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Dreaming I'm Alive

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Day eleven, and he woke up like every other day since he arrived on Uea. He turned his face into the dirt and rubbed his brow mindlessly against the cool, crumbling earth. He unwrapped his arms from around himself and began to shake himself free of his nest, emerging into the cool darkness of the cave.

The blanket of leaves and twigs fell away like a shed skin. He touched the rumpled mass with his armored, bifurcated blue hand. If only it were that easy.

Once out of his burrow, he stretched the net of leaves to cover the body-shaped depression in the dirt. He didn't know why he bothered; as far as he could tell, nothing on Uea was hunting for him. He was at the top of every food chain around here.

But the instincts were too strong to deny: finding this cave, digging the hole, assembling the leaf net, covering himself as he slept, hiding his bed in the morning... he felt compelled to do all of it, and he was done fighting those urges. He had bigger problems to worry about.

He gave himself his daily scan and took his daily samples, the routine rote and efficient by now.

Oh look. Still mutating. No kidding.

He stepped to the wall of his cave, the smoothest expanse with its ten hashmarks, and drew another line carefully with one claw.

Then he placed his hands to the rock, his claws finding purchase in tiny cracks and bumps in the surface. He set his taloned foot against the wall and pushed up. He climbed, picking his way up the wall and making the turn onto the ceiling, clinging upside-down.

Funny; he still got a head rush from doing this, just as if he were still human.

At the mouth of the cave, he extended his hands delicately, claws first, out into the light, and paused. His joints locked in place, taking the strain off his muscles. He waited, watching the sunlight crawl across the forest floor.

Eventually he felt satisfied that it was safe out there, and he picked his way out of the cave, from upside-down, then around the cave mouth, to vertically adhere to the cliff face.

From there, he scuttled up to just under the ridge at the top of the cliff, hiding himself in the shadow beneath it. He craned his neck. He wouldn't be surprised if one day, he twisted his neck and something changed again to let him swivel his head completely around. He had two claws now, instead of four fingers, and claws instead of toes; new orifices, different vision. Nothing could startle him now.

The view was the same as every other day. Murky atmosphere, his infrared sight showing him life thriving far past what he could otherwise make out in the fog. Trees. Green plants and grasses growing thickly close together, tangling with mosses and vines. From here he could just see the inviting glitter of the stream, bubbling with arsenic-tainted water.

He made the mistake of opening his mouth. The air tasted bad when he exposed his remaining soft, weak human tissues to the atmosphere. His spiracles processed it easily, though. He had no idea if his lungs had changed, or if he had new respiratory organs now, to go with the spiracles that had opened up in his face and on the back of his neck.

There was never any reason to open his mouth anyway. It was just a lingering human habit. He'd probably forget about it if he stayed this way a few more weeks.

He heard Eryia calling, and shut his eyes hard. His tenuous sense of himself gathered and coalesced, and his Iratus instincts began to lose their grip on him.

Climbing over the top of the cliff, he stood and brushed the dust and earth off himself, trying not to panic at the foreign sight and feel of his own body, more knobbed and horned than ever, a dark, sinister blue with a glossy chitinous sheen.

Eryia cooed to him as she neared, head swaying with the burden of the bag slung around the soft stalk of her neck. She made a graceful arc in the air, her long diaphanous body hovering near him, dozens of soft hollow limbs working to ride above the currents of the mists.

He swallowed and braved the taste of the air to say, "Thank you," aloud. Eryia didn't need to hear it, but he needed to say it.

She dipped her head, and he carefully lifted the bag off her, clutching it to him. "Thanks," he murmured again, pursed his lips carefully and blew a thin stream of breath along the top of Eryia's head. Eryia wriggled and danced in the air for a moment, and he felt warm tendrils of air from her in return, rushing softly from the tips of her forelimbs.

Eryia gave him a sense of Cloud now. Clear later, and rode the currents toward the heavy fogbank footing the trees below.

The bag held vials of the latest treatment. A tank of oxygen and a cannula, in case it worked and he couldn't breathe this atmosphere anymore. A bottle of water. A printed out set of instructions complete with a diagram showing him how to use the equipment. An assortment of autoinjectors and replacement needles.

Sure. They'd have to send a variety. Back on Atlantis, they didn't know anymore what his skin was like, whether it could still be punctured by the standard equipment.

A normal syringe might have worked as recently as yesterday, but he couldn't be sure that was still true. He flexed his hand and wrist, watching the tough scales fold and crease around the hard spikes.

He rested his other hand against his arm and pressed against the skin with a pointed claw. It penetrated, drawing a bead of dark blood. The tiny wound stayed open as long as he kept the claw there, but the moment he withdrew it, the hole closed up, healing over.

He touched his wet claw to the printout, leaving a streak of maroon on the paper. At least his blood was still red.

The printout was multiple pages, stapled together. Wide margins. That was thoughtful. They knew his claws would probably shred the outer edges of the paper. He picked it up gingerly and another couple of sheets slid out, unattached, handwritten.

The words looked dashed-off but still very legible, the letters small, blocky and distinct: Rodney's writing.

John,

Teyla's contact stayed hidden by the gate last time after dropping off the first bag. She said a giant flying animal picked it up and carried it away.

Maybe you've managed to charm the local fauna; I wouldn't put it past you. But obviously, we're SLIGHTLY concerned that these little care packages aren't making it to you.

You may not be able to manipulate a pen, but of course, I've thought of a way around that. In the bag is a lump of clay in a clear container. Knead it until its color changes from white to yellow. Squeeze it in one hand and hold it for ten seconds or so. Then put it back in the container.

Leave the container near the gate. I promise Risa won't be staying nearby this time, if you're staying away because you're shy. She'll come back after 12 hours to retrieve the clay.

The clay impression will tell us that you're receiving the packages. It'll also give Carson and Jennifer a metric to measure how far the mutation has progressed. I'll include the same clay in every package from now on and we'll hope that we see evidence of a reversal of the mutation from one impression to the next.

I really hope you can read this. In several senses. 1, I hope these packages are reaching you. 2, I hope you can still see the letters. Carson is worried that your altered eye structure might not perceive marks on paper. All right, that's just two senses, not several. The perils of writing in ink.

I don't want to stop writing. It'll be hours before Risa's due to take the package through the gate.

Teyla's big news is that Torren is saying complete sentences that other people can understand, not just her and Kanaan. I can't vouch for that. Supposedly he asked me to pick him up today, but it sounded like he said "butter knuckle" to me. To keep the peace with Teyla, though, I'm going to blame that on the vagaries of gate translation.

I'd give you news from Ronon but he's offworld again, harvesting more Iratus eggs. Woolsey keeps trying to get him to take Marines with him but he insists on lone-wolfing it. Granted we only have so much pheromone left over from your last retroviral adventure. We could only use it to camouflage the scent of one person at a time anyway, so Ronon would be going into the cave alone either way. But backup never hurts.

He says other people just slow him down. Probably true, but sometimes he could stand to go a little slower. That would sound a lot more convincing coming from you than from me, though, so you really need to get this package and take the drugs and get better and come back.

Rodney's signature ended the letter, same as his script, scrawled but readable. Teyla's followed in the geometric patterns of Athosian letters, and Ronon's in the flowing lines of Satedan writing.

John carefully laid the pages back into the bag. The new antiviral treatment Jennifer and Carson administered before he left Atlantis had kept him lucid all this time, but it didn't always keep him entirely human. He could lose himself in the slow, cold rhythms of his mutated body for days at a time.

Emotions were a physical phenomenon, after all, and his physiology was so different now that he felt abstract and foreign to himself most of the time. Not that he'd been all that in touch with his feelings before he went buggy, but even if he pushed them aside and ignored them as much as possible, he still had them.

It hurt to lose his numbness now. He missed his team, he missed his people, missed Atlantis. He was lonely, he was worried and scared. But the worst was becoming aware again, jarringly, of just how much his body horrified him now. Resting gently on the pages, that gnarled mess of blue scales and thorns, the twin claws: that was his hand. He shut his eyes hard, wincing.

It wasn't his hand. It was a glove. A costume. The whole thing was just a tight Halloween get-up he was wearing, and underneath it, he was still the same John Sheppard he'd been a month ago: a fading tan, a board-shorts-shaped reserve of pasty pinkish skin, freckles scattered here and there, a little too hairy everywhere. A mammal. A man.

He looked at himself again, dissociating for all he was worth. The scales, the blue-black sawtooth ridges all over his body, it was all just a funny monster suit.

And the new visual information, the heat map overlaying his vision: funny contact lenses. The same ones that made his eyes look slitted, and colored them a poisonous dark yellow. If he slid his human hand out of this stiff blue glove, he could pinch the lens right off his eye to reveal the normal hazel underneath, a round pupil, and he's see a blue sky and green trees and nothing infrared in sight.

John covered his face with his hands-- at least his palms didn't have any sharp parts-- and breathed. Through his spiracles, oh god. What expanded in his ribcage might not even be lungs anymore. What was beating too fast in his chest might not look anything like a human heart.

He'd been through so much in Pegasus. He'd been through this exact ordeal before. This couldn't be the thing that broke him, after all that.

But the mutation didn't progress this far, then. He couldn't be sure that this time he'd come back.

He lurched to his feet and grabbed up the bag and supplies. He carried it into his cave and set aside the clear container with its clay. The rest he hid in his sleep-hollow, covering it with the leaf-net.

His hands, his blue, alien goddamn claws, were too slow and clumsy right now to hold a needle, even a ruggedized autoinjector. He needed to hunt and eat before he could inject himself with the drugs.

First, he took out the clay and worked it between both hands until it went a flat gray-greenish-yellow color. He shifted it all to his right hand and squeezed. It was a bit bigger than a softball, and he could feel it hardening.

He couldn't help worrying that it would seal to the carapace covering his hands and cement his claw in place, but when he released it, the clay ball fell away easily. He placed it in the container and looked at it morbidly. His claws left nothing but jagged dents. No handprints or fingerprints; the claws were smooth everywhere they weren't sharp, ridges separating the flawless plates.

Raised cords had replaced the tendons of his wrists, and thicker cords ran along the backs of the hands. They grew a little more hard and prominent every day. Maybe he was growing an exoskeleton. Maybe his own bones were gradually dissolving inside him.

He couldn't think about that. He couldn't afford to be John Sheppard now, with his human fears and weaknesses. If he ever wanted to get back to himself, he'd have to give himself up for now, and survive as what he'd become.

He put his old life out of his mind and set off toward his current hunting ground at a fast clip, claws scraping through the layers of damp mulch covering the ground. He found a good spot and leapt up fifteen feet to dig in and cling to the thick, smooth trunk of the nearest tree. He waited until the limbs above him settled from the impact and began to make his way to the treetop, climbing up the sturdiest limb til he rose above the canopy of moss and leaves.

Everything in his experience and perception made him want to see the sky as blue. The faint overlay of red tinting it violet, saturating to burning scarlet where the sun hid behind the clouds...

But the anxiety was fading now. Of course the sky was red and violet. Of course his claws were indigo and his toes prehensile enough to wrap around the branch.

He held himself more still than he ever could have done as a human, and waited for prey.

It wasn't long before his lunch came tumbling along in a floating, bouncing swarm, hovering among the treetops.

He'd stopped on Uea at first mainly because of these creatures, small animals he thought of as bumblers. They moved like bumblebees among the treetops, oblong little guys, sort of the size and shape of pickles. They had a central body of mottled reddish-violet, with fleshy translucent tubes ringing their bodies, inflating and exhaling to haphazardly change their direction.

When he'd arrived on this world, John was so hungry that when he saw a lot of oblong, fleshy reddish-violet shapes in the trees, right away he skinned up and went after them with his claws. It didn't take him long to catch a few. They moved in giant groups, hundreds of them massing above one stand of trees before moving on to another.

Their spongy bodies had a weird texture and they tasted like old sushi, but they were edible, pretty substantial for their size, and boneless, with just four strips of cartilage that he had to eat around and spit out.

When he first got here, he feasted on them. They were slow and dumb, and it was almost startling how easy it was to catch them. But the more he watched the more he realized they were short-lived anyway, with about a ten-week lifespan, and they were classic prey animals: they spent all their time gathering food to reproduce as much and as quickly as possible. He still wasn't sure what they were eating, maybe tiny organisms that were too small for him to see among the mist.

The unpredictable way they tumbled through the air seemed to fool some of their predators. John was a new kind of predator, and their defenses couldn't save them from him.

John learned to recognize when a bumbler had already borne its young by the white traceries around its tubes, and started only eating those. He needed to make sure he didn't deplete the local population. He didn't know how long he'd be here.

He caught several now, skewering them with his claws. He'd found that if he grabbed them, they seemed to sort of collapse their bodies and squirt out of the crevices between his claws. He couldn't close his bug pincers together enough to hold them. But once pierced, they seemed helpless to escape.

Something else he'd had to learn through trial and error: how to kill them quickly, when it was hard to tell if they had a brain or a heart. Their nervous system and circulatory system both seemed a lot more diffuse and decentralized than the animals John was familiar with.

Eventually he found there was some kind of gelatinous blob he could only assume was a vital organ about a quarter of the way from the larger, more bulbous tip of the bumblers' bodies, and when he jabbed that with his claw, the bumblers seemed to die right away.

John swept both hands through the air, snagging several bumblers on his claws with each gesture, plucking them off and quickly giving each one the killing strike. It took about a dozen to adequately feed him, and too soon, the bumblers started to skedaddle away from his tree. He stretched to pursue them, his toe-claws clamping around the branch and sinking in to hold him while he swiped a last few out of the air.

He gathered them up and retreated to a stronger, broader limb to eat them, slitting them open with his claws and gutting out an orange squiggly part inside them that, he'd figured out eventually, was the only part of the bumblers that seemed to make him a little queasy. He ate the rest and made a pile of the leftover cartilage strips. He'd tried to find a use for those strips but so far, they were good for nothing.

Instinct still made him save the cartilage and guts, though. He wrapped it all in leaves and tucked the bundle into a pocket on the tac vest that was the only item of clothing still tough enough to wear on his Halloween costume body.

He swung down from the tree and ran low to the ground, hands and feet digging into the dirt with every loping step. He buried the cartilage strips half an hour's run away from his hunting ground and his cave.

On the way back, John fished in the tac vest pocket for the scanner Rodney gave him, holding it carefully between his sharp claws. It wasn't easy to manipulate it with his altered hands, but he'd practiced, and Ancient technology was a lot more rugged than the Earth equivalents; even when he misjudged or slipped, his claw-tips didn't damage the screen.

He scouted the damp-dwelling plants of the underbrush, and the vines that used the trees to crawl up out of the perpetual fog.

Spotting a new vine, he plucked a leaf, a bud, and a bit of stem. He crushed each part in turn and smeared it across the sensor pad, cleaning the pad after each use with water from a plant with broad, saucer-shaped leaves that collected dew.

Even though the atmosphere on Uea seemed constantly foggy and humid, it didn't rain very often. At least, it hadn't rained during his days here, and he'd noticed a lot of adaptations among the plant and animal life geared toward drawing water to themselves, as if they were all in competition for it despite the fact that the air seemed to constantly brim over with moisture.

He himself seemed to need much less water than when he was human, just a couple of saucer-leaves full of water each day. Food, though, was more of a problem. A dozen bumblers made a meal, and he could get by on just that much every day, if he supplemented with another smaller meal of plants. The trick was finding edible ones.

He'd heard Rodney complain often enough about how confusing the Ancient language was, how the Ancients seemed to have completely, well, alien concepts of information and organization.

Before, John just nodded and waited for the geeks to work their magic, but here, there was no buffer between him and the failings of ten thousand year old technology from a lost civilization.

According to the scanner, the bud was "carmine" (it was actually white) and so was the stem (really green.) He tested the leaf and an Ancient word appeared. Below, the best-guess English translation was "exciting."

Exciting what? Exciting flavor? Was the plant literally exciting, would it raise his blood pressure or trigger arousal? He had to mark that one off in the scanner's dynamically generated database as another plant he couldn't risk eating.

Sometimes he could tell. A plant the scanner labeled as "approval" had been edible, and so was "beautiful." But he had no idea what to think about the seeds that came back as "melancholy." And then there were the Ancient words that were descriptive without being helpful, like "cloven" for a fruit that grew with a split down the middle, or "parchment" for the birch-like, fragrant bark of a slender young tree.

He foraged for another hour and didn't find much, increasingly frustrated, until he finally came across a bizarre plant with curved stems that ended in a swelling teardrop-shaped pod that yielded when he cautiously squeezed it. He burst the teardrop pod on the scanner pad, and along with a spatter of liquid out came a wet black insect the size of a marble, unfolding its weirdly jointed legs.

John convulsed with disgust, swatting the thing off and probably crushing it in the process. He checked himself and the scanner repeatedly to make sure the bug wasn't clinging to him or the vital, treasured scanner.

He washed his claws in a couple of leaf-saucers of water. He drank a couple more and hurried back to his cave, giving up on more food for the day. He'd eaten enough bumblers to steady his hands, that was all that mattered.

John read the instructions, and as ordered, he set up the oxygen tank and water bottle nearby. He followed the diagram, and tried the injector. The first two needles broke on his tough, scaled-over skin, but the next size slid in without much resistance. He injected himself with the drug and watched the hole close up in the sleeve of his Halloween costume.

He read the letter from Rodney again, studying the signatures of his friends. Ronon. Teyla. Rodney. He scratched the characters of their names into the floor next to his nest, waiting for something to change.




"You've gotta be kidding me," John said as the hybrids dragged him into the control room.

"Are you really surprised?" asked Michael with cool amusement. "You think I would clone your Dr. Beckett, but somehow it wouldn't occur to me to do the same for myself?"

"Kinda hoped," said John. "You always seemed a little too overconfident for that kind of backup plan." He mustered a smirk. "Guess you knew deep down we'd bump you off eventually. And you were right. For a change."

Michael backhanded him across the mouth, because they all backhanded him across the mouth. Hard. Every time. John thought he might hold the Guinness record for most cuts to the inside of his lips from his own teeth.

He sucked spit and blood together and spat it out as nonchalantly as he could. If the hybrids would back off maybe he could do something with the chains binding his hands, but they each had him by an arm. They'd notice if he started screwing around back there.

His legs were free. He could kick Michael in the nads or the gut, but there was no guarantee he was vulnerable there, and anyway the hybrids would just kick his ass. He could probably take the hybrids down with a twist and a couple of kicks but that would leave him open for Michael to beat him down.

He hated to admit it, but he just didn't see any good way to play this one. He'd have to bide his time and hope they stashed him in a cell, and either put him in a better situation to escape, or gave him time to come up with another plan.

"Whatever you killed was merely a clone," said Michael. "I no longer have to risk myself personally to oversee my operations."

"Lucky thing we got rid of him for you, really," John said. "Kind of a problem if he succeeded in his mission and came back expecting to stay in charge. Two identical guys with a messiah complex both trying to rule the galaxy... that could get awkward."

"Rule the galaxy?" Michael scoffed. "That's far too trivial a description for the future I envision..."

After that it was just Michael's usual blah blah blah mustache-twirling. John listened intently for actionable intel, kept his eyes peeled and his body poised to make a break for it. He came up with a big nothing and double nothing.

His attention snapped fully back when Michael said, "Given what they know of my plans, I can't expect your friends to trade even a sample of Torren's DNA for you--"

"No, you can't," said John.

"A shame," Michael said. "But I may not need him after all. You see, when my clone and his soldiers invaded Atlantis, they accessed and transmitted a great deal of information from the city to me. It took a little time to break the encryption, but once I did, I learned so much, Sheppard. Particularly about you."

John swallowed a little more blood. "I'm an interesting guy."

"I was particularly interested to discover that you were infected with a retrovirus that gave you Iratus DNA and Wraith-like traits. It seems that was where your people got the idea to perpetrate this atrocity on me," Michael motioned to his betwixt-and-between face. "I was also interested to learn that not long afterward, you were able to successfully fly a Wraith dart."

John saw where that was going: nowhere good, and fast. "I didn't just sit down and fly it blind. I was working with a group of humans who built a custom interface for the dart that translated most of the data into a form I could understand."

"The fact that you were able to operate the dart suggests to me that your experience with the early form of the Iratus retrovirus left you with some of the same characteristics that I sought in Teyla's child," said Michael. "Even if I'm wrong, the fact remains that I have you, not Torren. And I also have Dr. Beckett's formula for the previous version of the retrovirus. Perhaps studying the different effects of this earlier version will give me the last clues I need to perfect my hybrids."

"This isn't going to work the way you're hoping. I wasn't directly infected with the retrovirus before," John said, "I contracted it from a Wraith girl who took it and then tore me up a little with her feeding hand-- a direct infection wouldn't have the same effect." He had no idea if that was true, but it sounded plausible; he had to try.

"Beckett's notes suggest otherwise," said Michael. "At any rate, I'm sure we'll learn something from re-infecting you--"

John's chances didn't look any better than they did ten minutes ago, but he twisted and kicked out and jabbed with his bent elbows anyway, sending the two hybrids reeling momentarily, and when he swung around to maybe headbutt Michael, he was lifted bodily and slammed to the metal deck, just managing to turn his face in time to save himself a broken nose; he felt a couple of ribs crack and struggled to breathe, the wind knocked out of him.

"You're very predictable, Colonel Sheppard," said Michael, and John felt a hard little dig into the meat of his thigh. He pedaled his feet against the floor, trying to get away to the last, until the darkness closed over his head.

#

John's memories of Michael's lab were sketchy. Of course, Michael had no interest in keeping John lucid, so there were no antivirals to preserve his humanity while the Iratus retrovirus ravaged his body.

He could recall looking at his chained hands, just beginning to darken blue, and realizing that these might be the last conscious thoughts of his life.

At heart, John was a little superstitious; like a lot of pilots, he had his own private rituals and half-believed articles of faith. In those moments, looking at the chains on his mutating hands, he shut his eyes and thought of Teyla, Ronon, Rodney, Nancy, Dave, Torren, Evan, Radek, Jennifer, Carson, Richard, the expedition, the soldiers he fought and flew beside throughout seven continents and two galaxies, the people who'd be going on without him: deep down, he supposed he was hoping that somehow they'd know he spent his last moments grateful that he'd known them.

He thought of his team, the four of them together around the mess hall table, the familiarity of their faces, their quirks, their courage and strength. He should have said so much more to them than he ever had, but he believed that they knew what they meant to him. He hoped so, and he imagined his last thoughts taking wing and reaching them.

He felt peaceful, something like the taste of Ascension that Chaya had shared with him, a sense of communion and completeness. Then shadows, indistinct, meaningless. Then nothing.

#

The next time John gained consciousness, he was back in Atlantis. Ronon was sitting in a doze nearby, his feet kicked up on a second chair. He came awake a moment after John did, looked over at John and gave him a nod.

"Good you're back," he said, and went to hail a doctor.

The lights in John's room were dim, but he could see that his hands were deformed and gleaming blue, joints protruding, a thumb and two crooked digits that narrowed to pronged claws. There was nothing human about them.

He went hot all over with a wash of artificial calm, too shocked to be anything but perfectly, stupidly logical. The more he woke, the more he realized how changed he really was.

When he was exposed to the retrovirus by Ellia, years ago, Beckett used antivirals to prolong his awareness for most of the transformation, and he'd already been recovering when he regained his presence of mind.

This time, though, he'd lost his mind early in the process, and now he was slamming into full reason again to find himself inhabiting a body in a totally alien state.

He felt the difference in every aspect of himself, all the somatic noise he never paid attention to normally because it was so constant and so familiar: the drub of his heart, the rush of his blood through his ears, the sound of air passing through his nostrils, the swish of swallowing, the subtle creaks of his joints.

He had a slower pulse, and he could feel that it was different somehow, more a squeeze than a beat. Everywhere his body hinged felt tighter, but stronger too. And his breath came shallowly, as if he needed less oxygen.

His senses were skewed. He had less feeling in his hardened, scaly skin, but his smell, hearing and sight were all crowded with a broader spectrum of input than he'd ever experienced before.

Unlike every other time he'd awakened in the infirmary, he wasn't thirsty. And he didn't feel his hunger in his stomach, but in an overall lack of energy verging on torpor.

Really, it was a little surprising they let him wake up at all. He had no idea why he wasn't in a medically induced coma. But one obvious answer presented itself.

"I'm stuck like this," he greeted Carson.

"Don't give up so easily, Colonel," said Carson, but he looked twitchy.

John tapped his claws together with a loud click, click, click.

"It is true that the mutation has progressed much further this time," said Carson unhappily. "The cure we designed for you several years ago isn't reversing the transformation, possibly because so much more of your DNA has been altered. The antiviral we used then to keep you aware seemed to have contributed more than we realized as well. There was no antiviral this time and without it, the course of mutation has developed differently. It's all presenting a bit of a challenge."

"How am I still rational?" John asked, and more urgently, "How long do I have?"

"Ah, now that's the good news," Carson broke into a relieved little smile. "Dr. Keller and I have, I suppose you'd say, tightened up security on your brain's firewall."

"Uh, I wouldn't say that. But okay...?"

"Your brain is protected from most sources of infection by the blood-brain barrier," said Carson. "The retrovirus can bypass the barrier by hitching a ride on the body's own white blood cells. We've come up with a treatment that makes it more difficult for the virus to saddle up your immune cells, coupled with a boost to the blood-brain barrier that makes it more sensitive to the chemical markers of the retrovirus so that it keeps the virus out of your brain."

"Okay," John said slowly. He probably would have had trouble following the details on his best day, and this definitely wasn't that. He still felt blurry. But it didn't take much awareness to draw some unwelcome conclusions. "The thing is, doc, it seems to me that you wouldn't have spent so much effort getting my brain working again if you really thought you could change my body back to human."

"It was a natural first step. You presented a danger to yourself and others in that state, Colonel," said Carson. "It would be much more difficult to treat you if you were still violent, and a medically induced coma presents its own problems that we'd have to work around. It'll also help us develop a cure if we can get feedback from you as we try new approaches."

John stared down at his claws. "How far has it gone? What do I look like?"

"That doesn't matter right now," Carson said firmly, but he looked disturbed, even though his face was composed into an expression of grave reassurance. It was something about the pink and red areas of his face--

Which weren't really pink or red, John realized, freezing with fresh panic. It was some other color John had never seen before, which for lack of a better word he could only think of as red, lightening to pink; it was like those colors somehow, even though it wasn't really red or pink.

The new colors laid over Carson's features, and they had brightened and reddened further when Carson said what John looked like didn't matter: it lit up in a pattern that John instinctively interpreted as dismay.

"We already have a number of new ideas, Colonel Sheppard," Carson said. "We're going to proceed with caution, because it's very difficult for us to predict how your body will react to the things we want to try. But we will proceed. Dr. Keller has devoted the expedition's best people and quite a bit of resources and time to the challenge."

"I appreciate that," said John, trying to be reasonable, human, about this. He still burned with shame whenever he remembered demanding that Elizabeth send another team to harvest Iratus eggs to cure him, even after two Marines died in the first attempt. He'd been so far gone then; he was only holding on to the hope of a fix, and when that slipped away from him, he'd lost his last grip on his humanity, too.

"Your team has been asking about you," said Carson, relaxing a little. "Shall I send them in, then?"

He didn't want them to see him, but John knew if the positions were reversed, he'd be stung to be shut out. "Sure," he said after a beat. He thought of asking for a mirror first, but since Carson didn't offer one when he asked, John was probably better off not knowing.

"We'll take it one at a time, how would that be," Carson said, and a few minutes later, Ronon came back and stood against the wall.

"Took us too long to find you," said Ronon.

"I'm not complaining. You found me." John cast his mind back. His face tried to frown but it didn't seem to move that way anymore. Instead he made his expression as blank as possible, which was pretty damn blank. Or used to be. 'Uh. The mission...?"

"We got 'em both," okay, right, it was coming back to him: Todd gave them intel on two hive ships that were out to boost a ZPM. "Got the ZPM too, when we came after you. No casualties. Except," Ronon jerked his chin toward John, solemn.

"Yeah. Except." Except that when John flew a captured dart to plant a bomb on hive ship number one, Michael turned up out of nowhere and nabbed the dart, the ZPM and John. At least they got the ZPM back unscathed.

"They'll fix you up."

"I know," John said with confidence he didn't feel.

Ronon nodded, subsiding.

Normally John enjoyed being around Ronon for just this reason: one part right-to-the-point conversation to eight parts silent camaraderie. Whether it was running, sparring or teaching him surfing, Ronon was a great guy to work alongside, sharing quiet focus on the activity at hand.

In the stultifying boredom of the infirmary, though, it was kind of a drawback. Especially right now, when the only thing to look at in the room was his awful blue hands, John could really use some distraction.

Seemed like Ronon recognized that too. "Teyla's coming as soon as her meeting wraps up."

"Good, that's... good."

"McKay's in the lab. They're going through the database looking for something to help."

"They did that the first time and didn't turn anything up," said John. "I guess maybe they've decoded more of it since then."

Ronon nodded again.

John forced himself not to fidget or worry about whether he looked completely monstrous. If he did, Ronon didn't seem to care.

Eventually John relaxed into the silence, companionable as ever. Just by being there, Ronon staved off the sense of isolation he'd felt the first time he went through this, when he was too dangerous for anyone to come near and too terrified to let them get close, even if they could.

And if his brain firewall failed and he flipped out again, Ronon could handle it. Probably why Carson sent him in first.

Ronon studied him, meeting John's eyes with patient ease. John could see from the new ultra-pinks and reds of his vision that Ronon had some anger and wariness under the calm exterior, but also sympathy. John had no idea how he could interpret the pattern as easily as a facial expression. Instinct? Something subliminal? It was just obvious somehow, even though all his normal vision got from Ronon's face was his usual vigilance.

John remembered the lab, the regrets he'd had. The things he wished he'd said.

"I'm glad you're here," he told Ronon. "Thanks."

Ronon gave his usual nearly imperceptible smile, the pinks on his face broadcasting satisfaction like a beacon. "Sure."

#

It was a good thing John found some peace when Ronon was there, because it was hard when Teyla visited.

"It is so good to see you awake, John," said Teyla, crossing to him the moment she came into the room. Without hesitation, she sat near him and closed both her small soft hands over one of his clawed appendages. She looked as composed as ever.

John's new color perception told a different story. Teyla's face flared with frightened red. He could see that it upset her deeply to be close to him.

Of course it did. John assaulted her once already under the influence of the retrovirus. Michael abducted all her people and transformed them partly into monsters like what John was now, not to mention kidnapping Teyla herself with every intention of stealing her son from her and leaving Teyla to die.

Now here John was straight from Michael's lab, a reminder of a litany of horrors that Teyla had experienced, and proof that Michael wasn't dead after all. It would be crazy if she weren't upset.

She always seemed so unflappable that John had just gotten used to her poise without thinking of what it might cost her.

"Thanks," he said belatedly, "I'm glad to see you too," trying to come up with a subtle way to tell her she didn't have to stay. He hated to think she was making herself sit there, enduring that kind of fear for him; he couldn't believe she was touching him when she felt so much revulsion.

And yet she spoke to him normally, even with her usual sly hint of humor. "Torren misses you," she said. "Or maybe he misses the sweets that you seem to think I don't know that you sneak to him."

"You can't prove anything," John said.

Teyla lifted an eyebrow. "I know when my son has had candy."

Oh yeah. Torren did get a little hyper sometimes. "Sorry about that. It's just, you know..." he smirked a little, "a tradition among my people."

Teyla returned his smile, but he saw another surge of alarmed red on her face. He shut his mouth. No telling what his teeth looked like now.

"Look, Teyla, you don't have to stick around," he said. "I know you've got a lot going on."

She looked at him levelly. "Would you rather I left, John?"

"I could use some time on my own," he tried, but he didn't sound very convincing. He didn't want to be alone with nothing to do but listen to his heart squeeze and his breath rasp. But he wanted even less for Teyla to make herself miserable sitting here at his bedside holding what used to be his hand.

"Carson believes it would be best if you were not left alone," she said. "If you like I can go, and someone else will keep you company. Everyone in the city wishes you well." It was harder to interpret the new pattern of red when the fear still lingered in pink, but he thought he saw disappointment, and the expression on her face was set.

"No." John considered it. He wasn't sure why he was trying to hide what he could see. He was too used to keeping secrets; the words wouldn't come. He wasn't sure how to describe it, anyway. "I'm happy you're here, but it can't be easy to be around me when I'm like this," he tried to explain awkwardly. "For you, I mean, because of Michael."

Anger flooded her face red, though only a hint of it showed in her eyes. "It is not easy to discover he still lives," she said. "It is not easy to know that he has brought harm to you." Incredibly, she squeezed his distorted hand. "I would not be much of a friend if I left your side only because staying is not easy."

"You're the bravest person I know," he said before he could second-guess himself.

The overlay of red bloomed with affection. Teyla said, "Thank you, John."

#

Rodney showed up late in the evening with a laptop under each arm, wearing a filter mask over his nose and mouth.

"I'm not contagious," John said in annoyance.

"If you were, I'd catch it," said Rodney, "I always catch everything. Why take chances?"

"Because you look like a crazy person?"

"Are we seriously going to talk about looks right now?" Rodney shot back, and then winced at himself.

"Nice."

"Yes, well... sorry." Rodney stared at him openly. "The blue isn't that bad. I mean. At least it's a nice shade of blue?"

"Yeah, it's great. Why don't you take the mask off and try it out for yourself?"

"You just said you weren't contagious!"

"I'm not!" John caught himself just on the verge of yelling and toned his voice down. "You wouldn't come in here wearing anything less than a full hazmat suit if you really thought I was, so knock it off."

Rodney broke into a sudden smile, wide enough to show even behind the mask. "Huh. You really are you again."

John sobered. "How bad was it?"

"Not that bad. We knew what to expect this time," said Rodney, pulling the filter mask off. "Of course, I say this as someone who was coordinating several dozen tasks simultaneously in the control room half a click away when the Marines found you. I'm given to understand they were scared out of their minds, but they recognized you and stunned you til we could evacuate you out of there. It's a good thing we took pictures the first time."

"Remind me to buy those guys a drink."

"Write it down, I'm not your secretary," Rodney answered automatically, then looked at John's claws and winced again.

"You're a real pal, McKay."

"I'll, ah, I'll email you a reminder," he cracked open the first laptop and disappeared behind it with a rapid burst of typing. "There."

"My hero." In a way, McKay's tactlessness was kind of grounding. Snapping back and forth made John feel a little more normal. It made a good distraction, anyway.

"I suppose Ronon and Teyla already told you about the rescue mission."

"Some."

"Back in the Milky Way, they think Ba'al is bad," Rodney shook his head. "We destroyed stacks of Michael clones in stasis, and I seriously doubt this was his only cache of them."

"Did you get the original?"

"They're still testing the telomeres of the remains. Not that it matters. Michael's clones would be able to keep themselves alive indefinitely. There's not much functional difference between the original and the duplicates."

"Scary thought," said John, discouraged.

"Now that we know he's still around, we'll get him eventually," Rodney said. "After what he tried to do to Teyla and Torren, and now what he's done to you? We certainly aren't lacking for motivation."

John cranked his mouth into something like a smile, but it fell away fast. He appreciated that they wanted revenge; he did too.

But despite what he said to Carson, he was still hoping that they'd find a cure. He didn't like the idea that his people would go out crusading in his name with the assumption that he'd never recover from this. He wanted to be on the team that took Michael down for good.

"He must have been laying low since we got back to Pegasus," Rodney said, opening the second laptop. "I'm surprised Todd doesn't know about him. Unless Todd tipped him off about our operation to blow up those hives."

"I don't think Todd would've let Michael get the ZPM."

"Just nine percent charged, by the way," said Rodney. "Of course that's still a vast amount of power in normal terms, but we don't usually operate in normal terms."

John looked at his clawed hand. "Tell me about it."

Rodney gazed at it too, his mouth turned down regretfully. The reds over his face matched his expression. That figured. Rodney always showed everything right out there.

What the hell. He knew Rodney would give it to him straight, and hearing it wouldn't be as shocking as seeing it in a mirror. "Let me ask you something... what do I look like now?"

Rodney took the question seriously, surveying John. "You're seeing the worst of it. Your hands. Your arms and shoulders are way into uncanny valley territory. But your face hasn't changed that much, comparatively speaking. I mean, you're blue, and there are bumps and spikes in places. Your eyes are yellow with slit pupils. But you still look like you."

"Okay. Thanks," John said, distracted.

Because when Rodney was speaking, the reds over his face had shifted out of tune with his detached expression. Maybe John was interpreting it all wrong, but the new colors in Rodney's face seemed even more emphatic and unequivocal than the other patterns John had perceived: an overall shading of pink spreading to throat and chest, concentrations of brighter red in the cheeks and lips, slightly dilated pupils. Not just interest, but arousal.

Seriously? Now?

No, John realized. Not now. When he first came into John's room, Rodney had looked at him directly and at length several times, at least once in contemplation, and he hadn't showed any sign of this kind of reaction.

But now, comparing John's bugged-out face to his human face, Rodney was turned on a little. Just from thinking about what John normally looked like. And it hadn't showed in Rodney's normal expression at all.

How many times over the years had Rodney looked at him and subtly flushed with interest, and never showed it? It was nuts. Since when could Rodney hide anything? Not to mention, Rodney was the last person John would have suspected of being attracted to him. Rodney was so loudly, clumsily straight.

Or really repressed. Or really closeted, making klutzy attempts at passing for straight. It would explain why he and Jennifer didn't last, even though he was nuts about her and she seemed to really like him, and stayed friendly with him even after they split up. Or maybe that was down to something else completely. Maybe Rodney was bisexual.

Maybe-- most likely-- John was misinterpreting the extra colors he was seeing.

John shook himself a little and looked at the forked claws of his hands. It wasn't like it made any difference to him now.

It wasn't like it would have made any difference to him before, either, if he was honest. If he'd known Rodney wanted him, he wouldn't have acted on it.

It just would've made things complicated. He'd always ruled Rodney out. He didn't get hung up on straight guys. And since gaining his own command, he hadn't left himself get hung up on any guys. It wasn't a big loss. He was lucky; he liked women too. If he was a little less drawn to women as the years passed, and his porn collection featured more and more men... it didn't matter.

His work was too important to jeopardize for sex, and it wasn't like he had any prospects. There was nobody interested that he trusted enough to take the risk.

Except maybe there was somebody. But it would've been a bad idea; John wouldn't have gone for it. Maybe. Probably.

John wasn't sure if he wished he'd known when it started, or if he wished he still didn't know.

Self-absorbed as ever, Rodney didn't seem to notice that John was woolgathering; he'd turned his attention to his laptops. He bent close to the screens, engrossed.

"Database?" John asked.

"Hm?" Rodney blinked. "Oh. Yes. We found a few new leads, though most of them have been dead ends. Uh-- but we're finding more at a good clip, and Zelenka's working on something we think might be an Ancient genetic simulator. It was in the same room as the Ascension device that gave me superpowers. Probably meant to be used to project what the results of the Ascension device would be. Once that's done, it should let Carson and Jennifer test their new treatments more or less instantaneously." His mouth collapsed into a scowl. "I'd fix it myself, but it only has one tiny little access panel. I can't get my hands into it. Ridiculous design flaw. Still, at least Zelenka's hands fit, and he's generally not incompetent."

The heat map of Rodney's face showed confidence in Zelenka out of all proportion to his faint praise and casual condescension. John flashed back to the times in their friendship when Rodney had looked at him with fondness, wondering if there had been more to those expressions that only heat-sensitive vision-- or somebody a little more on the ball than John-- could have picked up.

"That's good news," John said.

"It's a start. We'll keep at it." Rodney looked at him now with a tint of interest and concern. "We're going to solve this. It's a nice shade of blue, but it's not really your color."

#

Zelenka fixed the genetic simulator the next day, and soon after that, Beckett and Keller injected John with the first attempt at a treatment.

He was hopeful when some of the scales on his knuckles and elbows cracked off, but nothing else changed and new scales grew in. No one was sure if the scales came off in reaction to the treatment, or if John was just shedding of his own accord.

A week later they gave it another shot. This one made John's eyes water constantly, and some of his Iratus-infected tissues reacted to salt water; his eyes stung like crazy the entire time. Since he couldn't really see, Evan brought him an iPod loaded with a bunch of radio broadcasts of football games. The headphones didn't fit right in John's ears anymore, so Biro scrounged up speakers for him.

Rodney came in, took one look at him sitting there listening to the game with tears dripping from his eyes, and said, "What happened, did your team lose?"

"No," said John, "I was just sitting here thinking about what crappy taste I have in friends."

It was a relief when Jennifer and Carson gave up on that stuff. They put him back on antivirals while they worked up another try at it.

A lot of the time, John really wished they'd just opted for the coma. He got to do some light exercise regularly, but the doctors didn't want him to tax himself too much. They were trying to keep his metabolism as stable as possible and his body on a consistent routine so that they could measure his reactions to their treatments more accurately.

It left John desperately bored. He caught up on paperwork and stayed on top of it whenever he could handle it, and he kept up with the duty roster and the mission schedule.

But Lorne had been doing a great job the whole time John was missing; John didn't want to second-guess him or step on his toes. And technically John was relieved of duty for the duration, and considered compromised as long as his DNA was warped.

He heard a lot of, "You just take it easy, sir. We've got it all under control."

But taking it easy was hard for him. He'd caught up on most sports and movies and TV shows he was interested in-- not many-- back when Atlantis was stuck on Earth for months. Everyone had loaded up on stuff from Earth during that stretch, so there was no shortage of entertainment in the city, but John hated sitting around for more than a couple of hours max at a time. Even long movies made him restless. Most days he felt sick with inactivity before lunchtime rolled around.

It was almost a relief when it all went to hell.

The infirmary was an hour into the night shift when Teyla, Ronon and Rodney slipped into John's room.

"Get up, Sheppard," Ronon said tersely.

John heaved himself out of bed. "What's going on?"

"I decoded the IOA's new orders from the databurst as it was downloading," said Rodney. "Not an easy feat, I might add--" he jumped when Ronon whacked him with an elbow. "Right, well. They want Woolsey to send you back to Earth."

"What?" John looked down at himself. Sticking out below his scrub pants, his blue-black feet ended in two wicked hooks. The pants themselves were frayed in a dozen spots where John's barbed skin had torn holes through the material. "That's crazy."

"I believe that forces within the IOA have given this command in order to goad Mr. Woolsey into defying it," said Teyla. "He has spoken to me about the political machinations within the organization. Someone is trying to force him into a difficult position so that they can justify removing him from Atlantis."

"I'd almost guarantee Woolsey wouldn't send you back," Rodney said, "but odds are, the IOA will just send some goons to relieve him and take you back anyway."

"What's the argument for moving me to Earth?" John demanded. "Nobody's as qualified to beat this thing as Beckett and Keller."

"They are using the trials that have not cured you to argue that Carson's skills have deteriorated," said Teyla grimly. "And they claim that the expedition cannot afford to invest so much of Jennifer's time in your treatment."

"So you're escaping," Ronon said.

"I am?"

"The latest trial cure is going to unexpectedly counteract the technique that's keeping you lucid," said Rodney. "You're going to break free and make a run for the gateroom. By a fluke of bad luck, Amelia will be dialing PFV-913 right then to send through some supplies, so you'll run straight through the wormhole and escape into the sensor-deflecting canyons, never to be seen again until we get this straightened out."

"You may need this," Teyla gave John a solidly packed bag. "A bedroll, your vest, a stunner, and clothes that will pass as unremarkable on most worlds. There is a traveling religious order who wear long cloaks with hoods and gloves. Many of their number have taken oaths of silence. You should be able to travel freely wearing it. The rest should keep you well supplied in a variety of climates."

"Thanks, Teyla."

Ronon gave him another bag. "Food that keeps," he said, and hugged John hard.

"Okay, this is very important, so seriously, be careful with it," said Rodney, giving John a scanner. "I've tweaked it to differentiate better between humans and other life signs so you can steer clear of big animals, and avoid people or cover up if you can't get away. You know how to use the sensor pad to test food and how to track energy readings. Here," he showed John a key combination and made him prove he could do it with his claws, "this brings up a list Ronon made. These planets aren't just uninhabited, they're all but uninhabitable by humans."

John looked at Ronon. "So how'd you--?"

"Just passed through," said Ronon. "Fast."

"We did some quick and dirty MALP-on-a-stick action to check them out," said Rodney, "and kicked a few off the list, like the one with the stargate on an empty island in the middle of a saltwater ocean-- whose bright idea was that? All these addresses lead to planets with temperature extremes or inhospitable atmospheres. But according to Carson, you won't have any problem surviving there for a while. No guarantees about predators, though, so be careful and keep an eye out for life signs."

"Okay," said John, accepting the scanner. "Thanks." He looked at Ronon. "Thank you."

"One more thing," Rodney said, taking John by the arm. For an absurd moment, John thought Rodney was going to kiss him goodbye before sending him out on the lam. Maybe along with his buried superstitions, deep down he had a little bit of a romantic streak too.

Of course Rodney didn't do any such thing, just stretched John's arm out and ran a palm-sized device over his arm. "I'm changing the signature of your subcutaneous transmitter."

John poked at the spot where he knew the transmitter was, feeling nothing. "Okay."

"I know you might be tempted, but don't cut your sub-q out," said Rodney. "We might need it to track you if something goes wrong. I seriously doubt the IOA would go as far as sending anyone after you in Pegasus. In the unlikely event that they do come looking and the even unlikelier event that they manage to catch you, the worst that'll happen is that you'll end up on Earth, and there's nowhere on Earth I can't find you. We won't let them keep you."

"I won't mess with it," John promised.

"We wanted to come with you," said Teyla. "But the deception would no longer be plausible if we vanished as well."

"Took 'em a while to convince me," Ronon said. "Still not sure."

"Nah, stay here," John told him. "Keep all these slackers in line while I'm gone."

Rodney looked John over swiftly. "Ready?"

Even weirder than his earlier thought, John had a strange fleeting impulse to make the move himself and kiss Rodney. He still wasn't really sure of what he'd seen, wasn't sure what to think about it if it were true.

But part of him wanted to reach out for a kiss anyway, like a promise to come back, maybe; the start of something to come back to.

That'd go over really well, with the bumpy blue lips and everything.

He ignored all that and gave his team a last grateful nod. "Yeah," he said. "I'm ready."

#

The race through Atlantis to the Alpha site streaked by in no time. On the other side of the gate, John went through Ronon's list of gate addresses, with taciturn descriptions next to each one.

The first world was freezing, ice everywhere. John didn't linger long. If Carson thought John could handle these temperatures now, John believed it, but it wouldn't be fun; after just a few minutes he felt slow and painfully chilled.

Another address, and John was looking out over a landscape from far above. The stargate sat high on a mountain range. The air whistling around him was thin, and the more he breathed it in, the more uncomfortable he felt, his chest tightening.

The next address took him to a warm, ashy planet forested with cactus-like plants. John explored that one a little, but he didn't see any good place to make camp or any obvious source of food besides the plants, which the scanner called "calamitous."

The fourth world, hot and sandy, reminded John so strongly of Afghanistan that he barely waited for the wormhole to die before dialing out again.

He spent the night on the fifth world, which was balmy and pleasant enough that he just hung up his stuff in a tree and spread out the bedroll from Teyla's pack in a dry spot underneath.

He woke up covered in plants. They must have grown around him in the night, and each stem was tipped with a coiled tendril that was dripping some kind of slime onto him. It wasn't doing a thing to his scaly skin, but it had eaten away at the bedroll fabric, and put holes in the leather Athosian shirt John was wearing.

The sixth world smelled so awful to John that he could barely dial for retching; the seventh world was another cold one; the eighth was all right at first, but so dry that John started to feel desiccated after a few hours.

The ninth seemed perfect, reminding John of his visit to the Japanese countryside. He stayed for a couple of days, but then he ran into a group of house-sized bearlike predators that caught his scent and came after him. Luckily they weren't that fast, but he still had to scramble to make it to the gate.

"Tenth time's a charm," he muttered, dialing the next address.

#

His first impression of the tenth world was a veil of pink over rolling clouds of fog in all directions. For a second he thought it was the mist planet they'd visited in their first year of the expedition, but when he looked twice he saw the suggestion of ferns and tree trunks faintly sketched out in the haze, and when he squinted up he could see a forest canopy overhead.

Moving toward the treeline, he felt almost like he was swimming through the sodden air. It was as close and steamy as a sauna. He wondered if he was in a valley, if the fog cleared on higher ground.

It was impossible to tell, his vision dwindling within a few yards to nothing but blotches of the new red-pinks. The overall aura of pink was already fading as he adjusted to it and his perception shifted to screen it out.

He consulted the scanner. It detected lots of animal lifesigns, but nothing seemed to be very big or moving very fast. It also gave him a basic sense of topography: mostly wooded plains, but hills of some kind rose up a couple of miles away. It gave him something to aim for, so John struck out.

It took a lot of clawing to ford through the dense underbrush. With every step, he sank a good four inches into the mulch and moss covering the ground. The heavy vegetation made him think of jungles and rain forests, but it looked more like the most overgrown deciduous woodland he could imagine.

The plants crowding the forest floor were green, so sunlight had to get down here sometimes. Maybe the fog was seasonal. Or maybe the pink he saw everywhere was infrared light or another form of radiation that the plants were sucking up and photosynthesizing.

Not much further along, the trees broke a little overhead, and looking up, John saw what at first he took for globs of pollen, or some kind of fruits, coming off the highest branches of the trees. The shapes were oblong, rounded on both ends, and reddish violet. Regular red, not bug-vision red.

The way they moved seemed random and wind-blown, but the more he watched, the more they seemed to be coming together and tumbling apart against the flow of the breeze.

He skinned up the tree and went after them with his claws. Whatever they were, they weren't attached to anything up here, or to each other. They were the size and shape of pickles, ringed with clear tubes. He speared a couple of them easily, though the one he grabbed got away, squirting out of his palm.

John split both his catches and watched them wiggle until they slowed. He rubbed the inside of one against the scanner.

Acceptable, said the readout. It gave back the same result for the second one.

He shaved off a tiny piece and tasted it. Fishy. A little stale. But not bad. He ate a few bites of one of them and waited for a boring hour to make sure it wouldn't poison him before he scarfed down the rest. By then, the rest of the pickles had moved on. John could see them not far away, just beginning to vanish into the mist, falling haphazardly through the air and then catching themselves up again, like bumblebees.

John looked around the treetops. Even with his limited range of vision in the fog, he saw another flock of bumblers. There were a hell of a lot of them.

If he could find somewhere to sleep, this might be the place.

#

After hunting, John set out for the hills again. He was halfway there when the trees parted ahead of him.

The clearing was only the size of a soccer goal, and there seemed to be a deliberate trammeled swirl in the grasses, with a strange pulpy yellow-green ribbon spiraling in the middle. Pearly bulbs clustered between the ribbony layers, each bulb the size of John's fist. His old fist.

Among the trees to his left, giant snakelike creatures bobbed rapidly in agitation, limbs like tentacles beating at the air, two glowing antlers or antennae topping each of their heads. John froze, but they didn't seem to pose any threat. If anything they seemed afraid.

There was an indescribable noise near the... nest? John dropped into a crouch, spotting now that something was hunkered down at the border of the clearing. It darted out to the nest and snatched a bulb, withdrawing again just as quickly. At the loud smacking noise that followed, the flying snakes made almost subaudible noises of distress.

One of the flyers emerged from the trees and curled its body protectively over the nest. The crouching animal stuck its head out and blew a triple blast of flame from three nostrils. The fire was red and diffuse, but the flyer gave a low, quiet foghorn moan, fluttering away. Another two flyers soared out, tangled their bodies up with the brave one, and carried it back to the treeline.

John watched the flyers. Their glowing antennae weren't solid, he realized. They were dim flames. But the flyers recoiled from the fire-breathing ground animal. It didn't make any sense.

Unless the flyers were airborne because they were filled with-- somehow generating-- buoyant gases. They might have those fire antlers to vent off some of the flammable waste gas from whatever process in their bodies created the buoyancy.

If they had continuous flames as part of their biology, they had to circulate a lot of flammable gas in their bodies. In that case, even the relatively weak flame from the ground creature could do them a lot of harm if it hit them in the wrong spot.

The whole tableau piqued John's curiosity, but it didn't affect him until the brave flyer seemed to spot him and oriented the giant tube of its body toward him.

Who? he got from it: not a word or even a sound, but an idea in the shape of a question. Help.

John started, and looked from the flyer to the ground creature.

It wasn't a tough choice. The flyers had some kind of sentience and an ability to communicate at least a little. It had been days since John had spoken to another living thing. And the bulbs in the nest must be the flyers' eggs.

He stepped between the ground creature and the nest.

The ground animal crept out a little, nostrils twitching. It squatted, bigger than he'd estimated, the size of a Great Dane, purple and eyeless. It exhaled its flames at his shins and John struck out with one horned foot, cutting the leaves and stems right in front of the animal's face in warning. "Stop!" he tried.

The animal responded with another gout of flames, and this time John lashed the sharp tips of his feet along the side of the animal's head. It gave a low guttural grating sound and withdrew. He heard it mash through the undergrowth rapidly, moving away.

John looked at his legs. He hadn't felt much, a dull pain where the fire touched him, but he had seared, angry-looking black streaks on the scales of his shins and his striking foot. His current skin was tough; he'd probably be fine. The scales might slough off, but a new layer would just grow back in.

The brave flyer floated toward him cautiously. Grateful.

John tensed. The flyer didn't exactly have eyes; it had eyelids, but they slid open and shut over a patch of skin that was just a little thicker and pinker than the rest of its epidermis.

"Hi," he said aloud, and flinched. The air tasted terrible.

Another flyer emerged. This one seemed a little bigger and grander than the others. They were all translucent, their trunks long and floppy as knee socks. They had some uncountable number of tentacle limbs that treaded the air.

The big flyer seemed to have more of those limbs than the others, but John couldn't be sure. The big one had grander coloration too, its sides streaked with iridescence, rings of bright green and yellow around the tips of its limbs.

The brave flyer was smaller with more subdued green rings and white limb-tips, and green spots freckling its long body. The others were even more muted in color.

"Oouay," said the big one. John couldn't make out a mouth. If anything, the sound seemed to come from some of the foremost tentacles.

John swallowed, braced himself, and said, "Hi. I'm John," trying not to make a face at the rank taste of the air.

"Oouay," repeated the big one.

"Is that your name?"

Yes. That wasn't spoken, and it wasn't really a yes. An affirmative just appeared in his head. His mind resolved it into the closest word as if he were interpreting music or a facial expression, and it felt obvious that it was from the big flyer. Oouay. Yes, and carefully, like an echo, "John."

He had the feeling that the sounds of his words were totally foreign to-- her-- he was suddenly sure that Oouay was female, the sense of that had come across with her name. Whatever she was using to make sounds, she probably couldn't shape a "J."

No, Oouay agreed.

John waved his hands, claws, in warding. He didn't want the flyers to read his mind.

Only concentrate, Oouay communicated with some difficulty, trying several different concepts before she got "concentrate" to mean something to him.

He'd been looking at her, concentrating on communicating with her. She was implying that was the secret, not mind-reading. John looked down at the grass underfoot and pictured the purple ground animal lunging at the nest, eating the egg. When he glanced up, the flyers were steady in the air. John risked picturing himself snatching up an egg between his claws. No reaction.

Either they weren't mind readers, or they were incredibly stoic psychics. Either way, John didn't have much choice. They were the only game in town.

Safe, Oouay offered and asked.

"You want this nest to be more safe?"

Oouay seemed to droop in midair. Unable. Safe for you.

"Where would I be safe? Uh..." John pictured a cabin, a tent, a cave, trying to convey what he needed for shelter.

Oouay gave back the idea of a cave and touched tails with the brave flyer, intoning, "Eryia."

"Eryia?" John asked the brave flyer.

The brave flyer curled in the air. Yes. "John." Come.

Oouay made a circle of herself, hovering over the nest. The other flyers gathered around her, undulating in place.

Come, Eryia repeated.

John followed her to the hills, to the caves.

#

The cave John chose had a yielding dirt floor, and a small, defensible entrance. It was set apart a ways from a honeycomb complex of similar caves that seemed to host a lot of little mustard yellow rodents. He caught one, but his scanner said the rodents were "eerie," which John took as a warning. He stuck to the bumblers and the few plants that the scanner okayed.

Possibly the rodents didn't want John's cave because it was dry compared to the miasma of the forest. A draft gusted through a fissure in the back occasionally. John rarely went that deep, but he liked the cave's refuge from the constant humid mist.

He was less happy about the instinct that drove him to dig a hollow into the floor, but he couldn't stand the bedroll when there was loam for a perfectly good sleeping ditch right there. The first night, he curled up in it and pulled the bedroll over him, but the residue of the plant gunk started to smell revolting to him and he had to put it away from himself, along with the leather shirt, cramming them between some rocks on top of the cliff.

For a while, he spent time with the flyers. They called themselves Uari, and their world Uea. The audible language he could hear but rarely interpret was tonal, mostly made up of vowel sounds, with fine distinctions between sounds and notes that even his enhanced insect hearing couldn't make out.

They seemed to enjoy having him around. They remained grateful that he drove the purple animal away from Oouay's nest. They liked that he was eating the bumblers, which they regarded as pests, though John was never clear on why the bumblers bothered the Uari.

On impulse, he brought a few clothes and ornaments from Teyla's bag, and Eryia, at least, was amused by them, eeling her head into a hood, letting him wrap her with a shawl. She blew air at him whimsically, and picking up on his surprise, explained that it was their farewell gesture. John got the idea that they also used it as a joke, to mean something like Get outta here! It took a lot of tries to get Eryia to understand that and confirm it.

The Uari patiently allowed John to ask them questions and even examine them. They answered him as well as they could across the vast language barrier.

Whatever was in his head that Chaya had responded to, whatever she evoked when she 'shared' with him... whatever he used to share back with her... he still didn't know, but it felt to him like the Uari communicated to him in a similar way. He just focused on Oouay or Eryia or Aeoh, and he got a general sense of what they wanted him to understand. And he could project his own ideas the same way.

It took practice and effort. But it wasn't like he had anything better to do.

When she picked up on his curiosity, Eryia let him look closely at the fire plumes rising from two milky spouts on her head. The spouts were as translucent and delicate-looking as the rest of her, but a different texture, and they seemed to secrete a fluid that kept the spouts damp so that the fire didn't do any harm.

Eryia invited him to tap the side of one, and after asking about a dozen times to make sure that was really what she meant, John knocked the back of a claw gently against the spout. It clacked; the spout was hard, where the rest of Eryia's skin was tough-- she flew through the trees without suffering at all from the scratchy tips of whipping branches-- but extremely flexible.

Mourning, said Eryia, and it took the better part of an hour going back and forth before John understood that she meant that when an Uari died, the spouts were the only part of the body that didn't decay, so their shape was associated with death and grief. In another hour and a half, in a long chain of conceptual fumbling, she managed to tell him an Uari ghost story; from what he picked up, Uari ghosts had empty smoking spouts above a body full of blue flame.

Eryia confirmed that the fire plumes burned off waste gas, but she couldn't really explain Uari physiology to him beyond that. He kept getting drink/eat/swim air, the concepts falling apart when his mind tried to slot them into words.

The Uari appeared to only have a plum-sized knob of tissue for a brain. But they also had a long nerve cord down the center of their sinuous bodies, encased in a segmented cartilage-like substance that looked translucent, like a string of giant pink amber beads.

John guessed the closest Earth analog might be an octopus. The Uari probably had a complicated nervous system distributed throughout their bodies rather than centralized in one organ.

They looked like empty semi-opaque sheaths of thin skin, but their bodies were substantial, the skin thick in the main trunk, thinning out at the tentacles. And from what he could tell, they didn't have separate respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems. That left a lot of room for neurons.

They were definitely intelligent. Sometimes he thought half the language barrier came from his own failure to understand the complexity of the Uari's thoughts, although it might also stem from how completely different they were from humans.

It took John a while to figure it out, but the Uari lived in structured fog banks that they maintained in place artificially. Oouay warned him not to stray too deeply into the mist in certain areas, or he might run into the boundaries that kept the Uari fog banks contained.

He couldn't understand her explanation of what the boundaries were or how they worked, but he got 'danger' and 'burn' just fine, and kept his distance.

As the days wore on, he started to keep his distance from the Uari themselves, too. The course of his mutation had slowed, but it was still happening, and as freaked out as John had been by his transformation to date, the continuing changes were really spooking him.

For most of the fifth afternoon, he found himself compelled to collect a lot of palm-sized fallen leaves, and some fruits that the scanner called "esculent" that tasted awful to John.

That night, he crouched in his cave, laid out the leaves carefully, and choked down two esculent fruits, driven to eat them even though the flavor nearly made him sick. An hour later, he was drooling thickly. He picked up a leaf, spit on it, and stuck it to another leaf.

He spent the entire night completely grossed out at himself but unable to stop, hocking up saliva, smearing it on leaves and using it to glue the leaves together into a net. When it was done, he dragged it to the fissure at the back of the cave, and after just a few gusts of the draft, it was dry.

He gathered the net up and took it back with him to his sleep hollow, curled up inside and pulled the leaf net over him. It was the only way he could finally get some decent rest.

His body kept changing, too. He'd always been a skinny guy; twenty years of effort built up his arms and toned him up everywhere else, but it used to take serious work to put on muscle.

Maybe he should've tried climbing trees all those years, because under the flexible layer of blue scales, his pecs and abs were ripped these days. Or maybe they just looked more stark and defined because he'd dropped just about every pound of weight he could spare.

He avoided the obvious conclusion that it was the retrovirus. It was definitely all that time spent climbing trees.

Other changes he couldn't even think about. Something around his mouth protruded now, and there were ridges at his temples that disappeared into his hairline. It felt like he probably still had hair, but his exoskeleton was so insensitive that he wasn't sure, and he couldn't bring himself to touch any part of his body now if he could help it, afraid of what he might find.

On the seventh day, he drew another hashmark on the wall and wriggled into his tac vest. The ruined leather shirt was the only other thing from the clothes bag that might have stood up to his thorny, plated skin now. Going around with no clothes made him feel even more inhuman, especially when he remembered naked gray Hermiod. But there was no point tearing up everything Teyla gave him. He'd grown some kind of retractable plating entirely over his groin, so at least he wasn't flashing the forest every time he stepped out in just the vest.

He pulled the scanner out of its pocket to find it already blinking at him.

John,

Do you have any idea how hard it is to send a broadcast through the gate network? I should win a STACK of Nobels for this.

Unfortunately it's not safe to do this again, not to mention the power expenditure, so this had really better reach you.

I hope you've found someplace safe and stable. Carson and Jennifer think their team has come up with an answer.

We've been refining the genetic simulator while they've worked on their cure, and the simulator gives us a much clearer picture of the results now. It's medicine, so who knows if rolling these bones will really work, but it's as certain as the technology we have available can make it.

You need to transmit your gate address to us so that we can gate the treatment to you. It'll be encrypted and secure. Only the team can decode it.

Everyone who knows what's going on (and a few who've guessed) volunteered to go to you, but the IOA sent reps here along with their own retinue of toy soldiers.

If anyone else goes missing, we might all be arrested, and they've already threatened to confiscate all the research and material related to the retrovirus and the cure. Woolsey managed to counter that maneuver, but we have to tread carefully.

We'll be sending the treatment through with a contact of Teyla's. Depending on where you are, she might not be able to stay long, so if you can, try to stay near the gate to meet her. If you're not there, she may have to leave everything under the DHD and hope it gets to you.

Teyla says to remind you that everyone here is pulling for you and we all want you safely home as soon as possible. Ronon says he'll take down the entire IOA contingent if it comes to that. I'll make popcorn.

We'll come to you as soon as we can. Look, just be okay, and get this, and send us your gate address. You'll be back here losing RC races to me in no time.

John had to put the scanner on the cave floor to be able to enter Uea's gate address, his claws scraping across the device. The scanner flashed confirmation that his transmission was received.

They said they'd help. They'd send medicine. They'd come for him. It hadn't been two weeks since he left Atlantis, and he wasn't exactly losing faith, but he felt like a burden. An obligation.

The team used to band together, the four of them leaning on each other. Teyla had a family now, Torren and Kanaan, who rightly came first. Ronon had Amelia. Rodney might've been attracted to John for who knew how long, and he hadn't thought John was worth the bother of saying anything.

He'd been feeling alone for a while; this isolation wasn't much different, just a change of scene. He hated to think he was the kind of guy who begrudged his friends' happiness. Maybe he could blame that on the bug too.

He was so altered now. Would Teyla's contact even believe it was him?

He put the scanner away and made his way to the stream, following it to a relatively wide basin. Around the edges, the water was almost still. He looked at his reflection and immediately rocked back, shrinking away.

His eyes were larger, and looked like they had nictitating membranes. Maybe he should be grateful they weren't faceted now. He had the start of mandibles and what looked like they might be antennae. He wasn't going to look again to be sure.

Nothing about his face looked human.

He spent the day collecting and testing plants. It was hard to find any he could eat; it was something to do, something to keep his mind off the thing in the water.

Without conscious intent, he ended up gathering food near one of the Uari fogbanks. Eryia came out to him.

Sad, she observed.

"It's okay."

Help?

"Nothing you can do."

New Uari, Eryia told him. Dawn. Oouay. Eggs hatched.

"Congratulations."

Grateful, she said.

"You paid me back for that plenty."

Grateful, Eryia insisted. Family. Give respect.

Oouay had some kind of biological importance among the Uari that John didn't understand; she wasn't a queen, she wasn't the only one who could reproduce, and she wasn't the oldest or youngest. He'd run out of guesses after that. Eryia was something to Oouay, something that John got as clone-twin-daughter.

Eryia seemed to be saying that she had to resolve the perceived debt to John to show appropriate respect to Oouay.

These new Uari were sort of like Eryia's little brothers and sisters. Maybe failing to thank the random bug monster who saved them would be seen as a failure to show love to her little siblings.

John thought about Teyla's contact coming through the gate. Knowing Rodney, he'd fit her out with gear to cope with the atmosphere, and tell her to park herself near the gate to see him pick up the drugs. Knowing Rodney, he'd have her take pictures. He knew it was with the best intentions, but John couldn't stand the idea.

He nodded at Eryia. "Maybe there's something you can do."




On the eleventh day, John injected himself with a dose of the new cure, scratched the characters of his friends' names into the earth near his bed, and waited for something to change.

Within a few hours John was starving. In the weak light of the red moon, he rampaged through the treetops and ate dozens of bumblers. He tore through the woods, pulling up every "approval" and "beautiful" plant he could find, devouring them all, as much as his stomach could hold. He felt like a locust. Like a one-bug plague.

As quickly as it came over him, the bottomless urge to eat forever went away.

He trudged back to the cave and wallowed into his sleep ditch, spreading the leaf net over him. He started to twist and kick and trowel the ground with his claws until most of him was safe under a layer of dirt.

He felt heavy and weary. Like he could just sleep and sleep and sleep.

#

Day twenty, and when John woke up, everything was different.

His hollow was uncomfortable. He was cold. A whole spectrum of smells he was used to detecting had vanished; he just smelled mud and peat and something sweetish and sour that he eventually realized was coming from his own body.

He turned his face into the dirt and coughed, spitting out crumbling earth. He unwrapped his arms from around himself and began to shake himself free of the nest, emerging into the cool darkness of the cave.

John stood, and his skin fell away.

He jumped back and fell on his ass, panicked, his heart racing. His heart beating. His blood rushing in his ears. His breath whooshing out through his nose and his mouth.

No matter how deeply he breathed, though, he couldn't get enough air. He filled his lungs again and again, completely losing it, until finally his eyes fell on the oxygen tank.

He grabbed it, fit the cannula to his nose and twisted the valve. There.

John stayed down until his heart slowed. He waited for it to go back to normal for a minute before he remembered that this was normal. His heartbeat wasn't going to slow all the way back down to bug pace.

The cure worked.

John sat up, grinning. He could grin, now, though it felt like it was cracking something on his face. He reached up to feel, spreading his fingers, and stopped in mid-gesture because: spreading his fingers.

His hands were still hard, blue, cloven and crooked, but the claws felt more like shells around him than a part of him, and he could feel two fingers rubbing against each other in each one. John wedged the left one between his knees and pulled. He had to bash away at the wrist joint with the other claw to loosen it, but eventually something inside peeled apart, and the claws slowly eked off him, exposing his raw pink hand.

It was wet with clear lymph, oddly hairless and vulnerable-looking, but such a relief that John just looked at it in wonder for a while, bending his fingers, giving a thumbs up, throwing hook 'em horns, flipping the bird.

He tried to get the right-hand claw off too, but it was painful in a way that warned John he could really damage himself if he kept it up. He stopped, staring at his remaining claw hatefully, til he realized his feet were slippery inside the exoskeleton, and started prying the talons off his feet.

The shells around his feet came off almost totally intact after he chiseled at his ankles for a while. John lined them up like slippers. They looked shinier now that they were off him, exotic, almost beautiful.

He examined himself. What fell off when he first stood up were plates of exoskeleton from his legs, his chest, his back and his left arm. He still had plenty of blue scales left, but most of the large areas of armor had detached from him, leaving a layer of rapidly drying clear fluid and fresh pink skin.

John used his left hand to feel at his face. The mandibles snapped off at a touch, and there was a thin shell covering his brow that pulled away when he tugged on it, proto-antennae and all. He still felt scales on his face too, but the spikes there felt like they'd receded to nubs.

He shut his eyes and hoped, and gave the protective shell around his groin a careful wriggle. After a little more pulling and shimmying, it fell away in one piece, a bizarre-looking husk. Everything looked normal and human underneath, though again, the skin was unnaturally pink and hairless. He decided to count his blessings and worry about the rest later.

John delved into the bag Teyla packed. Along with the Pegasus garb, she'd put in his own boxers, one of his black t-shirts and his black jeans, his thigh holster, a stunner. He hadn't been able to hold the stunner with the claws, but he clutched it now, relishing the familiarity of a weapon in his left hand.

One of the pockets of his jeans was twisted around a lump; he stuck his left hand in and found Teyla had even packed his black wristband. He worked it onto his left wrist for now, and tried to get into the jeans, but the denim rasped uncomfortably against his raw skin.

He rooted around and found Gilpeglian clothes instead, wide-legged light pants with a rubbery cinched waist, a simple loose tunic. He dressed gracelessly, careful to use his left hand for everything. The fabric snagged a little on his remaining thorns and scales, but nothing tore.

It wasn't until he scanned himself that he discovered how much time had passed. Nine days! No wonder he was starving. And thirsty. He had to force himself not to guzzle the water bottle too fast.

He went outside into the sunshine, turned off the canned air and inhaled. Out here, the air was misty and soupy as ever, but there was more oxygen than in John's cave. That draft in the back must be some other gas venting from under the hills.

Outside there was enough oxygen if John breathed deep and even. He put the oxygen tank carefully aside. The air still smelled and tasted terrible to him, but his human senses got used to it, in a way he hadn't as a bug. And everything looked different; he couldn't see those new colors anymore. The heat map of the forest had disappeared.

He tested to see how much strength and agility he still had, leaping partway up the nearest tree. He got good height, still much more powerful than a human, but it was probably less than a third of what he'd been capable of during the most extreme mutation.

Climbing wasn't nearly as easy now, either. John grappled his way up to the top, the bark rough against the tender new skin of his hand and feet, and used his remaining claw to lance a few bumblers. They tasted worse to him now, but John swallowed them dutifully. He probably needed fuel to keep molting, and he definitely wanted to shed the remaining scales.

When he came down out of the tree, John went back to the cave and dragged everything to just inside the mouth. If he stayed by the entrance, he could breathe all right. Looking for shoes, he found a roll of paper and a pencil tucked into the bag from Teyla, forward-thinking and practical as ever.

It took time to agonize over what to write, and effort to write legibly left-handed, and he was beat. He fell asleep with the pencil in hand and his head pillowed on the bag of clothes.

#

He woke up on day 21 starving again. This time when he climbed the tree, he could barely manage to catch any bumblers. His right pincer was clumsy and he felt his fingers slipping against the ooze inside. When he came down out of the tree, he banged his wrist against a branch and something popped inside the husk of his claws. A few more minutes of working on it, and his right hand was free.

It felt weird to imitate an animal without the instinctive drive spurring him on, but John really wanted the scales off. He took off his tunic, put his scaly arm against the tree trunk and rubbed against the bark. Blue dander flaked off him, uncovering more pink skin slick with lymph.

He abruptly realized how disgusting he was right now. His new flesh was covered with a shellac of dried lymph that smelled rotten-sweet, and he reeked of sour sweat. He couldn't believe he'd put clothes on over this.

The only water he had available was the thicket of leaf-saucer plants a mile away, and the stream contaminated with arsenic that would leach poisonously through his raw skin. He went back to the cave to get the water bottle, sandals, and a thin white headscarf to use as a washcloth, and set out for the saucers.

#

With the trip counted in, it took hours for John to get cleaned up, and he had to put his sweaty clothes back on to hike back to the cave, where he changed into his black jeans and t-shirt. Strapping the thigh holster on felt like waking up from a bad dream.

He switched his wristband to his right hand and looked at the scales still bluing his arm. A lot of the remaining bug-shell had come off when he washed himself, but his right arm was staying stubbornly blue.

John picked up one of the shed slats of exoskeleton and dragged the edge along his scales. Some of the blue pared away, and he dug in harder at the dry cracked scales in an effort to get to the skin underneath.

Instead he managed to scrape his arm bloody. There wasn't any skin underneath; on his right arm, the scales still were his skin.

He set his jaw and cleaned up with the washcloth-headscarf, and ripped a strip of fabric off-- it was a little shredded already from his rough cleaning before-- to bandage his arm. It wasn't that bad. Mostly it wasn't even bleeding, just seeping out more of that clear lymphatic fluid.

That lifted his mood a little. The clear stuff seemed to promise that his human skin would grow in under the scales here too, like it had most everywhere else.

He rested a while; molting was tiring. But the letter he wrote sat waiting by the clothes-bag, and he'd been incommunicado for ten days. He owed it to his team to get word to them. He rolled up the paper and brought a beaded green scarf.

John ventured to the Uari fogbank, cautiously, thinking he might have to reintroduce himself now. But Eryia came right out to greet him with a sense of pleasure. Happier.

"You recognize me?"

Confusion.

"I look different."

Same "John." She sent a sense of his outline, his scent.

The Uari had only the most basic eye structure. John should have realized they wouldn't notice that he looked different.

It had taken John much, much longer to make the trip to the fogbank without the full benefit of his bug strength and speed. He'd planned to go to the stargate himself from here, but he wasn't sure if he could reach it if he devoted all day to it, let alone now after walking to the Uari. "Can you do another favor for me?"

Glad.

"Take this to the stargate?"

Eryia extended her head trustingly, and John wrapped the scarf carefully around her neck, tucking the scroll into the folds. The Uari's tentacles were deft, but they had trouble holding anything; it staunched the airflow that circulated throughout their bodies, and the tips of their tentacles went gray if they held things for too long.

He adjusted the knot of the scarf, and his fingers brushed Eryia's green-spotted neck. He stood, arrested by how newly sensitive his skin was. "Is this okay?"

Yes.

John touched her gently. He thought she'd be damp, like everything on this world seemed damp-- his clothes were clinging to him-- but she was dry and smooth.

She made a low sound and communicated amusement to him. He couldn't tell if she thought it was funny he was being so cautious, or if she was ticklish. He dropped his hand just in case.

"I might be leaving Uea soon," he said.

Good?

"Yes," he decided. "I'll miss you all. But it's good." He whistled out a soft stream of breath to her.

Good. "John": going maybe soon. I: going certain now, Eryia said, twirling her body playfully and shooting little puffs of air at him in farewell. She straightened herself and began jetting toward the stargate, her fire-antlers soon the only thing visible through the fog, and then those faded too.

#

John hiked back to the cave and spent the night wishing he hadn't stuck his bedroll at the top of a cliff that he couldn't climb anymore.

He woke to find another shower of scales peeling off. The right side of his torso and his right arm were still blue, and the right side of his face probably was too; it still had a rough bumpy feel. But everywhere else was new chapped pink skin.

It was getting a little harder to breathe, too. As he recovered from the mutation, Uea became less hospitable to him.

He scanned himself, belted on the oxygen tank and looped the cannula under his nose, checking the tank gauge.

Plenty of air to get him to the stargate, but not enough to stay here much longer, not even enough to say a last farewell to the Uari. He hoped Eryia said his goodbyes to the others. Maybe someday he could come back.

He took inventory of his supplies. He'd tried to make it last, but the food from Ronon was long gone. Besides the tunic and pants he'd ruined and the outfit he was wearing now, he had three more sets of clothes in Teyla's bag, plus the hooded cloak and gloves, and a pair of leather boots with buckle fastenings as well as the sandals. She'd included some common currency and trade items too: coins, seeds, spools of a valuable tough thread.

He never wanted to handle the leaf net or the exoskeleton again, but he needed to consider all his assets. The net was too fragile to be useful, though, and when he gingerly picked up a plate of exoskeleton, he found it had gone brittle, cracking easily.

There was the oxygen tank, but he should keep that. He'd need to come back to Uea at least long enough to make contact with the team again.

But meanwhile, he needed to venture to a market world as soon as possible. Without his claws, he sucked at catching bumblers, and he'd had trouble finding enough plants to eat even when he was faster and could cover more ground. Not to mention that before going into hibernation or whatever that was, he'd chomped down most of the edible plants anywhere near the cave.

It was weird to think of leaving. He'd resigned himself to this place, in a way. He'd been idly planning excursions further into the hilltops, explorations upstream.

After packing everything back up, John headed toward the stargate.

#

He was halfway there, sweltering in the mist, when the scanner flashed.

John looked at the screen. It blinked in huge letters, DON'T MOVE.

After a minute, it added in a DON'T PANIC briefly before going back to the original message.

He leaned against a tree and waited.

Ronon showed up first, almost silent despite the layers of leaves, grasses and twigs carpeting the ground. He had a cannula and an oxygen tank, hanging incongruously red at his hip. As soon as he caught sight of John, he broke into a rare grin.

"You're better," he said.

"Yeah," John beamed back, and accepted a bear hug.

Ronon produced the scroll. "Got your letter. Late." His grin widened. "Really pissed off McKay."

It would. John wrote, Sorry I haven't been in touch. I was molting. Cure works! I'm a lot less blue. Sure, he'd also written a lot about the planet, but he couldn't figure out how to describe what happened to him, and time was a factor, so he just gave up and sent it like that.

Teyla had matched her stride to Rodney's, and they appeared together, Rodney gasping even with the oxygen piping into his nose.

"Did you pick the absolute worst world off the list or what?" Rodney demanded, while Teyla left his side and came to John, offering her bowed head.

John returned the gesture gladly. "Hi."

She drew back and rolled her eyes at his attempt at cool. Even with the tank and cannula and a glow of sweat on her brow, she looked beautiful. "Hi."

"No, seriously!" said Rodney, still panting heavily. He was running with sweat, the collar of his shirt soaked, and a scowl darkened his face along with a blotchy flush of exertion. "This is the stickiest, most disgusting weather I've ever seen. And it stinks here! Tell me it's not like this all the time."

"Nah. Usually it's worse." John couldn't stop smiling.

Rodney glared at him, but unexpectedly, his expression softened. He tightened his mouth and lifted his chin like he was trying to cover for the lapse. "It looks like all that hocus-pocus worked after all. You're barely blue anymore."

"Yeah. Sorry," John said. "I holed up and slept and all of a sudden it was nine days later. When I woke up I'd mostly changed back."

"We thought maybe that so-called cure had killed you," said Rodney. "Or that something else killed you."

"We tried to come," Ronon said. "Got arrested."

"What?!"

"After three days with no word, we attempted to borrow a jumper to find you," said Teyla. It sounded so reasonable when she said it. "Unfortunately we were apprehended."

"That never happens when you do it!" Rodney made it sound accusing. John decided not to point out that actually, it kind of did, a lot. Rodney looked peeved enough already, adding, "Fifty-two hours in the brig. You owe me."

"You just spent it sitting," Ronon said. "You do that anyway."

"Not without a computer!" Rodney all but wailed.

"So... what, did you escape?" John's mind raced. They might not be going back to Atlantis any time soon, then. Maybe not at all. Torren and Kanaan must already be safe on New Athos, but what about Amelia? And would Rodney be able to leave Jennifer behind? Even if they weren't together, he still cared about her. Carson might be in trouble too. If they had to go back on a rescue, they were going to need a lot more stunners than just the one John had on him.

Teyla broke into his thoughts. "No, we were released. Todd approached Woolsey offering to ally with Atlantis against a new threat."

"Michael," John guessed.

"Yes. He asked for you, and in your absence he would only deal with us," she continued. "He had learned of what happened to you. He swore to strike against Michael if we shared information to find him."

Ronon made a face. "IOA tried to say we couldn't do it."

"Look, much as I hate to admit those guys are right..." John grimaced. "Todd really can't be trusted."

"Of course," said Teyla. "We agreed only to join Todd and track Michael for him, not to share any of our intel or techniques."

"The IOA let you?" John asked.

"Todd didn't so much give them a choice, really," said Rodney. "He didn't exactly threaten them, but they had the Apollo in orbit and Todd's fleet had it surrounded."

"Too cowardly to fight. Or even to order the soldiers to fight. They wouldn't take responsibility for the decision," Ronon said.

"So then we spent a week aboard Todd's hive ship." Rodney frowned deeply. "That was fun."

"It couldn't have been a week," John said, "it's only been ten days--"

"Who cares how long it actually was! It felt like a year!"

"We hit three of Michael's bases," Ronon cut in. "Wrecked them, destroyed all the clones."

"Fortunately Michael was wary the clones would usurp him, so he had allowed very few to wake," said Teyla. "I put an end to Michael at the second base, and Dr. Beckett confirmed that he was the original."

"Good. Just wish you'd been able to kill him a few more times," said John. He was sorry, and angry, that he'd missed the fight. He should have been there.

He wasn't sorry about the way it went down. Teyla deserved the satisfaction of that win. Still, he should've had her back.

Apparently Ronon didn't need bug vision to read that off his face. "You don't have to do everything," he said.

"See, I don't get that, coming from you. You were totally self-reliant for years."

"Not by choice. Couple of times I got hurt. Sick. Would've been good to have other people there to take up the fight while I was down." Ronon held his gaze. "It's okay you missed a few things. We took care of it. You had a battle to fight here."

There wasn't much John could say to that but "Thanks, big guy."

Rodney cleared his throat. "We've done a head count and the number of dead Michael clones matched the number of stasis pods. So we've cleaned up all the ones we know of. Which doesn't preclude Michael having half a dozen more bases all over the galaxy, of course, and if I were him, I'd have a failsafe to wake a clone to resume leadership if I didn't activate a dead man's switch every so often--"

Ronon nudged him. "If there's more, we'll get them," he said. "For now, they're all dead."

"Todd was terrifying," Rodney went on, moving out of nudging range. "And I mean, over and above normal Wraith terrifying, which I wish I didn't know was possible. He led his drones into the bases himself. Almost like he took it personally that Michael captured you." He screwed up his face. "And he asked a lot of questions about what you looked like with the retrovirus. I was tempted to sell him some eight by tens."

"The Wraith develop strong loyalties to their hives," Teyla put in tactfully. "If Todd regards John as affiliated with his hive, he would instinctively regard threats to John from other Wraith as an insult and a challenge to Todd himself. There is no reason to believe it is personal."

"I'm not complaining if we can use it to our advantage," said John.

"He tried to get us to lead him here. But of course we wouldn't," said Rodney. He had that shaky, resolute look he got when he was willing himself to be brave. "So I hijacked the hive."

John stared. "Seriously?"

"All by himself," Ronon said flatly.

Rodney waved him off. "Of course there was a certain amount of assistance involved, but I'm the one who had to actually reach into one of those disgusting consoles and manipulate the... nerve clusters or tendons or whatever those conduits are."

Teyla gave him a look.

"Fine! We hijacked the hive," Rodney corrected, slumping. "Teyla put the whammy on the commanders and Specialist Badass over there contributed his usual mountain of bodies to the effort. Gold star for everyone!"

"Hey, you don't gotta impress me," John said in his laziest tone.

If he hadn't seen the heat behind Rodney's face back in the infirmary, he probably wouldn't have noticed the swift, bleak glance Rodney passed over him before straightening and going on, "It was entirely my work that got us off the ship. I modified a Dart culling beam into a long-range transporter, which by the way entailed almost completely rebuilding the emitters from the ground up, not to mention recalibrating it to handle a much greater power source to beam us all planetside."

"Nice teamwork, guys," said John.

Rodney gaped in outrage, and jutted his jaw, folding his arms tightly across his chest. "Fine. Of course! See if I acknowledge you three in any of my Nobel acceptance speeches."

John said pointedly, "Good work adapting that Wraith tech, Rodney."

"Thank you. A fraction of the acknowledgement the feat deserves, obviously, but... yes." He shifted uncomfortably. "We were pinned down by Wraith and attacked repeatedly; Teyla and Ronon were responsible for, well, our survival, in that sense."

"Great job," John smiled. "Way to make it."

"We traveled through several stargates from the initial planet to be sure we could not be traced," said Teyla. "Now we only need to bide our time. When you are completely cured, we can return to Atlantis; the IOA will no longer be able to justify any attempt to remove you to Earth."

"Too bad we can't stay here for the duration," said John, surprised that he regretted it a little. He never thought he'd want to stay a minute more on Uea than he had to, but now that he knew he'd recover, it wasn't so bad. Granted, most of the time he'd been here he had superhuman abilities that made it easy to survive. But he'd miss the Uari.

"We'll have to come back," he said. "There are sentient non-human aliens here. They look kinda like giant flying noodles," he pitched that to infuriate Rodney, but Rodney just boggled, wide-eyed. John went on, "It's not easy to communicate, since they're so different, but that'll just get your xenolinguists that much more excited, right, McKay?"

"Can't we meet them now?" Rodney asked, bouncing a little. "We have enough air for four hours of moderate activity. We could meet them now!"

"Their area might be further than that for you. I'm still a little more speedy than my usual. It's thataway," he pointed, "nowhere near the stargate. And I don't know how long it would take for them to be sure you're friendly. I had kind of a pulling-the-thorn-out-of-the-lion's-paw first meeting with them, so they like me, but I'm not sure how they'll take to you."

"Figures," said Rodney disconsolately.

"I am sure we will have many chances to return," Teyla said.

"We should move. Not to any of the markets Atlantis knows about," Ronon thought ahead. "A festival, maybe. Someplace where sellers set up for a few days."

"I do not know of any festivals going on now," said Teyla, "but I know who to ask."

"Sounds like a plan." John shifted the strap of his bag on his shoulder. "Let's head back to the gate. There's nothing in this ecosystem that's been much of a threat so far, but look out for those growling purple things in the bushes I mentioned in the letter. They shoot fire," he said brightly.

Ronon unholstered and twirled his gun. "Sounds like fun."

"Knock yourself out. I'm on our six." He tilted his head minimally toward Rodney; Teyla nodded, Ronon snorted, and the two of them took point a few steps ahead.

John handed his scanner to Rodney. "They're called Uari. It might take a little while, but you'll get to meet them. And a couple of them let me scan them."

Rodney fell on the scanner the way he typically attacked his lunch. "Did you remember to adjust the sensors-- yes! You did! Oh, look at that... wait, did you screw around with this? You're trying to tell me their heads are on fire?"

"Their heads are on fire," said John. "Scout's honor." He held up his hand in the boy scout sign, partly just to enjoy the fact that his fingers went that way now.

"How do they light them?" Rodney wondered aloud, poking at the scanner screen intently. "They can't be born on fire... oh, they lay eggs. I guess they could conceivably be born on fire. How could that possibly evolve? Though on a foggy planet like this, it's actually a fairly useful adaptation. And there's so little oxygen in the atmosphere, and such ludicrous humidity, that a fire would have almost no chance of getting out of control."

"Guess that's why the ground animal I came across evolved to breathe fire too."

"Wait, you were serious?" Rodney looked around wildly. "Where did you see them?"

"I only saw one. I haven't really seen that many animals besides that thing and some yellow rats, and the bumblers," he gestured up.

"Is that what you call those flying purple things? We keep seeing those!"

"Yeah. I ate a lot of them," he said, just to enjoy the faces Rodney made: momentarily repulsed, then intrigued. "I know there were a lot more animals than what I could see. I think I had a kind of heat vision, and I saw a lot of heat spots out there, but most things kept clear of me whenever I moved around."

"Heat vision," Rodney scoffed. "Thank goodness Jennifer took scans of the rods and cones in your eyes to find out what was really going on in there, or we'd get it all in comic book terms. Did you also have spidey-sense?"

"Maybe." He studied Rodney out of the corner of his eye: Rodney's attention was still glued to the scanner, but he flipped a quick look at John every few steps. His hair was plastered down in the damp and beaded with mist, and his face was hectic with exertion, but the high color actually looked pretty good on him, and John couldn't stop thinking about that reddish overlay of attraction on Rodney's face.

He'd been too preoccupied to consider it since then, but looking at Rodney, he thought maybe he hadn't considered it because he didn't need to. He'd ruled Rodney out a long time ago, and figured since there wasn't any chance it would go anywhere, it wouldn't hurt to look... or admire, or protect, or get way too attached. It was safe.

He hadn't been lonely because his friends were pulling away from him. His friends were pulling more people toward them, and they'd brought the others into the makeshift family of the team.

And John didn't really begrudge those other ties. When he thought momentarily that they might have to separate from Atlantis for good, John hadn't hesitated to plan on including their families in the extended circle of the team.

That wasn't what divided him from them. What isolated him was his certainty that he'd never have anyone else outside the team in his own life. He didn't want to resent his friends' happiness, or dwell on being alone. It was easier to pull away. Retreat into his shell.

He'd spent too much time there already. Time for something to change.

"Actually, I did have something kind of like spidey sense," John said. "Up until a couple of days ago, anyway. When I was going buggy, I could see patterns of heat in peoples' faces."

"And from that, you could sense danger?"

"Maybe I could've if there'd been any. But it was more like being Betazoid than anything." He made a face. "Not as cool."

Rodney stumbled and gawked at him. "Uh. You can't be that up on your Star Trek. You mean Bajoran?"

"The Bajorans had powers? What could they do?"

"I don't know, load-bearing ears?" Rodney said blankly. "The point is more what they couldn't do, like sense emotions, because I'm sure if you could do that, you wouldn't let everyone come visit you and chat and, and think about who knows what, without telling us what you could see!"

Teyla and Ronon paused and looked back, Rodney's voice too loud for them to keep up the polite fiction that they couldn't hear the conversation.

"We're okay," John said. "Let's keep moving," and they resumed walking. Rodney fumed-- silently, for a change; John bunched his mouth, trying to communicate remorse.

"I didn't think of it that way. I wasn't totally sure what I was seeing, it was just instinct. Intuition. Cut me some slack, I was turning into a bug."

"You still should have told us."

John bit the inside of his lip, but he pushed himself. "I'm too used to keeping secrets. About myself."

Rodney looked askance at him.

"Kinda had to," John went further. "Til last year. The repeal."

"Seriously?" Rodney stopped.

"Yeah."

"Because if you're messing with me, I have a list of planets right here in my hand where no one will ever find the body."

John looked ahead; Ronon and Teyla had stopped too, and Ronon caught his eyes and indicated a nearby tall tree. John nodded, and Ronon started climbing, most likely aiming to get above the mist and get a better idea of the lay of the land. This low visibility was probably driving him crazy. Teyla turned her back deliberately to John and Rodney to watch Ronon ascend.

That was as much of a blessing as John needed. He stepped in and tipped his head, finding Rodney's lips with his.

Rodney kissed back for a startled moment before leaning away and spluttering, "Now?"

John clamped his jaw shut, backing off. He'd come so far from the worst of it; he'd forgotten he was still blue and scaly all down one side.

Oblivious, Rodney went on, "I'm sweating buckets, I've been hiking for miles in smothering heat and I'm covered in melted sunscreen, and you want to kiss me now?"

Because of course, that was the problem. Rodney was probably the only guy alive who could say It's not you, it's me, with total honesty every time.

"Yeah, I do," John said; it came out sounding kind of pissy.

"Your timing is miserable," Rodney announced, and grabbed John's shoulders and kissed him again anyway.

They separated too soon, but even with as long as John had spent on Uea, it was still an inhospitable alien planet; it wasn't an appropriate place for makeouts. And Teyla and Ronon were being awesome about giving them space, but they were still right there.

John grinned, feeling lighter than he had in ages, just as good as standing up to see his insect skin falling away. Tentatively, Rodney smiled back a little.

"What's the weather like up there?" John called up to Ronon.

"Same," said Ronon from high in the tree, and he stepped down from limb to limb as easily as if he were descending a flight of stairs. "Lots of purple airworms, mist in all directions. There's a hill we'll want to avoid to save oxygen. But we can still go just about straight to the stargate."

"Lead the way," John said, falling in. Teyla caught his eye and smiled at him.

Rodney said in his version of sotto voce, still nearly as loud as ever, "So, ah, you saw-- what did you see?"

"Told you, it was just intuition," John said. "I saw enough to take a chance, I guess."

"Still annoyed," Rodney informed him, but he didn't sound it, at all.

The four of them reached the stargate and Teyla dialed out. John got the hooded cloak and gloves out of his bag, slipping it all on over his clothes.

It was likely to be another week before they could contact Atlantis again; they might face some trouble when they got back; they might not be able to go back at all. John could recover completely soon, or he might spend the rest of his life half-blue. Maybe they'd have to rescue their friends from the IOA occupation and go on the lam, or maybe they'd go back to Atlantis and stage a coup; maybe they'd start scouring the galaxy for more of Michael's clones, or maybe they'd take off a week and go to the damn beach.

Whatever happened, right now, John felt pretty okay with it.

"It's probably weird, but I like this look on you," said Rodney. "It's very Jedi."

"Pretty weird, yep," John said cheerfully.

The wormhole opened, and exchanging long-suffering looks, Teyla and Ronon went through first.

Rodney hesitated. "We're going to come back though, right? I mean, we have to. You've made first contact with a sentient alien race here. And this is where we first kissed." He shut his mouth fast after that, like he hadn't meant to say that part out loud.

Huh. Maybe Rodney had a little bit of a hidden romantic streak too. It made John feel unaccountably happy, let him tangle the tips of their fingers briefly together.

He didn't need special vision to see Rodney flush.

"Yeah," John promised. "We'll come back."