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Dreams to Remember

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4

The first night after John’s extended recovery from the Kirsan fever, he dreamed of Ronon shooting him. The second night, he dreamed of Lorne and a photograph and flying the jumper when he couldn’t even remember where he was supposed to put his hands until Ronon grabbed his fingers and placed them on the controls.

The third night, he dreamed of Carson and Bates and Peter Grodin, and even though he didn’t understand what was going on or why Carson kept telling him, “Now, now, it’s just a wee bit of blood, that’s all,” and asking, “How do you feel, Major? Have ya noticed any symptoms?” he felt the bittersweet knowledge of Grodin’s sacrifice and Carson’s death.

The fourth night, he didn’t dream of anything, because he was dog tired after a crazy mission to rescue Lorne and his team, along with a large number of livestock, from a raging flood on the planet belonging to one of their oldest trading partners.

The night after that, his dreams got weird.

He didn’t feel himself slip into the dream. He was just there. The room was over-bright and Zelenka and Rodney were standing a little too close.

“You are not so much yourself now either,” Zelenka was saying. Zelenka’s voice sounded high and reedy to John’s ears. But his eyes hurt at the brightness of the light and his head felt heavy and strange.

And Rodney chose that moment to say, “Trust me, I’m fine. It’s not affecting me yet—I’d know if it were—but Major Sheppard—oh, seriously, he’s—sweaty palms, dilated eyes—”

“Neither do your eyes look so normal. I think you are not well. I will call Dr. Beckett for—” Zelenka’s offer ended on a squeak when Rodney pushed him against the edge of the lab table.

John stepped over the threshold of the lab’s door.

Zelenka’s panicked face turned John’s way, the image like an overexposed photograph, a blaze of white around the edges. “Oh, oh, Major Sheppard! Here. We are in here. Dr. McKay—”

And that was the moment Rodney kissed Zelenka.

And then there was a jump and he knew time had passed but he couldn’t figure out where he was or why and there was a pair of pale blue boxers on a body on the floor and he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything—

John jerked awake in a haze of confusion and he could still feel the pressure of something against his face. He blinked his eyes open and realized he was asleep on his stomach, his forehead smashed into his pillow, his mouth crushed against his forearm. His arm tingled with the pain of impeded circulation and he groaned as he rolled over onto his back. He rolled his shoulder, but the tingle turned into a throbbing ache that lasted long enough for him to groan again and stretch out his back and legs and gently raise his arms over his head until the ache went away.

He was having the Zelenka dream again, only this time there was so much detail, he had to wonder if he was fooling himself to think it was nothing but a dream. But if it was anything else, it didn’t make any sense.

*

“Okay, Radek, I’m going to put you on the spot here, but I need to know something from you.” John leaned forward onto his elbows and stared at Zelenka across the mess hall table. The team wasn’t here yet, and John was taking advantage of their absence to corner Zelenka without involving Rodney or the others.

“Yes, Colonel Sheppard?” Always formal with the military personnel, even after years in Atlantis, Zelenka stared back at John, his eyes wide and clear.

“I need you to tell me about that dream you have about McKay.”

Zelenka blinked and lowered his sandwich. His eyes flickered around the room, before he returned his gaze to John. “I do not know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, Radek. Rodney told me all about it—like what?—two years ago, so you might as well fess up. I swear I won’t tell a soul. It’s important.” John leaned closer, spoke low and serious. “It could be really important.” John hoped he’d put the right amount of earnestness into his plea. This was driving him crazy. He had to know.

“Rodney is—” Words in a foreign language followed, and John didn’t have to guess hard to figure it was Czech—and insulting. “He could not keep secret if his next meal depended on it.” Zelenka stared at John through narrowed eyes and used his finger to push his glasses up his nose. “I will tell you, because I trust you. And I still believe there’s something strange about this dream. Also it keeps coming back and now it’s more crazy than ever.”

“I know he said you told him I was in it.”

“Yes, you are. As is Rodney, and many other people too. But Rodney is the crazy person and—” Zelenka grimaced. “I’m sorry to say, but in this dream, I think you are a crazy person too.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.” John glanced around the room, making sure they were still relatively isolated. No one had taken any of the nearby seats and Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon had still not entered. “So start at the beginning and try not to leave anything out.”

“As I said to Rodney, or maybe some of this has been new, I can’t remember what exactly I told him now. He comes into my lab and he is acting strangely. He tells me about everyone being affected by some kind of—something, I do not know, but that he is okay. Only, I do not think he looks okay. I tell him so but he doesn’t believe me. Then he kisses me.” Zelenka rubbed his chin. “Oh, yes, I am sorry, before that happens, he pushes me. Then I see you in the door and you come in and take him away. I think to isolate him, but you look strange too, so I don’t know where you take him for certain. Then I go back to my lab and lock the door. It feels like I stay there for a long time, but it is fuzzy still.”

“So what’s the crazier than ever part? Because that sounds pretty crazy.”

“Rodney is not the first person to try to kiss me. That is the crazy part. But maybe it is only wishful thinking of me, because it is one of your lady soldiers who is not here anymore and Teyla.”

John coughed, raising his fist to hide his mouth. But it was either that or laugh, because Zelenka looked so hopeful when he said it, but—Teyla? Then again—Rodney? And unfortunately, that was John’s problem too.

He gave the table a sharp pat with the flat of his hand. “Radek, I owe you one.”

“You will not tell anyone of this? Rodney is already an ass most of the time. He still tells me I am secretly in love with him. As if I would torture myself to fall in love with Rodney McKay. I would rather feed my pigeons to a—a whale. Hah.”

“I won’t tell another soul.”

*

John watched Rodney sling his arms around as he tried to explain his point to the Nadean diplomat who had met them at the gate, which was once again above ground in the middle of the city courtyard. Despite Rodney’s best efforts to date, he had not been able to convince any of the Nadean’s new government officials to allow him to enter the catacombs beneath the city.

Three months ago, not long after they had moved Atlantis to its new planet, Nadea had found a way to contact Atlantis through another group of people who had regular contact with one of the Atlantis teams. The contact had been unexpected and surprising, and John had thought briefly of how Elizabeth would have been interested to know that the insurrectionists had finally won out, after nearly four months of fighting and an unfortunate amount of bloodshed on both sides, including Prentiss, Norval, and most of the old Governors of Nadea.

And for the three months since that the Nadeans had been making contact with Atlantis, they had continued to refuse to let anyone discuss anything about the hidden Ancient city with them.

Their missing children though was another matter entirely. Every contact seemed to come to the same conclusion. Where are the rest of our children? Why haven’t they been returned?

Most of the kids had been relocated to a planet with a simple farm community where a large part of the younger population had been wiped out by a disease very much like measles. Only a few had stayed with the Athosians—who were now missing, and no one could have predicted that would happen when the decision had been made to let some of the rescued Nadean children live with the Athosians.

Still, the Nadeans weren’t happy about it and their retaliation had been to deny access to the Ancient city, despite the return of twenty of the original twenty-four children whom John and Rodney had saved from a planet on the verge of destruction.

The Nadeans knew only that nothing happened when they tried to connect with the Great Ring on the world where they had sent their children. They were desperate for news. They had explained this to John and his team when they had met the first time after successfully making contact with Atlantis after their internal conflict ended. John had been the one who had to tell them not only that some of their children were still missing, but that the Great Ring on that planet had exploded.

Rodney was giving it all he had though, using his mouth as a human battering ram, hoping every time they visited that he was getting closer to breaking down their wall of resistance. John could have saved him the trouble. He could see it in their eyes. These people weren’t going to yield. They thought the Ancient city was their only leverage and they wanted their four missing children returned to them.

John stood a few feet back behind Rodney, with his hands resting at ease on his gun, and he could tell Rodney was reaching the end of his argument. Rodney’s voice rose as he said, “We’re really, really sorry about your missing kids, but there’s nothing else we can do. We’ve put everything we have into the search and you don’t seem to understand what a fantastic find your city is. There’s so much I could teach you about it, if you’d just let me in!”

“And for your efforts, we are very grateful, Dr. McKay, but we will not relent. You, nor any member of your team, will be allowed into the catacombs until our children are returned. Consider it an incentive to do your best. Our children mean everything to us, especially in light of how many we lost during the revolution.”

Rodney’s face screwed up in a tight expression of disgust and he slapped his arms together over his chest. “Well that’s just great. You know we’re not the only ones losing out here. You can’t know a—” He threw his hand up and pinched his thumb and forefinger together. “A microscopic fraction of what we could tell you about your precious city. And that’s really too bad for you.”

“That’s enough, McKay. We should go.”

“That’s not necessary, Colonel Sheppard.” The diplomat—he’d introduced himself as Torviss—turned his smooth young face toward John, his light colored eyes friendly despite Rodney’s belligerence. “We would like to discuss trade of other things with you. That’s why we requested your presence here. Please, consider accepting our hospitality for the night. We would like to take you to the open market where we gather all our best wares.”

“Ah. Okay.” John shot a look toward Rodney who just shrugged. “How far away are we talking?”

“Several hours journey, but I promise you, we have done our best to make sure you’ll find something of interest. We need skilled physicians and many medical supplies. The revolution has been difficult on our people, but now, even our poorest may no longer have to live in fear of the Wraith cullings. We only hope these...Replicators, as you call them, don’t discover our world.”

John hoped so too.

Too many people had already been lost to the Replicators. Although the fight against both the Wraith and the Replicators was taking a lot of resources, John didn’t think Colonel Carter would begrudge medical assistance to anyone, especially not when Atlantis might be getting something in return. He could think of no reason why they might want to turn down the request for trade.

“I’m going to have to contact my leader, but I think we can help you.”

“Hmm,” came from Rodney. John ignored him.

“We’ll give you a few moments to contact your people,” Torviss said. He nodded to John and Rodney in turn, and then walked about thirty feet away to the edge of the courtyard where several others stood.

John turned to Rodney, ducking his head away from their watchers. “You going to throw away your second chance to try again to convince them to let you into their Ancient city?”

“They’re never going to let me in. I’m wasting my time here.” Rodney eyed the people standing apart from them over John’s shoulder.

John looked back at the group, to see Torviss nodding and listening to an older woman.

Rodney continued with a wave in their direction, “But that’s going to be a long walk and you see their clothes? It’s getting cold here. I’m not sure I want to freeze my ass off to look at some low tech wares being offered up in exchange for high tech medicine—not that I’m saying we can’t help them—but think about it—maybe we should just get Sam to send back another team—this is kind of below our—” Rodney grimaced and waved his hand again and finished with, “Well, I’ve got a lot of work to do and you know, we’re too important for this kind of thing.” He looked at John expectantly. “Maybe Teyla and Ronon?”

John shook his head. “Teyla’s still not feeling well and Ronon’s following up a lead for Teyla. We’d be with him if he hadn’t convinced Carter he needed to go alone for this one.”

“Yeah,” Rodney said. “What was that about?”

“Don’t know, but that means we were stuck answering the call from the Nadeans and we’re already here. We can handle one night, look over whatever it is they want to show us and take the info back to Atlantis and let someone else work out the details.” John tapped Rodney’s chest with the back of his hand, startling a grunt from Rodney. “Now buck up. I’m putting in the call to Atlantis and then we’re taking a long stroll. We have wares to look at.”

“Great.”

John walked away, only to hear Rodney call after him, “If I start showing signs of hypothermia, you’re the one who gets to rub the feeling back into my fingers and toes!”

John found himself smiling as he dialed the DHD. Rodney would probably try to nag him until he did it too.

*

The ride to the market passed uneventful. Rodney had seemed as surprised as John was when a couple of men had approached Torviss with a low-wheeled, high-sided cart, just wide enough to haul all of them, with the catch being they all had to stand for the trip. Torviss, Rodney, John, and two others crowded into the back of the cart, while an elderly woman sat on a single-person bench behind a stout looking pair of animals that reminded John of gray-haired donkeys. 

He was able to prop his hip against the outer wall of the cart and rest his hands on its edge and mostly relax. Rodney bounced and jostled against him the entire trip, as if his body couldn’t find a steady center of gravity, but for the most part, even Rodney seemed glad they weren’t walking, since the trip turned out to be across excessively hilly terrain.

The sun glared in John’s eyes and he dug out his sunglasses. Rodney rolled his eyes at him, but kept his face turned away from the direction of the sun. The bright light did nothing to cut through the chill, and John thought it looked a lot like the hard shine of a dry but bitter cold winter day.

The cart halted just at the outer edge of a tall iron gate set into stone. John followed Torviss from the cart, followed by Rodney and the others. The old woman drew the cart away, and they waited beside Torviss as he talked with an old man guarding the gate. John studied the wall and the gate, and realized it was possible the iron gate held an electrical charge just like their jail cell had so many months before.

“I wonder where they’re getting their power,” Rodney said, low, for John’s ears only. “They seem so rustic, and then, something like this.”

“Could be leftovers from a previous civilization, or from one of their own. Some generation that made progress before the Wraith destroyed them with cullings and pushed them back into the Dark Ages.”

“Oh, I don’t think this qualifies as the Dark Ages. Even I can tell those vicious blades of theirs are too finely crafted.”

“We haven’t seen any blades today,” John said, keeping the conversation low, while Torviss watched the gate swing open.

“Thank god. The blades come out, and I’m out of here. You remember what almost happened to me the last time I was here.”

“Yeah, they fed you soup, apologized for the unprovoked behavior of the Governors who aren’t in power anymore, and thanked you—again—for returning most of their children.”

“Not that time—you know what I meant,” Rodney said. “They almost chopped my head off.”

John tried not to remember that, another in a long line of close calls that gave him the chills in the dead of night. He changed the subject, saying, “What I’d like to know is why most of these people haven’t been moved into the Ancient city. It should be plenty large enough for everyone.” John felt a shiver run through him. “It’s damn cold out here.”

Then Torviss approached, interrupting, and John realized the gate had opened wide before them.

Torviss gestured to the flat, wide stone path and said, “Come.”

John and Rodney walked a few paces behind Torviss, and when they crossed the threshold of the walled market, John realized the stone path flared in both directions and surfaced the ground for as far as John could see.

John faced a moment of confusion when he realized the open market Torviss had mentioned was actually inside a collection of buildings laid out in a pattern similar to that of the city they had left a few hours ago. It was huge, and crowded, and the gusty cold wind that bit through his jacket and vest made the canvas style signs hanging over the doors of the different buildings flap madly, the din only intensified by the clamor of so many people gathered in close proximity.

The wall had kept the noise down, but now, the full force of sound assaulted John. 

To say he was only a little surprised by the size and complexity of the market was to say Rodney was calm in a crisis.

“This way,” Torviss said, indicating with a wave of his arm that they should follow him. Rodney looked to John. John nodded and Rodney seemed to understand that John wanted him to go first. John hung back a few feet and tried to scope out as much of the surroundings as he could while they passed.

Torviss stopped near a barracks-like building on the outskirts of the dense cluster of alleys and stone walls. “Evening will be upon us soon and there are guest quarters for you here. We have everything ready because we had hoped you would agree and we didn’t want to be caught unprepared. In the morning, we’ll take you through the market and point out the items we believe you’ll find most interesting.”

John heard Rodney shuffling beside him. Rodney rubbed his hands together and blew into his cupped palms, as if to remind John of the cold and his earlier threat.

John jabbed Rodney with his elbow. “Knock it off. It’s not that cold.”

Except it really was. John could tell by the thickness of the robe Torviss wore over his pants and shirt that these people were used to the weather. He wished he’d asked Carter to send them some winter weather gear. There might not be any visible sign of the cold on the landscape, but the sun was on a downward path across the sky and the temperature was beginning to drop fast and far.

Torviss led the way into the building. Wall lights illuminated the open room inside, off which several hallways branched. The room was simply furnished, with a dining table and eight chairs on one end, a long low table along the wall behind it, and on the other end, six partially upholstered chairs with polished wood arms and two square side tables covered with undyed cloth.

They took the rightmost hallway, and Torviss stopped them in front of the third door, spaced further apart from the second than the first door, leading John to believe they were probably getting a larger room.

Yet when Torviss opened the door and led them inside, John was surprised to find only a simple sofa, small round table with two chairs, and a single large bed piled with quilted covers and three small pillows.

“The nights are cold so we prepared only one room for you to share. With only two of you, you might find you need to make use of a bedwarmer, otherwise your sleep will be uncomfortable.”

“Come on, how cold are we talking here?” Rodney asked, his tone as belligerent as earlier. “You have enough electricity to run a current to your lights and to zap anyone you stick into a jail cell, but you don’t have enough to create heat?”

“I don’t understand,” Torviss said. “The lights have worked for generations. We have a few skilled workers who can repair them, but they’re highly valued and spend much of their days traveling from city to city.”

“What about a fireplace? Are you telling me you have absolutely no source of indoor heating?”

“Fires in these old buildings are dangerous. We banned them a long time ago. Although we have many things to thank our ancestors for, these buildings were never meant to have fire in them. Too many people have died. So we make do in other ways during the cold season.” Torviss smiled at them, in a way that made John think he was humoring them. “As I said before, you might want to make use of a bedwarmer, or even two. You’re honored guests. I’m sure several could be spared to keep you warm.” 

“It’s all right,” John said, glaring pointedly at Rodney. “We’ll survive.”

Rodney turned an accusing stare on John. “Watch who you speak for,” Rodney said. “Hypothermia can kill.”

“Rodney, you’re not going to get hypothermia.” John couldn’t believe he was going to say it, and then he did, “For god’s sake, we’ll share body heat if it comes down to it.”

Looking between John and Rodney, Torviss edged toward the door. “Night comes on fast here. If you need a meal, come to the front room and something will be offered to you. I’ll also send a bedwarmer to you.”

“Thank you,” John said, knowing he had to speak for both himself and Rodney, because Rodney would never bother to remember to say it.

“Yes, yes,” Rodney said. “We don’t want to freeze. Send several.”

*

Crap, John couldn’t believe how cold it was. He might as well be trapped on a snow field in Antarctica. In shorts.

Okay, maybe he was exaggerating things, but it was hard to compare reality to memory, when the misery of reality invariably won out every time.

“Come here,” he said to Rodney. “You’re too far away to make things any better.”

The iron frame of the bed creaked. Rodney wiggled around until his back was pressed more firmly up against John’s. Rodney’s warmth bled into John’s skin, but it didn’t stop the wracking shiver that coursed over him. He tucked his hands tighter under his arms and pulled his legs in a little closer to his chest.

“Ha. You shouldn’t have turned down the bedwarmers.” Rodney’s voice sounded both righteous and indignant.

“You wanted somebody sleeping in the bed with us because it was their freaking job?” Oh, yes. That revelation had been interesting. Bedwarmers on Nadea weren’t hot bricks or hot water bottles. They were people, paid to snuggle with you while you slept. If you had enough money, or clout, or were a trader being wooed by the new government, you could even afford a pair, who would sandwich you between them and do their best to keep you toasty warm.

“Hey, I wouldn’t have minded a bit,” Rodney said. “At least then I wouldn’t be freezing my ass off!”

“Argue some more, that’s going to help us sleep.”

“Oh yes, sleep tonight? What a joke.”

“Yeah, well you better try, because you suck when you haven’t had enough sleep. I would know, because I’ve had to put up with you for four damn years!”

“Put up with? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Rodney flopped over onto his back, shoving against John and pushing him further toward the edge of the bed. “I get plenty of sleep, I’ll have you know. I need my beauty sleep to do my best work.”

“So you’re telling me you just enjoy being an asshole?”

“Oh, yes, that’s it, exactly. I play the asshole just for the hell of it and it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I spend my days, and nights, working with people who are so far beneath my level of intelligence that I have spent half my life just explaining crap to them instead of solving the kinds of problems that would make all our lives better and might—just might—occasionally save all our lives. Oh yes. You got the nail on the head with that one, Colonel Sheppard.”

Okay. Maybe he had asked for that. John blew out a sigh and watched his breath puff visibly in front of his face. He hoped this was as cold as it would get. Couldn’t one of the Nadeans have come up with some way to keep warm without fire?

Oh, yeah, they had. Bedwarmers. Big hulking fellas who probably would have given off heat like a furnace... Maybe Rodney was right and he shouldn’t have sent them away, but he’d had a knee jerk reaction to the idea of sharing the bed with a bunch of strangers, and not even pretty, soft bodies at that.

“Go to sleep,” he growled at Rodney, too cold to keep arguing. The low temperature and the damn shivering had sucked all the fight out of him. “It’s going to be a long night.”

“And why not?” Rodney grumbled beside him, his movements finally settling down after his outburst of anger. “I should be back in Atlantis working on my nanite code, but instead I’m here. I swore I was never coming back to this godforsaken planet after they tried to chop off my head, and yet here I am. Whose fault is that, hm? I should have never let you talk me into changing my mind.”

John tuned out Rodney’s prattling and drifted in that hazy place between wakefulness and sleep for a while, until Rodney’s voice faded and silence edged out the last of his scattered thoughts.

He woke suddenly, his eyes snapping open to darkness.

A warm weight crushed his chest and hips into the bed and an arm curled snug around his ribs. Not his own. Rodney, whose thigh had somehow made its way to lie across the back of John’s own thighs, and what the hell?

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep, so he brought his watch up to his nose and peered at the face of it. Fantastic. Two hours and a few minutes since he’d climbed under the heavy covers and stretched out on the lumpy mattress.

“Alright,” he grunted, shoving back—Rodney wasn’t exactly a light-weight so John had to put some effort into it—and pushed Rodney over.

John felt the mattress give and heard Rodney flop onto his back.

“What? What?” Rodney’s elbow jabbed John in the spine.

“Ow!”

“What are you doing?” Rodney demanded, going from sleepy slur to outrage in four words. “I was finally comfortable. Do you know how long it took me to get to sleep?”

“I’m not your pillow.” John shifted on the bed, turned on his side toward Rodney. He could make out the silhouette of Rodney’s nose and chin in the dark. “And as a matter of fact, I do. I couldn’t go to sleep until you finally shut up.”

The cover humped up over Rodney’s belly and John imagined Rodney had threaded his fingers together there.

Rodney sighed and then said, “You woke me up in the middle of a dream.”

“So?”

“So now it’s going to stick with me for the rest of the day and I hate when that happens.”

John couldn’t help himself. He gave a soft snort. “Whale eat you again?”

Back when John had discovered Rodney’s log of dreams, he hadn’t realized he would find himself curious about why. Why whales? In a strange twist, he’d gotten the answer to that question not that long ago when a crystal entity had begun infiltrating everyone’s dreams and people had started to share stories. Rodney had shared with the whole team one morning. Moby Dick. John never would have guessed it.

Rodney’s head turned sideways, and if there’d been enough light to see by, John imagined Rodney’s glare would have been fierce.

“No, a whale did not eat me again,” Rodney said, scorn clearly audible. “Although I’m sure it would have gotten there, eventually.”

“So, Carter in boots then?” As soon as the words left his mouth, John realized he’d made a mistake. He shut his eyes and fell back onto the bed.

“How do you—” A sharp gasp and then the bed shook, rocking John. “You’ve been reading my personal logs! That’s a total invasion of my privacy! How did you do that? That stuff is password protected.”

John raised up on his elbow and reached over and put his left hand in the center of Rodney’s chest. “Hey! Calm down. It was just one time and it was a mistake, okay?” A serious mistake. Now that he’d been having those newly complete, vivid, confusing dreams, he realized what that mistake might be telling him. He could put two and two together and get four just as easily as the next guy, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“When?” Rodney asked, short and demanding. Through his hand, John could feel Rodney breathing a little fast. Probably nervous. John realized moving around so much had also been a mistake. All the shifting had let cold air drift under the covers and goosebumps pebbled his skin. He pulled his hand away from Rodney’s warm chest and tucked his arm back against his side.

“Back on that planet where we saved the Nadean kids,” John said. “I was all alone in the jumper and I got bored. Your computer was there.” This was going to get embarrassing for the both of them if John didn’t do something quick. “It’s your fault,” he said and he added a twist to the words, the one that he knew annoyed the crap out of Rodney. “You should have left a few games on it. Solitaire at the very least. Freecell would have been nice. Chess. Maybe even hearts. I could’ve played hearts.”

“There are plenty of games on my computer. How is it my fault if you couldn’t find them?”

“I’m just saying. I wouldn’t have had to resort to putting myself to sleep with your boring logs if I’d had a few games to play.”

“You know what? I’m cold and I’m tired, and I’m going back to sleep.” With that, Rodney rolled away from John, curled up into himself, and didn’t say another word.

John didn’t mind so much.

*

Oh, good god. John had read his personal logs. Those ones that had, I don’t know, two hundred mentions of John and his mouth and that damn smile of his. Rodney quietly, carefully moved his hand up to his face and rubbed his eyes, trying not to disturb John or to let John know he wasn’t actually asleep, just like John was making a point of staying still and quiet, and breathing evenly, even though they both knew he wasn’t asleep either.

Rodney couldn’t have cared less about John knowing about his dreams about Sam. Seriously. Even though she was the leader of the Atlantis expedition now, that didn’t mean he couldn’t still think she was hot. Really, really hot. Because she was. In a blonde, female, busty, brainy kind of way that had always done it for him. He was just as red-blooded as the next guy, for god’s sake. There was no way even John didn’t find her attractive, although he would probably never admit it.

But all that was beside the point. How creepy must John have found it to find references to himself in Rodney’s dream log? Huh? Huh? Rodney blinked. This was a disaster. Then he blinked again. Okay, so that had been—what?—months and months ago. John had never let on. Although, now that he thought about it, more recently, John hadn’t seemed that surprised by Rodney’s tale of whale dreams and Moby Dick. Rodney had glanced up to see John staring at him and chewing his breakfast, acting pretty normal and disinterested. Nothing new there.

So maybe this wasn’t the end of the world he’d envisioned a few minutes ago, when John had admitted what he’d done.

Rodney hoped so. Humiliation sucked.

A full body shiver worked its way through him. He put his hand up and breathed warm air onto his cold nose. It didn’t really help him feel better.

With that thought, his heart slowed and the tightness in his chest eased. Everything would be fine. Of course it would.

But what if it wasn’t? A burst of wind whined through the alleyway on the other side of the far wall. Wood shutters rattled and canvas flapped, the sound muffled but still loud enough to startle.

Rodney gave up trying to be quiet, scooted back against John—because who were they kidding? It was too cold to be stupid about it—and closed his eyes.

John shimmied his back a little closer to Rodney too, until they were touching and warmth replaced the chill of drafting air under the covers. Rodney took that as a sign John intended to continue to ignore the issue of dreams, and Rodney was perfectly fine with that.

*

It was like those times when you woke from a dream and then fell right back into it. Despite having been awake long enough to argue with John, Rodney went from dreaming of bright halls and whooshing doors, to arguing with John, and when his eyes closed, right back to whooshing doors.

He felt scratchy whiskers against his cheek, rough like two days growth, and he realized he was kissing someone, and it wasn’t right. Blue eyes stared wide through round lenses and conveyed shock in a tight dilation of pupils, and Rodney thought maybe something was wrong with him after all because why was he kissing Radek Zelenka?

And then he wasn’t. A sharp yank on the back of his shirt brought his arms out in a futile attempt to save himself from falling, but it was too late. His ass hit the floor and all the breath left his body in a rush. Only the hand at his collar didn’t let go and he felt himself slide backward as someone pulled.

“Hey, hey, what—” He twisted his neck around and caught sight of the hairy arm dragging him along the shiny floor. “Major?” he said, but then he wasn’t surprised, because Major Sheppard had looked on the verge of running down the halls earlier during the conference with Carson and Bates and Elizabeth. “You’re supposed to be in the infirmary,” Rodney said, and he knew he sounded funny, but then, he thought maybe he should be feeling weird about being dragged down the halls of Atlantis by the collar of his shirt, and yet, he really wasn’t. He just kept thinking how nice the major’s forearm looked with all that dark thick hair covering it.

Oh.

“I’m showing symptoms,” he said, to no one in particular.

John answered anyway, “Beckett took blood, but he never said... But then he fondled me and I’m pretty sure that’s not normal for him.”

“No, no, you’re right.”

“You were kissing Dr. Zelenka.”

“Yes, yes, I was.”

It hit him then, that they were having this conversation while the major’s fingers were still fisted in his shirt, his ass was still sliding along the corridor, unresisting, and the major’s footsteps had never slowed despite his hunched back.

“You should let me go,” Rodney said. “Really. Right now.”

“I’m going to lock you in your quarters.”

“Oh.” He tried to turn again, to see Major Sheppard’s face. He slipped instead and tumbled over on his side, while Sheppard’s hand twisted up tight in Rodney’s collar, nearly choking him.

“Sorry, buddy,” Sheppard said but he didn’t release Rodney. He grabbed Rodney’s shoulder with his other hand, righting him, and then resumed his pull down the hall.

“What about you?” Rodney said, relaxing into the soft slide when he probably should have been doing something to get away. Even token resistance would have been nice... but his body didn’t respond to the thought.

“I’m going to lock myself in my quarters next.”

Rodney raised one hand, forefinger pointing high in the air. “I kissed Zelenka. You realize what that could mean? I think I do, and—and, and if you try to come on to me in my quarters, I’m probably not going to fight you off. You look really hot right now.”

“Huh.”

They had reached a transporter. Sheppard dragged Rodney inside, and he finally let go of Rodney’s pitiful, stretched-out t-shirt. Rodney put his hands out on both sides of his thighs on the floor to stop himself from falling over, and then leaned his back against the wall under the glowing panel and watched upside down as Sheppard tapped the spot that would bring them out closest to Rodney’s quarters.

Sheppard turned and propped himself against the wall. “This is a hell of a way to go,” Sheppard said, a disconcerting tremble in his voice that made Rodney feel a moment of hopeless panic. He wasn’t himself; neither was the major. Carson didn’t know what would happen to all of them in the end. They might die.

The door whooshed shut.

Rodney woke up.

Faint light filtered in through the gaps in the window shutters. He realized morning had arrived, finally. Thank god.

He stretched out his legs under the covers, noticing he had somehow managed to stay huddled in a tight ball for most of the night, still pressed snug against John. Cold stiff muscles and an aching back drew a rough groan out of him, and he felt the bed shake with John’s movement behind him.

Pieces of his dream floated back to him, and Rodney remembered this one. It wasn’t a new dream. Since his recovery from the Pegasus galaxy’s amnesia causing flu—oh, what a quaint name that one had, Kirsan fever—the dream had been recurring with astonishing regularity, along with dreams of walking down long hallways, writing on his arms, staring at a computer monitor in absolute terror of pushing the wrong button, and Teyla’s face. He logged them all, of course, for posterity. Who knew when there might turn out to be hidden genius in one or the other?

“You going to lay there all morning?” John asked, his voice sounding gruff from sleep.

“Not if you paid me in ZPMs,” Rodney said.

“Those bedwarmers would’ve probably been nice to have around last night.”

Rodney turned his head to glare balefully at the side of John’s face. “Ha ha. If only someone hadn’t sent them away.”

John sat up, the covers falling to his waist, exposing a seriously wrinkled black t-shirt. Neither of them had chosen to strip down further than shirts and pants. His hair stuck up wildly on one side but was mashed flat on the other.

Rodney didn’t even want to know what his own hair looked like.

John’s face also had a crease mashed into it that in the dim light looked almost like a scar. With a day old beard and bags under his eyes, John looked like hell.

Rodney could relate.

“At least we stayed out of the wind,” John said. He ran his fingers through his hair, and just like that, he looked almost normal, thick black hair standing up on both sides of his head now.

“That’s really not fair,” Rodney said. His own hair thinned a little more every year.

“What?” John just looked at him with raised eyebrows.

Rodney answered with a scowl in John’s direction. He raised his hands up and patted his own hair down as best he could, then gave up and shoved the covers aside. He stumbled out of bed on stiff legs. “I wonder if they’re going to offer us some breakfast?”

“We’re guests,” John said. “So probably, but we have supplies if they don’t.” John rolled out of bed and landed on his feet without a single grunt or groan, despite how worn out he looked.

Rodney tromped over to his pack. He yanked the zipper open. They were nearly the same age, for god’s sake, but you’d think John was ten years younger the way he moved around. Oh yes, that Wraith who had given back the life he’d taken from John last year had certainly given back a few extra years, whether John admitted it or not. Lucky bastard. Rodney bit back a sigh. Someday Rodney was going to end up on that workout schedule John kept threatening him with, or he was going to start getting left behind on missions.

“What’s got you all bent out of shape this morning?”

Rodney rummaged in his pack for the extra shirt he carried. “Oh, just the fact that I didn’t want to be here, but I am, and I didn’t want to freeze my ass off last night, but oh joy how I did, and now I don’t want to walk through a market full of pre-industrial, useless wares looking for trade goods out in the cold wind, but oh, I certainly will. This is a colossal waste of my valuable time and you know it.”

“Way to get up on the wrong side of the bed.”

“No, I actually got up on the right side of the bed, it just didn’t help.” Rodney pulled the shirt on over his head. It was one of the older blue shirts, like those they’d worn during the first weeks and months in Atlantis. He didn’t care if he stank of day old sweat, he wasn’t going outside this morning without extra layers. His jacket wasn’t thick enough by far.

When Rodney’s head slipped through the neck of the t-shirt, he caught John watching him. Rodney thought John would look away, move to gear up, do something, but he didn’t.

“John?” Rodney asked, frowning. He started to tuck his two shirts into his pants.

“What? Oh.” John cleared his throat and moved toward his boots which were on the floor near the foot of the iron-framed bed. “I was—I don’t know. Thinking about the market. This won’t take long. The morning will be over before you know it and we can head back to Atlantis where you’ll have all the heat you can stand.”

John sat down on the edge of the bed and started pulling on his boots.

The market? Rodney was observant enough to realize John had made that up on the spot to cover whatever it was he’d really been thinking about. Rodney really hoped it had nothing to do with last night’s revelation about his dreams.

Rodney hesitated, then said, “Are we okay?”

John turned his head in Rodney’s direction, still leaning forward with one boot on and one foot halfway in the other.

Rodney gestured between them. “I mean, last night, I thought—well, it’s been a while since you read my logs, so I thought it must not have—”

“No,” John interrupted. “No. It’s fine. We’re fine. Really.”

“Really.” Rodney didn’t feel reassured. He could feel a cold sweat starting under his arms. He’d been right to worry. He’d known nothing good would come of those damn dreams.

“I shouldn’t—look, don’t worry about it.” John grabbed up his vest and slipped his arms into it. “We’re fine.” He emphasized the last word not only with the tone of his voice but with widened eyes and raised eyebrows. The scrape of the zipper followed as John looked down at his hands, tugging, pulling, fitting his vest into place.

“Well...” Rodney stood there, counting the passing seconds in his head, not sure what else to say. Not wanting to bring up anything specific, because neither him nor John had actually said anything about the frequent mention of John in Rodney’s logs.

John remained on the other side of the room, his hands at his sides, his fingers splayed, a couple of them tapping against the side of his thigh. He shrugged. “So.”

Rodney bent his arm and thrust his thumb out, pointing back over his shoulder at the door. “They might have food. We should—”

“Get some. Yeah. Let’s do that.” John pointed at Rodney’s pile of gear. “You might want to—”

“Oh, yes. Yes.” Rodney nodded vigorously and bent for his own boots. “I’ll just—do that first.”

*

After a breakfast of dried fruit and meat pie, which Rodney ate with an unusual attentiveness to good manners, not once talking with his mouth full, John noticed, probably because he didn’t have any more idea than John what to say into the oddly strained silence, Torviss took them out into the already bustling market. John noticed the wind had died down, although the day was much colder than yesterday. He was also sure the Stargate was at a lower elevation than this place so the temperature difference could be a matter of location. Sunlight glinted on the bleached gray and white stone and glared into John’s eyes, until he had to take out his sunglasses and slide them on.

Torviss led them to many different buildings, where canvas-like awnings covered large openings and narrow, crowded table lined alleys. Most of the people shifted away from them as they followed Torviss’s determined stride, letting Torviss point out items of interest. John kept his expression polite and curious, whether he was looking at dyed furs and woven fabrics or intricately designed knife hilts and gleaming blades.

John nodded a few times, but overall, he didn’t see much in the way of wares that lived up to yesterday’s promises from Torviss.

Until—

“Is that—” Rodney damn near leapt forward as they stepped up to the next set of buildings, divided from the rest by a wider, less-traveled alley. His shoulder bumped John’s and John reached out with a cold-stiffened hand to steady himself against Rodney’s broad back. Rodney looked over his shoulder at John, his eyes bright and wide, his lips parted.

“This is Ancient technology,” Rodney said, breathless and eager.

John merely crooked the corner of his mouth up and tilted his head, looking around Rodney to see something that looked like Ancient drones in miniature. “Are those micro drones?” he asked, feeling the urge to whistle.

Rodney jerked his hand in their direction, touching before anyone could tell him not to, although no one did. “And I’m supposed to know that exactly how? I need to examine them before I make an official pronouncement, but if I had to guess, in my expert opinion, then yes, they do look like very small drones.”

“So micro drones, then.”

Rodney’s chin came up. “Yes, fine. Micro drones. Are you happy now?”

Torviss stepped up next to Rodney. Torviss’s face seemed to hold a smug tightness to it John hadn’t noticed earlier, as if he’d known all along how little John was interested in the other goods he’d been shown. “We have many of these items to trade with you, and other goods of a similar nature from the abandoned places of the Great Ancestors. In exchange, we would value any medical supplies and assistance you could provide.”

“I’m sure we can make some kind of deal,” John said, flashing a quick smile at Torviss and the silent male trader standing behind the table, who was carefully watching Rodney twist and turn the tiny drone, examining every crack and crevice. The man had short dark hair and no beard and stood evenly matched with Rodney in height and breadth.

“We wouldn’t have brought you here if we didn’t also believe so,” Torviss said. Torviss shared a look with the trader, who nodded and reached under the table. The man pulled out a cloth sack and placed several of the tiny drones inside, along with several other unknown but equally small devices that also appeared to be of Ancient design.

“Dr. McKay, please accept these with our sincere hope that you will find something of value in them.”

“Oh, yes.” Rodney thrust out his arm, his fingers waving until the man handed over the sack. Rodney stuffed the goods carefully into his backpack and asked, “Where’d you get these?”

The trader looked to Torviss, his expression questioning and cautious.

Rodney crossed his arms and exhaled impatiently. John kicked the back of Rodney’s boot. Rodney turned his head and glared at John.

Torviss nodded.

The man turned back to Rodney and said, “There are many places of the ancestors where we visit and collect artifacts for trade. One such place is less than a day’s walk from here, although the goods that were inside are long gone. We must travel great distances these days to bring back artifacts. That’s why they are so valuable.”

“Hm. You should take us there.”

“Why?” Torviss said.

The abrupt question seemed to catch Rodney by surprise but he didn’t hesitate to throw back, “You won’t let me in to your Ancient city. Only an idiot would turn down the use of my expertise out of spite. We were just trying to help those kids. It’s not our fault—”

“It’s entirely your fault, Dr. McKay, since your people were entrusted with their care. It matters very little to us that you didn’t ask for that burden of honor. You accepted it by retrieving the children, when they could have been left for us to retrieve later.”

“And they were very lucky we did because the big ring exploded,” John said, stepping forward. He gave Rodney’s shoulder a brisk pat. It was time to stop this argument. Rodney had gone over all this before and it was pointless for him to keep beating at the same dead horse. “We should be heading back soon,” he said.

“I’d really like to see the place where these things came from,” Rodney said.

Torviss nodded. “We will show you.”

*

They should have gone back for a jumper. John realized this after another cart ride over winding roads and through a dense forest that took two hours. By the time the cart stopped next to a sheer rock face that rose hundreds of feet toward the sky, John thought he was never going to get rid of the chill in his bones or the ache in his back and hip from standing against the high-sided slats of the cart as it bumped and jolted over every rock and pothole on the rutted path.

Rodney’s bitching hadn’t let up either, but John had just let that wash right over him, the inventive collection of complaints background noise for John’s careful observations of their route, the terrain, and their companions, Torviss, the still silent trader, and the cart’s driver, an old man this time.

Getting so far away from the Stargate had left him feeling unsettled. The new Nadean government had been easy to deal with on most issues, and they were being as reasonable as could be expected about their still missing children, but without Ronon and Teyla along, his and Rodney’s safety was entirely in his hands.

John watched Rodney’s breath puff out in little clouds as they climbed out of the cart. Rodney shoved his hands under his armpits, awkward as that was over the bulk of his jacket and tac vest. They both wore gloves but after not moving around for a couple of hours, the cold had seeped into John’s fingers too.

“Those carts are the worst use of the wheel ever,” Rodney said. “Seriously, they couldn’t have invented something with seats in it?”

John squeezed his fingers, trying to ease the stiffness brought on by the chill. “Maybe they like to stand.”

Rodney scoffed. “And maybe you’re just arguing to be contrary.”

John felt the grin that curled up the corners of his mouth but couldn’t stop it.

Rodney just shook his head at him.

“This way,” Torviss said, coming up on John’s right. He pointed at a yawning black doorway cut into the base of the cliff. “This is one of many places of the Ancestors on our world.”

The doorway had been cut right into the towering rock. John had to lean his head back to see the top edge of the cliff, although he’d had a better view half an hour ago when they were on their approach. Once they’d gotten close, it had been harder to see the top of the escarpment. No trees grew out of the cliff face, no grass clung to the sheer vertical wall of weathered black and gray rock and John thought it was easy to see why now that he stood in front of the imposing formation. The wall of rock had no pockets of dirt or ledges that would allow anything to take root; bare rock stretched at least a few hundred feet in every direction.

“That’s...something,” he said.

“There’s a fault line here,” Rodney said and pointed to a spot where the different patterns of rock seemed to swirl together in a fascinating display of the malleability of something that John couldn’t imagine as malleable at all.

The trader had joined them for the trip, Cor he had called himself in the cramped cart, and he stepped forward. His thick brown leather coat draped him from neck to boot. “We must take our own light with us. The place has been dead for as long as we have been collecting artifacts.”

“Got this,” Rodney said, patting his pocket, then reaching in and pulling out his flashlight and a handheld device John figured was a scanner of some kind.

John flipped on the light attached to his P-90. Rodney was already walking toward the opening, eyes narrowed on the scanner readout.

“Hey, wait up,” John called out. Too late though because Rodney stepped over the threshold, flashlight flaring bright as it came on, and John saw the quiver at the edge of the doorway and realized what was about to happen a fraction of a second before a door slid across the space and thudded into place. Shit.

Torviss’s eyes widened. “This is not supposed to happen.”

He jabbed his finger against the radio earpiece. “Rodney, do you copy?” He counted three seconds of silence while he walked up to the sealed doorway. “Rodney? Why the hell didn’t you wait?”

No response.

Cor jammed his fingers into the crevice where the door joined to rock face. John did the same. John’s muscles strained, tightening painfully, and his boots slipped on the dry dirt underfoot, but the door didn’t budge. Cor gasped just before he released his grip, and then stood there beside John, harsh plumes of his breath visible in the cold air. John grunted and let go. The door wasn’t going to open.

“Damn it. Rodney. If you can hear this, make some kind of noise. I’m not picking you up.”

John banged on the metal with his fist and heard a faint echo of sound reverberate on the other side of the door. He slapped his palms against the door and leaned in, mashing his ear flat against the freezing cold metal surface. A shiver raced over his skin. Nothing.

John smacked the door again for good measure and blew out a harsh breath.

“Is there another way in?” he demanded.

Torviss looked to Cor. Cor said in a hesitant voice, “We’ve never found another entrance. If we cannot get this door open, Dr. McKay will be trapped.”

*

Rodney felt the air stutter in his lungs before he lurched around in the near pitch black. “Oh, this is not good,” he muttered, followed by a considerably louder, panic stricken, “Sheppard? Sheppard! Oh my god, Sheppard, the door’s stuck.”

A tinny voice came over his radio, “Rodney, do you copy?”

“Sheppard—John! The door slammed shut behind me. It’s dark in here. I don’t know what the hell happened.”

And then John’s voice again, “Rodney? Why the hell didn’t you wait?”

“Oh, like it would have made any difference! As soon as I—”

“Damn it. Rodney,” John’s voice interrupted. “If you can hear this, make some kind of noise. I’m not picking you up.”

What? Rodney swung his flashlight toward the door. How could he—He scurried to the door and banged the side of his fist against the ridged surface. He couldn’t say how thick the door might be, but it felt solid and heavy and he doubted seriously John would hear a thing. The muscles across his shoulders tightened and he had to remind himself to quit breathing so fast. He hated tight spaces. Dark spaces. Cold spaces. Okay. Not helping. His hand clenched around the flashlight’s metal casing.

He heard John ask, “Is there another way in?” and realized John’s radio was still transmitting. “Crap. You sure about that?” John had to be talking to either Torviss or Cor.

Okay, okay. He had to think. Surely he could do that. The air didn’t smell funny, just a crisp mineral tang to it that he could taste on his tongue. He had his flashlight, a few power bars, some water, and his gun. He had his computer, and a few small tools, and—and—and a radio that wasn’t transmitting and those power bars weren’t going to go far, maybe a couple of hours because it had been a long time since breakfast, and he would die of dehydration pretty damn quick with the amount of water he had on him.

Rodney stepped back and rubbed his shaking hand over his chest. He would feel a lot better if John got that door open. He turned around and faced into the room he’d barely had time to notice before he’d been locked in.

His flashlight beam cut through the unrelenting dark, giving Rodney glimpses of Ancient writing on rusted metal walls. The place was in bad shape and a draft of cold air had to be coming from somewhere since the door behind him had slammed tight. He clenched his fist around the flashlight to hold it steady. His hands never trembled, and if they seemed to be doing it this time, well, it was probably just the cold.

John’s side of the conversation made it sound like Cor and Torviss were telling him there wasn’t another way in, but they had to be wrong. Something had to account for that draft of air breezing over Rodney’s forehead and cheeks, throat and ears.

He tried his radio again. “Come on, Sheppard. Why can’t you hear me? This is ridiculous. I really don’t like being—” He jerked his head around to the left. “What was that?”

He pointed the flashlight in the direction the sound came from, and his throat got a little tight as he looked into a deep, dark corridor that sank back into the wall. The circle of light darted over the ceiling, the floor, around the opening, but couldn’t pick out anything in the gaping hole beyond a few feet.

A prickle of unease ghosted over the nape of his neck. He fumbled for his gun. He managed to unsnap the thigh holster and pull the weapon out, raising and resting it alongside the barrel of the flashlight.

Whap...whap...whap...

The door behind him might be the way out if he could take the time to see if there were any controls nearby, but he couldn’t turn his back on the creepy corridor and the feeling that he wasn’t alone.

He squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head. “I’m in the middle of a third rate horror film,” he said. “There’s no way I’m chasing after strange sounds alone in the dark.” He grimaced. “Not happening. Absolutely, under no circumstances, nada, never. No way.” He pulled his right arm back and scratched the corner of his nose with his thumb, not easing his grip on his gun for a second. Despite the cold, he felt the moisture of sweat touch the back of his knuckle.

Whap...whap...whap...whap...

He thrust his arm forward, pointing into the dark at something he could hear but couldn’t see. “Oh, come on,” he said in fierce denial. “I’m not doing it! You’re just going to have to come out here and get me because I’m not coming in there!”

A bone-chilling scream and something rushed forward, straight for Rodney. Instinct told him to run like hell but there was nowhere to run so Rodney pulled the trigger, fast and furious and scrambled backwards, slamming his body up against the door, his heart thudding and his blood rushing loud in his ears, his skull digging along the ridges of the surface behind him. The light from his flashlight bobbed wildly and glanced off a shiny gray thing low to the ground, two glittering eyes speeding toward him.

He jerked the gun right at those eyes and kept firing. Bullets ricocheted with a pling, thunked and twanged as they missed their mark, and then he heard an ear-splitting squeal. Something wet splattered Rodney’s left cheek and the noise ceased abruptly.

In the sudden eerie quiet Rodney could hear nothing but his own ragged breathing. He started to bring his flashlight up and then—Whap.

He jerked and let out a sharp yell. He fired blindly at the floor at his feet until he realized he was out of bullets and was dry firing his gun. Rodney sucked cold air into his lungs. Might be hyperventilating, he thought. He unclenched his fingers and forced himself to take a couple of slow, even breaths, and was amazed at how hard it was to keep from gulping air. He fumbled the extra ammunition clip out of his holster. He blinked rapidly, caught a piece of his skin between the clip and gun. He cursed below his breath.

Whatever was lying on the floor didn’t move or make a sound. Rodney loaded the fresh clip into his gun anyway. When that was done, he steadied his flashlight and looked down at the—the thing that had tried to attack him.

It looked like a lizard the size of a naquadah generator, with a thick tail as long as its fat body. Other than the size, it reminded him of a komodo dragon.

In death, its black forked tongue hung out of the corner of its large mouth, big—really big—teeth sharp and wet.

“Oh, that’s just perfect. You’re probably venomous,” Rodney said, and he might have been embarrassed by the underlying tremor in his voice if anyone else had been around to notice. The tingle on this cheek startled him and after his last thought, he quickly jerked his arm up and scraped at his skin with the sleeve covering his forearm.

He listened for anything else that sounded out of place, but there was nothing to hear except for his own loud breathing. He could easily imagine an entire family of giant venomous lizards just waiting for their chance to attack.

He looked around, picking out his surroundings as best as he could in the dark. He quickly discovered that the only obvious way out—out being relative to where he was now—was down the corridor the creature had come from.

“Sheppard,” he said into his radio, knowing he probably wasn’t going to be heard but feeling the need to say something anyway, “I sure hope you’re trying to get my ass out of here before any more lizard creatures show up and try to make a tasty meal out of me.”

*

Four hours of crouching on the floor, working on a crystal door control that had obviously seen better days—oh, he didn’t know, but he could make a highly educated guess—ten thousand fucking years ago!—left Rodney so far beyond frustrated and angry that his teeth and jaw ached from the gritting and grinding he’d done to keep from giving in to the near uncontrollable urge to beat the shit out of the control panel and be done with it. He was too smart to do something like that though, knowing it might be his only way out, but oh how he hated this damn door.

A foil lined wrapper crinkled under his knee. He swept it aside with stiff, swollen fingers, then straightened his back, groaning at the pain in his tired muscles. His knee slipped on the smooth floor, knocking over the flashlight he’d stood on end to shine up into the door controls. The light spun away and then rolled to a stop against the base of a tray of dead crystals sticking out from a wall console. He’d pulled the tray out to check for replacement crystals once he’d discovered the damage a ricocheting bullet had caused to the already—apparently—malfunctioning door.

Which explained why the door had shut as soon as he’d walked through it. Somehow the systems had recognized his ATA gene and then promptly malfunctioned, slamming the door closed behind him and trapping him in a facility that half-worked, half the time.

Resting momentarily on his knees and sitting back on his heels, Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose. His eyes hurt and he’d developed a headache about an hour ago, he hoped from the strain of trying to see in the dark with nothing but the glaring light of his flashlight to see by. Secondary possibilities included tainted air, toxic fumes, dehydration, or poison. He wasn’t out of water yet, but he would be shortly.

A cool breeze fluttered around him and the skin along the back of his neck prickled. He’d noticed the temperature rising, slowly, over the last several hours, and the ventilation seemed to be working only sporadically. Even though it was warmer in here than it had been outside, the air filtering down around him felt chill against his skin.

He couldn’t say if the problems with this place stemmed from actual damage suffered thousands of years ago, or if it was simply a case of too many artifacts having been removed by the locals. Either way, it was stupid, stupid, stupid that he was stuck here, where every small noise made him grab for his gun and flashlight and spin around toward the creepy corridor that just waited to spit out another vicious creature looking for a meal.

“Sheppard, any time now would be good you know.” He spoke to the empty room, and his voice echoed quietly. With his hands on his thighs, he pushed himself to his feet. He needed to walk around for a minute to get the feeling back in his legs. They tingled from the lack of circulation, burning as he stretched out and walked in a small circle.

“Okay, okay, okay,” he muttered. “What would Sheppard do? He would have blown the door. Why hasn’t he tried to blow the door?” He paused and rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead, wincing at the warmth he felt. He answered his question with the only logical explanations he could think of. “He’s afraid the blast might kill me. Or he’s already tried it and it didn’t work. Or the Nadeans won’t let him...” He shook his head, making another circuit, going wider this time, depending on his memory to keep himself from walking into any of the number of consoles and tables scattered around the space. His flashlight still rested on the floor where it had rolled to a stop, illuminating the wall nearest where he’d dragged the lizard creature after he’d realized he couldn’t concentrate with the creature lying dead behind him as he worked on the door controls.

He smoothed his thumb over the tips of his fingers on his right hand. Not quite numb, but desensitized after touching the lizard creature’s ridged skin. Before handling the creature, he had wrapped his hands in yesterday’s shirt from his pack. Of course—of course—it had slipped while he was manhandling the heavy, bulky creature awkwardly across the room and his fingers had glided right over the slimy skin, wet with something that felt like snot.

The numbness hadn’t spread further. “Not poisonous,” he said, tapping his thumb against the pads on his fingertips. His fingernails felt weird, and his hand was definitely warmer than the rest of his body.

“Seriously, what are the chances this, this thing would secrete poison?” He looked down at his hand, but there was nothing to see in the dark but a shadowy outline created by the backwash of light spilling off the wall where the flashlight aimed. But he didn’t need to see his hand to know his fingers had swollen and his knuckles had gone stiff and tight over the last couple of hours. “This is ridiculous. Of course it’s poisonous. I’m so dead.”

He walked over to the corner he’d been eyeing for a while, farthest from the door and the corridor, ever since he had felt the first hint he would have to empty his bladder soon. He’d given up on a quick rescue, but he’d held off pissing on the floor out of sheer stubbornness. He didn’t want to smell urine everywhere if he was stuck here for a while.

But it didn’t matter now, because he’d held it as long as possible. He had to pee.

Getting his fly open was a little more complicated than he expected, no thanks to his swollen hand. His fingers fumbled the top button and sweat popped out on his face, but he got his pants open enough to work his penis out. He grimaced, hoped he wasn’t about to piss on anything he might decide he needed later, and felt a shiver race through him as he relaxed his hold on his too full bladder. Urine hit the floor in a steady stream and the sharp scent of ammonia wafted up.

He had a horrifying moment where his imagination kicked in and he thought about what might happen if another lizard chose that moment to bolt out of the corridor and come running at him while he stood there with his penis hanging out. He shuddered. He finished as quickly as he could, thinking all the while about worse case scenarios and how the hell he was supposed to pee when he was on the verge of an anxiety attack. He managed to get done though and he tucked himself away. 

His fingers fumbled on the zipper. His swollen hand seemed to be getting worse. When he tried to make a fist, the skin felt too tight and his puffy fingers didn’t want to curl, instead rubbing together uncomfortably. He would lose mobility in them soon. The trouble with his zipper showed he’d already lost a lot of his dexterity.

He rubbed the back of his swollen hand. His skin felt hot to the touch. Whatever kind of poison or toxin in the slimy coating on the giant lizard, one thing was certain. His skin had absorbed it by contact alone and his body was probably even now distributing small amounts of it throughout the rest of his body.

“I’m so dead.” He shuffled back toward the door that wouldn’t open. He tapped his radio on again, because he really didn’t like feeling alone here. “John, this is a pathetic excuse for an Ancient research lab. I just want you to know that. If you don’t blow down that door soon, I’m probably going to die in here.”

He bent down and picked up the flashlight and waited for a reply. In vain.

“There’s this corridor,” he said, pausing after the words to rub the bridge of his nose. “There’s this corridor I could try, because this door isn’t going to open, no matter what I do, and this corridor has lizards in it. Big lizards. Giant lizards. And they might enjoy human flesh. I’m not quite sure about that yet but I really don’t want to find out. But you see, I might be dying and if I don’t get out of here soon, it’s not going to matter because they’re going to find me lying on the floor passed out, maybe dead from anaphylactic shock, and they’re going to eat me anyway.”

He paused again, licked his dry lips.

“So, I’m going to have to go into the corridor.”

He looked down the dark hallway, into the pitch black of a room buried under a sheer cliff of rock. His flashlight bobbed, illuminating a crisp circle of metallic wall in the distance.

“I am,” he said. “I’m going to have to go there.”

He blinked a couple of times, thumb rubbing fingertips absently, other hand holding the flashlight mostly steady. The quiet seemed absolute except for the sound of his breathing. The air was dry and unpleasant, and he raised his fingers to rub at his nose.

His decision made, he turned around and shuffled back over to the sealed doorway into the facility to gather his things. He couldn’t know what he might find useful later, so he didn’t plan to leave behind anything he could carry.

*

John felt something bump into his back. He grunted at the sudden jostle and stumbled forward a few steps. “Forgive me,” he heard. Sounded like Cor. John quickly glanced over his shoulder, and then turned his attention back to the gap between two thick branches of evergreen tree that shielded the small group and the horrifying sight that had held his attention for the last two minutes.

“That thing is huge,” John said, carefully keeping his voice low. “And you say it lives in the cave?”

Torviss answered from beside him, just as quietly. “Yes. It does.”

“It looks like an alligator and a komodo dragon made out,” John muttered.

He glanced over in time to notice Torviss give him a strange look.

Cor added, in a voice that wavered and was not meant to carry past their tight hiding spot behind a thicket of evergreen trees, “There’s no guarantee the cave connects to the Ancestor’s Gallery.”

Meaning if Rodney still waited in the main room Torviss and Cor had told John about, they still might not be able to get to him.

“It’s the only thing we’ve got. The C-4 didn’t work, the tools didn’t work. We have to get in there. If McKay could have found a way to get the door working, he would have been out hours ago.”

Torviss turned to look at John again. “You believe your Dr. McKay is that proficient with the Ancestors’ technologies?”

“I know he is. That door would not have stopped McKay from getting out.”

Torviss turned his gaze back to the giant lizard and John followed suit. The large mouth had closed over the hind leg of what looked like a dead deer. The deer was big bodied, thick and heavy, easily the weight of a large man.

The lizard was bigger. A lot bigger.

The sound of bone crunched. John winced.

*

“Okay, Rodney, you’re not hearing things. There’s no whap whap flap flap coming your way. Nothing’s going to get you. Nothing there.”

Rodney eased forward another few feet, the nervous thump of his heart making him queasy. Or maybe that was the toxin. His flashlight couldn’t illuminate everything at once, and the dark corners at the juncture of the wall and floor and the wall and ceiling kept him sweeping his light up and down and then back out into the wide hollow center of the corridor. Cool air wafted past his cheeks and neck at the open collar of his jacket. He felt hot, but every few minutes his skin would pebble and the hair covering it would stand on end. Either he was scared shitless or he had developed a serious fever.

He kind of thought it might be a little of both.

He didn’t have all that many bullets left and if he ran into another lizard monster thing, he wasn’t sure he would be able to hold the gun steady enough to actually hit the animal. In fact, his fingers were now so swollen that he wasn’t sure he could even get his finger through the trigger guard.

He was carrying his light with his left hand and had his right tucked in against his abdomen. It had started throbbing earlier, the numbness wearing off a bit only to be replaced with a slow, steady ache. He was probably going to die here, lizard or no lizard, and that just sucked.

Maybe it was a moment of inattention, but something caused him to stumble. His leg twisted and he went down hard on his knee.

The fall jarred the flashlight out of Rodney’s hand. It went spinning across the floor and smacked into the wall. The light winked out.

“Oh, hell. This sucks! What did I do to deserve this? Huh? Seriously?” Rodney crawled forward, grunting at every contact of his knee to the floor, the pain enough to make him grit his teeth and hesitate on each move. He felt for the wall and the flashlight with his hands. His fingers touched the metal casing. He gripped the light and sat back on his ass, his knee too sore to support his weight any longer.

He shook the light, but nothing happened. He unscrewed the bulb housing from the base and felt around carefully for the bulb itself. It seemed intact but loose. He tightened it and the light flooded back, shining directly into his eyes.

He jerked the light away from his face but it was too late. “Are you kidding me?” he asked the empty corridor. He couldn’t see anything. It would take several minutes for his night vision to fully return.

He would just sit here and—

A reflective glint caught his eye. The light illuminated something in the distance, a change in the texture of the wall.

Not wall. Rock. He guided the light around the space. There, the wall was damaged, cracked wide, and there was an empty cavern on the other side, a cavern with walls speckled by shiny flecks of a reflective mineral of some kind, enough to have caught his attention when his light roamed across it. Now he understood where the lizard might have come from. Likely not another Ancient experiment gone wrong or abandoned after all.

No way he was getting anywhere near that opening. Who knew where it came out. He would rest here for a few minutes, get his vision readjusted to the dark and then continue down the corridor looking for a way out of this death trap.

*

How the hell was he supposed to fight off a giant lizard that the Nadeans didn’t want him to kill,  with nothing but a knife?

John panted, slashed at the tail swinging toward him violently, missed, and danced backward on the balls of his feet. “Torviss, what the hell’s taking you so long?” They were setting a trap for the lizard, hoping to draw it out close enough to an outcropping of rock to push a large boulder down and trap it in a sharply narrowing crevice that paralleled the cave at the rear side of the Ancient facility.

The lizard whipped around, almost too fast for John, and then rushed forward with another swish of its thick tail. John scrambled up a pile of loose stone that had sheared away from the wall. “Torviss, you better be right about this thing and climbing,” he said through gritted teeth.

Torviss had sworn the creature could not climb. John hopped up another three feet of stacked stone and turned to look down. He’d made it about eight feet up from where he’d been and the lizard was pacing in front of the pile, long tongue flicking out in a snake-like manner every time it twisted around to retravel the path it had just taken. It was pissed.

But it didn’t try to chase after John.

Again, John wondered why it wasn’t a good idea to just kill the damn thing with a few well placed bullets.

Oh, yeah. Torviss had said a curse would befall the planet without the allimodo—what the hell had he been thinking to drop that name into the conversation? Rodney was going to laugh his ass off when he found out about it.

“A curse?” John had asked, his skepticism not hidden well at all.

Torviss replied, while Cor looked on with a serious stare and earnest expression, “The creature is called a Latar. It consumes the Spiga and keeps the forests safe for travel. Killing even one of the Latar can have far reaching consequences. They are slow to birth offspring. The Spiga are not.”

“The Spiga are bad, I take it?”

“Very bad. They feed on the Iratus bugs but they’re just as deadly.”

Unease coursed through John. Maybe these Spiga were not what he suddenly imagined they might be. “Just how deadly are we talking?”

“They’re nocturnal creatures. They create cocoons from their webs and store their food in the trees where they feed on the blood of their prey until the prey can no longer produce new blood. Then they feed on the flesh.”

John grimaced. The story put a whole new light on his memories of a dark and dangerous run for the gate a few years ago.

It also gave him something else to worry about.

“Is it possible there are some of those things in there with Rodney?” John asked.

Torviss’s answer had been ambivalent. Cor’s expression had not. Rodney could be in serious trouble, the kind that had nothing to do with being trapped in a building with no apparent means of escape.

The lizard chose that moment to hiss up at John. John jumped back from the edge and a wad of spit slapped onto the toe of his boot. “You didn’t say it was going to spit at me!” he yelled in the general direction of Torviss and Cor. He didn’t take his eyes off the lizard stalking him.

John started moving to the left, toward the crevice where Torviss and Cor had climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop and were levering an enormous rock to the very edge of the short cliff. The crevice cut back into the rock, widening along the way, leading to the other side of the escarpment. Just like it had taken John, Torviss, and Cor hours to reach this side of the Ancient facility, the lizard would spend hours getting back around to them, if it even came back. John had a funny feeling about that, considering the cave, the story of the Spiga, and the lizard’s general demeanor. This was its territory. It wouldn’t abandon it just because it had to find another way back once they blocked its path through the split in the rock wall.

But it did buy them time and they needed that to get Rodney out of that damned facility.

Things would have been a lot easier if he’d just had a few tranquilizer darts with him. Or if the Nadeans here had had a bit more of a technological advantage. Or if he could have killed the damn thing.

He stepped carefully over a hole in the stacked rock. He could feel sweat on his upper lip drying in the cold air, while the chill breeze across his face stung the skin of his cheeks. His fingers would have been warmer in gloves but he needed his hands free. Coming up was the tricky part. The ledge he traveled carried on around the edge of the opening, rising slightly as it went, but once he was inside the crevice with the lizard, he would have to jump for the lip of the outcropping. If he couldn’t jump high enough for Cor to grab onto his wrists and help him up the sheer wall, or if he slipped, he would end up as an afternoon snack for the lizard following him.

Then John was there, past the point of no return. The lizard swung its head around from one side to the other and back again. “What are you waiting for? Come on, follow me!” John yelled. Maybe screaming at the lizard wasn’t a great idea because the loud noise might scare it away, but the creature wasn’t following John in and that was the sum total of their plan: get lizard to chase John, trap lizard on one side of a pile of rocks away from the cave entrance John needed to access.

The lizard ambled forward, slow and cautious. One foot, then two. Then it seemed to come to a decision and changed tactics, rushing at John’s position, throwing up a sandy cloud of dirt in its wake.

John jumped backward, ready to turn and scramble up another level, as close to Cor as he could get, when the sudden squat, hunching motion of the lizard caught his attention.

An odd swish of its tail, a low sound. The lizard leapt at John, clearing ten feet in one bound forward. The large body thumped onto the rocks one level below him.

“What the hell was that?” John yelled at Cor and Torviss. “It can’t climb, you said!”

“It cannot,” Cor’s voice came from above. “But there are stories of amazing leaps. Hurry. I am ready.”

John wasn’t sure he wanted to put his back to that thing, but he did want out of this situation as fast as possible, so he scrambled to the highest point, fingers scraping raw against sharp edges and protruding rock. Cor leaned over the edge, his eyes wide and staring past John. John didn’t have time to look back. He jumped, putting everything he had into his legs, ignoring the burn, ignoring the tight panic building in his gut.

He sure as hell wasn’t going to be eaten by a lizard today. He’d rather crack his head open in a fatal fall than be torn to bits by that damned allimodo.

Besides which, if he died here, Rodney would never quit bitching about John not coming to save his ass...

Strong, calloused hands gripped John’s wrists, tight and hard and painful. The two men above slowly adjusted their grips until they held John’s arms up to his elbows. Fingers bit into the muscle of his forearms while John’s feet dug at the rock wall for leverage. His left foot found a crack and he pushed up, his knee banging into something, his thigh scraping raw against a protruding stone, a high-pitched screech coming from below him, too close for comfort.

A rough stone skinned his belly as he climbed over the edge. He lay face down for a moment, catching his breath while Cor and Torviss rose from their knees quickly and returned to the large boulder. John sat up just as Torviss leaned his shoulder into the rock and pushed, Cor standing beside him with his hands on the boulder, trying to guide it directly ahead instead of to the side as it seemed to want to shift. John pushed himself to his feet and stumbled over to help Cor.

“Here,” he said. He added his shoulder opposite Torviss, and the extra weight against the rock moved it in the right direction. For a moment it teetered on the edge before it crashed to the rocks below.

“More!” Torviss said, already moving to the left to a pile of rubble that seemed to have accumulated from a previous rock fall. Probably from the same place where many of the other piles of stone had come from, those than John had just climbed.

John grabbed stone after stone, throwing it onto the growing pile below, blocking off the escape of the lizard. The loud retort of falling rock echoed sharply in the cold air, until the sound seemed to be too much for the creature to bear and it trundled away.

John dusted his hands off on the thighs of his pants. He looked around. “My pack?” he asked no one in particular.

“There,” Torviss answered. Torviss looked a little wild-eyed, but John didn’t feel like asking if he was okay. Half this idea had belonged to Torviss. John had come up with the rest.

John walked to the pack, more exhausted than he had realized until then. Lunch time had come and gone. He should have been sitting down to dinner back on Atlantis right about now. He pulled out a few power bars, tossed two to the guys, and kept one for himself. He also took a deep swallow of water from his canteen. Torviss and Cor each had their own water supply, taken off the cart before they had sent the old man for help. John hoped it arrived soon but he wasn’t holding his breath. Two hours back to the market, two hours back to the gate, then four hours return trip with assistance, not counting the time it had taken to travel around the escarpment. Even if some of the Nadeans came straight here while others continued on to contact Atlantis, that would still put them several hours away.

There was no time to wait for help. The sun was already on a sharp downward curve as it faded away for the day in a crisp clear sky. The air was bitingly cold and the earlier breeze had disappeared as the frigid air settled in to stay. They had to get back down to the cave and continue on their own.

John pulled out his rope. Time to climb.

*

There was definitely a back way in to the Ancient facility. John, Torviss, and Cor stood and stared at the debris littering the cave floor.

An earthquake, or something as similarly powerful, had destroyed a large section of an exterior wall, leaving a gaping wound in the building. Stalactites had broken off and fallen to the ground, some sticking out of several shallow puddles of water, some resting against the cavern wall in a delicate balance of milk-white beauty in the beam of John’s flashlight.

The cave had led directly here, an easy trip for lizard or human alike. John was grateful. At this point, Rodney had been trapped inside, alone, for seven hours and thirteen minutes, give or take a few. If it had been either Teyla or Ronon, John would have been concerned, sure, but they could take care of themselves. This was Rodney. Scientist. Genius. Militarily inept. Trouble.

They had another hour at most before the sun disappeared completely, according to Torviss.

“I’ll take point,” John said, gesturing ahead. He glimpsed Cor step to the rear, putting Torviss between them. John wasn’t sure if there was a reason, but he caught a glimpse of shiny metal and assumed Cor had taken out one those deadly knives the Nadeans seemed so fond of.

Torviss had surprised John with his willingness to help rescue Rodney. Both he and Cor had not hesitated to stay when they had sent the cart driver after more help.

John stepped cautiously over the threshold of cave and building, scanning the area with his gaze, on the lookout for leaping lizards and the spider-like Spiga. Nothing set off red flags so he stepped further into the building and found himself in a long corridor that faded into darkness past the spill of light from his flashlight. A quick sweep behind him showed more of the same.

“Torviss, have any of your people ever been this far into this facility?”

“It is likely. We explore deeply into the Ancestors’ buildings when we find them to look for artifacts and technologies.”

“There have—” Cor started, but a sharp look from Torviss shut him up quick.

John felt a twinge of irritation. “What?” he demanded.

Torviss turned back to John. “It is nothing you need be concerned with,” he said.

John narrowed his eyes. “I’m concerned,” he said.

Torviss sighed and shook his head. “Nothing I tell you is going to help your Dr. McKay. It will only disturb you.”

“You let me worry about that. I want to know.”

Torviss gave Cor a sharp nod.

Cor darted his tongue out and wet his lips, his gaze flickering around the dark corridor before settling on John. “There have been many groups of explorers who have not returned from their explorations. It happens quite frequently. That is why artifact dealers are so well respected and well compensated. Ours is a risky business.”

John checked his weapon, then ran his fingers along the outer edge to feel the cool metal beneath his skin. “Here?”

“Yes. Here. Six groups.”

John ground his teeth together. “Six? And you didn’t think to tell us about this before you brought us out here with nobody but yourselves and an old man along for support?”

“No one explores here any longer. All the ancestors’ artifacts that are worth trading have been removed.”

Torviss added, “My intention was to bring you here to see only what was in the main entrance. That room would have been safe. That’s likely where Dr. McKay is trapped. He should be safe as long as he doesn’t wander further into the Great Ancestors’ domain.”

“Rodney isn’t going to stay put when he realizes he can’t get out that way.”

Torviss hesitated and John saw the regret in the set of Torviss’s shoulders. “That’s unfortunate,” he said.

*

“Alrighty then. Be that way,” Rodney mumbled against the rusting metal of the wall he was leaning on. The rusty stuff didn’t smell so good, but his legs didn’t want to move any longer, and his aching head kind of liked it here, resting against the wall. His shoulder wasn’t too happy, squashed as it was, and now that he thought about it, his knees trembled a little, as if they were going to give out on him. If that happened—

He slid down the wall, crumpling into a pile of misplaced legs and arms. His right shoulder twinged. His already twisted knee twisted some more and a sharp stab of pain shot up his leg into his hip and back.

This sucked.

Whatever toxin that lizard had used to poison him was messing with his nerves now. His muscles were twitching at odd moments, and his heart was racing. Sweat covered him from head to toe, soaking his hair, trickling down his forehead, stinging his eyes, coating his upper lip, but he was freezing. He hadn’t made it that far back into the facility, wasn’t sure he could keep going much longer. Wasn’t sure he cared anymore.

Then he heard a scuffing noise, faint and far away. For the hell of it, he dragged his arm out from under his chest and reached up to try to tap his radio on. Couldn’t get his fingers to cooperate.

“Damn.”

He tried again. This time he heard the faint crackle of an open channel. “John boy,” he said, giggling a little when he said it. He’d never called John that name before, but he was dying here. He was entitled to a little fun. “John boy,” he said again. “Goodnight. I think I’m going to take a little nap.”

“Rodney?” came back.

Rodney closed his eyes. This was so not fair. He wasn’t ready for hallucinations. He wasn’t ready to be that far gone.

“Rodney?” again. “Can you tell me your position?”

A high giggle escaped Rodney’s dry throat. He might have forgotten to drink anything recently. His tongue felt sticky and thick but he tried to answer, just in case reality hadn’t taken a flying leap. “Prone,” he said. “My position’s kind of...prone.”

“You’re injured?”

Rodney rolled his head to the side to look down the empty, dark tunnel he had traveled. Nothing else felt like moving. He licked his lips. “You could say that.”

“Rodney, you’re not making a lot of sense. Try to be more specific here. I’m trying to get to you, but I don’t know where you are. Are you still near the entrance?”

A soft breeze fluttered over Rodney’s cheeks. The cold air felt nice on his flushed skin. He lay there for a moment, wondering if the panic in John’s voice as he repeated his questions meant he was real or if Rodney was just imagining that this was how John would react if he thought something was wrong with Rodney. The thought that John cared felt warm and...nice. It was nice.

John’s anxious tone made Rodney feel bad for him, real or not. “I’m here,” he said. He tried to wave his hand in the direction of the corridor, but he didn’t have much control over his movements so he gave it up and let his hand thump back down against the cold floor. “I’m here.”

“Are you in a safe location? Are there any...spiders around?”

Rodney blinked. Spiders?

“Lizard,” he said. “Had a run in with a lizard. I think I lost.”

“We know you’re lost. We’ll find you.” John sounded sure of it.

“No—Ah, I’m not lost,” Rodney said. “Think I lost the match against the lizard.”

“Damn it Rodney, don’t tell me you’re bleeding out somewhere.”

“Bleeding? Hm. Don’t think so. Just...hurts.” Rodney grimaced as his calf started to seize up on him again—the reason for his earlier stop to rest against the wall. When the muscle pulled tight and hard, he couldn’t help it. He screamed.

After that, he couldn’t really concentrate on John’s barrage of questions, John’s “I’m going to save you or die trying” voice a small comfort Rodney let wash over him when the cramp subsided.

“Sucks,” he mumbled. He closed his eyes.

*

Footsteps. It was about damn time. John shined his light on the faint impressions in the dust that had drifted in from the cave to coat the floor in a fine powder. The tread was clearly Rodney’s boots, since John had not been down this corridor yet.

“We’ve got him,” John said, looking over his shoulder at Torviss. The man stood at alert, just as Cor did, and John realized they took the threat of an attack very seriously. Despite Torviss’s status as a diplomat, the man had been trained for more. It was apparent in every move he made now that they were inside the facility.

“Excellent,” Torviss said.

John felt the tight knot of fear and worry loosen. Something was wrong with Rodney and until John found him, there was not a damn thing he could do about it, but now, finally he could track Rodney down and get them the hell out of here.

They moved swiftly, balancing caution with John’s very real need to get to Rodney as quickly as humanly possible. His flashlight picked out a heap on the floor ahead and he took off at a jog, leaving Cor and Torviss behind as they kept to their cautious pace.

He skidded to an abrupt stop on the dust slick floor at Rodney’s side. The side of Rodney’s face that wasn’t mashed against the floor glistened with sweat in the glow of John’s light. “Buddy, you look like shit,” John said.

Rodney waved his arm awkwardly along the floor. “Oh, thanks for that. Feel so much better.”

“Here—” With his hand outstretched, John changed his mind and instead went down on his knees beside Rodney. He pressed his fingers against Rodney’s pulse point.

Not good. The frantic thump thump thump registered through the pads of John’s fingers, much too fast for comfort.

John put his hands on Rodney’s shoulder. “I’m going to roll you over.”

Rodney grunted his answer. Torviss and Cor reached them just as John pushed Rodney onto his side, leaning Rodney’s back against the wall.

“I don’t see anything wrong with you,” John said. “What happened?”

“Venom.” Rodney tried to raise his hand to show John something, John wasn’t sure what, but Rodney couldn’t seem to get his hand to do more than waver aimlessly once he had it off the floor. “Hell of a thing. I think I’m dying.”

John took in Rodney’s color, his slurred speech, his jerky, uncoordinated movements.

“We need to get you back to Atlantis,” he said, thinking about the hours of travel time it would take just to reach the gate. The scenario playing out in his head left a lot to be desired but Keller could fix this if John could just get Rodney there. She would. He wouldn’t allow himself to doubt it.

John heard Cor speaking with Torviss behind him, low voiced but anxious. Tor replied, but John couldn’t understand their words, and then Cor walked away, heading up the corridor. Torviss hunkered down beside John and Rodney, caught Rodney’s wrist in his hand. John watched as Torviss turned Rodney’s arm and leaned close. Torviss sniffed at Rodney’s skin. John raised his eyebrows.

Torviss lowered Rodney’s arm abruptly. “He is right. He’s dying. I can smell the Latar’s venom on his skin.”

“See, told you so,” Rodney said, sounding strangely gleeful that he had been correct. He giggled, high-pitched and so wrong that John felt a staggering splash of panic hit his gut like a hard drink after a week long fast.

At that moment, Rodney’s cheek twitched, and then a wave seemed to pass through the muscle underneath Rodney’s flushed skin.

Rodney groaned.

John didn’t have time to wonder if the muscle contraction would get worse before Rodney stiffened, his body bowing. His right arm pulled in tight to his chest, and he screamed and rolled from his side to his belly, jabbing John in the tender part on the inside of his thigh with his elbow.  John lost his balance and sprawled backward on his ass with a sharp grunt.

He jerked up on his knees, ignoring the pull of bruised muscle in his thigh, and leaned forward, but Torviss grabbed his arm just above the elbow. “You can’t help him. The muscle contortions are a reaction to the venom. Leave him be until they subside.”

It was hell listening to Rodney groan and scream again, and then whimper as the spasms passed. John brushed sweat off Rodney’s brow before it could get into his eyes. “I’m getting you back to the gate,” he said. “Keller will be there.”

He turned to look over his shoulder at Torviss. “Let’s—” He stopped. Torviss stilled, not needing to be told that John had heard something, likely because he’d heard it too. John held his breath and listened.

Footsteps pounded down the corridor, coming from the direction Cor had traveled.

Spiga!” Cor yelled. He was not that close yet, but the panic in his voice registered deep in John’s chest. Damn it all to hell. Just what they needed.

The pounding footsteps got closer. A clicking, scurrying sound followed, growing in complexity and strength.

“Time to bust this joint,” John said. He grabbed one of Rodney’s arms and heaved. Torviss got the idea and helped manhandle Rodney upright, despite the harsh groans coming from Rodney at every movement.

Cor broke through the darkness, careened to a stop. One look and he was shoving John away and taking his place under Rodney’s right arm. “Your weapons,” he gasped. “You must keep the Spiga away or we’ll all die.”

He could do that. “Go,” he ordered, positioning his P-90 and aiming his flashlight, trying to take in the dark shadows and the flickering movements and match them up with the scurrying and clicking noises that were getting too close for comfort.

There. A spot of darkness reached the edge of the circle of light from John’s flashlight. John fired. A shriek filled the air and John winced. He fired again, retreating as quickly as Torviss and Cor were dragging Rodney’s limp body between them.

Each slash of John’s flashlight held the creatures back just as well as the bullets coming from his gun. A movement caught his attention from the corner of his eye. He jerked his head up and around, firing at the ceiling. One of the black bodies, hairy, fangs glistening, swept down on a silvery web right toward John’s head. Bullets smacked into the fat body of the Spiga, and it swung backward in a spiral while John fought a full body shiver at how close that thing had come to smacking into his face.

“The entrance!” Torviss yelled. “We’ll be safe on the other side. They will not cross into the Latar’s territory.”

“They better the hell not,” John yelled, “because I’m almost out of ammo!”

He fired again, wildly, aiming at every flash of eyes he saw, and then he was backing over the threshold of fallen rock and stepping into the cooler air of the cave. A shriek from inside the facility became a cacophony of blaring noise as the Spiga seemed to halt their steady assault.

John took a deep breath, threw a quick look over his shoulder and saw that Cor and Torviss hadn’t halted. They had Rodney’s arms draped across their shoulders and his limp body hung there, a dead weight.

John realized he owed these people all the medical support they might ask for, even if every damn one of those Ancient artifacts turned out to be useless.

John backed away from the crack in the Ancient wall for another twenty feet before he trusted the Spiga not to come rushing through the opening at them. Then he turned and ran to catch up with the others.

They came out of the cave into the fading light of sunset. Rodney roused once as they took turns dragging him between them, John trading places first with Torviss, then Cor, so they could each rest.

“Ouch,” Rodney said. “My arms hurt.” That was the extent of his comments.

He faded back into a drowse a moment later. His feet dragged across the earth as John and the others carried him through the trees. Cor and Torviss couldn’t hide their nervousness, but Torviss told John the Spiga wouldn’t nest this close to the Latar so they should be safe until they reached the entrance to the Ancient facility. Where all their troubles had started, John added, not speaking the words but thinking them with a great deal of disgust.

Less than an hour later, they ran into the first rescue party, made up of Nadeans in long coats and carrying poles topped with some kind of Ancient lanterns. The light was bright and plentiful and John felt Rodney’s arm slip loose from his shoulder at about the same time as Cor stumbled.

Rodney hit the hard, cold ground with a thud.

John bent over and rested his hands on his knees for a moment, breathing heavy.

“I’ve never seen anyone react this way to the Latar’s poison,” Torviss said from the side. John tilted his head so he could see Torviss. His frown was visible in the glow of a nearby light. “The venom causes painful muscle contortions, but not this strange lethargy. Usually the victim is racing with excitement and vigor all the way to the death of him.”

“Rodney’s not going to die,” John said, straightening abruptly. He looked around at the milling rescuers, who weren’t really doing anything rescue like at the moment. There were three carts at the base of the escarpment near the sealed door of the Ancient facility. “We need a litter. We can’t hold him upright all the way back to the gate.” He shook his head and added for his companions’ benefit, “The Great Ring.”

Torviss waved a short, stout man over to them. “Carry him,” he ordered, pointing at Rodney. John watched in amazement as the man bent over Rodney and lifted him over his shoulder in one sure move, signaling his effort with nothing more that a short grunt.

“The cart?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Torviss said. He showed the man his palm in strange gesture and it took a minute for John to get it. Respect, shown with an open palm. One of the scientists had said something to him at one time about some interesting customs on Nadea related to their knives.

“The cart will carry your Dr. McKay. You will have to sit close together on the floor of the cart but the alternative is much too slow. If your people wish to save his life, something will have to be done soon. Most people do not live a full day once the Latar poison touches them. It has already been too long.”

“Yeah,” John said. He followed Torviss across the packed ground, and at the cart, he slipped in first, stuffing his pack into the corner and resting his back against it, leaving his feet to stick out the rear. The man holding Rodney wasn’t able to let him down easy.

Two hundred plus pounds of Rodney McKay hit his chest, and John wheezed involuntarily.

“Okay, okay, I got him,” he said. He did his best to situate Rodney so Rodney’s weight wasn’t cutting off the circulation in his thighs, but the man was sitting in his lap so there wasn’t a lot he could do. He pushed a bit roughly at Rodney’s shoulder and Rodney slid into the space between John’s legs.

Rodney’s head slipped to the side then jerked up. His eyes opened, and he blinked a few times. “What’s going on?” he asked, sounding sleepy. The cart jostled and began to roll.

“We’re getting you back to the gate,” John said. He patted Rodney between the shoulder blades. “Keller’s going to fix you right up, buddy.” He could see the lights being held high in the air in the cart following them.

“Oh, no no no. You keep calling me buddy. You’re trying to keep me calm because I’m still dying.”

“You’re not going to die,” John said.

“Tell Keller—” Rodney began. He didn’t finish. A muscle spasm hit and he curled over, gasping for breath. “Oh shit. Shit shit shit,” he muttered.

John clenched his fists and told himself there was nothing he could do.

It really didn’t help.

Rodney didn’t scream this time, but when it was over, he just seemed to wilt against John’s chest.

“Are you still with me?” John asked.

“No,” Rodney said.

“Smartass,” John mumbled, then, “You’re not going to die, Rodney, not here, not now. Just hold on until we get back to Atlantis. Keller isn’t Carson but she knows what she’s doing.”

“I dreamed about him you know. Weird stuff like that dream about you.”

“Huh?” Then John realized what Rodney had said, what Rodney might be going to say and quickly added, “They’re just dreams. Dreams don’t count. Do you want some water?” He thrust his hand behind his back to dig at his pack.

“No no no no no. You don’t un—under—understand. That dream thing.” Rodney’s words were slurred but still coherent. His moment of lucidity might be coming to an end for the time being. Just in time, too, as far as John was concerned. Some things didn’t need to be talked about. “I know you read my journal but—but—but you didn’t say anything.”

“Now isn’t the time to talk about this,” John said. “Save it for after you get better and we’re back in Atlantis.”

“Yeah.” Rodney’s eyelids lowered. John drew in a relieved breath but had no time to let it out. Rodney’s eyes popped open. “No, it can’t wait. I might not make it back. I’m pretty sure I’m dying.”

“Damn it, Rodney. You’re not going to die.”

“Just in case.” Rodney’s left hand came up and patted John’s thigh. “I keep having this really weird dream about you.”

“Rodney.”

“No, okay, okay. When we get back. But don’t let me change my mind.”

“I won’t,” John said not meaning it at all. If Rodney didn’t remember on his own, John wasn’t bringing it up.

Rodney muttered something John couldn’t understand and began to droop forward in a slow slide toward unconsciousness again.

John patted Rodney’s cheek. “Come on, stay with me. Tell me about the lizard.”

Rodney’s head rolled back against John’s shoulder and he looked up. “It tried to kill me. I shot it. It got slime on me and poisoned me.” Rodney’s eyes drifted closed. Lips barely moving, Rodney mumbled, “Hell of a way to go.”

A memory washed over John, too clear and bright to stop.

“This is a hell of a way to go,” he told McKay. He rested his head back against the transporter wall, chased by feelings of helpless panic. He could feel his control slipping, moment by moment. It actually felt kind of nice, euphoric even, but it was scary to think about what might happen when he got McKay to his room. He hadn’t thought about that kind of thing in a long time, not since he had decided he had to let it go. But...he really wanted it right now.

McKay had a sharp, intelligent face, a little rough, a little soft, but fierce and...and it didn’t even matter. McKay wanted it too. They both wanted it.

The transporter doors opened on the view of the hallway leading to McKay’s quarters. McKay just sat there and waited. John reached down and took McKay by the shirt and pulled. He dragged him down the hall, feeling the burn in his arm and back from the awkward position but not caring at all.

Only a few others walked the halls here. Most of the expedition had already been confined to quarters or else they were in the infirmary. John hadn’t been the last in the line for Beckett’s exam, although he might have been the last to get the doctor while he was still halfway lucid. Still, those they did pass didn’t seem that interested in what was going on around them. Only one bothered to speak.

“Is everything okay?” She was a short woman, a scientist, John noted. She had asked McKay the question, not him, and her concern seemed too specific, her attention too focused.

“He’s mine,” John said, “and I’d appreciate it if you got the hell out of the way.”

He plowed forward and she stumbled backward. As they passed, she spun on her heel and watched through bright blue eyes as John flipped her the bird and smirked.

The malicious satisfaction he felt seemed wrong, but he knew in a flash of insight that he had already lost it. He was affected and yet he really, really didn’t care.

McKay snorted a half laugh half grunt as he tilted to the side. John yanked him upright again.

He wanted to kiss McKay, hard, full on the mouth, and feel the scrape of McKay’s afternoon stubble on his cheek and against his nose. He wanted to do a lot of things to McKay right then, but he just kept pulling until they were in front of McKay’s door.

The scientist did not follow them.

Rodney grabbed his wrist and John looked down, blinking. The light had faded almost completely and he could see only the shadowy outline of Rodney’s face where they sat in the bottom of the cart.

No way, he thought. No way those were memories of dreams. He couldn’t keep ignoring his gut feeling that something was very wrong about them.

“Don’t let me forget,” Rodney said. “I’m going crazy.”

Rodney’s swollen fingers loosened on John’s wrist and he lost consciousness again.

“You’re not the only one,” John said quietly. He sat in the bouncing cart and rubbed his cold fingers against Rodney’s fevered cheek, not stopping to wonder why he did it, not thinking about the comforting feel of stubble against his fingertips.

*

A rescue party from Atlantis met them halfway to the gate. Dr. Keller was with the group and she took charge of Rodney immediately. They made it back to Atlantis without Rodney having regained consciousness. John worried the whole time that Rodney wasn’t going to make it even as he refused to think about why he felt so sick at the thought of Rodney dying on him that he wanted to throw up.

Then they were back in Atlantis and Keller’s team carried Rodney off to the infirmary on a gurney, leaving John behind to explain everything to Colonel Carter.

Thirty minutes after that, he and Carter met with Keller.

“Rodney’s lucky,” Keller said. “He almost died.”

“The venom is that deadly?” Carter asked.

“Yeah,” Keller said, looking at both of them in turn with her wide-eyed gaze. “But it wasn’t the venom that almost killed him. I was able to neutralize the venom real quick. It was the pills that had him nearly comatose and on death’s doorstep.”

John listened in disbelief as Keller continued outlining Rodney’s condition and her findings.

He was going to kill Rodney when he woke up.

*

“What the hell were you thinking? You should know better. I should kick your ass. Better yet, I should let Ronon kick your ass. He’d do a better job of it.”

“I thought I was going to die! Okay?” Rodney squirmed to sit up straighter in the infirmary bed but the IV lines tangled around his wrist and he ended up twisted uncomfortably as he tried to gain some slack so he could shift his arm and straighten his shoulder.

“No, it’s not okay!” John said, sounding fierce despite the fact he was trying to keep his voice down.

Rodney wasn’t sure why John was so offended by what he’d done. He’d panicked, thought he was as good as dead and decided his allergy medication might slow things down. He realized now that he hadn’t been thinking clearly at the time and it was possible he’d done a very dumb thing by taking allergy pills and antihistamines willy-nilly.

“Blame my condition!” he said. “I wasn’t in my right mind at the time. How is that my fault?”

John clamped his mouth shut and fisted his hand, his eyes widening almost comically before he deflated right in front of Rodney.

“Damn it Rodney.”

“Sorry,” Rodney said.

John rolled his eyes at him. “Keller says you might have actually saved your life with that stunt.”

“Oh. Really?” He could tell he sounded hopeful.

“Something one of the Nadeans told her about how the victims of the venom usually die. Their hearts beat too fast, they go into arrhythmia—”

“Tachycardia?”

“Whatever. They die from it. You didn’t because of your overdose.”

“See, see. I knew what I was doing—”

“Rodney?”

Rodney stopped. “What?”

“Shut up. “

“Oh, that’s great.” He pointed at his chest with the hand that didn’t have an IV taped to it. “Genius. The voodoo practices of medicine are no match for this.”

John dropped into the chair near the infirmary bed and started digging in his pockets. “Ah, there it is.” He pulled out a handheld game console and flipped it open.

Rodney rested his head back against the pillow, more to the left than the right because he was still sitting somewhat lopsided with an IV line that seemed about a foot too short. “You staying?”

“For a while.” John cleared his throat and didn’t look up from his game. “Got nothing better to do.”

“Oh, okay.”

It was quiet for a few minutes except for the tinny sound of points accumulating in whatever game John was playing.

Rodney said, “Katie came by to see me. Said she wanted to be here when I woke up since I was there for her after the Kirsan fever.”

“That’s—Oh, oh yeah baby.” John pressed hard and fast at the buttons of his game, leaning forward until he was almost out of his seat. A ridiculous flutter started in Rodney’s belly and his eyes flew up to watch John’s open mouthed expression of excitement give way to a teeth clenching “Ahh crap.”

“You lost,” Rodney said.

John snapped the lid shut. “I’ve been trying to beat that thing for weeks.”

“It wouldn’t take much...” Rodney waved his hand in the general direction of the game John was stuffing back into his pocket.

“What and make a cheater out of me? Think I’ll pass.”

“Just saying I could totally do it.”

“I’m sure you could.”

Rodney wasn’t sure he wanted to bring Katie up again. He had the feeling John had staged the whole thing to interrupt him. He might be wrong, of course, considering everything, but this wasn’t the first time John had fortuitously avoided a Katie conversation. He sucked at reading people. Even after all this time, he had no idea what John was thinking when it came to personal stuff.

Which was why John’s next comment knocked him on his ass, figuratively speaking.

“You’re not the only one having dreams,” he said.

Rodney didn’t have to ask what John meant. He cleared his throat and tried again to sit up straighter. “Really? Who?”

“Zelenka. Kemp. Simpson. Lorne. I’ve heard all of them say something about it.” John rubbed his chin. “Me.”

“Why didn’t you say anything to me about it?” Rodney said, too loud. He lowered his voice quickly and continued in a vehement whisper, “I’ve been going crazy wondering what the hell’s going on with me. This is fantastic—” He stopped when he saw John’s eyes widen. “Well, not fantastic, but I mean, I mean, you know—” He didn’t know what else to do, so he reached up with his IV-less hand and massaged the back of his neck. “I mean it’s fantastic that I’m not going crazy.”

“Oh, yeah. Wonderful. We’re all going crazy instead.”

“No. No, no, no. If it’s some kind of mass hallucination, then there has to be a way to fix it. So. Not crazy still stands.”

“One of us has to tell Keller so she can figure out what’s been going on. Maybe. Maybe it’s a side effect of the Kirsan fever.”

They stared at each other. John shook his head just about the same time as Rodney did the same. They both knew it had started before then even if the Kirsan fever seemed to have changed something, made things much more...vivid.

“Uh.” Rodney looked over at the softly beeping monitors. His heart rate was trending upward. Blood pressure might be spiking. Not good at all. “Everything? What if—These are very—” Rodney fought off panic at the thought of telling Keller everything. “I really don’t know if this is a good idea.”

“Here, I’ll flip a coin.”

Rodney watched as John did just that.

“Heads,” Rodney said.

The coin spiraled through the air to plop carelessly on the stark white sheet next to Rodney’s thigh.

“Damn,” John muttered.

*

After John left, Rodney closed his eyes and rested his head on the too-flat pillow. He still felt a twinge of unease at the thought of John going to Keller about the dreams.

His eyes flew open and he stared up at the ceiling.

What, or who, had John been dreaming about all this time?

Rodney had visited John’s nightmares when they had been fighting off the crystal entity but they had been dull, lifeless dreams of some kind of personal struggle John had with himself in the empty gate room. John hadn’t really ever said what else he’d dreamed during that time before Rodney had joined him.

So, so maybe John hadn’t been freaked out by Rodney’s dream log because he had been dreaming the same kind of thing. Or if Rodney was lucky, maybe John’s dream was even weirder and Rodney would never have to feel uncomfortable about it again because hey, his dream was tame in comparison. Lights and doors and writing on his arms and, and, something...

Rodney closed his eyes. The sedatives had kicked in again. The muscle contractions had ended the day before, but he had plenty of muscle aches as a result and Dr. Keller had kept him on a low dose of muscle relaxant to help him cope.

He felt the slide of the room and jerked but a moment later he was in front of his quarters, looking up at the door.

It slid open.

Sheppard dragged him over the threshold and the door slid shut behind them.

The high was like nothing he’d ever experienced before, except that it felt a little like that time he had injected himself with enough Wraith enzyme to nearly kill himself. Only he didn’t feel compelled to move or jump or run or scream or any of it. He felt relaxed, good, a little hot, maybe a lot turned on. He wanted to have sex. He wanted to find out if Sheppard was as loose-limbed, laid-back intense as he seemed sometimes. The contradiction of not sweating the small stuff and smart ass temper bothered Rodney. The man was too hard to pin down.

The thought made him laugh and it came out sounding just like a giggle. “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa,” he said. He raised his finger. “That sounded—”

“Like a girl,” Sheppard said.

“Not funny,” Rodney said.

“You don’t look like a girl.”

Sheppard bent toward him. Rodney leaned back, but Sheppard just kept coming.

“You look really good right now,” Sheppard said, practically breathing into Rodney’s mouth.

Rodney stared up at Sheppard and watched his lips move closer. Rodney said, “I’ve wondered what it would be like to have sex with a guy, but...well, I’ve never found anybody to try it with.”

“I’ve tried it,” Sheppard said. “It feels really good.”

“We should have sex,” Rodney said.

“We’re going to.”

Sheppard kissed him.

Rodney woke up to a dry mouth and a pounding heart.

*

John rubbed his hands over his face. Morning came early on Atlantis. There was always something to do. Today there was going to be a short celebration for everyone having a birthday this month, but first he’d agreed to finish a set of reassignment recommendations for Colonel Carter. With the continued influx of new scientists and military personnel, it was becoming necessary to shuffle the workload to better fit everyone’s experience and expertise. Atlantis had become nothing more than an off world base to Earth. The cozy days of knowing everyone you met in the halls were long gone.

He wished he had a mission planned. Anything to keep him from having to visit Keller today.

His radio crackled. Colonel Carter’s voice came through crisp and clear. “Colonel Sheppard, I need to see you in the gate room. Right away.”

*

Seven hours later and John was rethinking the anything he’d hoped for to keep him away from Keller.

John sat on the edge of the exam table in the infirmary, waiting for Keller to finish stitching up a small cut on his shoulder. He already had plenty of scars, and this would just be another from a mission gone sour—although no one had died and that always gave him perspective afterwards.

He’d gone out with Lieutenant Kemp’s team to speed up the relocation of a city full of people and ran into spear wielding opposition. Kemp was a good kid, with a fair amount of experience, but Carter had wanted John to go along because they’d been expecting trouble after a disturbing message came in through the gate that morning from the city elders.

Carter had been right to send him, but that didn’t mean he was grateful for it. He always preferred to go out with his own team, but Teyla was still fighting off the flu, Rodney was still in the infirmary a few beds over, and Ronon had just laughed when John had failed to dodge the spear wielding pregnant lady quick enough.

Yeah, a great mission all around, and it hadn’t done more than put off the inevitable for a few hours.

He had hesitated to bring up the dreams for many, many reasons, but crap, they were starting to mess with his head, and his wasn’t the only one. After the thing with the alien crystal entity that had used him and traveled from person to person and killed Kate Heightmeyer, he wasn’t going to be reckless about this. It was time to tell someone.

He decided now was as good a time as any.

“How long is too long to keep having the same dream?” he asked Keller.

“What do you mean?” she said.

He turned his head sideways to look at her, but could see only the tip of her nose and curve of her cheek as she worked her needle into his skin. He winced when he felt the pulling sensation, but the analgesic cream had numbed the injury so it didn’t actually hurt very much. He still missed Carson at times like this, but Keller wasn’t a bad replacement. She was soft-spoken, and she had a delicate touch. She had handled Rodney really well and she even seemed to be able to put up with Rodney’s whining without a fuss.

He took a deep breath, steeling himself. “I’ve been having these crazy dreams ever since I got over that Kirsan fever thing.”

She patted his arm, indicating she was finished, so he hopped off the table and turned to face her. She handed him his shirt and looked at him with her eyebrows raised and her face expectant.

He yanked the shirt on. “They started a while back but it wasn’t until a few nights after I got over that fever that they got really bad. And I’ve been having them ever since. Only—” He stopped, sure he was about to sound crazy. “Only they don’t really feel like dreams. They’re more like memories and they’re all mixed in with the memories of what happened while I was sick. Pointing my gun at Ronon, worrying about Lorne trying to shoot me. That kind of thing.”

Keller peeled off her gloves and tossed them into a nearby bin. “Hm. I have a few of my own from the fever and they don’t seem that strange. Just a little jumbled. Are you sure you’re not just mixing up some random dreams with those recovered memories?”

“I don’t know about you, but even when I remember a dream, it doesn’t feel quite the same as a memory. Close, but not the same. What if that crystal thing is still in here somewhere, messing with me?”

Keller blinked at him and gave him a small smile of reassurance. “I could do a scan, but I’m pretty sure the crystal entity is gone for good.” Her eyebrows rose. “But you know, you’re not the first person to mention weird dreams and memories in the same sentence. It might be something I need to follow up. Especially after everything that’s happened recently. It’s been one close call after another.”

She took a few steps backwards and pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “Just let me get my computer and then you can tell me about the dreams.”

John opened his mouth to protest, but Keller had turned around to walk away from him and didn’t notice.

“I’ll contact the others who’ve reported similar incidents and then maybe I can start to make some comparisons, look for anything the dreams might have in common. Maybe we can find a root cause or a source.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” John said, feeling his face flush with heat. “It’s—kind of personal and—” His voice cracked in a moment of panic. He cleared his throat. “You sure you can’t just make a note of everybody who’s having the dreams and go from there?”

Keller turned around and frowned at him. “I’ll have to know what the dreams are about. How else am I supposed to do any kind of comparisons?”

He raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms over his chest, rocking back on his heels. “Seriously, I don’t think I can tell you, but—” He glanced to the side and saw Rodney’s snoring figure out of the corner of his eye. He felt a moment’s regret for throwing a pal under the bus. “I know somebody who could.”

*

“You told her to ask Zelenka? What the hell were you thinking?” Rodney’s voice carried way too far for John’s comfort.

He leaned in close to Rodney who was hopping around trying to get into a pair of pants. “Keep it down.”

The infirmary was empty; Rodney had woken up about half an hour ago. He was getting ready to go back to his quarters. After a final check of his vitals, Keller had released him a few minutes ago. John realized he probably should have waited to discuss this until they were out of here.

Rodney got his boxers tucked in and zipped his pants. “Zelenka’s going to tell her I tried to kiss him and you’re going to come out of this looking perfectly sane for dragging me off him!” Rodney crossed his arms in front of his chest and stared hard at John. “I am not okay with this.” He sighed and let his arms drop. He looked up at John with eyes that were confused and maybe a little hurt. “Why him? Why not Lorne or somebody else?”

John raked his hand across the back of his neck. “They’re military. The dreams—I don’t know what they are, but I can’t force Lorne and the others to tell something I won’t tell.”

“But, but, who knows what theirs are about. It could be anything. It doesn’t mean it’s, well, you know. Illegal or anything.”

“Mine are. I’m the head honcho—”

“Sam is actually.”

John gave Rodney a pointed stare. “She’s my commanding officer, but I’m still in charge of a hell of a lot of people.”

“I get it. Okay? I do.” Rodney plopped back on the edge of the bed and reached for his shoes. “But I don’t have to like it.”

John wondered if Rodney realized as clearly as he did what their conversation had just signified. Rodney had to know, just as he did, that these dreams weren’t dreams at all, and that whether or not either of them admitted anything to the other, they each knew something neither wanted to actually speak of.

*

“Half the people having the dreams refuse to tell me what their dreams are about,” Dr. Keller told Carter. She stood with Carter in front of Carter’s desk while John sat in the chair across from them. Rodney had wandered in just moments before and had blanched when Keller made her statement. Obviously he was still holding back, whether for his sake or John’s, John couldn’t be sure. John wondered who else wasn’t telling.

Not Zelenka, although John didn’t have proof of that yet. But it made sense considering Zelenka had no reason to hide anything. He had been the first person to tell anyone about them over two years ago.

Maybe if they’d taken this seriously back then, they would already know what the hell was going on—then again, back then no one had been able to remember anything but bits and pieces of the dreams, making the dreams more curiosities than anything else. No one had seemed to understand that they were all connected, that they weren’t random dreams, even though they had never felt exactly normal, but they had finally realized their strangeness now that everyone had started sharing their experiences. A lot of people had come forward, but most of the stories involved being locked up or chased around, and John wasn’t sure many of them weren’t still confusing the Kirsan fever event with the other stuff.

The dreams had unsettled a lot of people. John included. Now they weren’t just bits and pieces. Now they were entire elaborate scenarios played out in vivid color and sound. He could smell it, taste it, feel it, and it freaked him out. Especially because he knew it changed things. If it turned out they were real memories and not elaborate crazy fantasies being cooked up and shared by the entire expedition as some kind of mass hallucination, then hell yes, there would be real fallout from this.

Keller shot a pointed look in his direction, then turned her gaze to Rodney. Carter picked up on the unsubtle hint—who wouldn’t?—and frowned at John. “Colonel Sheppard? You’ve had these dreams? And you McKay?” Her gaze flickered in Rodney’s direction momentarily before settling back on John.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Rodney said. “I’ve been having them for—a while.” His pause didn’t go unnoticed by anyone.

“Exactly how long is a while?” Keller asked. Carter and her both waited for the answer. John tried to sink further into the chair and hoped, against all probable odds, that they’d forget about him.

“Oh, well, really, I can’t say with one-hundred percent certainty but, but—” Rodney waved his hand in a vague gesture of “I’m thinking really hard here how to get out of having to say this but it’s not working” which he finally appeared to give up on. “But I’d say at least, oh, I don’t know, probably about three and a half years.”

“Three and a half years?” Carter asked.

“And you’ve never reported it?” Keller asked.

“Whoa. That’s—huh. Longer than me.” Which John regretted saying instantly as three heads turned his way, catching him with a gaze of surprise, disbelief, and oddly enough, accusation.

“Maybe a little longer,” Rodney added, that accusing gaze never leaving John’s face.

Okay, so maybe he should have said something to Rodney about just how long this had been going on. Maybe their not talking about the whole thing hadn’t actually helped the situation.

Rodney had asked John about the significance of his own recurring dream and he’d done a good job of ignoring Rodney’s log of odd dreams referencing himself. He hadn’t told Rodney anything about his own dreams and maybe he had let Rodney feel a little humiliated and ashamed for no reason. But John knew it hadn’t been a good idea to share then, and frankly, John didn’t think it was a good idea now. This stuff was personal. Very, very personal and a little strange and possibly a lot humiliating, and the idea of talking about such personal things curdled his blood.

Besides, John had his job to think about and it precluded him from telling anyone about what might or might not have happened, whether dream or reality.

“Okay,” Carter said, leaning back on her desk and curling her hands over the edge. She looked at Keller. “Is there anything going on to make you think this poses an immediate threat to the safety of Atlantis?”

Keller sighed and thought for a moment. “No. People are bothered by it. They want to know what the significance of the dreams are, but no one has said anything to me so far that makes me believe there’s any kind of threat at all coming from the dreams.”

Carter straightened. “Then we move on for the moment and put this on the back burner. We have Rodney working furiously on nanite code and a Wraith sitting in our brig. We have replicators taking out entire worlds of people. A few dreams can wait.”

John couldn’t say he was disappointed. Rodney’s relief was easier to see. He sighed and muttered audibly, “Hell yes.”

*

Surprise didn’t come close to explaining John’s reaction to the news that Rodney was about to propose to Katie Brown. Neither was relief an adequate description for his response to the news that Rodney had changed his mind.

Something to keep in mind though if Rodney ever tried to propose to another woman. Lock her in a room with Rodney and see what happened when she was exposed to a few solid hours of Rodney McKay and his neurotic obsessive pessimistic world-view. Not that John knew for sure that was what had happened. He could only guess, because no one was really talking.

That night brought a crazy assortment of images and feelings to bed with him and when he closed his eyes, it was to see Rodney’s stubbled, flushed cheek beneath his lips and feel his breath catching hard and know his hand was curled around hot flesh and that he was giddy with the high of good sex and impending orgasm.

“I’m so glad we did this,” Rodney said. “I never would’ve known how hot you are.”

“Less talk,” John said. He gasped a little when Rodney’s fingers tightened momentarily, slid up before he could reposition his arm, trapped between their bodies. John had him mashed up against the wall of his quarters a few feet from the couch, and they were all tangled up, hands grasping, mouths everywhere they could reach.

“This—this isn’t as good as the—” Rodney’s lips sucked against the side of John’s throat. Hard. He would have a mark later. Probably a lot of them. “—the other thing,” Rodney said, his voice hitching more than once, “but it’s really good.”

“Want me to do that to you again?”

Rodney’s hips bucked against John’s arm almost dislodging John’s hand from around his cock. “Oh, oh, god. Yes, yes. Do it again.”

John let go and dropped down onto his knees and the jarring impact jerked him up in his bed, his heart pounding and his mouth damn near watering with the taste of Rodney on his tongue.

What the hell was he going to do?

He scrubbed his hands over his face and lay back in the bed. Next chance he got, he was getting laid. No question about it.

*

5

John watched Rodney’s eyes because he knew that was where he would see it first.

“Only one?” Rodney asked. “The girl?”

“No,” John said. “Not the girl. She didn’t make it.”

Rodney seemed unusually still, standing there in front of him and Ronon. Ronon wouldn’t know what John knew, couldn’t know because he hadn’t been there to see Rodney carrying her under his arm like a football, if Rodney had ever carried one. John had seen him, in the rush of trying to keep the darts away. It hadn’t been but a moment, but Rodney had told him about it later, how he had carried her all the way to the gate because she’d fallen behind. He’d bitched about the Nadean kids for a week afterward, but John hadn’t been able to miss the pride Rodney showed when he talked about how he’d saved those kids.

Now the Athosians had been found in one of Michael’s facilities. They hadn’t been able to rescue Teyla, but they had brought back far too few rescued Athosians and only one of the four missing Nadean children.

It sucked. So many dead friends and acquaintances because of Michael and his damned experiments. Innocents who didn’t deserve this. John cleared his throat. “Michael gave her some kind of experimental drug. Halling said Jinto did his best to protect them, the boys and her, but they were taken away not long after Michael captured all of them.”

He didn’t think Rodney was going to say anything, because he had that look that said he’d been blindsided and had no idea how to react. But then he rubbed his palm against his hip before slipping his hand into his pocket and stared at John with all the hurt and pain right there for them to see. “I saved her that day, you know. She slipped on the climb up the cliff and I grabbed her before she fell.”

“I know, buddy.” He reached out and patted Rodney’s shoulder because that was all he could think to do. Rodney would understand what he meant. “All we can do now is keep looking for Teyla.”

“I know.”

“We can kill Michael,” Ronon said. “And make it hurt.”

“Yeah,” Rodney said, looking back at John and catching his eye. “That could work for me.”

*

Rodney wasn’t sure when he fell in love with Jennifer. He wasn’t even sure why, except that she was just about the hottest thing that had ever happened to him.

Since the number one hottest thing that had ever happened to him might not have ever actually happened to him he felt safe letting Jennifer take that spot.

Of course, almost dying and actually telling her he was in love with her hadn’t been part of his seduction plans, but hey, sometimes life sucked that way.

Carson and John had left earlier that day to meet up with another one of the teams who had found one of Michael’s abandoned labs. He wasn’t sure when they were supposed to be back, but without John around, he had an opening for dinner.

“You uh, maybe—” He stopped speaking and waved, entering the lab adjacent to the infirmary.

Jennifer smiled at him. “Oh, hi Rodney. I’m just finishing up a few notes for Carson to look over before he goes back to Earth. I’m hoping he’ll look up a few people from the original expedition team who’ve gone back and ask them a few questions for me.”

“Oh, really?”

“About those dreams. You remember? I haven’t forgotten them, but I’ve kind of stalled out making progress on the issue. I did notice something interesting though.”

“Uh huh,” Rodney said, not really wanting to talk about those dreams. He was happy being in love with Jennifer, even if she hadn’t exactly given him a sign that his confession was welcomed. She hadn’t outright rejected him either though, so that had to mean he had a chance, right?

“No one who joined the expedition after Atlantis established contact with Earth has experienced them, only members of the original group. Still can’t get most of the soldiers to fess up details but I’ve had a few finally come forward.”

Rodney glanced around her shoulder, peeking at her computer. He wondered if John had been one of them.

She answered as if she’d just read his mind. “Colonel Sheppard is still holding out, and a few of the scientists.” She turned her head and gave him a pointed look. “But for the most part, I’ve gathered quite a collection of stories. There’s definitely something strange about them. A few fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s really weird.”

“Hence the ‘weird dreams’ label,” Rodney said.

“Yeah, I’m starting to think there’s a lot more to this than a few dreams.” She turned around and leaned back against the lab table, blocking his view of her computer monitor. He realized he was standing very close and that she smelled really nice.

“I think these might be repressed memories,” she added.

Rodney felt his heart speed up. He swallowed over a swiftly forming lump in his throat. Either he was panicking or, well, panicking. He shook his head. “That seems like a stretch when you’ve just talked to a few people.”

“I’ve talked to about sixty,” she said. “Some won’t share details, but all admit to having what they call extraordinarily vivid dreams with high levels of detail and they all claim the Kirsan fever incident set them off. Some were having dreams before the Kirsan fever, but only a few had any real detail to share from that time. Zelenka, a few others, you.”

“Me? Oh, no no no, I haven’t said anything like that.”

“You’re one of the few people who can pinpoint the start of the dreams at about four and a half years ago, giving me a time frame to work with. Sometime between one to six months after you came through the gate to Atlantis.”

Rodney blinked. This was not good. Repressed memories meant sex with John and not just sex, but guy sex. Really hot guy sex.

John was his friend. He didn’t want to mess that up for anything. These people were his family now. He couldn’t go back to being less with any of them.

“So, uh, you’re going to have Carson check out your theory?”

“You know, I haven’t even thought of asking him if he has any of his own dreams.” Her brow furrowed. “He wasn’t here during the Kirsan fever outbreak, but he was certainly a member of the original group through the gate. Well, I mean, the original Carson was but so far every memory he has is an exact duplicate of the original Carson up until the point where he was taken captive by Michael and cloned. I should have thought to ask him about this sooner.”

Rodney shrugged. “You know, he’ll be back later. You can ask him then. I’m going for some food, do you, ah, you want to come along?”

Jennifer pushed away from the lab table with her hip. “Oh, sure. I’m starving. Maybe Teyla will be there, or Ronon.”

Rodney felt the smile drop off his face but thankfully she didn’t seem to notice.

“Son of a bitch,” Rodney muttered. He followed Jennifer out of the lab.

*

It was official. The dreams were not dreams at all.

“Repressed memories?” John asked, a bit strangled. He thought of whisker burn and wet kisses and hot, hot touches and Rodney McKay and felt a little like he was falling down a mine shaft and didn’t know what he was going to find at the bottom, water or rock. Either way, things never turned out well when a mine shaft was involved.

“Aye. We never thought anyone would get their memory of those three days back. Elizabeth and I talked it over and decided the risk to the expedition was too bloody serious. We deleted everythin’ and created a single file with the details we felt should be kept for future reference. It took me quite a while to figure everythin’ out these last few months. A few days ago, I performed a wee little experiment on myself and I do believe I’ve finally unraveled the whole bloody thin’.”

“So, so, so, um, these things really—”

“Yes, Rodney, everythin’ you’ve been rememberin’ really happened.”

Rodney’s face got redder than it had been before, and his eyes flitted around the room, landing on faces and gazes and then darting away just as quickly.

John appreciated the feeling. He swallowed around a dry-as-desert mouth and kept his mouth shut.

Only Woolsey, Keller, Rodney, John, Carson, Zelenka, Lorne, and a few other scientists crowded around the large mahogany table Woolsey had brought with him from Earth. The mood was a mix of disbelief and horror and outright humiliation.

He’d thought it once before, and he knew it now without a doubt. There was going to be major fall out from this revelation and the chances of that fallout being anything but a disaster weren’t good.

Zelenka seemed to be fine. Sitting beside him, Dr. Eltsina looked like she was going to be sick. Lorne sat stoic and calm, but John didn’t miss the small tic at the corner of his right eye. Rodney’s red-faced humiliation wasn’t a secret from anyone and Carson himself wore his embarrassment in his pink cheeks and wide eyes. John didn’t know what he looked like to everyone else, but he could feel the prickle of eyes on him and realized he’d been tapping his forefinger against the table top in a rapid tattoo. Shit. He flattened his palm against the smooth, cool wood.

Keller kept peeking at Rodney, her eyes grazing over his face in a peculiar mix of concern and curiosity. Rodney had probably never told Keller any details of his dreams—John hoped the hell not anyway—so it made sense that she would be curious as to what had Rodney twitching at every turn.

Woolsey cleared his throat, his seeming embarrassment a reflection of the discomfort everyone else projected. “So what exactly did you discover?”

“I vaguely remembered somethin’ that happened back in the eighth week of our time here in the Pegasus galaxy but I couldna put my finger on it, so I started lookin’ through my records. I found a collection of physical exam reports, and then I discovered a short note I’d written myself. It referenced a sealed file in the Atlantis database. Once I recovered the file, I found a comprehensive report Elizabeth had written and another that I’d put away. Apparently, when the incident started, she kept a log even after she became affected and it helped her ta recreate the events of the lost days.”

Carson stopped and took a sip of water.

John noticed Rodney doing his damnedest to avoid looking at either Zelenka or him.

“What happened was a plant had attached itself ta the outside of the city on the east pier. When the city surfaced, the plant started growin’ and before anyone realized what was happenin’ it got into the ventilation and started releasing spores. In the same way the Kirsan fever blocked access to memories, this thin’ sent out a toxin that combined chemically with the chemicals in the brain responsible for storin’ and accessin’ memories and interfered with the entire bloody process. It also gave everybody a bloody high not unlike the Wraith enzyme that messed up poor Lieutenant Ford, with a few distinct differences.”

Woolsey folded his hands on the table in front of him. “Yes, but why was it deemed necessary to conceal the incident from everyone?”

“I’ll be blunt, because there’s goin’ to be a lot of confusion about how this chemical affected everyone’s behavior. It certainly seemed to make everyone a lot less inhibited and do things they probably wouldna done otherwise, but it didn’t make anyone crazy. Some of my earliest notes detail a few fights and apparently my own, ah, wanderin’ hands, but later, as things progressed, I started to notice much more sexually aggressive behavior. We tried to lock down the city, but we didna quite get everyone before it was, ah, too late.”

John watched the brown-haired scientist’s face blanch at the end of the table.

“I was also worried about what was happenin’ to our brains. Early signs showed increased production of a cocktail of hormones and chemicals that could lead to death. We can all be grateful that wee bit o’ bad luck didna pan out.”

Carson clasped his hands in front of him and leaned forward. “I feel terrible about what you’ve all gone through since you started recoverin’ memories, but we were afraid somethin’ like this would jus’ tear the expedition apart when we had nobody but ourselves to count on at the time. We decided we couldna risk it. Frankly, the evidence at the time seemed to indicate the memories weren’t blocked but jus’ weren’t there at all.”

It was funny, but as Carson talked, John remembered something he hadn’t remembered before, a door sliding open on a meeting between Carson and Elizabeth, her looking up at him furious and guilty and Carson’s expression just as serious and anxious as it was now. Rodney standing behind him, ready to follow him in, but seeing Elizabeth’s expression and backing away with a hurried shuffle of his feet and an odd hop, and John remembered why Rodney might have been walking a little stiff and he clamped down on the memories as fast as he could lean back in his chair and cross his arms over his chest.

“So what do you suggest we do now, Dr. Beckett?”

“Frankly, I suggest we get counselin’ for everybody who was with the original expedition. They’re probably goin’ ta need it.” He dragged his hand across his cheek, for the first time showing a crack in his own composure. “My wee little experiment backfired. I think I might verra well need it too.”

Keller shifted her attention from Rodney to Carson. “What happened? Are you okay?”

“Aye, now, I jus’ gave myself a wee bit of the Kirsan fever and discovered a whole heap of memories I think I coulda lived without.”

Keller’s eyes widened. “That was dangerous, deliberately exposing yourself like that.”

“I didna have a lot of choice. The Enchuri plant didna have any effect on the memories. It took a combination of the Kirsan fever and the Enchuri plant and that’s why Teyla is the only person who was here at the time o’ the incident that has ne’er recovered any memories. She didna become infected with Kirsan fever during the outbreak.”

“How can we be sure she wasn’t off world at the time of the, ah, event?” Woolsey asked.

“Oh, we know.” Carson looked across the table at Lorne and blushed.

*

“So what are we going to do?” Rodney asked, his stage whisper no lower than its usual volume of too damn loud.

John grabbed his arm and yanked him into the transporter and then waited for the doors to close.

“Nothing,” he said. “Not a damn thing.”

“You know I can’t do the therapy! I’ll feel compelled to fill the silence and then before you know it, I’ll be spilling my guts. This is bad. So so bad.”

“Rodney, get hold of yourself. We were under the influence of an alien...something. No one is going to hold us responsible for anything that happened and Carson said he wasn’t going to force anyone to do the therapy if they didn’t feel like they needed it.”

“But I do need it!”

“And you need therapy because...?”

“Because I had sex with you! Why the hell do you think I need therapy?” Rodney had that look, the one that said keep up before I decide you’re stupid.

“Ah. Okay.” John tapped the nearest interesting thing on the display, felt an instantaneous tingle and then the doors slid open again.

“Yeah, well, we’ve never really talked about—”

“And we’re not going to,” John said and stepped out in the hallway. “Just pretend like it never happened. That’s what I’m going to do.”

John tapped his fingers against his thigh and walked off down the corridor, ignoring Rodney’s blue, blue eyes on his back and wondering why that flash of hurt Rodney’s words had caused had made him so angry.

*

John’s anger didn’t last long. It was hard to stay angry when he was just grateful that once again Rodney had pulled a miracle out of his ass and saved both himself and Carson from becoming another snack on a Wraith hive. Then Michael almost kicked their asses with a sneak attack on Atlantis and John was just glad it was over for good this time. Michael was really dead.

And then the Nadeans sent a message and John found himself in a late morning meeting with the team waiting on Mr. Woolsey to arrive.

“The Nadeans didn’t stay long.” Rodney twisted around in his seat to look at Ronon who sat beside him. “You were in the gate room when they left, did they say anything?”

Teyla, sitting beside John, tilted her head toward Ronon. “I admit, I’m also curious.”

Ronon shrugged. “Not much. Woolsey was sucking up to the short guy with them.”

“Ha. Not surprised,” Rodney said. “Woolsey doesn’t know those people like I do.” He pointed at his chest. “I’ve always said they’re trouble and they’re not worth our time. Woolsey’s making a huge mistake by trying to keep things going with them.”

“A couple of them saved your life,” John reminded him.

“Oh hell no. You saved my life, they were just along for the ride. Those people tried to kill me and they wouldn’t let me in their city and if that’s the way they want to be, then—”

Mr. Woolsey entered the conference room at that moment and Rodney snapped his mouth closed. Woolsey sat without preamble and spread open his portfolio of notes in front of him.

He looked in the direction of each of them before stopping with his gaze on Rodney. “The Nadean Honor Council has delivered an ultimatum.”

It had been a few months since they’d returned the last Nadean child to Nadea. The eldest boy had been discovered as a hybrid on Michael’s hive ship when they had rescued Teyla. After going through Keller’s successful treatment for the hybrids, the boy had been returned to the Nadeans and that had closed the chapter on the children. A year and a half ago, John and Rodney had rescued twenty-four Nadean children. Twenty-two had been returned. Two had not.

Frankly, John was surprised it had taken them this long to decide what to do about their failed “burden of honor” as the Nadeans called it. He’d figured the Nadeans had decided to write them off. Trade and communications had stopped for months, until yesterday, when the Nadeans had requested a meeting with the leader of Atlantis.

Woolsey lowered his pen to the table beside his open portfolio. “They’ve agreed to accept an honor sacrifice in lieu of your death, Dr. McKay.”

“In lieu of my death?” Rodney’s voice rose with each word. “What the hell’s that about? And anyway, why me? Sheppard was just as responsible for saving those kids as I was.”

“Apparently, when you first told the Nadeans how you saved their children from a planet that was about to explode, you took the most credit. According to their customs, the honor burden belongs to you.”

“That’s not fair!”

“That’s not what you said at the time, Rodney.” John gave the words a little extra twist—after all, Rodney had belabored his part in the daring rescue to the point of being obnoxious about it.

Teyla leaned forward, her arm sliding against the smooth mahogany of the table. “What is this honor sacrifice?”

“Yeah.” Ronon rolled backward in his chair and stretched his left leg out.

Woolsey glanced down at his notes. “The last medical team to leave Nadea reported that the Nadeans actually seemed very sympathetic to the situation we found ourselves in with their children; however, they still felt we owed them for not fulfilling the responsibilities we took on when we removed their children from that planet.”

“That’s a change,” Rodney said. “They sure as hell didn’t seem to care the last time I visited.”

“Regardless, they seem to have adjusted their attitude about the issue now that we have an explanation for what happened. They no longer believe the best way to resolve the conflict is by sacrificing Dr. McKay’s life as restitution for the deaths of their children.”

“So what do they want?” John asked. “What kind of sacrifice are they asking for?”

Woolsey hesitated. John noticed. So did the others. A brief shifting of bodies, a cleared throat, then Woolsey saying, “A child for a child.”

John straightened, his casual slump gone in a blink, outrage in every tightening muscle. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

Teyla’s lips had parted on a soft gasp. Her fierce scowl proved her motherly instincts were every bit as strong as her instincts as the leader of her people had ever been.

Ronon slammed his closed fist onto the table.

Rodney just looked confused, frowning, eyes as wide as they ever were during a crisis. “You mean, like, what? They want my firstborn kid or something?”

“No, I’m afraid it’s not that simple. An arranged marriage, Dr. McKay, and you’re to live with your new wife on Nadea and I quote, ‘deliver to her at least one child forthwith direct from your loins to hers’.”

“Oh—my—god,” Rodney said. “You’re kidding, right? That’s just—just—ridiculous! I can’t do that.”

Ronon snorted.

“Hey!” Rodney seemed to realize there could be a double meaning in their conversation, one that didn’t put him in the best light. “I mean, of course I could do it, but I, um, it’s not a good idea.”

“It’s not going to happen,” John said.

“Of course it isn’t, Colonel Sheppard,” Woolsey said in his most resolute tone.

John’s relief was a little too bright considering he knew no one would ever ask Rodney to make that kind of sacrifice just to satisfy a trade partner, even one that had turned out to be as useful in the last year as the Nadeans.

Their scientists had discovered quickly that those super fancy knives of theirs were made of a metal that was rare throughout most of the Pegasus galaxy. Further investigation had revealed that the defunct Ancient facilities dotting the planet’s surface had been designed to extract and refine the metal from an abundant ore supply. Although the facilities were no longer operational and probably never would be, there was enough of a supply of the refined material to provide a near limitless number of knife blades and trade goods.

That rare metal was also used in the repair of many of Atlantis’s systems, including the shield generators, and all the Nadeans had asked in return was continued medical support for their people and scientists to teach them about the technology left by their own previous civilization. What had started as a trade of medical supplies for bits of Ancient technology had become one of their most lucrative trade deals in Pegasus.

Woolsey picked up his pen and fiddled with the tip. “However, in light of certain concerns...”

“Oh, seriously. You had to say that?”

Woolsey raised his hand. “I realize I’m just starting to get a handle on things here, but we can’t simply ignore this request—”

“It’s not a damn request, it’s a demand for one of our people.”

“We enter negotiations—”

“This is a terrible idea!” Rodney’s eyes darted from Woolsey to John and back again. His mouth parted and John found himself staring too long.

John blinked and turned back to Woolsey, saying, “What happens if they don’t want to be stalled? They’re not going to keep trading with us while—”

“No, but they’ve issued an invitation for Dr. McKay to visit their Ancestors’ City, and—”

“Oh, oh, in that case—”

“Rodney, you’ve got to be kidding me—”

“There’s no way I can pass this up, Sheppard! You know that. That place has to be running on a full complement of ZPMs.”

“There’s no way you can know that.”

“Okay, all right, maybe not, but I’m ninety, okay maybe eighty, seventy percent sure of it.”

Teyla’s calm voice cut through the rapid chatter. “This is all very interesting,” she said, “But you do realize you could return to Atlantis with a wife you did not anticipate acquiring?”

“Yes yes yes,” Rodney said with a grimace, “there’s always that.”

*

The city was more amazing than Rodney could have imagined. The retractable Stargate platform was only the beginning of the differences between the Nadean’s Great City and Atlantis. And three ZPMs? Oh no. Six awesome, fully charged, beautiful, fantastic ZPMs hiding a city that went on forever in every direction beneath the surface of Nadea.

This might have been an earlier settlement of the Atlanteans because the one thing he knew for sure was that it had not been made to leave this place. Many systems worked without apparent initialization, and there was damage to some parts of the city that had occurred at different times in the past, the most recent during the civil war.

On the other hand, the city had a shield system that should protect the entire planet from a Wraith attack.

Lucky bastards.

“Dr. McKay, your time is up. It is time for you to return to negotiations.”

“Oh, come on! Not now.” But Rodney’s shoulders slumped because he’d done this every day for a week and when it was time to negotiate, there was no negotiation. Day before yesterday, he’d fussed more than usual because he had been trying to explain how to monitor the shield frequencies to the short and stocky Wariss and ended up with a single-shot bayonet-tipped rifle pointed at his chest. He had no doubt that the soldier would have stabbed him too, if he hadn’t started moving quickly enough.

He tapped a few keys on his computer, which he had interfaced with the city’s systems, and then closed the lid with a snap of his wrist.

“Come,” the guard repeated, gesturing for Rodney to lead the way.

Rodney held his nerves in check, because today was the final day he’d been given to make a decision. He might not get another chance to get inside this city for a very, very long time, if ever. He had secretly downloaded what he could while he worked with Wariss and a few other of the Nadeans who were capable of understanding even a fraction of the technology here, but it was nothing compared to the whole. There were schematics of Ancient facilities and ships and weapons and a medical database that would make Jennifer and Carson salivate. The one computer he’d been allowed to carry into the city had been able to hold disgustingly little. But...wireless was good for something and Rodney had bled as much as he could get and relayed it through several devices until he’d filled every computer Lorne’s team could sneak through the gate with them. If they’d only let him bring a crystal or two... Woolsey had said no, saying the Nadeans might believe he was stealing technology from their city.

Woolsey had been right to veto the idea.

A soldier blocked the exit from the city into the catacombs. Rodney sighed and thrust out his arms and waited for the pat down. The soldier walking behind him stopped and handed his rifle to another man, and then ran his hands over every inch of Rodney’s clothing and a few other places besides. Rodney jumped when a short scrape against his ribs tickled. “Is this really necessary every single time I come and go?” he griped.

“Yes,” was the short answer. Same as yesterday.

After the soldier had finished his search, they continued through the catacombs and out into the tight city streets, just as gloomy and shadowed as they’d ever been with the too close brick walls and featureless buildings.

After several turns and a few more alleys, they stopped in front of a tall brick building, different from the rest, mud red bricks interspersed with sandy brown in a complex geometric pattern that made Rodney think of math.

Lorne’s reassuring presence waited by the door to the negotiation room. He and the rest of his team had been allowed to keep their weapons. His P-90 hung from the strap against his chest.

Rodney wished John, Teyla, and Ronon were here instead of Lorne and his team, but Woolsey clung to protocol and since he was here, John wasn’t.

“There you are, Dr. McKay.” Woolsey’s tight and anxious voice caught Rodney’s attention.

Rodney glanced around quickly. The Honor Council sat behind a long wooden table, highly polished and just big enough for the five Nadeans sitting opposite Woolsey and two of the anthropologists who had come along for the negotiations. Rodney thought they were wasting their time. The Nadeans were weird and irrational about things that should be common sense, like letting an expert on Ancient technology explore their Ancient city. Soft science was a total waste of time here.

“Dr. McKay.” Sharp and curt, the summons brought Rodney’s attention to the thin man sitting dead center on the other side of the table, Yarval, his gray eyes cool and serious. Rodney started to get a bad feeling. He walked into the center of the bare room, chill despite the warmth outside. Summer had come to Nadea.

“You must choose. We have offered a selection of ten women of childbearing age who are willing to wed you despite your unfamiliarity with our customs and your—” The man waved his hand at Rodney’s body. “Your obvious physical limitations.”

Rodney stood straighter. “Oh, funny. Ha ha. I work out, when I have time. I’m a very busy man.”

The man’s eyebrows rose dramatically. Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and glared.

“Regardless, you must choose. Now.” The man waved at a guard and the room filled with the sudden sounds of guns raising and Lorne barking orders into his radio. Too late though, because a soldier grabbed Rodney’s arm, almost dislodging his computer from his underhanded grip, and pulled him toward the Honor Council members who were pushing back their chairs and rising to their feet.

From Woolsey, “Gentlemen, let’s not be hasty. Our trade agreement has worked out to the benefit of both our people. I really believe we can work out an alternative that will satisfy everyone.”

“We understand, but we have our own people to look out for,” Yarval said. “We will not sway. Your talk of trade and assistance means little to us when our people need someone who can reveal the secrets of the Ancient city and give us children who have the ability—”

“Oh, no no no no no, I think there’s been a really big misunderstanding,” Rodney said waving his free hand frantically. “I had gene therapy, I’m not—I can’t—” The prick of metal against his throat stopped him cold. He swallowed and hoped his bobbing adam’s apple didn’t get him killed.

This would be a good time for John’s backup plan to kick in, he thought a little desperately.

Light flared all around, and between one moment and the next, Rodney found himself stumbling forward as the man holding him disappeared and Rodney was left standing in the cargo bay of the Daedalus, between Woolsey and Lorne.

“Oh thank god.”

“Yes, it would seem Colonel Sheppard was right about the Nadeans.” Woolsey sighed. “Those people certainly weren’t very willing to negotiate.”

*

6

Jennifer was perfect. Really, really perfect. Great sex, with a really hot girl, and here he was thinking about all the ways this could go horribly, terribly wrong.

“Not bad, Dr. McKay, not bad at all.” Jennifer said this with a soft laugh and a pat on his naked stomach, and he knew she was teasing him, and he liked it, really, it felt nice and reassuring, but what if it wasn’t teasing? What if he was just okay and she was used to a lot better than what he had offered up these last five months?

Sometimes he felt like he was trapped in an alternate universe because he’d always known he was hot enough and smart enough to attract a really hot woman—he’d had that thing with Sam, after all, and she’d never really gotten over him, but—oh, hell, who was he fooling here? Sam had said it herself that she was more attracted to him when they hadn’t gotten along and she’d thought he was an ass, but now they’d been friendly for years and Jennifer had had a chance with Ronon the barbarian, for god’s sake and he’d just barely come out on top of that one by the skin of his teeth.

Jennifer leaned over in the bed and kissed Rodney, her soft lips clinging and sweet, tasting of vanilla chapstick.

“Do you have to go now?” he asked.

She smiled at his plaintive tone. “Rodney, you know I do. We just got back to Pegasus and one week isn’t nearly enough time to get everything straightened out in the infirmary, what with everyone trying to reestablish contact with the worlds we were giving medical assistance to and all.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know.” He sighed and sat up in bed. Maybe—maybe he should think about asking her to move into his quarters with him. He looked around and thought about the space requirements for two people and nixed that idea. He would have to move. He wasn’t ready to move. He’d just settled back in.

“No, don’t get up.” She put her hand in the center of his chest and pushed him back down into the perfectly firm mattress. “You’ve been at it for days without a break and you’re going to burn out if you don’t get some real sleep. I want you to promise me you’ll get at least a few hours rest.”

He opened his mouth to deny needing any, but she narrowed her eyes at him and said, “Rodney, promise me.”

He crossed his arms over his naked torso and said, “I promise, okay?”

She smiled again, and then got up and dressed, throwing on her uniform as quickly as they’d tossed it off earlier. He missed her. This was the first time they’d had alone long enough to even think about sex in over four weeks. The prep leading up to the return to Pegasus had kept them apart, and then the trip back and all the work that followed.

Most everyone who had been with Atlantis before the flight to Earth had returned. It wasn’t like they’d been trapped on Atlantis before anyway, so the only people in Atlantis were generally people who wanted to be there. Kavanagh, unfortunately, had decided to give it another go, since Woolsey was still in charge. So now Rodney had to put up with another ass in the labs who might be screwing something up right this very minute.

Jennifer came back to the bed and gave Rodney another quick kiss. “See you later?”

“Of course, of course. Go. I’m just going to sleep. Like I promised.”

The door slid shut behind Jennifer and Rodney was left in the solitary quietness of his quarters with nothing to do but stare at the ceiling and wonder when it would all go wrong.

When his radio buzzed, Rodney jerked up and grabbed the earpiece. “Yeah?”

“What the hell are you doing?” John’s voice. “We need you in the gate room. Why weren’t you answering your radio?”

“What? This is the first I’ve heard it.” Then added for full disclosure and because he couldn’t help bragging a little even after five months, “Jennifer stopped by and well, you know how that goes when you haven’t had any time alone with your girlfriend in a few weeks—”

“Oh for god’s sake, McKay, I don’t want to hear about your romantic hook up with your girlfriend. Get your ass down here.”

Rodney huffed. “Fine, but it’s going to take me a few minutes unless you’d get a kick out of seeing my naked ass walking the halls.”

The sudden silence on the other end of the radio sent a flush riding up Rodney’s neck. “Forget I, um, said that, seriously.”

“Yeah. Will do.”

*

It was an ambush. John realized the truth only moments before the first man went down, hard. The little flying poisoned darts gave him a flashback to another planet and a bad end, and then he was flat on his back and not able to move a muscle. He could still hear though, and that was different. He had kind of expected to be out cold the moment he pulled the dart out of his thigh. Didn’t happen.

He heard Rodney yell to his right, but he couldn’t move his head to get a look at what was going on. Then another body fell beside him, Teyla, landing on her side with her P-90 wedged up under her shoulder. She was going to have a nasty bruise on her cheek when she woke up. That was when he realized he could not only hear, but he could still see. With a lot of effort, he managed to get his head around just in time to see Rodney take off into the woods, running hell-bent for leather, with a good three guys following, wearing long coats and—son of a bitch—

That was when the full force of the drug kicked in and everything blacked out.

*

“So you think it was the Nadeans who took Dr. McKay,” Woolsey said.

John sat on the side of the infirmary’s first exam table, Keller’s hands on his thigh while she took a look at the red mark left by the dart’s needle. He winced when she poked at it, and said, “Yeah, I do. I would recognize those damn knives anywhere.”

“If they took him, what do they want with him?” Keller asked. Her voice quavered, but her hands stayed steady as she swabbed cold antiseptic onto his skin. She was worried; John didn’t blame her. Rodney had been kidnapped and there was not a damn thing they could do about it except wait.

“I’m done,” Keller said. “Let me know if it seems like it’s getting infected.”

John nodded.

She looked over John’s shoulder to where Ronon sat. The nurse was checking out his upper arm where a dart had gotten him. She peeled off her gloves and tossed them in the biohazard bin.  “I’m going to check on Teyla. I’m pretty sure she has a concussion.”

Woolsey stepped back out of John’s way so he could slide off the exam table. “The Daedalus is on its way,” Woolsey said. “That’s really our only alternative since the MALP was destroyed when we tried to make contact with Nadea.”

John yanked his pants up over his undershorts. “I bet they forced Rodney to turn on the gate shield. They knew about ours. They had to suspect their city had one too.”

“You’re probably right,” Woolsey said, “but we can’t jump to conclusions.”

“I can. Those sons of bitches set a trap and we walked right into it. I wonder how long they’ve been planning this. We haven’t been back in Pegasus more than a month.”

*

She was really quite pretty. Rodney removed Zariss’s hand from his thigh for the fifth time and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do with her.

She leaned forward to kiss him and he leaned back, but he could only go so far back on the couch. Her mouth caught up to his and her hands slid between them to rub his crotch. He wasn’t fast enough to clench her fingers in his fist before she twisted her hand away and slid it right down under the edge of the loose fitting drawstring trousers he’d been forced to wear for the last five weeks.

“Oh, no no no no no you don’t,” he said, ending on a near squawk as her fingers curled around his soft cock.

She looked up at him through her blonde eyelashes and smiled a smug little smile, shifting downward on the couch and throwing him off balance enough to tilt sideways and end up sprawled awkwardly on his back. With a tug of her hand she proved her touch wasn’t exactly repugnant to him.

“I’m a man!” he said, fighting a seriously guilty conscience. “I have no control over something that’s hardwired into the human body. That does not mean I want to—Oh, oh, stop that right—oh oh oh my god—that’s—” His hands fluttered through the air and finally settled in her long blonde hair.

He was going to be in so much trouble when he got back to Atlantis.

That night, after Zariss left him alone in his quarters in the Nadeans’ Ancient city, he lay on the bed they’d made for him and thought of Jennifer, and John, and Atlantis.

His eyes closed and he drifted. He had stopped noticing the guards that stayed with him twenty-four seven in the second week. Their quiet shuffle, the sound of someone clearing his throat, and then Rodney was there, in his quarters with John. The lights were almost too bright, but he felt so damn good he couldn’t ever imagine wanting to be anywhere else, and John was saying, “You’ll love it. Trust me.”

Rodney did trust Major Sheppard. He leaned his head back against the wall and John leaned forward and took Rodney’s cock into his warm, wet mouth and it was the hottest thing Rodney had ever experienced.

*

Rodney looked over the graph on his tablet screen for the tenth time that morning and bit the inside of his lip. Someone was definitely trying to send him a message. He carefully placed the tablet on the floor next to him and reached for another crystal. There was nothing he could do at the moment except continue teaching Wariss how to override a malfunctioning door control but if he was reading the message correctly—how he hated Morse code—his rescue was just waiting on him to perform a small miracle.

Thank god. He’d had just about as much as he could take of the Nadeans and their Ancient city. He could produce a miracle if it meant getting out of here in the next few days.

“You’re humming, Dr. McKay. Are you finally coming to accept your place here with us?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Whatever. Here, you see this? You have to bridge the gap between the crystals or the door won’t open.”

“I see. Can I...?”

“Yeah, sure, but don’t—” Sparks popped from the broken control panel and Wariss yelped while Rodney danced backward to avoid being zapped.

“Did I tell you to do that? What the hell happened to the few brain cells you had? You’re a walking disaster waiting to happen! Ridiculous. I might as well be teaching monkeys. I can’t work like this today. I want to go back to my room.”

“Dr. McKay—”

“Now,” Rodney said, shoving aside the tools and the crystals and reaching for his computer, the same one he’d had on him the day he’d been kidnapped.

Wariss gestured to the guards before looking at Rodney with wide brown eyes. “I’m truly sorry. I did not think—”

“That’s the thing. You don’t think. You’re too stupid to be in charge of this stuff. They need to find me someone I can work with.” Rodney jerked his head at the guards. “Let’s go.”

He had a vicious temper these days and it was all their fault. He wanted to go home.

The guards escorted him from the hallway where he’d been working with Wariss to his quarters. As usual, two entered the room with him and took up position by the door. Rodney ignored them, sat down at the small table in the corner and started going over the shield harmonics graphs in which someone, probably Zelenka, maybe John, had figured out how to hide a Morse code message that only Rodney would notice.

He could get the city shields down...hell yes, he could, but he had nowhere to go when it happened. The gate was guarded at all times and so was he. He had known the Daedalus was on its way back to Earth when he’d been kidnapped. Nadea was half a day in the opposite direction away from Atlantis. The earliest they would have been here to attempt a rescue by ship would have been about a month ago. He wouldn’t believe they’d written him off; John, Teyla, and Ronon would never let that happen. Something had delayed them, that was the only explanation Rodney could come up with because there was no reason why they wouldn’t have been able to beam him out of here while the city was unshielded.  But the time frame for his expected rescue had come and gone, the shields went up, and his stall had failed. Those damn knives again. He really hated them.

Wariss wasn’t as stupid as Rodney liked to tell him he was. Wariss had grown up in the Ancient city and had been one of Prentiss’s apprentices. He knew how to read Ancient. He understood how to monitor the controls. He recognized many of the alarms the city generated when stuff went wrong. He had learned a lot over the last year and a half since the team from Atlantis had initialized the city.

He did not know how to hack into the systems though, and that was Rodney’s distinct advantage.

*

Zariss arrived with his evening meal. She was never late; she never complained; she always came dressed in a flowing gown of cream with silver stripes; and she always tried to feed Rodney.

“No, no no no. You’re going to drop it on my computer and I don’t have a spare!” He jerked his tablet off the table and away from the dripping juices of the stew meat she was offering to him on the tips of her long, delicate fingers.

“This has got to stop,” he said, feeling the frustration of two long months of captivity breathing down his neck. “I can’t take this any more. I know how to feed myself!”

“But you’re my husband.”

“Well, you know, your customs aren’t my customs and when I get back to Atlantis I won’t be your husband any longer.”

Her green eyes flickered and her soft tone dissolved with a single indrawn breath through her nose. “You are my husband and I will have your children. I will be the mother of the new ruling class on Nadea. Have no doubt of that.”

Oh, yeah. Her patience with him was starting to wear thin. She’d been having moments like this much more often lately. His wife was a power hungry nutcase who just happened to be really, really good at sneak attacks with her mouth and hands.

She chose that moment to drop the meat back into the bowl, raise her fingers to her lips and quite deliberately lick her fingers clean.

Rodney jumped up from his chair. He knew where this was going and he wasn’t having it tonight. She stood, her hands went to her neckline and with a few deft moves, her gown had been untied. The soft material parted and she let it fall to the floor.

Rodney felt his breathing pick up, because they’d gone through this before. He’d lost. Big time. He glanced at the guards, but they stood as stoic as ever, not a flicker of interest or recognition in their eyes.

He opened his mouth to protest, the usual spiel of words forming in his mind but he realized he was still holding his computer, and he really needed to do something with it before it got broken, and it occurred to him that his plan would be much easier to carry out if he wasn’t distrusted quite so much, and he hadn’t done anything to show that he might really be learning to accept his place here on Nadea...

It didn’t hurt that she really was hot in a not-Jennifer, not-John kind of way, and when she closed her mouth on him and did that thing with her tongue, it never failed to remind him of John.

*

“We have the crystals in place inside the city. All we can do now is wait and hope Rodney got our message,” John said and then waited for Woolsey’s reply over the video feed from Atlantis.

He’d been on the Daedalus for a week this time, as they held position just out of range of Nadea and the city’s short-range sensors. They had no way of knowing if the Nadeans had figured out how to detect the ship, but with Rodney in the city, it was a definite possibility. It was safest to assume they could and stay hidden until it was time to rescue Rodney.

“Do we really believe this is going to work?” Woolsey’s hesitation to believe in their plan irritated John, but he could see the point. The plan was intricate enough for the possibility of something going horribly wrong to be a real concern.

Radek pushed his glasses up on his nose with a curt jab of his finger. “We do not have any choice. We cannot get Rodney out of the Ancient city without his help. It is a fortress now that they have that shield. It is massive and—”

“Impenetrable,” John said. “We can’t even get a cloaked jumper through. McKay’s going to have to get that shield down or he’s going to be stuck there for a very long time.”

Caldwell spoke up. “We certainly can’t leave Dr. McKay trapped with the Nadeans. With the knowledge he has about Atlantis, he’s a huge security risk right now.”

“McKay’s not going to tell them anything about Atlantis,” John said, jaw tight and eyes looking hard at Caldwell.

“I’m not saying he would compromise Atlantis willingly, Colonel Sheppard, but we both know that if they want the information, he won’t stand a chance. He doesn’t have the training.”

Woolsey raised his hand. “Gentlemen, it’s irrelevant. They’ve had him for two months, thanks to the delay the Lucian Alliance caused the Daedalus. Let’s just concentrate on getting him back now.”

Woolsey nodded to John. “Very well, Gentlemen. Good luck.”

The tech cut the signal.

John fought his frustration. He was anxious to get this thing moving, because it had already been way too long. He turned to Zelenka and pointed at the communications terminal. “Keep an eye on anything coming from that city. You know how Rodney thinks better than anyone on this ship. If he got our message, he’s liable to try sending one back.”

He gave Caldwell a sharp nod to excuse himself, and then headed to the mess hall, where he suspected he would find Teyla and Ronon.

He was right. Teyla sat opposite Ronon at a table on the edge of the room, her fingers wrapped around a cup resting in front of her, and they were talking quietly. John poured himself a cup of coffee and then carried it over to their table and slid into an empty seat beside her.

“Zelenka’s going to let us know if he gets anything from Rodney,” he said.

Ronon sniffed and wrinkled his nose. “Coffee stinks,” he said. He shifted in his seat and leaned forward onto the edge of the table. “He ain’t dead. They won’t kill him.”

Teyla nodded. “I agree. They wanted someone who has the ability to work with the Ancestors’ technology. They will not kill him unless they find someone more capable and they will not. Rodney is...” The corner of her mouth twisted up. “Special.”

John took a hot swallow of foul tasting coffee. Nasty. He set the cup down. “He can be a real asshole when he gets in one of his moods,” he said.

Ronon snorted.

Teyla shook her head. “Rodney is smart enough to back down when necessary.”

Ronon glanced up over Teyla’s shoulder. John turned and caught sight of Keller coming into the room. When he turned back, Ronon had dropped his gaze to his fingernail and he was digging under it with a toothpick. He did not look up again until Keller stopped by their table.

“Any news?” she asked, giving them a smile that was both contrite and anxious. This wasn’t the first, or second, time she’d asked the question today.

“No,” John answered. “Not yet.”

“I hope they haven’t hurt him. Rodney can be so stubborn sometimes.” She clasped her hands together in front of her as if she didn’t know what to do with them. “Obstinate. Contrary.” Her eyes widened. “Oh, but he can also be really sweet. I didn’t mean—”

“We get it,” John said. “He has a way about him. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good guy and that we don’t, ah, you know.” John cleared his throat. Why the hell had he gone there?

He looked down at the blackness of his coffee and thought about how wrong everything would be without Rodney.

*

The guards followed him down into the bowels of the city. Rodney tromped through the hallways, following the schematic in his head. He rubbed his fingers together as he walked, not completely able to control the anxious fluttering in his stomach.

The food stores had been put into a space that mirrored the botany labs in Atlantis. “Where are they?” Rodney asked.

The guard everyone called Hor pointed to the far side of the organized but crowded set of rooms. “There.”

Rodney started walking in that direction, squeezing between the rows of wooden crates and open bins of root vegetables, gourds, and other hardy foods that didn’t require special storage. He stopped at the wall of two-foot square crates, looking up and thinking if the damned thing was at the top of the pile he was going to break his back trying to get it. He scanned the markings prominently labeling the goods and saw what he wanted three rows up from the floor at eye level.

He felt a little weak with relief at the sight. It was real. This was real. He was going to get out of here, if the crystals were in there and they worked like they should and if he was able to get them out of the box and into his room where he could sneak them into the right labs, and if—no, no, no, he was not going to start thinking about all the millions of things that could go wrong and trap him in this city for the rest of his damn life with a wife he didn’t want and kids he already knew weren’t going to be born with the gene, and then they’d all be killed and that would be end of his brilliant existence and he’d never see John—or, or, or—Jennifer, again.

“Dr. McKay, is something wrong?” Hor was frowning at him, and Rodney realized he was on the verge of hyperventilating. He forced a slow breath and tried to shake off the doom and gloom.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “Nothing at all.” He rubbed his hands together. “Just have to make sure I get the right stuff.” He tried a casual laugh, but it came out strident and off, much too high-pitched. Hor’s brows drew together. His other guard stepped forward to stand at Rodney’s left.

Rodney raised his hand and gestured vaguely in the air. “It’s Zariss. I, uh, really don’t want to disappoint her, and, and, well—” Not working. Time to change tactics. “Oh my god, she really knows how to, to, you know, and I’d just like to do something nice for her to show her how much I’m starting to like—ah, love, being married. To her.”

Better. Hor’s eyebrows had climbed up his forehead but the suspicion eased. Then he smiled and Rodney thought he might finally be making progress with these guys. Hor looked sideways before leaning forward a little and saying, not too loudly, “Zariss is known for her, ah, specialties.”

“Oh, she is,” the other guard added. “She really is. I heard she could make a man cry in ecstasy with those fingers of hers.”

Rodney choked, trying to not think about where her fingers had been last night. He might have cried. He really didn’t remember much after she had gone to work with her mouth, and tongue, and lips, because, because— He cleared his throat. Damn. Damn, damn, damn John and his mouth and those memories and his own weakness for them. “Ah, yeah, uh, you know, I don’t want to stay gone too long in case she wants to come back and, well, do it again.” He widened his eyes and didn’t have to try to look anxious.

Hor got it.

“Here,” he said. He reached around Rodney and started shifting crates and boxes until he had freed the level that contained the alcohol Warris had given him permission to take back to his quarters with him.

“I, uh, heard some guards talking. They said the last trade went really well,” he’d told Wariss. “That some special stuff came in.”

“Oh yes,” Wariss had said, handing Rodney a crystal from the tray to their right. “Two hundred crates of Barh wine.”

“Is there any way I could convince you guys to let me have a bottle?”

“I don’t know,” Wariss said. “I would have to ask the Honor Council.”

“I’ve been working my ass off for you guys trying to repair your city. I’ve done everything you’ve asked and then some, and—” This was the stretch, the place where he couldn’t push too hard or it would all fall apart. “Well, I could probably have sex with Zariss more often if I was a little drunk. She’s nice enough, but not exactly my type. I, uh, usually prefer brunettes.” To be honest, Rodney had no preference at all as long as the word hot fit in there somewhere.

It hadn’t been fifteen minutes before Wariss had excused himself and left Rodney alone with the guards. Shortly after that, he’d returned and told Rodney to take the guards and get as many bottles of wine as he thought he might enjoy.

Ah, the beauty of being needed for more than just his brain. He’d honestly never thought it would feel so cheap.

He shuffled around Elviss—and oh my god yes, Rodney had laughed his ass off when he’d heard the name the first time—and started shoving boxes aside. There were two hundred crates of the wine and he had to find just the right one or he was wasting his time.

Hor picked up a crate and said, “This is the Barh wine, Dr. McKay.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rodney said, clenching his fist against the rough wood in front of him. He didn’t see it, the one he needed, the one with a small circle etched into the bottom corner of each side so that no matter how it had been placed he would be able to pick it out of the stack. Two hundred, to lower the chances that the one crate with crystals would stand out and be discovered before Rodney could have a chance to get his hands on it.

Damn it to hell.

Hor stepped back with the crate.

“Just, just one more,” Rodney said. “Maybe two.”

“But—” Elviss said.

Rodney cut him off by grabbing up a crate and shoving it at him. “This one.”

Elviss looked at him funny.

“What the hell are you waiting for? Take it.”

The guards had gotten used to his moods. They were with him every day while he worked with Wariss and the others and they heard him cursing and fussing and belittling their scientists each and every day. Elviss raised his hands and took the crate and then stepped back as if to say fine, go for it, which of course he would never say because the Nadeans didn’t talk that way.

Rodney twisted back to the stack and stared frantically at the crates. “Come on, come on,” he muttered. “Come to papa.”

That was when he saw it, directly to the right, the circle much smaller than he’d imagined but there all the same. That crate had to be the one. He reached out for it and felt freedom in the touch of a rough, splinter-laden slat of wood.

*

Later, back in his quarters, Rodney puttered around in his room, trying to work up the nerve to open the crate. He would have to be quick or the guards would notice something and if that happened, it was all over. He couldn’t take another two months here. He was ready to go now.

These guards were an entirely different sort than Hor and Elviss. They were much more like the silent guards who had kept him and the team locked in a jail cell a couple of years ago.

They didn’t speak; they didn’t watch Rodney’s movements in any obvious way. They afforded him what privacy they could without actually letting him have any privacy whatsoever.

He spilled out a bag full of crystals onto the table that he’d taken from around the city, telling Wariss they needed to be tested for micro-fractures. The crystals scattered wildly across the surface, a few piling up beside the crates he’d stacked earlier in the day, when he’d realized the height of the two crates could shield the important one just enough so that when he removed the top slats it wouldn’t be easy to see what he was doing.

He took a deep breath, peeked at the guards one last time and then moved to stand in front of the crates. He pried off the slats with stiff fingers and saw the single layer of bottles packed in a dried grass. He shoved his hand into the grass and felt for the crystals. He grabbed them quickly, their smooth surface grooved with ridges and dents, one, two, three, and dropped them beside the pile he’d already spread out.

He gripped a bottle in each hand and spun around to face the guards. “Want a bottle for yourselves?” Not a flicker of interest from either guard. “No? Well, I’ll just leave them here for you in case you change your mind.” He plunked them down on the floor beside the table and nearly fell into the chair.

He hid his hands beneath the table for a moment until the tremors subsided and tried to think of wide open spaces and blue skies and eyes that crinkled at the corners with every broad smile. His heartbeat calmed, his breathing got easier, and when he opened his eyes, he looked down at the crystals and knew, knew without a doubt he could do this and that he would be back on Atlantis before tomorrow was over.

*

He was on a dais on his knees digging into the back of a communications terminal trying to reach some loose wires when Wariss walked into the lab with Zariss in tow. Rodney pushed away from the open panel in the base and sat back on his heels.

Wariss smiled at Rodney, the gesture as creepily friendly as always considering Rodney had seen the knife Wariss carried in a sleeve strapped to the inside of his forearm. Two months had given him enough time to learn that the more elaborate the designs, the more skill the user. Wariss’s knife was a highly detailed work of art.

“Zariss is pleased you would wish her to watch you repair our Great City,” Wariss said.

Rodney raised his eyebrows.

Zariss did not look so pleased. Narrowed eyes and a pinched mouth were only one sign of suspicion she directed toward Rodney.

She had not found his sudden conversion from reluctant paramour to happy husband the last two nights that believable. Rodney thought he’d done a great job, but maybe last night his attempt at eager enthusiasm had come across as more let’s get this over with so I can get back to work on my crystals than as I worship your body and want you to have my children.

Her flowing garment wasn’t the same one she wore to his quarters in the evenings, this one tan and gray, made up of a separate long-sleeved shirt and flared trousers that grazed the toes of her leather boots. It was scary how hot she looked even in this less feminine, less busty apparel.

He saw the shadow of something beneath her right sleeve and felt a trickle of apprehension undermine his confidence in his plan.

She had never worn a knife around him before and he had no idea if she was skilled with it. Thinking about the dexterity of her fingers when she had her mouth wrapped around his cock made him swallow over a sudden lump in his throat. Oh yeah, she was probably very skilled at knife play.

He’d only seen Zariss outside of the rooms he occupied once and that had been the day Yarval had introduced him to his new wife. Torviss had been there and had wished Rodney well in his new life on Nadea. Rodney had thought, you son of a bitch, because Rodney was almost sure Torviss’s testimony of his effect on the Ancient facility’s malfunctioning door had sealed Rodney’s fate as the choice of husband-to-be when the Nadean Honor Council had hatched its scheme.

If only John had gone through instead of him...and then of course, Rodney took the thought back, because John would not have known how to get this shield down and he would have been stuck here forever with Zariss, having sex with her and making little Sheppard babies, and oh hell no. Rodney was going to put an end to that possibility in the way a black hole put an end to everything.

Zariss moved to a bench sitting against the wall nearest Rodney, still a good ten feet away. She sat, lithe and graceful, and folded her hands over her lap. When she turned to look at him, her green eyes glittered under the Ancient light coming from the panel overhead.

“I feel privileged you wish to spend your day with me, honored husband,” she said, her tone sweet as lemon pie.

“You kidnapped me. I’m not over that yet. Though I am starting to enjoy some of the fringe benefits.” He smiled brightly at Zariss and wiggled his eyebrows.

She turned to look at Wariss still standing just inside the room. “I am prized, Wariss, can you not see how Dr. McKay appreciates my talent as a wife?”

Red blotches of color appeared on Wariss’s cheeks. “Zariss...”

Rodney scoffed and turned back to the dais and the open panel in front of him. “Just leave her,” he said, already thrusting his arm back into the depths of the device and mashing his cheek against the outside surface as he stretched for a knot of wires that was almost too far away to reach.

Wariss shuffled forward, but stopped after only a few steps when Rodney paid no attention to him. “Do you not wish to teach—”

“I should spend the day getting to know Zariss better, since it’s starting to look obvious I’m going to be stuck here for the rest of my life. She—Ow! Son of a bitch!” A loud sizzle of frying conduit punctuated his yell.

Rodney jerked back, pulling his arm out of the hole and falling backward onto his ass. He looked up at Warris, and the black expression Wariss must have seen brought out an, “Ah, I think I’ll find another task to keep me busy today then.”

Zariss snickered.

Rodney glowered and scrambled to his feet. “Oh, that’s so funny. Laugh it up! I’ll just ask for a new wife next chance I get who has a little more respect for my brilliance.”

Zariss gasped, as did Wariss. A shoe scuffed the floor from the direction of the usually silent guards who haunted Rodney everywhere he went. Wide green eyes stared over at him, stricken and horrified.

“What?” he demanded, pausing in the act of dusting off his hands on his loose pants. “You started this.”

“What have I done to deserve such a shame from you? That you could even consider asking for another after all that I have sacrificed—”

“Hey, I didn’t ask for this! Don’t put this off on me. And—and—sacrificed? I am an honest to god genius. I could have anyone I want back on my world—” He thought of Sam, Teyla, Amelia, Dr. Carey. “Well, almost anyone. Besides which, I have a girlfriend that I’m very happy with! I didn’t need a wife!”

Wariss stepped closer, lowered his voice, and said, “You cannot cast Zariss aside without irreparably damaging her honor and yours. It is not done.”

“Outsider here,” Rodney said, pointing at his own chest. “Did not ask for this. Your concept of honor is fatally flawed when you kidnap someone and expect them to just get over it because you’re nice to him when you aren’t threatening to gut him if he doesn’t marry one of your people.”

“We have offered you everything you could wish for to make you feel comfortable, to allow you to make a home for yourself here in the Great City.”

“I don’t need a new home, I already have one!” His voice rose on every word until he realized he needed to calm down before he blew everything. Rodney took a deep breath. He allowed himself to slump forward and stare at his hands. He had gotten out of control and maybe it would be okay, because they would be suspicious if he overdid the “I’ve finally accepted my new life” act.

A little ambiguity could go a long way.

He looked up at Wariss, who now stood very close, and Zariss, who had moved forward on the bench, her body leaning in his direction, anxiety in every muscle holding her in place.

“I can’t settle in here until I stop being worried at every turn that someone’s going to carve me up into itty bitty pieces.” He thought he did a good job of keeping his voice calm but firm. “I need some space. The guards—” He gestured to Hor and Elviss who stood across the room, and the others that flanked every other door around him in the underground city. “They’re underfoot every time I try to do anything. I can’t breathe for the damn guards.”

Wariss’s brow furrowed and he parted his lips to say something, hesitated, and then said, “I will talk to the council.”

“How’s about you keep them the hell away from me today? Zariss will be with me everywhere I go. I can have some breathing room for god’s sake.”

“I cannot do that.” Wariss sounded shocked at the suggestion. “Your security is on my honor. If anything happens to you...”

“Okay, okay, fine, I get it.” Rodney threw out his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Please, just ask them to give us a little extra space.”

Wariss gave him a curt nod and then turned away and walked toward Hor and Elviss.

Rodney felt a touch of regret at what might happen to Wariss when he disappeared, but then he turned to Zariss, who was looking much like her normal wily self again, and she smiled at him and reached up and touched the very center of her bottom lip with her forefinger.

“What?” he said.

Her pale green eyes drifted down his body. “My fertile time is near. We mustn’t let the extra opportunities slip past. Although...” She paused, and her eyes came back up to meet his gaze. “I do hope you improve somewhat over time.”

Oh, oh, that was just great. A wife and a critic of his sexual prowess. “My girlfriend never complains,” he said, “and neither did—” He cleared his throat and finished meekly, “Anyone else.” He really had not had enough sex since he’d come to Atlantis. Zariss had learned how to push all the wrong buttons with him, shortly after she’d learned how to push all the right ones. She was a menace to his sanity.

Rodney plastered a smile on his face and reached for his bag of crystals and box of tools, most of which had been left by the Ancients who had once lived in this city.

He looked down at the frayed wires sticking out of the column. He’d broken it. On purpose, and a few singed fingers had been a small price to pay.

Never let it be said Rodney McKay didn’t know how to be a vindictive son of a bitch when he wanted.

Now Zariss was going to follow him around all morning while he placed those crystals into the proper slots and hacked the shield and destroyed these people’s ability to ever get the damn thing back up again without him here to fix it.

There would be no chance for the Nadeans to kidnap anyone else from Atlantis, including John, especially John, and keep him trapped here against his will in an effort to create a new ruling class of Nadeans with the Ancient gene.

But no way was he leaving Zariss behind when she might actually be carrying around a little mass of Rodney McKay’s DNA. Not that he was sentimental or anything, but these people didn’t deserve anything from him and he wasn’t leaving a single damn gene behind. He’d return her once she failed a pregnancy test, or god forbid, popped out a baby McKay.

The thought made him feel a little queasy.

*

Rodney’s message, when it arrived, was short and to the point. John leaned over Radek’s shoulder and read the words one more time off the computer screen.

Two to beam. Where the hell have you been? I could have been dead already.

“Two?”

“Yes. Very odd,” Radek said. He had his hands on the keyboard but his fingers weren’t moving. The words flashed by again. “It’s repeating message, like ours.”

“But a simple text message.”

Radek’s head bobbed. “Through the Ancient city’s communications system, yes, sent twenty minutes ago. “

“So he’s probably not locked up somewhere.”

“Which is excellent news. The shield—”

John clapped Radek on the back. “He’ll get it down.” This could work. They were going to get Rodney back. It had been a long two months without him.

“I have missed him,” Radek said. “But I will regret it, I am certain, when he again tells me I am secretly in love with him, but that is Rodney.” Then he said something in his native language in a tone of exasperated aggravation and affection.

“Yeah, that would be Rodney for you.”

“I wonder who is second person?”

John stared at the message and tucked his hands into his pockets, rocking back on his heels. “Good question.”

*

Rodney appeared in a sudden wave of light wearing light brown loose fitting pants and a flowing top with long sleeves and an open neck. John’s first thought was that he looked damn good for a man who had been held hostage for two months. Then a split second later, he noticed the woman. “Welcome back, McKay. Who’s your guest?”

At that moment, said woman jerked as she finally got over her shock at finding herself in the midst of a crowd of strangers on a strange ship and grabbed Rodney by the neck.

Rodney yelped, rising up on his toes.

“Crap,” John said, and raised his gun as fast as she flashed a knife and jabbed it up against Rodney’s back. One thrust in the right direction and she would plunge the wicked blade directly into Rodney’s heart and lungs.

Teyla had reached for the woman’s arm but not fast enough, and even Ronon had only gotten his hands halfway to her when she spun around, taking Rodney with her and demanded, “Do not make me kill him. Where am I? What have you done?” She twisted her face toward Rodney. “How could you do this? Return us to the city.”

“Rodney, what’s going on?” John drew the words out, chastising as much as questioning.

Ronon’s hand slipped toward his weapon. Rodney threw his arms up and out and said, “No. No no no no no, stop. Nobody—” Her knife poked harder at his back and he bowed another few degrees away from the shiny blade. Rodney pulled her around despite the knife at his back and managed to put himself between her and Ronon, and John couldn’t have been the only one that noticed Rodney had moved to block Ronon of his own accord.

What the hell was Rodney trying to do?

“You can’t shoot her! Not yet anyway. Ow!” Rodney twisted his neck and tried to talk over his shoulder at the woman. “Is this really necessary? Seriously? You’re outnumbered and you don’t really want to kill me—okay—okay—okay, maybe you do, but if you kill me they’ll just kill you too and then what happens if, if, if you’ve got a bun in the oven? Huh?”

She frowned. Rodney huffed and said, “Pregnant, what if you’re already pregnant?”

And suddenly there were a whole lot of confused people standing around, and John had to admit he was one of them.

“Why would you do this?” she said.

“Rodney?” John’s voice raised on the end of his name, sharp and demanding. “Fill us in, before we have to shoot her.”

“You can’t shoot her!” Rodney yelled, his face turning red. “Damn it, Zariss, put the knife away and let me go. I am not going to let them hurt you.”

Her eyes darted around the room, taking in the situation quickly, and John recognized experience when he saw it. She seemed to weigh her chances and the risk/reward ratio came up short. Her arm loosened around Rodney’s neck and she slowly released him and lowered the knife to the ground, gently placing it on the decking before standing again, straight and tense.

Rodney rubbed his neck and grimaced.

John stepped over to the knife and kicked it out of the way toward Lorne before he lowered his gun.

“I bet this is going to be interesting,” he said to no one in particular.

“Oh, yes, just great,” Rodney said. He looked at John, then Teyla and Ronon, and then he caught sight of Jennifer, who was standing back and trying not to get in the way of the action. Rodney’s eyes seemed to light up at the sight but then he didn’t step forward or do anything else to acknowledge her, and he did not leave his traveling companion’s side.

Instead, he gestured to her vaguely and said, “Everyone, this is Zariss, my, uh, sort of, wife.”

*

“Sort of wife?” John asked again.

John had not had a chance to do more than ask a few basic questions before Keller had taken Rodney in hand and dragged him to the ship’s infirmary for a full exam. She had been efficient and cool, her words precise and calm, friendly even, but John had noticed the faint tremor when she took Rodney’s blood pressure and the slight waver in her voice when she had asked Rodney if he’d been fed any kind of drugs.

“Said that already. Yes. Wife.” Rodney looked up from the table, where they’d convened to discuss his rescue and his guest now that they were back on Atlantis. “It’s not like it’s legal or anything. They made me marry her.”

“Ah. That makes all the difference.”

“Of course it does. When Jennifer and the others finish checking her out under the scanners and I find out she isn’t, um, well, then she’s out of here as fast as I can dial the gate.”

“Uh, McKay, you’re forgetting about their gate shield.”

“Really? Really? You think I’m too stupid to remember that? I’ve got it taken care of.” Smug satisfaction radiated from the tilt of his head and the slash of his crooked mouth. “I made a few modifications to the crystals Zelenka sent before I put them in place. I’ve got a back door now. They thought I was fixing things for them, well, they’ve got another think coming. Nobody gets away with—”

His rant stopped abruptly. He looked over at John with his blue eyes, wide and serious. “It’s really good to see you guys again.”

“You’re welcome, Rodney. Thought you might have decided you liked it there.”

“Not a chance.”

John swiveled in his seat, once, twice, then said, “Your wife is pretty.”

“She’s a nutcase.”

“She might have a bun in the oven.”

“Quit trying to pump me for information. Yes, she might be pregnant. Yes, unfortunately, it might be a McKay.”

“So... How long?”

“How long what?”

“How long have you been married? What the hell do you think?”

“Oh, well, I—four weeks, five? They wanted me to adjust a little before they added the wife to the mix. Besides, I think there was some political crap going on to decide who got to be the lucky woman.”

“Ah.”

Before John could say anything else, the doors opened and Mr. Woolsey walked in, followed by Zariss, Teyla, and then Keller.

Teyla had seemed like the best choice to watch Zariss, since she had the skills necessary to take out someone of Zariss’s particular abilities if the need came up but she was also a woman and a member of Rodney’s team. Because of the sensitive nature of the issues involved, no one else would be coming to this meeting.

“She isn’t pregnant,” Keller said.

Rodney puffed out a pent up breath. “Oh thank god. I was really worried I was going to end up—”

Keller interrupted. “At least it’s not showing up yet if she is. There’s still a chance because Zariss told us she and—” Keller bit her bottom lip. She avoided looking directly at Rodney, instead directing her report toward John and Woolsey. “She and Rodney had sex just last night. Even the scanners can’t pick up on the viability of a pregnancy this early. We’ll need at least another week to be sure, before we can send her home.”

“Damn it,” Rodney muttered.

During Keller’s report, Teyla had shown Zariss to a seat at the end of the table and sat down beside her.

Keller moved down the table and eased into the seat beside John. Rodney’s brows drew together as he realized she had ignored the empty seat beside him.

“Carson is on his way. I think Dr. McKay would be more comfortable discussing certain issues with him rather than—”

“What?” Rodney turned and leaned far over on the table so he could see Keller on the other side of John. John leaned back quickly, trying to take himself out of the middle of this discussion.

“Rodney, there are things we’ll have to know, things you might have been coerced into doing, things that maybe you’d be too embarrassed to be honest about with me, and—and—” Keller floundered.

Then her calm broke, her cheeks went pink, and John saw the moment her eyes clouded up. She was usually the one who pacified Rodney, their entire relationship seemed built around her ability to ignore Rodney’s aggressive, self-involved tendencies and her desire to help people see the best in themselves.

“She’s your wife, Rodney. You have a wife.” Her voice raised, then cracked and she clenched her hands together, then quickly moved them to her lap. “I’m—I was your girlfriend. I can’t be the one asking these questions.”

Uh oh. John stared between Keller and Rodney, watching as Rodney seemed to get that something was very wrong. Teyla exchanged a quick look with him, while Woolsey raised a finger as if to interrupt but then thought better of it and slowly lowered his hand back to the table.

“Uh, well, I—” Rodney’s brow furrowed and he appeared to struggle hard before finding his natural contrariness. “It’s not like I had a lot of choice! I was stuck on Nadea for two months and everywhere I looked someone was threatening to stick a knife in my belly if I didn’t marry her!”

“You seemed quite taken with me last night, Honored Husband.” Zariss’s pale lashes dipped and she tilted her head back, arrogance in every nuance of the gesture.

Keller’s eyes widened.

Rodney’s mouth popped open.

John winced.

“Do not forget he is still my husband, Dr. Keller. I suggest you move on to another man. This one is mine. We don’t give up that which is ours easily on Nadea.” Zariss’s eyes narrowed as she stared hard at Rodney. “Even when we find them lacking in certain areas of bedroom sport.”

“Oh, you, you—” Rodney stabbed a finger in her direction. “You shut up.”

This was a disaster in the making. John felt the need to rescue Rodney, but he wasn’t that eager to step into the fray.

“I never forced you to do anything,” Zariss said. “You seemed eager enough at the time. You certainly could have refused to let me—”

“Okay, that’s enough,” John said. “Zariss, Dr. Keller, Rodney—”

Rodney jerked his hand around in the air. “Oh really? Tried that, and let me tell you, that didn’t exactly go over well with the guards!” He turned to Keller. “And, and, and, you know what, when you’re locked in a room together every night and your wife is throwing herself at you every time you take a breath, it isn’t exactly easy!”

Keller sucked in her breath.

John pushed up from his chair. Teyla took John’s cue and rose to her feet also. Woolsey watched with a dawning horror as everything spun completely out of control.

John stuck out his hand in Rodney’s direction. “I think everybody just needs to calm down, people.”

“No I will not!” Rodney yelled, his hands clenching at the table and his eyes wild. “That—that—bitch is trying to ruin my relationship with Jennifer and I will not sit here and let it happen.”

Keller pushed back from the table. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “This isn’t your fault, Rodney, I understand that. I really do. But despite the circumstances of your marriage, which I realize isn’t legal and you have no obligation to honor it, far from it,” Keller said with a short, hostile look at Zariss, “but she’s your wife for now, you did have sex with her, and you could have a baby on the way. Mr. Woolsey, I—I’m very sorry. Carson will be here within a few hours to take over Rodney’s care.”

Rodney jumped up and his chair spiraled backward on its wheels. “Jennifer,” he said.

Rodney stared at her with wide blue eyes and a hurt that was plain to see by everyone in the room. John wanted to reach out and pat the hand Rodney had clenched against the top of the table and tell him it would be okay, but he looked over and saw Zariss sitting back in her chair and it hit him hard that Rodney had a wife even if it was just temporary.

Rodney turned on Zariss, frustration and anger spilling out with every word. “This is all your fault. You’re certifiable, you know that? You, you, your sneak attacks and your wily tricks with your—that thing and—and—and—Oh, fuck this. This is not my fault. I’m being crucified here for something I had no control over.”

Keller winced and gathered her tablet up off the table.

Zariss sneered at Rodney. “You enjoyed every moment of it, and do not deny it. I’m likely the most talented and attractive female you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking to bed. I would wager only this John you mentioned has ever made you feel half so good. Certainly not this Dr. Keller.”

What—the—hell? And then, oh my God. She did not just say that.

“I only ever mentioned him one time by mistake when you—you—you did that—that thing with your—your—your—!” Rodney’s stuttering reached a crescendo.

John shook his head, denial screaming fast and furious.

“John?” From Keller, confused. “You mean Colonel Sheppard?”

John’s gaze flitted around the room. Teyla’s eyes were wide, serious. Mr. Woolsey’s mouth hung open. John looked around frantically for a rescue. None appeared. He burst out, “It was the plant, we were drugged, I swear to God.”

Keller sucked in a breath and let it out in a rush. With wide-eyed shock, she said, “That’s why you never told. Either of you. You were—Oh. Oh.”

Rodney’s lips mashed together tight, his mouth slanted sharply downward, his face so red he looked sunburned. “Why? Why the hell did you have to say that?”

John shook his head again, realizing he had no idea which of them Rodney was talking to.

*

“Gentlemen, this goes no further than this room. You have my word we’ll be circumspect concerning the, ah, revelations here today.” Mr. Woolsey’s earnest expression should have made Rodney feel better, but it didn’t. The damage had been done. Jennifer knew now. John had to have realized Rodney still thought of it enough to have slipped up and said something about it to Zariss. Woolsey knew. Teyla too.

He was humiliated.

He was furious.

He was scared. John might never forgive him for letting it come out this way. John, who had told him to just pretend it had never happened and who had seemed perfectly happy doing just that.

The fight had gone out of Rodney. He slumped back in his chair and with both hands he scrubbed at his face, suddenly tired and overwhelmed and ready to just go, to go to his quarters, his real quarters and plop down on his bed and sleep until he could pretend this had never happened. Any of it.

When he lowered his hands, it was to see that Jennifer still stood by the door, ready to bolt at any moment, her parted mouth only one symptom of her continued shock and—this was so unfair—sudden wild curiosity that lit up her eyes as she kept glancing between him and John.

“Sheppard,” he said. “I’m—” His voice broke. “I’m sorry. Really. I’m just—”

John had a tightness about his eyes and mouth, a stillness that he got sometimes when he was thinking especially hard. But he answered quickly, “It’s all right, McKay. It’s been a rough couple of days.”

“A rough two months, you mean.”

“All right, a rough two months then.”

“It makes complete sense now,” Jennifer said, sounding almost normal except for a slight pitchiness. She seemed to be working on putting pieces of a puzzle together. “Radek’s story, Dr. Carey...”

Zariss pointed at John. “This Colonel Sheppard is John? John is a man? Oh, Great Ancestors, this is—” She laughed, the gentle sound filling the room, echoing warmly off every wall until Rodney hoped she strangled on it.

Teyla turned to glare at Zariss. “This is not the time for any more of your games, Zariss.”

“Oh, but this is no game. I have specialties, you see, and certain men enjoy them more than others. My Honored Husband enjoys them especially—”

“Zariss.” This time Teyla’s voice left nothing to the imagination. Violence threatened. Her hand reached out and covered Zariss’s long fingers on the table top. Zariss snapped her mouth closed.

Mr. Woolsey spared each of them a glance. “I understand the importance of keeping this quiet, for your sake, Colonel Sheppard. I’ve come to realize that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Wouldn’t you agree, Dr. Keller?”

“Oh. Oh, certainly.” Her reaction still seemed a little off, her bottom lip red where she kept biting it.

Rodney watched her; he wasn’t sure how long. Her soft brown eyes, her cheeks, her neck. He thought of the times he’d touched those places and felt so perfectly happy and terrified and sure that it would all end before he was ready. He still loved her, but the churning in his stomach, the headache blowing up right behind his forehead told him he might have been right.

Gone two months, and now it might be over.

He realized he hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on around him when Zariss started commenting on something he hadn’t even heard Woolsey say.

“The Governors used to hide in the Ancestors’ abandoned buildings during the cullings, leaving the rest of us in the city to defend ourselves from the Wraith. Those of us who knew about the underground city would go into the catacombs and wait for the Wraith to leave. Restoring the Great City was our chance to protect all of our people from the Wraith instead of protecting just a few. You’ve destroyed that chance.”

Mr. Woolsey leaned forward onto this elbows, his fingers threaded together. “We haven’t said we would never be willing to offer assistance to your people should the Wraith discover your planet, but in light of Dr. McKay’s kidnapping and imprisonment, we can’t trust you with that shield.”

“Our people will be enemies forever because of this terrible thing you’ve done. We will never forgive you for this. You may have the Ancestors’ blood and their technology, but we can still fight you tooth and nail at every turn. You will have to watch your back every time you travel through the Great Ring. Mark my words. You will pay for what you’ve done to the Great City of Nadea.”

Well, wasn’t that just great, Rodney thought. Another enemy in Pegasus.

*

Rodney entered John’s room to find John sitting with his legs stretched out on his bed, his back against the wall while he read a magazine.

“She’s definitely not pregnant,” Rodney said as he walked over to the chair near John’s bedside table. He plopped down on the hard seat and finally let out the tension that had been keeping his shoulders stiff and tight. “Thank god.”

“That’s good news.” John flipped the page, eyes never coming up.

“Are you ignoring me? Because I’m getting the feeling you are, but I don’t want to seem like I think you are if you really aren’t.”

John dropped the magazine and twisted around, bringing his legs to the edge of the bed and over. He leaned forward onto his hands and shook his head, staring directly at Rodney. “I’m not ignoring you. How could I? You’re right here.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Rodney, I’m not. I swear. I’ve just been busy. We’re having to reevaluate how we do missions because of the damn Nadeans. They attacked one team already and our guys barely escaped with their lives. Your wife—”

“Zariss. You just call her that to torture me.”

“—wasn’t joking when she said they were going to make us pay. They’re out for blood now and they’re good at getting it.”

“Okay,” Rodney said.

“Okay, then,” John said. He grabbed the magazine and scooted back onto the bed. “So what do you need?”

“Oh, nothing, really.”

John sighed and turned his head to look at Rodney. Rodney watched the skin around John’s eyes crinkle when he asked, “What is it?”

Rodney debated lying again, but ended up sighing himself and looking down at his hands. “I think it’s over. With Jennifer. It’s been a week and she barely talks to me.”

“Maybe when Zariss is gone, she’ll come around, buddy.”

“Oh, there you go again. You’re just saying that.”

“What?”

“Buddy. I’m buddy or pal whenever you’re humoring me.”

“I’m serious, but don’t forget who you’re asking for advice. My one real relationship ended in divorce.”

“Yeah. Didn’t think about that.”

“Should have.”

“Probably.”

The conversation ground to a halt again and Rodney debated getting up and leaving John to his magazine, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to move.

The silence stretched out, until finally, he couldn’t help saying something just to hear a voice. “She was really actually kind of amazing, if you ignore the fact she’s a nutcase.”

“Huh.” John lowered his magazine to his lap. “What do you mean?”

“She did this thing, with her tongue—”

John groaned. “Aw, crap, Rodney, I don’t want you to describe her sexual performance to me.”

“She reminded me of—”

“I get why you slept with her, okay? She’s got that hot blonde thing going, you were probably missing Jennifer...”

“That’s not—You know, that’s not what I was going to say.” Rodney got to his feet. “I’m just going to go.”

“You don’t have to. I wasn’t trying to run you off. We can play a game or something.”

“No, I—” Rodney ran his hand through his hair. He looked at John, thought about how they’d always avoided the subject and thought, hell no, not another five years. “I was going to say she reminded me of you. That’s why I kept letting her get to me, why I kept sleeping with her. Because she reminded me of you.”

John’s hands stilled on the glossy pages, the edges crumpling in his fingers. With a sharp twist of his wrist, John tossed the magazine toward the end of the bed, but it missed, pages flapping. It plopped to the floor. One quick roll and John came off the side of the bed and landed on his feet, rising to stand in front of Rodney.

Before Rodney could put some space between them, John grabbed his arms and started walking him backwards. Rodney oomphed when his back came up against the wall. He cringed. He was about to get his face smashed in, he just knew it.

“She doesn’t look anything like me,” John said, his face too close, his breath feathering warm across Rodney’s cheeks.

“Uh, maybe that wasn’t, if this is a problem, then, how about I leave and come back after you’ve, uh, had a chance to think about it.”

John’s hands clenched a little tighter, but not enough to hurt.

“So what was it about her that reminded you of me?” John’s husky voice shivered through Rodney. John’s head tilted to the side. He actually looked curious. A stutter started up in Rodney’s chest.

“Uh, well, it was the—the way she, uh, well, did this thing with her tongue when she was, uh, sucking my—Do I really have to say it? It was that thing you did back when we did the—the thing.”

“You mean it was the way she sucked your dick?”

Rodney’s breath rushed out of him. “Yes! Exactly. And fingers. She has amazing fingers.”

John’s eyebrows rose.

“Really amazing,” Rodney repeated.

“So you thought my fingers were amazing?”

“If, uh, what I remember is a valid representation of—”

“Yes or no, Rodney.” John released Rodney’s left arm and raised his right hand, wiggling his fingers in front of Rodney’s face.

“Yes. Really, really yes.” Rodney gazed at John, letting his eyes take in all the creases and scars and stubble and hair and imperfections and just, everything. The memories were five years old, but the man pinning him to the wall was just as hot now as he’d ever been.

John blinked, and then his head moved closer and he said, “Just once. So we can see if it was really that good, okay?”

“Yes, yes yes yes yes yes. Oh hell yes. That’s brilliant.”

He leaned toward John, John leaned toward him, and somewhere in the middle their mouths met in a wonderful, hot, beautiful mash of lips and teeth and tongues and scratchy chins and noses and cheeks.

It wasn’t a first kiss, but it felt just like one, the time it took to find just the right angle, just the right level of pressure, and then it was so far beyond a first kiss that Rodney put his hands up on John’s arms and then around him and pulled him in closer. Their bodies smashed together and he knew he wasn’t going crazy any more because he was half-hard but John was—John was definitely past the half-way point.

“You want me to do that thing, don’t you?”

“Oh, god yes. I really do.”

“I remember how much you liked that.”

“I remember how much you liked it,” Rodney countered.

“I still wake up tasting you sometimes.”

“That’s so hot.”

“You don’t know the half of it. I’ve jerked off to those damn memories too many times to count. I need to know if it’s real.”

“I pretended my wife was you.” As if it was a competition to see who had gone the most crazy since the dreams started.

“I asked the hologram of you if you liked it. Waited until I was just about to run through the gate.”

Rodney snickered against John’s neck in between hitched breaths and the tingles spreading through him from his cock to every other spot in his body. “What’d he say?”

“He had no idea what I was talking about. He was a hologram.”

“So I didn’t give him every memory I had, sue me,” Rodney said, then gasped when John’s hand trailed down his shirtfront, his pants, and settled on the bulge that pushed against the back of his fly. He was suffocating here from the pressure on his cock.

“So, uh, you going to do that thing?”


“I’m going to do a lot of things to you, Rodney, and you’re going to love every one of them. Trust me.”

Oh, thank god.

*

Light swirled into the room from outside, the day almost over, but not quite ready for sunset. Atlantis’s walls shimmered with the glow and Rodney stared up at the ceiling from John’s bed and wondered how the hell they’d managed not to fall off and break a bone or twenty.

They hadn’t, and here they were lying shoulder to shoulder, squeezed up against each other too tightly to move without risking a tumble. Rodney’s right arm hung over the edge and he kept pulling it up to his chest but it kept sliding back down. Cool air flowed over his naked skin, sweat still drying on his body.

“So what happens now?” he asked.

John was quiet for a moment. Rodney wondered if this was it. The end of their one more time. Then John said, “We keep it quiet. Discreet.”

Rodney sighed, then looked over at John. “Damn. That’s a good plan.”

John looked at him, “Everybody knows I have the best plans, Rodney.”

“Ha! You’re fooling yourself with that one. How many times would you have died if I hadn’t been there to fix your plan?”

John propped up on one elbow. “Huh.”

“Our plans are always better when we work together.”

“You might have a point.”

Rodney looked up at John, saw the sun spill across John’s bare shoulder.

“I still love her you know.”

“I figured.”

“But... I think Ronon will take good care of her. She’s been spending a lot of time with him this week.”

“Yeah.”

Rodney squeezed John’s hand against the bed and smiled up at him, not feeling sorry for himself at all. “Why don’t you teach me how to do that thing this time. I’m a genius. I can learn anything.”

John grinned, licked his bottom lip and eyed Rodney. “Always thought that mouth could be good for something besides sarcasm and bullshit.”

“Oh, too funny.”