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"Second Verse"

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Second Verse


Big Bang 2009.   Forks in the Road: Rising - Rodney never joined the expedition.

The Pegasus expedition needed Rodney McKay.  They just didn't know it yet.


Word Count

58725 words

Part of the Second Series, but a stand-alone story.


There were many people who lent their moral support and beta skills to this endeavor, without whom I could not have completed this story.  My betas the_cephalopod, bluespirit_star, lantean_drift each went above and beyond the calling of a beta to encourage, handhold and keep me straight when I started to wander off the path.  Special thanks to neevebrody, who suggested a plausible reason for why Teyla's father had 'two names' and to vida_boheme for providing the delightful reason why John should never smoke pot, even for medical reasons.


This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.

Jump to the warnings.


John awoke with a start; uncertain of his surroundings for an instant, before the soothing lull of the ocean lapping against the city walls reached his consciousness. Atlantis. He was in Atlantis. He relaxed marginally back into the pillow. Now that the weather was warmer again, he'd taken to sleeping with the balcony doors open, relying on the sheer curtains to keep out the night midges. It was easier that way. Less confusion in the night. He automatically checked the readout on his watch, pulling his arm across his body so he could see his wrist, pressing the button that would light up the digital face. 05:43…just a few minutes before the alarm would sound. He let his hand fall to his chest. It had been hot last night when he finally went to bed and he'd stripped to just his boxers before falling asleep. Now the morning air had a chill and he pulled the covers up closer around his shoulders.

This was the time, this short period between waking and when he actually had to get up, that his saner self would often speak to him. The part of himself that he tried to ignore most days and drown out on others. But at this fragile moment in time, if he lay still and let his thoughts drift, that voice would speak. Most of the time if he didn't doze off again, he listened to the voice in his head and knew with certainty that the advice it offered was right. You need to stop drinking. You need to get over this. You need to move on. And internally he would agree. For a few moments, there would be an odd sort of peace and then the day would begin and the memory of that conviction would recede. Scarcely a few hours later, faced with some fresh disaster, someone who stared at him with just a little too much sympathy, or god forbid, another death that he had to deal with and all such fine resolutions would be out the window. He did what he needed to survive, to be functional. Nothing more was necessary.

The watch alarm piped shrilly at him and he fumbled with the watchband, turning off the sound by the third beep. Outside, the sky was still dark. John could just make out the billowing of the curtains in the breeze that stirred in the room. You could just stay in bed. He smirked at the thought, not the first time that another voice, a less pure portion of himself, rendered an opinion and through the force of sheer discipline he threw back the covers, sitting up stiffly on the edge of the bed. His dog tags had slipped around behind his neck during his sleep; he adjusted them now to dangle against his chest.

It always took a moment these days to work the kinks out, to begin the process of shutting out the noise of complaint in his muscles and joints. He sat with his palms on either side of his thighs, rotating his right ankle and feeling the pull of scarred flesh that refused to bend and give properly. Even though he knew it did little good, much like the multiple surgeries he'd undergone, he dutifully complied with Carson's physical therapy routine, even after all this time. Carson was a good doctor; he'd tried his best. John simply had to live with the results now.

So does everyone else. You think you're the only one who's suffered here? The voice inside his head was nastier than usual and John firmly ignored it, getting to his feet abruptly and staggering a step or two until his leg decided to hold him up after all. He limped into the bathroom, turning on the lights via the hand control as he entered. It had been a long time since he'd attempted to turn on anything with his mind. He'd become accustomed to the city's silence. It wasn't something he thought about any more, another section of his life relegated to the past, like his life back on Earth. Like the person he used to be.

The face that stared back at him in the mirror didn't shock him any more; didn't render any kind of emotion at all, in fact. He started to reach for the eye patch sitting on the side of the sink as a matter of course when suddenly something in his remaining eye glimmered at him through the mirror. Skin tightening around eye and scarred, empty socket alike, he came to a sudden decision and began rooting around in the cabinet for his shaving kit, long since put away. Twenty minutes and a few nicks later and he had removed his beard, feeling oddly ten pounds lighter with the action. He glanced at his watch. Still time for a swim before breakfast, if he hurried. Pulling on sweats, he grabbed a towel and the patch before heading out the door.

He slid into the heated water with a sigh, feeling it wrap around him like a warm blanket. He could feel the heat penetrate his joints and muscles, soaking into his bones, loosening stiff ligaments and tendons. In the water, his movements were free and unfettered. He was able to shut out everything else, all the noise in his head, just like he used to be able to do when he ran in the mornings, before the injuries. It was just him and the water. He'd begun swimming as part of his post-recovery therapy. He'd continued it once he realized that he would not be running again.

He swam that morning with long, determined strokes, concentrating on the rhythm and the movement for form's sake, in addition to the actual exercise. It was his standard operating procedure most days. He had some mornings when he pushed himself, when he swam as though he were in training for an Iron Man competition. Yeah. Right.

Once, out of sheer masochism, he'd tried swimming in Lantea's seas. The water was frigid all year round, sapping the strength from his muscles even as it seized up his protesting joints. The cold was insidious, whispering to him to give in to its embrace, to allow himself to sink below the waves and free himself once and for all from the prison his life had become. Some perverse imp inside him had said fuck that, you don't get me that easily, even as he dragged himself back to the pier. But the moment of temptation had chilled him just the same.

He'd stuck to the heated pools after that, acknowledging that the relief he got from the movement in the warm water was a mandatory part of each day. At the very least, it allowed him to function for the most part without medication and with the expedition isolated from Earth as it was; dwindling supplies were a major concern for everyone.

It also gave him a window of time each day when he was effectively isolated from any radio contact. Most people knew he swam every morning about the same time and knew where to find him in event of a bona fide emergency. But when he was in the water, it was the one time he knew that he could reasonably expect to be left alone. In the water, he could pretend he was whole again, that MC2-1793 had never happened.

So it was with a sinking feeling that he reached down for his towel and saw Sgt. Stackhouse approaching the pool with an urgent stride. He felt a little ridiculous, hair plastered to his head, water running down his sides, wrapping the towel around his waist as the Marine came forward. Swim trunks hadn't been one of the 'necessary' items he'd packed for the expedition all those months ago.

The feeling of self-consciousness flared up sharply and then died down into smoldering resentment when the sergeant flicked an eye rapidly over John's face and then studiously looked away, focusing his gaze at some point over John's shoulder. John slipped the eye patch in place with the ease of long practice before speaking, resisting the urge to rub a palm over his newly bared chin.

"What is it, Stackhouse?" John made his voice deliberately emotionless.

"Sir, something weird is going on—got the science department all in a lather. Zelenka says it's some sort of 'rift in the space-time continuum' and Dr. Weir asks that you come to the gate room at once." Stackhouse had made the obligatory finger quotes in the appropriate places, but he looked worried just the same.

John merely nodded and began toweling himself efficiently before stuffing everything into his gym bag and rapidly pulling on his sweats over still-damp skin, shoving sock-less feet down into boots that he hurriedly tied. Pegasus had bitten them in the ass one too many times. Even if it looked and sounded like a plot from a bad sci-fi television show, if Zelenka said there was a rift in the space-time continuum, then they were most certainly dealing with something unpredictable and probably catastrophically dangerous to boot.

John hooked his radio over his ear and he fell into step beside Stackhouse as they headed for the gate room.

"Speak to me, Zelenka," John said as he watched Stackhouse consciously slow his own pace to match John's stride. The observance of that small act made John's voice sharper than usual.

"Ah, Major." Zelenka sounded harried, as always. John wondered what Zelenka did to chill out. Somehow he doubted that Zelenka ever did. With the expedition as short-staffed as they were these days, everyone wore at least two or three hats all the time now. "Sensors detected an unusual, intermittent energy reading approximately fifteen minutes ago, that has been increasing steadily each time it appears. We were able to track down the current focal point to just outside the gate room, but the source of the energy does not seem to be emanating from the city."

John tapped his earpiece again, opening up a broader channel. "I want two teams of Marines on standby in the gate room, just in case we've got some unexpected company."

"I do not think you understand, Major," Zelenka jumped in. "The energy source does not seem to be emanating from this universe."

WTF? John didn't waste time asking Zelenka how he knew that. "What are we talking about here, Zelenka? Is this some sort of invasion or a naturally occurring event? What kind of trouble are we in here?"

"I wish I could tell you," Zelenka sounded weary beyond belief and John felt a momentary pang of guilt over how hard he'd been forced to drive Zelenka and his team of scientists in the months since John had become the acting military CO for the expedition. "We are still analyzing the data, but things are changing exponentially. It might be easier to show you…" Zelenka's voice trailed off.

"On my way," John said grimly, breaking into a lurching jog.

John noted with approval the armed and ready teams of Marines standing on alert in the gate room as he entered the control center from the upper corridor. Stackhouse grabbed a weapon from one of the other soldiers and headed down the stairs to join his own team.

In the control center, the mood was tense as Zelenka and Grodin hovered over the Ancient console, rapidly scanning the data that streamed endlessly over the view screen in front of them. John spared a quick glance at Elizabeth as he approached and thought she looked terrible, her skin even paler than usual, dark circles under her eyes as though she'd been beaten by an abusive lover. In a way, he supposed that she had; Pegasus had taken its toll on all of them.

"So," he drawled as he joined everyone at the console, not feeling nearly as casual as he sounded, "mind catching me up on what's going on?"

Zelenka looked up, oddly comical with his halo of perpetually startled hair and his broken glasses, held together with duct tape on one side. He blinked at John momentarily and John felt the urge to blurt out, "What? I shaved, all right? Get over it."

Zelenka and Grodin shared one of those silent communication things that the geeks seemed to often do before deciding how to speak to him and this time, it was Grodin who chose to speak first.

"We first noticed the energy spikes about 20 minutes ago. We might well have missed the first ones, but they're hard to miss now. Each spike precedes the opening of a rift between one universe and the next. The location of the focal point has been changing with each sequence, but it appears to be following a logical pattern of approach to the gate room."

"What do you mean, a logical pattern towards the gate room?" John frowned, leaning in to look over Grodin's shoulder, as though the data would make sense to him.

"We've been able to predict the next window or rift opening based on the warning of the energy spike ahead of it," Zelenka picked up the thread of Grodin's explanation as though John had not spoken. "We were able to make some recordings this last time—audio only." His hand jerked as though moving involuntarily towards the console but then was suddenly restrained.

"Perhaps you should play the recording for the Major," Elizabeth suggested. She shot a wan smile in John's direction.

Zelenka made an 'it's your funeral' kind of face and hit the button on the console.

The sound of some odd sort of roaring noise filled the air—punctuated with the sounds of things exploding somewhere in the distance. John suddenly recognized what he was hearing: the sound of flames, bombings and a place under attack. He was taken back in a flash to Afghanistan and the surprise assaults of the enemy that would rain shells down upon their position. He knew the sound of a siege when he heard it.

Suddenly there was a voice yelling over the noise in the background.

"John!" The voice contained fear and desperation, cutting through the din of destruction. John felt a jolt run through him, as though the voice were actually calling to him.

"I can't get back to the duster this way—do you copy? The way is blocked…" The sound of something exploding nearby cut off part of the speaker's next sentence, even as he yelped in surprise. John found himself holding his breath as he listened intently for the next words.

"I repeat, the way is blocked. John—are you there? There's no one left here—not alive anyway. We've got to get out of here. If you can hear me, I've set one of the ZPMs to overload…" The speaker gave the word a European pronunciation. John glanced over at the faces of the people listening to the recording along with him; despite having heard it before, they seemed just as affected by the information revealed as he was. For a terrible instant of déjà vu, John wondered if he was listening to the future. Shockingly, there came the sound of weapons fire and the thud of running feet. There was a long, agonizing pause before the speaker began to talk once more, wheezing out his next words in great, gasping breaths.

"Don't wait for me. Get yourself out. You hear me, you suicidal bastard? I'm not going to make it. Get back to the ship. Goddamn it, Sheppard, do you copy? Where are you?"

The transmission was cut off.

Up until the man had said the name Sheppard, John had been ready to assume that none of this had anything directly to do with him. He still couldn't really believe that it did. He felt a cold sweat start up on the back of his neck, forcing him to resist the urge to shiver. "What the hell did we just hear?"

His words were almost to himself, but Zelenka answered anyway.

"I believe that was a transmission from another Atlantis, in another universe. One that is obviously under attack."

"And losing," John said bitterly. He thought quickly for a moment. "Okay, what are we talking about here? Are these rifts just little tears in the space-time continuum that let us hear what's happening over there—like a radio signal that's been bouncing through subspace forever? Or is some kind of portal gonna open and all that bad shit over there's going to come tumbling onto our doorstep?"

"Worse case scenario," Grodin said, tapping the view screen at one of the locations where a rift had previously appeared, "if that ZPM goes up when the portal between universes is open, we could be affected by the subsequent explosion. But I think it more likely that during one of these temporary rifts, whoever is attacking Atlantis could inadvertently enter into our universe." Grodin's modulated tones managed to make him sound calmer than John knew him to be.

"I know that voice," Elizabeth said with a frown, thin arms crossed in front of her as she stood in deep thought, staring blankly at the control console. "I just can't place it."

John bit off the desire to ask her what the fuck did that matter right now? He turned to Zelenka. "Can we shut down the rift from this side?"

Zelenka shook his head sadly. "I believe it might have something to do with the ZPM overload this other man mentioned. Though that in and of itself should not have been able to open such a rift. There has to be something else, something related to the people attacking perhaps, or some sort of experimental energy design that we are not familiar with…" his voice trailed off as he gave a fatalistic shrug.

John was about to chide Zelenka for being extremely unhelpful in this situation when Grodin suddenly snapped forward and began flipping switches on the console in front of him. "Energy spike," he said urgently.

"Tracking," Zelenka said as he bent forward as well, a grid of previously plotted locations popping up on the view screen before him as he used that information as well as the signal from the spike to predict the location of the next rift. John could now see what Grodin had meant earlier—the pattern wasn't random but was making its way steadily towards the gateroom.

"Do prdele," Zelenka suddenly sucked in his breath with a curse and John was pretty sure he was starting to understand a little Czech now. At least, he'd heard Zelenka say that phrase often enough just before everything went pear-shaped.

"What?" he asked sharply.

"Rift opening up…here! In the gate room!" Zelenka half stood from his seat and pointed excitedly down towards the lower section of the room, right in front of the gate.

John hesitated for only a fraction of a second. "Positions everyone!" he shouted as he made rapidly for the stairs. Snagging a P-90 from one of the marines in passing, he took point in front of one of the teams as he saw the air in front of him shimmer and waver. He held up a hand to the marines behind him as the view in front of him changed.

Oh, it was still the gate room all right. But the gate superimposed on their gate now was pocked and marred with battle damage; the ring itself had a lifeless appearance to it. From what he could see, the room was darker as well, filled with smoke and the greenish light of an out-of-control plasma fire. The heat emanating from the other side of the rift was unbearable, forcing John to turn his face away, feeling the intensity of the flames that he could see raging all around. A man lay face down near the gate, a satchel by his side, one arm thrown over his head as though to protect it.

John could see that the arm covering the man's head was badly burned and the heat of the inferno suggested that the man was probably already dead. There was a high-pitched whining clearly audible, rising in intensity and John knew what it was even before he heard Zelenka's shout.

"ZPM reaching critical mass!" he warned from the balcony.

Inside the satchel, John could see a ZPM lying on its side. It didn't seem to be reaching for anything, just lying peacefully amongst all the chaos. Obviously not the one that was currently approaching overload within the city systems.

"Cover me, I'm going in," he said to the nearest marine.

"John!" Elizabeth's cry of protest was sharp, but it was already too late. John plunged into the rift like he was heading through the gate for home with the enemy closing in behind him.

The heat literally took his breath away. He could feel the moisture dry up in his mouth and throat, could feel his lungs constrict in self protection, could feel death in the air all around him. He glanced quickly behind him, to see anxious faces peering in through the rift, following his movements.

Right. Time to move then. Grab the satchel and run before he succumbed to the heat and fumes. He knelt quickly beside the fallen man, reaching for the canvas bag, only to curse and shake his hand when he grabbed hold of a metal clasp instead. The strap of the bag was still wrapped around the prone body—he gave it a good jerk and the strap separated where it had been partially burned through. John placed a hand on the floor for balance and he started to rise.

The man at his knee moved ever so slightly, his badly burned hand reaching feebly towards the bag.


John stared at him for a full two seconds before making up his mind. With a swift bowling move, he skidded the bag across the floor and through the rift, pausing just long enough to see Stackhouse scoop it up before turning back to the man on the floor. Shifting his weapon so it slung over his shoulder and cursing bitterly, he began to haul the man upwards, kicking himself mentally for making such a stupid decision.

"John!" A crackle in his ear accompanied Elizabeth's warning. "Radek says the rift is closing. And that ZPM overload is imminent. You must come back now!"

John didn't bother wasting time or breath to answer. It was getting too hard to breathe as it was. He staggered under the other man's weight as he half-carried, half-dragged the guy back towards the rift, which appeared to be shrinking with each step. Suddenly several marines came charging through the rift, forcibly hauling them both back into John's reality.

John collapsed on his knees, whooping for air and waving off assistance as the marines carefully lowered the burned man to the ground and turned him over. John gratefully accepted a canteen of water and chugged it greedily, spilling the remainder over his head and face. When he looked up, the rift was gone, like it had never existed.

Beckett's emergency medical team was on the scene; assessing the condition of the poor bastard now being shifted to a stretcher, gently placing an oxygen mask over his blistered face. John watched them work on the guy as he wiped his face with his sleeve, shaking the water out of his hair with a swift pass of his hand through it.

He jumped when someone touched him on his blind side and almost waved off the technician who was trying to provide him with oxygen as well. Deciding that would simply be stupid, he took the mask from her hand, placing it over his nose and mouth, breathing deeply.

The action hurt and he had to stop to cough, which hurt even more.

"Carson!" Elizabeth called out, even as she was kneeling on John's good side. Elizabeth paid attention to things like that. John never knew whether to appreciate her or resent her for that. He gave her a rueful grin as he placed the mask back over his nose and mouth, glancing over to where Beckett was directing the medical staff to take the stranger off to the infirmary before he came jogging over to John's location.

"Are you alright?" Elizabeth asked gently, as Beckett knelt with a frown and slapped a stethoscope on John's chest.

"Breathe deeply, Major," Beckett instructed in his soft brogue, and then made a face as he listened. John had to control the urge not to cough again.

"Aye, down to the infirmary with you then. You can be joining your friend, John Doe."

"Not John Doe, Carson," Elizabeth corrected, as each of them took one of John's arms without a word and helped him to his feet. "Dr. Rodney McKay. I finally recognized him—well, his voice at any rate. He was supposed to come with us on the expedition. He would have been the CSO."

"McKay?" Beckett repeated. "Was that the poor bugger who died in the car crash a couple of weeks before we left? The one who kept expecting me to leave my duties to trot down to the labs and play light switch for him?"

John had a moment's sympathy for Beckett. After all, playing light switch had been John's primary purpose within the expedition until Sumner had been killed. He shrugged out of the supporting grips of both Beckett and Elizabeth. Elizabeth looked as though she was the one in need of physical support anyway.

She nodded at Beckett, hunkering down in her sweater and looking cold. "Yes. Though that all seems like another lifetime ago. I can't believe I didn't recognize his voice at once. Out of context, I guess. Another place, another time." She seemed lost in her own thoughts once more.

"So, not my friend, Beckett." John didn't know what made him say that. Some overwhelming need to prove he didn't need or rely on anyone, damn it. He wondered what Heightmeyer would have said about that. She would have probably given him some platitude on maturity, implying that he didn't have any.

Beckett looked at him for a long moment with something akin to sadness in his eyes before reaching into his pocket and fishing out an item to hand to John. He seemed to be gauging John's reaction as John slowly opened his palm and allowed Beckett to drop the mystery object into his waiting hand.

It was a battered set of dog tags. The black noise guards had melted away; the tags themselves discolored and warped.

"He had those in his right hand. The metal had burned into his skin. We had to pry it out of his palm." Beckett's voice was carefully neutral.

John turned the tags over. The imprint read "John Sheppard, Lt. Colonel."

John spent the rest of the day in the infirmary. While he'd undergone testing and then treatment for smoke inhalation and the mild burn on his hand, he'd watched as the team of medical personnel worked on the man called Rodney McKay. Intubated, wrapped in medicated dressings, IV lines attached to both arms, lying like a mummified corpse in the tented bed on the other side of the infirmary, John couldn't help but feel sorry for the guy. Poor bastard was probably going to wish he had died when he finally woke up.

Zelenka radioed in with the news that there had been no further energy spikes and that presumably the alternate Atlantis had been destroyed so the threat to their own reality was over. He went on to report in a voice of reverent awe that the ZPM was at least partially charged, but there was some concern about the integrity of the casing—further tests would have to be done. John was relatively pleased; after all, that was the whole reason he'd gone into the rift in the first place. Atlantis needed three ZPMs to be fully operational. They'd arrived almost a year ago to find themselves in a submerged city facing imminent destruction, as the sole remaining ZPM no longer had enough power to hold back the ocean for much longer.

Fortunately, when everyone was brainstorming about what to do as far as the expedition was concerned; John had asked why couldn't they simply raise the city to the surface of the ocean? It was really a spaceship, right? It surely was designed to move. Before Sumner could protest the stupidity of the idea, the city had responded to John's idle thought-out-loud, providing the instructions for raising the city before the surrounding water completely crushed them. The remaining power in the ZPM had held out for these past months, only to recently start degrading at an accelerated rate. At least Zelenka seemed hopeful that this ZPM could eventually be used in tandem with the failing one still in place. What they needed was a fully charged one. A fully charged ZPM was exactly what John's survey teams had been looking for each time they went through the gate. A fully charged ZPM would mean that they had shields and a means of defending the city. That they could contact Earth again.

John refused to think about the way it had felt to be in communication with the city in those days. He couldn't help but echo another place, another time when the remembrance pushed at him. The excitement and wonder that he'd experienced on his arrival in Atlantis had been just a cheap magic act with him as an unwitting audience participant. The reality of their existence here had soon obliterated any feelings of special connection with the city.

When Beckett finally discharged him, his first stop was to look up Zelenka. He found the scientist face down on a battered couch that someone a long time ago had dragged down to one of the labs. He watched Zelenka sleep for a long moment, finally resisting the need to wake the guy up and find out everything that the additional power of the new ZPM would allow them to do now.

He thought about and then rejected the idea of going to the mess, feeling the ache in his neck and shoulder from the unexpected activity that day and longing simply to go back to his quarters. There he knew he'd find some relief in a glass of Zelenka's finest.

He was a little disconcerted to find the bottle contained less alcohol than he'd remembered from the night before. He was disappointed to find an email from Zelenka stating that pending tests, it might be several days to weeks before they attempted installing the new ZPM, given the question of its integrity. He was surprised to find an update on Rodney McKay from Beckett, stating that the man was in critical but stable condition and could be expected to remain in ICU for several days before facing a long and painful recovery.

He sipped from his glass as he caught up on the day's news and was taken aback to find it empty so fast. He filled it again.

"I don't care, doc." At John's words, Beckett's face tightened and his expression became angry. John however, thought he'd been very patient so far. He'd had waited over a week. Until McKay had been transferred out of ICU and into the critical care burn unit. Until he'd been extubated and was able to breathe on his own. Not to mention, answer some questions. He'd waited long enough. "I want to talk to him."

"Look, Major. His injuries are quite serious. And painful too. I've had to keep him on high doses of morphine, why just the bandage changes alone…"

"I'm familiar with how much it hurts, doc." John's voice was dryly bitter. "As for that, you'll need to cut him back anyway. You need to get him off the morphine if possible, manage his pain another way."

"Excuse me, Major," Beckett said crisply, a sure sign he was really pissed, "but I don't tell you how to do your job, now do I?"

John gave a laugh without humor. "Yeah, you do, doc. Every time you disagree with my plans to return someone to active duty before you think they're ready."

Beckett opened his mouth to protest, but John cut him off. "Bottom line, doc? When the morphine's gone, it's gone for everyone. And then what are you going to do the next time you need to patch up one of my guys?"

"Most burn patients die of septicemia, Major." Beckett's voice was blunt with anger, his accent thickening. "Will ye be wanting me to ration his antibiotics as well? Why d'ye not just give me a gun and let me shoot him?"

Tightening his mouth in a grim line, John persisted. "We need to know what he knows. Wake him up, doc."

He heard the voice, higher pitched than expected and with a ringing, carrying quality, before he entered the infirmary several hours later.

"Carson," it was saying, with a sort of incredulous delight. "Carsoncarsoncarson."

John rounded the corner of the partially partitioned area around the stranger's bed, hesitating at the edge of the curtain to observe for a moment before being noticed.

Beckett had the guy propped up, bed in a semi-elevated position, better for the coming interrogation, John realized. The side of the man's face and neck was heavily bandaged, as well as his right arm, his left to a slightly lesser degree. He had his head turned towards Beckett and was reaching clumsily towards him with one hand. "God," he said, "It's good to see you again. Ow. Ow." He looked down at his hand in some confusion and let it fall to the surface of the bed. "Ow," he said again, his voice still dazed with drugs. "What happened? Oh wait…I remember…"

He looked around the room anxiously and then his gaze fell on John. The man's whole face lit up, until he winced at the pull of the bandaging against his skin. He rolled an eye towards the material on his face, as though trying to see what it was and then his eyes fixed themselves with a laser-like intensity on John's face again. Maybe it was the contrast of the white bandaging, or maybe it was the absence of any eyebrows, but John was startled by the blueness of his eyes. And the look of intense happiness contained within.

"John," he breathed. "You made it. I thought you were dead. You should be dead. I should've known better, you're a lot harder to kill than you look." He let his head fall back to rest on his pillow, still beaming at John in a slightly goofy way. The good drugs, John thought.

"You look like crap. What's up with the pirate gig? I feel like crap though, so I guess that's only fair. Cut it a bit close this time, didn't we?" McKay's eyes began to drift closed, the smile on his face still intimate, the smile of friends who had shared something awful and survived it together. He looked suddenly vulnerable, the visible portions of his face red and peeling, his short brown hair singed away in several places.

John clenched his teeth and stepped all the way into the room, coming forward until he stood about a foot away from the bed. "Dr. McKay," he began.

McKay's eyes snapped open in alarm. "What? Dr. McKay? You called me Dr. McKay?" He rolled his head towards Carson, flinching and hitching a hand up to the side of his neck and then crying out, "ow, ow, ow," again.

"What's wrong with me? I'm dying, right? I've received a lethal dose of radiation and it's just a matter of time before the flesh rots off my bones. Ohmygod, I'm going to die a slow and terrible death."

John got the feeling that if he could, the man would have laid one arm across his eyes, in true damsel-in-distress fashion. He talks with his hands, he realized suddenly. Carefully, drawling his words to convey 'calm down', he spoke again. "You infer all that because I called you by your professional title?"

McKay's intense gaze zeroed in on him again. "Yes! You've never called me by any of my honorifics, not since the first day O'Neill sat you down in that damned chair. It's always been 'McKay,'" and the man pronounced the name in a sharp, irritated fashion that John recognized as a decent imitation of himself, "or 'Rawd-neeee'." McKay dragged out the second imitation in an exaggerated drawl.

Beckett suddenly snorted and John pierced him with a glare.

"So for you to call me doctor," McKay was winding himself up again, the expression on his face anxious and worried, "I must be dying." He closed his eyes and laid his head back on the pillow again, obviously exhausted. His bandaged hand shifted and jerked as though involuntarily. "By the way, congratulations on making use of that 'vocabulary word a day' calendar I got you for Christmas this year. Good use of 'infer'. Please, just give it to me straight, Colonel. Carson here will hide behind his sheep entrails and tea leaves."

"Hey!" Beckett said sharply.

"No, no, no, you know you will, Carson. You can't help that your specialty is an inexact science. Really. A step up from voodoo. On a good day. When the wind is blowing right." The swathed hand twitched feebly where it lay on the bed.

A part of John wanted to be amused by the banter, obviously well established as if between old friends, but the 'colonel' and the 'O'Neill' and the 'damned chair' settled it for him. That wasn't how he'd been introduced to the SGC. He steeled himself against any feelings of friendliness before speaking. "It's Major Sheppard."

McKay didn't even open his eyes. "Oh please. Is this payback for me not being able to remember the change in rank when you first got promoted? Not funny, Colonel. Oh fine, mess with the mind of an injured man. In case you haven't noticed, really hurting here."

Beckett shot John a nasty look, one that said 'this is all your fault'. John ignored him.

"You want it straight, McKay?" John opened his mouth to let him have it, to tell him that he had been pulled into an alternate reality, that everything he knew before was irreparably gone. Something in his tone caused McKay to open his eyes again and John was faced with a look of such intense worry and fear that he found himself rapidly revising what he planned to say. "You're not gonna die." He flicked his glance over at Beckett for belated confirmation and felt an odd little sense of relief when Beckett shook his head in negative agreement. "You've been badly burned," he continued. "Doc here is going to do his best but we've got limited resources at the moment. You're probably going to lose the use of your right hand. And we're short on drugs. So it's gonna hurt like a sonofabitch as well."

McKay blanched, the color leaving his face except where he was burned, the red marks standing out in painful contrast. "Oh. Wow." He looked down, lifting his hands slightly to stare at them in disbelief before letting them come to rest on his abdomen. "I mean…wow. You know…John. We're talking hands, here." He looked at John as though that should mean something, as though his hands were important to him beyond simply being part of his body. The way John's eyes were to him.

"I'm sorry, Rodney," Beckett hurried in to smooth out some of the bluntness of John's statement. "You really need more intensive therapy than we can manage here. If I had a choice, I'd send you back to Earth and not even attempt any surgery here, and it's going to take more than one surgery at that. There'll be skin grafts and physical therapy as well. And we just won't know what kind of function will be possible for a while."

McKay's head jerked up. "But if you sent me to Earth, I'd be gone for months. Maybe forever. Who knows, the SGC might not let me come back. You can't send me to Earth, Carson. Radek and the others are smarter than I generally give them credit for, but you know as well as I do that I'm the only thing holding this city together most days. I know, I know, I say that a lot, but it's no joke, and you know it."

John felt suddenly as though someone had slipped a small dagger of ice in his chest where it began a stinging, painful burn. He felt Beckett's gaze boring into him and he couldn't help but exchange a small look with him.

"Wait a minute, you said you didn't have the option," McKay continued, as though thinking aloud. "Which means the Daedalus hasn't returned. Oh. Right. She's not due back for six weeks—that is, wait a minute, I'm confused…we have the Daedalus and they have the Icarus, right?" He frowned, concentrating inward, puzzling over something in his head. His expression cleared. "Oh. I know what this is about. This is you setting yourself up to feel all guilty and depressed if things don't go well for me. Well, stop it."

"Well, stop it?" Beckett repeated weakly.

"Yes, yes, stop it." McKay managed to look very irritable for a man as badly injured as he was. "I know you'll do the best that you can because you're incapable of doing anything less and it's not necessary for you to beat yourself up in advance because it might not work out. I don't need a mopey doctor; it doesn't inspire confidence, so cut it out."

Beckett opened and closed his mouth before saying faintly, "Right-o, then."

John could feel the amusement licking around the corners of his mind again, like the first curls of flame around logs in a fireplace. Before he could speak, McKay was looking at him once more.

"Ronon and Teyla?" McKay's eyes were filled with the crushing worry again. "I thought they…did they make it too?"

"I…don't know," John answered honestly.

"Okay. Okay. Well, then." McKay's mouth kind of rippled and John realized when he saw the blue eyes well with tears that McKay was struggling to hold his emotions in check. It was the fault of the good drugs, John told himself. They could do that.

McKay huffed a little. "Well, just promise me you won't go off and do something stupid like looking for them by yourself until I can help you again. Seriously. You're not a one-man rescue operation, you know. Get some back up. Lorne's team or something." He closed his eyes again. A small trickle of moisture leaked unnoticed by him out of the corner of one eye.

John looked over at Beckett, who shrugged helplessly and then got a steely expression of his own as he suddenly glared at John. "Okay, visiting hour is over." He turned back towards the man in the bed with a gentler expression. "You need to get some rest, Rodney."

A little smile played on McKay's lips. He opened his eyes again to mere slits, the overhead light glimmering, reflected in their depths. "I'm glad it's you, Carson. I wouldn't have anyone else." He closed his eyes and gave a little sigh, suddenly asleep. The change was so abrupt; it was as though his battery had run out.

"Satisfied now?" Beckett's gesture towards the door brooked no argument.

John thought possibly he'd never felt so unsatisfied in his life. "Just remember, Doc," he said as he sauntered out of the infirmary, one hand resting causally on his holstered weapon, "he only thinks he knows us. And we do not know him."

"Major Sheppard." Beckett's voice in his ear was grim and unfriendly. John had butted heads with Beckett before, but this time he sounded truly pissed at John. "You're needed in the infirmary right away."

John didn't bother arguing. He acknowledged the call, making his way down the corridor, knowing that Beckett was going to plead with him to allow the use of morphine again. He was firm in his resolve. They had to ration their remaining supplies.

What he was not prepared for was a wild-eyed McKay inefficiently lobbing medical supplies at the staff.

He came to a halt just inside the door to the infirmary as a box of cotton gauze nearly hit him in the face. "What the hell's going on here?" he growled to the room at large.

"John!" McKay was standing in the middle of the room, holding another box of supplies clumsily balanced on one hand as he waved the other haphazardly in Beckett's general direction. "Make this miserly, mealy-mouthed, Scottish hack give me something for the pain!"

The staff looked harried and worn out. Beckett was standing with a tray of bandaging materials and wound-cleaning solutions in his hands—it was obviously time for a dressing change. Beckett glared at John murderously for an instant before switching his focus back to McKay.

"Come on now, Rodney," he said soothingly. "You know we need to do this. If you ever want to regain use of your hands again…"

McKay heaved the box at Beckett, who sidestepped it neatly with a heavy sigh.

"John." McKay's expression was stricken as he implored with slightly opened arms, hands still bandaged like heavy clubs. "Do something."

"Everything here is rationed, McKay." John only just missed adding a 'doctor' in front of the man's name. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing we can do."

"Bullshit!" McKay roared, his the rest of his face turning as red as the burned portions. "There has to be something. Some Athosian herbal shit of Teyla's. Some Zen warrior thing of Ronon's. No, I take that back." McKay seemed to be considering that last statement seriously. "Ronon is just another bite-the-bullet type, like you. What about Valium? Mother's little helper? Something? Anything." McKay rounded on Beckett furiously. "I'm not letting you near me, you sadist!"

"Rodney," Beckett began, his expression pained.

"No, I'm not listening to you!" McKay snarled.

"McKay." John spoke sharply, noting with satisfaction when the angry man turned to face him. "It's not Beckett's fault. I gave the orders to cut you off on the pain meds. I had to. There's not enough for everyone. You got it? When we run out, there is no more. We're on our own here."

McKay stared at John in blank disbelief for a long moment before shifting into an expression of hurt and betrayal that was hard to bear. Perhaps even harder though, was the sudden acceptance of John's words. McKay gave a woeful little nod and then suddenly seemed to crumple in on himself, sagging down to his knees.

John caught him just before he hit the floor. He thought for a moment they'd both end up in the floor in a heap, but McKay turned at the last minute and painfully threw one arm around John's shoulder.

"I can't do this," he said in a voice tight with anguish into the side of John's neck. He sounded as though he might start to cry. The warm breath against his skin almost made John shiver.

"Yes, you can," John returned firmly. What else could he say?

"I'm not as strong as you are," McKay whispered, and this time, the words made John shudder slightly.

"Yes, you are." John bit the words off sharply, cutting off the urge to reveal all his weaknesses in a tide of bitterness that would have done neither of them any good. He lifted McKay until his feet were under him again, Beckett having set down the tray to take his other arm. Together they helped McKay back towards the bed and onto its edge. McKay sat with his eyes closed and his bandaged hands in his lap as the two men watched him cautiously.

"You should be glad it hurts," John said matter-of-factly. "That's a good sign. No pain means all the nerves got burned away."

McKay opened his eyes and shot John an evil glare that distinctly said, 'bite me.'

And then he started to laugh. He folded one arm across his chest as though it might hurt, but he laughed just the same. "You always were a sick bastard," he grinned lopsidedly at John. "They can be dragging you away down to the inferno of hell and you'd be saying, 'yeah, but at least it's a dry heat.'

John found half a smile sneaking across his face, because yeah, that was funny.

McKay suddenly sat up alertly, like a hunting dog that had heard a whistle. He began thumping a bandaged hand lightly on his thigh. "Wait, wait, ow!" He scowled down at the offending hand and abruptly stilled its movement before looking up with a speculative gleam in his eyes. "Say, what if you guys stunned me?"

"What?" Beckett looked incredulous but John was watching McKay's face, which was astonishingly animated.

"No, no, hear me out—just for the bandage changes. The rest of the time I just suck it up and take it, like Colonel Stoic here," McKay made a feeble gesture in John's direction, "but when it comes to the actual bandage changes and wound dressing, you stun me with Ronon's blaster."

John's initial surge of interest in the idea faded with the mention of the mysterious Ronon again. "Sorry, buddy," he found himself saying. "We don't have Ronon's blaster."

Rodney's face fell. "Ronon never goes anywhere without that gun. I bet he even showers with it. Which means…you don't have Ronon, either."

John didn't know how to answer that. The pain in McKay's blue eyes now was of a sort that could not be medicated away. Then again…

"We have that Wraith stunner though…" John looked over at Beckett, raising his eyebrow above the patch.

"What? No!" Beckett looked alarmed at the idea. "I canna be stunning the man every day while we change his bandages. Who knows the kind of effect that would have on him long-term?"

"I can tell you the long-term effects of excruciating pain are far more detrimental to my brain than being stunned," McKay said sharply. "I'm hemorrhaging brain cells by the minute. Granted, I have more to spare than all of you put together, but still you need them all. Oh look, there goes another one…" McKay rolled his eyes towards his shoulder and emitted a tiny, shrill scream, as though something very flea-like was jumping off his head.

John snorted, causing McKay to glance over at him. He could see that behind the sarcasm and humor that the guy really was hurting.

"I suppose we could try it once and see how it goes," Beckett said doubtfully.

McKay however, made a face. "I hate the Wraith stunners. Always makes you feel like you've been pumped full of Novocain when you wake up. Okay, fine. If that's the best you can do. At least we know I'll be out long enough to get the job done, if Carson here doesn't waste any time." He twitched a hand in resignation.

"You've been stunned before?" John asked curiously.

McKay shot him a frowning look. "You know I have. More times than I care to admit. The worst part is waking up in a cell on a Hive ship and thinking oh no, here we go again. At least this time I'll be safe in the infirmary."

John traded a look with Beckett. The look that said, we need to keep him alive and find out as much as we can from him before his memory is not so scrambled anymore. Beckett's lips tightened in a grim line, but he gave a little nod in understanding. He knew what the stakes were as well as John.

That night, when he finally made his way back to his quarters, exhaustion and pain were pulling at his bones, calling for him to kick off his boots and sit down and pour himself a drink. He got as far as taking out the bottle and tipping the lip over his glass. He paused then, holding up the bottle to the light. The soft light of the room reflected off the clear liquid within, giving it a warm glow. A scant quarter bottle left and then he'd be making his way down to Zelenka's lab and demanding another. It had been less than a week since he'd gotten the last one.

He tipped the bottle gently from side to side in his hands, watching the play of light within.

McKay thought he was strong.

McKay was wrong.

He thought about McKay's broken words, spoken with fear and pain, close against his skin. So close he could feel the faint prickle of stubble against his throat, could feel the damp heat of Rodney's breath. He could see the look in those intense blue eyes when they realized that it was John's orders that were making him suffer…and the way the man had just accepted that.

He didn't owe McKay anything. He wasn't the Colonel. He wasn't McKay's friend. Hell, he'd saved McKay's life—the guy should be grateful to him.

He recalled something about an old Chinese proverb or maybe it was a myth but at any rate the gist of it was that if you saved someone's life you were responsible for that person for the rest of that life. John had enough responsibilities, thank you very much. He thought about the look of loss in McKay's face at the realization that Ronon was not here. He wondered what was going to happen when McKay realized that the Colonel was gone as well.

He recapped the bottle and put it back in its drawer. If McKay could do without anything for pain, so could he.

What he always remembered was the dampness of the cell. How the moisture invaded everything, settled with a chill on the skin, soaked through the clothing and left you shivering with the cold. That and the odor. The smell of blood and infection and piss and despair. And the way his arms screamed internally with the pain of being outstretched for hours at a time as he was suspended off the wall in chains.

The time he was unchained was no better. Lying on a fetid pallet of moldy straw, feeling the rats scamper over his legs and occasionally nipping him. Being hungry enough to kill one and attempt to pull it apart with only his fingers, eating it raw and then getting sick afterwards. And always the burning pain of his wounds and the knowledge that he was dying from the fever. Who knows what he'd said at that point. Maybe that had been the whole purpose of the exercise in the first place.

All that and then the sound of Ford's voice in his ear, telling him to hang on, help was on the way. Ford's young, excited voice shouting into his radio that he'd found the Major and to send a medical team right away. Ford unlocking the chains and helping him to the ground, all the time muttering, "Jesus Christ" and "shit, shit, shit" and "You're going to be okay, Major, you'll see, Doc'll fix you up just fine."

And his murmuring through battered and swollen lips, "You came for me."

And Ford's midnight confession a few days later as he sat beside John's bed in the infirmary—that Sumner was a total shit, that no one had been looking for John, that it had been a stroke of pure luck that they'd stumbled upon him in that cell.

A week after that, both Ford and Sumner were dead, along with the entire off-world team, slaughtered by a bunch of kids with bows and arrows, for crying out loud. That the team had decimated the village of children in self-defense before being killed only worsened the reputation that the strangers in the City of the Ancestors had been developing since their arrival in Pegasus. Few worlds were willing to meet and trade with them after that. There were even rumors that some out there were planning to 'liberate' the city from the pretenders.

On the news of Sumner's death, John had gotten up out of bed against Beckett's orders and taken command of the military.

His first official act had been to take a team of Marines back to the Peter Pan planet. He'd landed the gateship just outside the EM field and had given orders for Markham to fly back to Atlantis if they hadn't heard from him in an hour. Under no circumstances were they to come after him.

And then he'd walked unarmed into the camp where the survivors remained. He'd come to offer humanitarian aid and to ask for the bodies of their dead. The severity of his own injuries had kept the kids from shooting him outright, though they did march him into the village and force him to strip down in front of the 'elders'. He supposed it had been to prove that he was no act. He had complied in silence, vowing mentally that this would be the last time he'd allow himself to be exposed in such a manner. In the end, his risky gambit had paid off. He had been able to undo a fraction of the damage Sumner had caused as well as bring the dead back to Atlantis. An unexpected bonus had been the manner in which the Marines had accepted him as their new leader with unswerving devotion. The fact that he didn't want their admiration seemed to only garner him more.

John propped himself up in bed and reached for the light switch. There had been a time when he would have used his mind to make a connection with the city itself, but he'd stopped trying after his capture and imprisonment. At first, he'd felt the city humming at the back of his mind for his attention, almost like a dog laying its head on his knee, but he'd kept ignoring it and eventually he didn't hear it any more.

He got up out of bed stiffly; making his way over to his desk and opening the drawer that contained the bottle of Zelenka's home brewed vodka. It was nights like these that he needed the oblivion that alcohol gave him. He was reaching for the glass when he suddenly took note of his own hand, fingers strong and whole. He rotated his hand palm up and flexed his fingers, staring at the simple act. Something McKay might never be able to do.

With a muffled curse, he replaced the bottle in the drawer and slammed it shut. He spent the remainder of the night staring at the ceiling until the cold gray light of dawn filtered into the room.

John wandered into the empty conference room and sat down at his usual seat. He had never been one of those people passionately addicted to coffee, but he did miss the rituals associated with it. Something to occupy his hands while sitting at the table, the soothing warmth of a mug cradled between fingers, the little business of adding sugar or cream if desired, a means of delaying making an answer by taking a sip when an uncomfortable question was fired his way. Something to look at when he sensed someone making eye contact that he did not wish to return. He drank instead the not-coffee that most aficionados thought a poor, poor substitute, disliking the grass-like aftertaste but preferring the something to the nothing.

He was the first to arrive and carefully arranged himself in a deceptively lazy pose while he waited for the others. His first position caused an unwelcome jolt of white-hot pain through his left shoulder—he caught his breath and shifted carefully, glad that no one was there to see. He rolled his neck cautiously until he found what triggered the spasm and then stretched his shoulders into it, holding the position until the pain began to ease up some. He eyed the mug of not-coffee distastefully as he relaxed into a slouch again. A shot of alcohol would have only served to improve the flavor, but it had been weeks since he'd touched the stuff. Days weren't so bad—once he was up and moving, he seldom noticed the pain. It was the nights that were killing him. He felt like he hadn't slept in months and he knew his temper was starting to fray around the edges.

Elizabeth and Beckett arrived together and there was something conspiratorial in their attitude towards each other as they entered the room and took their respective places at the table. John noted again how pale and thin Elizabeth looked and he made a mental note to ask her how she was doing at some point. Today she was wearing a bright red cardigan, but instead of bringing reflected color to her cheeks, it only emphasized how wan she appeared.

"Who else are we waiting on?" he asked lightly instead.

Beckett and Elizabeth traded a look; definitely something going on there. "Radek will be along shortly." Elizabeth's smile was tight, stretched. John made a conscious decision to let it go for now.

When Zelenka bustled in the room a few minutes later, laptop and PDA in hand, a little sigh of relief circled the room, but John could not tell from where it originated. John noticed that the tape was gone from his glasses and now they were being held together on one side with a twisted paperclip. He looked harried and tired as usual, but there was a sense of excitement to him that John had not noticed in a while.

Elizabeth wasted no time taking charge, even as Zelenka sat down in a flustered manner, arranging his equipment around him. "As you all know," she said smoothly, as though sitting at an international conference, discussing world events as opposed to leading a doomed expedition in an alien, hostile galaxy. "We're here to discuss Dr. Rodney McKay and what his presence means in our universe."

John fondled his mug.

"Carson, perhaps you would like to give your report first." Elizabeth turned the table over to Beckett.

"Well," he began slowly. "As you may know, Rodney McKay was considered a genius in his various fields and was tagged to be the head of the science departments for this expedition, only to be killed in a car accident in the weeks before we were due to leave for Pegasus. The Rodney McKay we have here today did make it to Pegasus in his own reality. He began experimenting at some point with an alternative reality drive. This drive has allowed him to travel to many different realities, determining the failures and successes of other expeditions, presumably to use that knowledge for the benefit of his own universe."

John was tempted to ask why anyone would be so stupid, since there were so many variables that went into every decision that what occurred in once universe could hardly be applicable in another, but he chose to remain silent instead.

"This has resulted in some…confusion…on Rodney's part as to which universe he's in at any given time. Quite probably as a direct result of the use of the drive. I'm no psychiatrist," Beckett made a small face and for a brief moment John felt bad for the additional burden that the suicide of Dr. Heightmeyer had caused for Beckett before he pushed the thought aside, "but given the strain he's been under, the confusion is certainly understandable. Their expedition was facing imminent destruction at the hands of the Pegasus version of the Replicators."

Beckett paused to pass some folders around. A brief glance at his packet showed John that the Replicators Beckett was referring to bore little resemblance to the alien Lego-like units that had plagued the Milky Way at one point and had led to the destruction of the Asgard. These Replicators looked much worse. They appeared human—in fact, could take on the appearance of anyone you knew. And they seemed to be able to alter your perception of the reality around you by sticking their hands into your heads. And to make things worse, they felt somehow like the abandoned stepchildren of the Ancients. John felt a cold chill ripple down his spine and settle somewhere near his gut. As if the Wraith weren't bad enough.

"In searching for a means to contain the Replicators before they overwhelmed Atlantis, Dr. McKay and the Colonel Sheppard of his universe used the AR drive to determine what other universes had used in their respective battles with the Replicators as well as the Wraith. Not all of the information is useful. But much of it does carry over."

"Is this information we can use?" Elizabeth interjected.

"I think so," Beckett said slowly, "if we take it with a grain of salt. For instance, Rodney informs me that in one universe I was killed due to the effects of an Ancient device that caused exploding tumors to develop in the people exposed to it."

"Oh, c'mon, Beckett," John was forced into growling. "Exploding tumors? How exactly was that supposed to be a sensible thing for the Ancients to develop?"

"Aye," Beckett said thoughtfully. "I agree. Only I checked out the area where he said the equipment was found and he was right. It was there. Fortunately, Radek's team was able to disable it."

Zelenka cleared his throat. "This is perhaps where I come in, yes?" Zelenka looked as though he had not slept in days. "I have been discussing the city systems with Dr. McKay and he knows an astonishing amount about them."

"Zelenka," John said warningly.

Zelenka just blinked at him though his glasses. "I was careful, Major, yes? But always he knew more about the city than I did. And I too found that he was most often right." He turned to Elizabeth. "We now have long range sensors online. We can detect the approach of an enemy armada at least two weeks in advance of their arrival now. And you remember I told you about the power distribution curve? About how the ZPM was being steadily drained and that I could not figure out why? It would seem that one of my corrections to the naquada generators caused a small feedback loop; by following Dr. McKay's recommendations, I was able to stabilize the ZPM. We have enough power left to run the city systems for the time being."

"Wait a minute," John began irritably. He resisted the urge to rub the back of his neck, where a headache was building in pressure at the base of his skull. "Since when did we start entrusting Atlantis to some guy we plucked out of an alternate reality? And didn't we pick up an extra ZPM? Why not just use that?"

In lieu of the delaying tactics of not-coffee, Zelenka took off his lenses to polish them. "Without identifying the cause of the power drain, simply plugging in another ZPM if you will, would have resulted in the drain of that unit as well. Not to mention, damaged ZPM from another universe. Do we really want to just hook that up to the city and see what happens?"

John hated it when the scientists around him had a point.

Zelenka fixed a desperate look on John. "Had he not solved the feedback problem, it would have only been a matter of time before the ZPM failed. In that case, there would be no power to the Gate, no means of escaping as the entire city sank beneath the ocean again…without shields. I couldn't stop it. Rodney took one look at the data and saw instantly what I had done wrong." The pain of repeated failure was clearly etched on Zelenka's face and John inexplicably hated Rodney McKay with a passion he did not understand.

"The point is, allowing for the differences in alternate realities," Beckett leaned forward to speak earnestly, "Rodney is every bit as brilliant as he claims to be and more often than not is right. And, in his reality, the expedition is well into its third year; he's simply spent more time in Pegasus than any of us. He's also traveled to other realities where the expedition is even further along in time than that. He knows an awful lot about the city and things that could make a huge difference in the survivability of this expedition."

"Okay," Elizabeth said slowly. "And what's the downside?"

"You mean aside from the fact that we've suddenly decided to follow the advice of a psycho-puppy?" John said sarcastically. He noted that no one in the room chose to meet his eye and that somehow infuriated him.

"Rodney's mental state is a wee bit fragile," Beckett concluded reluctantly. "He gets terribly confused about which universe he's in at any given moment, but for the most part, you can easily set him straight. There's only one point on which he becomes most distraught if you try to correct his impressions." Beckett shot John an uncomfortable look and John found all eyes in the room resting on him a second later when they had been avoiding him before.

"What?" he asked with a growl.

"Rodney is adamant that you are the 'Sheppard' that has been traveling with him through all the realities in his quest to find a solution to save his own. Every attempt to persuade him otherwise results in a severe emotional breakdown."

John refused to contemplate the dog tags that had melted their imprint into the palm of McKay's hand; he was certain that the Sheppard Rodney thought him to be was dead. "You want me to play along." His voice was quiet, deadly.

"Aside from my thinking it's harmful to his mental state at this moment in time to force him to face the truth," Beckett appeared to be steeling himself for a fight, "there is the advantage that if he has some sort of hidden agenda, he'd be much more likely to reveal it to you if he thought you were his colleague."

John's estimation of Beckett went up a notch as he realized Beckett had no such suspicion of Rodney, but that he knew it was the one tactic that might get John to agree to play along. John forebear to point out the holes in Beckett's argument and instead nodded slowly in agreement.

"Well, then," Elizabeth said in the silence that followed. "Let's bring in Rodney McKay and see what he has to say."

Stackhouse wheeled McKay into the room. The only available space for the bulky chair was next to John. As Stackhouse positioned McKay at the table, John glanced over the injured man; assessing his condition since the last time he'd seen him a few weeks ago. The facial bandages were gone now; the skin looked angry and painful but John thought he might get lucky and not scar too badly. The hands though, he knew from Beckett's reports, would be a different issue.

"I can't believe you brought me here in a wheelchair, Carson," McKay was complaining as Stackhouse wheeled him to a stop and applied the brakes. "I can walk, you know."

"And talk too, apparently," John said, half under his breath. McKay shot him a dirty look, which faded as he continued to stare at John.

"What?" John found himself growling as he met McKay's gaze full on.

Rodney blinked. "Oh. Nothing. I just…well, I was wondering why you hadn't been by the infirmary, but it didn't occur to me that you were injured too. Are you okay?"

It felt like there was a collective intake of breath in the room and then deadly silence. "I'm fine," John said through gritted teeth.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Of course you are. Why did I think I would get a different answer? Right. Well, then. Let's get this show on the road." He turned to face the rest of the room, bringing bandaged hands together to thump them lightly. "So I take it Carson and the Colonel have brought the rest of you up to speed?"

"I'd really like to hear your story in your own words, Dr. McKay," Elizabeth said smoothly.

McKay winced. "Please. Elizabeth. You call me Rodney where I come from."

"Very well," Elizabeth said carefully. "Please continue, Rodney."

"I need to record those words for posterity," McKay quipped with a quirky grin. "Usually you're trying to shut me up."

Elizabeth exchanged a quick glance with Carson, but smiled back.

"Okay then," Rodney began. "Well, for starters, the Colonel and I seem to be stuck in this reality for the moment. It would seem that someone," and here McKay looked at John pointedly, "neglected to bring my laptop along when we entered this reality. Most of my notes on the AR drive were contained within. I can probably recreate them over time, but for now…"

"I saved you and the ZPM," John said, adding a silent 'you ungrateful bastard' that he was pretty sure everyone heard anyway. "What more do you want? It was getting pretty hot in there."

"Yes, yes, you're right. And the laptop was probably toast. Gives a whole new meaning to fried hard drive doesn't it?" McKay looked expectantly at him as though John would appreciate the joke.

Zelenka snorted suddenly and McKay shot him a crooked grin. "NCIS," they said in unison, with a little nod at each other.


"This all began as a means of trying to find a way of stopping the Replicators from destroying the Atlantis of our own reality," McKay continued, suddenly all business again. "We were in a bit of a bind there. See, when we arrived on Atlantis originally, we were nearly at ZPM depletion. We were fortunate enough to discover a mostly charged ZPM almost right away but lost most of its remaining power trying to hold off a Wraith attack later that year."

"How did you survive the Wraith attack?" Zelenka leaned forward curiously.

Rodney waved a club-like hand awkwardly. "Oh, well, we realized pretty quickly that a sustained Wraith attack would rapidly deplete our shields, so I faked a complete explosion of the city and then Colonel here flew us to another planet after the Wraith thought we'd been destroyed. We had just enough juice to do that, but then we were stuck. I tell you, we had a hell of a time reconfiguring the gate addresses after that, but now I've got a code in place that does that automatically."

"You flew the city?" John couldn't help saying.

"No," Rodney looked at him sharply. "You flew the city. Where was I? Oh. Right. So we didn't have the means to stave off a head-on Replicator attack. The city was in big time trouble." Rodney's face fell, his thoughts turning inwards towards other memories. He seemed to give himself a little shake and began speaking again. "I'd been working all along on an alternative reality drive—after I completed the work installing a hyperdrive in one of the dusters, I modified it to add the AR. When the Replicators began a direct assault on Atlantis, it seemed like we didn't have any choice. The Colonel and I activated the AR drive and began searching for the best means of controlling them." He gave a little shrug.

"Dusters?" Zelenka said in puzzlement.

Rodney rolled his eyes and then stiffly rotated a hand in John's direction. "Blame him, not me. It seems Sheppard calls the Atlantean shuttles something different in every universe. Pond skippers, crow hoppers, puddle jumpers, crop dusters…I can't remember them all."

"Huh," Zelenka said thoughtfully. "We just call them gateships."

Rodney shot a triumphant look in John's direction that he didn't understand at all. He was still trying to wrap his head around the idea of a gateship with a hyperdrive. This guy Rodney might be useful after all.

"And what did you find?" Elizabeth prompted gently when the silence continued.

Rodney looked up at her, a sad little smile on his face. "You mean other than the fact that most of the universes out there are really messed up?" He gave a little laugh without humor in it. "Well, in just about every scenario, we discovered that circumstances were so different that we could not duplicate the situation necessary to enact the same solutions to any given problem."

"I could have told you that," John said.

Rodney rolled his eyes again. "Yes, yes, you could. As a matter of fact, you did. Repeatedly." He leveled an amazingly evil glare in John's direction. "Thank you, Colonel Obvious."

Someone in the room snickered softly, but John couldn't pin the guilty party down.

"Could you give us an example?" Elizabeth, ever the diplomat, got things back on target again.

"Well, the best solution that we came across for destroying the Replicators, or at the very least, reducing their ability to be a threat any time in the near future, was in a reality where the Wraith had been awakened prematurely in their feeding cycle and were attacking planets on a widespread scale."

Someone at the table sucked in a breath sharply at that news.

"And then yours truly of that universe had the brilliant idea of turning back on the code that caused the Replicators to target and kill the Wraith that the Wraith had managed to turn off. I should like to point out here that while I am the smartest man in two galaxies, sometimes my plans don't always turn out how I envision them." Rodney made a face here as though he'd bitten into a lemon.

"What happened?" John asked.

Rodney shot him another discerning look, though this one had an element of worry as well. "You know what happened. The Replicators began to wipe out every human population in the galaxy in order to starve out the Wraith."

"Ye gods," Carson breathed into the shocked silence.

"Yeah," Rodney said sourly. "That McKay was a real prince. Managed to blow up 5/6 of a solar system too. But, oddly enough, he solved the Replicator problem. See, the Wraith and the Replicators had seriously crippled each other in numbers. The Sheppard and McKay of that universe formulated a plan whereby they took a fleet of ships to the Replicator home world and forced the Replicators to fall back in defense of it. Then McKay released what was essentially a super nanite magnet and caused the entire Replicator society to collapse in on itself."

"A super nanite magnet?" John couldn't help but say. "You can do that?"

"No," Rodney said with exaggerated patience. "That wasn't me; that was the other me. Keep up with us here, Colonel Hair-for-Brains."

From his position at the door, Stackhouse choked and coughed suddenly, covering his mouth with his hand.

McKay turned back to Elizabeth. "So you can see, that plan required all sorts of factors to be in play that weren't necessarily available or desirable in our own universe."

"Wait a minute, where'd they get a fleet of ships?" John persisted.

The look Rodney gave him was seriously concerned now. "They formed an alliance between their various allies and the Wraith."

"What the fuck?" John exploded, unable to contain his disbelief.

Rodney's exasperated expression reminded him he was supposed to be playing along. "The Wraith were getting their asses kicked by the Replicators in that universe. It was a temporary alliance made under special, non-reproducible conditions."

"So when the rift opened between universes and we pulled you into ours…" Elizabeth's statement had a questioning tone.

Rodney closed his eyes, as though blotting out a memory. He opened them again and let out a shaky little breath. "Well. The best plan the Colonel and I could come up with was to steal some ZPMs from one of the Replicator home worlds and head back to our universe to try and move the city before the Replicators destroyed it. But we were too late."

Everyone waited patiently for Rodney to continue. He bit his lower lip a moment and then he seemed to regain control, but the previous animation had gone out of his features and his voice was flat when he began speaking again.

"The city was being decimated. The Replicators had control. Nearly everyone was dead or had fled the city. The Replicators weren't content with just capturing Atlantis; they had the means to dial the Gate to Earth as well. The Colonel and I decided to place the fully charged ZPM into the control systems and set it to overload, while planning to escape through the reality drive with the remaining, partially-charged ZPM. We got separated. A plasma fire broke out. I don't know why the rifts kept forming unless it was as a result of the ZPM overload in conjunction with the nearby use of the alternate reality drive. That's all I really remember until I woke up in the infirmary here." His voice was wooden, dead.

"So then a ZPM from one universe can safely be used in another?" Zelenka asked eagerly.

"With the appropriate modifications, yes," Rodney waved tiredly in his direction. "And I'll have to take a look at that casing issue you mentioned to me earlier. Don't get any bright ideas though. It took me a while to work out those modifications myself. Just sit tight until I can show you what I mean. All of which would be a lot easier if I had my laptop." Rodney shot another evil glare in John's direction before closing his eyes with a slight frown and a sigh.

"Perhaps we should take a break now," Carson suggested.

Everyone in the room shifted restlessly, as though they'd forgotten to move when Rodney was speaking.

"A break sounds good," Rodney agreed, opening his eyes again. As people began to rise to their feet, Rodney said suddenly, "Um, Colonel? A word in private?"

John caught both Elizabeth's and Carson's glance and nodded at them. "Sure, McKay." He remained seated as everyone else left the room.

"What the hell's your problem?" Rodney hissed at him when everyone had left.

"I don't have a problem, McKay."

"Oh sure, right." Rodney sneered. "Aren't you the slightest bit concerned about this memory loss of yours?"

"What memory loss?" John said with false blankness.

After a beat, Rodney sighed. "Fine, play it that way if you like. I'll cover for you the best I can, but you know eventually Carson's going to catch on." He sighed again and glanced around the conference room. "We might be stuck here for a while. Maybe for good. My hands are a mess and they don't exactly trust us, so I don't see myself building our very own AR drive anytime soon. Especially since resources here are very limited. We'll need a fully charged ZPM to make our drive work; we can hardly snag one of those and leave this expedition without the means of defending itself, so at the very least, we need two ZPMs. And we both know how unlikely that is unless we hit the Pegasus equivalent of the lottery." Rodney took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, cradling one bandaged hand in the other. "It's weird, huh? A universe with no 'us' in it. Do you know Carson tried to kill me with orange juice this morning? He had no idea about the citrus allergy. I practically went into anaphylaxis just looking at the cup sitting on my tray. Their McKay never came on board. Car accident. What have you find out? What happened to their Sheppard?"

"Killed on a mission early on," John said shortly. "By a guy named Kolya."

Rodney's face suffused with blotchy red patches of anger. "That goddamned sonofabitch. What, is it some universal constant that he be patently evil in every reality we come across? Please say we can kill him this time."

John didn't think he could really be faking the emotion he was showing here, but who knew, maybe this Rodney was a good actor. "Already taken care of."

Rodney deflated, suddenly exhausted again. "So where does that leave us? I mean, not that it's not great seeing Carson and Radek alive again, but have you noticed this expedition is really in trouble? Practically everyone else is dead. No real allies, dangerously short on supplies and still cut off from Earth. And no Teyla, no Ford, no Ronon. Who'd have thought that a reality in which the Wraith were still in hibernation and no one had yet heard of the Replicators would be so fucked up?"

The silence weighed heavily in the room for a moment and then Rodney spoke again. "This is by far the crappiest universe we've been to. I guess that's because they didn't have us to pull their fat out of the fire all those times." He gave John a crooked little smile. "We'll just have to make it better, huh?"

"McKay," John said shortly, suddenly unable to play the game any longer. "The Sheppard that you've been traveling the alternate realities with…"

Rodney glanced down involuntarily at his bandaged right hand and then began to breathe heavily, almost hyperventilating. His head jerked up towards John, his eyes wide and dilated; the beginnings of panic there. "Yes?" His voice was small and shaky.

"Is just a little confused right now," John finished lamely.

Rodney huffed a small laugh of relief. "Hah. The effects of all that AR travel. Join the club."

John lifted his eyes in astonishment when he saw Rodney walking towards his table, balancing a tray of food precariously on his bandaged hands. Rodney came to a halt in front of him and began to carefully lower the tray to table, John reaching up to grab it when it threatened to slide off his hands.

"Thanks," Rodney sighed with patent relief, hooking the leg of a chair with one foot and pulling it out so he could sit down.

"What the hell are you doing out of the infirmary?" John recognized that he sounded accusing, but he couldn't help that.

Rodney lifted an eyebrow at him. "You didn't think I was going to live in the infirmary for months and months, did you? I was going bat-shit insane in there. I think Carson was actually glad to see me leave." He frowned down at his plate as though trying to figure out the next step.

"I can't believe Beckett let you out. You can't even feed yourself."

Rodney shot him what could only be described as a 'oh ye of little faith' look. "In the first place, I distracted him by telling him that in several realities, he actually created a treatment for enhancing the dormant ATA gene. I expect he's gone off to torture some mice now. Besides, I'm desperately needed in the labs here. And I can too feed myself. Here." He rotated his right hand until John could see that there were two circles marked on the heavy bandaging, one in red; the other in black. "Stick the spork in the black hole."

A snicker escaped John's lips before he could stop himself. The sentence simply begged for a crude interpretation.

"Oh for heaven's sake, what are you? Twelve? Just do it." Rodney shoved the hand at him imperiously. John carefully wedged the spork in the proper location and watched as Rodney cheerfully scooped up some scrambled eggs.

"See?" He was wearing what John had come to think of as his 'don't mess with a genius' expression. He swallowed the forkful with a happy little hum, only spilling a small amount.

"And the red mark?" John took a bite out of his fake-buttered toast and watched as Rodney looked on wistfully.

"Hmm? What? Oh, the red mark is for a stylus. So I can use a PDA in the labs. At only a fraction of the speed at which I normally work, which let me tell you is incredibly frustrating. In fact, my life is nothing but frustration at the moment."

John raised an eyebrow at him and surprisingly felt himself being kicked under the table. "That's not what I meant, although, to be honest, that is an issue. I was referring however to the difficulty getting dressed, taking a shower, with buttons, that sort of thing, you letch." He stared down at his bottled water pointedly and then looked back up at John.

"You sure going down to the lab is such a hot idea?" John suppressed a sigh and reached across the table to twist off the top on Rodney's water.

"I should say so. You wouldn't believe the mess they've made of things without me. I'm not one to believe in fate or anything, you know that, but I swear John, sometimes I think I was meant to be here. I'm needed here."

"I thought you were needed everywhere, McKay," John said lightly.

Rodney made a face that said he knew what John really meant but then he added seriously, "I am, I am. Only this universe doesn't have a 'me' in it." He paused and looked thoughtfully at John.

"What?" John said slowly. He was getting used to Rodney's long pauses.

Rodney leaned forward slightly, indicating John's plate with his nose. "Um, are you going to eat that muffin?"

John reached out blindly for the wall of the pool, touching it with his fingertips before gliding to a stop and pulling himself to the edge. He tipped his head back and was smoothing the water out of his hair with one hand when the sound of a voice nearby made him jump.

"So, how warm is the water?" Rodney sounded dubious and just a little concerned.

"Jeezus, McKay!" John exploded, startled into letting go of his grip on the wall and nearly submerging himself again. He used one hand to grab the lip of the pool again, while he pinched his nostrils free of water with the other. "A little warning, why don'tcha? What the hell are you doing here anyway?" He groped around for his eye patch sitting on the ledge and quickly slid it on over his head before turning to face Rodney.

"Carson said I need to swim as part of my rehab." Rodney patently looked unhappy at the idea. John's gaze was drawn to his pale expanse of skin and the areas of scarred and twisted tissue around his neck and shoulders. As well as the great swatches of skin that had been removed from his sides and legs to facilitate skin grafts to his hands, John was sure. His body was that of a scientist—a little soft around the middle, and not as muscular as the Marines, but still in decent shape for a desk jockey just the same. He was seated on the bench, dressed only in a pair of thin cotton boxers, though he had a tattered, white bathrobe at his side. His hair had begun to grow back, fuzzy in places where it was still shorter than the rest, giving him an oddly vulnerable look.

The hands were painful to look at though. It was the first time John had seen them without the bandaging and he suddenly understood the strange compulsion that drove someone to stare at abnormal flesh and yet forcibly look away at the same time. Rodney's hands could barely be identified as such, resembling angry, flesh-colored mitts more than actual human appendages. They were both appalling and fascinating and John kicked himself mentally as he glanced down at his own hands, gripping the lip of the pool.

John clung to the side of the pool; reluctant to get out in front of Rodney, suddenly pissed that McKay was here, encroaching on his time in the water. "And you chose to swim at 0600 because…?'

Rodney had been hunched and looking miserable; he brightened at John's words. "Well, I'm not all that great a swimmer, so Carson suggested the buddy system. But if you aren't welded to this time slot, I'd be happy to meet you later, say more like 8 am?" Rodney beamed at him hopefully.

I will kill Carson, John thought in all seriousness.

"Hold up a second," Rodney said as he followed John out into the hallway, tagging along behind him like a friendly puppy.

"What?" John snapped, unwilling to play along with the stupid game today. The night before had been one of those nights when he'd hardly slept at all, when everything ached and it was impossible to find a comfortable position in bed. Which meant that he'd woken up with a killer headache and had to resort to taking something for it. Not that it had helped much.

The sooner he got the nerve to tell Rodney that the Colonel was dead, the better. He didn't understand his own reluctance to hurt the guy. He was accustomed to dealing with the hard facts and laying them out for everyone to accept. Why everyone felt the need to protect Rodney was beyond him. Why he allowed himself to be part of the deception was even more puzzling. Because it's nice to have friends, his traitorous mind suggested, even if it's just pretend.

"Look, you're obviously hurting here—and don't tell me that you're 'fine' because I don't believe you. I've heard you say you're fine under so many conditions when you patently are not fine that it isn't funny. From being impaled by a three foot plank of wood to turning into a giant bug and everything in between. Trust me; I know you're not fine now."

"I turned into a bug?" John asked helplessly. Yuck.

"Not you, you," Rodney frowned, shooting John a 'you moron' look. "In at least three other universes, you turned into a bug after being exposed to the retrovirus that Carson was working on in the ongoing battle to defeat the Wraith. But only in those universes where you had already been bitten by an Iratus bug. And survived that, by the way. Not many people can lay claim to that either."

What the hell was an Iratus bug?

"In one case, you were restored to your normal, charming self after we, and by that I mean the 'we' of that universe, gained access to the DNA of the Iratus bugs and Carson created a vaccine. In one case, you were only able to be partially restored to human form and retained some interesting characteristics, not the least of which was that you remained blue. In the third universe, you killed Elizabeth and had to be killed yourself."

"Lovely," John said, injecting the word with all the sarcasm he could muster.

"You know," Rodney continued speculatively, "this Swiss cheese memory of yours is really starting to worry me. I'm beginning to think it's a direct result of our quantum leaping from universe to universe, putting right what once was wrong…"

"You have a point, McKay?" John asked sharply.

Rodney sighed. "Yes. Come with me."

God help him; he did.

He followed Rodney down to the labs, entering the busy workplace and coming to halt beside Rodney, wondering what was next.

The scientists looked up at their arrival.

"Ah, Rodney," Grodin greeted them. "I should have those simulations you asked for in…"

Rodney waved him off. "Yes, yes, all in good time. I'm looking for Miko, anyone seen her?"

John sensed the startled movement in one corner of the lab and turned his head until he could spot Miko looking up over one of the workstations.

Rodney spotted her at the same time. "Ah. There you are. The Colonel and I would like a word with you, Miko. Privately."

"You may use my office," Zelenka volunteered. John shot him a look, but Zelenka had already dropped his head back to his work.

Dr. Kusangi looked alarmed, but scurried forward at Rodney's impatient but clumsy arm-waving. John wondered about that. The shy, Japanese woman had always struck him as pleasant, but he'd never seen her so eager to please anyone before.

"Come, come," Rodney continued to wave and push until somehow they were all in Zelenka's office with the door shut.

"Miko," Rodney said, indicating Dr. Kusangi to John with a wave of his hand and a broad smile, "gives the best massages in the expedition."

"No," John said tightly, even as Kusangi was backing up and saying, "No, I couldn't!"

"You, sit," Rodney ordered, attempting to point in John's direction. He was only capable of bending the two middle fingers, giving his gesture a sort of boyz-in-the-hood feel, despite all the additional surgery John knew Rodney had undergone. Rodney turned away towards Kusangi.

"Miko," he said with an engagingly crooked smile, "You know I don't hand out praise readily unless it's due. You're good at this; I know this for a fact. In more than one universe, you've practically saved my life by working on my neck and shoulders. And the Colonel needs you."

Miko blinked behind her thick lenses and then John could see her visibly square her shoulders and decide to take on the task.

"No," he said again, this time more firmly.

"Why aren't you sitting down yet?" Rodney frowned. "Don't be an ass, John, if she can make you feel better…"

"No," John said again, folding his arms across his chest.

Rodney imitated his stance and began to nod his head. "Oh, I get it," he said in a smug, superior fashion. "This is about you being shy."

"I am not shy, McKay," John ground out, glaring at Rodney.

Kusangi looked back and forth at their exchange in horrified fascination.

John waited for it; he knew it wouldn't take long. Sure enough, Rodney freed one hand from underneath his folded arms and began to gesture with it again. "Yes, yes it is. You know, for one of those military types, you can rarely be seen disrobing in public. Hell, it can be a thousand degrees outside and everyone else is stripped to their skivvies and you're still dressed all in black. You know, Ronon doesn't need an excuse—he's always stripping off his clothes left and right."

There didn't seem to be much answer to that. John could see Miko wondering who the hell Ronon was and just as she opened her mouth to speak, Rodney cut in again.

"I bet this about you having a hairy back, right?" Rodney's expression was one of evil glee.

"I do not have a hairy back," John snapped.

"No, no, that's it. That's got to be it. Lord knows you've got hair everywhere else. Damn, the first time I saw you without a shirt, I wondered if you were part troll. We already knew about the half-elf thing." Rodney reached up and brushed one of his scarred ears with the side of his hand.

Miko began to giggle. John shot her what must have been an incredulous stare because she quit abruptly.

"You know what my back looks like," John said in that deadly quiet tone of voice that usually had the Marines snapping to attention. "Because you're in my goddamned pool every morning."

"Oh please, like I waste any time checking you out. Despite the fact that he swims without a stitch of clothing on," Rodney added in an aside to Miko. "Which really, when you think about it, doesn't go along with the whole 'not wanting to be seen naked in public' thing. I think he's a closet exhibitionist at heart."

"When I go swimming, I expect to be alone," John said pointedly.

Miko blushed and briefly ducked her head, before raising it again to give John a distinctly speculative look. John felt his ear tips burn with embarrassment. He couldn't tell if it was because of Miko's glance or the idea that Rodney might have been checking him out.

"I'm not the one you have to convince now," Rodney began reasonably. "If you don't let her help you, Miko's gonna think that you do have a hairy back. And we all know what a Chatty Cathy Miko is." He fired an outrageous grin in Miko's direction, which caused her to respond with a tiny, conspiratorial smile of her own.

Furiously, John began to unbutton the black cotton uniform.

"Excellent!" Rodney was pleased with his capitulation and hooked his leg around the bottom of Zelenka's chair to pull it out, catching it with claw-like hands to push it in John's direction.

John focused a look on Rodney, silently telling him that he wasn't giving in so much as saving time by avoiding arguing about it any further.

Rodney's smug look plainly said, 'yeah, right.'

John shrugged out of his shirt, and then struggled a bit to pull the t-shirt off over his head, feeling ridiculously vulnerable as he did so. He tossed the clothing aside on Zelenka's desk and then took hold of the chair, spinning it around so that he could straddle it backwards, seating himself without another word.

The silence behind him went on for so long that he started to get up out of his seat. Simultaneously he felt Rodney and Miko place a hand on opposite shoulders and gently press him back down in the chair, even as he caught the barely murmured, 'whoa there,' of Rodney's.

He wondered what they saw. He'd caught glimpses of it in the past: the angry-raised welts of scar tissue—cheloids, Carson had called them. He knew it crisscrossed his back and he could feel it at times when he tried to move his right shoulder. The shoulder itself retained good range of motion, thank god. But the collarbone on that side ached all the time and it frequently hurt to turn his head, the muscles got so tight. The headaches were the worst. His empty left socket throbbed at times as though the injury was still just days old and when the pain originated there nothing could really ease it. He didn't tell Carson about the fluid in his ear. It hadn't affected his balance so far and it wasn't like they could afford to permanently take him off the flight roster—they had few enough people with the ATA gene anyway. Most people patently ignored the fact that he seldom led a mission these days.

Aside from nerve pain in his face, for which he was given the option of having the facial nerve surgically dissected, Beckett had told him that none of the rest of the problems would benefit from further surgery—they were all muscular and soft tissue in origin. He'd figured he'd just have to live with the damage. He'd dutifully done the exercises Carson had recommended, even as both men had acknowledged that he'd needed a level of care not available in their current circumstances. Their physical therapist had died along with half a dozen other specialists when a virus was accidentally released early on in their exploration of the city and Beckett had done the best he could with her remaining texts and exercise programs.

Light as a feather, Miko's hands unexpectedly made contact with his back and he jumped a little, forcing himself to hold still and submit to her examination. Because in a very short period of time, he realized that was exactly what it was. He could feel her small, warm hands probing and exploring, tentative at first and then growing bolder, questing, seeking information. For what good it would do her.

Rodney moved into his line of sight and John saw the confused look on his face, the mouth that had fallen open, and the blue eyes that were pained and anxious. John realized that his comments notwithstanding, this was probably the first time Rodney had taken a good look at John's old scars—and that on some level he knew what he was really seeing, that these injuries were not the result of a fire or accident but deliberately inflicted. Rodney took a breath to speak and John cut him off quietly. "If you apologize now, I will kill you," he promised.

Rodney blinked and swallowed and John could read the uncertainty on his face for a moment before a slow smile stole across it. Rodney moved in carefully but deliberately, leaning in close to John's ear even as Miko continued to work behind them both.

"Yeah," Rodney breathed across the rim of John's ear, "but I made you take your shirt off, now didn't I?"

He jumped back out of reach as John started to raise a hand, dancing nimbly towards the desk and hitching a hip up on one corner of it to sit and grin at John. He then began to talk about the projects that he had going on in the labs, the difficulty with having to delegate everything, the frustration with not being able to do the things that needed being done. Most of what he said was interesting; some of it was even amusing.

John suddenly sucked his breath in sharply and dropped his head forward as Miko's fingers dug into a sensitive spot on his neck. Damn, he hadn't even been aware that bit was sore until she'd uncovered it. Miko's hands were sure of their task now and they began to knead and pull at his flesh with determination. Every time he made a small noise of pain, she took this as further encouragement to concentrate on the area that had triggered the reaction. He'd known that various members of the expedition had tried to pick up the slack here and there as the set of skilled personnel got smaller through attrition. He was just surprised that Miko was so good at this.

Astonishingly, he felt a tear trickle down the right side of his face. Confused, he reached up to wipe it away. Another followed it and he brushed at it angrily with the palm of his hand.

"Is she hurting you?" Rodney's background chatter suddenly halted abruptly and John looked up to find Rodney staring with concern back at him.

"No," John said gruffly. "It's not that bad. I don't know why my eye is watering."

"Reaction," Miko said quietly behind him. John realized it was the first time she'd spoken since she'd begun to touch him. "The memory of the injury is still there, trapped in the muscles. The touch is releasing it."

"Uh-huh, yeah, right," Rodney said doubtfully. "You're not going to go on about meridians and chakras and that sort of thing, are you? 'Cause somehow I don't see the Colonel as a meditating kind of guy. You're not into yoga, are you?" Rodney directed his last words at John with a skeptical eyebrow.

"I'm not really into health food," John said with a deliberately bland expression.

Rodney blinked, taking a second to process what he'd heard. "Oh, ha-ha, I get it." He rolled his eyes. "Not everyone in every universe has heard of Rupert Holmes, you know. You are such a music geek sometimes."

John felt that small smile tug at his mouth and then he closed his eye and gave in to the push and pull of Miko's hands, allowing her to rock him in his seat as he leaned on his forearms against the backrest. Her hands inflicted pain almost to the point of intolerance and then smoothed it away, only to start again on another area.

He found he missed their warmth when they suddenly withdrew from his back.

He was reluctant to move, but he carefully got up from the chair, reaching for the shirt Rodney was now holding out to him and threading his arms through the sleeves as he turned to Miko, not bothering to put the t-shirt on underneath. He was just about to thank her when he was startled by the stern expression on her face.

"We will meet," she said, "three times a week for now. In the infirmary—they have the kind of table we will need. I will bring oil next time. We will also be using an ultrasound. We need to heat the tissues deeply, to stretch them, to improve their elasticity. Your muscles are tight, very tight. This is bad, but I think we can make it better. Not just back and shoulders. Leg too."

"Dr. Kusangi," John glanced at his buttons briefly and then did up the shirt with his eye on Miko. "I really appreciate what you did here today; I know it wasn't your idea." He shot a dirty look in Rodney's direction. "But I can't ask you to…"

Miko stopped him with a sharply lifted hand. "I know you will not ask. I am telling you. You must do this." She gave a little sigh and continued earnestly. "You have a gun. It is damaged, the thing you use to aim, I do not know the word…"

"The sight," Rodney supplied, all impishness quietly subdued for the moment.

"Yes! The sight is damaged." Miko focused on John again. "It is tricky to use now. But you do not throw it away, because it is your only gun. You do not neglect it. You must clean it, oil it, take care of it, because it is your only gun. It puts food on your table. It protects you. You must take care of it in return."

John sighed. There was no point in fighting this. "Right. Take better care of it. I got it."

"No, you do not have it," Miko was still stern. "You don't just take better care of it. You love it. It is all you have."

John found himself blinking uncertainly at Miko, as though she were someone he'd never met before.

"Isn't she a treasure?" Rodney beamed. "And to think it only took me six universes to figure that out."

Miko ignored him as she ushered the two of them to the door. "Day after tomorrow. In the infirmary. Three pm. Don't be late, Colonel."

John stopped to frown at her. "It's Major," he muttered so that Rodney wouldn't hear and join in on the discussion.

"You keep telling yourself that." A subtle smile crossed her face, making her look downright sly, for Miko.

Most days he could deal with the sudden odd glance at one of his various old injuries when somehow they drew attention to themselves. Which happened less frequently these days, unless someone happened to catch him off guard, with his protective camouflage down, so to speak. The members of the expedition had pretty much gotten used to what he chose to show them. He could even forget about the injuries himself at times. He sometimes tried to imagine what kind of reactions he'd receive if he were walking down a city street in the average town on Earth. To meet strangers on a daily basis who had no point of reference for understanding his appearance or the trauma that made him this way. He was fortunate in that the circle of his contacts both liked and supported him. He knew that.

He could deal with being a freak. It was the loss of mobility, of his former athleticism that bothered him the most.

Or at least, that's what he told himself. Until Rodney's fascination with his eye patch.

Shortly after Rodney had designated Miko as John's physical therapist, John would catch Rodney staring at him at odd times, only to look away in flustered embarrassment when John caught him in the act. It was bad enough that he'd catch Rodney watching his hands blankly while he performed some minor task or look up to see Rodney looking back at him with an expression of mild confusion, which never failed to feel like a punch in the gut. But when Rodney began sneaking surreptitious glances at his eye patch, even trying to see what lay behind it—that had been the final straw.

They'd been walking down the corridor together; John on his way to the gateroom while Rodney was headed towards the labs. Rodney had been speaking with some animation about what the roster for future missions should include when John caught him lagging on his blind side, presumably to sneak a glance behind the patch as they walked, when he thought John wouldn't be able to guess what he was doing.

"If you're so goddamned curious," John growled, suddenly stalking into Rodney's space and whipping the patch off over his head, "then get a good look. Hell, get a bloody eyeful."

"What? I don't…" Rodney's mouth dropped in surprise and shock, the expression in his eyes suddenly pained. John didn't give in, just stood glaring at him, breathing heavily. He knew what Rodney was seeing; saw it himself every morning when he looked in the mirror. The ugly, empty socket that pulled puckered flesh down into it. The raw violation of tissue that still looked angry after all this time. He could vividly remember how it felt to have his head held down by so many hands, to have the hot knife plunging into his screaming flesh until the shock of it made him pass out. He knew it was pointless to turn his anger on Rodney, but he did anyway. Fuck you, McKay.

"Ohmygod," Rodney breathed, making it all one word. Without thinking he reached up and touched the side of John's face, fingers trailing his jaw line to slightly turn his chin. John was startled by the contact into freezing momentarily before jerking his head back out of Rodney's reach. Rodney's fingers hung poised in mid-air. John was acutely aware of the scarring of his hand. "That's awful," Rodney continued in the same, shocked tone before flushing painfully and beginning to stammer. "I mean, not awful as in your face is a train wreck kind of way, though, in a way it really is, but awful in that it must suck to lose an eye because, well, you had nice eyes and they were sort of a matched set, you know? Um, yes, right, well, of course you know."

John felt his traitorous lips making a bid for a smile and clamped down on the response.

Rodney continued to look miserable, suddenly aware of his hand floating in space and tucking it in close under his opposite arm. "And I mean, what can I say that won't sound completely specious?" Rodney's other hand twitched by his side, as though muzzled but still trying to speak. "I could tell you I'm sorry and I am sorry that something like this happened to you, but saying I'm sorry for something that is not my fault is just stupid, so what I'm really saying is that I'm sorry I feel this way and that's just wrong."

"Rodney." John was starting to feel bad for his discomfort now. "It's okay."

"No!" Rodney was vehement. "It's not okay. See, that's what my being sorry made you do. Made you try and make me feel better about something that is never going to be okay."

Something inside John suddenly gave, filling him with a kind of warmth and relief, as though a long festering wound had been lanced and drained. He became aware how close he was standing to Rodney and took a step back, sliding the patch down over his eye again. "So don't feel sorry for me, then."

Rodney's extremely mobile lips pursed as he made a little face. "I won't because it is patently unfair."

John felt his eyebrow rise. "What's unfair?"

"You. You and the patch thing." Rodney's hands were on the move again, encompassing the whole of John in an assessing flicker from head to toe. "On anyone else it would look frankly ridiculous and yet you somehow manage to make it look god dammed hot. If you were wondering why I was staring, it was because I don't know how you do that." Rodney sounded envious and admiring at the same time.

John felt the heat of embarrassment flush his face. He had no idea. That was just the last thing he expected anyone—Rodney—to say.

"You know," Rodney said with a 'can you believe it?' shake of his head, "there are times when I catch sight of myself in the mirror and I wonder what the fuck happened? For just a split second, you know? Because I don't think of myself as looking like an extra from a cheesy sci-fi movie. The hands, the hands I can never forget. But the rest of me, yeah, it comes as a shock to me every time."

John didn't know what to say. He wanted to tell Rodney that it wasn't as bad as he thought, that hell, he had a decent body and that the myriad of facial expressions, so fluid and energetic and poetic, were more than enough to make up for any short-comings of attraction that Rodney thought he might have. Or they should be. Anyone who could not see the real Rodney beneath the scarring was an idiot.

He said nothing instead.

"But you," Rodney continued, a half-disgusted expression sliding across his features. He self-consciously rubbed the side of his neck, where his skin resembled melted plastic from the burns. "It was bad enough before. You must be a complete babe magnet now."

Whatever easy camaraderie he'd felt with Rodney a moment before was gone in a flash. John felt his spine stiffening. "Not hardly, McKay," he said dryly, trying not to sound angry, as though he were about to snarl 'that's none of your goddamned business'.

"Oh yeah, sure, right." Rodney's crooked smile was more of a sneer. "You're like Kirk's Evil Twin. Who can resist that? Say, are we done with this Hallmark moment here, because I need to get down to the lab."

A short, sharp sound escaped John and he was startled to realize it was a laugh. "Hallmark as done by the Pegasus Galaxy?"

Rodney's smile lit up his entire face. "We should write copy. 'Wraith sucked you dry? Don't worry, you still look mah-veh-lous'". He gave the word the pronunciation that Billy Crystal used to do in his skit on Saturday Night Live.

John snorted. "'Not feeling like yourself? Maybe you're just from an alternate reality.'"

Rodney's eyes narrowed and his mouth pursed again. "Oh ha-ha. Funny. Bite me, Colonel." He glanced down at the big watch on his wrist. "Okay. Really need to go now. Catch you later?"

"Sure." John watched as Rodney headed off briskly towards the labs, a hand raised over his shoulder and his crooked index finger signaling 'later' as he moved. Only I'm the Major, he wanted to say.

It was just on the tip of his tongue to ask Elizabeth if she was feeling okay, if she'd seen Beckett lately, if there was anything she wanted to tell him, when Rodney came rushing into the office so fast he had to slide to a halt.

"John!" His face was alight with the pleased expectation of someone about to share a delightful surprise. "You gotta come see this. We've now got the hyperdrive working in one of the dusters."

"We do?" John couldn't help it; that was fantastic news.

"Thanks to me," Rodney made a mocking half bow, sweeping a hand forward with a dramatic little flourish as he bent at the waist. He straightened and then added with a face, "and Radek, and Peter and…on never mind. C'mon. Let's try it out. You too, Elizabeth," he added belatedly.

"Not right now, dear," Elizabeth said dryly. "Mother's busy. You boys run along and play."

John turned his head so he could look at her in some consternation but she just smiled and waved him off. Rodney's hand, warm and insisting, had already closed around his arm and he was being dragged to the door.

"Major Sheppard." Miko's voice in his earpiece was urgent and John somehow knew that whatever she wanted had nothing to do with his regular sessions with her. The selfish part of his mind was relieved, because those sessions were easing the pain somewhat. Even the stiffness in his ankle was improving with the use of the ultrasound and stretching. The rest of his brain jumped to full alert.

"Sheppard here," he responded by touching the earpiece and automatically noting the time. Well after 2100. He shut the laptop on which he'd been reviewing the daily reports.

"Please. You must come at once to the labs. It's Dr. McKay."

"On my way," John said, without waiting for further explanation.

He heard the sounds of Rodney's meltdown from outside in the corridor before he entered the lab.

"How many times do I have to explain it to you?" Rodney was bellowing, his face red with outrage as John halted in the doorway to the lab. He shook a gnarled first at Simpkins, who was obviously just barely holding back tears. "Where did you get your degree—on sale at a K-Mart Blue Light Special? Or did you send off for it with box tops collected from your morning bowl of Fruitloops?"

The remaining scientists in the lab looked unhappy and upset.

"Is there a problem?" John let his voice deliberately drawl.

As he'd hoped, Rodney whipped around and focused on him. "A problem? A problem?"

John had to control the desire to wince at the pitch of Rodney's voice. He was betting dogs back on Earth were starting to howl about now. But mocking Rodney by sticking a finger in his ear and wiggling it would only add fuel to the fire.

"What could possibly be the problem?" Rodney raged on. "Only that I specifically set the parameters for a particular project, only to find someone has changed those parameters without checking with me. The results of which have the potential to be catastrophic, that's all." Rodney snarled his last words with bitter sarcasm. He wheeled back to glare at Simpkins. "One simple task. That's all I asked of you. A simple task that any ape with opposable thumbs could perform and you had to go and fuck it up."

Ah. Now he understood what was going on. "So," John drawled again, casually leaning in the open doorway as though he had nothing better to do with his time, "is this a real potential catastrophe, or you just mouthing off in your usual hyperbole?"

Rodney stared open-mouthed at him, as though he could not believe that John was taking the other side. "Has the meaning of the word 'potential' changed since the last time I checked?" Rodney finally said fiercely. "Potential in that it might happen but not necessarily so? Excellent use of 'hyperbole', by the way. So don't tell me you don't know the meaning of the word 'potential'."

"Uh-huh," John said noncommittally. "Last time I checked, you weren't the CSO here."

Rodney's mouth opened and closed several times, reminding John of a goldfish before he finally started to sputter. His expression shifted and John recognized the sudden deflating that signaled defeat and capitulation in McKay as his shoulders slumped.

John decided he preferred the angry version instead. "C'mon," he said, as though he were a bit bored. "Leave these people to their work. God knows they could use a break from you. Let's head down to the armory and check you out on the weapons."

"I know how to fire a gun, Sheppard," Rodney snapped, glowering once more to John's satisfaction. "You taught me yourself, remember? I think it would be a better use of my time if I…"

"That was before the accident," John interrupted casually. "You'll have to prove to me that you can still fire a gun before I let you back out on missions with me."

The room collectively seemed to hold its breath. John noticed two of the scientists in the background trading an odd look, and then one sighed and handed over an unidentified item to the other, who took it with a grin and slipped it into his pocket. John realized that he'd just made Rodney officially a member of his team—which sort of meant he had to put another team together at some point and that he'd also committed himself to going off-world again. He wondered how big that pool had been.

"You bastard," Rodney said with venom, seemingly unaware of any undercurrents in the room. He looked down at his hands briefly, curling and unfurling his fingers and then balling them into loose fists before stalking over in John's direction. He stopped in front of John, letting his glance fall down to John's feet and back up again. "I bet I can outrun you."

John felt his chin jerk upwards reflexively at that, but then relaxed his jaw into a slow smile. Okay, maybe I deserved that. "You forget," he drawled, "I've seen you in the pool. A sea slug moves faster than you. But perhaps you'd like to put money where that big mouth of yours is."

Rodney's expression took on a feral gleam. "You are so on. You are going down, Sheppard."

It occurred to John that he would really lose face with the Marines if he let a geek outrun him, but he was committed now. "0800 tomorrow. Meet me at the east pier. Two miles. Best time is the winner."

Rodney's face fell at the conditions. "Two miles? I was thinking more about a sprint. You know, a 50 yard dash or something?"

John let his evil chuckle come out to play. "Two miles is a sprint, McKay. Now are you coming to the armory or not?"

"Not so fast, flyboy," Rodney snapped. He folded his arms imperiously across his chest. "We haven't set the terms of the bet."

Somewhere in the room, someone sniggered, a sound quickly muffled. Rodney began to smirk.

John thought rapidly. "You're the challenger; you go first." He'd have a better idea of what to make the stakes for after he'd heard Rodney's offer.

"If I win…when I win," Rodney amended, immediately freeing his hands again to gesture. "I get the last Snickers bar that you have squirreled away somewhere, and don't tell me you've eaten it already, because I know it still existed as of last week and everyone knows how big you are on self-denial."

John blinked at Rodney's words and found himself glancing around the room for the crowd reaction, where he saw a mixture of suppressed grins and some embarrassment on his behalf.

Rodney continued blithely on. "And I get to pick the movie for the next three movie nights. Which means no Back to the Future for the foreseeable future." He grinned at his own pun. "Oh yeah, and I get to fly the duster on the next mission out."

Movie night? John ignored that and moved on to the last bit. "You don't fly the duster until I check you out on that. And you have to pass the weapons test first. So…?" He made an 'after you' gesture towards the door.

"Not until you tell me what you want. If you win." Rodney lifted a stubborn chin.

The question overwhelmed John for a moment. I want to stop the Wraith before the next feeding cycle. I want enough power in the city that we can protect ourselves. I want to stop losing people I know to senseless deaths. I want to be whole again. John closed his eye briefly and then focused on Rodney's face, the expression there a little uncertain all of the sudden. He felt a shark's smile spread across his face as he narrowed his eye thoughtfully before speaking.

"I want the last can of Pepsi," he said decisively, even as someone in the room groaned softly. "And the rest of the Cheese Doodles. I like 'em when they're stale."

Rodney made a face and thumped a fist over his heart in mock-despair, but John wasn't done. "And," he added, "if you can't beat my lame-ass on a two mile run, then you will run every day with me until you can."

Rodney made a noise best described as 'argh'. "Oh that's just…okay. Fine. You drive a hard bargain, Colonel Blackbeard. But since I am going to whup your sorry ass…" Rodney sailed through the door, pausing to look back at John. "Well? Are you coming or what?"

John noticed Miko giving Simpkins a comforting pat on the shoulder before shooting a sly smile in John's direction as he was leaving the room.

John realized as they were walking back towards the general quarters that he'd been holding a lot of tension in his shoulders for the last hour and he rolled his neck carefully, wincing at the pull.

"Neck bothering you?" Rodney asked. He sounded tired and he was using the fingers of his left hand to massage his right.

John closed his eye briefly and gave the barest of shrugs.

"Yeah," Rodney sighed. "I know what you mean. Like what else is new? God," Rodney said with feeling, "if only I could just slip out of my body for twenty or thirty minutes. Unzip my skin and step right out of it. Just to get a break, you know? Just for a little while."

John did know. "It wouldn't be enough," he said shortly. "At first, yeah. But sooner or later you'd start to dread going back to it. The pain and the goddamned uselessness of it and before you know it; you'd be making deals with the devil not to return to it. Better to live with it all the time. You get used to it."

"Spoken like someone for whom the Devil already holds an IOU in their name," Rodney said lightly, but his expression was one of knowing commiseration.

I wish it were that easy. I wish I was sure I still had a soul left to sell.

John paused as he opened to the door to his rooms, fully expecting Rodney to say goodnight, or make some further boast about beating him in the race in the morning but to his surprise, Rodney seemed to be expectantly waiting to be invited in.

"Got anything to drink?" Rodney wandered past him when it became obvious that John wasn't going to extend the invitation. With a sigh, John came in behind Rodney, rubbing his neck.

"Bottom drawer of the desk." John would have normally toed out of his boots now, kicking them to one side and flopping down on the bed, but he felt tense and edgy at Rodney's presence in his room. He went instead to sit on the edge of the bed, resting his right heel across his left knee so he could rub his ankle.

Rodney pulled out the bottle and then disappeared into the bathroom, returning with a glass. "You got another?" He wiggled the glass in his hand as he looked vaguely around the room.

"Nope. It's all yours. I'm not having any."

Rodney shot him a curious look and then whatever he was thinking was lost when he checked out the bottle. "I'm guessing whatever's in here is not the original—seeing as this is a Scotch bottle and the liquid is clear. Ohmygod. Don't tell me you've been drinking Radek's poison. Don't you know that stuff will make you blind?"

"Oh, is that what happened?" John drawled. "Perhaps it's just as well I gave it up."

Rodney had just poured himself a shot; he looked up at John's tone and his face bloomed into painful embarrassment. He rapidly took a swig of his drink to cover his fluster.

The little perverse imp made John continue speaking. "I guess I should give up jerking off too, or I'll really be in trouble."

He couldn't have timed it better. Rodney choked, spraying the vodka into the room.

"Drinking problem, McKay?" John questioned evilly.

Rodney laughed, wiping his chin with the back of his hand and saluting John with the glass. "I, on the other hand, am still reasonably safe from that particular fate." He flexed his left hand briefly, glancing down at it with a grimace.

"You weren't that bad on the firing range tonight. Cut yourself some slack."

"Oh please, don't patronize me." Rodney made a face as he continued to rotate the glass in his right hand, his fingers not really conforming to the shape of the glass. "You've been exceedingly patient with me tonight; don't think I didn't notice that. But the truth of the matter is that I've lost a tremendous amount of manual dexterity and the odds are against that ever coming back. Carson says he won't do any more surgery because the scarring is only making things worse." Rodney huffed a sigh and then pulled out the desk chair to sit in it.

"So you'll practice." John uncrossed his leg and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I told you before, it's not a race—at least not now. Don't worry about speed for the moment. Go for accuracy. Load and unload that weapon until you can do it blindfolded, in your sleep. The speed will come."

"Or else I'll die during a reload," Rodney said dryly, taking a hard pull of his drink and then making another one of his many and varied facial expressions indicating disgust. "Or worse, someone else will die because I wasn't fast enough. I just…damn it, John. I'm accustomed to doing things. It's what makes me me." He abruptly drained his glass, coughing just a little when he was done.

He looked woebegone enough that John felt compelled to say something, anything encouraging. "You've still got your brains. That makes you a pretty valuable person to have around. You can always tell someone what you need them to do."

Rodney shook his head slowly and set the empty glass on the desk beside the bottle. He stared at it as he spoke. "You know as well as I do, the delay that occurs between my explanation and someone's acting upon it could well be the few seconds we need to save all our asses at some point. And you're assuming I'm fully operating on all cylinders. We both know that's not always true."

The look in Rodney's eyes when he turned to face John was painful and tragic. For a moment, John thought Rodney was going to admit that he knew the truth about Colonel Sheppard. But Rodney leaned back in the chair instead and glanced about the room.

"How long have you been living here? This place still looks like a barracks. Have you even unpacked your bags yet?" Rodney suddenly locked his gaze on John again. "I know, you really didn't have any bags but seriously, this is minimalist, even for you. You know, it's okay, you're allowed to decorate. Do you honestly think Sheppard would mind?"

For the briefest of moments, John was confused as to which Sheppard Rodney meant. And then he realized that Rodney actually meant him, the man that should have died at Kolya's hands.

John hesitated. "I can't just step in and take over someone else's life," he said at last, the irony of his words mocking him.

"I'd have thought that you'd know yourself well enough by now to know that the John Sheppard of this universe would be grateful to know you were here—here to protect his city and his friends and everyone that he cares about," Rodney said seriously. "You wouldn't begrudge an alternate version of yourself doing the same—though I can bet your AU self would feel guilty about it as well." He finished with a dramatic sigh. "Do yourself a favor, follow your own advice and cut yourself a little slack, okay? Oh yeah, and if anyone offers you sparkly curtains, turn them down. They're just not you."

Rodney gave a quirky, enigmatic little grin and stood to go. John stood as well, walking him the short distance to the door.

"McKay." John stopped Rodney as he was partway through the door. When Rodney glanced back with a raised eyebrow, John made a face and said quickly, "Don't let me win tomorrow, okay?"

Rodney seemed shocked. "Let you win? I'd never do that! Not only would that be insulting in the extreme, but it goes against all my moral and ethical principles. That would be like letting you win at chess. Which frankly, no one would believe."

John suddenly saw chess matches with Rodney in his future.

"But the real reason I'd never let you win," Rodney continued, "is that you'd never forgive me." His face looked solemn and sad for a moment before it morphed suddenly into something more demonically smirking. "Besides, I have no intention of having to run with you every day. So you'd better pull out your Nikes, Colonel. You're going to need them."

He gave a little jaunty wave and moved off with purpose towards his own quarters.

John shut the door and turned to see the bottle still sitting on the desk beside the glass. Taking a deep breath, he walked over to the desk and capped the bottle, replacing it in the drawer. As an afterthought, he opened the laptop and pulled up what information had been gathered on the planets Sateda and Athos.

He didn't dream of Earth often, and never of his childhood home. But there he was, as a twelve-year-old boy, pushing a great swatch of hair out of his eyes and looking wistfully at the young gray colt kicking up his heels in the paddock. The grass seemed impossibly green; he could hear the distinctive song of meadowlarks in the field and the sleepy drone of a bumblebee somewhere nearby. He sat perched on the top rail of a white board fence; the sun felt warm on the back of his shoulders, seeping through the thin cloth of his t-shirt and into his skin. The young colt put on a burst of speed, throwing himself into the air for the sheer joy of doing so, hitting the ground bucking before running back up to his dam with a snort.

Jim appeared beside him at the rail.

"That one's got a few years before he's ready for you. Or you for him," Jim said agreeably, leaning his forearms on the top of the fence and resting a booted foot on the bottom rail. The trainer looked the way John remembered him from his youth, a lean, athletic man in his forties, reddish-brown hair covered by a sun-faded ball cap.

The dream changed, as dreams often do, and John was now an adult standing beside the fence with Jim. He was wearing his black BDUs with a 9 mm strapped to a thigh holster, dark glasses hiding his eyes, painting the scene in front of him in shades of blue and gray. Jim didn't seem to notice. The colt was gone; a sleek, bay mare stood cropping grass quietly in the field before them.

"You'll make a good pair," Jim said.

"I can't." The regret was almost overwhelming; he didn't want to disappoint Jim, he didn't want to disappoint himself. "I've got duties and responsibilities here. People are counting on me."

Jim made a wry face, pushing his cap up on one side to scratch at his head briefly before replacing it to speak again. "You keep giving up things, one by one. You're going to give up so much of yourself that there's nothing left. When are you going to learn that it's okay to love something? To love someone and be loved in return?"

John looked with regret at the man that he'd loved like a father; the man he'd wished was his father. "I'm already gone."

He woke with a jolt and then lay in the darkness, listening to the sound of his own heartbeat until it slowed and sleep overcame him once more.

"Congratulations, sir!" Stackhouse's voice was cheerful, almost jubilant. "Well done!"

John had crossed the 'finish line' well ahead of McKay, to the sound of the cheers of his men and the mock-groans of the science department. It had been a much bigger turnout than expected—somehow word had gotten out overnight and the corridors had been lined with spectators rooting for their favorite. He'd done it, he'd managed to beat McKay, setting up a slow but steady pace from the very beginning and ignoring Rodney as he'd first bolted out of the start like a nervous thoroughbred and then as he'd slowed to a stumbling jog, his t-shirt ringed with sweat.

He'd put up a good fight though, matching John's pace as the two men pulled abreast, shooting John a look of grim determination and keeping up with him stride for stride for nearly a quarter mile. Then he simply ran out of steam, starting to lag and then flounder until he was left behind.

John watched now as Rodney turned the corner into the final corridor, still doggedly putting one foot in front of the other, despite the fact that it was obvious that John had won.

He turned to Stackhouse. "The day I can't outrun a geek, you need to seriously consider a new CO," John said sharply. "What are all these people doing here?" It looked as though nearly the entire expedition was present, lining the walls and hanging over the balcony railing to watch the runners cross the finish line into the gateroom. The science contingent was still cheering Rodney on encouragingly.

"Well, you know how it is, sir," Stackhouse said lightly. "No TV, no internet. We've read all the books. This is the closest thing to a sporting event that we've had for a while. And I made a lot of money off you today." Stackhouse grinned engagingly before adding, "As for your ability to lead us physically, frankly sir, I'd take your brains and cunning any day."

John must have given him an incredulous look because Stackhouse suddenly flushed and said, "Leadership is more than who can run the fastest. Sir."

Rodney came stumbling to a halt in front of them. "Okay. Fine. You win. Happy now?" He blew out his breath, taking the hem of his t-shirt to wipe his face, briefly revealing an expanse of unexpectedly pristine skin as he did so. "I demand a rematch. Not a running one," he amended quickly as John started to speak.

"There's this game the scientists play," Stackhouse suggested, raising his voice as people began to crowd in to offer congratulations and condolences. "They call it 'Prime, Not Prime'…"

"No!" Rodney groaned loudly. "No number games, what do I look like, a masochist?"

It felt weird, having someone know you that well when you'd only known them a matter of months.

"Chess." Rodney pointed at him with index and pinky. "In the mess, tonight after dinner. Winner takes all." He glanced around suddenly at all the smiling faces and then looked over at John, reaching up to scratch at sweat-darkened hair. "Does it strike you as a little odd that Elizabeth's not here?"

It did strike him as odd. This was the sort of thing that she would thoroughly enjoy, if only for the camaraderie it created in the expedition. He scanned the room, turning so that he could see all the way around him.

"Well, someone has to run the joint," he said lightly at last but he raised an eyebrow at Rodney, who raised an eyebrow back at him. He made a mental note to seek Elizabeth out after a shower and a change of clothes.

Rodney must have had the same thought, because he ran into John in the corridor outside Elizabeth's office later that morning.

"Have you noticed that Elizabeth looks like crap lately? I mean she's looked a little sickly ever since we got here but recently she's begun to look like death warmed over."

"Be sure to tell her that, McKay," John drawled. "I'm sure she'll find that really flattering."

Rodney made a face. "You know what I mean. Though I don't usually pick up on stuff like this. Remember when Heightmeyer went from blonde to Dana-Scully red overnight and I was the only one who didn't notice for over a week? And then you pretended that she had always been a redhead and you managed to get everyone to go along with you…" Rodney broke off, his expression an odd mix of irritation and amused admiration before he refocused to the topic at hand. "But something's not right with Elizabeth and you know it. I'm surprised your Spidey senses haven't told you that yet." Rodney gave him a questioning look, which made him feel unaccountably like a slacker.

"Left my superpowers at home in the other suit," he said simply, knowing it wasn't true. He had known something was wrong; the fact that Rodney knew it too just crystallized things for him.

"Well, let's not just stand here…" Rodney started to activate the chime to Elizabeth's office.

"Rodney." John stopped him with a touch to the arm, quickly removed. When he had Rodney's blinking attention, he continued. "Let me do this one on my own."

"Don't be an ass, John," Rodney scowled. "Whatever is going down here, we're all in it together. It no longer matters if we were part of the original expedition to this universe or not." He pressed the chime decisively.

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth looked up from her desk when they entered the room. She appeared to be working on something on her laptop, which she quickly closed when Rodney barreled up to her desk.

"Is there something wrong with you?" Rodney asked before John could stop him. "Not wrong with you as in personally but wrong with you as in physically? I mean, no, not that there's anything wrong with you physically," Rodney backpedaled sharply, shooting John a 'help me out here, buddy' look, "but wrong with you, I don't know, medically? Are you feeling okay?"

John started to berate Rodney for jumping in where he had no real business interfering, but the look on Elizabeth's face caused him get very still instead. No. No. Whatever it is, no.

She sighed, looking at Rodney with resigned amusement mixed with sadness. "Why don't the two of you sit down?" She indicated the chairs in front of her desk. Neither man moved.

She lifted her chin. "Very well. Shut the door, Rodney."

Rodney complied quickly and returned to the desk, this time standing noticeably closer to John, as though presenting a united front for the assault they were about to receive.

"There's no easy way to say this. I've been diagnosed with leukemia. Carson has some of the medication that can be used to initially treat it and hopes he can put it into remission, but he doesn't have everything required for a complete induction protocol and none of the medications needed for long term maintenance. The idea when the SGC sent us here was that, of course, we'd eventually find a ZPM and anyone diagnosed with such a…serious…health issue, would be allowed to return to Earth for full treatment."

"When were you going to tell me?" John's voice was dangerously quiet.

Elizabeth's composure crumpled just a bit and then she lifted her chin again and faced him calmly. "Believe me, I had every intention of telling you as soon as I had something definite to say. I know you have a lot on your plate, John. I didn't want to add to things until I knew something for sure. However, Carson has informed me I cannot delay starting treatment any longer."

She had wanted to protect him, damn it. Was it that obvious that he needed to be shielded? Had he really become that fucking useless?

"But without the appropriate medications, Carson might not be able to get you into remission, will he?" Rodney by-passed all the usual amenities and went straight for the heart of the matter. "And, if my understanding of disease remission is correct, once you come out of remission the first time, each subsequent time is harder to achieve and lasts for a shorter duration, right? So getting it right the first time is really important."

"That's how Carson has explained it to me. That's one of the reasons why we have been delaying treatment initially. He's continuing to search the Lantean database in the hopes of coming up with some alternate or supplemental treatment options." Elizabeth smiled tiredly at the two of them. "Which, frankly, I'm rather hoping he'll find. The side effects of the proposed chemotherapy promise to be fairly debilitating. I'm making plans and delegating tasks now, but essentially you'll be in charge, John." Her gaze flicked up to meet his, apologies present in the tightening of thin skin around her eyes as she spoke. Her glance shifted quickly to Rodney. "I'd also like to discuss your role here in the expedition as well, Rodney."

"Right. Okay. Um, mind if I get back to you on that? Come with me, Colonel." Rodney grabbed John by the sleeve and began to haul him bodily out of the room.

John planted his feet and jerked his arm back roughly. "McKay!" he growled, unable to articulate everything about Rodney's actions that were pissing him off at the moment.

Rodney seemed to pick up on it anyway. "What?" he looked puzzled for a second before his face cleared. "Oh! Right." He ducked his head around John's shoulder to speak to Elizabeth. "Sorry to hear that you're ill and all that. I'm sure Carson will come up with a solution. I…um, am needed in the lab. Gotta run. Come on, Colonel." He shot John a look that seemed laden with all sorts of embedded meanings that John simply could not grasp.

He looked helplessly back at Elizabeth. A small smile was on her face. "Go with him, John. We can talk later."

John found his arm in Rodney's clawlike grip and was being propelled to the door when Rodney suddenly stopped, causing John to plough up into him from behind. They stood that way in the doorway for a moment, his pelvis pressed up against Rodney's ass, each inhalation of John's breath causing his stomach to brush the small of Rodney's back. He thought that Rodney leaned back into him ever so slightly, for just a heartbeat's moment in time. Rodney then moved so he could turn and look at Elizabeth.

"Everything will be okay. You'll see," he said earnestly. He grabbed John's arm once again and hauled him away.

"You have an idea, don't you?" John tried to contain a surge of hope rising within him as Rodney bustled into the labs in front of him, kicking Peter out of his seat with a flurry of hand movement and diving into the database.

John gave Peter a rueful shrug and sent him away with a glance, which Peter accepted with a wry headshake as he moved away. John came in to lean over the back of Rodney's chair as he pulled up various screens in the database.

"Of course I have an idea. You didn't think I would just let Elizabeth die of leukemia, did you?" Rodney hissed over his shoulder, glancing around belatedly to make sure no one else could hear. "I just had to check some things out first. I see here that this Elizabeth has never come into contact with any Replicators…" he trailed off and began to pull at his lower lip with thumb and forefinger as he scrolled rapidly through the mission reports and daily logs on the laptop while simultaneously running a system data search on the large overhead screens. He paused over an old mission report, his hand freezing in mid air, his mouth falling open as he read.

John looked closer. It was the report Ford had written after his rescue, describing John's injuries.

"Jeezus," Rodney breathed, leaning in to read with more concentration.

John reached across his shoulder and pressed a button, closing the window on the mission report. "We're focusing on Elizabeth, remember?"

"What? Oh. Right." Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose for a second, shooting a sharp glance up over his shoulder at John and then looking away. "Okay, so because our Elizabeth hasn't had any Replicator contact, I can't simply reactivate her nanites and have them heal her." He looked up at the overhead screens, following the rapidly flowing stream of data with a practiced eye.

"I can't think of any circumstance where that would even remotely be a good idea," John growled. "From what you've said about the Replicators…and never mind why Elizabeth would have nanites in the first place…"

"Well how do you think we gained access to the Replicator home world and stole those ZPMs? Okay, I'm not going to waste time arguing the point with you because it's not an option here. And I hardly think that going to look for Replicators is such a great idea, seeing as they haven't tumbled to the fact of our existence here yet. Right. Moving on…" Rodney suddenly alerted to something overhead. "There!" He paused the search, having to back up a bit to isolate the data he wanted. He did his pseudo-gangsta point at the screen. "You see that? That's the device we recovered from PR7-4363. Ancient, of course. We determined that it was a healing device that drew 'energy' from one person, an ATA carrier naturally, and transferred it to another." Rodney's hands made clumsy quotes here.

"Actually," he continued, "it seems to be more along the lines of the work the Ancients have done elsewhere in concentrating brain waves and using them to alter energy fields, thus stimulating healing on a cellular level. But the Reader's Digest version of the story is that it results in a transfer of energy from one person to another. Kind of like a blood transfusion. As long as the 'donor' doesn't go overboard and try do too much, perfectly safe. Well, most of the time, anyway. I figure with Carson's help, we can set up a series of treatments for Elizabeth, spreading out the sessions between the ATA carriers we have here in the expedition. I can go first and show everyone how it works."

"And the recipient doesn't have to have the gene?" John asked slowly, afraid to get his hopes up.

"Nope," Rodney was cheerful. "That's part of the beauty of it. And no side effects for Elizabeth, though her donors might be a little wiped out for a while. That's why we'll need to rotate donors. And her disease will be better than controlled; we stand a good chance of beating it altogether." His face fell. "In fact, we probably need to keep the device out of Carson's hands. In more than one instance, he's ended up sacrificing his life in an attempt to save a patient with this thing—we've been forced to destroy it in some universes too, where it was used to…well, never mind that. We'll tell Carson he needs to monitor Elizabeth during treatment and leave it at that."

"What else aren't you telling me?" John tilted his head and narrowed his eye, folding his arms across his chest as he leaned up against the nearest table.

Rodney had the grace to look embarrassed. "Well, every other time we've gone to retrieve this device, PR7-4363 has been occupied as a Wraith stronghold. But hey, they're in hibernation in this universe, right? You'll come up with a plan. You always do. It'll be a snap." Rodney made the gesture to fit the word, his fingers not quite up to the task.

A Wraith stronghold. Sure, it should be a piece of cake.

"I can't let you do this." Elizabeth's voice was flat.

They were all gathered in the briefing room. Elizabeth, Radek, Carson, Peter, John, Stackhouse and, of course, Rodney. Since it was Rodney's idea, he could hardly be left out, but John wondered just when it was that Rodney had become an expected participant in all of the major briefings. It seemed likely from Elizabeth's earlier comments that she might well consider him an expedition member now, though it was possible that Rodney had just steamrolled his way into attendance until he was an accepted fixture.

Elizabeth had made a formal announcement to the department heads earlier that afternoon and had handed out additional duty assignments as well as delegated a good bit of her authority. John realized that this long term plan, this gradual phasing out of her functional role as expedition leader and the delegation of her decision-making power was part of the reason she'd delayed starting therapy until Carson had given her no further choice.

John had called this meeting to order so that he could lay out his plan for going to PR7-4363 and retrieve the device in order to treat Elizabeth. Now she glared at him, grim and determined, her expression brooking no argument.

"I've looked over the information in the database," Carson said, pursing his lips as he tapped the data pad in front of him. "If Rodney's information holds true for this universe, this could be a very valuable find."

"It's precisely the sort of technology we were sent here to find. Just because it so happens to be serendipitous for us to procure and use it right now is no reason to disregard the pursuit of it," Rodney said primly, as if his reasons for seeking out the device had nothing to do with Elizabeth.

"I agree," Radek added. "Just because we are cut off from Earth, there's no reason that we shouldn't carry out our primary mission here in Pegasus."

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth's tone was dry and slightly amused. "I appreciate your sincere interest in acquiring this device from a purely scientific point of view. But the fact remains that Rodney's data indicates that this device is most likely located within a Wraith outpost, and I'm sorry, but I can't authorize such a risk."

"But I can," John said smoothly. "In fact, you pretty much made me the one in charge of approving all future missions. As of earlier this afternoon."

Elizabeth gaped at him a second, before closing her lips tightly and pulling the edges of her cardigan together. She tucked one hand inside as she pulled the sweater closed, looking cold and tired. Which John supposed, she really was. It hurt him to see her looking so fragile. She opened her mouth again as if to protest but he forestalled her.

"In at least three universes," he started to explain as he leaned back in his chair and rested his elbow on the back of the seat. "You authorized…"

"Two," Rodney interrupted.

"You said three," John frowned at him. Jesus, did it really matter if it was two or three?

"She didn't get a chance to authorize anything in the third one because, well, you know." Rodney pulled his neck into his shoulders and his hands into his body and held them up like claws, obviously mimicking some kind of terrible monster as he contorted his face.

"In at least two universes," John shot Rodney a vicious glare that clearly said 'stop helping me' as he continued on. "You authorized a highly dangerous mission into a nest of Iratus bugs in order to retrieve some DNA so Carson could make a vaccine to save me from turning into a giant bug."

"Not a vaccine," Carson amended.

John swung his head around to drill Carson with a glare now.

Carson threw up his hands in a gesture of peace. "I'm just saying Ma-Col-John," Carson stuttered his way to the least dangerous appellation. "It couldn't have been a vaccine. Vaccines take weeks to stimulate a new series of antibodies and require multiple inoculations over a period of time to adequately generate an immune response. It would have been far more likely that I needed the DNA in order to…"

"Haven't you read any of the reports I've been sending you? This stuff's important. I wouldn't waste my time on any of the soft sciences if it wasn't. No, see Carson, you'd been working on the retrovirus I was telling you about and then John here, got exposed when…" Rodney was indignant; his dive into the conversation sharp and irritated.

"What the hell's an Iratus bug?" Peter had a mildly horrified expression of disbelief on his face. "And do you seriously mean to say that the Major was turning into a bug? Just like in The Fly?"

Rodney turned to face him. "Yes! Exactly like that." He paused to make the imitation monster pose again, this time adding in a tiny voice, "Help me." He dropped the pose to add in a normal tone, "Only there was no 'help me' to it; it was more like 'get the fuck out of my way…'"

"Can I get on with making my point now?" John drawled sarcastically.

"Gentlemen!" Elizabeth said sharply, causing all heads to snap in her direction. "Focus."

Unaccountably, Rodney began to snort in amusement. John could see that it was threatening to turn into an all out giggle. He abruptly kicked Rodney under the table, causing him to yelp with pain and reach down to rub his shin.

"My apologies, Elizabeth." John managed to glare in such a fashion that the remainder of the room stayed silent. "My point here is that on those missions there was no fancy Ancient tech to recover, no goal to justify the risk to personnel other than a desire to save my sorry ass."

"John." Elizabeth looked at him imploringly for a moment and then dropped her head into her hands, elbows propped on the table as she massaged her temples briefly before looking up again. "That wasn't me."

"Well, that brings up a very interesting existential-type question, one the Colonel and I have discussed in the past." Rodney leaned forward earnestly, resting on his elbows as his hands punctuated his sentences. "You see, if there's one thing we've observed in our travels through the multiverse, it's that people tend to remain very much fundamentally the same. Oh sure, they can be altered by circumstances that have affected their lives, but how they react to those circumstances tends to lie along a spectrum of what is normal for that person. So for example, while we've run across Sheppards that are more or less reckless or McKays that are more or less arrogant and even some circumstances where we couldn't stand the sight of each other, we're still John and Rodney in whatever universe we've been to." Rodney cast a bright, flashing glance in John's direction, as if to say, 'can you imagine a world where we weren't friends?' It hit John with such a visceral feeling that he almost missed the rest of Rodney's discussion.

"Which brings us to the way we've interacted with you…all of you…in every universe we've encountered. You guys are our colleagues. Our friends. Our family. How can we possibly say we don't know this Carson or that Elizabeth or this John well enough to do whatever it takes to save them?" Rodney smiled at all of them with his impish, crooked grin.

The room was silent for a long moment. Radek took off his glasses and polished them slowly. Carson cleared his throat. No one looked at John.

"I don't know what to say," Elizabeth said at last, her smile faintly watery.

"Say 'thank you'," Rodney said tartly. "And give me official status in this expedition for god's sake."

"And wish us luck," John drawled, causing Elizabeth to turn her smile in his direction. "Because we're headed out first thing in the morning."

John was just setting the last of the C-4 charges when the soft whisper of sound behind him caught his attention. He turned, swinging his P-90 at the ready to find himself face to face with a human male, holding a very large gun at his head.

"Whoa!" John let one hand fall off his weapon, lifting it to show he meant no harm. "Hold on there, buddy. I think we're on the same side."

The bearded man in front of him was injured; blood streaming down his face from a cut on his forehead, a darker stain seeping through the side of his tan shirt. He held his side like maybe he was keeping his guts in place, but the gun in his hand didn't waver.

"Prove it," the man sneered, white teeth flashing in the darkness of the chamber. He was huge, a giant of a man, but his clothes were tattered and he was gaunt. His hair was tied back in dreads, matted and filthy. The gun in his hand was of a design that John had never seen and a little moment of envy flared and then died as he felt the tension roiling off the other man.


So intent were they on each other, neither man noticed Rodney's approach. The gun in Ronon's hand whipped in Rodney's direction but before John could move, the injured man swung it back again to cover him, shifting sideways so he could view Rodney and John at the same time.

"Oh for god's sake," Rodney huffed. "Put the goddamned gun away, Ronon. We don't have time for this now. Sheppard, are the charges in place?"

The man called Ronon shifted his eyes back and forth between John and Rodney. John sort of felt sorry for him; Rodney made him feel confused on a daily basis, he knew what the big guy must be wondering. Still, it wouldn't keep Ronon from killing them both; John could see that in his stance, a man driven too close to the edge. One smart-ass comment from Rodney…

"Yep," he drawled, deliberately relaxed. "Whole place is set to blow."

"Good, good." Rodney nodded and rubbed his hands together. "We've got what we need then. I was able to download some information from their database as well. Well, let's not stand around then, back to the duster." He started to turn away.

"Wait." The man's voice was commanding, but John could hear the note of desperation in it as well. "How do you know me?"

Rodney turned around and glared. "How do I know you? What kind of question is that, Ronon?"

"Rodney is from an alternative universe," John threw in quickly. Ronon rolled his eyes in John's direction and looked at him incredulously. John gave a helpless little shrug. "One where he knows you apparently. He'd been to a lot of universes. Sometimes he gets a little…confused."

Ronon's mouth parted, the lines of his beard making his expression almost comical.

"Oh for god's sake," Rodney started, causing Ronon to swivel his head to look at him again. "I keep forgetting that every time we meet Ronon we have approximately 0.75 nanoseconds to convince him not to kill us. Oh wait!" His fingers came up and tried ineffectively to snap. "You aren't still a Runner in this universe are you?"

"Shit," John said forcefully, causing Ronon's head to swing back like he was watching a tennis match. "The tracking thing? That means that the Wraith are on the way, right? I thought this mission was going too well. We need to move."

"Well," Rodney said, folding his arms across his chest. "Usually it's you who persuades Ronon not to kill us." The fingers resting on Rodney's bicep made a little 'well, go on' gesture.

If Ronon didn't kill them both, he might just have to kill Rodney himself. Now was not the right time to correct Rodney of his little delusion. "Well," he ground out, mimicking Rodney. "What do I usually say?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "You know, you know, that thing. The thing about the enemies and friends thing. Only you usually screw it up."

John thought he knew the quote Rodney meant. "Oh. The thing about the friend of my enemy…no wait, the enemy of my friend? No, goddamn it. Wait a second, I'll get it."

"Oh for crying out loud," Rodney said, clearly exasperated. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

"And that works?" John found it hard to believe.

The man called Ronon groaned softly and began to sink down to his knees.

"No, but passing out from blood loss usually does." Rodney's voice held both smirk and concern in it and as always, a small part of John's mind marveled at the layers contained within Rodney's voice. Rodney stepped forward and took Ronon by the arm. John leapt forward as well; the moment he realized Rodney's intended reactions and he caught the gun hand as Ronon was bringing it to bear on Rodney. He removed the weapon from slackening fingers and laid it on the ground as Ronon came to rest on his knees.

"Major!" Stackhouse's voice was urgent in his ear. "We've got Wraith in the complex!"

John touched his earpiece. "Acknowledged. We're headed back with a wounded stray."

"Specialist Ronon Dex," Rodney said sharply, silently acknowledging John's look that said they were out of time. "We can help you. Are you a Runner or not?"

Ronon's head had jerked up at the military sounding designation but John recognized in him the need to withhold information. "Dex," John said and then mentally winced, knowing he'd never be able to call this man by that name. "Ronon," he amended. "We've got doctors who can take out the tracking device. We can then take you someplace where you can get medical help."

"No one can take out the device. I've tried." Ronon looked up, his oddly colored green-gold eyes scanning John for the truth.

"Well, don't let my looks fool you," John said lightly, still supporting Ronon by the arm. "Our doctors are better than you think. Let us help you."

"In return for what?" The question was barely a whisper. The hand that clutched his side was slick with dark blood that oozed between his fingers.

"Your undying affection. Can we get on with this now?" Rodney griped. "We need to get out of here, go to another world and then we can send Stackhouse back to the city with the device and he can meet us with Carson. Oh wait!" Rodney dropped the pack off his shoulder and began fishing around within, pulling out a small round object that looked like a stone egg and holding it up with a fiendish grin. "I forgot all about this—remember when you found it, John? We couldn't figure out what it did until we ran into another Runner."

John was beginning to suspect Rodney's pockets were like Mary Poppins' satchel and that virtually anything anyone desired could be contained within. The egg in Rodney's hand began to pulse gently with a faint green glow.

"What's it do?" Ronon shouldn't have been able to participate in the conversation, and yet somehow, he still was doing so.

"Blocks the tracking signal. Not close up mind you, so we need to get moving, like the Colonel said. But it scrambles the signal enough that any Wraith looking for you here will have a hard time figuring out where you went next. What about you, got any suggestions as to where to go?"

Ronon looked a little stunned and like he might not be conscious for all that much longer. There was a long pause and then he said, "M1K-547."

"The tormack planet?" Rodney said with open delight. "Ronon, that's brilliant! Ohmygod, I can taste it now." He shot a little conspiratorial smile at Ronon, who grinned weakly back at him.

"What's tormack?" said John, feeling left out.

Tormack, apparently was a violently purple tuber that Rodney could not stop talking about once they fought their way back to the duster, settled Ronon into rear compartment, communicated the plan to Atlantis and were on their way. Tormack was also a highly versatile vegetable that inspired feelings of lust in Rodney, particularly in its various incarnations such as mashed tormack (with just a little garlic, butter and cream cheese), sweet tormack pie and the ultimate, fried tormack patties. "Can we just stop talking about it now?" John finally had to resort to saying. His stomach had grumbled loudly in sympathy.

"What about using the device on Ronon?" John suggested when the man groaned softly as they lowered him to the padded bench in the back. If they didn't hurry, Carson might not have a patient when he got there.

Rodney shook his head, his expression worried despite his reassuring tone. "We need the Lantean database to use it properly; you'll see when we set it up for Elizabeth. In the meantime, we need to just hope Ronon's his usual tough self and hangs in there until Carson gets here."

John nodded and glanced over at Ronon, who lay with his eyes closed, hands clasping his side, the sheen of sweat on his brown skin.

John was startled to feel Rodney pat his arm. "Don't worry, you two are made out of adamantium—like Wolverine. Ronon'll be fine. Just like you always are."

Rodney turned away to check that the tracker-blocking device was working before John could tell him that Rodney had it all wrong; that John wasn't fine at all. The moment fled and with it, the need for confession. John fired up the duster and headed for the gate.

When Carson arrived on Planet Tormack in the second duster, he tutted and complained that Ronon was in no fit condition to undergo surgery for the tracker removal under unsanitary field conditions; his current wounds were more serious and needed immediate attention.

"You can patch him up to your heart's content, after you remove the device." John said calmly.

"No drugs," Ronon was insistent and his eyes met John's gaze over Carson's shoulder.

"A man after my own heart," John said lightly as Carson scowled. Ronon continued to look steadily at him, and there was a mutual recognition there, an acknowledgement that every day that was survived was a personal fuck-you to the universe.

"Okay then. Can't stand the sight of blood myself, so while Carson does his George Clooney impersonation on Ronon here, I'm going into town with Stackhouse and company to negotiate for some tormack for the city." Rodney turned to exit the jumper briskly.

"What? No, Rodney, wait a second. You can't just…" John was still struggling with the Clooney reference when he realized that Rodney was intending on going off on his own first contact mission.

"I can and I will. I know what they need, Colonel. A few simple adjustments to their hydroelectric plant, some changes to their irrigation system to prevent the salination problem that threatens to turn their valley into a desert in a few hundred years and we're set with enough tormack to feed the city for a year." Rodney looked both anticipatory and triumphant. "I know Teyla's better at negotiation than any of us, except maybe you, but she's not here."

"Please, sir," Stackhouse added his two cents, a note of pleading that made him sound oddly like Oliver Twist. John half-expected him to hold out an empty bowl. "We're talking food here."

John looked back and forth from Stackhouse and the expectant Marines behind him to Rodney and his smug superiority. "Switch off with me," he said to Stackhouse. "I'll take Rodney into town and you guard Carson and the patient."

Stackhouse merely nodded, a small smile briefly lighting his face before it became serious again. And John had found himself watching Rodney crawl under consoles for the next hour, clucking in dismay and promising to return with a full team in the future to correct all the various problems he'd found.

John felt the need to explain to the town leadership why they couldn't stay long this time, beyond the simple explanation that they had wounded, why they needed to leave with the tracking device before there was any chance of discovery. At some point he should probably explain to Rodney, the lure of tormack or not, it wasn't nice to leave a possible trail of bread crumbs pointing at potential allies.

"We appreciate your honesty. As well as your efforts on behalf of the Runner. It would seem that our information concerning your people has not been accurate."

"We're under new management," John said lightly and the smile of the leader told John he understood what John was not saying.

"Please, take some crates of tormack as a gesture of goodwill. As a down payment on our future negotiations."

Rodney practically salivated the entire way back to the dusters. When they arrived, Stackhouse had indicated all was still quiet. No sign of the Wraith.

"Okay, here's the plan," John announced to the various teams on their return from the village. "We'll send Carson back through the Gate with Ronon in one duster. I'll take the tracking device on a little side trip and drop it off on some nice, deserted planet before deactivating it. Hopefully, if any Wraith have picked up on it, they'll take the bait and follow the tracker, and then assume that Ronon either died or got the tracker out himself somewhere else."

"Right. Hey, wouldn't it be funny if we left it on the T-rex planet?" Rodney said. "I'll ride with you."

John fixed a long look on him, only to have Rodney stare back with a 'what?' expression. Giving up, he went to check on Carson's progress. It was odd, but he thought of him as Carson now, and wondered exactly when that had occurred.

"How's the patient, doc?"

"I'll feel better once he's in my infirmary and I can address his wounds, but I've got the tracking device out, if that's what you're asking." Carson sounded angry, but with the Wraith or with John, he had no idea.

John stepped forward to look at Ronon. Impossibly, given all he'd been through, Ronon opened his eyes at John's approach.

"Why are you doing this for me?" Ronon asked quietly.

"Because I can," John said fiercely and found himself responding to Ronon's grin.

John had expected them to come back to the city and right away set up the device to deliver a 'treatment' to Elizabeth. This proved to be delusional thinking on his part as both Rodney and Carson appeared shocked at the idea and launched into various explanations of how that would not be possible and what must be done first before even contemplating such an act and John found himself tuning out during the explanation as he contemplated the Ancient device.

It was about the size of a small oven, shaped like a pentagon, with a slot on each side where the user and recipient would sit, facing each other, so that their left arms fit inside the device. An additional component was apparently held in the right hand, attached in a slot next to the sleeve. The unit was constructed out of the usual pewter-colored Ancient materials, with the geometric designs he'd come to expect etched on the sides. It looked lifeless and inanimate as it sat on the table in front of him, but he could feel an interested hum coming off the machine itself, an inquiry, a subtle reaching out for his mind. He almost slammed down the doors without thinking, until he realized he was going to have to open his mind to the Ancient tech once more in order to help Elizabeth.

Damn. He hadn't really given that much thought before.

Carson bustled off to go in on Ronon's surgery, stating he'd be back to help Rodney with linking into the medical database later. John turned to leave and almost bowled over Radek, catching the smaller man by the arms to keep from running him down.

"My apologies, Major," Radek said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I have come to assist Rodney."

John pulled Radek to one side, noting that someone had repaired his glasses somewhere along the way. "Look, Radek," he said quietly. "I know Rodney is just sort of bulldozing his way into taking the lead on things, but if you have any problems with him and you need me to intervene…"

"Major," Radek gave him a rueful smile. "I believe you Americans have a saying, no? If you can't beat them, join them. I've made Rodney my second in command."

John felt himself rock back on his heels, even as he let go of Radek's arm. Radek pursed his mouth and nodded as though John had spoken. "I know, I know. But you see, the art of knowing how to use such a fine a weapon as Rodney is knowing when to rein him in and when to let him go. I do not know what he was like before," Radek frowned in sympathy, "but I do not believe he is CSO material now. He still gets confused about things. But that is fine, this arrangement works between us. Rodney is doing the thinking now. I am running the labs, but Rodney is making them work."

"If you're sure…" John trailed off uncertainly.

"I am sure."

"Radek! There you are." Rodney sounded as though Radek had been deliberately avoiding him. "Quit wasting time talking with Colonel Silver-Tongued Devil there and get over here so we can get this thing hooked up properly."

John traded a look with Radek, whose eyebrows raised at John's expression. Radek looked like he was biting back a response when John wheeled and moved deliberately into Rodney's space to stand in front of him, arms akimbo. Rodney looked a bit apprehensive at John's posture, but merely raised an eyebrow, as if to say, 'you got a problem?'

John stuck out his tongue at Rodney.

There was a brief moment where he was seriously tempted to lick a stripe up the side of Rodney's neck, but reason overrode the impulse.

Rodney stood with his mouth open for a second before he started to sputter. "What…what was that for?"

"Showing you it's not silver," John drawled, before heading nonchalantly for the exit. "Be nice to Radek," he said as he headed out the door. "He's your boss."

"Like I'll ever see a paycheck!" Rodney shouted at his back.

It wasn't until hours later that he received a page from Rodney. "It's ready. Get down to the infirmary. I'm going to demo how to give the first treatment." He sounded tired.

John glanced at his watch. "Be there in ten." He stopped by the mess and picked up several pudding cups, a muffin and a spoon. Who knew when the last time Rodney ate?

Rodney's eyes lit up when John entered the room and he quickly snatched at the proffered food without waiting for any explanation. "God, you're a lifesaver and a mind reader. No wonder the Ancient tech loves you so much."

It was stupid to let such a little thing like that make him flush, but it did. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice.

"How's the big guy?" John turned to Carson, hoping to change the subject while Rodney made little moans of pleasure as he bit into the muffin.

"Are you sure you don't have any relatives in the Pegasus galaxy, Major?" Carson said with a tired smile. "Because he's only been out of surgery two hours and he's already tried to get out of bed once."

"Just feed him," Rodney mumbled with his mouth full. "Ronon's like a stray cat. Feed him once and you can't get rid of him. Just don't try to pet him though." Rodney mimed a hissing cat with one paw raised to strike.

Carson met John's eye and just shook his head. They watched as Rodney inhaled his pudding cups. "I'm guessing Ronon's not the only one who can be tamed with food," Carson said in an aside to John.

"Aw, now, Doc. We're not trying to tame Rodney here. Everyone knows this is more in way of tribute."

Carson made an inelegant snorting sound that John realized was a laugh.

"If you two comedians are finished," Rodney said darkly, tossing the empty pudding cup with accuracy into the nearest trashcan and licking the spoon before setting it aside, "then we can get on with this."

He followed as Carson and Rodney led him to a private room, where Elizabeth, looking ghostly pale and nervous, was waiting. She was dressed in the red scrubs, which made her look almost corpse-like, and propped up in a bed with a warm blanket covering her from the waist down. She smiled weakly at John as they entered the room.

The Ancient device was on a table beside her bed. Rodney walked right up to it and sat down, placing his arm within the unit and directing Elizabeth to do the same. Carson stepped up to the other side of the bed, attaching all sorts of monitoring equipment to Elizabeth and Rodney and turning it on as he did so. John noted the reassuring little pat he gave Elizabeth on the shoulder as he moved aside and took up his post at the monitoring station.

"Okay, okay, okay," Rodney said as he rolled his shoulders like he was preparing for a boxing match. "Everyone paying attention? Good. First, Elizabeth. I need you to picture your abnormal white cells as something rather bland and innocuous. Give them detail, okay? Something safe, relatively easy to be overwhelmed and destroyed, right? Can you do that?"

"Yes." She frowned as she closed her eyes, concentrating.

"Right then. Now," Rodney spoke to John, indicating the device with his nose. "When Elizabeth's image comes through to the HUD, it will pop up here. And then I will be able to target her abnormal white cells and destroy them."

"How?" John asked. "And how will you know which ones are the abnormal ones?"

"You'll see." Rodney closed his eyes and concentrated as well. "Okay, something's coming through here…"

An HUD appeared in the air between Rodney and Elizabeth, astonishingly detailed in color and imagery. The scene depicted however, looked like a cartoon version of the Old West. "Elizabeth?" Rodney queried, eyes snapping open. "What exactly did you imagine?"

"Well, you said something simple and innocuous. And white cells, so of course, white rabbits came to mind."

"Oh shit," Rodney turned an unhappy face in John's direction. "She chose rabbits." He turned back to face Elizabeth again. "You didn't by any chance have a rabbit game that you played back on Earth did you? Rabid Rabbits? Rampaging Rabbits, something like that?"

Elizabeth opened her eyes and frowned, looking concerned. "Well, yes…I admit, the game came to mind as I was thinking about the imagery here. Is that a problem?"

"What's wrong with rabbits?" John asked. He could see there might be a problem if she'd chosen clowns, but seriously, rabbits?

"You'll see," Rodney said grimly, picking up the controller tightly and focusing all his attention on the screen. John noted that whatever direction Rodney faced, the view on the screen faced that direction as well. It was as though he were in a virtual cartoon world. The scene shifted to take in the panorama of the town, eerily quiet and absent of life.

Until the saloon doors opened and rabbits began to trundle out of it. They should have been humorous. But the cute, cartoon bunnies waddled up with deadly persistence, benign faces turning suddenly hostile as they approached, reminding John of those cute little aliens in Galaxy Quest that suddenly became evil and turned on their own kind. And the rabbits were armed. With flyswatters. And hatchets. And clubs. And some of them appeared to be capable of shooting back at you. With plungers. And apparently, each hit drained some of your own life's energy.

"Caleb bought this for Madison but Jeannie wouldn't let her play it. Remember that universe where you and I played it for hours on end? No? Okay, goal here, shoot the rabbits before they shoot you!" Rodney shook his right hand hard and then leveled the controller at the HUD, depressing a switch at the bottom. John nearly burst into laughter when a series of plungers left Rodney's viewpoint on the screen and hammered the nearest rabbit, knocking it flat. "You get five shots before you have to reload. You reload by shaking your hand." Rodney laid waste to the rabbits pouring out of the building in front of him before turning to shoot at some rabbits sneaking up behind him.

"Look out!" Carson interjected, pointing to some rabbits dressed as cowboys, shooting from the balcony of the saloon.

"Shut up!" Rodney snapped. "This takes a lot of concentration as it is."

"Reload, reload," John urged, as Rodney was shooting blanks.

"What? Oh, thanks. Now shut up." Rodney shook his wrist and began firing as though he had a P-90 in his hands.

"Wait a minute," Elizabeth said with an incredulous expression. "Are you telling me my medical treatment is a video game?"

"You're the one who set the parameters when you thought of the game. Everyone pictures something different. Not now, Elizabeth!" Rodney panted. "I could really get hurt here."

"Wait a sec," John thought about it a minute. "If this is set up like a video game, then there should be some way for you to get life points or something, right? Look around, Rodney, see if there is something you can shoot that will boost your strength."

"Aye, that sounds like a good idea," Carson chimed in, sounding worried.

A series of rabbits leapt out from the roof of a nearby building, raining down from above as they fired at Rodney. He took a hit and John saw him visibly pale. "I remember how to play. Stop distracting me!" he said in a strained voice.

An old time victrola came into view at the end of one veranda. It seemed an odd thing to have in the scene and John said sharply, "Shoot the record player!"

Rodney didn't hesitate; he fired a shot at the player and then kept shooting at rabbits. When the sound of honky tonk music filled the room, the rabbits on the screen all paused to dance. Rodney gunned them down mercilessly. A series of Rodney's running stats appeared in one corner of the screen. John looked it over and saw a problem.

"Rodney, can you pause the program?" John leaned in to place a hand on the back of Rodney's chair. The music had stopped and the rabbits were on the march again.

"What? No! Once you start you're committed to the cycle. If you pay attention, then you'll make it to the other side okay, but if you're stupid, well, you can get into some pretty serious trouble." Rodney clicked an empty 'gun' at the screen, cursed and reloaded. John could see that he was getting tired, too tired.

"Your ratio of shots fired to targets acquired is too high," John said, pointing over Rodney's shoulder at the screen. "It's sending your success rate way down. You're wasting too much energy."

"What?" Rodney was temporarily distracted as a Giant Gray Rabbit wandered Godzilla-like towards him. He fired off a volley of plungers until it fell, little x's over its eyes. "What the hell was that?"

"I think that was a lymphoblastic leukemia cell," Carson offered, glancing down at his monitors. "Good shot."

"No," John insisted, "it wasn't good. Look, is there any way I can join in?"

"What? No!" Rodney sounded terribly distracted and took another hit, the screen turning red for a second as the blow struck him. "Look, multiple people can be on at once, but only at the beginning of a cycle. Can you just…?" He gasped as he took another hit.

"Carson," Elizabeth sounded worried. "Can we stop the cycle?"

"Rodney?" Carson questioned Rodney but he was so intent on firing back at the hordes of rabbits threatening to overtake him that he didn't answer, instead shaking his hand constantly so he would always be loaded. "I'm getting a wee bit concerned here, Rodney. Your heart rate is very high and your blood pressure is rising as well."

Rodney continued to ignore Carson, every ounce of concentration focused on the screen.

"I need to take over, Rodney," John said, but Rodney, intent on survival, didn't answer. John stepped up behind him and slid his arm in the device behind Rodney's. The closeness of their contact almost felt like an embrace, until Rodney suddenly pulled out like he'd been burned and John was crouched over the machine. He barely noticed as Rodney slid out of the chair and let him take his place. More importantly, Rodney put the controller in his hand.

The machine recognized him with a delighted hum. The rabbits paused in their onslaught, noses and whiskers quivering slightly as they assessed their new opponent.

Wait for it. Wait for it.

John waited patiently for a rabbit to enter his sights and then, instead of blindly laying waste to the surrounding area with his plungers, he went for a kill shot.

The rabbit fell. As did others. John efficiently selected his targets and fired. "See," he said as he cleared the scene of rabbits. "I'm not wasting ammo so I'm not getting wiped out as fast."

"I was getting the job done," Rodney said, sounding far too weary for John's liking.

"At too great a cost to yourself," John frowned. He came upon an inexplicable scene. A series of rabbits stomped up and down madly in front of a cartoon image of a dark haired woman dressed in red, clutching the bars of a small wooden cage. He realized in a flash that it was Elizabeth. After he dispatched the rabbits guarding her, the cage fell apart, breaking open and releasing her. She beamed at him and gave him a thumbs up. The screen went dark. The words CYCLE COMPLETE appeared on the screen in neon green letters before fading out again.

Startled, John looked up. Elizabeth was smiling at him. She looked tired but there was a suggestion of color to her cheeks.

"No offense," John drawled to the room at large, "but should a medical procedure be this much fun?"

"Speak for yourself, rabbit-killer," Rodney said, but without his usual bite. He looked exhausted.

Carson looked up from his datapad with a faint smile. "Fun or no, the early results here look promising…" He trailed off in thought as he returned his focus to the pad.

John detached himself from the machine and started to stand, only to feel a moment's dizziness and a need to sit back down.

"Where d'ye think you're going, laddie?" Carson said sternly as he gripped John's arm and guided him back to the chair.

"I think I'll just sit here a sec," John said meekly. He watched as Carson busied himself checking on Rodney and Elizabeth, he and his staff correlating data as well as seeing to their patients. John was developing a whole new respect for the man; he'd been on the go at least as long as John had today, and had performed a major surgery, as well as integrated the alien technology into his systems.

John glanced over at Rodney, who was sitting in a chair, resting his elbows on his knees, his head hung almost to the level of his hands. His right hand was twitching involuntarily. John took a good look at it, the bent and twisted fingers, the discolored and uneven skin. He was about to look away when Rodney raised his head and those oddly intense blue eyes zeroed in on John's face.

"You okay?" John asked.

"Oh sure, fine, fine," Rodney said with a little rotational flip of his right hand. "Never better. Although I wouldn't object to a bit of a nap right now. And maybe some of that meatloaf surprise when I wake up. With mashed tormack."

"I'll make a note of that," John said dryly.

Rodney grinned at him and this time John had to look away. He could feel Atlantis murmuring in the background, like a lover stroking his hair, and it was making him edgy and restless. He had to get out of here. He stood up abruptly and watched as Carson was speaking quietly with Elizabeth, a hand on her shoulder, smiling at her with the first real smile John had seen on his face in a long time. He knew without being told that this was going to work, that Elizabeth was going to be okay.

It was almost more than he could bear.

Carson had surfaced from his data long enough to confirm his earlier report of the device's performance so far. Rodney had continued to look wiped; Carson had insisted that he stay for additional testing, but Carson felt reasonably sure that by using some of John's tactical suggestions and Rodney's coaching of how the game was played, he'd be able to safely monitor the other ATA volunteers who would rotate in the treatment schedule. He was quick to point out though, that they could not expect the device to exactly follow the game rules as the program was based both on Elizabeth's memory of how the game was played as well as the variances in her own physical condition. Elizabeth had jokingly complained that it didn't seem right to place her treatment under the direction of an Ancient Nintendo—Rodney had quickly corrected her by informing her it was an Ancient Wii instead.

This had lead to a brief discussion of how the device worked; Rodney expounding on the various strange treatment protocols he'd seen initiated and how in one universe they almost lost Sheppard because he'd envisioned his condition (he'd been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation on the Genii home world) as a WWII Spitfire and everyone who tried to help him ended up in a dogfight. "And just stating for the record here, Carson," Rodney had said seriously, "I've seen you die at least three times using this device. Your empathy for the patient overrides your common sense. You are not allowed to touch it, understand? It may seem like some wacky game at the moment, but it's not. It's a powerful piece of Ancient equipment. Remember that, Carson. Ancient."

Rodney had glared at Carson briefly and John had felt a flicker of amusement at the idea that all across the multiverse, there were Carsons that were afraid of their own ATA gene.

Carson had opened and closed his mouth like a guppy several times before nodding in acceptance. John had squashed a little spurt of relief at the sight.

Radek had suggested that they could possibly install a pause feature or a code that would allow someone to take over mid-sequence the way John had done, in order to minimize the risk to personnel.

Rodney had muttered darkly about the program getting worse before it got better and that they'd better all watch out for the killer Zombie rabbits in the graveyard sequence—the ones with the green eyes were hard to kill. But he'd brightened when he remembered that there was a flying sequence in the program and that they should be sure to let the Colonel pull that duty—it was right up his alley. Everyone was tired but so pleased with themselves and hope was palpably present in the room.

John had made his escape then.

He should feel good about the day's work, he knew that. It had been a successful mission, they'd rescued a good potential ally in Ronon, they were on their way to curing Elizabeth and they'd blown up a Wraith outpost as well as made a new contact in the people of planet Tormack. It was stupid to feel like he did, like there was a simmering anger just under the surface, boiling its way up to the top like an infection that needed to force its way out.

His collarbone ached as though he'd been lifting weights and he recognized the tension coiled in his shoulders, resulting in a dull ache there as well. A low throbbing was starting up in his eye, the hallmark of one of his really bad headaches. What he needed was to be left alone, to take a long, blistering shower and to think of nothing for a while.

Panels lit up as he passed them in the corridor on his way back to his quarters. Doors opened in anticipation of his approach. He stalked his way into his quarters, conscious of his uneven footfalls with every step he took. He halted abruptly when he entered his rooms and heard the sound of running water in his shower. He cautiously leaned around the corner of his bathroom door to see who might be in there, but found nothing but a pleasant rising head of steam. The shower doors slid back as he reached in and placed his fingers in the spray. Exactly the near-scalding temperatures that he wanted.

He jerked his hand back. "Cut it out," he snarled at the shower, the room, the city. He felt a little shudder, almost subliminally, and the curling insistence of the city that he couldn't possibly mean it.

John promptly retreated behind the mental walls he'd put in place a long time ago and he felt disappointment and the pain of loss and he couldn't tell where the source was coming from—himself or the city. He'd never told anyone what his connection to the city had felt like. He didn't think the city was sentient, and yet he couldn't help but anthropomorphize his sensations when interacting with the Ancient tech—he simply had no other frame of reference.

If he had to put it into words, it had always felt like coming home. A home he never knew he had. There was a sense of connection and recognition that felt so right and yet he knew that it was just a quirk of his genetic makeup, like having hazel eyes or cowlicks that made his hair stick up.

It wasn't something you depended on.

He could feel now the pleading tug not to be shut out but he was firm in his resolve. He would not be sucked into the seduction of feeling like he belonged here. He was the alien in this galaxy. He had to keep reminding himself of that.

The water in the shower abruptly cut off.

With a sigh, he took off the eye patch, massaging the left cheekbone and temple, pulling at the skin around the socket, hoping for some relief. He dug around in a drawer, pulled out some ibuprofen, discovered some muscle relaxers left over from one of his previous surgeries and after a moment's hesitation, decided to take them as well. He washed the pills down with a bottle of water and began to strip.

Holster and gun on the table, safety on. Watch, wristband and radio on the table as well. Boots toed off and under the chair. Sturdy gray BDU pants folded over the chair—he noted the bloodstains and realized everything would have to go in the wash when he was hoping to get another day's wear out of them. Oh well. Boxers and t-shirt landed with socks on the floor.

He pulled his right arm across his chest by the elbow in order to stretch his shoulder, giving a little groan at the pain in his collarbone when he did so. He entered the bathroom and reached into the shower to turn on the water.

Nothing happened.

He flipped the controls on and off rapidly several times and with increasing anger.

Goddamn it, turn the water on.

He got the distinct impression the city was giving him the raspberry. 'I'm not speaking to you'. Which was patently ridiculous.

He stormed out of the bathroom and picked through his gear until he found the radio.

Radek answered his page.

"I've got no goddamned water in my quarters, Radek. And I want water now." He needed it in a way he could not explain to Radek. The relief might be temporary, but it was relief. He'd take it any way he could get it.

Radek muttered in Czech and pondered the problem aloud as he checked for the cause. "I do not understand, Major. No one else is experiencing this problem. I can send someone…"

"Never mind," John growled, pissed beyond all belief. "I'll go somewhere else."

He tossed the radio down on the table again, grabbing a pair of sweats out of the drawer and sliding them on, searching for his gym bag and additional clothing. He'd go for a swim. No one was likely to be there at this time of day. One of the drawers he opened contained the bottle of vodka. He stared at it a moment as though he'd uncovered a rattlesnake. With a flare of anger, he pulled out the bottle, uncapping it and taking a big swallow before thumping it and the cap back down on the tabletop. He felt with a smoldering satisfaction the slow burn of the liquid down his throat.

He had a shirt in one hand and the bag in the other when the door chimed and before he could call out 'give me a sec', the door had opened and Rodney came shuffling in.

"Hey," he said with a tired smile. His eyes widened suddenly as he looked at John and John realized that he hadn't replaced his eye patch yet.

Feeling like he could barely contain his anger, John let bag and shirt drop, moving stiffly over to the table to find the patch. "What do you want?" he asked ungraciously.

"Carson cut me loose with orders to rest and eat, but I really wanted to tell you something first. Something really important."

It was impossible to stay angry with Rodney when he stood there so expectantly, beaming at John even as he was swaying with exhaustion at the same time. Something in Rodney's expression eased some of the tension out of John's spine, though he couldn't say why.

"You should go lie down," John said gruffly, sliding the patch in place. The breeze from the balcony was cool against his bare skin and triggered a series of goose bumps on his flesh.

"Yeah, yeah, in a minute. This is important. I talked to Ronon before I left the infirmary."

"Yeah?" John raised an eyebrow.

Rodney's smile lit up his face and the room. "Yeah. And I had to let you know. Ronon says the Wraith are wakening prematurely again."

"What?" John felt his stomach drop several floors, as though he were in a free-falling elevator. He started to brush past Rodney for the door, but Rodney caught him by the upper arms.

"Hold on. Yes, bad for us, I know. But nothing you can do about it right away. We can hold a briefing, once we've had a chance to talk to Ronon in more detail. He was still a bit groggy tonight. But that's not why I'm here." Rodney gave his arms a little squeeze. "John, in every universe where the SGC has sent an expedition to Pegasus, the Wraith have awakened early from their hibernation cycle—as soon as they heard the rumors that there was someone new in Atlantis—someone with access to unlimited feeding grounds. Don't you see? It's not you."

"Huh?" John said, confused. He was held in place by Rodney's expression, one of concern and caring and happiness. It made no sense in light of what he was saying about the Wraith.

Rodney shook his head. "I just wish there was some way to tell all the other Sheppards."

John stiffened at Rodney's words, but he seemed not to notice, giving John's arms a little shake as he continued speaking. "You don't know how hard it's been watching you blame yourself for waking the Wraith in every universe we've been to. Either because you killed Sumner or because you killed the Keeper or because you led an assault to try to save Ford or because of some other scenario in which you acted with the best of intentions but the Wraith woke prematurely instead. Don't you see? It was going to happen anyway. By virtue of our coming to Pegasus in the first place."

Rodney beamed at him in a loopy way a second longer and then swept John into a crushing hug, tucking his nose into John's collarbone and bringing his hands up John's back to place them on his shoulders. John went rigid with the contact, uncertain how to respond. Part of him wanted to violently push Rodney away, but another part, a hungry part, wanted to sink into the embrace and hold him as well.

In the end, he relaxed infinitesimally and brought a hand up to brush Rodney's shoulder. He felt a chuckle against his skin. Rodney let him go as abruptly as he'd hugged John in the first place. "About time," he grinned as he stepped away. "I was beginning to think I was hugging Spock." He moved away to sit down on the edge of John's bed. "Hey," he said with goofy, tired smile. "Speaking of Star Trek, did you know no one here has even heard of the Reboot? Just think, if you hadn't left my laptop behind, we'd be millionaires right now."

"What are you talking about, McKay?" John moved casually over to the dropped items on the floor. He scooped up the shirt and glanced over at Rodney, who was leaning back against his pillow, hands clasped behind his head, eyes closed, still smiling.

"The Reboot, the Reboot," he repeated with a shade of irritation to his voice, a small frown appearing between his closed eyes. "You know, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto…brilliant use of an alternate timeline to give new life to the whole franchise." Rodney opened one eye and narrowed it at him. "And don't pretend you're not that much of a sci-fi fan. No one believes you, especially when you quote lines from Galaxy Quest."

"Never give up, never surrender," John murmured with a chuckle as he pulled the t-shirt over his head. He used one hand to ruffle his hair back into place. "So, you wanna go grab some…"

He broke off as a small snore reached his ears. Rodney lay half on, half off his bed, sound asleep.

In the end, it had proved easier to settle Rodney into the bed than to try to shift him out of it. John had pulled off Rodney's boots and levered his legs all the way onto the bed; Rodney had curled into John's pillow with a snuffling sound and rolled over on his side away from John. With a resigned shrug, John had gone off on his swim and then stopped by the mess for a late dinner. He'd spoken with Radek and Stackhouse about the possibility that the Wraith were waking early, trying not to alarm anyone but starting the wheels in motion to confirm Ronon's information. He'd gone to the infirmary in the hopes of talking to Ronon himself, but Dr. Biro had kicked him out. He'd had a faint hope that Rodney would be gone when he returned to his quarters, but apparently McKay was down for the count. After staring at his prone body for several long moments, John had finally pulled off his damp t-shirt, shoved Rodney over and crawled into the narrow bed beside him.

It was either that or break into Rodney's quarters and given the way Atlantis was being pissy with him, he thought it was unlikely he'd be granted access. And he really didn't want to have to go back to the infirmary in search of a bed for the night and explain, among other things, that the city had her knickers in a twist.

Rodney's body was warm and clammy lying next to him in the heat of the summer evening, and John had begun to wish that he'd just dragged a blanket out to the balcony (even though he knew it was impossible for him to sleep on the hard decking) when suddenly Rodney got up and crawled over him to get out of bed. With a sigh of relief, John sprawled out to reclaim his territory. He was just drifting back to sleep when he heard the sounds of a flushing toilet and then opened his eye to see Rodney stripping clumsily out of his clothing like a drunk sailor before he staggered back to the bed wearing just boxers. He pushed his way under the sheet to lie next to John again. An arm, heavy and warm, landed across his body, fingers sleepily curling into his chest hair before they stilled again. It didn't seem worth the effort to shove him off.

When he awoke again, the moon was high and shining full and bright into the room, bathing everything in a silver light strong enough to read by and deepening the shadows into a sharp-edged relief. Lantea's moon had always fascinated him; enormous and yellow when it rose, casting an image into the water like a river of golden milk. By midnight it was a silver disk high in the sky, though still larger than the moon back on Earth. In the early dawn light it was a giant blue ghost that gave him a little shiver every time he saw it. Something inside acknowledged both the alien-ness and the rightness of it every time he glanced up into the night sky.

He shifted slightly, with the intent of rolling out from under Rodney's arm and turning on his side when he became aware that Rodney's hand was moving on his skin again. Barely more than a tightening and relaxation of fingers at first, Rodney's hand then began to move in small little circles, smoothing down the hair it encountered, tracing the edge of one nipple.

It shouldn't have felt so good. He shouldn't have let it continue. Rodney was obviously asleep—had he been awake, he'd hardly be fondling John. Or would he? John's memory leapt back to the other day in Elizabeth's office, with his cock tucked in tight up against Rodney's ass and remembered the way that felt and the way Rodney had leaned back into him.

John's abdomen clenched involuntarily at the thought and his hips shifted slightly. He felt his cock start to stir and lift and he mentally cursed himself. Even if (and that was a big if, he told himself) even if Rodney felt something for him, it wasn't really him. It was for the Colonel, the man whose death no one had even acknowledged. John knew that could have been his fate back on MC2-1793. Could still be his fate yet here in Pegasus. He tried to imagine what the Colonel's reaction would be towards this current situation.

Don't be an ass. Take what you can get and be happy for it. The thought came as clearly to him as though he'd heard it spoken aloud. Rodney knows what he's doing.

No, he countered, he doesn't. And it wasn't right; he had to stop it.

He placed a hand over Rodney's exploring fingers to still their movement, but somehow their fingers entwined instead. John felt the rough, twisted skin of Rodney's hand, even has he marveled at the surety of Rodney's touch. What had his hands been like before? They must have been magical to watch.

As though Rodney could hear his thoughts, his eyes opened. The light in the room slanted sideways through their depths, reflecting a clarity that made John feel that Rodney was really seeing him, really knew who he was. Rodney stared back at him in silence, shifting their joined hands against John's skin, dragging them down his chest and across his abdomen, soothing and rubbing and pushing against him with increasing insistence.

John shuddered as he felt his cock jump up, straining against his sweat pants. Their hands bumped the tip of John's cock in a slow pass along his waistband: John could feel the wetness seeping through the material there.

He had to stop this. He didn't want to, he couldn't think of anything he wanted more than he'd wanted this right now, Rodney's continued touching of him. But it was wrong and he couldn't let Rodney go on.

Rodney brought their hands down together to cup John's cock, and though he didn't make a sound, his pelvis tipped upward, seeking more contact.

Rodney pulled his hand out of John's grasp and slid it underneath the waistband of the sweats, closing his grip around John's shaft and smoothing a thumb over the head, slicking it in the moisture collecting there. John wanted to dig his heels in and push up into Rodney's touch but he forced himself to lie still instead.

"John," Rodney's voice was close to his ear and John hadn't even realized he'd closed his eye until then. He opened it to see Rodney staring down at him, propped on one elbow so that he could have better access to John's body. "Tell me to stop and I will. Tell me you don't want this as much as I do and I'll stop. Tell me you've always wanted this." He continued to work his hand around John's cock, his face solemn and yet pleading, his eyes shining in the moonlight.

John put slid his hand down into his sweats to cover Rodney's, with every intention of pulling Rodney out but instead he began to palm his cock right along with Rodney.

"I can't always be the strong one," he said hoarsely, scarcely recognizing his own voice.

"I know, I know," Rodney dipped his head and his words brushed against John's skin and then he was seeking John's lips with his mouth. John had almost forgotten what kissing felt like—the warm, wet envelopment of one's mouth with another, the slide of tongues against each another, the gentle catch of lips between teeth, the reach for more when the kiss was over.

John's hand was in Rodney's hair; he felt the rough and uneven skin where the burns began and marveled at the softness of Rodney's skin where it was still whole and healthy. He wondered what Rodney felt when he touched John and suddenly he didn't care. He wanted this, he wanted all of this and it didn't matter to him if Rodney wanted him or the Colonel or a thousand other Sheppards because Rodney was here with him now and that was all anyone could really hope for in the end.

"Please," Rodney pulled back enough to look down in John's face, his voice husky as he expressed his desire. "I need to see you. Please." His hands were tugging at John's waistband; John levered himself up on his elbows and lifted his hips, Rodney carefully pulled the sweats down over his cock and then sat up to jerk the sweats down off his legs and toss them aside.

John's cock bounced with the movement, fully aroused and pointing up towards his abdomen. "Yes," Rodney said with satisfaction and admiration. He grasped John's cock again and flashed a grin at him before bending over to take John into his mouth.

John arched the small of his back slightly and felt his hand curl into the bed sheets along his side. Oh god, this was so good. It had been so long since he'd been touched this way and his body felt like he'd been begging for it for months and he'd been too blind to notice. Like the city, he'd shut off that voice and now it came roaring back with a vengeance. Touch me. Touch me like that. Again. Don't stop. Never stop.

He began to pant in small gasps, his thighs tightening as the tension ratcheted up in his body, his glutes clenching as his hips wanted to pump up into Rodney's hot, willing mouth. A small moan escaped him, even as he wondered who the hell was making that noise because that was not like him.

Rodney was moving up and down over John's cock now, mouth widening to take in as much of John as he could, one hand holding John's shaft steady while the other caressed his balls. He bobbed and sucked until John thought he could take no more, that he was going to explode any second and then suddenly Rodney slid off John's cock with a small, wet sound and then he buried his nose into John's crotch, inhaling deeply before gently sucking one of John's balls into his mouth. He mouthed John carefully, humming with genuine pleasure as he did so, taking his time before spreading his joy to the other side.

When he finally came back to John's cock, John was so primed for the sensation that he trembled and pulsed at Rodney's touch. Rodney took that as the signal to bob up and down rapidly, finishing with a long, sucking drag and some serious tongue action that made John gasp as the orgasm came crashing down over him. He jerked violently, but Rodney held on, closing his mouth again over the end of John's cock and gentling his touch, sliding his tongue up and down the tip as John emptied himself into Rodney's mouth.

It seemed to go on forever. John's cock pulsed long after he'd finished coming; he looked up at last to see Rodney with his impish grin, licking his lips and looking pleased with himself. John began to laugh—he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this good.

"You're giving me a little performance anxiety here," Rodney poked at his shoulder. "You're not supposed to laugh."

John tried to catch his breath, still struggling with the laughter that wanted to bubble up out of him. "It's not…I can't…trust me, this is a good thing."

Rodney just grinned at him, with a gleam in his eyes that said, "well, of course it is".

"Fuck me," John said, startling himself with his words.

Rodney seemed startled as well. "You're not serious. Is that an ejaculation, pun completely intended, or a request? Because…are you serious?"

"Yeah." He held his breath as he waited for Rodney's reaction.

He didn't have to wait long. A beatific smile bloomed on Rodney's face. "Really? Somehow I never pictured…I mean I always thought…I mean, when I thought of the two of us together, I kinda assumed…"

"Do you want to do this or not?" John was ready to forget the whole thing. Tension suddenly seized control of his body where he'd been relaxed a moment before. He felt like he was set to a hair-trigger timer and it would only take a breath to detonate him.

"I'm just pointing out," Rodney said with that odd combination of irritation and smugness, "even with Ronon and Teyla around, everyone knows I have the best ass in Atlantis."

"Changing my mind here," John growled, shifting restlessly in the bed. The reference to Ronon and the mythical Teyla was disturbing, a reminder that he shouldn't be doing this. It was Rodney's expression that kept him from springing up out of bed.

"No, wait, hang on. Lube?" he looked hopefully at John, who was forced to shake his head. "Condoms?"

John made a face and shook his head again. No sense in hording items in short supply that he wasn't using—he'd traded them away a long time ago.

"Well for chrissakes, what have you been doing for…oh." Rodney gaped at him a second as comprehension set in. "You haven't been…I mean, you weren't…you know?" Rodney's hand made a vague 'getting some' gesture. He waited a beat as he watched John's face and then his smile made an appearance again. "Idiot," he said with affection, rolling across John to pad into the bathroom.

John stared at the ceiling. It wasn't too late. He could leave now and…

Rodney came back with a bottle of lotion in his hands, kicking out of his boxers and coming to kneel matter-of-factly on the bed beside John. He began to pour lotion into his hands, lubing up his stiff cock with a blissful smile, eyes half closed. He was starting to get into it a bit before he opened his eyes and said, "C'mon, roll over. It'll be easier on both of us that way and it's been a long day already."

John lay where he was without moving. Rodney placed a warm and slick hand on his hip and tried to roll him over. "John?" he questioned with a hint of sudden insecurity in his voice.

Reluctantly, John rolled over. He slowly got to his hands and knees, letting his head drop between his shoulders. He had to fight the urge to shudder; he felt raw and exposed in the stark, moonlit room. An image of himself in a cold, dank cell suddenly superimposed itself on his memory and he had to sternly block it out.

"John," Rodney repeated, and this time he sounded wounded, his voice barely a sigh.

"Just do it, okay?" John ground out. He stared down at the sheets below him.

When the touch came, it was where he least expected it. Rodney's hands, soft with lotion, smoothed over the broken history on his back, following the planes of muscle out to his shoulders, down his sides and over his ass. They stroked down his body in long sweeping touches, nothing like Miko's massage or Carson's examinations but a gentle, almost loving exploration of his skin that brought the sting of tears to his eye.

"Rodney," he said, not knowing what he meant or where he was going with that, but Rodney seemed to know. One hand continued to stroke John's back while the other rimmed his hole, working the cool lotion up inside, touching him where he needed to be touched, causing him to rest his head on his forearms and push back into Rodney's hand, his body desperately craving more. It was too much and not enough and he almost sobbed with relief when Rodney finally, finally snubbed his cock up to John's hole and pushed his way slowly in.

Rodney was on his knees behind John, his hands holding John's hips steady as he began to thrust, rhythm slowly building until John pounded the mattress and demanded more. Rodney's fingers dug into John's hips as he began to snap his pelvis forward, hard. John couldn't begin to explain why this was good; why this was in some ways better than the blowjob he'd just received. Rodney was nowhere near his prostate and the steady slam of Rodney's pelvis up against his ass was almost jarring, but this was exactly what he needed and what he'd so rarely received. And then Rodney shifted just a little, leaning forward to take hold of John's neck where it joined at the shoulder. John arched his back slightly and felt a spark of sensation in his prostate as Rodney emitted a low, barely audible groan and shuddered into him.

Rodney collapsed over his back, his weight causing John to lower both of them to the bed as Rodney's cock continued to pulse inside of him. He could feel Rodney's warm and sweaty skin against his spine and he knew he was going to pay later for feeling so good right now. He felt both loss and relief when Rodney shifted his weight and pulled out of him to roll up against his side, a trickle of wetness sliding down the inside of his thigh.

"God, you're so hot." Rodney trailed his hand along John's shoulder, tracing freeform designs on his skin.

"No, I'm not," John said, but he didn't pull away. The urge to pretend to misunderstand the compliment flickered briefly and then died without issue.

"Of course you are. You always are, no matter what universe we're in, because you're John. Whose opinion matters here anyway?" Rodney said tartly, even as his touch remained soft. "Next you'll be telling me that I'm not astonishingly attractive to you as well."

"I wouldn't say that. I'd never say that." It wouldn't be true anyway. Rodney had made him break all his own rules.

"And why not?" Rodney was resting his head on his hand again, propped up on one elbow, his expression both teasing and a little insecure and that was just all wrong. John couldn't leave him hanging like that.

"Because you're Rodney," he said simply.

"See, you do have brains under that hair of yours." Rodney rolled off his hand with a sigh, digging his shoulders into the mattress until he was comfortable. He casually stretched a hand out until it had brushed up against John. He was asleep in minutes.

John turned carefully over onto his back and lay still; listening to the sound of the ocean and the hum of the city and the sound of Rodney's breathing until he fell asleep as well.

"So, do you screw around with all the Sheppards, or just the special ones?" John heard the bitterness leach out of his voice like an acid, burning away everything in its path. He simply could not stop himself.

He'd woken that morning and it had been the first thing on his mind, the sudden slap-in-the-face knowledge that he'd taken advantage of Rodney's feelings for the Colonel and that somehow, this all had to be Rodney's fault. The toxic flow of words poured out of his mouth before he even thought about them, about what they might do to Rodney.

"Oh. My. God." Rodney snapped out each word in great deliberation as he threw back the covers and heaved himself out of bed. He turned to face John, naked and blazingly indignant and John was momentarily distracted by the dichotomy of where his damaged skin met healthy borders. He realized with a sudden jolt that even he, knowing how it felt to be on the receiving end, could not help staring. Rodney continued on, oblivious to John's sudden, pained embarrassment. "You are such a prick, Sheppard."

That took him aback; he felt his eye narrow. "Oh really," he drawled.

"Yes, really," Rodney shot back. "My god, you have this little act perfected, don't you? No wonder Nancy left you."

The non sequitur of Rodney's statement blindsided John for a moment. Who the hell was Nancy?

Rodney, however, wasn't done. Not by a long shot. "Does that satisfy some strange little perversion on your part? That when anyone tries to get close to you, you drive them away? Because that way, you always get to be the abandoned one. Oh no, Sheppard never dumps anyone, because he's too nice a guy for that. But yeah, go figure. Sooner or later, everyone always leaves."

"Fuck you, McKay," John ground out, voice as hard and cold as he could make it.

"Well for your information, you're right." Rodney was picking up his clothes off the floor and pulling them on roughly without glancing in John's direction. "Yes, yes, I only screw around with the special Sheppards. That would be the emotionally crippled ones. Oh wait. That's all of them." He shot the last sentence in John's direction with a sneer before pulling his shirt over his head and rolling the long sleeves out over his scarred arms. He hauled his pants roughly up over his hips, shoving his feet into his boots and storming out of the room without another word, without another glance.

John meant to stop him but no sound came out of his mouth.

Well, fuck. That went well. It struck John that his little internal voice was extraordinarily sarcastic this morning.

When he came out from the shower, still toweling his hair, he noted the open vodka bottle sitting on the table. He snatched it up. With three halting, half running steps onto the balcony; he hurled it with all his might into the sea.

Considering that the two primary people involved had not discussed it with anyone else, it was nothing short of astonishing how quickly the news went round the city that Rodney and John had some sort of falling out.

For John, it was business as usual. He busied himself with reports from the off-world missions, processing the intel gathered on the movements of the Wraith and confirming Ronon's assessment that they were indeed, on the move in greater numbers. He spoke with Ronon as he lay recovering in the infirmary, looking like a bored, caged lion. John wondered how long it would be before Ronon pushed off to another planet again and found himself hoping they could persuade him to stay. He ignored the little voice in his head that suggested if he put together the team he wanted, Ronon would be a part of that.

John had gathered from the strained expressions of the various scientists that Rodney was being unpleasant to deal with. Miko had even cancelled on him for one of their usual sessions, which had made him uneasy and he tried to dismiss it as probably a one-time thing. Though he had the feeling that if Miko were forced to choose sides, she'd pick Rodney every time.

Carson had commented obliquely on the situation by stating that Rodney was overseeing the coaching of the ATA volunteers during Elizabeth's on-going therapy and then mentioning that Rodney had been very irritable lately and shown some increased confusion as to which universe he was in, something he hadn't done for quite a while.

"Frankly," Carson had continued, even when John had done everything short of openly discouraging him, "I had assumed that his inability to keep straight what universe he was in was a factor of having traveled so many in so short a time, as well as the direct effects of the AR drive and the trauma of having lost everyone in his own universe. I thought all of that would dissipate with time. But now I'm not so sure."

Carson had hesitated and then asked, "Is everything alright between you two, John?"

"We've just had a little disagreement, that's all. He'll get over it." John had resisted the temptation to add that it was none of Carson's business.

Carson had sighed sadly. "I just hate it when my friends don't get along." He'd given John a brief smile and wandered back to his duties, leaving John to wonder when Carson had started considering him as a friend.

Rodney, of course, had not shown up for the morning runs. Which was hardly unexpected. John had forced himself to run anyway, opting to head for the pool afterwards on the days that he had time. Which was quite often. It wasn't like he was sleeping that much these days. The first time Ronon had appeared during his warm-up, John had been startled and hadn't known what to say to him.

Ronon was looking better, John had thought. A little food and a reasonably safe place to sleep can do a lot for a guy. It was odd to think they offered something here in Atlantis that was better than what he'd had before. The bald look was going to take some getting used to, but Carson had been reassuring that it was the most expedient way of dealing with the 'wee pesky creatures' that Ronon had been sporting in his dreads, and that his hair would grow back with time. In the meantime, the smooth skull and the neatly trimmed beard gave Ronon a whole Sisko thing. John had wondered if anyone on the expedition had brought any DS-9 with them and immediately realized with all the geeks they had with them that was a stupid question.

Having Ronon around had helped put things in perspective a bit for John. Hell, he'd only suffered a matter of weeks at Kolya's hands. Ronon had been hunted by the Wraith for years and had lost his home world and everything he loved to boot. Not that he'd ever said a word to that effect. John had gotten that much from Carson who'd apparently gotten it from Rodney. When asked about it directly, Ronon had merely stared at John with those green-gold eyes and said, "Sateda's gone."

"You don't want to run with me, Ronon," John had frowned as Ronon waited patiently through his warm-up routine. "I can't run for shit. I'll just slow you down."

"I can't run for shit either," Ronon had briefly touched his side as he spoke. He flashed a 'not letting you get away with that' smile at John. "We'll just have to get faster together."

Things settled down. The freshness of Rodney's hostility towards him turned into mere mutual avoidance and when he thought about it at all, John thought it was for the best. For a whole host of reasons. That he didn't think about.

The days passed. Stackhouse and Markham were in his office, giving him a shorthand version of their latest mission report when Stackhouse said diffidently, "If that's all, sir, some of the men are having a poker game tonight. About 2100 in the common area. If you'd care to join us."

John felt his eyebrow rise. He couldn't remember being invited to a poker game since he'd been forced to take command. "You want me to sit in on your game?"

"We thought you might have a little time on your hands, sir," Markham said brightly. "You know, since you and Dr. McKay aren't…"

He broke off as Stackhouse shot him a look that would blister paint from a ship's hull. Markham had the pale complexion that let his sudden embarrassment radiate painfully over his features. He was overdue for a haircut as well—not that John was a stickler for that sort of thing—but the dark hair beginning to curl at his collar just emphasized how young he really was.

John thought about snapping out, 'Now that McKay and I aren't what?' but he decided to take the high road instead. He was a very good poker player. "What are the stakes?" he asked with deceptive smoothness.

"Ah, we usually start out playing with toothpicks, sir," Stackhouse said, still shooting a dark look at Markham. "And invariably, we end up raising the stakes. You know, the usual; candy, soda …we start trading for duty, beer and condoms when the stakes get high."

"See you then," John smiled and his soldiers winced for some odd reason.

He saw Stackhouse lightly cuff Markham on the back the head as they walked away down the corridor.

He was still contemplating the unholy advantage he'd have in the game that night, given his ability to count cards as well as offer duty assignments, when Radek's voice piped in his ear.

"Major. We have found something interesting in one of the labs. You will please come and see?"

John gave a little internal sigh. There was a good chance he wouldn't be able to avoid Rodney on this one. "On my way," he said.

He found Radek, Simpkins and Griffin in one of the smaller 'labs' down in the lower section of the city. At least, he presumed it was a lab; half the rooms down here had no formal designation. They'd learned the hard way that many of the rooms contained unintentional booby-traps for the non-ATA carrier and policy had been to have a person with the ATA gene present when a new piece of equipment had been identified.

He'd given a nod to Griffin, the older soldier acknowledging the nod and stepping back to take a neutral position near the door, still on alert in advent of an emergency. Radek was standing a console in the room, looking very excited as he rattled off energy readings to Simpkins. She merely looked her usual, perpetually worried self, but she was rapidly entering notations into a datapad as Radek was speaking. John was wondering why he was here, between Griffin and Rodney's anticipated appearance, there was no need for his gene, it would seem.

"Ah, Major," Radek practically quivered with enthusiasm, almost dragging a smile out of John. "We have discovered a device here; our scans indicate it is capable of extraordinary power…"

"Oh really?" John drawled, stepping in closer to take a better look. "So what's it do?"

"Rodney is on his way. He has left us strict instructions not to touch anything until he arrives," Radek made a face, but his expression was tolerant and even twinkling.

Which just annoyed the heck out of John. "Rodney doesn't have the final word on everything around here, Radek. We got along just fine without him before, you know."

Radek shot him a look of such pitying disbelief that it almost felt like a slap in the face. He muttered something no doubt in Czech under his breath and then said, "Rodney is a valuable part of this expedition and you know it, Major. Just this morning, the marine sciences department confirmed that planetwide conditions are right this year for the kind of 'storm of the century' that Rodney has described happening in other universes. And now, with this information, that is another crisis we can prepare for and weather safely. Now that we have the use of both ZPMs, we have the combined power of nearly one fully charged unit. That means for at least brief periods of time, we can shield or cloak the city, even move it if need be, even if gating to Earth is still beyond our capacity."

John resisted the childish impulse to say that it was his idea to bring Rodney and the ZPM through the rift in the first place. Something of his stony silence must have gotten through to Radek because he added, "On behalf of the science teams, we beseech you, whatever it is between you and McKay, would you please apologize and be friends again?"

This made John snort a little. "What makes you think it's my fault?" Not that it wasn't, but still.

Radek raised an eyebrow and looked askance at him. "Please, Major, whatever it is, it must be your fault, no?" He flashed a little conspiratorial grin at John.

Somehow the exchange soothed some of the tension out of John. No one knew the truth about him and Rodney; they were just assuming that it was a problem between best buds. Which was embarrassing, but he could deal with that.

"Oh, c'mon, Radek," he wheedled, tapping the console. "You must have some idea what this thing does. Sensors? Weapons? A coffeemaker?"

Radek laughed and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I would be a very rich man were it a coffeemaker, I think. But perhaps we should wait for Rodney."

"Well where exactly is it?" John persisted, resting his forearms on the front of the console so that he could get a better look. "Is it part of this console or what?"

Radek began to explain the components of the device around them, the console, the connection to the entire database through a series of supercomputers behind them, right down to the overhead portal designed at aiming some sort of beam. "Most likely another projected holographic image, to give us information on how the device is to be used. Ah, there you are, Rodney, I was just explaining to the Major…"

John glanced back to see Rodney standing in the doorway with a horrified look on his face, just as the console began to hum. John had a brief second to feel the build up of energy in the room before Rodney shouted, "No!" and hurled himself at John.

They went crashing to the floor as a golden curl of energy spiraled down from the ceiling and then leapt for the spot where John had been standing before. It hit the floor with a crack of electrical discharge, taking a chip out of the hard floor and leaving a scorch mark. Simpkins squealed and ducked behind the console.

"Cut power!" Rodney lifted his head from the back of John's shoulder to yell at Radek, who was cursing mightily in Czech as he slapped at the sparking controls. Simpkins rushed to join him; together they managed to shut off power to the systems. John felt a strong grip on his arms and then he and Rodney were both being hauled to their feet and physically dragged out of the room by Griffin.

"What the fuck was that?" John asked, as Simpkins and Radek came hastily out of the room behind them.

Rodney was livid. He shook off Griffin and then pushed John hard, hard enough to make him stagger back a few steps.

Griffin started to intervene, but John waved him off.

"What was that? What was that?" Rodney shouted. "I'll tell you what that was. That was the Ascension machine. What about 'Ascension or death' don't you understand? How many times do I have to tell you, you can't beat it? That all the special powers in the world aren't worth it. It will either force you to Ascend or you will fucking die." Rodney got up in his face as he spat out the final words.

"I didn't know about the machine because I'm not the person you think I am," John ground out forcibly. "I'm not the Colonel."

There was a sudden intake of air; John thought it might have been from Simpkins.

He wished he could take the words back when he saw all the color leave Rodney's face. For a terrible moment, he looked defeated and old and then his face suddenly contorted into a snarl and he ploughed into John with a mean right hook. It came up on his blind side; he saw it coming a fraction too late and Rodney's fist connected with his left eye socket just as Radek shouted, "Rodney, no!" and Griffin growled, "Hey!"

The pain exploded in his head like a lightening strike. It was temporarily overwhelming. John recoiled from the blow, cupping a hand over his eye patch and waiting for the shock of it to subside. When he could look up, Griffin had Rodney none-to-gently by the arm; Rodney was cradling his right hand in his left, pain etched in his features as he stood with his eyes closed.

John motioned for Griffin to let Rodney go. He didn't agree with the idea apparently, but he complied.

"Jeez, Rodney," John said into the strained silence that followed. "You didn't think one black eye was enough?" He indicated the eye patch.

Rodney gave a bark of laughter, opening his eyes to study his hand. "Yes, well, you know," he said nonsensically. To Radek he said stiffly, "I didn't recognize the machine from your description of it. Had I done so, I would have recommended destroying it right away. It's your call, Radek, but in every universe I've been to, no one's been able to master the device without ascending or dying."

"What kind of special powers?" John asked curiously, wincing a little as he touched his face. The eye socket was throbbing; he could predict an uncomfortable night ahead.

"Don't you even go there," Rodney snapped sharply before his shoulders slumped again. "If you decide to keep working on it, Radek," Rodney said with infinite weariness, "I'd recommend you clear the area of everyone with an ATA gene. Once it focuses its energy on an ATA carrier, that person begins to experience the ability to manipulate matter and energy until they are forced to become energy themselves or die as a result of the abnormal stresses placed on their bodies. And not everyone has the ability or desire to Ascend."

"But if someone without the ATA gene studied it…" Radek trailed off with a speculative gleam in his eyes.

"Destroy it, Radek," Rodney said wearily. "Sooner or later someone will try to use it."

"Not if we forbid its use," John said sharply.

Rodney just looked at him with a pitying expression. "A good intention, I'm sure. That will get shot all to hell when someone dies and the ability to bring them back to life is too strong a temptation to ignore."

"Holy shit," Griffin said unexpectedly. He reached out and straightened Rodney's jacket from where his rough handling had bunched it up.

Rodney gave him a weak glare, which Griffin took for what it was. Rodney sighed quietly, unlike his usual dramatic manner and said to Radek, "I'm just going to…you know…" he made a vague motion with his head to indicate he was leaving.

"You guys mind giving us a minute?" John addressed his question to everyone, but Radek locked glances with him. John knew that before the evening was out, everyone would believe that the reason for the falling out between Rodney and him was because he'd finally confronted Rodney about the Colonel. It was reason enough, he supposed. It was unforgivable, really. It didn't help that he'd known that all along. It hadn't mattered when he'd first decided to play along.

"Of course, Major," Radek said, and then winced at Rodney's sudden glance in his direction. Simpkins folded her lips in a grim line and took Radek by the elbow, hustling him away as though she were the boss and not the other way around. Griffin hesitated just a moment longer and then fell into step behind the departing scientists.

"You okay?" John said when they were alone in the corridor.

"Hand hurts like hell," Rodney said briefly. He continued to examine his hand, flexing his fingers and studying his bloodied knuckles.

"That's not what I meant," John rubbed the side of his face.

"I know." Rodney looked up at last. "Are you okay?"

"Rodney, I'm totally fucked up, but then I guess you know that," John surprised himself with his sudden burst of honesty, but then he was just too goddamned tired to care at the moment.

Rodney's mouth dropped open briefly and then he snorted, "Ohmygod. Someone alert the media. Sheppard's made a personal confession."

John made a face and flipped him bird.

"Promises, promises," Rodney muttered and for a moment, a flare of heat sparked between them. John consciously let it die.

"C'mon," he said with a sigh. "Let's go get some ice for your hand and my face."

He aligned himself with Rodney as they turned and headed for the mess hall. "Helluva right hook," he said, bumping his shoulder into Rodney's as they walked along.

"Teyla taught me that one," Rodney said with more than a hint of pride.

"So let me get this straight," Ronon asked the next morning when they met for a run. He'd waited as usual while John went through his extended stretching routine and had smirked at the telltale purple bruising that wasn't quite hidden by the eye patch.

John looked up warily from his hamstring stretch.

"McKay's from another universe. One where he knows another me."

John grunted and continued his stretch. "Yep. That about sums it up."

Ronon made a noise of disbelief. "He thinks he knows you too. He thinks you're his friend from the other universe."

John stood up. He had a feeling he knew where Ronon was going with this and he wanted to face his actions like a man. "Yes," he answered shortly.

"You let him think this." Ronon's statement wasn't quite accusing. His eyes held that leonine expression of assessment again.

"He had information that could save lives. We didn't know if we could trust him. It seemed like a good idea at the time." John gave a little shrug.

Ronon nodded thoughtfully. "Does he think we're friends?"

His question took John aback a second, until he realized that Ronon was referring to Rodney and himself. John made a face and scratched the side of his jaw. "I wouldn't say that exactly. You two don't strike me as the type to pal around together. But he does think of you as a teammate."

"A teammate." Ronon's face lost all expression for a moment. "Are we a team?" He indicated John, himself and presumably the absent Rodney with a flick of his hand.

"I was waiting until Beckett cleared you medically, but yes, it was my intention to ask you to join my team. The one I'm putting together." Jeezus, Ronon was going to think he was an idiot. "I'd like you on my team, Ronon."

"Teams are about trust, Sheppard." Ronon's face was solemn. John wondered who had let Ronon down before and if that person was still alive.

"I know," John sighed, and in that sigh, admitted he'd been wrong in his dealings with Rodney. "I didn't know Rodney was on my team until he already was." How could he explain to Ronon how different things were before Rodney entered this universe?

Ronon seemed to get it anyway. "McKay's like that," he grinned. "He grows on you."

"Like mold," John agreed wryly.

Ronon turned serious again. "I don't know about your people, but the word 'team' meant a lot on Sateda. It's more than just the people you work with. It's the people you trust to watch your back. It's the people you'll fight for. Die for."

"It's family," John nodded. He hesitated before adding, "At least, the really good ones are. That's why it's been a while since I've had one."

Ronon nodded. "Thought so. So," he added, raising elbows to shoulder height and flexing the muscles of his upper back casually. "We gonna run or what?"

Rodney was already seated at the conference table when John entered the room, his head planted face down in the crook of one elbow. Ronon slid in behind John, silent as a shadow and after only a moment's hesitation, took a seat across the table from Rodney. He raised an eyebrow in John's direction and back at Rodney again. John took a chair one space over from Rodney and sat down, stretching out his stiff leg surreptitiously under the table and covering the action by making seem like a casual sprawl. Ronon shot him a knowing look and then fixed his gaze on McKay again.

It was freaky the way Ronon had recovered so fast from his serious injuries. He was getting stronger every day and starting to push John in their daily runs. Carson had put it down in part to Ronon's amazing physique and attributed the rest to sheer stubbornness. "Not that you'd know anything about that, John," he'd added wryly.

Rodney lifted his head and looked around the room blearily. "Show me the coffee and no one gets hurt," he said.

John recognized the opening for what it was; an invitation to banter, to put on a show for Ronon. Things had been better since the day Rodney had punched him. John had this vague hope if they played at being friends long enough that they could go back to the friendship they'd had before and when the irony of that hit him, he'd almost groaned aloud. He suspected the universe was laughing at him.

"Newsflash, McKay. We've been out of coffee for months now. How long have you been here? You still can't remember that?"

"I thought Carson was just lying to me when he said we were all out of coffee." Rodney gave a sad little sigh. "You know, for my own good while I was undergoing all that surgery." He looked like a small boy that had discovered nothing but sweaters under the Christmas tree.

John thought it was better sometimes if you never believed in Santa Claus in the first place. "You can't still be in withdrawal. You haven't had any coffee since you've been here." He was startled to realize that the time Rodney had been in Atlantis could also be measured in months now.

Rodney shot him an evil look. "The detoxification process can take years. And besides, not everyone is as big into self-denial as you are."

John felt his face close off, the desire to banter with Rodney gone.

"He's got a point," Ronon chimed in. John shot Ronon a look, only to get the bland-faced smirk that Ronon did so well. His hair was starting to grow back now, a layer of black peach fuzz that was much darker than the dreads that had been shaved off. Already, half the women in the city watched Ronon with hungry eyes when he walked past them. He didn't seem to notice them at all. John knew there was a story there. Ronon was a man of large appetites; it seemed odd that he hadn't taken advantage of his admiring followers so far.

"God, where is everyone?" Rodney glanced at his watch, changing the subject suddenly. John automatically noted the way the pinky on his left hand jutted out, unable to fold and how the hand trembled slightly before Rodney returned it to the table. "Who else is coming?"

"Elizabeth and Radek will be along shortly." John was relieved at the change in subject as well. "This is just an informal discussion of what our next few missions should be." John nodded at Ronon. "You're right; it looks like the Wraith are waking up. We need to prepare for that, find more ZPMs if possible, make some alliances with those who can fight or supply us with food. We're hoping you could give us a little input on who we might approach as potential trading partners." Provided they could afford to trade. They were running low on commodities themselves.

Ronon appeared to read his mind. "You guys shouldn't be so quick to give your shit away."

John tilted his head to squint at Ronon.

Ronon shrugged in response. "People know you guys as the ones with the good medicine and weapons. When that stuff runs out, you'll be little better off than the rest of us. What you have that's different is all these smart guys." Ronon indicated Rodney with a sarcastic smile. "People want to know how to defend themselves from the Wraith. How to make better weapons. Grow better crops. Prevent foot rot in their herds."

John made a note to talk to Radek about the scientists that could be added to the current teams. Some botanists maybe, and a veterinarian. Did they even have a veterinarian? "Who would you suggest contacting first?"

"I think you should go to Athos." Ronon's expression was definitely smirky now. He must have been talking to Rodney again. "I hear they've got good ale."

"We've been to Athos," John explained. "Didn't make a good impression. We…we've sorta burned some of our bridges in the past."

He'd read the mission report Sumner had submitted. He'd written the Athosians off as being technically equivalent of Native American Indians at the time of the Jamestown landing. "Waste of time," the report had read. John had wondered at the time if the Virginia colonists had been as arrogant and sure of their superiority as Sumner had been.

"I don't know how that happened," Rodney grumbled. "Everyone knows how completely reasonable and flexible the military can be." For once, the jab didn't seem to be aimed directly at John. "At least we didn't have to deal with Sumner's form of diplomacy. This expedition would have been a lot better off if they'd had Teyla to do their negotiations for them."

A pang of doubt entered John's head. Just when John was pretty sure Rodney knew he wasn't the Colonel, he'd go and say something just ambiguous enough that it made John wonder. And worry. There were still times when John felt that Rodney's worlds blurred around the edges. Almost immediately, he wondered how the expedition would have fared under anyone else's leadership other than Colonel Sumner's.

"Of course, on a good day, when you aren't being the Dread Pirate Roberts, your own negotiation skills aren't half bad."

John got very still.

"Though you can't really call them negotiation skills when it falls more under the directive of 'charming the pants off the natives'."

John opened his mouth, but he caught Ronon's glittering eye upon him and before he could say a word, Ronon was saying with a grin, "Funny. Charming isn't the word I'd use to describe Sheppard."

"Are you kidding me?" Rodney's expression would have been comical if John had not felt a creeping anger overtaking him. Rodney's face suddenly took on a knowing expression. "Look up the word in the dictionary—you'll find his picture there. Ditto for 'rakish', and 'flyboy' and a few other choice terms I could name if we had all day. " Rodney then refocused his attention on John. "Oh don't bother to puff up and disagree. I can see you skulking behind the Great Wall of Sheppard over there, but you aren't fooling us, Colonel."

"Major," John ground out, unable to say anything else without completely having a meltdown all over Rodney. This was a helluva pointed conversation for someone who had given every indication he'd let the whole thing go. And did Rodney really think John had simply used him?

"Oh for heaven's sake!" In a flash, Rodney went from mock annoyance to true irritation. "This is getting old. I'm making a field promotion." His fingers shuffled back and forth in imitation of snapping, making a dry, whispering sound. He reached up and touched his headset. "Elizabeth. I've just promoted Sheppard to Lt. Colonel. You have any problems with that?"

There was a long pause, and then John could hear Elizabeth's voice over his earpiece. "Actually, Rodney, I think it's long overdue. But for future reference, I would prefer it if you cleared something like this with me before acting on it." The dry amusement in her tone made John squirm in his chair.

"Right. Got it. Will keep that in mind. McKay out." He looked expectantly at John, quirking a 'so now what?' eyebrow at him. "Happy now?"

"McKay…you can't just…you don't have the authority to…no one will accept it!"

"Oh, is that what's bothering you?" Rodney touched his headset again. "Elizabeth? Sheppard's being a prima donna about this. He wants a formal ceremony. And a party."


Elizabeth was openly laughing now. "I think that can be arranged."

"Chocolate would be nice," Rodney said by way of a reminder before signing off. He sat back in his chair with a triumphant grin on his face. His eyes were lit up with an unholy glee, mocking John's inability to do anything about what just happened, laughing at him, but also inviting him to laugh back. Rodney's gaze intensified as John stared at him, and suddenly John got the message. I'm not as crazy as you think I am.

"So," Ronon said slowly, dragging John's attention away from Rodney's face. He'd been trying to form a laser beam with his brain in order to kill Rodney where he sat but now turned so he could face Ronon. "Who's the Dread Pirate Roberts?"

"Hey, does this mean we get to watch The Princess Bride tonight? Is there any popcorn left?"

John gave up and dropped his head into the palm of his hand.

"So," John concluded, passing a datapad over to Stackhouse where he sat on the other side of the desk, "here's a list of the planets that Ronon's suggested. I've put Peter on a database search to see if there's anything there, but you know how useful ten thousand year old information is. We'll be splitting up the list and assigning teams—the first couple of ones on the list here have the tech base we need if we're going to start mass-producing ammo. This one," John tapped the pad, "for raw materials and the one below it for the production of shells and casings."

Stackhouse nodded. "In the meantime, no live drills, right, sir?"

"Right," John confirmed. "I'm also going to postpone fit reps for the time being, until we can get the production process up to speed. In the meantime, we continue to conserve ammo. Unless, of course, the situation warrants its use."

"You think this is gonna work, sir?" Stackhouse looked relaxed but there was a note of worry in his voice.

John could understand why. Ronon was right—one of the few advantages the expedition had over the rest of Pegasus was access to superior tech and weapons, but as soon as they ran out of bullets, their guns were just bad clubs. He certainly couldn't fault Sumner for stocking the military portion of the expedition with more ammo than ration bars, but the Wraith took a lot of bullets to kill.

"We could've used a few foundry and ironworkers, but we've got smart people here and that will count for a lot. The new stuff won't be as good as what we're used to, but we'll adapt." We always do.

"Good thing there's no prime directive in Pegasus, right, sir?" Stackhouse's grin was a little rueful.

"Right now, the more allies we have against the Wraith, the better," John shrugged. "No point in worrying about what happens when the Wraith are no longer a threat until they aren't a threat anymore."

Stackhouse got to his feet just as Markham entered John's office. "And I understand you're taking a team back to Athos, yourself, sir?" Stackhouse said, acknowledging Markham with a glance.

John nodded. "I'll probably be taking some extra men as well. McKay's convinced we could use the diplomatic skills of a woman named Teyla," John conceded with a 'you know Rodney' face.

"From what I hear, she's some kind of cross between Xena and Buffy," Markham threw in cheerfully. "Only, she looks and talks like a yoga instructor."

Which just boggled the mind. John couldn't help picturing someone that looked like the Buffy actress wearing Birkenstocks and wielding a chakram-thingy.

"Will that be all, Colonel?" Stackhouse added.

John felt like shaking his head at the use of his new title. Curiosity got the better of his judgment and he asked, "Off the record, what do you guys think about this 'field promotion' thing?"

"There's certainly a precedent for it in history," Stackhouse said seriously, shooting a warning glance at Markham.

"Oh, I say it was about time," Markham said with a gusty sigh. "I mean, half the geek squad was already calling you Colonel and it meant that you had to think every time you opened your mouth in order not to screw up. Besides, any excuse for a party, and it was a pretty good one. Sir." Markham appeared to remember belatedly to whom he was speaking.

Stackhouse closed his eyes and looked like he was doing an abortive count to ten before he opened them again and spoke. "Don't mind Markham, sir. He's really not as dumb as he seems."

Markham flushed bright red.

"He has the social skills of a puppy, sir," Stackhouse concluded with a sigh, ushering Markham out the door by pointing at it.

John suddenly pictured Markham as a gangly yellow lab puppy, gleefully bouncing on people and accidentally knocking things over. He chuckled to himself as he watched the two men walk out of sight.

"You don't think this is overkill?" Rodney glanced around at the team that John had put together for the mission to Athos. It had been Rodney's suggestion to leave early in the morning, so as not to arrive on Athos in the middle of the night. Not surprisingly he'd been bitching about the time of departure, especially in view of the lack of anything resembling coffee.

John followed Rodney's gaze. Griffin, Stackhouse and Markham were checking their gear, quietly waiting for word to go from the gate room. Ronon stood slightly off to one side, looking bored.

"Carson's not happy about Ronon coming along, but I'm thinking the guy that's survived being hunted by the Wraith all these years knows what he can and cannot do." John caught Ronon's eye and made a small nod in his direction before turning back to Rodney again. "Besides, I thought it would be good to have a native from Pegasus with us when we went back to Athos—doesn't hurt to have some backup either, if the Wraith are on the move."

"I guess not," Rodney frowned, looking around the room again before bringing his gaze back to John. "Not that I object to back up, I'm just not used to it, that's all. I'm used to you, me, Ronon and Teyla taking on the universe." He gave a small, crooked smile that was painful to see.

"Never hurts to admit you could use a little help," John said gruffly.

Rodney had been in the process of checking his tac vest; he looked up at John's words. He appeared startled—his eyebrows reaching for his hairline. He suddenly broke into laughter. "Oh that's rich, coming from you." He had a delighted grin on his face. "Ronon," he called out. "The Colonel thinks its okay to ask for a little help from your friends."

Ronon traded looks briefly with John before replying to Rodney. "Smart man."

John watched as Ronon drifted in closer to stand beside the two of them while they waited for the clear from Gate control.

"Oh please, you two are worse than the Black Knight."

Ronon looked to John for an explanation.

"Monty Python's The Holy Grail. We'll watch it next movie night," John promised.

"Monty Python's pretty cool," Ronon agreed.

Elizabeth appeared at the edge of the balcony. "You have a go," she said. "Be careful out there." John couldn't help but notice that she was looking better these days.

"And so begins another episode of Hill Street Blues," Rodney muttered, the rest of his complaint drowned out by the opening rush of sound and energy as the gate activated.

They came through the gate into the slanting, yellow rays of late afternoon sun, the air sharp and the suggestion of frost underfoot on the ground. The leaves on the trees were beginning to turn a brilliant red and gold—here and there an entire tree stood out in a flaming magenta color. The color of the sky was just a little off to John's eye and the spectrum of light was just a little too…something and everything about it reminded him of the thrill he used to get every time he went through the gate.

"Okay," John said as the entire team stepped through the gate and lined up behind him. "You know the drill. Keep in mind we may not be too popular around here and stay sharp." He noted the way his breath formed a vapor in the chilled air and he tried not to let it please him too much. He felt a tug from the land and the open air, from the forest and the rich loamy soil beneath his boots and it was scarcely any different or less real that the pull he received every time he came into contact with Ancient tech. It felt good to be out like this again.

A thought occurred to him as they moved out.

"Rodney," he said with a drawl, knowing that would irritate McKay, "let's remember what we said earlier and not make any comments about knowing Teyla or alternate universes, okay?"

"What do I look like, a moron? Don't answer that." Rodney cut off any potential snipe with a sharp gesture. "I was at the briefings, you know. I realize what a cock-up Sumner made of the first contact here and why I need to keep my mouth shut."

"I didn't know you came with that option." Ronon's voice was a deep rumble, so matter-of-fact that it was hard to tell if he was teasing or not.

"I hear it only comes with the new models," John said solemnly. "It's too easy to bypass that feature on the older ones."

"Oh har-dee-har-har," Rodney made a face. "You two are so funny. You should do standup."

"You make it so easy, McKay." Ronon glanced back over his shoulder at Rodney with a sly smile.

After twenty minutes or so of hiking, the cold was starting to seep into John's collarbone, making it ache. He shifted the shoulder strap of the P-90 uncomfortably. The cold was affecting his face as well, but he thought he could ignore it for the duration of the mission. He noted that Rodney kept shifting his gear to shove his free hand into his pockets.

"You need gloves," he said after the third time Rodney moved his scanner to the other hand.

"What I need, are hands that fucking work," Rodney said nastily.

John's memory flashed back to the night when Rodney's hands brought him such pleasure and release; he quickly put aside any smart-ass comment he might have otherwise made.

"If I wear gloves, I might as well go back to wearing bandages for all the manual dexterity I would have," Rodney continued morosely. "And though I can take them off when needed, pulling them on and off repeatedly is…challenging to say the least."

"Fingerless gloves," John suggested. "Get a pair of those Thinsulate gloves and cut the tips off. Protection with function."

"Leather," Ronon disagreed. "Nelkin hide. Soft as butter. Fits you like a second skin. I know where you can get a pair, custom made."

"Really?" Rodney seemed surprised by Ronon's contribution to the conversation. "Ah, thanks."

Ten minutes later, John felt his Spidey senses kick in. "We're being watched," he said quietly.

"Have been for a while now," Ronon said, looking deceptively at ease as they walked along. John knew better.

Rodney looked a little alarmed and began to scan their surroundings a little too obviously.

John touched his earpiece. "We've got company in the woods," he said in a low tone. "Remember we're here to play nice."

A solitary figure stepped out onto the path, appearing so seamlessly from the tree line that she might have dropped a cloaking device. She was stunning to look at—long, coppery brown hair, high, angled cheekbones, with lovely, bronzed skin. She was wearing in a long leather coat over some sort of paneled skirt with tall boots and held a sturdy walking stick. John noted approvingly that the stick looked like it doubled as a weapon.

John knew in an instant this must be Teyla.

John held up a hand for everyone to stop, and then interlaced his fingers over the end of his P-90, so as to be as unthreatening as possible. "Hey there," he said. "I'm John Sheppard. This here's Rodney McKay and the big guy over there is Ronon Dex. We were hoping to have a little visit with you guys, maybe talk about what we could do for each other?" The soldiers on his team held back a short distance, not expecting to be introduced and still on alert.

The woman raised an eyebrow in disbelief. Her stance was wary, though polite. "You are from the city of the Ancestors, correct?"

"Yeah. About that. See the last time we came out here, I'm afraid we sort of got off on the wrong foot. I was hoping we could put that behind us and maybe come to some sort of mutual understanding and assistance."

"We would be interested to hear what you have to say, John Sheppard." The woman inclined her head slightly. "I am Teyla, daughter of Tagen Emmagen. If you will come this way, I will introduce you to my father, the leader of the people of Athos."

"Whoa," Rodney erupted. "Your father's alive? Teyla, that's amazing, why in every other universe…"

John elbowed Rodney sharply without even looking at him.

"I mean, what I mean to say is, well, I'd always assumed you were the leader of the Athosians, Teyla," Rodney had the grace to wince at John in apology. "And wait a sec, isn't your dad's name Torren?"

Teyla had a slight frown between her eyes. "My father's name is Torren, yes. Is there some confusion?"

"Well, you said you were the daughter of Tagen."

"Tagen was my mother's name." The expression on her face eased but she still did not relax entirely.

"Well, it will be an honor to meet your father, Teyla," John said smoothly.

"Don't let that universe crap worry you," Ronon spoke up unexpectedly. "Rodney's got a lot of brains but unfortunately they're scrambled."

"Hey! Conan! A little respect here!" Rodney was indignant.

"I said you had a lot of brains, didn't I?" Ronon said in a silky tone.

Rodney shut up.

"I love my team, I love my team," John repeated to himself under his breath. He looked up to see Teyla's eyes upon him and he gave her a tight little smile.

To his surprise, she smiled back.

"Jinto, Tran, Wex," she called out over her shoulder, "You may come out now."

Three young boys, approximately twelve to thirteen years of age, came cautiously out of the woods. They lined up behind Teyla, eyes large with awe. John noted that they seemed particularly fixated on both his and Rodney's appearance, and his jaw tightened involuntarily in response.

Rodney was not so sanguine. "What you looking at?" He said sharply to the heavyset boy who was obviously staring.

"You must forgive them," Teyla said with a note of censure as she glanced at the boys before turning back to Rodney. "They are not used to seeing such men of battle among them. You do us a great honor by sending your bravest warriors to meet with us."

"I don't understand," John couldn't help frowning.

Teyla indicated that they should begin walking towards the village and fell into step alongside John. "Among our people, those with injuries such as yours who live to tell the tale are counted among our greatest heroes. Is that not true among your people as well?"

"Not hardly," Rodney muttered, still loud enough to be clearly understood.

John thought about it a bit. "I guess in our culture, we have some pretty good doctors. So surviving a bad injury is not that unusual."

"And we consider it impolite to stare," Rodney added meaningfully, glaring at the boys.

"Did it hurt?" A taller, thin boy with dark hair had sidled up to Rodney, glancing down at his hands.

"Hell, yes it hurt!" Rodney said sharply. "As a matter of fact," his voice became hushed and conspiratorial, "every time they changed the bandages, great chunks of flesh came off with them." He opened and closed the fingers of one hand for emphasis.

The young boy's mouth went round in reaction to Rodney's words.

"Rodney," John warned.

"What? Show me the twelve-year-old boy that isn't a ghoul at heart. And don't pretend you haven't done worse, with your pathetic attempt to scare them with recycled movie plots."

Teyla looked askance at John.

"I really have no idea what he's talking about, but then most days I don't," John shrugged.

Teyla laughed, a light-hearted sound that was good to hear.

John turned to Ronon. "What about you, big guy? Do your people feel the same way about…" He didn't know how to put it. Disfigurement?

"Depends on how you get the scars," Ronon said abruptly. "We had good doctors on Sateda too. But the Wraith destroy everything sooner or later."

"You are from Sateda?" Teyla's expression was at once sympathetic and understanding. "I thought there were no survivors."

"I haven't met any yet, but then I've been kind of busy."

"Ronon was a Runner," Rodney explained, seeing as Ronon wasn't going to elaborate. "But we took the tracker out," he added as Teyla swung her gaze back to Ronon with some alarm.

The boys turned their attention to Ronon abruptly. The dark haired boy nudged one of the others and indicated Ronon's gun.

"So, yeah," John said by way of changing the subject. "We're not really heroes, just your average Joe trying to make things a bit better."

"I didn't say you two weren't heroes," Ronon said with a sideways look in John's direction.

"Oh, well, John, maybe but…" Rodney was turning red in the face, though from embarrassment or the cold, it was hard to tell.

"I heard how you got those burns, McKay."

"Actually, the reason we're here," John said a bit desperately, "is because we are looking for allies against the Wraith."

"The Wraith?" Teyla questioned with a raised eyebrow.

"Maybe we should talk about it later," John tilted his head at the boys, who had taken to whispering among themselves and punching each other as they walked.

Teyla glanced at the boys and then back at John, her dark eyes serious and concerned. "As you wish," she said with a slight nod.

Teyla had explained as the village came into view that her father was out with a hunting party but that he was expected to return shortly. In his absence, she was authorized to act on behalf of her people. She dismissed the boys once they were all back into the village and they ran off with the energy of youth, racing to tell their friends about the strangers in town.

"Come," Teyla said. "I will have someone prepare us some tea."

"No offense, Teyla," Rodney said, "but I'd rather…"

"A nice, hot cup of tea would be…um, nice," John said with a sharp look at Rodney.

"No citrus!" Rodney added, "I'm allergic."

Teyla asked one of the men in the village to send them a tea tray and then led the way to the largest structure in the village. Everything was made out of animal skins on wooden frames, easily portable for what must be a semi-nomadic existence. John could see why Sumner had been dismissive and yet he felt like if they were to survive in Pegasus, the expedition needed to take help wherever they could find it.

He had Stackhouse, Markham and Griffin wait outside. So far so good, but still…

Inside the building, Teyla was joined by two men. "This is Halling, Jinto's father. And this is Kanaan. What is it that you did not wish to discuss in front of the children?"

"The Wraith are waking early." There was no way to soften the news.

The taller of the two men exchanged a look with Teyla. "Yes," she said with a sigh. "We had heard rumors."

"We think that by working together, we can fight them."

"What do you think we could possibly offer?" Halling said in a slightly sarcastic tone. "If you with your superior weapons are still at risk?"

"We might have good weapons, but you guys have been fighting the Wraith a lot longer than we have. You know more about them than we do." John said. "Look, where we come from we have a story about a young boy that was sent out to fight a giant. The giant thought he couldn't lose and yet the boy brought him down with a single rock. The Wraith are a powerful force but they aren't invincible. We just need to find their weakness and exploit it."

"You are from Sateda. You know first hand what the Wraith are capable of during a major attack. What say you, Ronon Dex?" As Teyla spoke, the two Athosian men looked sharply at Ronon.

"We fought on Sateda until the streets ran with our blood. Until the buildings fell and destruction rained from the skies. Until the Wraith walked among us and drained the lives of those who had fallen and yet lived. We thought we were strong. We thought we could fight them and win. We could not."

It was the longest and most formal speech John had ever heard Ronon make. Its rhythm and cadence gripped his heart and squeezed; John felt as though his heart stopped beating altogether.

"These guys are right. We have to fight. And they're our best bet to winning against the Wraith."

"What can we do?" Teyla directed her words to John.

"We need to get the word out. You need to prepare your people. If you've got a place to hide, you need to start holding drills. You can also be our eyes and ears. We're looking for people to trade with—ideas, technology, contacts. And we'd like to trade with you ourselves. We'd like to offer an exchange of services—technical and medical assistance in return for food and guides, that sort of thing."

"I am certain we can come to some sort of agreement along those lines." Teyla paused as a woman ducked her head under the flap of the doorway and entered bearing a tray with several mugs and a pot of fragrant tea.

A high-pitched whine caused everyone's heads to snap up.

"Colonel!" Stackhouse's voice in his earpiece was strident with warning. "Incoming Darts!"

"Well, that went well," Rodney said with disgust. He threw himself down heavily in the co-pilot's chair of the duster.

John knew that Rodney was referring to the final departing scene with Torren, but he was still so outraged; on behalf of Teyla, because of the Wraith attack, because once again he was bringing a body home, that he couldn't speak. He went through the pre-flight check automatically, with hands that shook with anger.

Behind him Ronon was helping the other men carry in the body and secure the hatches.

"I can't believe my father lied to us," Teyla's quiet, stunned voice came from the entrance to the forward compartment and Rodney struggled to his feet to guide her to a seat behind John.

"Teyla, I'm so sorry, I had no idea he'd react that way. I was doing what I thought was best, how could I just stand by and let that happen? Let the Wraith feed on you when I knew I could reverse it?"

John glanced over his shoulder to see Rodney assist her in sitting down; he recognized the shell-shocked expression on her face from countless other missions gone bad.

"We're secure back here, sir." Stackhouse's voice was dark with loss over the radio.

"Lift off in a minute," John said tersely. "Sheppard out."

He cloaked the duster and turned in his seat to face the others. Ronon was taking his seat in the forward compartment as well, the door to the rear shutting smoothly behind him. Rodney slid into his seat up front again.

"I do not understand," Teyla said, and for the first time, John heard a wobble to her voice.

Really, this woman was every bit as amazing as Rodney had been saying she was. She'd met them as a leader, saw to it that the bulk of her people had made it to safety, and had fought expertly and with deadly skill when the Wraith had attacked.

That moment when she'd been fighting hand to hand with that one Wraith solider…Teyla's stick weapons had flashed too rapidly for the eye to follow as she'd parried and blocked each reach of the Wraith's hand…and still he'd come relentlessly on, an evil smile on his face as he knew eventually she'd tire and he'd get his prize.

John had been too far away and the blur of movement between them too great to risk a shot for fear he'd hit Teyla.

Behind him, he'd heard Stackhouse shout "Markham!" in warning but he hadn't let that distract him. If he'd had the chance, he'd take his shot…

Only Teyla had stumbled and fallen backwards to the ground, and the Wraith had leapt forward with a victorious snarl to plunge his hand into her chest. Teyla had arched up off the ground with the agony of it and yet no sound had left her mouth. John had watched in horror as the Wraith quickly began draining her life away and then in grim determination, had lifted his weapon to shoot both Teyla and the Wraith together, ending her torture.

Only Rodney had intervened.

Making a noise that sounded like a siren, he'd come screeching into the fray with a prolonged, "Noooooo!"

The Wraith glanced up just as Rodney screwed the end of his Beretta in the Wraith's ear. The look on Rodney's face was terrifying to behold. "Put it back. Put it back, you goddamned motherfucker! You put back every second you took from her, after which time I count to five…if you haven't made it out of my sights in that time, I'll blow a crater through your fucking head and I'd like to see you regenerate from that."

John had come running up in time to hear this speech. He'd heard of the expression 'foaming at the mouth with rage' before, but had never actually seen it before.

The Wraith had cut him a sidewise glance as he approached, two parts sneering superiority and one part worried concern. Beneath his hand, Teyla's chest was heaving, her once lustrous hair now a coarse, iron grey and the skin of her face as wrinkled and soft as an old cotton shirt. She'd caught John's eye and there'd been a look of silent pleading there.

"Better do as he says," John had found himself drawling to the Wraith. He'd indicated Rodney with jerk of his head. "He's insane."

The Wraith's flat, dead-black eyes had widened at that and he'd turned his attention back to Teyla then, concentrating as he appeared to be focusing his energies back down his arm and into her body.

The reverse of the aging process was truly amazing and John had found himself once again stunned by something else that Rodney knew that changed everything.

When the Wraith had released her, Rodney had stepped back out of his reach and began to count loudly. "One….two…"

The Wraith had scrambled to his feet and begun to run. He hadn't taken more than four or five strides when a blast from Ronon's gun had taken him down.

When Rodney had turned, mouth open in protest, Ronon had merely said, "Guess I can't count."

John had helped Teyla to her feet. "You okay?" he'd asked.

She'd nodded. "Yes. That was…unexpected."

He'd given her a half-smile at the truth of her words and then noted that the sounds of battle seemed to be dying down. He'd noted too, that there'd been a lot of dead Wraith lying around. Overhead, the sounds of Darts returning to the gate had been clearly audible. The Athosians that had not taken to the caves had begun to return cautiously to the village.

It was then that he found out that Griffin had been killed. He'd sent Stackhouse and Markham back to the city for a duster so they could take Griffin's body home and while they were waiting, Torren had returned to the village.

"I do not understand," Teyla was repeating as she huddled in her seat. "How could he keep something like this from us? How could he…" her voice broke here and she ducked her head, her hair falling forward to shield her face as she gripped the each of her chair tightly with both hands.

"He's probably afraid you'll become a Worshipper," Ronon said as he quietly wrapped up one hand, knuckles scraped and oozing blood.

Teyla's head lifted in alarm to look at Ronon but Rodney burst out instead.

"What? That's patently ridiculous. Yes, yes, repeated exposure to the reverse feeding process can result in addiction and dependency—that's how Wraith create Worshippers after all. But a single event won't do that. Surely, if Torren knew this much he'd have known the rest. It's a biological process, not a cardinal sin. To shun Teyla makes no sense at all." He turned in his seat to face the others in the rear. "Please, please, Teyla. You have to understand. You aren't at risk here—I was just trying to save your life. I couldn't bear the thought of something happening to you. Not again. Look, we'll go back and explain to your father…"

"No." John spoke at last, willing Teyla to look up at him. "Sometimes…sometimes fathers say things in the heat of the moment…when adrenaline is up…look, what I'm trying to say is that he probably doesn't mean what he said. But he can't back down right now, not and save face as the leader of your people. Give him some time. He'll come around."

Teyla raised an eyebrow at him. "You sound as though you are speaking from experience."

"Yeah. Maybe," John conceded. He swiveled back in his chair to face the view screen, activating the radio from the console. "Prepare for take-off."

Teyla continued to speak. "And you…have you reconciled with your father yet, John Sheppard?"

"I'm still giving him some time," John said lightly, flipping switches and taking the duster into to the sky.

There was a snorting sound from Ronon and then Teyla spoke again, in a much quieter voice. "Yes, but my father was not the only one that rejected me. They all did."

John was betting Elizabeth would have a few choice words to say about the way he'd handled diplomatic relations with the Athosians this time. He probably shouldn't have gotten up in Torren's face and called him a narrow-minded, pig-headed idiot, but damn, it had felt good.

"We won't reject you," Rodney said fiercely. "And besides, John's right. Kanaan will come around too—sooner than the rest, I'll bet."

Teyla's surprised expostulation at Rodney's knowledge of her personal life was lost as they went through the gate.

It must have rained in their absence, the colorful glass panels in the gate room were running with rivulets of water and the sun streaming through it was like a joyful chorus as the duster arrived in Atlantis.

"Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys," John said as they exited the gate.

A snort from Rodney caught his attention as he was repositioning the duster to take it to the landing bay.

"I guess that makes you King Moonracer," Rodney said. "Perfect."

"The flying lion? Well, yeah," John agreed. "I mean, flying. Lion. What's not to like?"

"Are they always like this?" Teyla asked Ronon with a slightly plaintive tone to her voice.

"Pretty much," Ronon didn't quite sigh. "You get used to it."

Once in the landing bay, all thoughts of humor faded in the immediacy of offloading Griffin's body and consigning him to the morgue. Carson met them in the bay, partially unzipped the bag and officially declared Griffin dead. The stink of burned flesh assailed their nostrils and Carson quickly closed the body bag. "I don't understand. I thought the Wraith preferred to use stunners?"

"They weren't expecting a fight—just a simple culling," Ronon said in the silence that followed. "We put up more of a resistance and it pissed them off."

"Teyla," John touched her lightly on the arm. "I'd like you to go with Dr. Beckett here down to the infirmary to get checked out. This is the first time we've been able to examine someone who's experienced the reverse feeding thing and it might tell us more about how the Wraith operate—do you mind?"

"No, of course not. I would be happy to help in any way that I can." Teyla's smile looked a bit forced to him but she willingly left with Carson, who was still looking shocked at the 'reverse feeding' bit. He could hear Carson's soothing brogue as he escorted Teyla down the corridor, asking her questions about what had happened. Ronon made eye contact with John and then indicated with a tilt of his head that he was headed to the infirmary as well.

John walked up to Stackhouse, who was putting away gear as though it had been any other mission. "Leave that for now," he said as he approached. "Where's Markham?"

Stackhouse had a dirty streak across one cheekbone and bits of vegetation in his hair. He looked depressed and exhausted. "He's just sitting in the duster, sir."

John nodded and stepped up the ramp into the rear compartment of the duster. Markham was seated on one of the benches, head back against the wall, eyes closed. He opened his eyes at the sound of John's footsteps and lurched upright.

"As you were," John said before he could stand up. "You okay?"

Markham looked miserable. "It should've been me, sir. I heard Stackhouse yelling, I turned and saw the Wraith and then Griffin just shouldered me out of the way and took the shot himself. Why'd he do that, sir?"

"I'm pretty sure he wasn't planning on dying, Markham." The adrenaline of battle was wearing off. John was feeling every ache he'd felt earlier and exhaustion was redoubling the effects. A throbbing he'd ignored before was now setting up an insistent rhythm behind his empty eye socket. He leaned in the doorway of the duster, resting his shoulder on the frame.

"He had to have known, sir," Markham was insistent. "By pushing me out of the way…sir. I'm not worth it."

John sighed. "None of us are, kiddo. Not you, not me, not even Stackhouse." That drew a faint smile from the other soldier. "But that's not what counts in the end, see? What counts is that he thought you were worth it. And somehow, you've got to live up to that. That's your responsibility now. To make sure that his sacrifice wasn't in vain. And Markham, that doesn't mean living like a monk. It means that you laugh and you love and you have fun with your friends and you do your job to the best of your ability. It also means that you try to leave this world a bit better than when you found it. No one could ask for more."

"Yes, sir." Markham sighed deeply and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand.

"Now, you'd best run along and give Stackhouse a hand. He's looking a bit seedy if you ask me."

"Yes, sir." Markham gave him a stiff nod and John straightened enough to let him pass out of the duster. When he looked up, Rodney was standing in the doorway to the front compartment.

"Left my data pad," he said by way of explanation, waving the article in question. "Really nice speech, by the way. Words of wisdom from Uncle John. So why don't you adhere to its principles?"

John was struck once again, as though by some trick of the light, by the blueness of Rodney's eyes. He looked for some sign of sarcasm, but Rodney was apparently serious.

"The terms don't apply to Lt. Colonels," he said with a tight smile. A lancing pain cut through the left side of his face, sparking a sensation of light on that side, even though he knew that was impossible.

"More like they don't apply to John Sheppard," Rodney said with a knowing grimace, narrowing his eyes as he made his little face. He moved into the compartment, heading for the exit past John.

John caught his arm in passing. "Hey," he said.

Rodney looked down at John's grip on his arm and back up at John's face again, an expression of inquiry on his features.

"That thing you did today was pretty amazing."

"What thing?" Rodney frowned. "You'll have to be a little more specific because I'm always doing something that would qualify for that particular descriptive."

John snorted. It should have been his cue to let go of Rodney's arm, but instead his fingers began to open and close over the muscles of Rodney's forearm on their own. "That bit with the Wraith and Teyla. That was just…" He trailed off. Awesome? Courageous? The hottest thing I've ever seen?

Rodney smiled and then looked bemused. "Making the Wraith reverse feed at gunpoint? Hell, John, the only reason we know about the reverse feeding thing in the first place is because of you."

"Me?" John was taken aback.

Rodney made another one of his varied faces, this time indicating that John must not have been paying attention. "Not you, you, but another you. Don't you remember? From that universe where Kolya captured Sheppard and tortured him on a live feed camera—sending the footage back to Atlantis because he was trying to extort the location of Ladon Radim. Well, that's neither here nor there. The point is, Sheppard sweet-talked the Wraith into helping him escape—the Wraith was as much a prisoner as he was at that point. And then Todd reversed all the years he'd taken off Sheppard."

"Todd?" John said weakly. He tried to imagine what that must have been like for the other Sheppard, to be held down and instead of having your eye carved out, some Wraith was allowed to feed on you, all the while you could feel your youth and your very life leaving you…he wasn't sure that losing an eye wasn't better after all.

"Well, yeah. You name all the Wraith. Todd was someone you went to school with. Described him as a pasty-faced fellow. Remember?"

It was on the tip of his tongue to correct Rodney, to say, 'no, that wasn't me' but he was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to be that Sheppard, the one that should be remembering all this. How hard could it be, after all? What was so important about being him, this Sheppard, as opposed to the one Rodney wanted?

"Oh, right," he heard himself say. "I remember now."

"You do?" Rodney looked suspicious for a moment and then his face cleared. "I mean, that's great. No, really. That's great."

Both of them looked down at John's fingers where they were still resting possessively on Rodney's arm.

John ducked his head but didn't let go. "We've both got to be cleared by medical and then I need to brief Elizabeth. But um, see you later?"

The slow grin that spread across Rodney's features warmed him in a way that did not bear examining too closely.

"You can count on it," he said.

Carson had given him the stink eye when he'd finally made it down to the infirmary. He'd accurately assessed that John's head was killing him and had taken matters into his own hands.

"You're off duty for tonight. I don't care if the sky falls, tsunamis strike or the Wraith start a chorus line in the mess hall." He'd injected John with the painkiller that John would have normally waved off. This time he hurt too much to object.

"Whoopee," he'd deadpanned as he rubbed his bicep where the sting could still be felt. "Let's have a party."

"You should really let me cut that facial nerve," Carson had been gentle but persistent this time.

"So I can drool out of the side of my mouth? Ah, thanks but no thanks."

"What are you going to do when we run out of drugs? What then? And don't tell me you'll be fine." Carson had looked at him a long moment before saying, "Go lie down before you fall down. I'll talk to Elizabeth for you tonight."

He'd meant to ask about Teyla but the need to make it back to his quarters before he started puking (and then Carson would have definitely confined him to the infirmary) overrode everything else.

He just barely made it. He spent some time hugging the toilet, retching until he could bring nothing else up and then it seemed like a good idea to just lie down for a while on the nice, cool floor of the bathroom, so as to be close to the toilet for the next wave of nausea again.

He had no idea how long he'd been there when Rodney found him. He was stiff from lying on the floor, he'd had to try and answer Rodney's questions and reassure him that yes, he had indeed already been seen by Carson. He'd flinched when Rodney had attempted to place a cool washcloth on his forehead and finally, after Rodney had helped him to his bed, he'd been forced to kick him out.

"I appreciate all this, Rodney, seriously." John had waved feebly at the boots Rodney was pulling off his feet and the blanket that Rodney had drawn up over his shoulders. "But for god's sake, leave me alone."

The room had been silent for at least ten minutes before it occurred to John he could have asked Rodney to go get a bottle of vodka from Radek. He thought about shifting to the extent it would take to find his earpiece and radio Radek himself, but movement seemed like a bad idea so he didn't.

Another interim of time passed. John may have dozed off; he wasn't certain. He heard voices murmuring and he muttered, "Shut up, Atlantis."


It was Rodney. With a sigh, he opened his eye and squinted in Rodney's direction. The room lights were off, the curtains thankfully closed, though they still let in enough light from outside that he could see. He groaned just a little when he saw that Rodney had someone with him.

"Look, I found someone who can help. This is Dr. Betterton."

John transferred his focus to the middle-aged woman with her mousy hair pulled back in a scraggly pony-tail. Her features were plain, pale and freckled. She wore no jewelry or makeup and sported a t-shirt that read "Real Doctors treat more than one species."

She caught John's gaze and she pulled out the bottom of her shirt, looking down at it and smiling. "I wear this to piss Carson off," she grinned.

"Amy is a veterinarian," Rodney said, as though presenting a world-class celebrity.

"I tried to tell Dr. McKay, I'm not qualified to practice medicine on people. But he found out I do acupuncture and he was most insistent." She held up a small bag. "If you'd rather I left, I completely understand, Colonel." She turned to Rodney. "Have you considered asking Carson about medicinal marijuana? The effects on neuropathic pain are well-documented."

"You want to make me a pot head?" John felt like this whole situation was surreal enough as it was.

"No, no, can you imagine the Colonel on weed?" Rodney's hands flapped. "He can barely remain vertical when he's only pretending to be relaxed. Think what he'd be like if he were stoned."

Amy giggled suddenly and Rodney reached out to give her shoulder a little push as he snorted.

"Still in the room," John said with a little finger wave.

"Sorry, sorry," Rodney pulled himself together. "Look, one of my cats had some pretty significant bone pain towards the end of his life—cancer, you know. And cats can't take a lot of pain medications in general. The acupuncture really seemed to help, even if it was voodoo of the worst kind. So, I mean, what have you got to lose, right?"

"Sanity? Dignity? My other eye? Fine, whatever. I don't care." He'd started to lift his head during his comeback but he let it sink back to the pillow instead. "Do your worst."

"Such confidence is overwhelming," Amy said dryly.

She sat down on the bed beside him, opening up her kit and asking him a series of questions as she began to place tiny needles at various points on his hands and forearms. Rodney gently lifted his feet to take off his socks; that small act almost broke him. He lay still instead, pretending no one else was there, answering the questions woodenly.

She seemed to sense his need to maintain composure and would periodically ask a question about hairballs or foraging in trashcans just to make him smile.

"I think I can work around the eye patch, but it would be simpler if you took it off, Colonel."

Of course it would.

He could count on one hand the number of people he'd allowed to see him without the patch.

With a sigh, he peeled it off over his head, taking care not to disturb the needles on his hand and letting the patch drop to the bed beside him, lying back with his eye closed.

He awoke with a start.

The sun was sinking into the sea. The room was filled with a warm, dusky light. A breeze stirred the curtains softly. The needles had vanished—John wasn't sure at what point Amy had left the room. His head was better, much better, though that could have been simply due to the fact that Carson's drugs had finally kicked in. The nausea was thankfully gone as well. There was a low buzzing sound on his left. John turned on his side to see Rodney sleeping beside him. Rodney at least, had showered and changed at some point—John knew he should get up and do the same.

He slept instead.

He stood on the threshold to the workout room, watching Teyla move through some complicated kata on the floor. She flowed effortlessly from one movement to the next, handling her small wooden rods with a grace that made it look like modern dance, but John could recognize the killing strikes embedded in the form. As though acknowledging his presence, she sped up her routine, flying through a series of punishing blocks and attacks with blurring motion, slowing down again to finish with something very similar to tai chi in appearance.

She came to the end of her routine and folded her sticks together in her hands, dropping her head to bow to her imaginary partner before placing the sticks under one arm and gracefully padding over on bare feet to where a gym bag was seated on the bench. She wore a black tight unitard that must have been someone's borrowed yoga outfit. Over that she wore a dark blue t-shirt that read 'Bloom where you are planted'. It seemed both incongruous and yet somehow right on her. She continued to ignore John as she placed the sticks within the bag and prepared to leave the room.

When he entered the room and approached her, he'd meant to ask how she was doing. It was his intent to simply check to make sure she had everything she needed, that she was settling in, but somehow another set of words came unbidden out of his mouth.

"I want you to teach me to fight like that."

Teyla looked up at him then, a small, sad smile on her face. "I would not think you would need to learn how to fight in the Bantos tradition," she said sweetly, her smile taking the sting from her words. "You seem to be quite comfortable with your impressive weaponry."

"Weaponry can fail you," John shook his head. "And I saw you fight that Wraith on Athos. That was impressive."

"And yet, in the end, I failed." Teyla's smile disappeared and it felt as though the sky had clouded over. "Had it not been for Rodney's intervention, I would have died, training or not."

"Look, Teyla, I know that ended up badly for you, but seriously, Rodney meant well, okay? I mean, he had no idea that your father would take it that way."

Teyla flashed a full smile then and John knew that what he'd thought of as her smile before didn't even come close. "I do not blame Rodney for the way my people shunned me. And I have come to believe that I might possibly be in a position to do them a greater good than if I had remained among them, as I always had expected to do. Please." She laid a small hand on his arm. "Do not concern yourself about me on that account."

She looked serene but John could still see the hurt in her eyes. He knew what that kind of rejection felt like, but then again, he also knew it was possible to grow armor against that kind of pain. She was made of sturdy stuff. She'd be fine.

She withdrew her hand and looked at him with assessment. "So why do you want to learn how to fight with Bantos rods?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. "The truth, please."

It had been on the tip of his tongue to make something up, something flattering and close to the truth without giving too much away. To imply that he simply wanted to spend time in the company of a beautiful woman; that she was a work of art both still and in motion. Instead, he said what he really wanted. "I think you have something to teach me. I want to be able to move like that…with that…" He floundered as he tried to imply grace and fluidity without actually using those words.

Teyla smiled as she set the bag back down on the bench. She pulled out the rods and handed him one. "Very well," she smiled, as though she had not just put in a full workout session. "We begin."

Rodney seemed to take it for granted that everything was back to normal between the two of them. John was tempted on more than one occasion to ask Rodney to define normal, since there was nothing remotely normal about the fact that he was apparently in some sort of strange relationship with his fake friend from an alternative universe.

Somewhere along the way it just became expected that Teyla made up their fourth on their team. John found her to be quiet but thoughtful and well worth listening to when she did speak. As the days passed, however, John noticed that she was just as defenseless against Rodney's presumption of friendship as he had been and it made him feel a little satisfied somehow, as though there was proof that it wasn't just him. John had been wrong though, when he'd told Ronon he didn't think Ronon and Rodney were friends—it was more subtle and contained more insults, but it was there all the same.

John and Rodney hung out together. They laughed at each other's stupid jokes. They argued. They played chess and video games and watched DVDs. They went on missions. Sometimes they nearly got killed. And sometimes, every now and then, they slid into a casual and lazy sex at the end of the day. Just sex between buddies. That was all. It was just because it felt good to be touched in a way that was both sensual and comforting at the same time. Like his skin was a desert and Rodney's touch like the first hint of moisture in the air. It stirred something green and vital just under his surface and yet he refused to give into it. He knew how to survive in a drought. It was the promise of rain that threatened to kill him.

Most days felt good, satisfying, like he was finally starting to get somewhere. Even though he wasn't sure where the 'somewhere' was leading. He began to take for granted the way doors opened at his approach; he started automatically reaching with his mind instead of a hand for the light switch.

Life was good. Good enough, at any rate. He just couldn't understand why it felt like he was holding his breath.

He'd been training with Teyla for several weeks now, and though he no longer felt completely at a loss when sparring with her, he still knew she was light-years ahead of him in the mastery of this art. It hadn't helped when he'd discovered that Ronon too, was a Bantos practitioner—his sparring sessions with Ronon had proved most frustrating until Teyla had intervened and suggested that until John was further along in his training, he and Ronon find another way to spar together.

"She means piss on each other's fire hydrants," Rodney had felt compelled to add, which then involved having to explain the analogy to the natives of Pegasus. Ronon had wanted to know why they hadn't brought dogs with them to Atlantis, which had seemed like a good question and for which John had no answer. Rodney's answer had involved something about the introduction of rabbits into Australia and had segued into the current theory among botanists that the flora of entire Pacific Northwest had been transplanted by the Ancients to Earth from Pegasus in the first place.

John had asked both Ronon and Teyla to hold classes in Pegasus-style fighting for all the members of the expedition, much to Rodney's dismay. John himself continued to spar with both Ronon and Teyla one on one.

It was Teyla who'd convinced him he needed to wear something less binding across his shoulders for the workouts than his usual heavy cotton garrison uniform.

"It's not the shirt that's the problem," he'd counter-argued.

Teyla disagreed. "That may be, but this clothing is too restrictive for training purposes. You should wear something more suitable or nothing at all."

He'd chosen to pull out his old black t-shirts and make them work.

And work he did. Both Teyla and Ronon forced him to work harder than he'd ever worked before, pushing him, not accepting his limitations as reason to go easy on him. He'd thought he was fit enough before, but he found that with the additional workouts, even his morning jogs were becoming easier.

It still didn't help keep him from being frustrated by his comparative lack of speed, by his inability to keep up with Ronon and Teyla. He knew exactly how Rodney must feel while working side by side with the scientists in his lab.

After today's particularly grueling workout, he went limping back over to the bench. He sat down heavily, grabbing a towel to mop his face and then pulling out his boots so he could put them on again. Teyla had insisted that he spar barefooted on the slick surface of the training area and he had seen her point. But without the support his boots gave him, his ankle was usually killing him by the end of the workout. He'd thought about taping it, but that had seemed like cheating. He pulled out his socks from where they were stuffed down into his boots and put them back on.

"Do not be discouraged, John," Teyla said as she put away the rods. "This form of fighting is new to you, but you are really doing quite well, considering."

"Considering?" John felt his head come up sharply at the words, his fingers stilled on his laces.

"Yes." Teyla frowned slightly at him. "Considering that Bantos is taught to all Athosian children from the time they can walk and they spend a lifetime mastering it. What did you think I meant?"

He felt his face burn and he ducked his head to finish lacing the boots. "I thought maybe you meant given my…you know," he said, not looking up.

Teyla's hand came to rest on his shoulder and he had no choice but to meet her eyes then. "I do not see a man with short-comings here."

He pulled back until her hand slipped away. "Really, Teyla?" he drawled. "Odd. That's all I see every time I look in the mirror."

"Then perhaps you should stop doing so," Teyla said with a shade of tartness to her voice. "The only limitations you have are the ones of your own making."

"Do you really believe that? Can you honestly look at me, work out with me, and say that? What exactly do you see when you look at me?" He tried not to sound angry but damn it, he wasn't going to be patronized. Not by a beautiful woman who was graceful and athletic and everything that he was not. He leaned on his palms as he rested his hands on his thighs, tilting his head to look up at her.

Teyla folded her arms and narrowed her eyes before giving her assessment. "I see a courageous man, a strong man, someone who has been forced through circumstances to rise to his potential and he still cannot believe that he has that potential. I see a man who is inflexible only to the extent of the shields that he has put up around him to protect himself. Shall I go on?"

"No, no," John tossed a hand in the air and leaned back as though blocking a strike. "Obviously one of us needs to see an ophthalmologist. An eye doctor," he explained when Teyla looked confused. "We don't see eye to eye," he continued when she still didn't get it. "That means that since we have such very different viewpoints, one of us must be wrong. It's a joke." He nudged her arm with his elbow.

"Ah," Teyla said with comprehension. "Then I would like to point out that between us, I am the one with two eyes." Her voice was solemn but her expression sparkling as she added, "That was a joke as well." She nudged him back.

John felt his mouth gape open before he found himself chuckling back at her.

The radio signaled in his ear and he lifted a hand to indicate to Teyla he had to answer the page before tapping the earpiece and saying, "Sheppard here."

"Colonel." Peter's voice sounded a bit wary. "We've got someone who's dialed in from Athos claiming to know Teyla and asking…well, essentially asking for asylum. He says his name is something like Kay-non."

John had hoped when he'd left a radio behind on Athos that someday someone would come calling, but he hadn't actually thought it would happen.

"Oh really?" he drawled, rolling a glance sideways at Teyla. "We'll be right there. Sheppard out." He turned to Teyla. "Seems like you have a visitor."

John watched with Ronon and Rodney from off to one side the gate room floor as the shield was dropped and Kanaan was allowed to enter Atlantis. The young man came through the gate and paused to look up in awe at his first view of Atlantis—as mythical a place in his culture as it had been on Earth. He quickly noted as well the armed contingent of marines watching his every move. As soon as he saw Teyla however, he had eyes only for her.

Dropping his animal-hide bags, he took two strides in her direction, stopping to stand with outstretched arms. "Teyla," his voice was imploring. "I had to see you again. I…I think your father is wrong. I think that joining forces with these people here is our only hope. I want to be here with you, Teyla."

Teyla stood with her back ramrod straight, her beautifully sculpted arms folded across her chest. One foot stood was position slightly in front of her body. It didn't quite tap on the floor. "It took you a long time to reach this conclusion, Kanaan," she said coolly.

He let his arms fall to his sides. "I tried to reason with your father, with Halling, with the others. I tried to change their minds. I failed." He dropped his head briefly in shame and then looked up again, with a somewhat hopeful expression to John's eye.

"You think Teyla's going to forgive him?" Rodney leaned in to mutter his question at John in an aside.

John tilted his head at an angle in speculation. "I think so. Eventually."

"I hope for her sake we don't have to kill him," Ronon growled suddenly.

John snorted and then clapped both of his friends on the shoulder simultaneously. "Why don't we go over there and impress that point on him?"

"So this is the big day, huh?" John spoke to Elizabeth as he entered the infirmary and took in the bustling activity all around them.

Elizabeth smiled at him. God, she looked so much better it was hard not to blame himself for not realizing just how bad she'd looked before. Even her hair was back to its glossy, walnut brown. She was wearing her usual red top over black pants, having dispensed with changing into scrubs for her treatments a long time ago.

"Carson thinks this will be the last treatment. It is, however, why he's asked both you and Rodney to go in together on this one." She fairly sparkled at him.

John just nodded. The last time he'd done a rotation in the treatment cycle, there had been very few 'rabbits' to hunt down. Not that he'd been called upon too many times in the rotation—Carson's gene therapy had proven to activate the latent ATA gene in about 35 to 40 percent of the those expedition members that carried it. As Elizabeth's condition improved, the pattern of battle had changed from shooting rabbits in an all out war to hunting down stragglers. He'd particularly enjoyed racing the warthogs on the beach. But he was relieved that they were reaching the end of treatment now.

"Can't wait to turn over the reins back to you," he confessed.

"Oh, I don't know," Elizabeth said airily. "I think this new division of authority is not such a bad thing." She snorted with laughter when John looked askance at her. "Oh John," she said with a chuckle. "If you could see your face…"

"Okay, here we are, let's go," Rodney came bursting into the room, rubbing his hands together as he spoke. "Carson!" he called out. "Why aren't you set up yet? I don't have all day here, you know!"

"You got plans?" John said sarcastically.

"I've always got plans," Rodney said in a Machiavellian tone, which made Elizabeth laugh.

"Well, so do I, Rodney," Elizabeth said. "Teyla's offered to perform a celebratory Athosian tea ceremony for me this afternoon and I'm looking forward to the tormack cookies she's promised."

Rodney quivered to attention like a retriever that had just heard a duck call. "Did you say…?"

"I'll see if I can save a couple for you, but I'm not promising anything," Elizabeth was still highly amused.

"Good, you're all here. Now if everyone would take their places…" Carson went about seating everyone and making the appropriate connections to the equipment. "Now then, Rodney, if you'd like to tell us what to expect here…"

"It's simple. The Colonel and I will work this cycle in tandem. No different from before, though I expect he'll want to take the aerial surveillance and leave me with the groundwork. Yes? I thought so. Anyway, according to you, Elizabeth's blood work has returned to normal and the last three cycles have been clean, so this is more in order of a super-duper clean up cycle before we call her cured."

"And we'll not need to run other cycles in the future?" Carson frowned.

"Well, you can keep checking her blood work, but I've never seen a relapse with this device before—that is, not when you've completed the entire treatment plan, which we have. Shall we get started?"

John settled himself into the program and was soon sitting on the back of some ugly flying bird, circling an island in a cloudless sky, patrolling for any sign of madcap rabbits and taking a diving run at what he presumed to be Rodney riding a warthog on the beach. Since the comical figure gave him the finger in passing, he guessed he'd been right. All in all, the cycle was rather boring compared to previous ones and John found himself stifling a yawn when the words CYCLE COMPLETE appeared on the screen.

"Thank goodness that's over," Elizabeth said with a smile, starting to disconnect electrodes from her forehead.

Carson was fussing over his data pad. John glanced at Rodney, who sat with his eyes closed, as though deep in thought. John was just about to open his mouth and ask Rodney if he was okay when he felt a faint, buzzing sensation ripple through him.

A sudden bolt of pain stabbed him in the eye socket and he reflexively jerked his left hand up to press down on his face, only that arm was still attached to the machine. Hissing with the unexpected pain, he clamped his right palm over his socket and looked up to see Rodney open his eyes.

Their gazes locked.

John knew in an instant what was going on.

"What the hell are you playing at, McKay?" John growled. He brought his hand back down to grip the side of his chair.

Rodney just smirked at him, his expression tight with concentration.

"Cut it out, Rodney. Fuck. You can't do this. It's too much and you know it."

It wasn't like they hadn't talked about it—they had, in exhaustive detail. Carson had gone kind of green around the gills when John had mentioned his idea of using it on Ronon when they'd initially found him so badly injured and Carson had gone on to explain the uses and limitations of the device as he'd understood them. In his opinion, the only safe use of the device had been for exactly what they had planned—using it for chronic disease conditions rather than acute trauma or overwhelming, life-threatening infections and even then only by rotating the users so that the stresses on the 'donor' were not too great. One person, attempting to correct too much at one time, was likely to induce anything from a heart attack to a brain aneurysm on the donor's part.

John had gotten the picture. No heroics.

So what the hell did Rodney think he was doing now?

"If you'd just hold still and quit fighting it," Rodney said through gritted teeth, "everything would be fine."

The pain behind his eye socket intensified and he got the sensation of a bright light again, the way he sometimes did before one of his migraines set in. He was suddenly filled with a white-hot rage. He could just wrest control of the machine away from Rodney and there wouldn't be a goddamned thing Rodney could do about it. He had the stronger gene; he was the one in control here.

"Rodney," Carson said urgently. "You need to stop. Your blood pressure is getting dangerously high here. You could have a stroke."

"You have no fucking right," John snarled. "You don't get to waltz in here and simply change me without asking. This is who I am now."

Rodney's face was red with exertion and sweat was starting to form at his hairline. He looked startled at John's words and his mouth gaped open. "You think this is about me changing you? Shit, John, this is about you not being in any pain, you asshole!"

The momentary loss of focus was all he needed; John seized full control of the machine now.

"Rodney, John, you must stop this!" Elizabeth's voice was commanding but John could hear the fear in it as well. "You're hurting each other."

John's anger ebbed as sharply as it had risen in the first place. Shit, he didn't want to hurt Rodney. That was the last thing he wanted. Rodney was his friend. Rodney was…Rodney was probably the single-most important person in his life. Rodney had given him back his life and in doing so, had given him back the city, his friends and even the family he thought he'd never have again. He loved them all fiercely and the realization of that staggered him.

There was one thing he could do for all of them.

He concentrated on Rodney's hands.

He knew he wouldn't have much time. He wouldn't bother trying to restore them to their former appearance—once he'd gotten over that first, initial shock, it had never mattered to him what Rodney's hands had looked like. But to give Rodney full use of his hands again—that was something he could do. That was something Rodney wanted more than anything else. Giving Rodney back his hands would probably save more lives than anything John had ever done as CO here.

It was something worth dying for.

He could feel Rodney resisting him, trying for supremacy over the device again. It wasn't until Rodney made a pained noise and dropped the controller to shake out his right hand that John knew he was on the right track. He envisioned Rodney's hands as being taken over by nanites, being reconstructed from the inside out, just the way Rodney had described occurring in another Elizabeth in another universe, mortally wounded in an attack on the city.

He pictured the bones of Rodney's hands being remodeled on a cellular level, freeing them of scar tissue and adhesions, ligaments loosening and becoming more flexible again, bones straightening, joints returning to their former size.

"John!" Carson's voice seemed like it was coming to him from a distance. He could tell Carson was upset, but it was hard to hear him over the increasingly loud buzzing in his ears. "Your heart rate is going through the roof, man. You must stop."

"Carson, do something!" Elizabeth said, her voice becoming shrill with fear for both of them.

John felt an arm roughly grab him on his blind side, he started to protest when all of the sudden a shock wave blasted through his body and he knew no more.

He awoke to the sound of a beeping monitor and a pounding headache. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton and it took him a second to focus before he realized he was flat on his back in the infirmary with an IV line in his hand and half a dozen monitors hooked up to him.

Ronon was sitting to his right, watching him silently.

"Wha…happened?" It took him a moment to get his tongue working.

"You and McKay had a race to see who could be stupider and you both won." Ronon looked a little annoyed.

"Carson…Rodney!" John tried to sit up and felt the room spin. Ronon placed a large hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down.

"They're okay. No thanks to you. Teyla's sitting with McKay now. Beckett was knocked out briefly, but he recovered faster than the two of you."

"What exactly happened?" John's voice was stronger now. He remembered the struggle he was having with Rodney over the device and then… "Carson touched the device, didn't he?"

"Way I heard it," Ronon grinned suddenly, "is that when he did, the machine exploded and threw you guys around the room like rag dolls."

"Shit." John closed his eye briefly and sighed. "But no one was hurt, right?"

"You're the last one to come out of it. So are you okay?" Ronon was sprawled in his chair, long legs stretched out in front of him. Despite looking at ease, there was a note of concern in his voice.

"Do you mean, do I know who I am? Are my brains scrambled? I think I'm okay." He reached up to rub the eye socket with his left hand, sliding his fingers under the patch. With a sigh, he dropped his hand and began to fiddle with the IV.

"Where do you think you're going, Sheppard?" Ronon frowned.

"I need to go talk to Rodney," John explained as he peeled back the tape on his hand. "I want to know what the fuck he was thinking."

Ronon reached out unexpectedly and grabbed John's hand, smoothing the tape back in place before letting go. "No way. Doc says you gotta stay put. It can wait until morning. McKay's not going anywhere and neither are you."

Ronon's word was final.

It had been late when he was finally released from the infirmary. He'd caught up with Stackhouse and made sure nothing too strange had happened while he was out of it, found out that Rodney had been released earlier and decided to postpone meeting with Elizabeth until the next day.

The next morning he awoke stiffer than usual, so he decided not to run but to just swim instead. The long, slow, steady strokes in the water were just what he needed to clear his head. When he was done, he went down to the mess for some breakfast before tackling the rest of the day.

It was still pretty early when he arrived, but he noticed Teyla sitting at a table outside on one of the balconies and he brought his tray over to take a seat across from her.

She smiled serenely at him when he sat down. "I am glad to see that you are well, John," she said as she greeted him. "How are you feeling?" She spooned out a mouthful of that yogurt-type stuff they were making now and chased it with a delicate bite of glia fruit.

He had to think about that for a moment. Aside from the muscle soreness, which was a little worse than usual, he felt about the same as always. He gave a little shrug, a grimace and then rubbed his collarbone. "Rain later today, I think."

"That was not what I meant and you know it," Teyla said with a sardonic eyebrow raised. "Have you spoken to Rodney?"

"Not yet," John admitted. He buttered his toast and took a bite of it. They were using that new flour they'd traded for on Kenton recently and it had a pleasantly nutty taste.

"I certainly hope you are not 'giving him some time'," Teyla said as she sipped from her mug of tea. "I do not think that method of arbitrating disagreements is as effective as you think it is."

John looked up sharply at her words, but Teyla's expression was both knowing and amused and John snorted softly in response.

"It's not intentional; I just haven't caught up with him yet."

The silence stretched between them as they continued to eat their breakfast, but it didn't strike John as uncomfortable at all. A thought suddenly occurred to him and he asked, "So, how's Kanaan getting along?"

Teyla's amused look told him that she'd followed his train of thought and didn't think his question had arisen out of the blue at all. "Well, I believe," she said. "I have suggested that he assist Sergeant Stackhouse as a guide on his team—I hope that is all right with you?"

"If I had my way, I'd have a native from Pegasus on every team. But are you sure that's what you want, Teyla? I mean, well, you know, if you wanted him to join our team…"

Teyla gave a small shake of her head. "As you said, I think he would be of greater use on a different team. Besides, it will not hurt for him to see me as independent of him. I have noticed that the women of your culture are sometimes seen as needing protection and their opinions are not always given equal weight as those of their male counterparts. For the most part, men and women of Athos are considered equals. However, there are situations where emotions can cloud judgment."

"Oh yeah?" John said, using his bread to push the powdered egg-product onto his fork. Because what could he say to that sort of statement?

"Yes," Teyla nodded. "Kanaan has developed an odd misconception about my relationship with you and though I assure him that it could not be further from the truth, he is jealous of you."

"Me?" John was taken aback. "He thinks you and I…?" John waggled his finger back and forth between the two of them.

"Yes," Teyla sighed. "Which is patently ridiculous, given your relationship with Rodney."

John felt his face burn with the sudden flush of embarrassment. "Teyla…" he began.

"Do not worry yourself on that account, John," Teyla reassured him. "Ronon has explained to me the concept of 'don't ask, don't tell' and while I disagree in principle with hiding your feelings for another person, I do understand. There is a sect within the Athosian population who believe that it is our civic duty to bear as many children as possible, starting at a very early age, so as to replace our numbers in our on-going battle with the Wraith. There is another faction who believes in limiting childbirth, so as not to bring children into a world threatened by Wraith. Needless to say, conversations after the hunt could get quite heated at times."

At a loss for what to say, John found himself asking, "So have you seen Rodney?"

Teyla executed a series of finger snaps with alternating hands, resulting in a syncopated rhythm as she smiled at John. "I saw him last night. I suspect he is down in the labs this morning. I suggest you bring a muffin with you."

"Oh, there you are," Rodney said as he entered the lab, as though nothing unusual had passed between them the last time they'd met. He was wearing a lab coat over that short sleeved, slate blue shirt that brought out the color in his eyes. He looked impossibly young, like some sort of fresh-from-college post-grad student. "Get over here, I want to show you something," he waved imperiously.

The lab was empty at this early hour.

John did as he was told; placing the tormack muffin he'd brought on the edge of the workstation beside Rodney.

"Sit, sit," Rodney indicated a chair and then snagged the muffin, smelling it suspiciously and adding, "I told Teyla to tell you to bring me one of those not-blueberry muffins."

John paused in the act of pulling over a nearby chair in which to take a seat. "You told Teyla?"

"Well, yes," Rodney said in all seriousness. "I knew she'd be talking to you sooner or later, she always does, so I made a point of telling her which kind of muffin you should bribe me with."

"Bribe you?" John swung the chair around so he could straddle it backwards and face Rodney.

Rodney gave him a sort of pitying look. "Yes, of course, bribe me. Into forgiving you." He peeled back the paper and took a huge bite out of the muffin, setting it down on the counter and wiping his fingers on his pants afterwards.

"I should bribe you into forgiving me?" John felt his jaw clench and the strong desire to grind his teeth.

"Are you okay? Is it that memory thing again?" Rodney leaned in and asked in a hushed whisper and just at the point when John was about to lose his cool, he snickered.

"Sorry, sorry, I couldn't help myself." Rodney sat up straight, still chuckling to himself and tapped rapidly on his keyboard, calling up some schematics on the overhead screen. "I wanted you to see this. These are the schematics for your new eye."

"My what?" John inhaled sharply.

"Your new eye," Rodney repeated calmly, as though he had said 'your new pair of shoes'. John knew he wasn't really calm; the energy buzzed off of Rodney as though he'd had a thousand cups of coffee that morning.

Rodney suddenly scooted his chair sideways, coming to a sliding stop at the next workstation over, collecting a laptop and then careening back. "Look, look," he said eagerly as he connected the laptop to the mainframe and brought up additional information. "I found the design specs in the database a few weeks ago. It seems like the Ancients, having decided that they could not control the nanites in Replicator form, were still interested in developing prosthetics, or at least some of them were. It appears to have been a controversial topic, with some people arguing that it might interfere with Ascension, but that's neither here nor there. See? This baby will be able to do all kinds of things that your own real eye could not. Night vision, infrared, telescopic vision too. All I had to do was create an interface while we were both hooked up to the healing device and make sure that your optic nerve could interact with it and presto, bingo!" Rodney snapped his fingers. "New eye for John. Of course," he turned to look at John in frowning speculation, "we'll never be able to match that muddy color you've got there. What do you call that? Duck pond brown? With just a hint of algae?"

"Hazel," John said automatically. "You were trying to create an interface?"

"Yes, yes, successfully too, according to Carson. What did you think I was trying to do—grow you a whole new eye? I'm not that crazy, I would've probably burst my own eyeballs with the effort if I'd attempted something like that. Of course, I was planning to delegate the work of building the artificial eye to other people, with my extreme, direct supervision, naturally, but that won't be necessary now." Rodney waggled his fingers in John's direction. "You made these possible but your own self-sacrificing nature almost turned this whole scenario in a seriously morbid Pegasus version of the Gift of the Magi. Though considering the amount of communication that couple had, their marriage was doomed, doomed I say, from the start."

Rodney paused to peer at John in mock disapproval. "You know when you grin like that, really grin, and not just show that little half-smirk thing you do, you look like a dork, right?" The impish grin was lurking behind Rodney's expression—it was only a matter of seconds before it broke through. He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers as the grin won rights to his face. The skin on his hands was still discolored and warped, the nails still misshapen or non-existent.

John thought they were beautiful.

"What?" Rodney said suspiciously, a little frown of doubt appearing between his eyes. "Cat got your tongue? You've got nothing to say about all this?"

"Have you eaten breakfast yet?"

Rodney gaped at him and then snatched up the muffin, stuffing the remainder in his mouth. "No, not really," he said around a mouthful of muffin.

John stood, pushing his chair back as he reached forward with his hand to Rodney. "C'mon then, let's get you something more filling than a muffin."

Rodney let John pull him up by one hand while swallowing manfully. "Seriously, that's all you have to say? I've got plans to make you the coolest eye ever and you want to know if I'm still hungry?"

"Can't have you passing out on the job," John drawled as he steered Rodney towards the door. "And you'd better not make me look like a Borg."

Rodney put the brakes on hard and whipped his head around to protest. John just laughingly pushed him out the door.

The cool breeze blowing across the bare skin of his back awoke him and he opened his eye to take in his surroundings. The room was filled with a soft, grey light, a hint of pink in the sky outside. Early still, but late for him. The balcony doors stood open, the curtains pulled aside. There was no sign of Rodney. He lay still, listening, but heard no movement in the bathroom, nothing but the soft sound of the sea outside. Slowly he turned and sat up, running a hand through his hair and scratching at his scalp as he yawned. He gave the ankle a few twists as he sat on the edge of the bed, noting now how the pull was less. It would never be normal again, but it was a lot better than it was. Pulling the blanket around his shoulders for warmth, he stood and went over to the balcony doors.

Rodney was leaning against the rail, gripping it with both hands and resting one bare foot casually on the lower railing. He was wearing his ratty, white bathrobe and was seemingly unconscious of the chill in the air. In the early morning light, John could see clearly what his fingers felt the night before, the burn scars that roped Rodney's forearms and hands, marking him and yet identifying him too. John could place a hand on Rodney in the dark and know instantly who he was—and where John was by the same token.

He closed his eye for a second, smiling at the sudden rush of memory, the feel of those hands running over his skin, the sensations they'd discovered within him begging for release. He opened his eye again and tilted his head. Rodney was right. He did have the best ass in Atlantis.

As he watched, Rodney lifted one hand from the rail and stood looking down at the palm. John knew what he was looking at and moved out onto the balcony.

Rodney's smile over his shoulder was both welcoming and painful. "Hey," he said, looking down at his hand again.


"I never told him," Rodney began slowly, "how much I…how important he was to me."

John moved over to the railing, so that one blanket clad arm came to rest near Rodney's hand. "He knew."

Rodney's eyes flashed with anger, a sudden summer storm. "Oh that's easy for you to say," he began, only to falter and concede. "Well. Maybe it is."

"It's easy for me to say because pretty much, if it's on your mind, it's on your face, Rodney." John kept the words light, even as he swallowed hard. The desire to pull back, to wall himself up again was strong. Don't hurt me.

Rodney turned to look at him then, face screwed up with an attempt to keep emotion in check. John wanted to reach out and touch him, to pull Rodney into his arms and run his hands over that broad back, to bury his nose behind Rodney's ear, feel the roughness of stubble catch against his own and taste Rodney's skin beneath his lips. Instead, he shivered slightly and tightened his grip on the blanket around his shoulders.

"Your injuries…the scars. They didn't come from plasma burns, did they?" Rodney was looking at him earnestly now, his eyes pleading for a certain answer and the only answer John had to give was the truth.

"No." John noted with satisfaction the 'I knew it' expression on Rodney's face and the rest of the words just flowed out of him. "I was tortured. Repeatedly."

Rodney inhaled sharply and then seemed to hold his breath, eyes wide with shock and dawning comprehension.

John had to look away, to look out over the sea, where the sun was starting to come over the horizon in a painfully bright way. "I used to wonder," he said softly, "if they somehow knew. Knew that deep down I preferred men. That this was some sort of punishment for me."

Rodney made a sort of choking noise and John looked back at his face, thinking not for the first time that Rodney was going to have trouble with his blood pressure some day. Rodney reached out and gripped John's arm over the blanket. "Tell me," he said in an awful voice, "that the people who did these things to you are all dead. Because if not, that can be rectified."

John couldn't help it; he snorted. "Revenge is a dish best served with an excellent vocabulary?"

"And a thermonuclear device," Rodney snapped.

John burst out laughing, a hard, honking laugh like he hadn't done in ages.

Rodney gave his arm a little shake. "Hey, I'm not joking here."

"I know," John continued to chuckle. "That's what makes it funny."

A reluctant smile pulled at the corner of Rodney's mouth. He released John's arm, turning back to the rail, bumping John's shoulder with his in passing. He gave a little shiver himself. After a beat, he said in a small voice, "I'm not quite sane, am I?"

"No," John said carefully. "You're not." He lifted his arm, opening the blanket and inviting Rodney to move into the warmth beneath it. Rodney slid into place with a sigh, wrapping his arm around John's waist and turning his face into John's neck as John folded the blanket over the two of them. "That's why you fit in so well with the rest of us around here."

The End




disfigurement, mention of torture, PTSD, AU major character death off camera.  But because I believe in happy endings, this story is not as dark as it sounds.  Really.  The warnings are here just to be safe.

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This story is also dedicated to the_cephalopod, who brought me into the LJ community just so I could participate in last year's sgabigbang.  I can't begin to thank you enough!