly exposed surface of Atlantis' least damaged pier. Peering down through the windscreen, he could judge the size of the ruined towers, immense and skyscraper-tall.

"Phoenix, you're clear to land."

John set them down without a bump and smirked over at McKay, who was looking a little white around the eyes. "Okay?" John said.

"Yeah," McKay breathed. "It's just...memories, you know?"

John raised his eyebrows, and McKay frowned over at him. "I'm fine, fine. Let's get on with this." He sounded eager and impatient, and John stifled a smile.

"Daedalus, we're ready on this end," John said over the radio.

"You have a go, Mr. Sheppard," Dr. Weir replied from the ship orbiting high above them.

"Remember, we're yanking you out of there if anything looks the least bit weird," Lorne added. He sounded as nervous as all hell, and John remembered McKay's story of how Lorne had inherited his command, how quickly things could go wrong here.

John grimaced, and McKay waved a hand in his direction. "Acknowledged," McKay said into his headset, his eyes on John's.

"I'm moving to the chair." John twisted out of his seat, heading towards the rear of the ship and the chair. McKay turned to watch, his eyes too-bright and his breathing a little fast.

John slid into the chair and closed his eyes. It felt like a sigh, like breaking the water's surface after a long dive.

"Now, picture Atlantis," McKay said softly.

And that was the easiest part, because the city had already taken form behind his eyes, set up residence at the back of his brain. Add in the chair's potential, and it was nearly overwhelming, the feel of the ship around him, the power of millions of nanites his to command.

Home, restoration, completion--it was a rush, wind on his face, images like trapped birds flapping over his skin, exciting and scary at the same time.

John cheated a little, peeked through his eyelashes at McKay, who was white-faced and unblinking, fingers digging into his thighs as if he didn't trust himself not to reach out. McKay had the worried, possessive look of an expectant father, and John felt the smile spread over his face. He shut his eyes again, slipping deeper into the chair's embrace.

One tiny step. A word, a mere thought, and potential became reality, images turned into metal and glass. Between one breath and the next--

"Go," he said, and Atlantis was reborn.