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Heteronormativity, Gender Construction, and Nonverbal Signalling in Intercultural Communication: A Comedy

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It started with pudding, or more precisely, it started with Eldon nearly crashing half the computers in John's lab, so by the time he got to the cafeteria for lunch there was just one pudding cup left on the tray at the end of the buffet line. John had his eye on that pudding cup all the way from the door, so when Sergeant Mehra snatched it away just inches ahead of him, he seriously debated snatching it back right off her tray. Then he remembered that this was Dusty Mehra he was looking at, and decided he wanted to live.

Rod and Ronon were still hanging around, doing something ridiculously complicated with a stash of plastic knives that John knew better than to ask about. Instead he thumped down his tray next to Rod and asked, "Remind me again why it's a threat to base security to give Eldon his own damn computers to break?"

"You let him try to run another simulation?" Rod asked, while carefully pulling a knife out of the stack by the tip.

"You're saying 'let' like I had a choice in the matter," John muttered while he added mayo to his sandwich. "He did something with a spreadsheet while I was programming the crystal extruder and the next thing I know I'm losing half my data from the past week. Probably picked up some kind of virus from that fucker Zelenka and his pigeon porn."

Ronon extracted two knives from the pile while Rod graciously ignored yet another slur against Zelenka. Instead he said, "I can bring it up again at the next staff meeting, but I doubt Sumner's going to change his mind."

"He changed his mind about Ronon and Melena," John pointed out, and then dug into his sandwich. Mmm, space turkey. "Eldon's been here as long as they have, and they could totally kill us all in our sleep. Well, I mean, so could Eldon, only he'd be doing it on accident, instead of by being all scary and ninja-like."

"We've got jobs," Ronon pointed out. "Eldon just hangs around your lab doing math all day."

"And if he could do it right, this would not be a problem," John pointed out. Then he noticed a pudding cup on Ronon's tray, sitting untouched among the debris of the meal, including one cup that had already been scraped clean. "Hey, can I have your extra pudding cup?"

"No," Ronon said, and pulled another knife from the stack.

"Why not?"

"It's mine."

"You're not eating it."

"I'll eat it later."

"But I want to eat it now."

"Why's that matter?"

"It's efficient allocation of resources." John reached out for the pudding cup, but Ronon showed off those scary fast reflexes and lunged at John's hand with a plastic knife. Jesus, they were all out to get him today.

The stack of knives still on the table was jostled by the motion, and Rod snapped his fingers. "You moved them," he said. "That's a forfeit, right?"

"He was taking my pudding," Ronon said, but he still put all his knives back in the middle of the table. "I'm giving you that one."

Rod smiled and added his supply of knives to the pile. John watched them jumble all the knives together. "What is this, Satedan pick-up sticks?"

"More or less," Rod said. "Obviously you're supposed to use real knives, but we compromised since I'm a beginner."

"Not as much fun without the bleeding, though," Ronon added.

John decided he was not even gonna touch that one, so he went back to his original theme of himself. "I don't know why Eldon can't go fuck with Zelenka or Miko or somebody once and while. Why's he always coming to me?"

Rod rolled his eyes. "Well, seeing as you're his direct supervisor—a position for which you volunteered, I remind you."

That was in fact news to John, and he shook his finger at Rod. "That's slander. I did no such thing."

"Yes, you did, John, it was part of the deal we made so Sumner wouldn't send him back to Olesia." Rod tried to ease a knife out of the stack with his pinky, but ended up knocking two more onto the floor. Ronon smirked at him.

John shook his head and started picking the purple beans out of his vegetable medley. "Lies. I don't remember any of that. Besides, we didn't know he was stupid back then."

Teyla suddenly appeared. She had a knack for doing that, actually, and it wasn't something John was ever going to get used to. He actually kind of suspected she was sometimes violating the laws of physics to do it. "Good afternoon," she said, dropped her tray, and handed John a pudding cup.

John blinked at it, then craned his neck to peer across the room. There were still no more pudding cups on the tray at the end of the buffet line; actually, a couple of the kitchen staff were starting to snuff out the sterno cans and cart off the hot entrees. "How and why did you get this pudding cup?" he demanded.

"Sergeant Mehra had two," Teyla said. "You had none."

"You stole Mehra's pudding?" John asked.

"No," Teyla said. "She gave it to me."

"Did you have to, you know, threaten her or anything?"

Rod sighed loudly. "Not everyone on the base subsists on caffeine and processed sugar, John."

"I just want to know if the Mehra and her coven are gonna put a horse's head in my bed over this," John said defensively. "Or Teyla's," he added, because that would be bad too, but less likely, because they liked her.

"She was quite willing to part with it," Teyla said. "And you value food from Earth highly."

John glanced at Mehra in what he was pretty sure was a stealthy and surreptitious fashion, but Mehra didn't seem to be bleeding anywhere; she was laughing at something Cadman was talking about. And there was no sense in wasting a perfectly good pudding cup. He hid it in his pocket, just in case. "Thanks," he told Teyla.

One corner of her mouth rose just a bit, the closest she usually got to a smile. "You are most welcome."

That was the start.

-\-\-\-\-

Teyla was the first alien John ever met, excluding Teal'c, who didn't entirely count because he was pretty much domesticated by the time he and John crossed paths. Teyla, not so much, as evidenced by the knife she put to his throat in the ruins on what turned out to be Old Athos. John had only been off Earth for about twelve hours and when faced with the first serious threat to his life, it had seemed completely logical to say, "Please don't hurt me, I haven't beat Half-Life 2 yet."

"Who are you?" Teyla asked, though at the time she hadn't been Teyla, just a voice connected to the cold metal pressed against his Adam's apple.

"John Sheppard."

"Where did you come from?"

"That's actually kind of a complicated ques—"

"What are you doing here?"

"Looking for friends," John had blurted, "seen any around?"

And somehow that made Teyla lower the knife.

Well, either that or the sound of Ford getting caught in one of her booby-traps. There was a lot more running and jumping and shooting before the whole mess got sorted out, and by the time they got Carson out to Old Athos to remove the tracking chip the city had risen anyway and ZPMs didn't matter quite so much anymore. John didn't even get points for originality, because it turned out that Athosians were basically everywhere in this galaxy, though not all of them were on the run from space vampires. Rod had gone with Colonel Sumner and found like a million Athosians on some other planet and come back with candy, so John figured his very first offworld was a total bust.

Except at some point afterwards, while he was looking for the mess hall, he found Teyla standing still and silent on a balcony overlooking the sea. She was holding a knife but not pointing it at him, and he decided that was a positive sign. He also decided, at length, not to run away screaming. Instead, he said, "Hi."

Teyla had blinked at him. "Hello."

"We, uh, we didn't really get to know each other back there, did we? Back on your planet, I mean. With the running and shooting and knives and all. I mean. Um." John offered her his hand. "Hi. Dr. John Sheppard. I like football, Ferris wheels and anything with an explosive yield over two hundred kilotons."

And somehow that made Teyla smile, just a little bit.

-\--\--\-

It was only later that John recognized the significance of the pudding, after he had enough data points to project the trend backwards. First there was pudding, and then there was peanut butter, on a three-day standard recon to Planet Fireswamp. "I'm serious," John said after the third flame geyser. "Any of you falls into quicksand, I'm heading back to the gate."

"You do know there's no such thing as ROUSes, right?" Rod asked, looking somewhat pained.

"No such thing as vampires, either," John said.

"What's an ROUS?" Ronon asked.

They answered in stereo: "Rodents of Unusual Size."

"They make good eating?"

There wasn't any quicksand, though, just a hideous smell coming off what Rod theorized was the local version of the Corpse Lily. ("Please don't make us drag one of those things back, dude. It's not going to get you to second base with Katie.") No ROUSes, either, but towards evening on the second day as John prepared to launch into his rant on MREs: Malicious Government Behavior Experiment, Teyla suddenly handed him a jar of peanut butter without saying a word.

"What the hell is this?" he asked her.

"Is it not a food of your people?" Teyla asked.

"No, I know, it—how and why do you have a jar of peanut butter out here?" John demanded, while Rod grabbed for the jar to examine it.

"Lieutenant Cadman received it as a gift. She dislikes it. She gave it to me." Teyla broke open her own MRE and started heating up the entrée packet as if she normally carried peanut butter around swamps.

"Have you had this the whole time we were here?" Rod asked. He unscrewed the lid and sniffed over the seal. "Hey, still fresh."

"Gimme," John said, snatching at it. "Mine."

"Teyla's, technically, and I think it she meant it to be shared with the whole team," Rod said, twisting around to keep the jar out of John's reach. "God, what are you, like two?"

"She gave it to me!" John jumped to his feet, because at least he was taller than Rod, but Rod just hugged the jar to his chest and hunched over and dammit, John was never any good at basketball.

"She gave it all of us!" Rod insisted..

Teyla said, "I gave it to John."

"See?" John said, while Rod froze. He managed to grab the jar back. "My peanut butter!"

"You carried a jar of that stuff around just for Sheppard for two days?" Ronon asked.

Teyla raised her chin and gave everything in the area, including the nearby flame geyser, her I-can-dismember-a-Wraith-with-a-spoon look. "He often complains about food," she said.

"Oh, so this is a new way to make him shut up?" Rod said, though he still seemed a little disappointed that he didn't get any peanut butter. "Should have thought of that one years ago."

"Maybe if you weren't such a dick I'd share my peanut butter," John said. "Ronon, would you like some peanut butter?"

"Hell, no," Ronon said. "That stuff gives me the shits."

John offered the jar to Teyla, but she just shook her head, which meant all the more peanut butter for him. He unwrapped the single slice of wheat snack bread in his MRE and tried to apply as much peanut butter to it as possible with his spork and fingers. That seemed to cure Rod of any peanut butter envy, and it gave John something new to complain about when, come morning, the peanut-y residue on his fingers had attracted a vast new menagerie of insects, all of which apparently had poisonous bites.

Carson let him keep his peanut butter in the infirmary, though. And the hot new doctor named Keller brought him extra pudding.

-\--\--\-

It was probably about the third time that they nearly woke up the Wraith that the Athosian council decided to adopt the expedition, sort of like how John's math teachers used to make him sit next to the slow kids. They didn't come out and say it, but they basically meant, "You guys are really nice and all and we like hanging out with you, but you are also basically retarded and should not be wandering around this galaxy without adult supervision."

Elizabeth took the offer in the spirit intended and made Rod the expedition's rep on the council, since he'd already done the leg work of sucking up to the first colony they'd encountered. In practice, all it meant was that the Athosians had diplomatic authority to apologize profusely on behalf of Atlantis recon teams and sometimes even acted as guides for them, like Teyla was already doing for John's team. (Okay, technically Ford's team, but since John was the only one doing anything useful on it he thought of it as his. Ford and Markham were just bodyguards. Teyla was….Teyla.)

Colonel Sumner threw a shit fit, of course, because Sumner was like that before he started up with the knitting. He didn't even want Teyla hanging around, even though she totally saved John's team's asses like four times a week. "It's because you threaten his manhood," John told her over lunch.

Teyla looked confused by that, but Ford snorted at him. "John, dude, Teyla's like a foot shorter than the Colonel. I don't think he's threatened by her."

"He is," John insisted. "He's watched her at asskicking practice. He doesn't like it that he could totally get beat up by a tiny girl."

"Teyla's not a girl, though," Markham said. "Well, I mean, you know what I mean. She's badass. You're badass," he told Teyla directly. "And I don't think you're that tiny, you know, compared to some people. The Japanese chick in your lab, John, she's like three feet tall, right?"

Teyla didn't really say much. She never did.

-\--\--\-

One of the things the expedition had picked up from hanging around Athosians so long was a tendol feast, which basically amounted to everyone getting together every couple of weeks to say "Yay! Not yet dead!" (or "Yay! Only mostly dead!" depending on what kind of month they'd had.) The Atlantean version involved fewer prayers to the Ancestors and more loud music, but roughly the same amount of ruus wine, at least measured on a per capita basis. "Please," John told Eldon. "Don't wait up for me. I'll be down to the feast in a minute."

"Are you sure?" Eldon asked. "It's really no trouble…"

"Eldon," John said, "they are going to start drinking without you."

He still wavered. "Are you still angry about the simulation data?"

"Of course I am," John said, "but that's got nothing to do with me sending you to the feast. I'm your supervisor, right?"

"Right," Eldon said warily.

"So you know I've always got your best interests in mind," John said. "Now please go get drunk. Toast the Ancestors or the glory of Olesia or whatever the hell it is you do. Bye."

As soon as Eldon was out the door, John shut it, locked it and pulled out all the control crystals for good measure. He had at least four, maybe five glorious hours of lab time before the monkeys on the night shift started leaving the feast and coming round to fling poo at him. He loaded up his coffee machine with a fresh blend of tavajava, fished his stash of Doritos out of the false-bottom drawer in his desk, and opened up the simulation data that Eldon had managed not to delete with his damned virus. (Zelenka swore it had nothing to do with him and Eldon must've got it from Simpson. John swore that Zelenka was a pervy pigeon fancier and not to be trusted.)

Two hours later he was covered in synthetic cheese powder and riding the crest of a tava-caffeine high when Teyla suddenly appeared. In the process of switching his brain over from third-order differentials that modeled subspace field geometry to RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY! he managed to tip his stool over completely. He may have even screamed a little bit.

Teyla peered over the edge of the desk at him. "I am sorry to startle you."

"I—you—how and why did you get in here?" John asked, and tried to get untangled from the stool without accidentally unplugging anything critical.

"You were not at the feast," Teyla said. "When your door was unresponsive, I activated the emergency release."

Right. He'd actually taught her how to do that. And it made more sense than his initial feverish thoughts about teleportation. He got to his feet, and saw that Teyla was carrying a tray from the cafeteria balanced on one hip, with a covered plate and cup that smelled an awful lot like ruus wine even from across the room. "Is that for me?"

"You were not at the feast," she said again, and looked at the clutter on his desk. "Where may I place it?

John hastily moved a couple of laptops around put some hard copy data on the stool. "You, uh, you didn't have to—I already ate, you know. MRE."

"You do not like MREs," Teyla said.

"It was the chicken fajita kind," John said. "I like chicken fajita."

She uncovered the plate, though, and there were a lot of things John liked better than chicken fajita MRE under there, like the glazed indigo carrots, and the green banana things that actually tasted kind of like a persimmon, and refried tava beans, and those fried starchy things that the one Russian chef on the expedition had started making last year, and Satedan dumplings, and splot. Then she looked at him, like she was waiting for him to admit the superiority of tendol feast food to MREs.

"The MRE came with chocolate pudding," John pointed out.

"We have no more pudding," Teyla said, and her mouth may have turned down just a bit at one corner.

"I'm just saying." John poked the splot, which was still warm but starting to get a little soggy. Then he looked at the wine. "Um, just so you know, I also had like five cups of tavajava already tonight so I probably shouldn't combine that with alcohol. Remember what happened to Kavenaugh and stuff?"

"I do." Teyla took the wine off the tray but left the plate.

John looked around the room for something else to say, but there was nothing to comment on except Teyla and the food and his less-than-perfectly-accurate field geometry model. He couldn't even sit down without sitting on the papers on the stool, and somehow it felt weird to take the paper off the stool in order to sit down. Especially because Teyla was still standing. And she'd brought him food. Just, him, food. No food for herself. Maybe she was going back to the feast later? Maybe she expected him to offer her food? He didn't have any food except Dorito crumbs and she didn't like Doritos, they'd had that conversation like six times already before.

"Thanks," he finally said.

And for some reason, Teyla nodded, and one corner of her mouth turned up just a little bit in a tiny smile. Then she left the lab. By the time John sat down (on his papers) to eat the food, the splot was cold.

-\--\--\-

After the Genii invasion, Colonel Sumner warmed up to Teyla some. Well, actually, after the Genii invasion they found Sumner sitting in the gate room with three mangled corpses, two P-90s and about a thousand rounds of ammunition, and he didn't speak to anybody for thirty-six hours, and the only people who knew what had happened there were Teyla and Elizabeth and Rod, only Elizabeth and Rod not really, and Teyla wasn't telling. After that Sumner relaxed a lot, though, and took up knitting, and stopped making Sergeant Bates follow Teyla around the city. Sumner also quit going offworld, so Rod somehow inherited command of Recon Team 1 (the first proof that Sumner had either relaxed a whole hell of a lot or been replaced by a pod person).

After the Wraith invasion, Rod didn't have much of a Recon Team 1 left, and John and Teyla didn't make much of a Recon 3 by themselves, so it kind of made sense to, you know, consolidate. The folks at Stargate Control were so busy arguing over whether or not Weir and Sumner deserved psychiatric help and/or a trial for war crimes that they didn't notice a gate team consisting of two civilians and a space alien until it was too late. By then it was equal parts civilians and space aliens, though, 'cause their first mission out as a team they met this nice couple on the lam from their government for the alleged murder of some kind of corrupt general. It only seemed decent to let them stick around, you know?

It took some time and patience and a spot of life-saving, but Sumner eventually made Ronon an independent contractor of some kind, and also knit him a balaclava. Definitely loosened up by then.

-\--\--\-

The day after the tendol feast things started exploding again, of course, and John didn't get to eat much again for about two days, so in hindsight he was pretty glad for the tray. But it still bothered him enough that in the infirmary, during the post-crisis wind-down, he decided he needed to gather more information.

Luckily, the hot new doctor named Keller was doing his stitches, so once he was sure he wasn't going to pull anything important, he said, "So can I ask you a personal question?"

She looked at him and made big goofy eyes that weren't really reassuring on a person with a needle embedded in his flesh at that moment. "What, uh, well, that depends on what kind of personal question it is?"

"Well, you're a woman, right?"

Keller's eyebrows went up and she nodded and went back to making stitches. "Yeah, yeah, last time I checked I was."

"So why would you bring somebody food?"

She laughed a little nervously. "Dr. Sheppard, if this is about the pudding cups, I can assure you that was just a friendly gesture, nothing more."

It took him a minute to remember what she was talking about. "What? Oh, no, I'm not talking about you. Though I did appreciate the pudding. And it's not like you aren't hot and all, so in another context I'd totally do you. I'm talking about Teyla."

The big goofy eyes were back. "Oh," Keller said. "Well, thanks for, uh, clearing that up. What about Teyla do you mean?"

"She brought me food after the tendol feast," John explained. "I just can't figure out why. And since, you know, she's a woman, and you're a woman, I thought maybe…"

"…that every woman is exactly alike and I could translate for you?" she suggested.

"Yeah," John said. "I mean, no, but yeah. Basic idea's the same."

Keller shrugged a little. "Well, you know, Teyla and I don't exactly…we aren't…that is, she's, uh…"

"Kinda scary?" John suggested.

"Yeah," Keller said. "So I don't really…you probably know more about how she thinks than I do, I mean, you're on her team and all."

"I don't know how anybody thinks, though," John said. "I don't really do, you know, people stuff. I do math."

"Oh." Keller finished the stitches and swabbed the wound with another smear of antibiotic ointment. "Well, I mean, if you want some outside perspective, maybe you could ask some of her other friends?"

"Yeah, maybe," John muttered, but he didn't really want to talk to any of them either, because they were all almost as scary as Teyla. Cadman and Mehra plus Melena and Sora were like Sex and the City, only if you replaced "sex" with "guns and artillery." Well, Melena not so much, because she generally used her ninja powers only for good, and plus she was a nurse and all so he assumed there was something like a Hippocratic oath involved. And Teyla was on his team and she hadn't killed him yet, so there was that level of trust. But the others could totally break him in half and he wasn't getting anywhere near them.

Keller bandaged his hand up and told him not to tear the stitches, and then Melena came over to finish checking him out so he could leave the infirmary. Reminding himself about the Hippocratic Oath, John asked her, "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course," Melena said.

"Why would Teyla bring me extra food??"

She smiled at him, showing lots of teeth. "Maybe she's trying to fatten you up."

"Right," John said, "of course. Silly me, that's obvious. Can I leave now?"

Because Teyla had been on his team for like three years. So he could totally trust her. Right?

-\--\--\-

When Melena let him go, John went back to his quarters, stripped down to his boxers, went through his secret MRE stash to find the vegetarian lasagna entrée (it came with peanut butter; he'd already demolished his jar), and took his pain pills. Then he shut off his radio and locked his door and slept for fourteen hours. When he woke up, there was a tray of cold toast and mushy cereal and bananasimmons on the floor next to his bed, along with a quart of lukewarm milk and a note in angular all-caps handwriting:

JOHN
YOU MUST EAT
TEYLA

"Oh, shit," he said. And checked the door locks again.

-\--\--\-

It wasn't like the expedition went out of their way to find new aliens to adopt. It was more like the aliens kept following them home from school and Elizabeth was too nice to make them leave. (So she pitched it as enhancing their native knowledge base and a responsibility to share the legacy of the Ancients with the people of Pegasus and blah blah blah. Really she was a totally softie.) Teyla and Halling and the other Athosians came as guides and got to stay. When the Genii woke the Wraith, Sora Tyrus and Ladon Radim defected. Eldon saved John's team's ass and they had a sort of obligation. Ronon and Melena got to stay because it meant the Satedan senate could keep covering up the truth about General Kel without having to execute anyone unjustly. Jace and Garil had got their brains fried by Ford and Ford's happy juice, so it only seemed fair to let them hang around, too. Et cetera.

Sumner drew the line at letting any old alien in, but the other Athosian colonies were always willing to adopt the stragglers. The ones who had useful skills and reasonable table manners and no major health problems, though—they got to stay. And sometimes two out of three was okay too. "It's only we fair we hold 'em to the same standards as the Marines, after all," John had once opined, which caused Sumner to stop knitting and glare at him over the top of his needles, but whatever. They had like twenty different Earth nations in the city, what did it matter if you added a couple alien ones?

-\--\--\-

"Do you think Teyla's trying to kill me?" John whispered to Rod. He had to whisper because they were back in the mess hall during the quasiweekly Stitch 'n' Bitch, and Sumner got downright indignant at people who interrupted him during intarsia.

Rod looked at him over the rim of his coffee cup and raised one eyebrow. "Are you speaking literally or using some kind of metaphor?"

"I just," John said, and gestured his helpless lack of articulation. "She keeps feeding me."

"Well, she's probably noticed you weigh about as much as a balled-up newspaper."

"Shut up." John glanced furtively around the mess to make sure Teyla wasn't about to come over. Like he'd be able to see her coming with her ninja skills. "She broke into my room, Rod."

"Broke in?"

"Well, I locked the doors and windows!" John said. "Maybe she came in through the vents or something. I'm pretty sure she couldn't have gotten the tray in through the pipes but I don't think we can rule anything out."

"Uh huh." Rod set his coffee down and steepled his fingers, kind of like Mr. Burns. "And why did she break into your room, John?"

"She brought me breakfast," he said. "And she brought me dinner after the feast and you remember she had that peanut butter for me in the fire swamp and oh my god how long has she been planning this?"

"Planning what?"

"To kill me!" he hissed. "Rod, dude, you could've been in Mensa, please try to keep up with the conversation!"

"Oh, believe me, I am," Rod said. "But I'm a little hung up on why you seem to think giving you food is a prerequisite for killing you."

"She's fattening me up," John said. "Melena said so."

"And Melena knows this how?"

"Well, they're friends, right?" John said. "So maybe they're in on it together."

"Or maybe," Rod suggested, "she was joking."

"Teyla?"

"Melena."

John thought for a moment. "That too. But that doesn't explain why Teyla keeps bringing me food."

"But you think a plot to kill you totally explains it."

"Well, yeah!" John said. "I mean, so she lulls me into a false sense of security with food, and then she starts to poison me real slow, and I'm like, 'Huh, I'm dying, that's weird,' and everyone else is like, 'Oh, no!' but nobody suspects her because she's Teyla and she always brings me food."

"Wow," Rod said. "I have to admit it, John, you seem to have got this one cracked. Well done."

John had come to recognize that tone of voice in Rod. "You know, ever since you went to that alternate universe, you've kind of been an asshole, you know? I could be dying here. It could've already started." Though he'd thrown the breakfast food in the rec room trash can just in case.

Rod sighed. "John, look at it this way. Knowing who Teyla is, and what she's capable of, does it really seem like she'd need an elaborate poisoning plot if she really wanted to kill you? She could just as easily drop you off a cliff while we're offworld. She would've done it already if she really wanted to."

This was true. "But that still doesn't explain the food!"

Rod shrugged. "Maybe she's just trying to show you she cares? I mean, you could stand to eat a few more actual meals now and again."

"So why doesn't she just say that?" John asked. "If it were true, which it totally isn't, because I've got a normal BMI and I only ever passed out the once and Carson said that was blood sugar."

"Well, she's not exactly a verbally expressive person," Rod said. "Nor are you, despite how much you actually talk. Maybe it's a show-don't-tell sort of thing."

John took Rod's discarded coffee spoon and started toying with it. "I am so an expressive person," he said. "Remember when you came back from the alternate universe and we thought you were dead but you weren't?"

"You mean when you threatened to punch me in the balls if I ever did anything like that again?" Rod asked.

"Yeah," John said. "It'd be a punch of caring. You know, the way a friend cares for another friend."

Rod opened his mouth, but didn't seem able to produce any words, and after a few moments he shut it again.

But the more he thought about it, the more John decided that Rod was probably right—Teyla could've killed him like six hundred ways over the years and he couldn't think of anything he'd done recently that might make her snap, except for the whole part where he got kidnapped by Travelers for a little while, but that wasn't his fault. (Nobody ever believed him that sexy aliens just kidnapped him sometimes and he couldn't help his raw animal magnetism.) So maybe there was something else going on and Teyla was just feeding him for positive, friendly, reasons. Reasons that she was not explaining and which weren't obvious to anybody but herself. That could be it.

"You sure she's not trying to kill me?" he asked Rod, but his heart wasn't really in it.

"If she is, it'd be a murder of caring," Rod assured him. "And if it bothers you so much, maybe you should say something to her about it."

"Maybe." He gave Rod his spoon back. "Will you keep an eye her for me anyway? In case she starts doing anything suspicious and murderous and stuff?"

"I promise I won't let the big bad Teyla get you, John," Rod said. "That's what teams are for."

"Thanks." John stole a sip of Rod's coffee (and grimaced—how the man could drink coffee with lemon it in was beyond him) and stood up. "I'm gonna go, you know, take the padlocks off my air vents now."

Across the room, Sumner called out, "If you two ladies are done having your little heart-to-heart, some of us are trying to concentrate over here." He waved one knitting needle vaguely at them, and the many-colored strands of yarn hanging off the back flopped and twisted madly.

Being a true teammate, Rod took his coffee and went over to the knitting circle, saying, "Actually, Colonel, Jeannie sent me a pattern for an Icelandic yoked sweater that she thought you might be interested in…" and John was able to make his escape.

-\--\--\-

But afterwards he wasn't so sure. Because Rod made sense, and John generally trusted Rod to take the lead on the subjects requiring social skills, since, you know, he had them. But away from Rod's level certainty, John still found himself looking over his shoulder and around corners for any surprise Teylas with food, and when he found a whole box of Twinkies on his desk the following morning he may have gotten slightly hysterical before Dr. Abdirova owned up to leaving them there on accident. He made her work with Eldon the rest of the day anyway and completely ignored the new simulation data generated overnight in favor of trying to patch the subcutaneous transmitters into the life signs detectors so he could tell if Teyla was coming to get him.

But of course she waited until he gave up on that and was working on his field geometry model, because she was a ninja like that. And also possibly psychic. At least Eldon finally justified his existence by saying "Oh, hi, Teyla!" and spoiling her attempt at sudden appearing. It wasn't enough time for John to gracefully hide in the kneehole of his desk or anything, but it at least gave him some warning.

"Hello, Eldon," Teyla said. "Hello, John."

"Hi," John said, and he was cool and sounded totally normal and wasn't scared of his teammate at all. "You, uh, hi. What's up?"

"Dinner begins soon," Teyla said, and here John had been hoping she wasn't going to feed him this time since she wasn't actually carrying anything.

He looked around the lab for an excuse, but it was just him and Eldon and Abdirova inside, and Abdirova had perked up at the mention of food like she was hungry or something. (Maybe she was. John didn't remember if she'd left at lunchtime or not 'cause he'd been so busy with the life signs detectors.) "Oh, uh, yeah," he said lamely. "It does. That's, um, great."

Teyla stared at him for a second, like she was waiting for more, and John hunched over his laptop and stared at the table of data he was working on. Totally cool. Like a goddamn cucumber, he was. "Will you go to dinner?" she asked.

"Nah, not really hungry," John said, because he was totally cool like that. "Lots of work to catch up on, too."

"Oh," Teyla said, and John let himself glance over the top of the laptop screen at her. Her mouth might've been turned down a little at one corner and there was a sort of crease between her eyebrows, but he wasn't sure what that meant.

"Thanks for, um, telling me, though," John blurt. "That it's dinner time. That's good to know. And stuff." Shit, not cool, not cool. "Um, Eldon, you hungry?"

Eldon, intellectual giant that he was, said "Huh?"

"Hungry," John said, "food, dinner. Teyla, I think you should take Eldon to dinner, he's delicious. I mean he's hungry. Dinner is delicious and Eldon is here. And hungry."

Now Teyla was frowning at him full bore. Shit. "You will not join us?"

"Nope, busy busy." He hid behind the laptop screen again. "Mission tomorrow and stuff, gotta stay on top of these things."

"If you're sure," Teyla said, and he nodded and didn't look away from the screen until he heard the lab doors open and shut again. And then he looked up real slowly, just in case she was pulling some kind of ninja fakeout. But there was just Abdirova, on the other side of the lab, looking at John with a confused face. All right.

"Dr. Sheppard?" Abdirova asked weakly. "May I go to dinner also?"

"Are you kidding?" John asked. "I'm not going to finish this by myself before midnight. Get to work."

"I did not eat lunch, Dr. Sheppard," she whined.

"So go get an MRE out of the supply closet downstairs," he snapped. "In fact, get one for me, too, I'm starving. Not the vegetarian kind, either, unless it's the veggie lasagna. No sloppy joe mix either."

She brought him back spaghetti with meatballs, and he ate the candy first with about three cups of industrial-strength tavajava. They didn't finish the new simulation before midnight, but John was too buzzed to care about that, or Teyla, or anything else.

-\--\--\-

The people who came to the expedition after the Wraith invasion—Miko Kusinagi called them "Nisei," Rod called them "second wave," John called them "carpetbaggers"—they were a little different. They thought Sumner's knitting was funny and they were unreasonably terrified of Teyla and some of them even refused to drink tavajava just because it caused heart palpitations and double vision sometimes. The worst cases, the ones who patronized the Athosians and complained too much about the food and never came to tendol feasts, ended up getting sent right back home again pretty quick. The others eventually adapted, and sometimes it was hard to remember they were carpetbaggers at all.

Major Lorne was one of those, the ones who fit in; he didn't bat an eye to find out that his CO had a yarn habit or the first contact team had no formal military presence or that half the scientists insisted on using what they claimed was the old Ancient calendar since it matched Lantea's solar year better than the one from Earth. He did barge into a Mensa meeting once uninvited, and John had to explain to him at length and great volume that no, Mensa was not the same as RPG club (a lot of the same members, yeah, but RPG club met Thursdays, it was all on the city wiki, jeez)—but later, when John found out that Lorne could draw, he developed a tactical ingratiation/bartering scheme to obtain art for all his D&D characters, and they kind of, sort of, maybe got to be friends. At least, Lorne threw in a cartoon of John in the HEV suit from Half-Life, but he also seemed to think John was gay.

"It's just that all of your PCs are female," he explained while John spluttered and choked. "All of them."

"What's the matter with that?" John asked. "Guys play women all the time. Joss Whedon writes tons of women."

"What's Joss Whedon got to do with anything?" Lorne asked.

John waved the sketches at him, the heavy art paper crackling. "It's a homage! To Joss Whedon, I mean. Because there's a lack of well-rounded female characters in the media and in RPGs and what the hell does that have to do with being gay? Are you implying that Joss Whedon is gay?"

"I'm not talking about Joss Whedon, okay?" Lorne asked. "It just seemed odd to me…I mean, isn't one of those characters, the half-elf, didn't she start out a man and then that belt thing made her a woman?"

"Yeah," John said. "It was actually a major plot point in our Ptolus campaign."

"And isn't she a wizard with ranks in crossbow?"

"Yeah…"

"You said she's got dark hair and green eyes?"

"Yes, that's on her character sheet, I can show—"

"And her name's Jo-Hannon?"

John folded his arms across his chest. "I fail to see where you're going with this."

But Lorne dropped the subject and instead they argued about what character classes all the recon team members were. They agreed that John would be a wizard and Rod would be a cleric or a bard or something else where Charisma actually mattered, those were easy. But Lorne insisted that Ronon was a ranger and Teyla was a barbarian. "No," John told him. "Ronon is totally the barbarian. Even his wife gets grossed out when he eats."

"So what's Teyla?" Lorne asked.

John thought about. "I think she's like one-half paladin and one-half druid or something. Maybe she's got levels in ranger, too. And she'd be like a half-halfing, half-elf, kind of thing."

"So, basically, a total munchkin?" Lorne sounded skeptical about that.

"I was gonna say Mary Sue, actually," John said. "But the main thing is, she's on our side, and therefore she's awesome."

-\--\--\-

The mission briefing went pretty normally, since it was another standard reconnaissance—Elizabeth reminded them to check in if they found anything and Sumner reminded them not to die and when it turned out they were authorizing a jumper, John immediately said, "Dibs."

Rod rolled his eyes at him. "John, it was your turn to fly anyway."

"You were gonna steal it. I saw that look in your eye."

"I have a look in my eye?"

"A stealing-my-turn-to-fly-the-jumper-look."

"You know, just when I think you can't possibly be any more paranoid…."

"It's not paranoia if you're actually trying to take my turn, though."

Sumner asked, "You ladies need to go settle this in the gym?"

They did not. It took fifteen minutes to gear up and another ten before the hangar crew released them a jumper (official designation: Gateship 9; John's designation: Serenity) but none of that mattered once John got into the pilot's seat. Serenity blinked for him, just like she always did, and while Rod and Ronon and Teyla stowed supplies for the mission in the rear compartment, John once again took a moment to thank whatever kinky ancestor of his had decided to do it with an alien, because there wasn't a video game in the world that compared to this.

"Gateship nine, this is Control Room, are you ready to start your preflight?" somebody asked over the radio.

"Control Room, this is Serenity, could you hold on a sec?" John asked. "I'm having a moment here."

Rod huffed and opened up the radio link in the rear. "Control room, this is Gateship Nine, we're ready to start preflight checks."

"Copy that, Gateship Nine…uh, can we verify who's flying that thing? Doctor Sheppard or Doctor McKay?"

"Doctor Sheppard is piloting and prepared to suppress any attempts at mutiny with extreme prejudice," John announced loudly, and quickly started running through the preflight diagnostics. But he froze when Teyla sat down in the copilot's chair, her gun laid across her lap.

Rod, obviously not sensing the imminent ninja danger, leaned against the back of the chair. "You calling shotgun, Teyla?"

"I do not have a shotgun," she said.

"No, I mean…you know what, whatever, I can run the sensor grid from back here." He unfolded the second jump seat, cattycorner from John. "It's not like you don't know how to dial a DHD."

"Weapons," John blurted, because Teyla was kind of staring at him. "Teyla can't operate the drones."

Rod huffed. "Remember the briefing we just had, John? No signs of active civilization or large land animals from the MALP or the UAV."

"Like that means anything," John pointed out. "Remember Evil Fog Planet?"

"How do we shoot fog?" Ronon said.

Rod just shrugged. "You've fired drones in mid-flight before, or I can route weapons back here, or we can, you know, switch places if anything tries to jump out and grab us. Teyla, that work for you?"

"It does," she said. And she was definitely staring.

John squirmed and accidentally brought up the targeting sensors on the HUD for a second. "I'm not sure I'm totally comfortable with this arrangement," he said loudly, and tried to indicate Teyla and her starey staring stare in some subtle fashion.

"You mean with Teyla?" Ronon asked, sounding confused.

Rod sighed. "John, seriously, paranoid. Everything will be fine."

"Gateship Nine, this is Control Room, you are cleared to launch."

The moon they were surveying had extensive ruins and scenic valleys and a lavender gas giant that filled most of the sky with its gibbous eye, and John didn't get to enjoy any of it. Because Teyla was definitely watching him. Not, like, looming-staring, or anything—he caught her looking at the scenery a few times—but more often than not she was looking at him, sometimes right on, sometimes kind of sideways out of the corner of her eyes. Rod and Ronon didn't seem to notice anything funky about it, which just confirmed to John that Teyla was a superninja. They did, however, notice when John kept veering off-course, suddenly dropping altitude, or accidentally activating the cloak, because it turned out there was a trick willing yourself invisible while flying a mind-reading spaceship and John hadn't figured it out yet.

"Jesus, John, I fly better than this," Rod finally concluded. "You think we should call this one and go home?"

"I'm fine," John said, because dammit, he didn't get to fly the jumpers hardly ever and he liked these missions and if Teyla really was plotting against him this might be his last chance ever to do it. And also he totally flew better than Rod and always would. He just needed to be cool about this. "Serenity's just being a little squirmy because I'm, uh, itchy today."

"Itchy?" Ronon asked.

"Yeah," John said. "Accidentally grabbed scented soap from the supply closet the other day. I have allergies, you know."

"So you can't fly straight because you're too itchy," Ronon repeated skeptically.

Rod said, "You'd be surprised how sensitive the controls are," and John decided that whenever they got pudding in the mess again, he was scoring Rod an extra cup just for that. "If you're sure you can get us home in one piece…"

"Oh, yeah. Totally. Single pieces of puddlejumper are my specialty." He caught Teyla's eye in the reflection off the windshield for a moment and then resolutely looked away, far away, at a really nice cliff face instead. The jumper tried to veer into it.

They called it anyway about half an hour later, because there weren't any energy readings anywhere in the ruins and it was so far from the gate and such bad terrain and also a three-week solar eclipse was about to start, so they'd have to file this one for a dedicated science team to scavenge later on. (John wondered if he could get Eldon assigned to it somehow.) John managed to keep not looking at Teyla, and thus not acknowledge the staring, and he decided that there had to be some corollary to the Uncertainty Principle that allowed her to be not staring at him unless he was actually watching her stare at him. At all other points in time she was simultaneously staring and not staring, like Schrödinger's half-dead cat. And John could deal with half-dead cats and half-staring Teylas way more easily than the full versions, or at least easily enough that he could fly straight.

At least until they were on final approach to the stargate, because after she dialed and the puddle bloomed, Teyla spoke for the first time all mission. And she said, "I believe we will be back in time for lunch."

That made the crash entirely her fault.

-\--\--\-

Back in the beginning of the expedition, they'd run into one those planets that apparently happened in every galaxy. The men were large and hairy, the women habitually wore quilted burkas, and Recon 3 nearly got burned at the stake long before anyone noticed that Teyla had boobs.

When they did, though (after the argument about how John had to take charge because he was the only one with facial hair, to the extent that his side burns and a soul patch counted as such compared to the full-on Ted Kaczynski beards of the locals, and after the argument over whether Ford with his freshly-shaved head was allowed to speak at all) the leader of the village—John was pretty sure his name was Ook or something equally monosyllabic—started waving around a sort of combination cutlass/scythe. "This one is a mere female!" he bellowed. "How dare you show such disdain for the ancient customs of our Most Honorable and Masculine Moose Lodge, where our fathers and forefathers have gotten shitfaced on fermented cat milk for ten generations and held pissing contests out the window before engaging in the usual homoerotic bonding rites of the Ancestors? Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries! I curse you forever with back zits and thinning facial hair!"

Okay, so he'd actually only gotten to the word "disdain" before Teyla pulled his weapon out of his hand and beat him with it. (John had tried to add the rest to his mission report on the grounds that it was reasonable extrapolation, but it had been separately nixed by Ford, Rod and Elizabeth.) Once it was clear Ook was down for the count, she carefully set the weapon aside and spoke her only words all mission: "I am no mere female." That wasn't the only time she'd muscled her way into somebody's frat house, but it was the first and most impressive, and John quoted her at every opportunity for about a week and a half until Markham threatened to use him for target practice.

-\--\--\-

"Any dizziness?" Keller asked, shining a penlight in his eyes.

"No," John said. "Can I talk to Carson now?"

"Carson is not on call right now," she said. "Do you remember everything leading up to the accident?"

"Yes," John said. "Teyla wants to feed me to death and the puddle jumper was trying to defend me. Seriously, is Carson avoiding me or something?"

"No, Carson is sleeping after working a double shift last night, and we're not talking about Teyla right now." Keller started prodding the goose egg on John's forehead, which hurt, so he yelled at her. "Okay, so a fair amount of tenderness. Your eyes are a little abnormally dilated, too."

John shrugged. "I drank a lot of tavajava before the mission."

"Tavawhat?" Keller asked.

"Tava-java," John said, and decided to explain it on account of how she was new and probably still innocent. "It's Athosian tea mixed with coffee. When you heat it up there's this chemical reaction and it comes out like something between Red Bull and Dexadrine, only delicious. I like mine with lots of sugar."

Keller started making the googly eyes again, but she didn't say anything, just drew some blood and put him under a scanner. By this point Ronon and Teyla and Rod had already left, since none of them had whacked their skulls into the dashboard during the crash, which John thought was a little unfair since the subconscious urge that had clearly driven the incident was to get Teyla as far away from him as possible. Though maybe technically it had worked, since Teyla was known to hate the infirmary and avoid it religiously. Of course, so did John, so that really wasn't a solution in the long-term.

And in the end, Keller did say, "Okay, it doesn't look like you've got a concussion, but if you start to experience any blurred vision, headaches, ringing in the ears—"

"—yeah, yeah, come back if my brain starts to leak out my ears, I know this one," John said, and quickly put his glasses back on. "So can I go now?"

"Well, medically you're free and clear—whoa whoa whoa!" She caught him by the sleeve as he tried to bound past her to the conference room, where Rod and Ronon were undoubtedly telling vicious lies about the cause of the crash. He probably could've shaken her off and kept going, except for how she was kinda tiny, and he wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't end up flinging her into the wall. "Where's the fire?" she asked.

"You said I could go," John said. "So I'm going. Unless you somehow meant I can't go, in which case I'll stay until you fix whatever's wrong with me, but you also ought to work on your communication skills."

"There's nothing wrong with you, but—" she kept a grip on his wrist when he tried to flee again. "But I did want to talk to you about, um, something else, if you have a minute."

Something else? John racked his brains for something non-medical that a doctor could want to talk to him about. "This isn't about sperm donation, is it?" he asked.

"No," Keller said. "Why would you—you know, never mind, I don't think I want to know."

"People have asked," John pointed out. "I've got this super ATA gene and somehow that gets some women hot. They ask Carson, too."

"Well, that's not what I wanted to ask about," Keller said. "Look, can we sit?"

John, reluctantly, sat back on the bed. Keller pulled a little stool out from under and perched on it. Another thought occurred to him. "Are you going to try to refer me to Heightmeyer about this Teyla thing?" he asked. "Because she was totally staring at me this time and the food thing is getting creepy and also I've memorized all the answers to most of the standard personality tests—"

"John? John." Keller patted him on the hand with a strained smile. "If you think Teyla is stalking you or something, I believe you. But I actually wanted to talk about me for a minute or two."

"Oh. Really?" Though he couldn't think of anything she'd have to say if it wasn't about a sperm donation or making out with him, seeing as, well, she was new, and he was…him. It wasn't like they had a real solid basis for a relationship or anything.

She nodded. "Yeah. Well, actually, sort of more about Ronon than me."

"Oh. He's not actually all that scary and I think he spreads the rumors about the ferrets himself just to sound tougher," John explained. "He really did kill his boss, but there were extenuating circumstances for that, so I don't think we can hold that against him."

And the googly eyes were back. "I, uh, actually hadn't heard of…either of those things," Keller said.

"Really?" John asked. "'Cause those are pretty much the core facts about Ronon. Oh, and his wife's Melena, she's a ninja too."

"That I knew, actually," she said, squirming. "That, um, actually, is part the, uh, situation, I wanted to talk about."

John had one minute to blink in non-comprehension before the horrible truth dawned on him. He thrust a finger in Keller's face. "Home wrecker!"

"No!" She blurted. "There has been no home wrecking!"

"I can see it in your guilty face!"

"Oh, my god, do I look guilty?" She grabbed a bedpan off a shelf and tried to catch her reflection in it.

"You are so guilty," John said, folding his arms across his chest. "Harlot."

"I didn't do anything!" she protested. "I don't even talk to him anymore! The last time he tried to hit on me I pretended to stick myself with a dirty needle and made Angela finish his stitches!"

"Wait, he's hitting on you?" John asked. "How is he hitting on you? He's married!"

"I know!" she wailed. "That's what I'm trying to talk about!"

John rubbed his eyes and adjusted his glasses. "So back up a sec. He's hitting on you and you're guilty about it?"

"Well, I have to work with Melena!" she said. "Like every shift! I thought he was hanging around all the time to see her, and then I thought maybe he was having an affair with Angela until I realized she was, you know, and then I'm almost positive he's been hitting on me the last few times he's been in here."

"Dude, Ronon wouldn't do that," John said. "They have like the only healthy relationship in this city, and I'm counting Rod and Katie the botanist in that, because they've been dating for like a year but they still don't kiss with tongue."

"That's what I thought," Keller said. "That they're happy together, not, you know, I didn't even know that about Rod. So now I'm worried that I might be seeing things or overreacting or something. Maybe a teeny tiny touch of wishful thinking, since he's, you know. Mmm."

John didn't know what exactly the inarticulate grunting signified, but the accompanying hand gesture was pretty unambiguous. "You're guilty because you might be imagining that he's hitting on you?"

"I know!" She sighed. "I'm such a Catholic."

He waited a few minutes for her to elaborate on what this had to do with him, exactly, but she just sat staring into space with a guilt-ridden pout. "Look," he said, "I really don't want to know anything about your fantasy life, and if you don't want to talk to Heightmeyer I think you can prescribe your own psychotropic drugs…"

"Actually, I'd need the paperwork countersigned by another MD," she said. "But really I just…are you sure there's nothing up with him and Melena? Him or Melena?"

"Totally sure," John said. "I'm happy to report that you're totally delusional."

"Okay. Thanks." She took a deep breath and then exhaled. "I, uh, I only asked you because I obviously can't ask them directly and Rod's so…you know, and I'm a little bit scared of Teyla."

"You should be," he said. "She's plotting against me."

"Of course she is," Keller said mechanically. Then, "Wait, is she?"

John threw his hands in the air. "You know what? I don't even know anymore. Maybe I'm delusional, too."

"If you were delusional, would you notice if Ronon was having marital problems?" Keller asked anxiously.

John shook a finger at her. "None of that. He's not hitting on you."

"And Teyla's not out to get you," she said.

"So we agree we're both delusional?" John asked.

Keller frowned. "I thought we were agreeing that we're sane."

John grabbed his jacket off the end of the bed and snapped, "Why not go mad?" as he fled the infirmary. At this rate he might as well just take up knitting.

-\--\--\-

Stargate Control worried about Teyla, and originally John thought it was about the part where she'd been a Runner for half her life, or maybe the part where the Wraith could read her mind sometimes (although she could also read their minds and when she did it was totally cool). It was only later that he found out from Rod, and not on purpose, that they doubted her loyalty. "You have to admit she doesn't have a lot of friends in the city," Rod said reluctantly, with a little frown.

"She's got me!" John blurted. "I mean us! You know, the team! And she hangs out with Sora a lot too,"

"I know, you know, Elizabeth knows…" Rod squirmed a little, like it physically pained him to take the SGC's part in this but he just couldn't get the stick out of his ass. "What they see on paperwork is that she's a consultant with no official duties besides going offworld with us and beating up Marines. She barely even talks to her own people, and Sora is…"

"A dirty cheating defector?" John said. "Because, you know, so is Teal'c, and he gets his own damn gate team."

"I'm just saying, it looks bad to them," Rod muttered. "We're taking care of it, though. Elizabeth's, uh, writing a letter."

Teyla wouldn't sit still long enough to take any of the Mensa tests (and Heightmeyer said they were all culturally biased anyway) so John tried to get her to join the RPG club, or maybe the four-man SCA chapter they had going, or even teach her chess so she could help his quest to kick Zelenka's ass at it. He even spent a day and a half on a complicated 3-D model of the city's social network, which showed exactly how many people were not actually terrified of Teyla, even if not all of them would actively call her a friend. Teyla didn't want to come to any of the clubs, though, and while she sometimes came to movie nights she didn't always stay for the whole film.

And it didn't matter anyway, 'cause Elizabeth wrote her letter, and it wasn't too long after that when Cadman and Melena showed up; all they really had in common with Teyla and Sora was the fact that they were totally terrifying, and female, but that seemed to be enough to create the Sisterhood of the Traveling Explosives, and somehow that made the SGC calm down. Mehra showed up later but fit right in, and John pretended that he didn't mind at all when Teyla hung out with them instead of the team.

-\--\--\-

Thus burdened with the knowledge that either Keller or Ronon had gone batshit insane, John settled down and devised a three-pronged strategy for dealing with the situation.

1) Defend flying abilities against all detractors.

"I told you all I was itchy."

"John, you hit the stargate," Rod said distinctly.

"I didn't see the stargate."

"You didn't see three tons of superconducting naqadah with a wormhole in the middle?"

"I had an eyelash in my eye."

2) Evaluate Keller's sanity

"So how's things?" John asked Ronon.

Ronon looked up from his tray (spaghetti bolognese, Pegasus style, which was to say the noodles were scarlet and the sauce was lavender but it tasted exactly the same). Then he snorted gently and looked back down.

"Not that I'm, you know, worried," John said, and chased his own meatballs around the tray. "Because you're totally capable of handling all your problems and sometimes other people's problems too. At least when it involves bigass ray guns. And what problem can't be solved by a well-timed discharge of high-energy plasma?"

Ronon finished his spaghetti and started munching on some whole Cubanito peppers that the botany staff had transferred to the kitchens in a box marked Mostly Harmless.

"But if you were, you know, having a problem, the non-shootable kind of problem, I hope you'd talk to…uh…Rod, about it. Yeah, talk to Rod. 'Cause he's smart about that kind of thing." John caught a meatball and choked it down; it tasted like salmon with the texture of a superball. "By which I mean things that aren't fixed by shooting. Which actually covers a lot of problems, and I'm not saying that Rod is necessarily smarter than me about any of them, except, uh, when he is. Some of the time. But you should definitely talk to him about stuff. If you need to talk instead of shooting things. And I'm not saying you do."

Ronon finished his peppers, picked up his tray and walked away.

John waved at him. "Glad we had this little discussion."

3) Ignore Teyla

"John."

"Teyla."

"It is time for dinner."

"I already ate."

"I see."

"So, yeah, bye."

"Goodbye, John."

"…Eldon, go get me an MRE. Anything that comes with chocolate. Now."

-\--\--\-

This strategy actually worked for a while, since they didn't have any missions and Rod didn't insist on any emotional bonding type activities (which he sometimes did, because for some reason he thought that regularly almost dying together didn't make them good enough friends as it was) and really, outside of those sorts of things or meals, John and Teyla didn't see a whole lot of each other. He worked in the labs and she, well, beat people up. Rod usually made an effort to go hang out with Teyla and Ronon when he wasn't doing science, but John usually didn't see the point since they really didn't really care about physics or video games or Mensa and he wasn't really into guns or fistfights. That just left mealtimes, and John could avoid those by reluctantly switching to an all-MRE diet, which he did. (At least the entrees and desserts. And sometimes the candy portion. Sometimes there were chocolate-covered espresso beans.)

Of course, as a consequence he didn't really interact with anybody but Abdirova and Eldon for a while, except for the department meeting where Rod made an announcement about eating in the labs that John actively ignored. Rod also tried to talk to him afterwards, but John made sure to slip Zelenka an anonymous note accusing Optican of intellectual dishonesty, and the resulting kerfluffle covered his escape.

But he figured out later, while interpolating the data, that the meeting was really just a warning shot past his head, so to speak. Because the day afterwards, he woke up to somebody pounding on the door of his room, apparently with hammers. It was only eight o'clock, and he was so addled from a tava crash that it didn't occur to him to that, in real emergency, somebody would just call him on the radio. (Or page him on the citywide speakers. They'd had to do that once, but in his defense, he'd been turning into a bug at the time.)

So, sleepy and incoherent, John stumbled to the door without his glasses on and opened it. Cadman, Mehra and Sora were standing on the other side, and they didn't have hammers, they had an aluminum baseball bat.

"Hi, Shep," Cadman said. "We need to talk."

They shoved their way into the room before he had fully registered the probability of his imminent demise. Sora was holding the bat, and braced her hands on the knob like a cane; Mehra had her arms folded and was glowering, but Cadman's thumbs were hooked into her pockets and she was smiling wide and calmly, like a shark. They came forward until John backpedaled into his bed and fell into a sit. "Please don't kill me," he blurted, because that seemed like the logical end to this situation.

"Oh, don't worry, we aren't going to kill you," Cadman said. "Unless you make us angry. You're not going to make us angry, are you, Shep?"

"I wasn't planning on it, no," he said quickly.

"Well, then, this ought to be quick," Cadman said. "There's just one simple question you've got to answer for us, Shep, then we can all go home happy. Do you have a problem with Teyla?"

Because it was eight o'clock in the morning and John hadn't been caffeinated yet, he said, "Huh?" Then he yelped, because Sora suddenly swung the bat up and smacked it into her palm. "I don't have a problem with Teyla!"

"That's funny," Cadman said. "That's real funny. Don't you think that's funny, girls?"

"Funny ha-ha or funny uh-oh, ma'am?" Mehra asked.

"The kind of funny that I don't believe, Sergeant." Cadman took a step forward, and John flinched. "I don't think you believe it, either. Do you, Shep?"

"She started it!" John protested.

Mehra sighed. "Permission to give this man a wedgie, ma'am?"

"Denied." Instead, Cadman crouched in front of John, still smiling. "See, Shep, we're all out of high school around these parts. We can all act like grown-ups. Do you think you're acting like a grownup lately?"

John may have been outnumbered and wearing Spiderman boxer shorts, but he wasn't going to stand for being called immature. "I think Teyla's the one acting like a goddamn crazy person," he said with as much pride as he could muster.

Cadman hissed, and Mehra cracked her knuckles. Loudly. "Shep, that's low," she said. "That's really, really low coming from the man who claims he crashed a gateship 'cause he was itchy."

"I was," he said firmly, and then managed a near-suicidal verbal sortie. "And if Teyla's plotting to kill me or something, she ought to know I'm on to her and she should damn well do it herself instead of sending you."

He expected to be beaten with a baseball bat for that, or possibly just shot. He did not expect Cadman, Mehra and Sora to break into hysterical laughter, and he certainly didn't expect two out of three of them to lose their footing entirely and fall to the ground clutching their sides, and he was pretty sure if someone had suggested he'd see Mehra actually wiping tears from her eyes in any context ever, he'd have called base security. So when they did all fall down laughing, he was understandably paralyzed for a few minutes, and had to go fetch his glasses before he was absolutely certain it was laughter and not some kind of screaming seizure.

"You can stop that now," he told them.

"Any time," he added.

"Seriously," he said, "I'm gonna call Major Lorne in about thirty seconds."

Cadman eventually climbed up, using the end of John's bed as a brace, and then threw an arm around his shoulders still giggling. "Shep," she said. "Shep. Listen. You are an idiot."

"Ten seconds," he told her. "Nine. Eight."

"You're an idiot," she said, "and if you hurt her feelings you know we really are going to kill you." Then she helped Sora up, and all three of them left, dragging the bat along the ground behind them.

John considered calling Lorne anyway to report them, because he was pretty sure Cadman wasn't acting like an officer and a gentlewoman, and it might've been breaking Sora's parole in some way to have the bat. He got as far as picking up his radio, but in the end he didn't say anything. After all, who the hell was going to believe him?

-\--\--\-

John got to his lab that morning (to the extent that "morning" was defined as "before noon") to discover it was slightly on fire; Eldon was sitting on John's desk sucking on his fingers while Abdirova tried to beat out the flames engulfing a tablet computer with her jacket. John did not scream, of which he was very proud; instead, he fetched the nearest fire extinguisher, put out the tablet, sprayed some foam on Eldon and Abdirova in revenge, and then dragged them both to Rod's lab and made them sit outside with their hands folded in their laps and a couple of hastily-constructed dunce caps on their heads. "You are going to sit out here and think about what you've done," he told them with admirable calm, "and I am going to clean up your mess, and then flip some coins in order to decide whether I'm going to use you as test subjects in a teleportation study."

He had just about finished scraping the melted plastic off the table, too, when Rod barged into the lab and cuffed him on the back of the head. He didn't do it hard, but John was understandably protective of his brain cells and didn't appreciate even the mildest threat to them. "Ow! What's that for?"

"That was because I'm pretty sure you've taken leave of your senses entirely," Rod said. John realized belatedly that Rod was scowling, probably angrier than he'd seen him in a while. Uh-oh. "In case it even occurred to you to worry about them, I sent Eldon and Gulmira to the infirmary, and they're both fine, and I'm not going to write you up for completely disregarding accident reporting protocols because you're obviously not guilty by reason of insanity. Instead, you and I are going to go have a well-balanced lunch, in public, around people you do not have the authority to terrorize, and when I'm satisfied that you've regained all your faculties, you're going to apologize to your staff and promise not to experiment on them."

"I wasn't serious," John muttered, feeling about six years old.

"The fact that we couldn't tell that is part of what worries me," Rod said, and hauled John upstairs by the sleeve. "You've been hiding down here for God only knows how many days, and even Colonel Sumner has been asking if you're entirely mentally stable. You've always been a workaholic, John, but this is getting kind of insane."

"I'm not the crazy one!" John protested. "It's everybody else who's gone nuts! Or at least the women. Women and Eldon. You think they're something in the water around here? Or maybe their menstrual cycles are lining up. I've read about that, you know. My mom took me to live in this commune in Sweden one summer and it totally happens."

Rod sighed at he yanked John into the nearest transporter. "If you're still convinced Teyla is plotting against you—"

"Not plotting. Not necessarily plotting," John said. "But she's still trying to feed me and since I'm no match for her ninja powers, well, I have to make excuses. Did you think I was working down there? I'm not working, I'm hiding from her."

"You," Rod said, "are probably the most mentally defective man I've ever met. I say that as a friend, of course."

"It's not just Teyla!" John said. "That hot new Keller doctor went nuts too, she admitted it to me. And Cadman and her thugs broke into my room this morning and threatened me with a bat."

Rod stared at him for a moment, which reminded John why he didn't report Cadman originally. Then they were up to the mess hall level, and lunch was in full swing, and damn it, Sex and Guns and Ammo and the City were camped out all at one table, giggling with one another. "See?" John hissed to Rod, trying to point at them without drawing their attention. "Something is totally up with that shit."

"Sit," Rod said. "Now. Because God help me, if you aren't going to let Teyla feed you a well-balanced meal, then I'm going to do it, and if I have to I'm going to use Ronon and a tube."

John sat down and started shredding napkins while Rod loaded up two trays and brought them over. He noticed that, in addition to Teyla and Cadman's coven in one corner, Keller and Melena and Ronon were sharing a table, over by the windows. They seemed to be having a good time, or at least the Dexes were, though Keller was looking kind of googly-eyed and sweaty. John couldn't tell if it had something to do with the way Melena was smiling and laughing and touching Keller's arm a lot, or the way Ronon was kind of semi-not-totally-obviously bumping his leg on hers under the table, or both. Because Ronon was totally bumping his leg against Keller's under the table. And smiling at her a lot. Huh.

Rod returned with a tray full of mixed green (and purple) salad, a fruit cup, and space turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato but no mayonnaise. "Here," he said. "Vitamins. You need them."

"Is Ronon hitting on the doctor?" John asked him.

"Don't be absurd." Rod also put a carton of milk on John's tray, then tucked into his own sandwich. "And I'm not kidding here. I'll tell Carson what kind of crap you've been eating and he'll put you on a diet."

"I've been eating MREs," John said, and examined the salad. No dressing. "Are you telling me the United States military isn't feeding us a balanced diet?"

Rod just gave John a Look. "Which parts of the MRE have you been eating, exactly? 'Cause Eldon tells me I can find an entire drawer full of wheat snack bread and dried fruit in your lab bench."

John decided that Eldon deserved swift vengeance. "I eat the good parts," he muttered.

"You need things other than caffeine and sugar in your diet. Things like fiber." Rod had a salad too, but he was putting ranch dressing on his. Hypocritical bastard. "Seriously, it's no wonder that Teyla's trying to feed you constantly, which I still don't believe is true, by the way, but if it was I wouldn't blame her."

"She totally is," John protested. "And Cadman told me her feelings are hurt. When she threatened me with the bat. Which totally happened."

Rod just asked, "Have you ever considered taking up knitting?"

John just shook his head, and looked out the windows, which meant looking at Ronon. Who was now actively rubbing his leg against Keller's, and Keller looked like she was going to bazooka barf all over Melena any second, because of course Melena couldn't see the footsie and was for some reason playing with Keller's hair and chattering away. "Do you see that?" John asked.

"See what?"

"That! Over there! Look!"

But of course that got the attention of half the cafeteria, including both Dexes, who stopped what they were doing to look at John in confusion. Keller looked at him desperate, goofy eyes, and the coven even looked around, probably for something to shoot (except for Teyla, who started staring at John, of course). Rod made John drop his pointing finger and physical put the fork back in his hand. "John, seriously. You know I can lock you out of your lab? Ground you from the team? Force you into sessions with Heightmeyer?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah…" John forced down a bite of his salad but he spitefully refused to enjoy it. "I'm telling you, I'm not any crazier than I normally am. It's all of them who are crazy and adulterous and weird."

"Really." Rod took a sip of today's fruit juice, which was green today. "Which one am I?"

"The not helping one," John said, and dug morosely into the salad.

-\--\--\-

It wasn't like John wasn't used to people insulting him, really. One of his earliest memories involved his father looking at the dismantled remains of a gas-powered lawn mower in the living room, and then stiffly sending him outside to play with Dave, who at that time was still working on the distinctions between horse turds and Play-Doh. John wasn't supposed to overhear the resulting three-way screaming match, but it was kind of hard not to, and he was more relieved than anything when his mom took him home that night before dinner. Instead of sitting in the big cold dining room with his dad and Dave and Betty, he got to eat Dairy Queen and watch cartoons all night, and within three days they had moved to Ecuador in a short-lived attempt to become llama farmers.

The point was, when your conscious existence started out with your own father calling you brain-damaged and disavowing your paternity…well, you probably ended up a lot like John. He accepted that people were going to insult him from time to time. He actually kind of liked it. Because that gave him a chance to, if not exactly prove them wrong, then at least prove them worthless, because what did it matter if he was funny-looking and skinny and antisocial and unathletic if he was also way smarter than you? And yeah, it created trouble with people like roommates and thesis advisors and girlfriends, but by the time he got his Ph.D. John had accepted that anybody who couldn't prove themselves his intellectual peer or gracefully accept their inferiority was not worth having around. It meant he got a lot more work done, and if he wanted to interact with people he could log into Warcraft or something.

When Rod recruited him for the Stargate project, John had observed his goofy smile and his J. Crew sweaters and his social skills and decided preemptively to destroy him. Instead he found himself drawn into a kind of insane fraternity where people complimented his coding and finished his movie quotes and he could wear the same shirt for a week sometimes without anybody saying a word. He even got invited to a goddamn barbecue, and when he started disassembling Bill Lee's propane grill Rod and Kavenaugh were right there beside him, fighting over the wrenches, and in the end they bought KFC for themselves and the Colorado Springs fire department and it was kind of awesome.

Eventually John admitted he was developing actual friendships, and the resulting cognitive dissonance was almost physically painful. He sometimes suspected it was the reason he'd signed up for Atlantis—it was that or try to figure out what you did with people when they weren't plotting how to dispose of your body. Three years on, though, Rod was still there, and Teyla and Ronon and other people like that, and it was just a little frustrating that John couldn't figure out why.

-\--\--\-

Rod practically followed John around the city for a few days, governing his food intake and putting an unspoken limit on his tavajava consumption, and yeah, John apologized to Abdirova and Eldon and even treated the latter to a long talk (not a rant, a talk) about why we unplug our equipment and take out the batteries before we try to service it. John knew, because Rod made it painfully clear, that the alternative would be to formally involve people in positions of authority, and while John had the strength of his convictions behind him, he had no desire to try to defend said convictions to Elizabeth or Heightmeyer, or, God forbid, Sumner.

At least Teyla stayed away with Rod around, or maybe she'd decided to change tactics after sending out her henchwomen to threaten him. John gave up on convincing anybody that that had actually happened (seriously, why could the subcutaneous transmitters not synchronize with the life signs detectors?) but it did provide him with food for thought, because if he really had hurt Teyla's feelings somehow, that would explain why she was engaged in a food-related plot. Except he couldn't think of anything that would even remotely possibly have hurt Teyla's feelings in the past couple of weeks…especially since on any given day it was sometimes hard to tell she had feelings at all. The only real interesting thing that had even happened since like February was when he got kidnapped by Travelers, and that was totally not his fault, he had tried to explain before about the animal magnetism thing, and anyway Teyla hadn't even needed to rescue him so he couldn't imagine why she'd be put out about it.

Maybe her feelings were hurt because he'd been hiding from her? Rod seemed to think the food plot was benevolent, so that might make sense, except there was no reason for her to start feeding him now, as opposed to, say, when he met her. At least Ronon's behavior fit cause and effect—if hot new doctor, then adultery—and he told Keller as much when Rod's hovering drove him to such desperate straits that he faked a dizzy spell for an excuse to go hide in the infirmary for a while.

"This is what he's put me to," he told her while munching on the glucose tablets Melena had given him. (They tasted like Pez, basically, and how could he turn down free medicinal Pez?) "I'm willingly in the infirmary. And I still don't know why Teyla is feeding me."

"People don't always behave based on obvious cause and effect," Keller told him. "It's not like we're pigeons in Skinner boxes."

"We should be," John said firmly. "Life would totally be easier that way. I would maybe know what's going on sometimes then."

She patted on him on the hand. "I could go for some comprehension here too, you know. Are you sure you saw what I felt back in the mess?"

"Totally," John said. "I never realized Ronon was such a manwhore."

"So that means I'm not delusional," Keller said.

"Except that would mean Teyla isn't stalking me," John said. "So that would mean I am delusional, and then—"

Keller put a hand up. "Stop right there. I don't want you blowing up like some kind of Star Trek robot."

"What, NOMAD?" She just blinked at him. "The one where Captain Pike was all, 'You are imperfect!' And then NOMAD was like, 'ERROR ERROR ERROR'—"

"Sure," Keller said, interrupting him in midst of an illustrative gesture. "That's the one I meant. Do you think maybe there's something we're missing here?"

"Um, well, duh," John said. "Ignoring stuff about people is kind of how I operate."

Keller sighed. "What I meant is, maybe we could both use an outsider's perspective on this. Or, well, really what I could use is an insider's perspective since I don't know how you go about approaching someone like Ronon about something like this—"

"What, and I do?" John said. "Dude, if Rod didn't think I'd snapped I'd just get him to do all the talking-to-people shit. He's good at that."

"Really?" Keller asked.

"What, you thought we kept him around for his looks?"

"No, no," she said, shaking her head a little. "It's just…isn't he a little…creepy?"

John blinked at her. "Creepy?"

"Yeah," she said. "Like…I don't know, like a human Ken doll, only, you know, not hot. That smile… maybe I'm being paranoid."

He leaned forward on the gurney. "Wait a second. Are you telling me you didn't bring up the whole sexual harassment thing with Rod because he gives you the creeps? More so than talking to me?"

"A little bit?" she said weakly.

John fought down a smirk. "Dude, I'm so telling him that once, you know, he'd actually believe me."

"So my point is," Keller said, rubbing her hands on her pants in a vaguely nervous gesture. "My point is that maybe I can figure out what's going on with Teyla, and maybe you can help me figure out what's up with Ronon and Melena?"

"What, like, talk to them?" John asked, blinking.

"Well, yeah," Keller said. "People do that sometimes."

"Can we back up the part where I don't talk to people real well?" John asked.

"No, see, this'll work," Keller said, and leaned forward eagerly. "You can talk to Melena for me, find out if she knows about Ronon and maybe what the deal is there, and I can, um…talk to Teyla for you…you know…somehow."

John raised his hand. "Question. Why don't you talk to Melena?"

"I can't," Keller stammered, "I just…I work with her!"

"Exactly," John said. "And I work with Ronon. So wouldn't it kind of make sense for me to talk to him and—"

"No!" Keller blurted. "I can't, I just, I don't want him to know that I'm noticing anything!"

"Like the way he was humping your leg in the mess?" John asked. "'Cause if you didn't actually notice that then his next step might be to just pee on you and drag you back to his quarters by the hair."

"Melena was right there!" Keller protested. "She was right there and she didn't notice anything and I can't say anything when she's right there or…or…"

"She'll go ninja on your ass?" John offered.

Her eyes went googly. "I was gonna say she'd stop speaking to me or something," she wailed. "Where do you find these people?"

"A lot of them followed us home from work," John said. "Though Rod's been here from the beginning, and you are seriously the first person who thinks he's creepy at all. Which is awesome, just in case you were wondering."

"Yeah, fine, sure, whatever," Keller said. "Look, my point is, I can't talk to Melena or Ronon and you can but not to Ronon because he'll figure out I know. But I can…maybe…somehow…talk to Teyla a little bit. I mean, she comes in here sometimes, right? For stitches and stuff? So I'll talk to her and maybe figure out if there's anything up with her that you ought to know."

"Good luck," John said. "I've known her three years and she doesn't talk to me."

"Well, we can try," Keller said, sounding a bit desperate. "Don't you think it's at least worth a try?"

"Sure," John said. "I'll slip a note in Melena's locker between classes tomorrow and ask her if Ronon likes you and to circle 'y' for yes and 'n' for no."

"You know what," Keller said, "maybe I should've just talked to Rod about this."

"You mean Dr. Ken Doll?" And when Keller actually shuddered a bit, John just gave up and smirked at her. "He'd smile at you, you know. Smiling plastic Ken Doll. With a receding hairline."

Keller stood up with a little huff and a downward twist of her mouth. "You're not actually sick, you know. You can leave at any time."

He could, but then he'd have to deal with Rod hovering and nagging him about his mental state and fiber intake. Or he could loiter here and eat Pez and bother Keller. No contest, really. "I'm good, thanks," he said, and stretched out on the gurney.

Keller suddenly got a malicious sparkle in her eye. "So I'll just file the admission paperwork for…hm…let's say three-day stay? And a few rounds of blood tests so we can figure out the cause of your dizzy spells?"

So maybe Rod wasn't so bad. But John stole some more of the medical Pez anyway on his way out.

-\--\--\-

Markham and Ford had been friends, kind of, for certain values of friends. They were Marines, so they were kind of morally obligated to insult John and not care about the consequences, but they also protected him from monsters and angry villagers and once a really persistent blue bee the size of a ping-pong ball. Markham even let John fly the jumpers sometimes without telling Sumner about it, back in the days when Sumner worried about things like training and certification.

They didn't get a lot of the three-day slog assignments, but when they did, there was a certain tent situation. Namely, they didn't have room to carry more than two tents, and each tent only comfortably held two people, even little people like Teyla. Ford tried to suggest once that Teyla should get her own tent and the men would take turns sleeping outside, but she just stared at him blankly until he seemed about to start sweating blood. So instead they experimented, with the following results:

1. Markham moved around in his sleep a lot; Teyla took very poorly to being startled.
2. Ford talked in his sleep sometimes, and this made John inexplicably nervous.
3. John's snoring, according to Markham, resembled the mating call of an exotic bison.
4. Ford talked in his sleep sometimes, and Teyla could take very, very poorly to being startled.

There was an obvious conclusion to the testing sequence, and it involved leaving the Marines to twitch and mutter at one another all night long. This was despite John's general discomfort with the idea of sharing Teyla's tent, which he whined about to both Rod and Sumner (who was on the knitting by then) without discernable effect. "I'm pretty sure it's against somebody's regulations about something," he said.

Ford had elbowed him in the ribs. "What's the matter, John? Afraid she's gonna eat you or something?"

Truthfully, John wasn't sure whether he was more afraid that Teyla would outright kill him or that something awkward and inappropriate might happen on accident, like, maybe somehow he'd wake up with his hand down her top or something. Not that this seemed likely at the time or, you know, ever, but it was the sort of thing that just seemed to happen to him sometimes (see the Great Sleeping Bag Disaster of his first-ever SCA war as a case in point), and so he worried about it right up to the first time they actually split the tent. It was a snowy around that gate, and John had burrowed fully dressed into his sleeping bag with a couple blankets and about four pairs of socks, counting the ones on his hands. Teyla just lay down on top of hers with a blanket and her long, scary coat, and in the morning she looked the same, laying still and breathing quietly, like one of those fairy tale princesses, or maybe a movie vampire. John had rolled over in his sleeping bag and found himself just kind of watching her, in the murky light filtering through the walls of the tent—watching at least to the limits of his uncorrected vision—because for some reason it seemed like there was a difference between Teyla's normal stillness and silence and Teyla sleeping, even if it wasn't visually obvious. The difference between waiting and rest.

Then she suddenly sat up, rolled her shoulders and reached for her pack. John, whose brain was not actually functioning on all cylinders pre-coffee, may have made a yelping noise. Teyla just raised an eyebrow at him. "How long you been awake?" he asked thickly.

"I have just awoken," she said, and continued looking in her bag.

"You just sit right up and go?"

She paused to give him another eyebrow, like she didn't know of any other way. And otherwise, John didn't embarrass himself at all—certain less than Markham, who'd ended up partially on top of Ford, but because they were Marines they just called each other cocksuckers and a good laugh was had by all.

"It makes sense, actually," Markham had said cheerfully. "Men in one tent, women in the other."

John had spluttered indignantly for a good thirty seconds.

"Well, honorary woman," Markham said. "I don't think you get full man credit if you can't kill your own bees."

"Tentacles!" was all John had managed to say to that.

"Yeah, whatever."

So they'd been friends, but weird Marine friends who cast aspersions on John's manhood a lot. Still, friends, and he missed them after they were gone.

-\--\--\-

When John returned to his lab, he expected to find Eldon and Abdirova setting up for the next simulation. He also expected to find Rod loitering about in some corner, mixing up John's Sharpie collection and hogging the last of the good tavajava on some pretext of not-actually-babysitting-a-grown-man. He didn't exactly expect anything else to be on fire, exploding or emitting exotic radiation, but this was Atlantis, so you could never be too careful.

John did not expect to find Teyla sitting on a stool, sharpening a knife with a piece of pale stone. Eldon and Abdirova didn't seem alarmed by this behavior; in fact, Abdirova was giving a rambling, dumbed-down (and thus highly inaccurate) explanation of the simulation as she and Eldon mounted the test crystals in the racks. Well, Abdirova mounted while Eldon held things for her; they were still operating under John's dictum that Eldon was not allowed near open flames, edged instruments or power tools. Teyla, for her part, seems like she could be on another planet for all she cared, scraping the knife on the stone with a steady rhythm that bordered on the hypnotic, but after John spent several minutes standing in the door staring at her, she looked up to say, "Hello."

"Hi," John said, and then couldn't think of anything else to follow that up with, since running to find Rod while yelling see? see? see? would not exactly be smooth and What the crap are you doing in my lab? might provoke her. After all, she was holding a knife.

Abdirova seemed oblivious to the threat, if there was one. She even smiled at John. "Hello, Dr. Sheppard!" she said brightly. "I am telling Teyla about our research."

"Teyla doesn't care," John said automatically. "Now get to work."

"I care," Teyla protested. "I find it…stimulating."

Okay, so either he was delusional or Teyla was. Or maybe she was a pod person. Or possessed by the Wraith again, though that tended to involve more active sabotage and throwing Marines into walls and less stalking John and small talk. "Did you even understand any of that?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"If I understand Gulmira correctly," Teyla said, slowly and carefully, "you have synthesized these crystals in order to observe the…interstitial properties of the…energy matrix? In order to calculate the precise…precise geometry of the resulting sub…subspace…"

"Subspace inversion field," John said. He was fairly certain that was the longest string of words that he'd ever heard Teyla produce in one sitting, and he wouldn't bet that she actually knew the meaning of half of them, but that wasn't important because Teyla was talking to him.

"Yes," she said with a serene nod.

"It's just, you know, probably the first step to making our own ZPMs," he added. "So it's kind of important that way."

Teyla nodded again.

John folded his arms over his chest and reminded himself to be cool about this, cool and not crazy, because he really, really couldn't afford to be sent back to Earth in a straightjacket. It'd set this project back by, like, months. "So, you know, if you need me for something, or, you know, just wanted to say hi, that's cool, but we're kind of busy in here and probably should be working instead of just talking about working. You know, things to do, galaxies to redeem, Nobel prizes to win and all."

"May I watch?" Teyla asked.

"Um," John managed to say, even though Abdirova always told him not to.

Teyla stared at him as she waited for an answer, face as calm and closed as it ever was.

"We're basically plugging some shiny rocks into a wall socket to see what happens," John said.

Teyla stared.

"By which I mean there's not a whole lot to actually watch, you know, since the computers do most of the data collection and after that it's just math and unless we've really screwed up, and by 'we' I mean 'those two,' there really isn't anything to actually watch, and if they did screw up then we might possibly blow up this pier, so…" She was still looking at him, and he realized that he going in the direction crazy again. And the point was to be cool about this. So as of right now, he was Johnny fucking Cash. "You know what? It's your spare time. Eldon, what did I tell you about power tools?"

He ended up mounting all the remaining crystals himself, but it turned out Eldon had procured fresh tavajava, which redeemed him enough that John let him load the racks into the bubble chamber. Then it was just a matter of hooking them up to a naqadah generator and counting what kinds of which particles came out and then doing the math. And John was cool. So, so, totally cool. If he'd been any cooler, he'd have given somebody frostbite. Except for when Abdirova tapped him on the shoulder and he threw his tavajava at her. But mostly? So cool.

Teyla stayed in the labs for hours and sharpened that knife down to what John suspected was a monofilament edge. She didn't interrupt or ask questions, and when she left, John decided he'd discovered a new winning strategy.

-\--\--\-

John sometimes half-suspected that if you asked Teyla and Cadman's coven why they were so inexplicably ninja badass, they would confess some kind of conspiracy to overthrow the patriarchy, or perhaps a simple, sociopathic love of blood. Okay, so they wouldn't actually say say that, because you don't admit that kind of thing, but it could've been true. What they'd actually say—had said, actually, as he gathered over the years from various overheard conversations and out-of-context comments and reports he wasn't technically supposed to be reading—would be something like this:

Cadman: "I'm a Marine, so I don't get to be a girl. I couldn't even get front-line assignments outside the SGC…. I gotta be twice as good as any other officer at everything I do to even get the time of day from some guys, and I'm never gonna catch a break on anything. It's either be the best or go home. Besides, explosions can be fun."

Melena: "My people don't always give much credit to doctors and nurses. I've met plenty of patients who'd would rather die from an 'honorable' injury than live with a disability, or even admit they're in pain. Plenty of people would call us weak because we recognize the frailty of the human body and try to protect it. Healing is my vocation, though, and Ancestors help anybody who tries to stop me—even the patients themselves."

Mehra: "Well, my daddy was a Marine, and so was his daddy, and his daddy before him was in the Army, and I've got two uncles and four brothers and a shitload of cousins in one service or another. My grandma was a WAC, too, and my momma was a nurse in a field hospital in Vietnam…uh, what was the question again?"

Sora: "My people were great, once. We had an empire of a hundred worlds and Genia was a center of art and learning and wealth and strength. The Wraith took that all away…. It's the duty of every Genii to remember our shame and work for the restoration of the empire. In the execution of this duty there is neither woman nor man, elder nor younger, artist or scholar or merchant—we are all soldiers for the glorious cause. And it's my cause now to avenge every Genii life Cowen has wasted in his miserable, cowardly rule, starting with my father's."

Teyla: "I had no choice."

-\--\--\-

It turned out that being cool all the time was really kind of hard. John already had the black wardrobe and the soul patch and the cutting wit, but part of being cool sometimes meant not using that wit, or pointing out when people were wrong, or even talking at all. It also generally involved ignoring Teyla, which was a little bit like hiding from her, except for the part where she was still in the room while he did it. But it was kind of like the Schrödinger's cat thing—if he refused to acknowledge it, she was really only half-stalking him, and the other half was simultaneously doing whatever it was Teyla did normally when not stalking him (like beating people up and then meditating about it).

There were other rewards, too, like how Rod stopped nagging him about fiber and stress management. Granted, he occasionally looked at John like he was possessed, but he no longer had actual grounds to question his mental health. John also noticed that the Mensa meeting went way more smoothly than normal, though there weren't enough data points to correlate that with his newly-established coolness. Also, Eldon seemed to have spontaneously gotten smarter.

Coolness also helped him avoid the urge to pin a scarlet letter to Ronon's back, because it meant John could just semi-ignore him when he felt like it. Sort of a Schrödinger's adulterer sort of thing. But since he'd semi-kind-of-not-promised Keller he'd say something to Melena, he did look for an opportunity to talk to her, in a way that was both cool, unobtrusive, and totally unlike something a middle schooler would do. (Though he didn't have much grounds for judging that, since he'd never actually been in a conventional American middle school—during those years he'd lived in four different countries and, briefly, a barge in international waters.)

Sadly, he got his chance shortly after their next mission briefing, because it turned out that Rod really had been putting those off until he was sure John wasn't insane. They looked at the unmanned reconnaissance data, Elizabeth reminded them to check in if they found anything and Sumner reminded them not to die, blah blah blah, only somewhere around the first set of videos John felt somebody kick him in the ankle.

There were only five other people at the table, Rod and Sumner were discussing the terrain and Elizabeth's legs were too short to reach. He looked at Ronon, but he was asleep.

Somebody kicked him again, harder than before.

He looked at Teyla, because she was directly across the table from him and half-stalking him (hence motive, method and opportunity) but she was looking politely at the screen while Sumner described what the UAVs had revealed about the terrain for a couple miles around the gate. It was his right ankle being kicked, so no way could it be Rod or Elizabeth really, and Sumner's legs might've been long enough for some kind of reacharound action if he slouched, but John didn't think that was even possible. (He probably even slept standing up at attention, like a horse.) He got kicked again, really kind of hard this time, and he decided that Ronon was faking because even he had more respect for mission briefings than that.

So John kicked Ronon under the table. Ronon opened one eye, scowled, and kick John hard enough in the knee that he bit his tongue in order to not shout "FUCK!" in the middle of Sumner's never-ending topological lecture. Then somebody kicked his ankle again, and this time he had enough grounds for comparison to know it totally wasn't Ronon, because a) Ronon could kick way harder than that and b) the angle of the kick and the size of the boot were both wrong.

Teyla was still enraptured by Sumner, who was apparently describing every goddamn rock and naming it after his favorite Muppet or some shit. But she was the only one left who could be kicking him. Why was she kicking him? Was she annoyed that he'd been ignoring her? Was this some kind of tenderizing process? Maybe she'd developed some kind of weird kicking disease and didn't even know she was doing it. More importantly, how would a cool person handle this situation? Maybe if he ignored it…

Nope. Teyla could kick as hard as Ronon. John bit his tongue again.

Sumner finally, finally, finally finished talking about rocks, and Elizabeth started talking about ruins. John wondered if it would be rude and/or uncool to just get up and move to a different seat—or maybe a different room—or, hell, he could just resign from the team right now and hide under his bed (with the vents padlocked) for a while. But, no, that was not cool. John was totally cool. Nothing fazed him. Not even being kicked a lot.

Or, you know, having someone grab his foot in some kind of goddamn pincer maneuver and twist it. That hurt like a son of a bitch, but that wasn't the same as being fazed, exactly.

"You all right, Dr. Sheppard?" Sumner asked, because despite his coolness John couldn't entirely hold in a whimper.

The pincer immediately stopped. Teyla didn't even look concerned. "Fine," John declared, because he could be just as cool as she was.

Rod frowned at him. "You sure?"

"Yup."

"'Cause you're looking a little wild about the eyes there."

"'M good," he insisted. (And he was, or at least would be until he tried to stand.)

"Are you going to give me polysyllabic answers any time soon?" Rod asked in a tone of voice normally reserved for kindergarten teachers and orderlies in nursing homes.

John made eye contact with Teyla, finally, but he face was totally unreadable. She didn't look angry or hateful or grumpy or sick or anything. Just Teyla. "Maybe," he allowed.

Rod hissed under his breath, but Sumner just rolled his eyes and said, "If you ladies would let us get back to the briefing, we're almost done here." As soon as he started talking again, Teyla nudged John's sore ankle with her toe—or at least that's what it felt like—and he gave up on cool and tried to kick her back as hard as he could. Instead he hit the leg of the table square on, with sufficient force to both knock his chair over completely and break every bone in his foot. Or at least that's what it felt like.

"Jesus Christ, John!" Rod blurted and tried to help him up. "What's wrong with you?"

John waved his poor abused ankle and managed to blurt out, "Cramp."

So while the rest of his team were off enjoying a refreshing hike across Planet of the Fascinating Rocks, John was back in the infirmary with his leg elevated. And lo and behold, it was Melena who brought him over a fresh ice pack while they were waiting for the scanner to be freed up. "What happened here?" she asked cheerfully as she examined what promised to be colorful and extensive bruising.

"Long story," John said. For once, it seemed like Keller wasn't in the infirmary when he was; Carson was on call, but busy badgering a Marine who'd fallen down a flight of steps somehow. He took a deep breath and figured this was probably his only chance to avoid actually stuffing a note in anybody's locker. "Say, uh, Melena, how's…life?"

Ouch, bad opening. Not very cool. Melena frowned at him. "Good. And you?"

"I mean how's Ronon?" John clarified desperately. "Because he seems, uh, something seems weird with him. I think he fell asleep in the briefing just now?"

That at least morphed the frown from a what-the-fuck kind to an oh-hell-no kind. "He did, did he?"

"I don't know," John said. "I, uh, was busy getting a cramp and falling down."

Melena sighed. "I suppose…well, no, never mind. You are on his team and all, if we can trust anybody it's you."

"Totally," John said, while actually thinking, you'd be surprised. "Something going on?"

"You could say that," she said. "I don't really know how your people put this, but…let's just say Ronon and I are hoping to expand the family a little bit."

Oh shit. Ohshitohshitohshitohshitohshit. John swallowed hard, while somewhere in Rock 'n' Roll Heaven Johnny Cash shook his head in disappointment. "Really?" he managed to croak.

Melena nodded. "We weren't planning on telling anyone until we were more certain…don't want to jinx things, I suppose."

"I…that's…wow." Sticking to short words would maybe help a little. "I, um, congratulations?"

"Save it for when we make the announcement, okay?" Melena said, and smiled weakly. "Right now we're not having much luck."

"Have you tried, you know, the rhythm method?" asked John, or rather whatever being had hijacked his mouth while his brain was subsumed in horror.

Melena looked intrigued by that, and the thought of discussing fertility with her at just that second made John throw up in his mouth a little, but luckily Carson appeared and they got back to the much more familiar and less terrifying topic of John himself. Turned out nothing was broken, or even really sprained, and while Carson looked dubious about John's claims of a mysterious cramp (he knew perfectly well it was a stupid defense, but he couldn't very well start changing his story now, could he?) he still let John leave with an inflatable cast and a bottle of ibuprofen. John limped back to his lab and tried to decide how to never tell anybody about that conversation ever again, especially not Keller, because, Jesus.

-\--\--\-

When his team returned, they found him in the lab and asked about his ankle. John had found an Ace bandage to wrap it in, plus the inflatable cast, plus a crutch that he fashioned for himself out of some stray packaging materials they hadn't ever got around to recycling, so it all looked much worse than it really was, and they saw through that in about half a second.

"So when are you cleared to go out again?" Rod asked. He still had leaves in his hair from the mission.

John shrugged. "Day. Maybe two."

"Is that what Carson said or what you're making up?"

"Carson said," John said defensively.

"When's he ever tried to get back on duty that fast?" Ronon asked. John had to try very hard not to look at him, because ohgodohgod.

Rod made a vague hand gesture. "I know, I know, this is John we're talking about, but he's been wearing an awful lot of black lately, and he's stopped running his mouth off, and his research team says he's been alert and working before nine o'clock…"

"What's your point?" John asked, feeling preemptively stung by it.

"Just…you know what, never mind." Rod said quickly. "Nothing at all."

Then Teyla announced, "We will be free until sunrise on M4Z-001."

"Sunrise?" John asked.

Rod waved at him. "It's got a very slow rotation cycle. Night lasts about a hundred hours at the moment. That's why we called the mission, nightfall."

"So…yeah," John said, clinging to the remains of his cool. "Yeah, I'll be ready to go then. And nothing to do until then, right? Yeah."

"Perhaps," Teyla said, "you would honor me by joining me in the gym when your foot has recovered."

Rod chuckled and Ronon laughed out loud, but John broke out in a cold sweat. Was this it, then? Had she given up on subtlety and started moving in for the kill? Rod was right, there was no need to poison him—she could lure him into the gym and brain him with a bantos rod. Or maybe just glare at him hard enough for his heart to stop. If anybody could do that it'd be Teyla.

"He hurt his foot, not his brain," Ronon said. "You think he's actually gonna get in the gym willingly?"

"Remember, this is John you're talking about," Rod added.

"I'd love to," said the thing that sometimes possessed John's mouth while he was panicking. Because, okay, he kind of liked sticking it to Rod and Ronon sometimes. And it was certainly the polite thing to do. Did flies ever fling themselves into spider webs out of politeness?

Rod's mouth actually fell open, but one side of Teyla's went up just the tiniest bit, like a smile. "I look forward to it," she said, and left the lab.

And Rod blurted, "Don't ever start playing golf," and hurried out before John could find out just where the fuck that came from. And he claimed John was the crazy one. Bah.

(Ronon just left with no dramatic exit line, and John was secretly thankful because oh god.)

-\--\--\-

Probably one of the most disturbing things John had seen in Atlantis—disturbing, but not actively horrifying in the same way as turning into a bug was horrifying—was the Mary Kay party that happened in Kusinagi's lab just before the "Yay! Three whole years and not yet dead!" super-tendol feast. Well, he didn't think it was actually Mary Kay specifically, but that was the general tenor of what he saw when he wandered in looking for Kusinagi's results with the crystal extruders and found about two dozen women sitting on pillows in the middle of the room, passing around lipstick and eyeliner and something that suspiciously resembled snickerdoodles.

Mehra had been the first to notice him, and she threw a pillow at his head while sporting two sharply contrasting types of eye shadow that streaked outwards to her temples like war paint. "Hey! This is girls only! No men allowed!"

John had said the only thing that came easily to mind, which was, "You're not a girl."

"Tonight we're all girls, Shep," Cadman had said (looking somehow softened by some kind of cosmetic alchemy). "So either get out or pull up a pillow. I think we've got the right foundation for you."

He had gotten out, but not before noticing Teyla and Sora sharing a folded-up duvet on the opposite side of the room. Sora had apparently gone nuts with the body glitter and was giggling in a manner John never wanted to associate with her again, but Teyla had just been looking at a large, soft brush of some kind with a bemused expression. John had managed to rationalize the experience in his head by imagining that she'd been trying to figure out a way to disembowel somebody with it.

-\--\--\-

John thought about actually breaking his leg to get out of meeting Teyla in the gym, but that seemed a little extreme, and he did have to consider that Rod was watching, and possibly Sumner and Elizabeth at this point too. Then he thought about breaking something in his lab, but that also would probably get him into trouble unless he pinned the blame on Eldon, and at that point it wasn't really worth the effort.

He tried to mentally brace himself by dressing all in black for the event, like a ninja or a Marine or Johnny Cash, but that idea went down the tubes because he didn't have any pants suitable for exercising in except his uniforms, which were gray, or an old pair of flannel pajama bottoms, which were red and green plaid, and he didn't really want to die with a holiday theme. He thought he could at least make himself look competent and prepared with a couple of sweat bands, you know, like a pro something or other might wear, but the closest thing he could find in his quarters on short notice were some pulse warmers Sumner had knit him a couple months ago, and not only did they make him look like some kind of refugee from a 70's porno, they were fuchsia.

So he went to his death in BDU pants and a black T-shirt, and he made sure to set up his personal laptop to upload his will and a video message to the physics department if he didn't return and input his password in two hours. (He didn't think Teyla could get too far in two hours without using the gate. They could bring her justice in two hours, right?) He kind of wanted to say some final goodbyes, but Rod was doing administrative stuff and Lorne was offworld and he didn't even have, like, a fern to call his own. What kind of person doesn't even have a fern to miss him when he's murdered by vengeful alien ninjas? FERN! he wrote on a sticky note and attached it to his laptop, so that in case he did survive he'd remember to get himself one. Maybe Katie the prudish botanist could help with that one.

He had debated how much he should publicize his impending demise, because the bonus of making it harder for Teyla to escape was counterweighted by the possibility that a fair number of people would show up on hand just to point and laugh at him being in the gym at all, and at that point John would probably have killed himself and spared Teyla the trouble. So he studied the internal sensor data to plan the most isolated and private route to Teyla's favorite ass-kicking room, and brought a life signs detector with him to guarantee he wasn't going to be seen. Death with dignity, was his motto, or at least as dignified as he could get while running away very fast.

It did mean he slouched into the gym a little bit late, though. Teyla was already there, wearing the long multipanel skirt thing that she sometimes did. She was twirling one bantos rod in lazy loops, passing it smoothly from one hand to the other, with her eyes shut; she didn't even open them to say, "Hello, John," and in the angled afternoon light she almost looked serene.

"Hi," John said. "You, uh, it's…hi."

Teyla opened her eyes and stopped spinning the bantos. "You may remove your shoes."

"Huh?" John looked at his sneakers, which were a little grody from his last foray into a formerly-flooded lower level but still perfectly serviceable. Then he noticed Teyla was barefoot. "Oh. Is that, uh, like a rule?"

"No," Teyla said.

"Okay," John said. "Just asking." Die barefoot or not? Cowboys were supposed to die with their boots on. John wasn't sure what that had to do with him, but it suddenly seemed very important.

He was so busy obsessing about his footwear that he didn't notice Teyla moving across the room—or maybe it was just that ninja skill of Sudden Appearing at work again. Either way, she touched his arm, and he nearly jumped out of his skin, ready to run screaming from the room to bring a whole squad of Marines to his defense. Except she was just touching him, just a little, on the arm, which didn't seem like much of a finishing move even for a ninja. "John," she said, just like they did this sort of thing every day, the sparring or the touching or whatever. "I am not going to hurt you."

And the most bizarre thing was, when she actually said it that way, he totally believed her.

"Oh," he blurted, to cover up how his brain was abruptly rewriting its interpretation of several weeks' worth of events. "I mean, of course not. I was just…my ankle's still kinda, you know, so I was thinking about, uh, support. And stuff."

Teyla made one of those tiny little smiles again, and pressed her bantos into his hand. "Shall we begin?"

It turned out she hadn't meant to beat John up when she invited him here, she mean to teach him. John would've thought that required more talking than Teyla normally did in a single sitting, but it really didn't; she just demonstrated everything, and John tried to imitate her, and after a few rounds of this she'd grab his arm or shoulder with her hands and guide him through the motion she wanted like a posable doll. It was only slightly more useful than when he'd learned to parallel park with his driver's ed teacher riding the brakes, but John found himself too flustered in entirely other matters to care. Like the fact that she was touching him. And the fact that she was teaching him. And the fact she was not going to hurt him. He wondered if maybe he really had been delusional all this time, or if he just needed to hear it straight from her to really be sure, and if those were maybe kind of the same thing.

He just agreed half-numbly to take off his shoes so he could assume a better stance for some kind of blocking move when his radio beeped. He'd kind of forgotten he'd left it on. "Sheppard, this is McKay. You there?" Rod's voice asked.

John quickly toggled his on and tried not to sound too breathless and weird. "Yeah, uh, hi."

"Everything okay with you?" Rod asked magnanimously.

"Yeah!" John said sharply. "Everything's great. I mean cool. I mean awesome. Is there some reason it might not be great?"

"Well," Rod said. "for starters, I'm looking at your last will and testament in my email, as well as a video of you accusing Zelenka of plagiarism that just got uploaded to the physics server."

John realized with a horrible lurch that he was not wearing a watch. "Shit."

"You may recall that the same video offers up most of the contents of your quarters on a first-come, first-serve basis," Rod continued with surprising calm. "Which is why I'm radioing you from the infirmary, where Gulmira Abdirova and Fern Higgenbotham are recovering from injuries sustained in a scuffle over your laptop, which you were allegedly so kind as to label."

"No, no, no," John said, "don't let those heathens touch anything, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, I, um, fuck." He started to run out of the gym, remembered he was carrying a bantos, and ran back in to hand it to Teyla. "I gotta, there's a, sorry," he stammered.

"I understand," she said. "We can continue another time."

"Ok—really?" John blinked. "Like, again?"

"Yes," Teyla said. Cue tiny little smile.

"Oh. Um. Okay." John swallowed hard. "Thanks. I mean, for—okay, you know this part. Thanks. Later. Bye." And he sprinted off to defend his DVD collection from the marauding hordes, but not without her tiny smile on his mind.

-\--\--\-

It ended up taking like three days to sort everything out, and Sumner had to threaten to conduct room-to-room searches before anyone coughed up John's DS Lite. Luckily everyone was fairly willing to believe that it was all a complicated computer glitch, except for Zelenka (who was a totally plagiarist and pervy pigeon fancier in addition to being very thin-skinned) and Rod, who nearly locked John in a lab again in order to get the full story.

"You keep that kind of thing on your laptop all the time?" Rod asked incredulously.

"Of course," John said. "Normally it's set to upload if I go more than a month without logging in, so, you know, that would probably mean I really was dead, and then Zelenka wouldn't be allowed to call me whatever he just said. What did he just say?"

'You do not want to know," Rod said. "I presume, however, that you've decided you're not about to leave the land of the living."

"Yeah," John said. "Teyla said so."

Rod blinked at him. "She said—?" he asked, but seemed to kind of choke a little before he could finish the sentence.

"She said she's not going to hurt me," John explained. "Look, it's complicated."

"No it's not!" Rod said, and wow, he really was wound up, there was all kinds of flaily hand action there. "You and I had that exact conversation weeks ago, before you started crashing puddle jumpers and breaking your ankle and faking your death! And I told you to talk to her then! And instead you went crazy! The only complicated issue is why you didn't just take my advice to begin with and avoid what's turning into an increasingly bizarre and illogical comedy of errors!"

John, trying to stay cool, shrugged, even though he had basically gone over this all in his head already and realized it was kind of indefensible. "I'm not really good at talking."

Rod got up and left the room for about five minutes. John didn't know what he was doing out there, and towards the end he got kind of worried that maybe he'd thrown himself off a pier or joined a knitting circle or something. But Rod came back in looking far more composed, even if his face was still pretty red. "Okay," he said calmly. "Okay. The important thing now is to deal with this on a going-forward basis. Get beyond the problem. Now that you've decided to believe Teyla's not going to kill you, what do you intend to do next? In non-crazy terms, please."

John had actually been thinking about this since the gym, but unfortunately he'd decided that discarding the "Evil Plot" option had actually made the situation murkier rather than clearer. (Plus there was the revelation that sparring was kind of awesome.) "Still don't know why she was trying to feed me," he pointed out. "Or staring at me. Or kicking me under the conference table. Which technically did hurt me, but I'm willing to believe it was an accident."

"Maybe," Rod said, sounding strained, "you should apply a recently learned lesson to that situation and ask Teyla why she was allegedly feeding you."

But that would imply he might have to admit that he drew the wrong conclusion originally, and John had not gotten to where he was today by admitting his own mistakes. "I just said I'm not good at talking," he said. "Besides, Keller said she was gonna ask for me."

"Keller?" Rod blinked. "You mean Jennifer Keller?"

"If that's hot new doctor Keller, yeah," John said.

Rod rubbed his nose. "Dare I even ask what she's got to do with any of this?"

John had been aggressively suppressing that conversation, so he said, "Probably best if you don't."

"So when is she going to do this asking?" Rod asked. "In study hall?"

"Whenever Teyla happens to be in the infirmary next," John said. "So, uh, you know…"

"Never?" Rod offered. "Metaphorically knocking on wood, of course."

"It's not a perfect plan," John admitted. "But Keller's a woman, and she knows more about people and stuff than me, so maybe she can figure out what's really going on because frankly, at this point, I'm stumped."

"A woman shows you excessive attention," Rod said slowly, "including persistent gifts, and the only conclusion you can draw—and which you jump to immediately—is that she's plotting to kill you."

John folded his arms and stuck his chin in the air. "And what would you think, o wise one? Hmm?"

Rod looked at him with an expression of something like pity. "John, has it occurred to you that this may be Teyla's way of flirting?"

The word flirting ricocheted through John's brain at a high speed, and his thoughts changed tracks so fast he was surprised it didn't cause a spontaneous aneurysm. "No way," was the only thing he could get out of his mouth for a moment.

"Um, yes way," Rod said. "I was trying to avoid pointing it out because, one, I thought it was fairly obvious and two, the word 'yenta' is not in my job description—"

"She scared me!" John said. "She hurt my ankle! How is that flirty?"

"Didn't you ever pull on girls' pigtails you liked when you were little?" Rod asked. "Or, you know, build them a pencil-sharpening robot out of an old electric razor? I did my fair share of both."

"Totally inaccurate analogy," John declared. "I'm not a girl." Rod opened his mouth and then shut it again without speaking. "What? Say it."

"I wasn't going to say anything."

"You only do that opening-the-mouth-thing when you want to say something but you're too chicken to," John alleged.

Rod, predictably, did not like being called a chicken. "I was just going to say that between your intermittent bouts of screeching hysterics and Teyla's ability to potentially snap you in half over her knee…well, let's just say that Major Lorne isn't the only person around here who's ever questioned your sexuality."

"I do not get hysterical," John stammered, "and I don't screech, and my body weight is normal. I'm totally manly."

"I'm not going to argue that," Rod said airily.

"I am!"

"That doesn't mean Teyla can't be manlier that you, thus making you by default the girl."

John leapt to his feet and thrust a finger in Rod's face. "Lies," he said. "Vicious, vicious lies. You're just trying to mess with my head because I didn't leave you my Dr. Who boxed set in my will."

"Of course," Rod said flatly. "That's exactly it. You've found me out."

"Asshole," John declared, and left the lab.

-\--\--\-

Later, back in his quarters, John dug up an old legal pad (though he had to tear off about six pages of old Tic Tac Toe games and obscene doodles) and a felt-tipped pen. He wrote at the top, I AM NOT THE GIRL.

Then he created a list of evidence:

+ PENIS!
+ facial hair very manly!
+ pwnage at WOW, HL2, all Halos
+ degrees all manly subjects like math
+ animal magnetism -> kidnapping
+ Mensa leadership skills ubermanly

He thought for a minute, looking around the room, then added, Johnny Cash. He couldn't exactly express how that made him particularly manly, but he was certain it helped.

Then he made a second column and headed it, REFUTED

x Not hysterical, merely emphatic
x Baritone – cannot screech
x Joss Whedon is not gay!

He tried to anticipate any further arguments Rod might make on this front, and added after a short time,

x BMI is normal
x kidnapping = rape = no thank you
x have actually had sex with non ascended women
x bee had tentacles

He decided he liked this list, and so he took a digital photo of it and emailed it to Rod. Rod's reply was another email attachment, with two photos: one of John gamely trying on a bright pink cardigan while Sumner, who had knit it, looked gravely on; and one of Teyla sitting on John's chest that time he turned into a bug.

He replied furiously, you know sumner hates me and teyla can kick everyones ass i am no exception this is a spurrious accusation!

Rod's only reply was, TALK TO HER YOURSELF.

-\--\--\-

John did not talk to Teyla. It was a matter of principle, or actually a matter of not wanting to embarrass the hell out of himself if it turned out that Rod was wrong (and he was probably wrong, because John? So not the girl here). He thought about getting Keller to do the talking for him, but then she might ask if he'd managed to talk to Melena yet, and John would have to lie, because there was no way he was reliving that conversation. So it was mostly John being cool and Teyla giving him those tiny little smiles and Rod standing by, rolling his eyes at them both.

This lasted until Sushi Night in the cafeteria. Fish served in Atlantis always had a special fascinating/disgusting quality to John, since the majority of it was procured by sticking a net off one of the piers; on Sushi Night in particular, most of that procurement took place the same day, so there was something primally weird about eating something that until a few hours ago had been eating things itself. Plus, it really was good sushi.

They ate as a team, of course, and Teyla kept trying to bring John more California rolls and rice balls. Rod—dining a la MRE in deference to his allergies—kept coughing and nudging John with his elbow until John seriously considered whether sneaking a piece of shrimp into Rod's entrée would constitute justifiable homicide. "You are harshing my cool," John hissed at him while Teyla was up foraging for space wasabi.

"Since when are you cool?" Rod asked.

"It's my Teyla strategy," John informed him. "Be totally cool and ignore her weirdness until further data becomes available."

"I see. And by 'totally cool' you mean 'dressed like a beatnik?'"

Ronon asked, "You guys here to talk or eat?"

A week of active repression had not managed to completely expunge The Conversation from John's mind, and with his lips loosened by too much high-quality space tuna, he said, "If we're bothering you, maybe you should go sit next to your wife who love so very much."

Ronon raised an eyebrow at him, shrugged, and did just that. Rod blinked at them both. "Did he just—?"

"Yeah. No. Don't ask." He spotted Teyla coming back with the space wasabi (actually blue) in a little cup. "And quit poking me. Jesus, you'd think you're trying to set us up or something."

"It'd do wonders for my own mental well-being," Rod said dryly, and made a point of conspicuously enjoying his wheat snack bread.

Despite Teyla keeping his plate full, John timed himself to only eat for thirty minutes and then gathered up his jacket and his backpack. "Done now. Have fun," he announced.

Rod frowned at him. "You haven't even had desert yet. Normally you eat that first."

John waved the backpack at him. "Pop and Reese's in here, and no, you can't have any."

"Where's the fire?" Rod called out at he made his exit.

John called over his shoulder, "Movie night!"

One of the nice things about Sushi Night was that, in the way of tacky intercultural theme nights everywhere, it was invariably coordinated with Anime Night in the movie room. John did not consider himself an anime fan per se, but sometimes the offerings were sufficiently awesome that he attended even though it involved tolerating Zelenka as master of ceremonies. (Rod had once tried to use it as the basis of a peace accord between them, in fact, but the resulting dub versus sub wars had engulfed three departments before Elizabeth made them lock down those parts of the city wiki.) When Zelenka announced that they were marathoning six episodes of Mobile Suit Gundam—subbed, even!—John had not only procured for himself refreshments, he'd staked out the best couch and calculated the exact time of arrival necessary to claim it for his very own.

He was busily arranging the pillows to his satisfaction (while Zelenka fussed with the projector and Miko complained loudly about whoever had printed up the posters, since they'd managed to flip the image without anyone noticing) when somebody touched his shoulder. He looked up and blinked at Teyla. "May I join you?" she asked.

"Um," John said, distinctly aware of her hand on his shoulder. "Okay? I mean, okay. It's a free movie and all." She sat on the couch, and he realized he should probably offer her at least one of the pillows back, since Ancients had apparently had some weird ideas about ergonomics. She didn't take it, though, nor the pop that John offered her, which he hadn't expected she would 'cause he remembered the first time she tried a carbonated drink she did a spit take. She just sat as straight and still as always on the far end of the couch, and watched out of her peripheral vision while John finished arranging the pillows and busted open his Reese's pieces (which she did sample, but just a couple).

They had to wait a while before the movie started, since John had technically arrived over an hour early in order to claim the good couch. He waited, kind of terrified, for Teyla to try to start making small talk, until he realized that he was waiting for Teyla to talk. But that put the burden of talking all on him, or actually the burden of not talking, because she was right there and an hour was a long time and there was a difference between being cool and being rude, one even John could appreciate. So he told her about the time his mom went to Japan in search of Buddha and they lived in a hotel for three months and he saw the original MS Gundam movie like fifteen times, without even subtitles, just because giant robot suits were awesome. "I could probably make one," he added, "except I'd have to take apart about half the city first. Maybe just two fifths. I'd have to check."

"It would be a fearsome weapon," Teyla said.

By that point there was a crowd coming in, as dinner was finally winding down, and it turned out Zelenka had not brought nearly enough chairs. Erik Sorenson (marine biology, not a Mensa member, always played bards in D&D) came round and stood on one side of John's couch, clearing his throat and clutching a thermos to his chest with both hands. John tried to ignore this, on the grounds that if Sorenson wanted the good couch he should've arrived early like John himself had, but after a few minutes of oto-rhino-laryngeal serenades, he asked, "You got a problem, Erik?"

"Oh, don't mind me," Sorenson said in his goofy Swedish Chef voice. (John couldn't be bothered to remember if Sorenson was actually Swedish or not but that's definitely how he talked.) "I'm just waiting for Radek to bring the chairs."

"Okay," John said. "You do that."

But Teyla suddenly shifted over to the middle of the couch, pushing one of John's cushions out of the way. "You may sit here," she announced. Sorenson got a big goofy smile and plopped down right there on the good couch, and John was torn between protesting the violation of his rightfully-claimed couch territory and potentially offending Teyla, since he'd kind of granted her joint custody of the couch and so she had the right to give up part of her own sitting space without his consultation. Even though it meant she was kind of now pressed up against him all along one side, rubbing arms and knees as he re-settled himself.

Zelenka eventually brought the extra chairs, but of course Sorenson didn't move; instead he opened up the thermos, which contained something that smelled almost exactly like Campbell's soup, only not in a good way. Once people were actually sitting and had stopped whining about not being able to see the screen (another consideration in John's quest for the good couch) Zelenka stood up and launched into a rambling welcome-to-movie-night speech that, among other things, got the time of the anime club meeting wrong. John would've been the first to start yelling "Boo-ring!" if he hadn't been too flustered by Teyla, or rather, by his proximity to Teyla; it seemed like every time he tried to move and get comfortable he bumped up against her in one way or another, and dammit, this was exactly why he'd never wanted to share a tent with her, except he usually did share a tent with her, and there was never this much inappropriate touching then, but they didn't usually have the Swedish Soup Chef, and he thought that maybe faking an allergic reaction to inhaled MSG might've been a valid escape plan if he wasn't still clinging to the notion of keeping cool (and relatively sane). At least Teyla didn't seem bothered by all John's spastic wiggling; of course, she also looked attentive to Zelenka's speech, so maybe she was just repressing the urge to kill.

But eventually, finally, Zelenka stopped talking. John managed to relax when the familiar music came up as Miko navigated the DVD menu. Somebody turned down the lights. Somebody turned the windows opaque. Sorenson was still slurping his damn soup, but John could kind of deal with that, and also the person with the wet hacking cough somewhere in the opposite corner 'cause that was just what happened with free movie nights. Teyla sitting halfway in his lap didn't just happen, but he could deal with that, too, in the interest of coolness and enjoying movie night. More importantly, space robots. Mmm.

Partway through the theme song, Teyla moved. It wasn't a big movement, but it bumped her knee against John's knee. He figured she was trying to get away from Sorenson and his soup (which he slurped—god, it was like the inverse of V for Vendetta, S for Sickening) so he wiggled away to give her more room. She bumped his knee again just before the Zeon attack. He tried crossing his legs. While Fraw Bow collapsed in anguish, she bumped her elbow with his elbow, and seriously, did she have ants in her pants or something? "You okay?" he whispered to her, barely loud enough to hear over the soundtrack and the asshole with the cough.

"I am fine," Teyla said firmly, without looking at him directly.

John wanted to ask if she was fine, why was she moving so damn much, but that didn't seem particularly cool. Instead he finished a bottle of pop and hid it under the couch so he wouldn't have to get up and toss it in the recycling bag. On the screen, Amuro had the instruction book for his mobile suit open in his lap.

Teyla yawned.

"Are you serious?" John hissed at her. "I mean tired? By which I mean, seriously?" Even though he wasn't any louder than Sorenson and his damn soup, somebody shushed him.

"I am sorry," Teyla said.

"Just…this is the good part, coming up," John promised her. Even if she wasn't following the subtitles real well (and he wasn't sure, because he suddenly realized he didn't know if she could read—only that was stupid, because she'd lived with the expedition for over three years, and she'd filed reports and stuff a million times, but there was reading and there was *reading** and it suddenly bothered John that he didn't actually know) everybody liked the mecha battles. Teyla would have to like the mecha battles. He seriously hoped that Teyla would like the mecha battles.

She nodded, and John went back to the movie, leaning forward like he was thirteen again and the only gaijin in the theater, but also half-aware of Teyla next to him and whether she was about to fall asleep form boredom. Which meant, of course, that he was totally conscious of the moment when she yawned again—a small, polite yawn—and stretched her arms over her head in a way that made her back arch and her top stretch out across her chest. Somebody hissed "Down in front!" in their direction, and Teyla let her arms drop down, and one of them fell kind of awkwardly against John's shoulder. He squirmed and tried to twist away so she could drop it to her lap, but she kind of leaned against him instead, and her arm just slipped into the groove between John's back and the back of the couch and stayed there. He looked at her, and was on the verge of asking if she was stuck or something, but then he noticed that she was still staring that the screen and had one hand already in her lap, not stuck somewhere behind Soupy Sorenson, and that was when John realized her hand was on his shoulder and her arm around his back. Her arm was around his back. They were watching a movie and she'd yawned and stretched and—

"'Scuse me," he said, and leapt off the couch. He picked his way through the jumbled chairs of the movie room with a cool so cold he should've been leaving a vapor trail, and made it all the way down to the end of the hallway before he had to jump into the nearest access corridor and fumble with his radio. "Sheppard to McKay."

"I'm here, John. Something up?"

He licked his lips a few times, heart still pounding. "I think I might be the girl."

-\--\--\-

Rod, of course, was useless for a reasonable discussion at that point due to an overwhelming attack of the smug. That left John little recourse but to turn to either Keller or Ronon, since the former was already aware of his previous Teyla issues and the latter was within the team and therefore somewhat trustworthy, if also a dirty cheating cheater who cheated on his trying-to-be-pregnant wife. Luckily, or unluckily, or something, he found them in the mess hall together the next morning, eating breakfast. Or, well, at least they were both eating at the same time and at the same table—Keller was sitting cattycorner from Ronon and she'd turned her chair so she was facing away from him and almost had her tray in her lap. John paused for just a moment to consider whether she was taking the definition of ignoring somebody beyond the limits of its structural integrity.

But that was only for a moment, because there were more important things to talk about, i.e. himself. He took one of the empty chairs and announced, "We need to talk about Teyla."

Keller looked up at John sharply. "What about her?"

John looked around, but no, none of the coven were in sight just then—it was him and Keller and Ronon and Sumner eating with Lorne and some other officers. He lowered his voice anyway though. "I think Teyla's been hitting on me."

"I thought you said she kicked your ankle," Keller said, while Ronon snorted a little.

John shook his head furiously. "Not hitting, hitting on—like, flirting! In some kind of weird Teyla way!"

"Well, duh," Ronon said, and they both turned to stare at him. "What'd you think she was doing?"

John paused to pound his head against the table. He probably should've fixed himself some tavajava before he came down here. (Elizabeth wouldn't let the kitchen staff serve it, as a compromise with Carson, who thought it should be classified as a controlled substance.) Keller said, "Bringing him food at weird hours and trying to break his ankle don't sound like flirty things to me, really. Not like, you know, talking and smiling and…things."

Ronon, completely missing (or ignoring) the insinuation, shrugged. "So she's weird."

"Yeah, and she's treating me like a girl," John added furiously. "Last night at the anime night? Totally did a reach-around."

"You're kidding," Keller said, eyes googly.

"Well, kinda," John said. "I mean, she's not that tall and I was sitting on a pillow and stuff—but she totally tried!"

"You are kinda girly," Ronon said.

"The hell I am!" John asked, and went through his pockets to look for the same list he'd showed Rod, which he'd brought as supporting evidence.

Ronon shook his head. "You've been all quiet lately…not talking…not yelling or running around like you do…"

"Yelling a lot is kind of girly," Keller said. "I yell sometimes."

"I'm cool now, though!" John protested. "The strong, silent type, you know?"

"Exactly," Ronon said. "Totally girly."

"On what planet?"

"Old Athos."

"…oh."

Keller looked confused. "Is that why Teyla's all….you know? Strong and silent type?"

Ronon shrugged again. "That, or she got tortured by the Wraith and stuff. Never asked her."

"If strong and silent is girly for Athosians, what's manly, then?" John asked. "Yelling and running?"

"Pretty much," Ronon said. "Athosian men are supposed to be firey. Shows they're virile."

"I think," John said, "that you're not allowed to say that word ever again."

"Fiery?"

"The other one."

"Virile?"

"Yes."

Keller shook her head. "But don't most cultures say women are supposed to the hysterical ones? I mean, that's where the word hysterical came from, the same word as 'uterus.'"

"Maybe on your planet," Ronon said. "Athosians, Travelers, South Satedans…women are supposed to be all calm and logical. Tied to the cycles of nature."

"Strong and silent," John muttered. He hit his head on the table again. "We need to make, like, a book about this sort of thing. Aliens for Dummies."

Ronon smirked. "I hear Ladon Radim's already writing that one, but it's about you."

"I can't talk to you," John told him. "I just can't. Go…be with your wife or something. Hit on her. Say that word you're not allowed to say to me anymore."

"Virile?" Ronon asked.

"I just said you're not allowed—"

"Don't you think you're virile?" Ronon asked, and he was just grinning too much to be allowed.

John tried to look stern and terrifying, which usually worked on Eldon and most graduate students. "I'm warning you.

"Teyla must think you're vir—"

"Stop it!"

"Vir—"

"Stop!"

"V—"

"I said stop!"

Colonel Sumner suddenly clapped his hands. "Ladies," he called across the mess. "Do we need to separate you two?"

John was not nearly caffeinated enough for this. He found himself climbing to his feet. "For your information, Colonel," he declared, "I am getting a little bit tired of being called a lady by somebody who is currently knitting a cowl-neck poncho out of hot pink Fun Fur!"

Sumner stood up, too, for that, with one knitting needle still in his hand. John had never really appreciated how threatening a pointed piece of aluminum just a centimeter thick could be. "Is that true, Dr. Sheppard?" he asked, slowly.

"Yeah," John managed to squeak. "Just, you know, an observation." Sumner raised an eyebrow at him, looking for a moment like some kind of craggy old guy version of the Rock. John sat down. "That's all."

"So what are you going to do?" Keller asked once Sumner had sat and John was had stopped hyperventilating. "About Teyla, I mean?"

"I don't know!" John whispered. "That's what I wanted to ask you guys! And by 'you guys' I mean just you because if Ronon talks to me again right now I might scream."

Ronon, looking entirely unrepentant, stuck an entire waffle in his mouth.

Keller looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well," she finally said, "I guess it really depends on what you want."

"What do you mean, what do I want?" John demanded. "I thought this was about what Teyla wanted, which in case you didn't notice, is me, and oh my god I never thought I'd ever get to say that. Why can't anybody around here just talk in plain and simple sentences that don't have any hidden meanings or implications and actually clarify their actions?"

"Do you want her?" Ronon asked around his waffle.

"Oh," John said, and was so busy realizing the answer he forgot to punch Ronon in his adulterous face.

-\--\--\-

The first woman John ever loved was named Darla Fenstermacher. John had been in the tenth grade, and uncertain about what time zone he was in half the time, let alone who was president after Woodrow Wilson, but he'd been quite certain that Darla had the most beautiful hair in the known universe, and a smile that made John's heart perform exotic palpitations, et cetera et cetera. Even her braces were sexy. He'd asked her out, once, and she'd laughed and explained she was dating the captain of the lacrosse team, and that had all ended with six dead mackerels in the lacrosse captain's car and John expelled from the first of five high schools in North America.

The second woman John had loved was Nancy Gilligan, and he was fairly certain she was perfect. Perfect body, perfect face, perfect brain, perfect sense of humor, just, everything. Too perfect, possibly, to be allowed, and every time they dated or talked he kept waiting for her to do something or say something or turn out to be something disappointing, one of those dull oh, huh moments he was so used to having with people he tried to socialize with. The longer it went when that didn't happen, the more John started to believe that maybe it meant something, maybe he was on to something, maybe he'd found someone who actually fit with all the weird-shaped parts of him. He'd pawned a small fortune in console gaming equipment and bought a ring and then spent another month working up the gumption to actually ask.

The day he'd finally planned to do it, though, she'd served him with a restraining order. The words "creepy stalker" entered into it. John never did get his GameCube back, but he eventually recovered his pride.

The point was that John had loved two women, loved them completely (or as completely as a fourteen-year-old could) and totally, utterly, completely blown it with both of them. He would never call himself a person of faith, exactly, but he'd read all the appropriate mythic literature and tended to expect certain patterns in the world—Atlantis was always on the verge of exploding, his mother went insane at least every six months, the speed of light through a vacuum in normal space was a constant and after three strikes you are out. And Teyla, Teyla was there—Teyla would always be there, she had to be—and so if he did this thing, it was all or nothing, no half-assing it. Which meant he could absolutely not screw this one up.

-\--\--\-

He found Teyla in the gym, alone, beating a punching bag with her sticks. Whatever the fuzzy crap was that was inside those things was actually leaking out a little, so John thought he was allowed to say she was literally beating the stuffing from it. She stopped and turned to face him when he came in, though, and said, "John. Hello."

"Hi," John said.

And somehow the six things he'd actually planned on saying (including sorry I ran out on you last night and we've got some things to talk about, the latter said in the kind of grave voices he associated mentally with Rod and his father) did not ever make it out of his brain. Instead he blurted, "Are you insane?"

Teyla raised an eyebrow at him.

"I mean, look at me!" John continued, gesturing in a way that he hoped encompassed his body, personality and psychological baggage all at once. "Have you even met me? Like a billion other men in Atlantis and I'm the one you decide you want to date?"

"I have met you," Teyla said, getting that little line between her eyebrows. "And yes, I…wish to 'date' you."

"Well, yeah," John said. "I kind of, um, got that. Eventually."

Teyla tilted her head slightly to one side, and she might've gripped her bantos a little tighter, but John didn't consider himself an entirely reliable observer at that point. "Are you angry?" she asked.

"No! What? Of course not. Why would you think—okay, the screaming entrance, yeah, sorry." John swallowed. "Sorry about, um, running away in terror last night, too."

"Terror?"

He flinched. "Well, you know, you're…and I'm…and this is kind of…are you sure you got the right guy here? You weren't looking for, like, Rod? Or Lorne?"

Teyla exhaled slowly and tucked her bantos into the waistband of her skirt. Then she walked up to John and put her hand on his arm. "You have been my first and greatest friend in the city of the Ancestors," she said quietly. "You returned me to my people and found me my freedom."

John was fairly certain every drop of blood in his body was either in his face or his groin at that point, and every nerve ending had been temporarily rerouted to his right elbow, and he was so going to screw this up. "I'm going to screw this up," he said.

"Screw what up?" Teyla asked.

"This," John said, pointing. "Us. I'm, um, really bad at…people."

"I know this," Teyla said, and that tiny smile was back. John realized he could get used to those tiny little smiles.

"You know me," John said, because after three years and multiple kidnappings, assaults, and medical crises, she really did, "and you still want to, you know…?"

"Yes," Teyla said, and then she did. She had to kind of pull him down by the collar, granted, but her lips were soft and she smelled all sweaty and she kissed like there was no air in the room but him, like they were falling into a sun, like everything potentially looming over their shoulders was temporarily suspended and for that one moment, right there, in a sun-gilded gymnasium on Atlantis everything could be perfect.

Somebody once told John he kissed like a gagging goldfish, but Teyla seemed to have no complaints.

-\--\--\-

The nice thing about spending so much time on other planets was, it was always the harvest festival somewhere. Among the Athosian colonies, that was kind of Serious Business, and council members were expected to put in an appearance for politics' sake, which meant Rod's social calendar was surprisingly full. "Of course I don't expect you all to come along every time," he said every time, or close to it, "though it always does look good, you know, keeping that two-way street open, showing respect for the Council's laws and customs. Elizabeth and I are really the only ones required to come, so if you all have other plans…"

About half the time, John skipped the festival and watched movies in his lab. Another, oh, twenty percent of the time, he didn't go for some other reason, like he was turning into a bug or he had to completely repair four damaged puddlejumpers that Major Lorne had somehow thought it was a good idea to use as decoys against a Hive ship for some damn thing. When he did go, it usually involved getting spectacularly drunk on ruus wine, making himself sick on those little fruity nut tarts, and getting bundled off to the "special" tent to sleep it off before anyone else had even gotten red in the face. That usually meant the next two or three festivals were spent in his lab with something he'd pirated off BitTorrent, until the memory faded enough for him to try again. He generally blamed the whole vicious circle on the tarts.

So when Rod announced word of another Very Important Festival on some planet called Erryx, John tuned him out entirely, in favor of looking at Teyla, because he could do that now, and she wasn't going to punch him. In fact, sometimes she looked back, and got that tiny smile that he was really starting to feel a separate sub-obsession for all its own. (Rod said this was better than John hiding from Teyla, but he did not sound particularly emphatic about it.)

This time, though, Teyla didn't look at him or smile tiny smiles. She listened to Rod, then turned to John with the hand-on-the-arm touch that was becoming a second favorite to the tiny smile. "Would you like to go?"

"Go where?" John asked. Rod slapped himself on the forehead.

"The harvest festival on Erryx," Teyla said. "I wish to go."

"Okay," John said. Thankfully, before Rod hit himself or anyone else again, John got it. "Wait, is this like a dating thing?"

Tiny smile! Score! "Yes, John."

"So with Sumner that's five," Rod said briskly, and looked at Ronon. "What about you and Melena? Seven's a very auspicious number for harvest festivals, you know, and we want to make a good impression since this is our first visit."

"Can't," Ronon said. "We got plans."

Rod just shrugged. "I'll ask Carson and…hm…maybe Colonel Carter would like to come? The Phoenix ought to be here in time, and she hasn't met the council yet…"

John couldn't care less about Rod's ex-girlfriends, or much else that did not directly relate to Teyla at that moment. In fact, he didn't even notice when the meeting officially broke up until Teyla got up to leave, because before she did she touched him on the wrist—just a light brush. He figured it was the closest thing he was going to get in terms of public displays of affection, being that Teyla was Teyla and he was…himself, but it still made him grin like a crazy person as she left for some regularly-scheduled asskicking with Sora. (Because John could maybe kind of get into the bantos thing, but not where anybody could see him, and Sora still scared him to death.)

As John watched Teyla walk away, Rod said with a little sigh, "You know, one would swear she was stealing IQ points every time she did that."

"You are bitter and jealous because you still haven't gotten to second base with Katie Brown," John said gleefully.

"Oh, yes, I'm deeply bitter. How would you even know, anyway? She's a very private person." Rod closed his laptop and started bundling up cables, while John tuned him out in favor of thinking about Teyla. "You know, technically you shouldn't be on the same offworld team if you're in a relationship," Rod continued, regardless. "SGC's policy, not mine. Not that I'm trying to replace you, but technically, since I'm aware of the situation I'm supposed to take steps…" he paused. "Take steps to ensure the continued domination of the Tau'ri by our secret avian overlords, the grackles. To begin with, you must be shot and then have a sex-change operation. Your hair will be donated to science. And I'm taking away all your WOW achievements.

"Oh, dear god," he added, which is what finally got John's attention again. "I've created a monster, haven't I?"

"You said it was better than hiding from her," John pointed out.

"Obviously I spoke too soon." Rod paused. "You explained to her yet that you're not the girl in this relationship?"

"Get with it, Rod," John retorted, smirking. "I've always been the man."

-\--\--\-

So they did a mission where some priestesses tried to trade fifty pounds of magic mushrooms for Ronon, and then they had a nice friendly talk with some Travelers about the wonderful world of naqadah mining, and John got called in to free Lorne's team from a malfunctioning jumper before they asphyxiated. You know, Atlantis.

And then it was time for the feast. John allowed that it was a little girly for him to spend over an hour before gate time debating what to wear, because he'd always just worn his uniform to these things, except they'd never been dates before (or Dates, as he was suddenly tending to think of them, because they were with Teyla and thus deserved Extra Emphasis) so did that mean he had to wear, like shirts with buttons now? What about shaving? He definitely needed to shave, and even thought about putting on some cologne, until he realized the closest thing he had to cologne was aftershave that smelled like a wet dog, so he had to dunk his head under the tap to clean that off and ended up soaking his only reasonably clean collared shirt, so, yeah, uniform anyway. He at least made sure it was a totally clean one.

It turned out to be a wise decision, since when he arrived in the gate room Teyla was wearing normal clothes too—scary leather coat, boots, knife, etc. She was wearing a little pendant on a necklace that John wasn't used to seeing, but he didn't think that qualified as dressing up in any sense, so he was safe. Gate room was definitely way too public for displays of affection, so he just grinned at her, and got himself a tiny smile in return. Sumner, who alone among the party was geared up with a tac vest and rifle, like after the feast he had to go assassinate the president of Russia or something, rolled his eyes at John and Teyla and then paced near Katie Brown, who whimpered a little whenever he got too close; John didn't know what had possessed Rod to invite her but he hoped like hell she could hold her ruus wine.

Rod and Elizabeth were telling Colonel Carter about the feast protocols, but when Rod spotted John he grinned and called out, "All right, everyone here? Everyone remember to pack their toothbrush?" He clapped his hands together briskly and then gave Chuck a thumbs-up. "Remember, first check-in won't be until local sunrise, so don't wait up!"

That was one of the other fun things about spending so much time on other planets: they left Atlantis mid-afternoon and arrived on Erryx at sunset. The locals had helpfully lined the clearing around the Gate with colorful paper lanterns, and the chilly air smelled of wood smoke and wax. Two gawky teens with similarly colorful masks and fake spears barred the path to the settlement. "Who comes through the Ring?" one of them said loudly. "What are you, and whence came you?"

Rod held up both hands and said, "We are of Lantea, the youngest children of Old Athos, invited here by our brothers and sisters to share the gifts of this land. We offer you a payment for our safe passage." Elizabeth passed the kids Mars bars, and they stepped aside to let the whole lot of them through. Once they were on the path—also marked by the same lanterns—Rod started explaining the anthropologist's theories about the origin of these customs to Carter and Katie. John, meanwhile, used the deepening shadows as an excuse to take Teyla's hand. She didn't react to it, but she didn't object, either, and she kept a firm grip on him all the way to the camp. John couldn't help but grin, but if nobody actually saw it, did that mean he simultaneously was and wasn't the girl?

The settlement wasn't real big, when they finally got there, but every tent was decked out with the paper lanterns and garlands made of dried-up tava vines dyed gold and green and ochre. The locals and their other guests were already gathered around some medium-sized bonfires, and the straw men were up—these had freaked John the fuck out when he first saw them, but Rod and the anthropologists insisted it was a common harvest tradition in lots of cultures, and (at least Rod had) banned John from showing any Athosians in the city The Wicker Man for months. The Athosians just used tava vines and straw and branches, so it wasn't like they could fit anybody inside them anyway; the exact number and type of straw men was never the same at any festivals John had been to, and here they had one actual person-shaped one, one shaped kind of like a horse, and one that John just couldn't identify at all (unless somebody had given these Athosians an NES emulator and a port of Qbert.)

Teyla let go of his hand as soon as they got within the bubble of light formed by the settlement, and as they headed to the first group bonfire Rod took a deep breath and started to ream out the usual string of introductions. "Greetings, brothers and sisters! I'm Dr. Rodney McKay of Lantea, the Speaker of my people, and this is our leader, Dr. Elizabeth Weir, our hunt-master, Colonel Marshall Sumner," (hunt-master being the closest thing to military commander in the Athosian culture—they were a "make trade, not war" kind of people,) "a hunt, uh, mistress of our people, Colonel Samantha Carter, two scholars, Dr. Katie Brown and Dr. John Sheppard, and our good friend Teyla Emmagen, daughter of Tagan. We are well met on this night of good fortune and we bring gifts and good wishes for our brothers and sisters of Erryx."

He managed all of this in one breath. Rod was kind of scarily good at this.

John didn't bother keeping track of all the sons-of and daughters-of who introduced themselves back, not at first, because he was too busy bumping foreheads and smiling for the good of Atlantis and trying to keep Teyla, if not next to him, at least in his line of sight. In retrospect, it occurred to him that a diplomatic event might not have been the best site for a first date, but it was too late to talk her into a picnic or something and he might as well make the most of the situation. Maybe once the drinking started they could find an empty tent and—

"—and Dr. John Sheppard," Rod was saying to another group of people, and Sumner physically yanked him over to bump heads, "and our good friend Teyla Emmagen, daughter of Tagan. We are well met on this night of good for—"

Athosians didn't normally interrupt people—they were pretty laid back like that—but somebody elbowed his way past an old lady and said, "Teyla Emmagen? Did you say Teyla, daughter of Tagan?" It was a guy, a not real tall guy (though, John allowed, except for Halling none of the Athosians were real tall, and Halling's mother apparently wasn't Athosian originally) with a scruffy beard and piercing eyes who looked almost, but not quite, exactly like Male Model #7 from Half-Life 2. He was wearing one of the long badass leather coats and a bronze chain around his neck and generally looked like a VIP, and he was looking around at the Lantean delegation, peering at Carter and Katie like one of them was going to pull off a wig and yell Surprise!

But then Teyla pushed her way forward, pushed right past John like he wasn't even there, and said "Kanaan?" in a funny choky sort of voice. And then she was hugging this guy, hugging him and pressing foreheads together—not just the "hi, howya doing?" bump, but standing together with their forearms clasped and giggling and smiling, and not a tiny ones, either.

Obviously, John realized, Male Model #7 had to die.

Teyla turned back to the Lanteans (still smiling, she was not allowed to still be smiling) and said, "My friends, this is Kanaan Emmagen, son of Marta. We knew one another as children; this night we are well-met indeed."

"I had not heard you still lived," Kanaan said in a husky voice that John felt was Not On. (He also suspected Kanaan was looking down Teyla's top.) "I thought—we all believed you dead, Teyla."

"I was like one dead," Teyla said. "But these people of Lantea brought me back to life."

Kanaan smiled widely at the rest of them. "Then we are all well-met, brothers and sisters. I am leader of this settlement, and I bid you welcome on this night of good fortune and plenty."

Oh, great. Not only had Teyla found her long-lost boyfriend, he was the guy in charge. John wondered how hard it would be to find mackerel in Pegasus, and where he could hide them in a tent.

Kanaan welcoming them must've been the cue to get the party started, though, because the musicians brought out their instruments and people began to bring the food out of their tents. Somebody offered John a bowl of ruus wine, but he had a feeling that if he took it, it would sooner or later end up on Kanaan's head. Same with the fruity nut tarts, which suddenly seemed very aerodynamic. He watched Teyla walk beside the guy, who wasn't even that handsome, and also he was short, and remembered bitterly that he'd asked why him out of all the guys on Atlantis, but hadn't thought to include the Athosian diaspora in his analysis. And now he was going to have to watch her smile at Kanaan, and touch Kanaan, and eat food with Kanaan, and he couldn't even bail and go home because Athosians had this thing about using the stargate on certain festival nights, which was that they didn't, so unless he faked a massive allergic reaction or something, those kids with the blunt sticks wouldn't let him near the DHD. And if he did fake a massive allergic reaction, he'd probably get strangled by Rod, Sumner and Elizabeth, individually or as a group.

So he settled for lurking under a tree near one of the smaller bonfires and scowling at this Kanaan guy, because scowling was something he did really well. (He'd once made an undergrad in a 100-level course faint with a well-placed look. That, and her diabetes. But mostly John's scowling.) That kept at least some of the party-goers away, though at one point Colonel Carter came over with a tart and a skewer of roast beast and tried to make small talk. It went a little something like this.

"Hey, Dr. Sheppard, are you feeling all right?"

"Meh."

"You know, I read your latest set of project reports. That crystal analysis is producing some really good results. How'd you get through all that data so quickly?"

"I beat my research team."

"Excuse me?"

"I beat them. With pointy sticks."

Carter raised an eyebrow at John, then followed his eyes all the way over to where Teyla was still looking at Kanaan, and still smiling a little bit—not the tiny smile John stubbornly thought of as his own, but still, smiling. "Okay," Carter said. "Am I sensing a bit of a problem here?"

"No problem," John insisted.

"No?"

"Nope. Just need to find a place to hide the mackerels."

That got rid of her plenty fast. She left the roast beast behind, though, by wedging the skewer into a knothole of the tree, so John ate it, as a preemptive strike against any attempt by Rod to, you know, make him participate. Then he sat down on a protruding root, which was really pretty uncomfortable, but it was better than standing 'til dawn. He pushed up his glasses, folded his arms across his chest, and went into a full-blown glower of the sort he hadn't deployed since he'd been writing his thesis.

As a side effect of his glower, however, John was sober much later into the proceedings than normal, and so he actually got to see when the straw men got lit. The person was first, going up in a column of fire that seemed to claw at the stars; the horse-thing was next, and then Qbert, though that one took a little while to get going. Teyla came and found him then, probably because Kanaan was busy lighting large fires. (If Teyla wanted fire, John could build her a nuclear device big enough to burn a planet. Probably.) "I have not seen you," she said, and her eyes were sparkling in the light of the burning straw men and she was smiling, but it wasn't his smile, it was the same one she gave Kanaan and thus didn't count.

"Not hungry," John said.

Either what he said or the way he said it knocked the smile off Teyla's face, and John thought viciously, good. She studied him and said slowly, "The dancing will begin soon."

"That's nice," John said. "You go have fun."

Teyla turned and left. John wondered if it hurt to hold her back that straight.

The dancing took place in the triangle of space between the three burning straw men, which was probably a safety hazard of some kind, but it also provided the best light. There wasn't any general pattern to it—some people danced solo, some in couples, some in groups, and the musicians were allowed to totally change the piece in mid-stream if they felt like it. At some point Rod volunteered to go up, but Katie was apparently too nervous to dance in front of a crowd, so he and Elizabeth did a kind of vigorous waltz that mutated into a foxtrot when the music did. Later, Carter and Elizabeth and, somehow, Sumner, all demonstrated the Electric Slide, and then about six elderly men got up and started doing something with brooms that looked vaguely obscene from John's distance, and probably was, by the way people were hooting and shouting.

He blamed the porn brooms for distracting him; either that, or Kanaan and Teyla had gone to Ninja School together, because suddenly the asshole was there, with a bowl of wine, smiling at John like he hadn't just totally stolen Teyla away. "You look lonely, my friend," Kanaan said.

"Really? 'Cause I'm not." John pretended to be engrossed by the porn broom dance, even though some of the crowd had shifted and he couldn't really see.

Kanaan offered John the wine, but when John totally ignored him, just shrugged. "You are John, yes?"

"Mmmhmm. John Sheppard, son of Maureen, hi."

"Teyla has told me much about you."

Oh, of course she had. What else do you discuss with your long-lost boyfriend but the guy you apparently liked almost, but not quite, as much? "I'll bet."

"She says you helped to rescue her from the Wraith."

Yeah, a little thing like that, and she'd sounded so grateful about it back in the gym, funny how it could slip a person's mind when there was a hotter, shorter, more-authority-having guy around. A guy from her own people, who apparently knew how to talk to girls and how not to act like one. "Yeah," John said when he remembered he hadn't answered yet. "We all helped."

Kanaan looked to the dance area, where the porn brooms were winding down. "Will you join in the dancing?"

"Not really a dancing kind of guy," John said. "But you go have fun. Tell Teyla I said hi, if you see her."

"I will." Kanaan looked at John for a moment, seemingly confused, but then left the wine on the crunchy grass and went back to the crowd.

John wasn't sure what compelled him to follow Kanaan at a short distance. Witchcraft, maybe. Evil spirits. It was basically Halloween here, after all, even if the Earth calendar date was like December. Whatever it was, he grabbed the wine bowl and then pushed his way into the circle surrounding the dance floor, uncomfortably close to the burning Qbert.

Teyla and a couple other women had taken the floor and were stomping out something rhythmic and sedate in the center, with lots of swishy arm movements. Teyla wasn't quite in step with the other two, and she wasn't smiling, but she looked kind of serene in the firelight, the way she had in the gym, and just like in the gym John kind of wanted to reach out and grab her and kiss her like the end of the world. Because she'd kissed him, back there, so didn't that mean she wanted it? Hadn't she picked him first? He watched her do a spin that sent her coattails flying out behind her and wondered maybe if she really had been trying to kill him all along, only instead of poison she was really using angst. That wasn't supposed to be fatal after the age of sixteen, though.

Then the music changed, to something with lots of screechy pipes and a strong drumbeat, and four or five men came on the floor. The women didn't really change what they were doing except to adapt to the new tempo, but the men started some kind of crazy jumpy stompy thing, spinning like drugged-out dervishes and occasionally shouting "HOOAH!" like overexcited Marines. Kanaan was one of them, and he even did a fucking back flip in the middle of the mat, and then suddenly they were all doing flips and cartwheels and somersaults—it made John think of human popcorn, with the three women rotating steadily in the middle of it all.

Until the men suddenly stopped, and rushed at them. There was a moment of confused chaos, and all John could think was, At least Teyla will kill them swiftly. But then Teyla's head poked above the scrum, followed by her shoulders, and John realized that Kanaan had hoisted her onto his back and was now marching her around the dance area. The other two women were similarly accosted, but for a moment all John could see was Teyla, clinging to Kanaan's shoulders with her head tilted back and smiling that serene smile at the fire and the stars.

He suddenly remembered the wine in his hand, and drank down the entire bowl. He didn't remember a whole lot else after that.

-\--\--\-

Of all the things John could've seen upon waking with the hangover from hell, the dour face of Marshal Sumner was not high on his list of favorites. "Rise and shine, Janey," Sumner said, and poked John in the stomach with his toe. "We're moving out in fifteen."

"Don't call me Janey," John said, and tried to pull his blanket over his head. Then he realized he didn't have a blanket; he was covered with a long Athosian coat, not Teyla's. His head felt furry on the inside and sore, but more importantly, his face ached in a deeply troubling way. He was also missing his glasses, his shoes, and (upon investigation under the coat) his boxers, but mysteriously, not his pants.

Something had clearly gone very, very wrong.

"I said, we're moving out in fifteen," Sumner declared after a moment or two. "It's up to you whether you're coming with." He dropped something on the floor by John's head and then stomped out of the tent, leaving the flap open with his cold drafts and violently bright sunlight.

The something turned out to be a colorful scarf, and wrapped inside it were: John's glasses, a blister pack of Tylenol, a plastic baggie containing six partially crushed Pepto-Bismol tablets, a packet of moist towelettes, his toothbrush and toothpaste, a small make-up mirror and a pair of those clip-on sunglass thingies. When John managed to extricate himself from the coat, he found he wasn't in the drunk tent, but somebody's dwelling tent; one sleeping pallet was still unrolled on the floor near his, and there was a cradle standing against the wall. His boots had been put near the door, and they looked so shiny he was positive he'd either stepped in manure or puked on them, and the tent owner had been kind enough to clean them while he was passed out. He also found a basin and a pitcher of clean water, and set about trying to make himself functional (there was clearly no way he could be presentable, when he woke up with missing underpants) before Sumner abandoned him here to fend for himself through the winter.

He was brushing his teeth when a woman came into the tent, holding a bundled of blankets under one arm. "Oh, it's good that you are awake," she said. "I feared that you would be too winesick to travel through the Ring this morning. Many of our young men are."

John wasn't sure he still technically counted as a young man, and that might have been part of the problem. He spat out his toothpaste into the basin and realized he had no idea who this lady was. "Um. Thanks, uh…?"

"Gerna," she said, and put the bundle in the crib, where it started squalling.

"Gerna. Thanks for not leaving me in the drunk tent." He got up the nerve to look at himself in the make-up mirror and winced; his eyes were so bloodshot he looked like he had pinkeye, and one side of his face was bruised and scratched, like he'd gotten punched by somebody wearing a ring. A lot of the council members wore ceremonial rings. Shit.

"Kanaan insisted on it," Gerna said, and pulled something from the fire—thick slices of bread, now toasted on one side. "Will you take food before you leave?"

John had eaten about half the Pepto tablets already and his stomach still felt like it was on strike, particularly when he heard Kanaan was behind his comfy sleeping arrangements. "Better not risk it."

"Just as well." Gerna put the toast on a plate and then started rocking the fussy baby. John put on his glasses and the clip-ons and made his escape.

The others were waiting for him at the path to the gate with his stuff, and the wheel of reaction shots ranged from vague horror (Katie) to contempt (Sumner) to pity (Carter) to concern (Elizabeth and Rod). Teyla was there, but she wasn't even looking John in the eye. Shit. Struck out.

Rod handed John his backpack and used the opportunity to sneak in a quick pat on the shoulder. "Feeling…well, not okay, but you're not too sick, are you?"

"I'll live," John managed to mutter. "Can we go now?"

They marched back to the gate in silence, and John felt about as small as the little paper lanterns now laying scorched and crushed on the forest floor. (Maybe it was still possible for him to die of angst.) He headed straight back to his quarters upon return to the city and tried to sleep off the rest of the hangover, but horrible mental images of what he may or may not have done kept floating through his head. Eventually he got up the will to open up a laptop and maybe email Rod to arrange his exile, but surprisingly, he found a message from Elizabeth in his inbox. It read:

John,

I realized you might be a little fuzzy about what happened last night, so let me reassure you that you didn't do yourself or the Athosians any harm. As far as I saw, you just drank too much wine, did the Macarena for about fifteen minutes, and then wandered off into the woods by yourself. A couple of local men brought you back, but you accused one of them of a 'bad touch' and ended up in a slap fight with his mother (who I estimated to be about seventy). When it was clear you were down for the count, Kanaan and his wife took you back to their tent to sleep it off. I'm fairly certain the councilors found it funny.

If you do remember anything else that happened, quite honestly, I don't want to know. Rod, Marshall and I have agreed that this wasn't part of any pattern of behavior and there's no need to make specific mention of it in our reports on the matter. Colonel Carter also asked me to pass along, 'Thanks for the complement, and yes, it is natural,' in case you remember what that means.

Then there was her signature line. John read it twice, looked at his face again, and then went back to bed for the rest of the day. Maybe angst couldn't be fatal, but stupidity? Definitely.

-\--\--\-

By morning of the next day, John had had time to process exactly how badly he had screwed up. In fact, he had spent several hours examining his screwedness, seeking out all its hidden depths and facets, getting to know it like a friend. He considered the full range of his options, which included resignation (not constructive), request for transfer (also pointless), suicide (hell no), defecting to the Genii (and what was wrong with him when that seemed like an option at all?) or maybe just stowing away in the cargo hold of the Phoenix until they were too far from Atlantis to turn back. Oh, or he could try to apologize. That ranked slightly higher than both suicide and defection, but only just.

But by morning he had also ruled out various forms of running away, which left apology as the last candidate standing. Which meant he had to figure out how to apologize, which meant he needed to talk to somebody who knew about relationships and people and acting like a grownup. He decided to seek out Keller, since she could also probably put a band-aid on his face for him (since, though they looked reasonably manly, the scratches really did sting when he shaved. And had been inflicted by a seventy-year-old woman). He found her sitting in the cafeteria starting into a cup of coffee, googly eyes and all. "Hi, he said, and sat down across the table. "I very urgently need to talk to you."

"Hi, John," Jennifer said vaguely. She started to sip her coffee but put the cup down before it got all the way to her mouth.

"Yes. Hi. Can we focus here?" John snapped his fingers a few times and didn't even get a startle reaction. Huh. "Are you feeling okay?"

She finally looked up at him. "Did you know that Satedans practice polyamory?"

John could only stare at her for a few moments in horror and slow comprehension. "Okay," he finally managed to say, "so, uh, obviously you're working on your own sort of a situation here…"

"Nobody told me," Keller said, a little plaintively. "I didn't know."

"I, uh, don't think anybody knew," John said. "If that helps. I don't think we wanted to know, really. But listen, I need to ask you something about Teyla…"

"I didn't even know I was bi," Jennifer said, and did that almost-but-not-really-sipping motion again.

At that point John left the mess hall. He was having more than enough trouble coping with his own alien sex life at the moment. Jennifer could just…talk to Heightmeyer or something. Maybe take up knitting.

Ronon was obviously out as a second option, which left him with Rod or Heightmeyer, and as little as he wanted to be reminded of the debacle on Erryx, Rod did know Teyla the better of the two. Besides, all John's sessions with Heightmeyer had been kind of frosty ever since he tried to weasel out of one by claiming to have converted to Scientology. (Apparently she was not a Tom Cruise fan.) So John put in a token appearance in his lab to make sure Eldon and Abdirova weren't dismantling furniture or burning things, then went to Rod's lab, where Ladon Radim was throwing darts at something that looked disturbingly like a plushie Wraith doll. "Morning, Dr. Sheppard," he said.

"Um, hi," John said. "Is that a plushie Wraith doll?"

Ladon threw the last dart with considerable force. "Colonel Sumner knit it for me," he said. "It's therapeutic. Are you looking for Rod?"

"Yeah," John said, while thinking rather resentfully that the only things Sumner ever knit him were usually various styles of sweater in pastel colors with the buttons on the wrong side. "You know if he's coming in today?"

"He should be in at any time." Ladon pulled out all the darts but the one securing the doll to the board (through its face) and offered one to John. "Care to throw?"

"Maybe another time. Um." John thought furiously for something not related to Wraith voodoo. "Is it true you're writing a book about the expedition?"

"I started one," Ladon admitted. "But the topic sort of wandered. Now I'm calling it How to Win Friends and Influence Aliens."

And thank God, Rod arrived then, or John might've fled anyway. Well, technically he did flee anyway, because he didn't want to talk about his sex life in front of Ladon, but he was able to grab Rod by the collar and pull him into a storage room instead of just, you know, hiding. "We need to talk."

"Yeah, we do," Rod agreed heartily.

"I need to apologize," John added.

"Absolutely right," Rod said. "Who are we starting with?"

That made John freeze. "Um. Teyla? Who else is there?"

Rod leaned against a wall and raised an eyebrow. "Well, I think Sam actually found it amusing, but Katie's going to need therapy."

"What'd I do?" John demanded. "Elizabeth said I didn't do anything. Jesus Christ, does she have my underwear?"

Rod grimaced. "No, Jesus, calm down. I didn't know anything about any underwear. Did Elizabeth not mention the drinking game while she was playing Dumbledore with you?"

"Drinking game?" John did not remember any drinking games. Most Athosian drinking games involved tongue twisters in Ancient anyway, so he was pretty sure he could never have played them.

Rod nodded, folding his arms. "You tried to make Sam and Katie play Never Have I Ever with ruus wine. Except most of your statements were about, well, sex. Specifically, sex with me, actually. If I didn't already know you were insane, I might be demanding an apology myself, and as it is we're all going to be doing some serious repression for the foreseeable future."

That actually was not the worst thing John could've imagined, and frankly he'd never liked Katie or her weird buggy eyes and so he didn't feel all that bad about traumatizing her. That only left Teyla. "So what do I say to Teyla?" he asked.

Rod sighed, and sat down on a crate. "Well, it might help to start by explaining what the squirrels that power your brain were doing during the whole adventure. Was I hallucinating when you two agreed that this in fact counted as a date?"

"She was the one who was all smiling and touching on Kanaan!" John said. "Who I did not know was married at the time, I'd like to point out."

"You were jealous?" Rod asked, sounding somewhat surprised.

"Well, duh." John flopped down on a box, which crumpled under him; luckily it was just plastic pipettes for the chemistry and biology labs on the second floor and not, like, nitroglycerin. He found himself a more sturdy crate as he explained, "I mean, she was all touching on him, and smiling at him, and she hugged him…."

"She told me they were best friends before she was taken," Rod said. "They'd both thought the other was dead all these years."

"Well, how was I supposed to know that?" John protested. "I mean, okay, how did she flirt with me? Smiling, touching, food. How did she flirt with him? Smiling, touching…I bet she gave him food."

"She didn't," Rod said. "And she wasn't flirting with him. You know, considering we've lived here for over three years, you really don't have a clue about Athosian culture, do you?"

John suspected he was about to get a lecture on it, but didn't see any way around that. "What do you mean?"

Rod sighed. "Were you too busy plotting his untimely demise, or did you happen to notice that Kanaan's surname is Emmagen too?"

"So what?" John said. "There's lots of Emmagens. Halling's an Emmagen. I thought it was like Korea, you know, 'cause half the people in Korea are named Kim. I read that once."

"It's not like Korea," Rod said slowly. "Emmagen signifies a kinship grouping, sort of like a clan, which means unless they were…well, I wouldn't say the last men in Pegasus, but if the Athosian population was reduced to a fraction of their current numbers, maybe then Teyla could marry within Emmagen. As it stands, they've got colonies on thirty planets, so even if Teyla weren't ridiculously fixated on you, it would be taboo to marry within her kinship group."

John thought about this for a minute. "Are you saying Kanaan is Teyla's cousin?"

"No," Rod said, "but if you want to pretend I did, that works, too."

John leaned back and whacked his head on a light fixture, then decided he kind of deserved that. "I didn't know," he muttered, then frowned, because he sounded a little bit too much like Keller just there.

"No, you didn't," Rod agreed, "because for you, culture is something that happens to other people."

"I'm not good at this!"

Rod moved over to sit next to John, in a friendly kind of way. "No, you're not," he agreed. "But Teyla likes you anyway, God only knows why. Remember that this isn't the first time you've embarrassed the hell out of her in front of her people, or offended her, or done something utterly ridiculous in front of her because you are socially retarded. Either she's equally insane or she's got the patience of a saint, so I'm certain that with enough groveling and prostration, you can eventually get her forgiveness."

John thought about this. "D'you think I should bring chocolate?"

Rod shrugged. "Can't hurt."

"What about flowers?"

"Might be going overboard," Rod said. "Remember when we brought her those get-well flowers and she tried to eat them?"

"That was the first year," John said. "She knows what they mean now."

"Well, just make sure you don't pick anything poisonous. And apologize to Katie while you're down there."

-\--\--\-

John did get flowers (non-poisonous, verified as such by Parrish since Katie was actively avoiding him), and since the Phoenix had brought nonperishable foodstuffs he also got chocolates and Oreos and the good pudding cups. He also talked Abdirova into getting him candles, because everything was better with candles, or at least that's what he thought. Maybe he should run his plan by Rod before executing it. No, he could totally do this. He was a man. This was manly of him. He would figure out what definition of manhood he was playing by later.

He got a little hung up on the question of location, because getting Teyla to come to his quarters seemed weird when he was the one apologizing, but he didn't think he could bring lit candles to her place with the food and the flowers, and lighting them after he got there seemed weird. Then again, if he lit them at his place he'd have to call her over the radio to come, because he couldn't just leave lit candles standing around—well, maybe if he put them in mugs or something, but that didn't seem romantic, and anyway they weren't that big so there was a chance they'd melt before he found Teyla and talked her back to his place. But going to get her and then lighting the candles when he got back seemed just as awkward as taking them to her place, unless he rigged up some kind of auto-ignition system and tied it in to the door controls so they'd light on their own when he got Teyla inside (assuming he got Teyla inside) and so he started playing around with the idea just to see if it was worth the effort, and he was debating the efficacy of electrical versus chemical ignition when somebody knocked on his door.

It was Teyla. She had a plate of steaks in her hands. "Hello," she said.

"Um. Hi." John looked at the steaks, which were definitely red meat and at least an inch thick. There were like six of them. He didn't have a clue what that meant. "You want to come in?"

"Yes," she said. "I think we must talk."

He decided at the last second to light the candles, fumbling with matches while she stood in the middle of the room with the platter of steaks. Then he offered her the food, which was in a crumpled and sticky plastic grocery sack (Menard's) that had somehow made its way to the Atlantis mess hall, and the flowers, which were in a bucket. "Um. I brought you these. And stuff."

"These are from the first hunting of the colony on Erryx," Teyla said. "Kanaan gifted me with them, and I wish to share with you."

Okay. Teyla brought him meat. John stared at the platter, and she stared at the flowers and the Menard's bag, and eventually it occurred to John that she'd come here to talk, and now that she was here, he could start with the apologizing. "Let's sit down," he declared, and put everything on the floor.

Teyla put the meat on the floor too, and then sat cross-legged on the ground, so John felt like he had to sit on the ground too. He did give her a pillow, but she held it in her lap. "May I speak first?" she asked.

John shrugged. "If you—I mean, I'm in the one who needs to do all the apologizing, but if you want to, you know, yell at me for a while first, I think that's your prerogative, and then I'll start."

"I do not wish to yell at you," Teyla said, and she shut her eyes. "I think I owe you an apology as well. I was so eager to see Kanaan that I…neglected you."

"Not your fault," John said, thought he was also perversely pleased that she was acknowledging it. "I mean, he's like your friend and stuff, right?"

"He was," she said. "But you are my friend now—more than a friend—and I was rude to you. I am sorry."

Oddly enough, it was easier to make the words come out after she'd said them. "Sorry I got drunk and ruined the festival," he said. "I, uh, it wasn't the most constructive way to, you know, deal. Kanaan probably thinks I'm some crazy jealous asshole." And he's kinda right.

Except Teyla suddenly got that amazing tiny smile and said, "Actually, between your cool conduct towards him and your discussion with Colonel Carter and Dr. Brown about Rod's sexual habits, I believe Kanaan now thinks you are kineydu--I believe your people say 'gay.'"

"What?" John blurted, forgetting the part where this was supposed to be mature adult (and occasionally manly) discussion. "I just can't fucking win, can I?"

"If we return to Erryx, I will be certain to correct him," Teyla assured him.

And so there was the apology part done. John looked at the steaks and the bag of candy. "You want to, um, eat those now? Or we can put them in the fridge until later."

Teyla took a deep breath. "There is something else I must say."

Oh shit. Strike three. John was doomed to eternal loneliness. "You don't have to say it," he blurted. "Just, um, close the door on your way out? Only it does that itself. So maybe just leave quietly. I don't know."

Teyla blinked. "I am not leaving."

"You're not?" John tried not to let himself crumple with relief. "I mean, um, of course you're not. I should stop interrupting you like a jackass. Go on."

She didn't speak for a moment, and John berated himself with thoughts of cucumbers and icebergs to avoid filling the silence for her. Eventually, Teyla said, "I was a Runner for many years, and while I ran not even my thoughts were my own. I thought of nothing but my own survival—I dared not think of anything else. My people and my past were became nothing but painful shadows, and the limit of my future was the span of my supplies or the length of a night—nothing more."

Then she went silent again, and John could think of blizzards and Johnny Cash all he wanted, he couldn't just not say something to that. "That's not your life anymore, though," he told her. "You're with us, now."

"I am with you," Teyla said, and her brow creased. "But…I am with you but not of you. I still misunderstand your customs. Ronon tried to explain to me this thing called 'footsie,' for example, and I only managed to injure you."

John decided that "footsie" was going on the same list as "virile," and probably "polyamory" too, so he didn't have to think about any of them ever again. He tried to concentrate on Teyla. "It wasn't, I mean, you didn't…so you don't get us." He tried to smile are her. "Most of the time I don't get my people, either. It happens."

"It does," Teyla said, but she didn't sound like she was making a joke. "John, I was barely more than a child when the Wraith culled our colony. Sometimes, when I am among my people…as I was during the harvest festival…I feel that I know them, that I am in my place, that I am home. But other times—many, many other times—I walk among Athosians and feel myself a stranger. My own people feel to me as alien as yours."

And she was frowning, and what was worse, she was slouching, and that violated one of John's universal constants—three strikes you're out, and Teyla stands up straight. He panicked blindly for a moment, but then from somewhere deep in his brain, something (a thing that sounded vaguely like Rod) kicked him, and he crawled across the floor so he was sitting next to Teyla instead of opposite her. He felt weird putting a hand on her back, but she leaned into him just a little when he did, so he dared let his whole arm lay across her shoulders. How was it he never noticed how tiny she was? He licked his lips a couple of times, and eventually managed to say, "So I didn't get kidnapped by space vampires as a kid. But, um, you know my mom was…kind of weird, right?"

"I believe your usual phrase is 'batshit insane,'" Teyla said.

"Yeah, that too." John found a bit of bare skin near the collar of Teyla's shirt and brushed his thumb over it. It felt nice, and she didn't object, so he did it again. "And my dad, he didn't really want anything to do with me, he had his other, normal people family. So I just went where my mom went, and sometimes we did some pretty weird stuff and…the point is, I'm not exactly normal myself. So, um, I don't know where I was going with this." He breathed deep, exhaled, and swallowed, trying to focus. "I guess I kind of understand not belonging to anybody. Because I don't, really. I'm not kidding about not understanding my people, I just decided a while ago not to care."

"And do you not care?" Teyla asked quietly.

John shrugged as best he could with her under his arm. "Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't."

Teyla reached up, and for a minute he thought she was going to push his hand off, but instead she laced her fingers with his. "It was hard, to learn to think again beyond the next day and the next meal, to rely upon others and let them rely upon me. It was hard to admit…to imagine…I have wanted this for some time, John, but I did not know how to say it to you, or whether it was even possible. If you would want it. If I was whole enough to have it."

"We're both kind of fucked up people," John admitted. "But did you notice we're talking about our feelings and stuff? I don't think you've talked this much to me like ever."

And to his surprise, Teyla laughed out loud. For a horrible moment he thought she was laughing at him, you know, in the bad way, but then she put an arm around his waist and he immediately decided that her laugh was the best thing ever and he needed to hear it more often. Her eyes, when she looked up at him, were sparkling. "Then this is possible?"

"This is totally possible," John said. "Only I think we need to make it clear that I am not the girl in this relationship."

Teyla raised her eyebrow. "I would think that is quite obvious."

"You," John told her, "would be surprised."

-\--\--\-

So they ate steaks and pudding for dinner, and John put on The Matrix, because it was handy and had lots of fighting in it. They didn't end up paying much attention to it anyway.

And in the morning, after they'd cleaned up themselves and the candle wax and pudding cups, they met Rod and Ronon in the mess for breakfast. Ronon was smiling altogether too smugly, and John noticed that at another table, Melena was showing Keller how to cast on for knitting. They might've been playing footsie under the table, too.

Rod looked at John and Teyla and sighed loudly. "So just for reference, am I the only one who did not get laid last night?"

"That is entirely your own problem," John declared, and across the table, Teyla smiled a tiny smile.