Resilience
by
Tira Nog


A/N: My love and deepest thanks to my incredible beta, serpentsgarden for doing such an incredible job

Chapter 1

The meet and greet party for the new expedition members was in full swing and the west dock amphitheatre, with its hundred-foot glass wall overlooking the ocean, was the perfect setting. It was as huge as the jumper bay, but not as utilitarian in design. The place looked like the Ancient equivalent of a cathedral with all its tapered ceilings, spires and stained glass windows. Minus the pews, of course.

When Rodney McKay entered the crowded, noisy room, the party was at a decibel level that would shatter titanium.

"Don't you scientists ever read the memos?" a blond lieutenant in dress uniform said as he passed Rodney in the amphitheatre's entrance. He was one of the new guys. Rodney had never seen him before. "This is a black tie event."

Rodney stared down at his work uniform, then back up at the tall officer and sneered, "Guess I was too busy working on ways to save your ass from the Wraith to remember to pack my tux. And forgive me if I wasn't willing to waste my personal cargo space on something so useless. Besides, I'm not the only one not wearing a penguin suit," he pointed out as he caught sight of Zelenka across the room.

"Yeah, that's right and they're all from your department," the lieutenant said with a disgusted shake of his head and walked away.

If he'd needed any proof of how different things were, it was this. When they'd left for the Pegasus galaxy the last time, they hadn't even been allowed to bring ties. Now they were having black tie functions. He wondered what would be next – catering Atlantis for weddings and bah mitzvahs?

Taking in the crowd, Rodney realized that he was dressed totally wrong. With the exception of a few of his scientists, who had obviously come straight from the lab as Rodney had and were similarly clad in science division's familiar blue and tan garb, everyone was in formal evening wear or their military dress uniforms. But what the hell? It wasn't like he'd asked to be here.

Still, forced as his attendance might be, it wasn't all bad. The music was canned, but the food wasn't, and that was all that mattered. The amphitheatre's walls were lined with buffet tables, heavily laden with delicacies fresh from Earth.

The majority of the original expedition team members were grouped around the tables, scoffing down the food as fast as their hands and mouths could move. The two hundred plus newcomers were scattered among the Atlanteans and Athosians, chatting amiably while the war-stressed, long-term inhabitants gorged themselves with whatever degree of politeness to which that particular soldier or scientist's social skills could lay claim.

There was a small, but enthusiastic group in the empty center of the room gyrating to the Rolling Stone's Start Me Up. McKay felt his lips twitch as he noticed Teyla out there on the makeshift dance floor. Sergeant Stackhouse was attempting to teach her something no one with a body that hot needed lessons to do well. Teyla seemed to be legitimately enjoying herself, but as Rodney watched, he couldn't help but note how Stackhouse's smile seemed epoxied to his face, like he was out there forcing himself to have a good time.

Stackhouse wasn't the only one. Rodney wondered if Major, no, Lt. Colonel Sheppard had ordered his men to attend, much the same as Elizabeth had asked him to come as a personal favor to her. It had been almost two months, but Rodney still couldn't look at Stackhouse without thinking of his missing sidekick, Markham. They'd been a joint pair on so many missions that Rodney had rarely seen one without the other.

It was strange how empty the room seemed, even though there were more people assembled in it than the city had seen since its builders had abandoned it ten thousand years ago. With the Daedalus' crew and Athosians, there had to be close to four hundred people in the place. The noise in the room declared how populated it was, and yet, as Rodney surveyed the party, he was achingly aware of those who were no longer present.

Elizabeth had looked lopsided for months now without Peter Grodin shadowing her. Rodney was beginning to get used to Peter's absence, but it was hard to lose such an essential team member.

And now Aiden Ford was gone as well. Rodney hadn't expected to feel so much over his loss, but not a day went by that he didn't miss the younger man's boyish enthusiasm. The kid brother bantering Ford and Sheppard had engaged in had added something to each of their missions that Rodney knew he'd miss. It wasn't like he and Ford had been close, for Rodney had never really been able to make that claim with anybody. But Ford had saved his hide more times than he could count, and, although they were so different that they might as well have been raised in different galaxies, Ford had always shown him a level of respect and patience that had been rare in his life.

Rodney would never forget the way Ford had thrown his arms around him and hugged him when they'd solved the nanovirus. That hug hadn't been anything momentous to Ford, just an expression of his relief, joy, and gratitude, something that he'd do with anyone he knew well, but it was the first spontaneous hug Rodney could remember receiving since kindergarten. That casual gift of Ford's had caused a shift in Rodney's perspective that he was only now beginning to acknowledge. It had made him recognize what was lacking in his own life.

Or maybe he was just losing it, Rodney thought. Standing inside the doorway in a party, thinking about a man who'd been gone nearly two months was hardly sane. But, then, after what they'd been through this last year, who could be expected to be sane? Life-force-sucking, technologically superior vampires might be the fodder of a bad SciFi channel original movie, but it was their reality now.

Normally, Rodney kept his attention on his work and tried not to think about these things. The threat of daily, imminent extinction had a way of focusing him that nothing else could rival, but tonight he didn't seem able to distract himself. Not so much from the ever present fear, but from too many losses that there'd been no time to properly mourn.

And how different was that – feeling the need to mourn someone? Before coming to Atlantis, Rodney was so centered on his projects that he hardly ever noticed when he was the last one left in the lab. He would forget it was Saturday, come in, and not notice he was alone in the place until he tried to get lunch from the closed cafeteria. When he was in Area 51, Lindstrom was always dragging him out after they'd both been there more than eighteen hours.

The thought of Lindstrom stabbed through him like a knife. He'd talked his former co-worker into joining the expedition. Lindstrom hadn't survived long enough to even make it to the city.

Rodney knew that there was nothing more he could have done. Hell, that damn computer virus had nearly poisoned him, too. But, last night, after finally making it home to Atlantis, he was unable to escape the awful image of poor Lindstrom, screaming for help as he was blown from the airlock. Even now his heartbeat kicked into overdrive and his lungs tightened like he was about to go into a panic attack just thinking about it.

He knew that his present low mood was an aftereffect of yesterday's crisis of the moment, the Wraith computer virus that had nearly killed them all on the Daedalus' return trip. Realistically speaking, even with someone of such superior intellect and leadership qualities as himself, how many times could the fate of the entire mission be placed on one person's shoulders before the stress started to show?

Two months ago, they'd given him forty seconds to save the city. Yesterday, he'd had two minutes to calibrate the Asgard transporter or John would have been a dead man. Or the Colonel would have been a dead man, he mentally corrected himself.

With all the other stresses upon him, Rodney knew he couldn't afford to get sloppy about that. Sheppard had to remain the Major or the Colonel, or whatever distinction Rodney could come up with to remind himself that some things could never happen, even in the Pegasus galaxy.

Rodney only had to look over to where Sheppard was laughing with Elizabeth, Kate Heightmeyer, and that pretty blonde technician from the Daedalus' bridge to have the utter impossibility of that particular issue driven home. Sheppard had naturally enough gravitated to three of the most stunning women in the room. Elizabeth looked unbelievable in her long red gown. Dr. Heightmeyer was wearing a flowing, cottony turquoise and green skirt with a low cut black shimmering top. While the technician had her long blonde hair loose and was dressed in a lilac sundress. Their brains might rival any geek on the floor, but at the moment, the women looked like models. John himself was similarly decked out in his dress uniform like a poster boy for America's bravest and best. Sheppard even appeared to have shaven for the occasion. Rodney knew John was still showing off his new rank, otherwise he would never have worn the dress uniform, but he looked damn good in it all the same. Rodney tried not to allow himself to speculate how much better John would look out of it.

If the sight of Sheppard charming the three loveliest Earth women on Atlantis wasn't enough to reinforce the utter impossibility of this insane infatuation, all Rodney need do was to recall the exquisitely beautiful, utterly perfect Ancient woman whom the Colonel had Kirked out over. Sleek, feminine bodies, warm curves, pretty faces – this was what turned John Sheppard on, not slightly-pudgy, egotistical geeks with double chins and receding hairlines.

Rodney couldn't even let himself think of this ridiculous infatuation as a dream, a desire, or even a hope, because too much hurt was packed into the reality of knowing that the only person he'd managed to make any kind of real emotional connection with would never see him as anything but a friend.

But sometimes when Sheppard and he were trading intellectual barbs and the playful, almost flirtatious insults that were the earmark of their relationship, Rodney would forget for a moment. He'd lose himself in those glinting hazel eyes that were charming their way straight through the Pegasus Galaxy, and nothing else would matter but the connection he'd made with this man. In his thirty-six years of life, Rodney could count the number of times he'd forged an actual attachment to another human on one hand, and come up with four, well, probably five if he were being totally honest, fingers left over.

He wasn't the sort of man who inspired either friendship or affection. He knew that. The war zone that was his childhood had left him in no doubt that he'd never been loved or wanted, but he was too old to blame his social leperdom on his parents. Geniuses just had trouble fitting into society. Normal people were envious or resentful of their superior intelligence, and Rodney was self-aware enough to know that he was a genius among geniuses. Atlantis had the best of the best, and even here his superior intellect isolated him from the other scientists. Most were bitterly resentful of him like Kavanagh, but there were a few like Zelenka, who was like Lindstrom in that he almost seemed to admire him, who joked with him and didn't hold his temper outbursts against him.

But Lindstrom was gone now. More gone than Ford.

Rodney took a deep breath, desperately trying to forget Lindstrom's expression as he'd faced down his death.

His mind on poor Lindstrom, Rodney stood there in the entranceway lost in thought, his gaze on Sheppard's party.

As if the Ancient gene had warned Sheppard that he was being observed or as if he'd actually felt Rodney enter the room, those hazel eyes left Elizabeth's face, homing in unerringly on Rodney's gaze.

And suddenly, all thoughts of Lindstrom's gruesome death were gone. The charge that jolted through him when their eyes met felt like a lightning strike or an intensely powerful EM field discharging. The breath caught in Rodney's chest and his insides tightened. For a second, he was sure he was having a heart attack, or maybe it was another after-effect of the radiation exposure. It just seemed like he'd never breathe again.

Sheppard flashed him a grin and a wave, which all three of the women copied. But Rodney barely saw the others. All that was real to him was John's smile and the utter impossibility of what that smile seemed to silently promise.

When Rodney saw Sheppard's eyes narrow in concern, he forcibly pulled himself together, pasted on a smile, waved back at the group, and then staggered to the nearest buffet table.

Food would help. Kick up his blood sugar level, and maybe then this damn blue funk would pass. He hated feeling this way.

It took twenty-five deep breaths before the tightness in his chest let up and he was actually able to take in the contents of the buffet table. One glance at the clear plastic ice water pitchers and Rodney knew that the cooks were trying to kill him again. Every one of the damn things had sliced lemons floating in it.

Next to the water jugs was a huge platter of pink shrimp, but since shellfish could sometimes cause a reaction, Rodney moved on down the table. A huge bowl of half-eaten onion dip sat next to the shrimp. There were several types of chips and crackers next to the dip, plus some baby carrots. On the other side of the chips was a huge platter of Swedish meatballs. Pay dirt.

Feeling more himself by the moment, Rodney dove into the dip and meatballs and spent the next fifteen minutes gleefully stuffing his face. He was on his thirty-fourth meatball when he glanced over at the next table and dropped the thing from his hand at the sight of Samantha Carter in a slinky black party dress, reaching for something on the next buffet table. She had her back to him, but there was no mistaking her lithe figure and short blonde hair.

Even now, with his confused, hopeless attraction to John Sheppard, Sam Carter could still get to him.

There was no way she could be here. Rodney knew that. He'd seen the passenger manifest. Unless she'd stowed away in a storage crate in the Daedalus' cargo hold, Sam Carter had not been on board when they'd left Earth, and he'd have known if they'd powered up the Atlantis Gate to bring her through. Yet there she stood, or leaned, and good god, what a sight she was.

Pure lust curling through him, Rodney abandoned his plate next to the meatball platter and bee-lined for Sam, who still had her back to him, but had now straightened up.

"Dr. Carter?" Rodney asked as soon as he was close enough to be heard over Robert Palmer's Simply Irresistible – a fitting theme song for Carter if ever there was one, Rodney privately acknowledged.

She turned at his voice, and Rodney immediately recognized his error. Green eyes, not Carter's blue. Instead of Carter's peaches and cream complexion, her skin was charmingly speckled with freckles. She had an upturned nose, and a sensual round mouth with the kind of red lipstick on it that you saw in porn movies. In fact, that wasn't the only attribute she shared with porn stars. As Rodney took in her ample bosom, he realized that he could never have mistaken her for Carter from the front, even at a distance. However, she was drop dead gorgeous.

"Sorry," he apologized. "I thought you were someone I knew."

"Don't apologize," she smiled. "I've got the same cut as Dr. Carter. It happens a lot."

Remembering his manners, Rodney thrust out a sweaty hand and introduced himself, "I'm Dr. Rodney McKay."

She shook his hand and quickly released it, her eyes narrowing a bit, doubtless from its clammy state. "Barbara Morris."

"You're not one of the new expedition members?" he half-asked. He'd seen everyone's files and knew he wouldn't have forgotten anyone who looked like her, no matter what section she was assigned to.

"No. I work in the Daedalus engine room," she answered.

"Oh." Staring dumbly into her beautiful face, he forced his tongue-tied mouth to work and asked, "So, er, how do you like Atlantis?"

"It's fantastic, isn't it? Like something from a fairy tale," Barbara enthused.

"The city is impressive, isn't it?" he agreed, warming to anybody who liked what he privately thought of as his city.

She nodded, and Rodney was once again left in that hideous position of not knowing what to say. The question 'Is there any chance in the world that you'd have sex with me?' was grossly inappropriate, but it was all his mind could think when he looked at her. Struggling, he stammered, "I'm, er, the head of sciences here." He went on to enumerate his responsibilities and told her about a few of the times he'd had to save the city in what he knew was a nervous rush. He recognized that he was rambling and probably bragging way too much, but he was unable to control the flood of words. He felt like he had when Elizabeth had told him he had forty seconds to save the city, like if he didn't get it all done now, he'd never get a second chance. Finally remembering that you were supposed to let the other person talk, too, when you were flirting, he lamely finished with, "If you'd like, I could give you a private tour of the city. The ZedPM power drive is absolutely incredible."

It was the only thing he could think of to interest an engineer.

Something flashed in her eyes and then her face settled into the stiff expression Rodney was far too familiar with. He'd seen it in scores of beautiful or cute faces, that frozen 'How did this happen and how do I get away from him?' look of horror.

"That's very kind of you, Dr. McKay, but – " Barbara began.

It wasn't an instant denial, so Rodney came on a little stronger. "Call me Rodney, please. If you like the city, you really should see – "

She was in full flight mode. "Dr. McKay, I'm sorry, but you're really not my type. I – " before she finished speaking, someone tall approached behind her.

"Barb?" In black pants, blue silk shirt, and black jacket, Kavanagh looked very unlike himself.

If Rodney had tried all night, he knew he couldn't have inspired the smile that Barbara Morris turned on Kavanagh as she looked up into his blue eyes. Kavanagh might be the biggest asshole in two galaxies, but he cleaned up well. Even Rodney had to admit that if the guy kept his mouth shut, he might be hot. Not the way John was hot, but in a geekier way.

"Hi, Tom," she greeted and explained. "Tom and I were in the same freshman year in Harvard."

Normally, Rodney would have been amused to have the old joke confirmed – How do you know when someone's a Harvard grad? Within thirty seconds of introduction, they'll tell you.

But tonight, Rodney couldn't even crack a smile at the confirmation of that universal law of intellectual elitism. All he could hear was the relief in her voice, like he was some kind of skeeve hitting on her in a club. Recognizing the futility of his effort to get laid or even find some intelligent female company to just talk about something other than the Wraith and dead or missing friends, Rodney stiffly acknowledged his co-worker's obviously timely interruption. "Kavanagh."

Kavanagh nodded, looked from Barbara to him with a malicious, speculative light in his eyes, and then said, "You've got to be kidding, McKay. Not in this lifetime. Even your ego can't be that big."

To her merit, Barbara's face filled with embarrassment at Kavanagh's rude remark. But she still took Kavanagh's arm when he offered it to her. With a subdued, "Good to meet you, Dr. McKay," Rodney's black-clad beauty floated off to the dance floor with his most incompetent staff member.

Barbara looked right on Kavanagh's arm in a way she would never have looked right on his own.

Biting his lower lip, Rodney's fingers curled into painfully tight fists as the humiliation stung through him. He quickly glanced around. Mercifully enough, no one had been close enough to hear. But when his eyes roamed over the crowd, back to where they'd been before he'd thought he'd seen Sam Carter, Rodney found Sheppard's hazel gaze fixed on him with laser-sighting accuracy. Even from across the room, he could see John's mobile expression change.

Rodney braced himself for further scorn. The Colonel might be his co-worker and friend, but Sheppard never passed up an opportunity to take his ego down a notch or two, and right now it was so in the toilet that Rodney didn't think he could stand even playful mockery.

To his confusion, there was nothing like triumph in John's eyes. They looked pained. When Sheppard realized Rodney was staring at him, he quickly averted his gaze. But Rodney knew he'd seen the whole humiliating thing.

He felt the heat of embarrassment scorch his radiation-burned cheeks.

Turning his back on the party, Rodney stood in front of the buffet table. The laughter seemed unnaturally loud now. As much as it felt like it, he knew that everyone back there wasn't laughing at him.

It took him nearly two minutes to notice the champagne glasses on the table in front of him. Needing some false courage, he picked one up and downed it like it was water. The second, third, and fourth glass disappeared nearly as fast.

Champagne normally went straight to his head, and tonight was no exception to that rule. Within moments, he felt flushed and the room seemed to be swaying ever so slightly. He'd thought the booze would help him forget the humiliating rejection he'd just endured, but it only made him feel more depressed. And everyone was still laughing behind him. Unable to bear the sound and happy people another minute, Rodney hurried to the nearest door.

It wasn't the one he'd entered by. This portal whooshed open in front of him and let him out onto the deck that girded the amphitheatre. The sea crashed below in a steady susurration of sound.

It was a cold, windy night. The waves were choppy and the stars shone down on the roiling water with crystal clarity. The salty winds ripped at his eyes, causing them to sting. At least, he told himself it was the sea winds.

Rodney stumbled to the railing, feeling more than a little woozy. Maybe the champagne hadn't been such a good idea, after all. Gripping the rail's cold metal bar, he stared out into the briny gusts, wishing he'd had the sense to forego the booze.

He wasn't alone out here. There were a number of couples taking advantage of the romantic setting to practice mouth to mouth, but they were all a respectable distance away and ignored him with the unspoken courtesy of strangers in the night. As usual, he was the only one alone in such a romantic setting.

As the salty night winds filled his lungs, Rodney knew he'd be lucky if he didn't have an asthma attack or catch a cold by morning. Considering how things were going this week, that would be just his luck.

His health demanded that he go back inside, but he simply couldn't face the party again and the idea of returning to his empty quarters chilled him worse than the crisp temperature.

"Hey," a familiar voice called softly from behind and Sheppard came to stand beside him at the railing. He hadn't even heard the doors open.

Rodney glanced over at his companion. They were both cloaked in shadows. John almost looked like a stranger in his dress uniform. Rodney had never seen him in it before tonight. Good thing. Sheppard was absolutely devastating in his dress uniform.

Not up to pretending, Rodney stated more than questioned, "You saw?" Even he could hear how dead his voice sounded. He didn't know why he needed to confirm that his humiliation was complete. He knew John had witnessed the entire sorry scene.

"Yeah," John answered in a tentative tone before giving a more heartfelt, "Talk about terminal stupidity."

Rodney stiffened in sudden and complete outrage. Had Sheppard just come out here to mock him? "Look, I'm ah-abysmally aware of how utterly I struck out. I don't need you to come out here and rub my nose in – "

Damn, the liquor was affecting his speech now. Just getting the word 'abysmally' out had taken a conscious effort. His mouth kept trying to put in at least four more syllables than the word had.

"Whoa, what are you talking about?" John cut in.

"You just called me schtupid," Rodney shouted, turning his glare on John's perfect good looks. Over John's shoulder, Rodney could see several of the couples on the deck looking their way.

"I wasn't talking about you," John instantly denied in a startled tone.

"You weren't?" Rodney asked stupidly, thrown. John's tone was conciliatory. He didn't understand why he still felt so threatened by it.

"Of course not. Why would I say something like that?"

Although Rodney could hear the genuine confusion in Sheppard's voice, he couldn't hold back the bitterness. It spilled out of him as venomous and black as that energy creature they'd encountered their first week in Atlantis. "Oh, I don't know, maybe because you saw me do something phenomenally embarrashing. Maybe because I am schtupid and never learn. Maybe because I throw my hintel – my intellectual superiority in your face a thousand times a day and you couldn't resist the chance to knock Supergeek's super ego down a notch or two?"

"Supergeek and his super ego, huh?" John responded in that unperturbed drawl that made Rodney want to take a swing at him. "I like it. But do you think you should disparage your super power that way?"

"This isn't funny!" Rodney found himself yelling again, like he always did every time his emotions got the better of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two of the couples slip silently back into the party.

"No," John agreed, instantly sober. "It's not. And you know that isn't why I came out here."

"It's not?" Rodney knew he shouldn't have voiced the words, but he hadn't been able to hold them back. He never could when he was this upset. The drink hadn't helped any, either. Everything just came spewing forth like the water into the submerged Atlantis' outer sections when the shields had failed on their first day here.

"No, of course not," John replied. "You're my friend, McKay. I'm not gonna kick you when you're down."

Rodney struggled to get a hold of his runaway emotions. When he felt he could speak again without any embarrassing yelling, he tightly spat out in his snidest tone, "Sorry. Novel concept."

He just wanted John to go away so that he could lick his wounds in peace.

Rodney saw John's shadow-hidden gaze leave him for a minute to scan their environment. Rodney did the same, trying his best not to sway too much in the wind. The three couples that were off to their left were no longer lip-locked, but were now watching the shouting match. Well, him shouting. John had been perfectly rational the entire time – which only made him madder.

"Come on," John said. "Walk with me."

As with everything since Rodney had come to the Pegasus galaxy, he wasn't given a choice. Sheppard put a hand on his back and guided him down the deck and around the corner of the amphitheatre to the leeward side where there was no audience.

Rodney shivered as the stronger winds pelted him. But he followed along beside John on the deserted deck, occasionally glancing to the right out to sea or to the left to look in through the windows at the party.

"Talk to me," John said in the kind of intimate voice that made Rodney want to drop to his knees in front of him. No one should be allowed to use a tone like that in casual conversation. It was meant for the bedroom, for hot, sweaty sexual instructions like Suck me or Spread 'em.

Rodney tried to not answer, but he was as powerless to refuse as he would have been with the other two orders. John walked beside him, his gaze a steady weight on Rodney's right cheek, calm and collected as though he could wait a century for a reply.

Rodney hated that John knew him so well that he knew he didn't have to do anything more than ask to get him to spill his secrets. He wondered if the tug of wills he felt going on was really happening or if it were simply another symptom of his losing it. He caved, as John had no doubt known he would.

"I just ... get so tired of it sometimes, you know?" Rodney admitted to the quiet man at his side who called him his friend.

"It?" John asked in an encouraging tone.

Rodney couldn't figure out why John was still out here shivering in the cold with him rather than inside having fun talking to a beautiful woman. So, instead of his usual evading, Rodney explained, "The whole ... dating thing. Or, in my case, the not dating thing. It doesn't matter if I try to be myself, or try to impresh, or try to be cool ... they all still run from me like I've got a social disease, every damn one of them."

The silence after he'd spoken told Rodney that he'd done it again. TMI. He'd never get it straight, none of it. Guys didn't admit things like that to each other. He knew that, on a mental level. And yet, he went around spewing his guts like this every time someone would try to be his buddy. Or maybe he did it whenever it seemed someone, anyone, was actually listening to him. Sometimes he really seemed that pathetic to himself. He just couldn't get a single level of the relationship stuff straight.

Straight? Wasn't that a misnomer, in light of his feelings for the man with whom he was conversing.

But John didn't freak out on him or make a joke to get past his inappropriate candor. To the contrary, Sheppard assumed that over-patient, annoying tone he'd use on missions when he was contradicting him. "That's not true, Rodney. They don't all run from you. I've been to your lab. Dr. Takonimi would love if you asked her out."

Was John out of his mind? John had seen how Takonimi acted around him.

"Dr. Takonimi is delusional," Rodney replied, unable to believe that Sheppard was seriously suggesting that he date someone on his staff.

"Let me get this straight. She doesn't treat you like the rest, so she's delusional?" John asked, a smile in his voice, though there was no accompanying flash of teeth.

"No, she's delusional because she doesn't see me, not for who I am. She's got this vision of me in her head that's ... well, it's almost like she believes me when I ..." Rodney didn't know how to complete the sentence.

John helped him out with a softly playful, "Use your super ego super power?"

"Yeah, that," Rodney snapped, though he was grateful that he didn't have to say the words himself.

"I still don't get what's wrong with that," John said.

"It's not just that. You know how, er, verbal I get when bad things start happening?" Rodney said, painfully aware that he'd just treated John to a prime example of it a few minutes ago.

"Yeah, so? She works with you, McKay. She's got to be used to it."

"That's just the point. She's not. When I yell at her, she apologizes to me, even when we both know I'm totally out of line. And if I'm too excited and don't back off – " Rodney paused, not sure how to say this without sounding like a monster.

"Yes?" John encouraged.

"She cries. I mean, not to manipulate me. She's too mush of a professional for that, but the tears start running down her cheeks and she'll schniffle and ... I just can't take someone who folds like that," Rodney admitted. The sad fact of life was that John was really the only one who gave back everything he dished out.

"Christ. I don't blame you. I hate tears myself," John said. When Rodney glanced over at him, he thought John's shadowed face looked horrified.

"Yeah," Rodney said. After a minute, he added a quiet, "Thanks."

"For?"

"For reminding me that there's someone who wants me somewhere, but that I'm not a desperate enough loser to take her up on it just to get laid. Pathetic as it may shound, it feels good to know that even though I'm hard up, I'm not without shome morals." Rodney hated how bad he was slurring his words, but John was acting as though he wasn't noticing.

"Glad to be of help," John said in a comforting wry tone. After a few more steps, Sheppard stopped beside the railing. The wind ripped at his already disorderly hair, whipping it in and out of his eyes.

Their walk had taken them around the deck to the side of the amphitheatre that had no doors or windows. This was the northern end of the west dock, where the winds were the strongest all year round. They could still feel the base rumble of the music, but could no longer see or hear anyone inside.

"McKay?"

"Yes?"

"You're wrong about yourself. There's nothing pathetic about you," John said in a strangely insistent tone.

"Since when do you lie to me?" Rodney demanded, all angry again because the one thing John and he always were was honest with each other. "We both know what I am. Your goons don't even bother to lower their voices when they talk about me. Even the people who reshpect me for my brain mock me on a daily basis, so don't you dare shh-stand there and tell me pretty lies! It doesn't help."

A tight, strangely dangerous tone entered John's still level voice. "I'm not lying."

"Yeah, right," Rodney snarled, totally infuriated. John had never patronized him before. How stupid did he think he was? Feeling totally betrayed, he coldly added, "Thansksh for the pep talk, Maj – Colonel. I'll see you around."

Rodney had stalked a total of two steps when a grip like iron dug into both his biceps and held him in place. John was so far into his personal space that Rodney could feel the heat of his body down his entire left side, despite the night's cold. Something in him began to shake.

John wasn't a toucher. For all his easy camaraderie, John kept as much of a distance from people as he did.

"I don't lie to you," John insisted, no longer cool, no longer controlled. "You know that. You know you know that!"

John sounded like the entire city was at stake here.

It was too dark for Rodney to see the gaze digging into him. Even so close, John's eyes were nothing but the occasional bright flash of white and shadows, but he could feel the power of John's stare.

Locked in that compelling, unseen gaze, Rodney shivered, raged inside, and finally capitulated, "Okay. You don't lie to me." The pressure of the hold on his arms let up some, but John didn't release him. "You're delusional, too."

"Because I respect a man with the raw courage to stand beside me each and every time I've faced certain death?" John demanded.

Rodney couldn't hold back his snort. "Raw courage? Colonel, we both know I'm sho scared at those times that I piss my pants, and I'm not talking figutra-figuratively here. So sha-save me the – "

John cut him off. "But you still do it. Each and every time. It doesn't matter what we're facing or how scared you are, you always find a way to back me up. Courage isn't a lack of fear, Rodney. It's doing what you have to do in spite of your fear, and you do that every damn time."

His throat tightened up so much at John's words that it took him a couple of swallows to loosen it enough to speak, and even then, the words didn't come out sounding right. Not that any of them had. He was aware how badly he was slurring. "Thatsh ... that's ... thank you."

"I know it's hard, but don't let what happened in there before get you down."

"You mean being sexshully repulsive to every beautiful woman I meet?" Rodney laid it on the line, forcing John to see his reality. Or as much of his reality as he dared reveal. Rodney knew, even if John never would, that there wasn't a gorgeous woman in either galaxy that moved him the way John Sheppard did, not even Sam Carter.

"That bimbo wasn't worth your time. She was on the ship yesterday. She has to have known what you did, how you saved the day," John began, clearly unaware how much worse his reasoning made Rodney feel.

Rodney hated how fast he lost it. He could feel the wind stinging his eyes again as he hurt his throat shouting again. "And this is relevant how? She knew, and it shtill wasn't enough. It'sh never enough, no matter what I do. It doesn't matter if I sha-save the city or the galassy or the entire human race. I'm shtill an obnoss’us geek trapped in this pudgy, balding, allergy-ridden body that no one in their right mind wants to get near. Colonel, take my word for it – it sucks being utterly untouchable!" Rodney broke loose and tried to escape, but the champagne was taking its toll on his equilibrium as well as his speech. He stumbled. "Hhumphf – "

His escape ended as the wind was knocked out of him when he impacted with John's solid, if narrow, chest. Strong arms closed around him as John steadied him and commanded, "Stop it."

John was bracing him in what was almost a hug. Rodney couldn't help himself. Instead of breaking clear and maintaining his personal space like he would have done if sober, he found himself leaning into the support John's body seemed to be offering. John was so warm, and it was so cold out here. So cold all the time, really.

John seemed to freeze for an instant, as if ready to pull away, but then John's arms rose around him, the action painfully tentative, like this was something John was as unfamiliar with as Rodney was himself.

Rodney could only stand there frozen in drunken shock as John hugged him. Slowly, his mind caught up with the fact that he was standing here in John's arms, close as a lover.

When Rodney finally had to breathe and release the breath he was holding, he couldn't smell the sea anymore. He was surrounded by John Sheppard's aftershave and the warmer scent of John himself. Since when did Aqua Velva make his senses reel?

If it were even really Aqua Velva. The drugstore aftershave just didn't seem John Sheppard's style, but Rodney was as clueless about men's toiletries as he was female hygiene products. Both were totally outside his realm of experience. When he'd worried about such things in high school, he'd simply borrowed his father's Old Spice. He hadn't bothered with aftershave since then, so what would he know about it?

All he knew was that John was holding him.

They were of a height, Rodney distractedly realized. He was bigger than John, both wider and bulkier, but there was a strength to John's wiry form that belied its slenderness.

That hug Ford had given him six months ago was nothing when compared to this one. Rodney held on for dear life, hugging back with all his might as he buried his face between John's crisp dress shirt and neck. He was holding John so close that he felt the reactive shudder John's body gave when Rodney's breath brushed over the sensitive skin of his neck.

John's purely instinctive shiver had an unanticipated reaction on his own physique. Before Rodney even knew what was happening, he'd gone hard as a rock. For a glorious thirty seconds, he didn't even notice that he'd thrown a rod, but the instant he realized, he froze.

The similar, shocked tension in John's entire body told him that John was aware of his arousal as well.

Rodney pulled back in absolute panic. "Shorry ... I ..."

He what? Rodney frantically searched for an explanation. Was he really going to tell John how he felt about him? Or was he going to tell a lesser truth and admit how absolutely starved he was for any kind of human contact? Neither choice was acceptable. He had to work with this man.

Paralyzed with horror, Rodney could only wait for the inevitable fist to the jaw as his non-existent social skills tried to suggest a game plan that would get him out of here with his dignity intact. But there was nothing in his limited repertoire that covered pressing an erection against a disinterested straight man's hip, a straight man who just happened to be the head of the military in this galaxy and his away team leader. The thirty-four meatballs he'd gobbled down roiled as he acknowledged that he was more screwed than when the jumper ship had become lodged in the Stargate.

No witty, tension-breaking line presented itself, of course. Nor did he have a team of his best scientists frantically working on a plan to extricate him from his present situation. So Rodney just muttered another drunken, " Shorry," to his shocked, probably-former friend, turned on his heel, and fled as fast as he could without actually running.

The wind was high and loud, but he was pretty sure he heard John call out a confused sounding, "Rodney?" as he made his retreat.

*~*~*

What the ... ?

Lt. Colonel John Sheppard's jaw dropped open as McKay gave another strangled-sounding, slurred "Shorry," and hurried away from him down the starlit deck.

"Rodney?" John called, trying to make sense of the last minute, but there was no stopping McKay this time as his inebriated friend rushed around the deck's corner and disappeared from sight.

John made a mental review of what had transpired. He'd followed Rodney out here after he'd seen him strike out with that pretty Daedalus crewman.

Rodney had been upset. There was nothing new with that. Rodney was high-strung . He was usually upset about something. Everything about the guy seemed to work at a faster, more volatile level than the rest of humanity – his ego, his brain, his mouth, his emotions. Intense was just what Rodney McKay was.

But Rodney had also been drunk, which was something John wasn't accustomed to.

John had expected the yelling. The second he'd seen that shapely blonde walk off with Kavanagh – Kavanagh, of all people! – John had known McKay would be bouncing off the walls. He'd never seen anybody down champagne as fast as Rodney had before leaving the party. Clearly, the booze had lowered Rodney's defenses.

He hadn't really expected McKay to be so open about his problems with the opposite sex, but in retrospect, that wasn't really all that out of character, either. Ask Rodney a question, and you'd get more than you ever wanted to hear on the subject, providing McKay didn't think it a stupid question. Then you'd just get a sarcastic dismissal.

John had never met anyone quite like McKay. Rodney didn't seem to have the defensive barriers that most guys did. He didn't use the same macho pretenses that every male John had met since he was ten used. There was no-stiff-upper-lip bullshit in Rodney McKay's universe. When McKay was scared, worried, annoyed, angry, hungry, or hurt, he let the world know in excruciatingly loud and irritating detail. There was no such thing as subterfuge with Rodney. Everything about McKay was right out there in the open for everyone to see.

It was only the good stuff that he kept hidden.

Most people had no patience for McKay. The majority of the expedition found their lead scientist annoying and immature, an irritant to be avoided. But John had seen what the man could do under pressure and that there was nothing immature about Rodney's commitment to Atlantis. That was the bottom line for him. The first week they were here, he'd watched Rodney walk into an energy creature and risk his life for them all. That one act of selfless sacrifice had told him everything he needed to know about Rodney McKay.

So, while the others made themselves scarce around McKay, John had taken the time to try to get to know the man. It wasn't easy, but somewhere along the way, Rodney had become a friend. John hadn't had many of those in the last few years. The black mark on his name had ensured his isolation in Antarctica, and command pretty much accomplished the same thing here. Friends were his rarest gift. Ford's flight had left him one short, so he was feeling a little protective of the few he had left.

When he'd seen that blonde give McKay the cold shoulder earlier tonight, he'd been furious. He knew Rodney could be work, but everyone knew what McKay had risked yesterday. Would it have killed her to dance with the guy?

John realized that he was probably being unreasonable. He knew Rodney. McKay was so self-absorbed that he often missed subtle hints or not so subtle hints. You needed to take a sledgehammer to him just to get a word in edgewise some days. So, it probably hadn't been all the blonde's fault, but John was tired of seeing that crushed look in Rodney's eyes. He'd worn it for weeks after the Wraith had killed Abrams and Gall. It had been there again since Lindstrom had blown out of the airlock yesterday morning. When that bitch had walked off with Kavanagh tonight, McKay had practically been bleeding.

John hadn't been able to stop himself from following McKay out here. He'd known Rodney would be upset, that he'd have to talk him down, but he'd never expected Rodney to ... get turned on by a simple hug from him. Or from anything from him, for that matter. For all that casual acquaintances often believed that McKay was gay, every indication John had had so far told him that McKay was straight, if a little clueless. But there'd been no mistaking that iron hard flesh as anything other than an erection when it had pushed against his hip a few minutes ago.

John knew he should be upset about this. Were it anyone but Rodney, he would have been frantic as to whether he'd slipped up himself and encouraged it. But Rodney hardly ever saw anything outside his own head. Whatever was going on, it was all about McKay.

The question was what to do about it?

John knew he'd already missed the window of opportunity for the believable, spontaneous reaction of a straight man to such an incident. But punching and shouting had never been his style. Even if it had, he couldn't be that much of a hypocrite. Maintaining a safe cover was one thing. Persecuting someone for something that he might have done himself was something else entirely. And, besides, Rodney had been drunk.

As the cold winds ripped at his hair and uniform, John stared out at the choppy, dark sea, trying to decide how to handle this. His thigh could still feel the burn of Rodney's erection pressing into it. He felt wired, jittery in a way he hadn't been in too long a time.

Twenty years of restraint, all shot to hell by a McKay melt down.

Since the day he'd entered the Academy, he'd never acknowledged the part of himself that liked the feel of a buddy's erection humping against his own. He hadn't been such a fraud as to join the other team and bad mouth those who couldn't deny their natures, but John Sheppard had always made damn sure that his own inclinations were fully in check. His commanders would have been astounded by the degree of ruthless self-discipline he exercised on a daily basis.

So far, there hadn't been any true tests to his resolve. John always made sure that he flirted publicly with enough beautiful women to firmly establish his heterosexuality in everyone's eyes, and it wasn't even an act, because he really did enjoy women. In a world of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he'd gotten his fair share of looks, but no other man had ever dared even approach him. And now Rodney McKay had to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into his perfect record by ....

By what?

It wasn't like Rodney had propositioned him or kissed him. Rodney had been drunk and overwrought. He'd just lost control when a warm body pressed up against him unexpectedly. John didn't have to be a genius like McKay to realize how long it had probably been since Rodney'd been laid. It could have happened to anybody.

The fact that Rodney had run the minute he'd realized he was hard assured John that there hadn't been any intent behind the event. It was just an accident that could have happened to any man.

So what to do about it? Common sense and self-protection told him to do nothing. To just pretend it had never happened. But he knew Rodney. That kind of act would just make the situation worse. If they didn't clear this up now, Rodney would dwell on it, and there would be an explosion of McKay proportions at probably the most inconvenient, most public time possible. John recognized that if they were going to get past this, they were going to have to discuss it like adults and put it behind them tonight, before it turned into some huge, hideous crisis.

Giving a last glance to the white-capped waves below, John followed in McKay's wake.

Ten minutes later, he was standing in front of Rodney's quarters. He'd checked the lab on his way. There'd been no one there. He could see a light through the translucent gold and white glass on Rodney's doors.

There was no answer when he pressed the door's signal, but he knew Rodney was in there. He could almost feel him through the Ancient glass.

"Rodney?" he tapped the headset at his ear and called, making a conscious choice to use his friend's first name. "Let me in."

The doors slid open and John stepped inside. He was highly conscious of the doors whooshing closed behind him.

This was the first time he'd ever visited McKay's place. Not that either of them had been in their new quarters long.

Rodney's place had the same basic floor plan as his own. McKay hadn't gotten that balcony he'd wanted, but there were a pair of amazing picture windows looking out over the ocean behind the bed up against the far wall. John's own view was that of the city, pretty, but not nearly as stunning as Rodney's.

Rodney had put up a floor to ceiling bookcase on the wall to the left side of the bed. It contained a strange combination of ancient devices and computer parts. There was a desk facing the wall on the right and a couple of chairs. The wall to the left of the doors was stacked with boxes from Earth that Rodney hadn't unpacked yet.

The place was surprisingly neat. He'd expected a layer of dirty clothes and rotting MRE containers, but aside from the clutter on the bookshelves, Rodney's room would have passed a barracks inspection. The bed was even made with a neat blue comforter, though John didn't allow his gaze to linger there.

John found himself staring instead at the only picture on the nightstand, a five by seven of a well-fed gray tabby cat lying on a red blanket. This was the only personal item Rodney McKay had brought with him from Earth, a picture of his cat?

The irony of somebody who'd only brought a poster of a musician when it came to the picture department casting aspersions on McKay's choice wasn't wasted on John, but Rodney hadn't been blackballed. McKay's family hadn't turned their backs on him. Why would anybody bring a picture of a pet instead of one of a person they'd miss back home?

"Is that your cat?" John asked inanely of the silent man sitting at his desk, staring out at the dark window.

McKay's back was so straight it must hurt.

"Yes," Rodney answered without looking his way. He sounded a hell of a lot more sober now, but that kind of incident could sober a guy up faster than coffee. "You didn't come here to talk about my cat, Colonel."

Hating that dead tone and the obviously intentional use of his rank, John ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "No, I guess you're right. I didn't come to talk about your cat."

"Just say it," Rodney snapped, spinning his computer chair around to face him.

Not that Rodney met his eyes. His friend's gaze seemed to be fixed on the ribbons on his chest. As John watched, those pale cheeks pinked with color.

John didn't think he'd ever seen Rodney look so sick at heart, not even yesterday in the Daedalus' hall when Rodney was telling them how Lindstrom had died in between hits of oxygen.

"I thought we should discuss what happened before things get out of hand," John said in his most reasonable tone. "Do you mind if I sit down?"

Rodney's gaze jumped to his face as Rodney gestured towards the other empty computer chair.

Once seated, John's resolve seemed to desert him. He had no idea how to begin, not with Rodney sitting there watching him so pale and tense, looking like he was about to be marched off to a firing squad.

"I thought you'd be freaking out," Rodney said into the silence, with only the slightest slurring of words. It was as much a question as anything.

Drawing his calm around him, John shook his head, gave a small smile, and said, "No, no freaking out. How about you?"

Rodney actually blinked in surprise. "Yes, freaking out big time here." To illustrate, Rodney held out his right arm, which was visibly shaking. "My heart's racing and I think I might be about to have a panic attack."

John felt his smile grow larger. This was the Rodney he knew, not the drunken, vulnerable man he'd met on the deck a short time ago. Though, John suspected that the Rodney on the deck might have been more the real Rodney McKay than anything he'd seen to date.

Rodney seemed to study him for a moment before asking, "Not that I'm complaining, but why aren't you ... you know, doing the enraged, defending your honor, macho routine?"

"Maybe because what happened wasn't a threat to either my honor or my machismo. You didn't do anything wrong, Rodney. You were just drunk and upset. I'm a guy. I know it's got a life of its own sometimes," John answered, holding Rodney's worried gaze.

"It can't be that easy," Rodney said, searching his face as if he thought this were a set up.

"Yes, it can. It doesn't have to be any harder than we make it," John softly assured.

After a moment, Rodney gulped and some of the tension lining his face seemed to let up. "So nothing's ... ruined? We can still work together?"

Understanding where Rodney's fear was coming from, John assured, "We're fine. It was an accident. It's not like you've been pining away over me for months or something – "

As usual, John didn't know when to quit while he was ahead. One sentence too many. His words cut off as Rodney's always-expressive face blanked out, and something that John reluctantly identified as guilt flickered through Rodney's bloodshot blue eyes for no longer than a single heartbeat before it too was squashed into non-reaction.

Not a word was spoken. Rodney's expression remained totally frozen in its utter inscrutability, but John abruptly knew that he'd been working on some major misconceptions here. John still believed what had happened was a complete accident, but clearly, pining away was an issue.

The fact that Rodney was dead silent and not yelling and gesticulating told him just how serious an issue it was. The only time Rodney got quiet like this was when things were way past the code red zone and well into complete doom.

So, serious pining and doom. That was where Rodney's head was at. The question was, where was his own?

Mostly, John was shocked. Rodney had never struck him as being able to conceal something this huge, but, then, he realized that for all his nervous chatter and flying off the handle, Rodney had to be able to keep a secret. McKay had been in charge of Top Secret military projects for nearly a decade now. The Air Force didn't put someone who couldn't keep his mouth shut in that kind of position of authority.

The ramification that Rodney wanted him was slow to filter in. Only as the silence grew thicker and tension closed in around them did John finally absorb that serious pining meant serious pain. Rodney's chillingly empty gaze told him how devastating this was to him.

But that still didn't tell John how he felt about this development himself. Rodney wanted to have sex with him. Rodney had probably lain in that bed right there with his hand pumping his cock as he thought about his naked body ...

John was weirded out by the idea, but nowhere near as freaked as he should have been.

Maybe because he couldn't see Rodney as any kind of threat. He knew Rodney would never put him in the awkward or unpleasant situation of having to reject an advance. Everybody jerked off to thoughts of someone. That Rodney would be fantasizing about him ...

John's heart seemed to race for a moment, his breathing hitching painfully in his chest under a blast of raw ...

John ruthlessly slammed the door on his reaction. Surprise, it was just surprise, he frantically told himself as he willed his body to relax.

What the hell was wrong with him? This was Rodney McKay, for Christ's sake. His friend, for sure, but still the most irritating man on the planet. Yet his heart was racing like it used to when the absolutely gorgeous Jimmy Burton used to go down on him in sophomore year at high school. He couldn't think, could barely breathe.

Shit. This was so not good. On the verge of a panic of McKay-ish proportions, John slammed down hard on his body's reactions. He did not go there anymore. Not for twenty years. He sure as hell wasn't going to ruin that record because Rodney McKay was a horny drunk.

After a moment, John could breathe again. Everything was okay. He told himself that it was strange that Rodney would be thinking of him that way, but not revolting or anything. It was good that he wasn't freaked. He was just ... shocked. That's what it was, shock. He hadn't seen this coming at all.

That was the most truthful part of his near-freak out, the fact that this had totally blindsided him.

John couldn't say that he'd ever even considered the idea of doing it with Rodney McKay. First, he'd believed Rodney was straight, and, even if Rodney wasn't, his friend had never given him any indication that he thought about him that way. More importantly, John never allowed himself to speculate along those lines, at all. Also, reluctant as he was to admit it, Rodney had been right before. The physical attraction thing hadn't exactly happened. Rodney just wasn't the kind of guy who'd ever have interested him. If John had lived a different kind of life and seen Rodney in a club, he would never have approached the man or accepted an advance from him.

But John hadn't lived that kind of life. He hadn't met Rodney in a pick up joint. Rodney was his friend, probably his closest friend at this point. He didn't look at Rodney and see the receding hairline and soft waist Rodney had mentioned earlier. It was more complicated than that.

John took a deep breath, trying to clear his head, but he felt all twisted up inside.

Rodney wanted him. That was all his mind could think about.

John knew what the right thing to do was. A gentle refusal was called for here. It wasn't like he'd never had to turn anyone down before, but always in the past it had been women he'd been dealing with. Never guys, and never one this close to him. Even with those strangers, John hadn't found refusal easy, but he'd always been able to do it. His common sense was screaming at him that that was precisely what he had to do here.

Only, Rodney hadn't come on to him. Rodney had said nothing, done nothing. What was he going to do, hurt Rodney for being human, for needing someone? Rub Rodney's nose in the fact that there was someone else he wanted and couldn't have?

Self-preservation demanded that he do something of the sort. Only, Rodney looked like they'd already had that entire conversation. When he looked at Rodney with this new knowledge between them, there was no hope at all in Rodney's eyes or attitude. All John could see was his friend's pain.

Realizing that one of them had to say something soon, John took in Rodney's bloodless face and unnatural stillness and said as casually as he could manage, "If you don't breathe soon, you're going to pass out."

Although Rodney's chest seemed to start moving at regular intervals again, that eerie stillness didn't change, nor did Rodney speak.

"Guess we're back at square one again, huh?" John asked. "This ... changes things."

Though John couldn't say how. Everything just felt a lot more dangerous.

Rodney gave a slow nod and bit his lower lip before asking in a controlled voice, "Damage assessment?"

Rodney appeared to be dead sober now.

"What?" John blinked, hearing the fear, seeing it in Rodney's desolate expression.

"How bad a hit am I going to take on this one? Is it ... just the friendship thing that's a casualty? Or am I off the team? Or maybe looking for a job in another galaxy? Our reestablished connection with Earth is timely. It'll make it convenient – "

John could tell that the panic was finally setting in. Rodney's mouth was moving faster than light. John figured he'd better derail the freak-out before it got into full blast.

"Not those kinds of changes," John interrupted the nervous rush of words. "You think I'm going to – what? – banish you because you – "

"Have inappropriate designs on my team leader, who incidentally happens to be the ranking military officer in this galaxy? Funny, the thought of banishment and firing squads did cross my mind. It is a court-martialable offense, isn't it?" Rodney asked, watching him as though he suspected John were toying with him.

"First off, you're a civilian contractor, so those regulations don't apply to you. Second, and most important, you didn't do anything wrong or inappropriate, and even if you had ... this is between us," John clarified.

He really had to wonder what Rodney thought about him because Rodney appeared utterly shocked. It wasn't often that Rodney McKay didn't understand something. The look of confusion on his usually arrogant face would have been enjoyable under any other circumstances. As it was, it hurt to see him so worried.

"So it's just the friendship that's forfeit?" Rodney asked in a shaky voice, and then rushed on as if reasoning it out, "That makes sense. I'm still invaluable to the project. You can't afford to lose me right now. So we can work around it and pretend – "

"Rodney!" he didn't quite shout. Seeing that he'd gotten Rodney's full attention, John begged, "Just shut up. Please."

John regretted the words as soon as they were out. Rodney looked hurt, but he clammed up instantly, which was a miracle in itself. The confusion in those troubled eyes still bordered on anxiety and dug at John's conscience.

He felt like an ogre, like he'd cut Rodney down the same way the bitch had earlier; only they'd never even had that particular conversation. An iron fist seemed to close around John's heart as he realized that Rodney obviously believed that he didn't have enough of a chance to even try, that Rodney saw rejection as a foregone conclusion.

John tried to tell himself that he should be grateful that Rodney had spared them that, but he ached for his friend.

"I ... wasn't expecting anything like this. It's ... a lot to wrap my mind around," John said, wondering if he were explaining or excusing. Realizing that there was something he needed to clear up right away, he said, "Let's get one thing straight – this doesn't change anything. The, ah, friendship thing, it's still good. Everything's still good ..."

"I ... don't understand," Rodney admitted. "How can you not be ... mad?"

It was a valid question. Most straight men would have been freaked out to discover that their buddy had a thing for them. John tried to explain without telling Rodney an outright lie, "Rodney, there are monsters trying to eat us. We've lived this last year on a roller coaster, going from one near-apocalypse to the next. We're scared out of our minds all the time. The only things we've got standing between us and that horrible Wraith death are each other's courage and strength. When you're living on the edge like that, emotions run high. The lines get blurred real easy."

"You really don't ... hate me?" Rodney sounded more like an uncertain child than the most egotistical, irritating man in the universe. He also sounded as though the idea was incomprehensible to him.

"You're my best friend. I could never hate you," John didn't have to think about his answer to that one.

"Oh, I ... er, didn't know that. The best friend part. Well, the never hating part, too. Most people hate me. I'm used to it," Rodney babbled before he seemed to force himself to respond in kind with, "You're, er, my only friend."

He could see that Rodney truly believed that. "That's not true. You've got plenty of friends here."

"Name one," Rodney demanded.

"Elizabeth. Teyla. Dr. Zelenka. Carson. Ford. Should I go on? Because I can," John said. When Rodney didn't challenge his assessment, John continued, "I'm not your only friend, but I'd be honored to be your best one."

He heard Rodney swallow from where he sat. Then Rodney asked in an oddly soft voice, "Even after what you learned tonight?"

"Yes," John answered.

"Don't tell me," Rodney sneered with his usual burning vitriol, "you're flattered and honored, but – "

John cut him off before he could finish. "Don't go there. Don't do this." Holding that troubled blue gaze, he reiterated, "You didn't do anything wrong."

"How can you say that?" Rodney snapped with his usual short temper. "I ..."

"You're human. You're entitled to feelings. You've done nothing wrong," John repeated. Somewhere in this incredibly painful and awkward conversation, he'd decided that he wasn't going to do anything to add to Rodney's existing pain.

"Can you really pretend like nothing's changed?" Rodney questioned. "I only ask because the few times this has happened in the past, the person was usually out the door as soon as they found out."

John noted the ambiguous use of pronouns and couldn't help but wonder if Rodney had fallen for straight men in the past. For all that Rodney talked non-stop, John realized that he really didn't know much about his life before Atlantis at all. Just that he'd built a workable atom bomb in sixth grade, had left behind a cat, and had a thing for Sam Carter. It wasn't a lot of information to know about the person you considered your best friend. For all John knew, Rodney could have good reason for expecting the worst from people. "No, we're good to go. Unless, you're not comfortable around me now?"

John hadn't thought of that. If their positions were reversed, he didn't know how he'd feel about having to work with Rodney, knowing Rodney was aware of his feelings. Just thinking about it hurt and made him feel uncomfortably vulnerable.

Rodney didn't answer immediately. When he did, it was with visible reluctance. "You're not going to ... make this unbearable for me, are you?" His confusion must have been apparent, because Rodney started talking faster as his friend's strained nerves took their toll, "I can go on the way we've been for the rest of eternity, but if you start teasing me ... making me want what I can't have, I'd really prefer that you banish me now."

"Teasing you ... " John knew he should be outraged, but the matter-of-fact way Rodney made the insulting suggestion concerned him.

"Some people find it ... entertaining to boost their ego by ... getting someone they've already rejected all hot and bothered. If you start flashing bare skin, touching me, or playing any kind of head games, I'll ask for a transfer out, no matter how much Atlantis needs me. I won't put up with that, John, not even for you," Rodney warned.

For some reason, the use of his first name seemed to accentuate the threat. John was too sickened by Rodney's words to take proper offense at the suggestion that he'd do something that unscrupulous. It was very apparent that Rodney had been down this road before.

"Someone actually did that to you?" John managed to ask at last. Even he could hear the tightness and anger in his voice.

Rodney gave a stiff nod.

"Jesus, Rodney," John muttered, rubbing his too-smooth chin. When he looked back up at Rodney, the other man's face was almost white with exhaustion and stress. He could tell how hard Rodney was struggling to remain clear-headed after the amount of alcohol he'd consumed. "You're my friend. I'm not going to do anything to intentionally hurt you."

John was beginning to realize that there was going to be quite a bit of unintentional hurting going on, no matter how careful he was.

"Then we should be fine," Rodney said, though his eyes told a different story. Those sad blue eyes said that Rodney was so far from fine that he might never get back to it.

It hurt that he was the one who'd put that pain there, if inadvertently. There was a part of John that wanted to reach out and wrap his arms around Rodney as he had on the deck earlier tonight and tell him that everything would work out, but that was what had started this whole mess. Besides, it would be quite some time before there was anything like an innocent touch between them again.

"Good. That's good." Not knowing what else he could say, John settled on retreat, "I, ah, should probably let you get some rest now."

Rodney winced and nodded.

John rose awkwardly to his feet. "Good night."

"Good night, Colonel."

His title came like a slap in the face, but he understood Rodney's need to put as much distance as possible between them. Hoping that his face didn't reveal what he was feeling, he headed for the door.

"John?"

He stopped at the tentative call and looked back at his worried friend.

Rodney seemed torn as he quietly said, "Thank you."

"Nothing to thank me for. I'll see you in the morning," with that, he fled.

*~*~*

Chapter 2

John didn't see Rodney in the morning, or in the afternoon, or even at dinner break. In fact, for all that John could tell during the next three days, Rodney never set foot out of the lab at all.

The avoidance was hardly surprising. Were John in Rodney's position, he would have needed some space himself. But when day three came with no sign of McKay ever emerging from his work, John decided that enough was enough.

When John saw Dr. Zelenka leaving the mess hall with three MREs piled in his hands, he intercepted the man. "Hi, Dr. Zelenka. How's it going?"

"Colonel," Zelenka greeted with a smile, his frizzy hair bobbing around his face. "I am well. It still feels good to be alive, no?"

"Definitely, yes," John agreed. Pointing to the meal pile in Zelenka's arms, he asked, "Are those for Dr. McKay?"

"Yes. He insists he is about to pass out from manly hunger. Although, I believe lack of sleep to be more the problem. There are murmurs of revolt," Zelenka joked, although there was serious concern in his eyes.

"Has he been out of the lab at all in the last three days?" John asked.

"I won small war last night. He went to quarters, but came back two hours later. Curiously, his return coincided with end of my shift."

"You actually have a shift? I thought you and McKay lived in the lab," John joked.

"Rodney is terrible roommate. I go to quarters to sleep. Showering is also good. Rodney has done neither for many days now," Zelenka said.

Rodney was usually fastidious as a cat when it came to his personal hygiene – John suspected he was too much of a hypochondriac to do anything that might increase his risk of infection. But he knew Rodney forgot such niceties when he was caught up in his work, or diving into it to avoid something.

"He gets like that sometimes," John said.

"I think he is taking Dr. Lindstrom's death very hard," Zelenka told him in a soft, confidential tone.

At first, John didn't know what Zelenka was talking about, but then he remembered the scientist that the Wraith computer virus had ejected out the Daedalus' airlock sans space suit. With their personal crisis, John had all but forgotten that Rodney had known the man. He couldn't help but feel a little guilty when he realized that Rodney had had to deal with all the stress of their problem on top of his grief.

"I, ah, didn't know they were close," John said.

"Two years they were at Area 51 together. Rodney talked Dr. Lindstrom into joining Atlantis team. I think Rodney is feeling guilt now," Zelenka said. "Everyone is being patient, but if McKay doesn't rest soon, it will not be good."

"How 'bout I take those off your hands and pry him out of the lab?" John suggested.

"You would do this? Without battle gear?" Zelenka asked.

John chuckled.

"Kevlar is no match for McKay's razor tongue. You're not coming?" he asked as Zelenka turned in the opposite direction from the labs.

"No. Too many reports for me to be murder witness. I will give you alibi if you emerge survivor," Zelenka promised before disappearing around the corridor corner.

Smiling, John headed over to Rodney's lab.

Most of Atlantis' rooms were soundproofed, but John swore he heard the shouting on the other side of the lab doors before they slid open.

"... I've seen more intelligent, competent mold colonies!" McKay's irritated voice thundered through the lab. "What kind of interpretation do you call this? It might as well read tweedle dum and tweedle dumber for all the sense this makes. Did you even – "

As Rodney continued along that line, John stared around at the counters filled with Ancient machinery, naquadah generators, and other equipment in various states of assembly. He had to smile as he took in the poster board sign behind where McKay stood shouting. It read in Rodney's neat printing, 'DO NOT TOUCH. EVER. VERY, VERY, VERY DEADLY. Rodney McKay.'

"Good evening, Rodney," John greeted in an amused drawl as he stepped into Rodney's line of fire. As McKay swung around to face him, John saw the unfortunate scientist McKay had been berating slink away.

Rodney's face had been twisted in irritation when he'd first turned. As those tired-looking, too-red eyes with the dark smudges beneath them took John in, all the fire left Rodney's expression, and it became guarded and distant. "Colonel."

John's gut clenched at Rodney's reaction to him. Deciding to ignore it and try to behave as though everything were normal between them, John said, "I promised Zelenka I'd pry you out of here for a while. Come on, let's go eat."

"I can't," Rodney refused, something like panic in his exhausted face. "I'm in the middle of a very important – "

"Yeah, I saw what you were in the middle of," John allowed his tone to convey his opinion of Rodney's approach to leadership. "Don't you think you could all use a break? I haven't seen you in three days. Let's catch up over dinner, okay?"

John held Rodney's bloodshot gaze, silently beseeching Rodney's compliance.

After a long moment, Rodney said, "I, ah ... all right. I should get out of here before they storm the castle with pitchforks and scythes."

John laughed. The man might be a tyrant at times, but he had a sense of humor that made up for a lot.

Rodney followed him out the door and down the corridors to the mess hall. John couldn't help but notice that McKay looked dead on his feet. He hadn't gotten much sleep himself these last few days, but it had obviously been much worse on his high-strung friend.

John led Rodney to a table away from the crowd.

"They've still got diet coke left," John said. "Do you want me to get you one to go with those MREs when I pick up my own dinner?"

"Just coffee, if you don't mind," Rodney said, staring at the packaged dinners John pushed his way as though he were too exhausted to tackle the wrappings.

By the time John returned from the food line, Rodney had conquered one of the MREs. A bowlful of Athosian stew on his own tray, John took the seat across from Rodney and passed over an extra-large Styrofoam coffee cup and six sugars.

"Thanks," Rodney said in between chews.

"You're welcome," John said, smiling as Rodney chowed down with his usual lack of refinement.

Rodney was halfway through his third meal before he seemed to make a conscious effort at conversation and asked, "How are things going with Caldwell?"

It was weird as hell. Rodney might be the most self-centered person he'd ever met, but as clueless as he could often be, Rodney also had a gift for scoping out trouble spots. There wasn't anyone John had been able to talk to about the tension mounting between the Daedalus' commander and him. He hadn't realized how much he'd come to rely on Rodney as a confidant until McKay had been missing from his life these last few days.

Glad of the opportunity to vent a little, John shrugged. "You've seen how the briefings go. We butt heads over everything. I know it's paranoid, but I, ah, feel like he's just waiting for me to screw up so he can go running back to SG command and report me."

Rodney was quiet a moment before he offered, "He wanted your job."

John nodded. "I know. I ... feel like it's only a matter of time before they yank command away from me and hand it over to him."

John hadn't realized just how much that had been bothering him until he said the words to Rodney.

"Elizabeth's not going to let that happen," Rodney insisted. "You know Atlantis. You know the military situation here better than anyone. You mightn't be conventional enough for the brass' peace of mind, but their jarhead thinking will only get us all killed out here. Everett proved that. We need someone who can think outside the box, someone who can adapt to the Pegasus galaxy as it is, instead of trying to force the Pegasus galaxy to adapt to them. General O'Neill understood that. I think General Landry does, too. There isn't a better man for the job than you, Colonel, and even Caldwell knows it. Though I'll bet the truth sticks in his craw."

Rodney had never said anything like that to him before. He could tell that Rodney wasn't BSing him. His friend was too exhausted and stressed out for subterfuge, not that prevarication was Rodney's style.

John gulped, strangely moved by this difficult man's passionate endorsement. "Thanks, Rodney."

John watched Rodney shift in his uncomfortable plastic chair, blush, and look quickly away, as if he were already regretting his candor.

"How have you been doing?" John softly questioned, though he hardly needed to ask, not in light of how worn out Rodney appeared.

"You saw how I'm doing," Rodney replied in a flat tone, his gaze on the people in the food line.

"Have you slept at all?" John asked.

"Not really."

"Because of what we talked about the other night, or because of Lindstrom?" John hoped it was the latter keeping Rodney awake. He hated the idea of Rodney hurting this way over him.

There was a pause before Rodney replied. His gaze never moved from the food line as he spoke. "It would be easier for us both if you didn't ask those kinds of questions, Colonel."

The use of his rank hit him like a slap in the face. John had this sudden, miserable vision of them acting like polite strangers around each other for the rest of their lives.

"You finished here?" John asked through anger-pursed lips.

He wished Rodney's face wasn't so damn expressive. There was no missing the misery that shadowed those already burdened eyes at his tone.

Rodney nodded. Picking up his trash, McKay moved to the nearest garbage bin. As John joined him to dump his own trash, Rodney said in what sounded like a conciliatory tone, "Thanks for coming to drag me out of the lab for a while."

"We're not done. You choose where we talk, but we're going to talk. It would be best if we didn't have an audience," John warned.

"I need to get back to the lab," Rodney said. "I don't have time for – "

"Make time," John demanded. It was crazy. Even as he was fighting to save their friendship, he wanted to slug McKay. "Now."

"Has that promotion gone to your head? Who do you think you are, ordering me around like that? We're not on a mission. I'm not one of your goons. You don't get to tell me what to do – "

John broke into Rodney's tirade. "We can do this here if you insist, but we are going to talk. Choice is yours, McKay."

Those angry, bloodshot eyes glared at him before Rodney's mouth straightened into a narrow line and he gave a clipped, "Fine," before turning on his heel and stalking off towards the nearest transporter.

John silently followed his fuming friend into the small chamber. He was angry himself, so it was a tense and silent trip to the living quarters' decks. He trailed McKay to his room and stepped inside without a word.

The place looked pretty much the same as it had four days ago. Of course, Rodney hadn't spent enough time in his room lately to mess it up, so that only made sense.

"All right, talk," Rodney snarled once the door had closed behind them.

They were squared off like a couple of boxers.

John once again resisted the overwhelming urge to pop him one. "You know, you've got all the charm of a sleep-deprived weasel."

"That's what you dragged me here to say? Are you insane?" Rodney yelled.

"I must be. Because you're sure as hell not making it easy to be your friend right now, but I still want to do it," John said. As he'd hoped, the direct approach derailed Rodney's rant. "What's with the avoidance and this 'Colonel' bullshit every five minutes? How the hell are we going to get past this if you're treating me like a stranger?"

"Do you think this is easy for me? Do you even have a clue what I'm feeling right now?" Rodney demanded, everything right there in his eyes.

"I know you're hurting," John cautiously acknowledged.

"Hurting?" Rodney's snort was entirely without humor. "Right. Try abject humiliation squared."

"Hu – " John shut his mouth before he could say anything to make matters worse.

"I don't know how to deal with you now. I don't even know how to look at you anymore," Rodney admitted with visible reluctance. "I feel ... naked in front of you."

John gulped. "Rodney ..."

It felt like McKay was baring his very soul to him. John had asked to talk, but he'd never expected anything this intensely self-honest.

"Look, I know you didn't ask for any of this. I know I'm the one that screwed up big time here, and I appreciate the effort you're making, but I just can't ... " Rodney's words faltered and he stared down at the floor.

"Hey, it's okay," John said, reaching out to touch Rodney's arm. He was close enough to smell the man. Zelenka was right. Rodney hadn't showered in a while, but they'd worked so closely on away missions this last year that John was used to the scent of Rodney's sweat. What he wasn't used to was the shudder that passed through him as he breathed it in.

"No, it's not," Rodney said, pointedly stepping back from him. "I'm a grown up. I should be able to deal with rejection. God knows, I've had enough experience with it. But I just feel so ... bruised right now that ... I'm sorry. All right? I'll try to do better." Though it was clear from Rodney's lost look that he had no clue how to cope with this.

John swallowed around his dry and painful throat. This wasn't right. No one should be made to hurt this way over sex.

John's brain and heart fought a brutal, fast engagement. His self-preservation instincts were screaming that he get the hell out of here, but it was already too late. His heart had taken the field. Rodney was miserable. He was miserable. The entire situation was fucked up.

Unsure what he was about to unleash here, John said in the calmest tone he could manage, "Rodney, you weren't rejected. You never asked me for anything the other night."

For a moment, it was almost as though Rodney didn't hear him, but then McKay's face went scarlet and twisted with emotion.

"You son of a bitch!" It wasn't just pique contorting Rodney's face, but something so intense and contemptuous that it might be hatred. "Get the hell out of here."

"Rodney – "

"I said get out! Now! Before I call security."

John stared into those anger-twisted features. Rodney's face was livid, the blue of his eyes bright as sapphires against the red ribbon work of capillaries webbing his sclera. John wanted to push his luck and make Rodney understand, but his friend looked as though he were going to have a heart attack or a stroke.

As usual, John recognized way too late that this hadn't been his best idea ever. Rodney was already working at a disadvantage here. John wasn't about to add to his friend's embarrassment by waiting around for the brightness in his eyes to become something solid. Recognizing that Rodney was both physically and emotionally exhausted, he decided to exercise the better part of valor and retreat.

"All right. I’ll go, but this isn’t over. I’m not your enemy. We have to – "

Rodney’s left hand rose to the headset in his ear as he said in a tight tone, "Calling security here."

"Fine. Be that way. "

Tired of the whole frustrating mess, John turned on his heel and left.

*~*~*

Rodney thought about fate sometimes. He didn't buy into the concept, but he thought about it. There was the whole predetermination debate. The theory that every event that befell every creature in the universe was written in some cosmic day planner somewhere eons before they were born. Then there was the whole God contingent that claimed that some unseen, all-knowing deity was responsible for events to whatever degree of predetermined lunacy the fanatics endorsed.

The whole thing befuddled him. He couldn't understand how any intelligent human could possibly believe that every action of every living thing was written somewhere. Getting hit by a car and killed on your way to return some overdue videos was predetermined? He supposed that predestination was better than the religious slant, the belief there was some deity out there deciding what would happen to them. That made about as much sense as the tooth fairy, and at least there was some empirical proof of the tooth fairy's existence before you became old enough to figure the parents angle out; provided, of course, that your parents actually cared enough about you to do the whole tooth fairy/Santa Claus thing, but that was a different issue entirely.

No, definitely no predestination or deity. Rodney was a firm believer in free will and cause and effect.

But he still thought about how certain moments in a person's life could determine how the remainder of their lives would be lived, how that could sometimes seem like fate. But even such ephemeral concepts as personality traits could be traced back to certain events if a person had the courage to be honest with one's self. When the only time a child's mother paid any attention to a young boy was when he was sick, that boy might grow up to have a tendency to be ill far more frequently than his peers. If the only genuine smile in memory came when a three-year-old boy picked out the melody for the Beatles' I Wanna Hold Your Hand on his toy piano without missing a note, that child might devote his life to music. For every single one of his myriad neuroses, Rodney could find the seed that had planted it if he raked through his memories of the war zone that was his childhood.

Even his eventual career choice could be traced back to cause and effect. Rocket science and quantum physics were considered the most difficult, incomprehensible fields of study, so, naturally enough, his ego would demand that he master both. For the last week, he'd been musing about how cause and effect related to the impossible situation he currently found himself involved in with Sheppard. He'd tried to trace his feelings back to their inception, hoping that understanding would lead to better coping strategies, but the fact was these horribly inappropriate feelings had been there, probably from the moment John had given Elizabeth and him that boyish wave before following Colonel Sumner into the Stargate their first day in Atlantis. In a reality that was nightmarishly frightening, John Sheppard was a solid, reassuring presence. It was only natural that Rodney would come to admire the man who saved their lives on an almost weekly basis, and once admiration happened, it was only a single side step into desire. At least for him. Everything was cause and effect. That was all that was to it. No fate, no predestination, no omnipotent deity with his day planner. Just pure science.

Only, today's events were making him rethink that theory. He was seriously reconsidering the whole jealous, avenging god angle, because if this weren't what being smote was all about, Rodney McKay didn't know what was. Try as he would, Rodney could find no trail of causality that would explain how and why a man with his truly astounding IQ would end up dangling by one foot from a tree in this radioactive hellhole of a planet.

His ankle was definitely broken. And, he couldn't be sure, but he thought he might have pulled a groin muscle when he'd found himself doing an unpremeditated, unrehearsed, upside down split. Jean Claude Van Damme he was not. If he hadn't decided to forego reproducing because of the radiation exposure, this would have settled the matter for sure.

He still wasn't certain what had happened. One moment he'd been fleeing Lt. Ford in a panicked rush that was only one step away from actual hysteria – undignified, to be sure, but still perfectly logical and understandable given the circumstances. Then, whammo, something grabbed his left ankle. There was a sudden, agonizing yank, and Rodney abruptly found himself observing the world from the perspective of a sleeping bat as his crazed team member menaced him with a P-90.

Things had been looking grim for his self-sustaining fusion theory for a while there, until the situation moved from the bizarro realm into true Twilight Zone territory when Ford's attempt at murder was interrupted by what Rodney could only describe as a Next Gen Klingon. In his leathers and barbaric dreadlocks, the guy looked like Worf in a Star Trek episode where the holograph deck trapped him in some kind of Mad Max scenario.

Maybe that was what was happening here, Rodney thought as he swayed back and forth on his tree, watching as Ford and the Klingon wrestled in the mud and traded crippling blows, maybe they'd stumbled into some kind of weird ass Shore Leave Planet. All he had to do was hang here – literally and figuratively – and wait for the Keeper to show up to explain everything to him.

And right after that, the tooth fairy and Santa Claus would both stop by to offer their apologies for all the years they'd missed his house.

Who was he kidding? Rodney knew he was never getting out of this. He was so screwed it wasn't even funny.

Even if the combatants didn't kill him, the planet would. His radiation poison was getting worse. He'd been nauseous all day. His current predicament wasn't helping in that department any. It was all he could do to keep the admittedly sparse contents of his stomach inside him where they belonged. Even if by some miracle he did survive this, his death wasn't going to be pretty. All that radiation last week, added to today's exposure would get him cancer for sure. Only, he wasn't going to live long enough to develop cancer. The blood was rushing to his head at an alarming rate. He could feel his brain veins clogging and getting ready to pop.

That was so grossly unfair that he could barely wrap his mind around the concept. How could one single human being possibly face death by exploding brain twice within a four month period? What were the odds? As he watched the Klingon and Ford battle, he tried to do the calculations, but he wasn't as good at using numbers to deflect his fears as John was. He didn't need the actual equations to know that the odds were pretty damn astronomical. There was only one explanation. Rodney realized that he was going to have to admit that there was a god, and that that god hated him. It was the only thing that made sense.

The surreal fight taking place in front of his eyes certainly didn't. Who was this guy and why had he stopped Ford from murdering him? As usual, Rodney really didn't care why he was alive; he was just happy he was. Only, it made no sense that a total stranger would fight so fiercely to protect him.

Of course, he didn't really know that the Klingon was protecting him. With the way his day was progressing, Rodney figured there was probably an explanation for that, too. The jealous god that hated him had sent this organic Terminator to eat him. Exploding brain and radiation poisoning weren't good enough. He was going to be the Pegasus galaxy's answer to the happy meal.

Rodney couldn't contain his gasp of horror as the battle escalated to knives. He was so dead; it wasn't even funny.

Ford was scary, but the Klingon was terrifying. Rodney didn't even know who to root for. If Ford won, his hyped-up teammate would probably follow through on his plan to murder him. But at least the P-90 would be fast. There was no telling what the Klingon had planned for him.

Rodney almost wet himself in relief when John Sheppard came barreling out of the forest. Rodney was so out of his head with panic that he didn't even care how embarrassing this was. He'd already humiliated himself with this man last week. Nothing could hurt more than what had already passed between them.

His P-90 up and pointed at Ford, who was going for his Wraith stun gun on the ground, Sheppard warned, "Lieutenant, don't."

It might have ended there if three Wraith darts hadn't flown by overhead and claimed all their attention at that point. At the interruption, Ford took off into the pitch-black woods with Sheppard hot in pursuit.

Rodney could only gape in disbelief. Rescue would have been awkward, but Rodney just wasn't prepared for John to not save him. Sheppard saved everybody, for Christ's sake. It was what the man did.

But Sheppard didn't spare him so much as a glance, just ran off into the woods after Lt. Ford.

John hadn't saved him. That was just so wrong that it almost pitched him back into his Shore Leave episode theory. Rodney couldn't believe that John would just leave him dangling in the wilderness like this, at the mercy of every wild beast, genius-eating Klingon, and Wraith. John Sheppard was a bona fide, all-American hero. Sheppard saved everyone. But his bona fide, all-American hero had run off and left him to the mercies of the gladiator in front of him.

The pressure from the blood in his head starting to get to him, Rodney stared at the Klingon and considered his limited options. As far as he could tell, there were just three. The first, and probably most painless, was to simply give in to his panic and stroke out. No long, lingering death. No watching Conan the Barbarian here heat up the stewpot. Just a quick, ignoble passing. Conan would probably still eat him, but at least he wouldn't be aware of it.

His second option was to start screaming and pray to that god that hated him that John Sheppard would come back to rescue him. Since he'd tried screaming several times today with no effect, he dismissed the idea. Besides, his head was pounding really bad with all the blood pooling there and he was starting to have trouble breathing, though he didn't know if that were due to hanging upside down, an asthma attack from all the mold he'd breathed in today, or another symptom of his radiation poisoning.

His third option was to try to reason with the Klingon.

Rodney shivered as gunfire sounded from the direction Ford and the Colonel had run off in. There was also the unmistakable, unforgettable whine of a Wraith culling beam. Rodney took a moment to fear for John's safety, but he had his own troubles to think about at the moment.

With an almost animal awareness of being observed, Conan turned back to face him.

"Er," Rodney greeted with as much dignity as someone hanging like a side of beef could muster. He didn't even know if the Klingon spoke English, or was even capable of speech at all. "Dr. Rodney McKay. Could you ... umm ... get me down please?"

His stomach roiled as the Klingon actually bared his teeth at him. Jesus, he was dinner!

"You were with the friend of Lt. Colonel John Sheppard and Teyla Emmagen?" the Klingon asked in a voice thick with disuse.

Of course, Sheppard would have been off making friends with the natives while he was being held hostage by their psychotic teammate.

"I was his prisoner," Rodney answered, his fear of becoming the Klingon's dinner diminishing under the rational exchange. "I work with Colonel Sheppard and Teyla. They would be very grateful to you if you let me down."

"Your friend, the man you've been with all day," Conan said, as if catching him in a lie, "is not like the others."

"Yes, I'd noticed that, but thank you for pointing that out to me. Lt. Ford is suffering from paranoia from an overdose of the Wraith feeding enzyme. Look, do you think you could cut me down? My head is about to explode here." Reading the gladiator's reluctance, Rodney upped his pleading until there was no chance it was anything but a whine. "Oh, come on! My ankle's broken. It's killing me! Even if it wasn't, do you think I could really run away from you? Hey, where are you going? Come back! Don't leave me here! Please!"

The Klingon didn't even pause. He just turned and walked into the dark forest.

Rodney didn't think that anything could have felt worse than John abandoning him to the Klingon, but the sense of utter despair that overwhelmed him as the Klingon left was ten times worse.

Rodney realized that he really was going to die here, hanging upside down from this damn tree like the Hanged Man in that tarot deck Dr. Lillehoj had shown him. With all the radiation stored in the vegetation, the Jumper's sensors would never detect him. Sheppard knew where he was, but John's sense of direction was nonexistent. The man got lost in Atlantis, where he was able to raise up a map of the city with a thought. What chance was there of John finding him again in a forest at night?

He wondered how long it would take to die from the blood rushing to his head. An hour? A day? If it were longer, there was a fifty-fifty chance that the radiation poison would get him, if the animals didn't first. Realizing that he was hanging here like a giant cat toy, Rodney started to panic, but then he remembered Dr. Parrish saying that the residual radiation in the vegetation ruled out the possibility of fauna. But, looking at all the plants around him, Rodney realized that there was a hell of a lot of pollinating going on. In both galaxies he'd visited, the most common pollinator was insects.

That was what the sadistic god who hated him had in mind, Rodney realized. He was going to get stung by some mutant radioactive bee and die of a combination of anaphylactic shock and exploding brain. He had a vision of that Wraith tick that had attached itself to John, only in his case, it was a two foot bee with a stinger longer than Carson's worst hypodermic needle. It was all he could do to keep from whimpering as the fantasy played out to its inevitable conclusion – his brain exploding as his throat simultaneously swelled shut.

His breathing was really getting difficult now, his heart racing like a mad thing. The symptoms felt like those of an incipient panic attack, but Rodney didn't know if they were also the symptoms of radiation poisoning or death from hanging upside down.

John had just left him here to die ....

Rodney yelped as a harsh voice sounded out of the darkness.

"Prepare yourself," the Klingon's thick voice warned from somewhere in the wet woods.

Rodney braced himself, expecting the Klingon to cut the rope and send him plummeting to the ground. There was definite vertebrae damage in his immediate future to go with the radiation poisoning and ruptured brain vessels.

To his utter astonishment, Rodney found himself being carefully lowered to the muddy forest floor. His hands braced the rest of him in the slick, cold mud as he came down, keeping his head from impacting, and then he was on solid ground again.

Shaking all over, Rodney knelt there in the rain and mud, just trying to stay conscious as all the blood dammed in his head did an abrupt 180. His rubber radiation suit was keeping the rain out, but he'd sweated so much in his endless hike with Ford this afternoon that the clothes beneath it were drenched like he'd fallen into the sea wearing them. Now that his life wasn't in such immediate peril anymore, he was cold all over.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Klingon return. The man simply stood there watching him. If he hadn't been so completely miserable, he might have cared enough to be threatened, but at this point he'd almost welcome a quick death. The nausea from the radiation sickness was getting worse by the second.

Rodney looked up from his inelegant position on all fours as the Colonel rushed out of the woods into their tiny, busy clearing.

"You're down," John said by way of greeting.

Rodney glared up from where he was hunched in the mud. "No thanks to you. Where's Lt. Ford?"

Whatever the answer was, it wasn't good. John seemed very subdued as he replied, "He jumped into a culling beam. After I shot him."

"He what? Damn, he's really out of his head. I thought he was crazy when he tried to shoot me – "

"Ford tried to shoot you?" John questioned.

Even though Rodney was still angry at John, he took no joy in hurting the man. He could tell how painful this was. So, instead of snapping at John, he reported, "Twice. Though, he only meant it the last time, I think. Conan over there saved me."

John's gaze moved in the direction Rodney's chin indicated where the Klingon was standing listening to their exchange.

"Ronon," John corrected. "His name's Ronon Dex. Ronon, this is Dr. Rodney McKay, another member of my team. Rodney, this is Ronon Dex."

"A pleasure," Rodney said in response to the Klingon's nod of acknowledgement. In a quieter voice, he asked, "Is he the guy who shot Teyla? I heard you on the radio with Major Lorne before Ford showed up."

"She's all right. We both are," John assured and then briefed him on Teyla and his adventure. It was childish, he knew, but Rodney felt better hearing that he wasn't the only one who'd had a crappy day. Though, from the sound of it, neither Sheppard nor Teyla had ended up impersonating a side of beef in their mishaps.

When John finished telling him about Dex's life as a runner from the Wraith, Rodney filled him in on his ordeal with Ford.

When Rodney finished, John's expression changed and he asked in a softer tone, "Are you all right?"

"Definite radiation poisoning. I've been nauseous for hours. My head's pounding. I think my ankle's broken, and my thighs hurt like hell from playing Grandpa Munster on that tree," Rodney tried to stop it, but the whine was back in his voice.

For once, John didn't mock him. "Can you walk?"

Rodney didn't understand it, but the sympathy made him suddenly, explosively angry for some reason. "What do you care?"

"Huh? What do you mean?" John asked.

"You left me here to die with a stranger," Rodney accused.

"I had to go after Ford. You know that, Rodney. Ronon wasn't going to hurt you," John said.

"And I'd know that because?"

"Rodney," John began in that overly-patient tone that made Rodney want to eviscerate the man.

He was hurting too much for restraint. Everything he felt came rushing out his mouth, as it usually did around John. "Don't 'Rodney' me! If you want me off the team, just say so."

"Where the hell's that coming from?" John seemed genuinely mystified.

Rodney knew John wasn't that dumb. "We usually pair up on missions, but you pawned me off on Major Lorne today. He wanted to shoot me."

"I want to shoot you most days," John answered in a playful tone that was clearly intended to defuse his anger.

Only Rodney wasn't buying into it.

"Yeah, but that's different. I know you won't. Lorne may have been joking, but he meant it underneath. And ... and then he went and got himself stunned and I was alone out there with SuperFord ... if you don't want me around anymore, you just have to say. It's not like I enjoy being exposed to deadly levels of radiation on a weekly basis."

"For Christ's sake, I assigned you to Lorne because that's what I thought you wanted. Unless it's escaped your memory, you've been avoiding me all week. I thought it would be easier on us both if – " John broke off his gaze straying past Rodney to their silent audience of one. "Look, I don't want you off the team, all right? Can we discuss this later?"

"Whatever," Rodney said, embarrassed now by his outburst. John was right; this wasn't the time to air their dirty laundry.

"Come on. Let's get back to the Jumper. Carson can take a look at that ankle and give you something for the pain," John said, holding out a hand to help him up out of the mud.

After a moment's hesitation, Rodney accepted it and climbed shakily to his feet.

The moment he put his weight on the ankle the snare had been wrapped around, red-hot agony flared through him. The leg went immediately out from under him and his stomach gave up the ghost. He fell to his knees and was immediately, spectacularly sick in the mud.

"Rodney!" John grabbed hold of his shoulders, keeping him from falling face first into the pungent mess he'd made. When there was nothing else to bring up, Rodney sank back onto his heels and closed his eyes. Would there be no end to the number of ways he humiliated himself in front of this man?

His eyes snapped open as something soft mopped his mouth. John's hand, holding a no-longer white handkerchief. A moment later, John's other hand offered his canteen.

His own water had run out hours ago. Rodney took a sip, rinsed his mouth, and spat. Then took a longer drag. "Thanks. Er, sorry about – "

"It's all right," John assured. The ground in front of them reeked of vomit, but John made no effort to move away. "That make it better or worse?"

Rodney considered. The radiation sickness didn't seem as bad now. After a moment, he hesitantly admitted. "Better, I think."

"Good. Think you can try it again? Only this time, don't put any weight on the left foot. Lean on me."

Rodney nodded and then allowed John to help him up. He let John pull his left arm over his shoulders. When John slipped his right arm around Rodney's waist, Rodney froze at the intimacy of it and nearly put all his weight back down on his hurt left foot.

"Whoa, there," John said, steadying him before another disaster occurred. "Are you all right?"

The forced proximity was hard. He could smell the tantalizing tang of John's sweat. He didn't want to think about what he smelt like to John. He'd been sweating like a pig in this rubber suit all day. His throwing up couldn't have improved his aroma any, but John didn't seem bothered by it.

Not that John had seemed bothered by any of the humiliating things he'd done this week, Rodney acknowledged before swallowing hard and giving a tight nod.

They started off in the completely wrong direction. Each hopping step hurt like hell, but it was doable with John's help.

"The jumper is back the other way," Rodney said before they took the third step.

"You sure?" John challenged, like he always did.

"Positive," Rodney answered.

"The Ring of the Ancestors is back in this direction," Conan, no, Ronon, pointed the way Rodney had been gesturing. "Your ship was there earlier today."

"There, you see," Rodney said. They started walking back through the woods, the Ronon guy in the front, John and he moving more slowly behind. Rallying a bit, Rodney added through pain-clenched teeth. "I think there's an inverse relationship between the strength of the ATA gene and sense of direction. I'm going to ask Carson to do a study on it."

"I found my way back to you didn't I?" John challenged.

"You couldn't have gone very far, then." Glad of something like a return of normality between them, Rodney forced himself to continue in kind. If nothing, it took his mind off the excruciating pain in his left ankle. It felt like it was three times its normal size. "How far did you go?"

"Truth?" John asked, and then said, "Maybe a couple hundred yards."

"Not even you could get lost that close," Rodney said. They were quiet for a few steps. Needing to fill the void with sound to keep his mind off how good John felt, Rodney said, "I, er, made a disturbing discovery out here today."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I was wrong about religion. There is a god."

"A lot of men find religion in the foxhole, Rodney," John said in a reassuring tone. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."

"No, you don't understand. There's a god, but he obviously hates me. It's the only thing that can possibly explain everything that's happened this last week, well, this last year," Rodney explained.

"God doesn't hate you, Rodney," John corrected.

"How do you know?" Rodney demanded.

"I just know, all right?" John sounded way too amused.

Deciding to let the topic drop, Rodney hopped along beside John, doing his best not to pull them both down.

Silence fell between them, except for Rodney's pain-filled, hissing breaths.

"Hurts a lot, huh?" John said.

"Not so much now," Rodney said, thinking that if he told himself that enough, his ankle might believe it.

"Is this your Supergeek superhero costume? Looks like something Captain Nemo would wear." John said, his tone familiar and playful, like Tuesday night had never happened. It was the same voice he'd used after Ford's jumper had blown up the Wraith that had killed Abrams and Gall on that satellite planet when John had offered to let him fly home. "I like it."

Two weeks ago Rodney would have made some comeback about John having a rubber fetish, but now that seemed totally out of line. So he concentrated on moving instead, and tried to ignore how damn wonderful John felt pressed down his side. So he muttered, "Like someone with that hair would know a thing about fashion."

To his relief, John only chuckled.

Rodney was sweating from the pain by the time they reached the Jumper.

Carson raced out to meet them. "What's happened?"

"He got caught in a snare and hoisted up a tree," John said before Rodney had drawn breath to reply. Rodney heard a definite snicker coming from where Major Lorne and the other military types were standing and a hushed, "Wish I'd've seen that."

Rodney tensed. Then he saw John's gaze leave Carson to glare at his men. The quiet joking stopped immediately at John's look. When the men were silenced, John turned back to Carson and said, "His left ankle's definitely bad, and he was sick to his stomach."

"Okay, Rodney, let's get you inside so I can have a look at you," Carson said, stepping forward to take John's place supporting him. Carson didn't feel nearly as warm and reassuring as John had. Rodney was hurting so bad that he hardly heard Carson saying to John, "I see you've brought our visitor back with you. Good. I'd like to keep an eye on that surgery site. He is coming back to Atlantis with us, isn't he, Colonel?"

"I was kinda hoping he would. How 'bout it, Ronon? Clean sheets and hot food sound good to you?" John asked Ronon.

Having seen the man fight, Rodney wasn't sure how good an idea that was, but he kept his mouth shut. The Klingon had saved him from Ford, and the man could have eaten him, but hadn't. John was the military expert. Surely, they had to have something in their arsenal that would put Ronon down if they had to.

Carson helped him into the back of the jumper bay. Apparently not knowing that he'd be dealing with a Klingon with super-healing powers, the doctor had prepared a padded cushion for his patient on the floor in the back of the passenger section near the storage compartment. Carson led him over to it.

Teyla gave him an encouraging smile and a warm, "It's good to see you safe, Dr. McKay. We were concerned," as Carson helped Rodney over to the mat.

At least one person cared if he lived or died, Rodney thought morosely as he hopped along beside Carson.

The next ten minutes passed in a blur of pain, culminating in white-hot agony when Carson removed his left boot to examine his bad ankle.

"Ow, ow, ow, ow. Did I not say ow?" Rodney demanded as Carson manhandled his swollen ankle.

"I don't think it's broken, but we'll x-ray it when we get back to Atlantis to be sure," Carson announced at last, finally releasing his throbbing foot.

"The radiation poisoning?" Rodney asked, tensing all over.

"You don't have radiation poisoning, Rodney. You're just very dehydrated," Carson replied in that patronizing tone he used whenever Rodney was in crisis.

"But the nausea ..." Rodney protested.

"You were scared for your life, man, and over-heated besides from the look of your clothes," Carson announced as he pulled the radiation suit's zipper down lower to reveal Rodney's soaking wet clothing. "That would make anyone sick to their stomach. I'm sure swinging upside down from your ankle didn't help with the nausea any, either."

Carson's tone was so incredibly reassuring that Rodney wanted to scream.

"Let's get you out of this suit, okay?" Carson said.

With his typical bedside charm, Carson didn't wait for an answer, just started peeling the suit off him.

"So what about the pressure on my brain from hanging upside down? Do you think that did any damage?" Rodney asked as he shifted around to help Carson free him from the heavy protective gear.

"Rodney, your brain is fine," Carson assured.

"Aren't you even going to check it out?" Rodney demanded.

"If you insist, I'll run an MRI when we get back, but the Ancient scanner says there's been no damage," Carson said.

"Right." Rodney hated how Carson always made him feel like some kind of hypochondriac. He'd like to see how calm and collected the good doctor would be after spending the day with SuperFord and hanging upside down from a tree. As Carson prepared a hypodermic, he demanded, "What's that?"

"I'm going to give you something for the pain. It should help reduce the swelling, as well," Carson said.

Probably the liquid equivalent of ibuprofen, if it weren't an outright placebo, Rodney thought in disgust.

Once again, Carson didn't give him a choice, injecting him without delay.

Whatever Carson had shot into him, it did help. No sooner did Rodney feel it start moving through his veins, then the pain kicked back considerably and his eyes started to drift shut.

"That's it. Rest now," Carson murmured in a soft voice.

Rodney felt a couple of blankets cover him. More asleep than awake, he started to drift.

John's quiet voice penetrated a short time later, "How's he doing, doc?"

"Rodney's made of stronger stuff than even he knows. I think he's got a bad sprain. He's dehydrated, and definitely showing signs of having undergone long-term stress, but I think he'll be fine after some rest. I gave him a muscle relaxant," Carson answered.

"Good, that's good. Now that we've got everybody settled, we'll take off in a minute," John said. His tone changing, John called out, "Major Lorne, a word please."

Rodney heard footsteps pass by his spot on the floor. It sounded like John and Lorne stepped into the nearby storage area. Rodney could hear Teyla talking softly to Ronon from the front, and the other marines commenting on everything that had happened here today.

"Colonel?" Lorne asked.

"What's this about threatening to shoot Dr. McKay?" John asked in a subdued voice that would probably go no further than where Carson and he were outside the storage area.

"I should've known he'd go whining to you," Lorne answered in an equally soft, but angry tone. "Sir, I didn't threaten to shoot Dr. McKay. I just joked that he must be some kind of genius or you'd've shot him."

"I see," John said. "Does that strike you as an appropriate comment for you to make to someone you're guarding, Major?"

Tense silence, then Major Lorne reluctantly answered, "No, sir. Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Go ahead," John said.

"With all due respect, sir, the guy's a liability," Lorne all but spat.

"Dr. McKay is the head of our science department. He's the most brilliant man in two galaxies and has saved Atlantis too many times for me to even count. And, unless you've forgotten, he saved your hide last week on the Daedalus. My men will accord him the respect he's due."

"Sir, just because he's smart, doesn't mean he's cut out for field work. He never shuts up. He slows down the team. And he panics at the first sign of trouble. He's going to get us all killed," Lorne complained.

Rodney cringed at the description. He wished he could refute it, but he knew that Lorne was right, at least so far as his behavior today went. John's dumping him with the strange Marine had unnerved him from the start, and he'd already been spooked about the radiation on the planet.

"Major, you're new to this galaxy. Dr. McKay's been a member of my team for more than a year now. I understand that he can be ... difficult at times, but when the manure hits the fan, there isn't another man I'd want by my side," John said.

"Sir, with all due respect, the man's a coward," there was no missing the utter contempt in Lorne's soft-voiced assessment.

Rodney realized that Carson was also hearing every word of this exchange. As far as Rodney could tell, everyone up front was still engaged in their own conversations as the Marines talked to Ronon.

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about, Major. That coward took on a Wraith single-handedly to save my life six months ago. Our first week in Atlantis, he walked into an energy-sucking cloud to save us all. Last week he rode shotgun with me into the corona of a star. Today he stuck it out with Ford's psychosis because he thought Teyla and I needed rescuing. McKay might be a lot of things, but a coward isn't one of them. You don't like McKay, fine. But I don't want any more joking about shooting people or you'll be back on Earth faster than I can open a wormhole. Do I make myself clear, Major?" John demanded in the most commanding tone Rodney had ever heard him use outside of a life and death situation.

"Perfectly, sir," Lorne replied.

"Dismissed," John snapped.

Rodney heard Lorne's heavy footsteps pass by his head, then John's lighter steps.

A minute later, the Jumper powered up, they lifted off the ground and shot through the Stargate.

*~*~*

Rodney was only half-awake through the x-ray and MRI, both of which proved negative, as Carson had predicted. His ankle was badly sprained, but Carson assured him that a few days off it and an ace bandage would have it as good as new in no time.

He'd slept for hours after Carson installed him in a bed in the infirmary with an IV drip re-hydrating him, but now he was awake in the otherwise empty ward. The cute blond nurse was out at her desk in the adjoining room, but there wasn't another soul around.

With nothing else to occupy his time, Rodney laid there thinking about the things Lorne had said, but more often, he found himself dwelling on John's words.

He didn't understand John at all. Most straight men he knew would have been out the door after the drunken blunder Rodney had made last week. But John was still around, still his friend. John hadn't deserted him, nor had he blamed him. John wasn't even pretending the entire thing never happened or trying to blame it on the alcohol Rodney had consumed that night. It was all terribly confusing.

The most bewildering part of it all, the thing that Rodney kept coming back to time and again, trying to decipher, was what John had meant by those two lines that had pushed him over the edge last week. Rodney, you weren't rejected. You never asked me for anything the other night., said as though Rodney were misinterpreting everything that had happened, as though there had been some possibility of his straight colleague accepting his overture had he been foolish enough to proposition John.

At the time, he'd been mortally insulted by what he could only interpret as pity, but everything he knew about John's character told him that John wouldn't offer any man a pity fuck to make him feel better, no matter the circumstances. Which meant one of two things: either John had been sincerely insinuating that he was open to the prospect or else John was playing head games, setting him up so that he could be totally humiliated by an open rejection.

That last didn't sound like John, but Rodney could no more imagine John doing it with him than he could picture John being interested in Kavanagh sexually. The whole thing made no sense.

"Hey, there," the object of his musings said from the foot of his bed, "aren't you supposed to be sleeping?"

Rodney started. He hadn't seen John enter. He'd been too busy staring off into space thinking about him.

"Hi. I was," Rodney answered, watching as John moved to the chair beside his bed.

John had changed into his familiar black tee shirt and black BDU pants. His hair was as rumpled as ever, his expression strangely soft. It made Rodney's insides clench in an almost painful reaction.

"How're you feeling?" John asked.

"All right. Bored. Bring me my laptop? Zelenka will know where it is," Rodney said.

"Zelenka was in bed hours ago. Do you have any idea what time it is?" John asked.

"Not a clue," Rodney answered, trying to look at John without devouring him with his eyes. He suspected that he was only marginally successful. He was still on muscle relaxants and a little loopy. "What are you doing up if it's so late?"

"Couldn't sleep," John said with a shrug.

Rodney swallowed hard and then said in a rush, "I, er, heard what you said to Major Lorne in the jumper."

John didn't look surprised. "I thought you might have."

"Thanks." Rodney had to look away from those intense eyes as he continued, "Lorne wasn't totally wrong. I wasn't at my best this trip out."

"I know," John said almost carefully. "I also know why. You did fine. Don't worry about it."

"I ended up hanging upside down from a tree. That's not fine," Rodney protested.

"You shouldn't have been out there on your own," John startled him by defending him. "Major Lorne was responsible for your safety. It wasn't his fault that he got stunned and lost you, but you were still his responsibility. You did okay, given the circumstances. Better than most. Don't worry about it."

Unconvinced, Rodney nodded. He could feel the tension building between them like an EM generator about to go into overload.

"I, ah, was hoping to clear the air between us," John said, taking a quick look around the empty infirmary.

Rodney did the same. The nurse was still in her office. There wasn't another soul around.

The only illumination was coming from the colored lights on the monitors around Rodney and the soft glow seeping into the ward from the nurse's well-lit station.

"That's probably not such a good an idea," Rodney warned.

"I know. But I still want to do it. Can you listen to what I have to say without interrupting me?" John asked, nervous in a way Rodney had never seen him.

Rodney gave a tight nod, even though he really didn't want to do this. John looked scared out of his mind. Whatever John had to say, it clearly wasn't something he was going to want to hear.

"I realize that what I said before I left your place the other night was ... offensive in the extreme, and probably insulting. I'm sorry. I really didn't mean it that way," John said.

Even though he'd said he'd be quiet, Rodney couldn't stop himself from demanding, "Then how did you mean it?"

"I, ah, I'm not sure," John said. Before Rodney could give voice to the fury that imbecilic answer inspired in him, John quickly reminded, "You said you'd let me talk without interrupting me. Let me finish, okay?" At Rodney's grudging nod, John continued, "There's something you should know. When I was in high school, I used to ... well, I was really into exploring my sexuality. Let's just say that I didn't limit my options to a single gender."

Rodney felt his jaw drop open. He didn't know what he'd expected John to say, but it wasn't this. John was bisexual?

"When I was seventeen, I finally figured out that what I wanted to do more than anything else with my life was fly. To wear this uniform and fly those ships, I had to live a certain kind of lifestyle, so I gave up everything that would jeopardize that goal. I haven't let myself look at or think about another man that way for nearly twenty years. Until the other night with you, it wasn't a problem."

Rodney heard the gulp John gave from where he was lying. He couldn't believe what John seemed to be telling him. His drunken indiscretion had been a trial to John's controls after two decades of abstinence? Rodney was barely breathing as John continued, "I want you to know, I wasn't playing head games with you or patronizing you. I didn't see this coming. When it did, I didn't expect ... well, I didn't expect my reaction to it to be so strong."

Strong? John had had a strong reaction to him? Was that even possible?

He searched John's face. He didn't know precisely what he was looking for, all Rodney knew was that he didn't find it there. John looked earnest and concerned, but not ... well, John certainly wasn't looking at him the way he'd looked at Chaya.

So John was sincere, just not sincerely aroused by him.

If the earnestness were even real. Rodney knew how good John was at the false sincerity rap. John could get over with Elizabeth nearly every time. He rarely tried it with him, though, and Rodney's instincts told him that John wasn't scamming him now. What purpose would it serve, after all? John had just finished telling him that he had a hell of a lot more to lose here than he did. But he still didn't have a clue as to what John was really trying to say, because as much as he wanted to believe John was interested in him, there was no fire. It didn't look like John was holding himself back from touching him. It looked like John was afraid to get that close. But there still had to be some kind of attraction there for John to make this kind of effort at all.

Finally, Rodney had to hoarsely interrupt with, "So what are you saying? You're still wearing that uniform."

"I know." That was all John said. There was no effort wasted in illustrating why this was a bad idea. They both knew what was at stake here. "But ..."

The blood seemed to falter in Rodney's veins at the hesitant qualifier. His throat tightened up like he'd just eaten a slice of orange.

John was interested, but scared. There was something in John's expression that seemed to suggest that he was waiting for Rodney to convince him to take a chance and go for it.

Rodney was tempted. The muscle relaxants were definitely wrecking havoc with his judgment. John Sheppard was standing here, saying he wanted him. It was a dream come true. Only, when that dream fell to pieces the same way every other dream before it had, Rodney knew he wasn't the one who stood to lose everything. If they were found out, John could lose his job, his rank, and his pension. The feelings he bore John were confusing as hell, but they ran deep. As much as Rodney wanted this man, he wasn't going to be the instrument of John's downfall, not when John was so uncertain about what he actually wanted.

"This isn't a decision I can make for you," Rodney said at last. "I think we both know that if you really wanted this, we wouldn't be having this kind of conversation. We'd be lip-locked and learning to identify each other by taste."

John actually gasped at that last line, staring at him out of wide eyes like he'd never imagined Rodney capable of anything so hot.

So – not looking at him the same as Chaya, not thinking he'd be provocative. Rodney had to wonder what John saw in him at all to want to try. Was it simply that this was the first time John had been in a position to have sex with a man he trusted? Was he going to be John Sheppard's adult introduction to gay sex, just another experiment?

Rodney knew he'd enjoy it. He could make it good for both of them, for as long as it lasted. But how long would that be, realistically? A few weeks, maybe a month, and then John would be moving on to more exciting company. Rodney knew the drill. Nearly all of his relationships had been like that, someone settling on him because he was safe to explore with. He didn't want that with John. He wanted ... hell, he just wanted John.

Even though he needed more, Rodney could not believe that he had just turned John Sheppard down.

John appeared to be similarly stunned. "You're saying no?"

"I'm not going to coerce you into something you're not sure of. I've seen you when you're ... interested. When you wanted Chaya, the risks didn't slow you down at all. This mightn't be about pity, but it's not what Chaya was to you, and I think for the level of risk involved here, it's got to be that level of ... involvement," Rodney said.

"I don't believe you. You're still harping on about her, after all this time?"

"John, you were ready to throw away your career for her. If Elizabeth had been military, you would have been busted back to airman when you took that Jumper to follow her. You were willing to risk everything then," Rodney tried to keep the jealousy out of his voice.

"What do you think I'm doing here? If this gets out, I'll lose it all. I'm sorry if I'm not sweeping you off your feet here, but I haven't done this in twenty years," John argued, looking angry.

"And you'd never done it with an ascended glowy Ancient in your entire life. That didn't break your stride then." Rodney forced himself to hold John's gaze as he continued, "You're not the only one risking it all here. Even if we aren't discovered, if this goes wrong, we could end up being unable to work together. I'm not willing to risk everything for a lukewarm attraction. I want the passion, John. You want to experiment, look somewhere else. If you figure out that I'm what you really want, we'll both know. Right now, you're not there."

"You son of a bitch! You've got the nerve to talk about head games – "

"What do you want me to do?" Rodney cut him off with a fierce whisper before their voices could rise loud enough to carry to the nurse's station. "We're not in high school. This is dangerous. Like you said, you're going to be the big loser here. Caldwell is after your job. I don't want us to hand it to him on a silver platter. I want to believe you, but you're standing there telling me you want me, looking like you've been called down to the principal's office."

"Rodney – "

"No, you listen to me. This isn't fair. You're more scared than attracted right now. How do you think I'm going to feel if we do this and you hate it?" Rodney demanded.

"I wouldn't – "

"You don't know that," Rodney insisted.

"And you know that you're going to find it wonderful the first time we do it?" John argued. "We won't know until we try."

"Take my word for it, I know," Rodney corrected.

"How?" John demanded.

"If you put your hand on my sprained ankle right now and ordered me to come, I probably would. That's where I'm at, John. You're nowhere near there," Rodney accused.

Rodney saw that John was finally getting it. There was total shock on John's face, and something like wonder.

"You'd really do that, come on command if I touched you?" John asked in a stunned tone.

"I'm not proud of it," Rodney explained, watching as his words sank in at last. "It puts me at a disadvantage here, because you're not nearly as ... susceptible."

"So you think I'm what – lying to you? Why would I do that, Rodney? Why would I be talking about this at all if I weren't ... interested?"

Rodney sighed. "I think you're my friend and that you're curious, but that's not the same as wanting me. John, you're my ferris wheel. You're my fast car. I want to be those things to you. I think I deserve to be wanted. At least a little."

He'd shocked him again, Rodney recognized. John was looking at him like he'd never seen him before.

"You deserve to be wanted – a lot," John corrected in an emotion-thick voice.

Rodney tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. He wanted this man so bad it hurt. "Thank you. Maybe we'll get there in time, John, but we're not there now. Tempted as I am, I don't think we should try anything until we are."

"And there's nothing I can do to change your mind?" John cajoled like he would with Elizabeth.

Rodney's breath hitched. Holding those dangerous, pleading eyes, he stated, "There's plenty you could do. The fact that I have to tell you what is another indication of how bad an idea this is right now."

Rodney was not proud of the heated flush that took John's face, but at least he seemed to be getting the point.

John nodded. "What do we do till then? What we've been doing this last week ... I don't want us to be like that."

Till then. John made it sound like a promise.

The man should just reach out and choke him, Rodney decided. It would be easier than having his throat get tighter and tighter every time John twisted his heart.

"I don't want us to be like that, either," Rodney admitted.

"Good, that's good. Right?"

Rodney answered, "Yes, more than good."

"So, we're what? Doing the friendship thing until you're my ferris wheel?" John asked in the flirtatious tone he used for most of their banter.

It was only now that Rodney recognized just how much open flirtation had taken place over the last year. "I think that's a good idea, don't you?"

John gave a reluctant nod. "If that's what you want. But I still think we should give it a try."

"It's not what I want. It's what's got to be, at least for now," Rodney said.

"I, ah, should probably let you get some rest," John said after a minute of awkward staring.

"That's probably for the best," Rodney said, wishing that John would come over to him and prove how wrong everything he'd just said was.

Almost as if he'd read that thought, John paused uncertainly. Those hazel eyes did a quick recon of the empty infirmary.

Rodney watched John bite his lower lip, the embodiment of indecision, but then his face tightened with resolve and John leaned over him. Shocked, he felt those dry lips give his own a tentative brush.

The breath caught in Rodney's chest, and then John stole it from him as he deepened the kiss. Neither mouth opened, so no tongues were involved. Nevertheless, the sweet contact made Rodney's toes curl, and other parts of him stiffen up and take notice.

When John pulled back, they were both breathless.

"I thought we were going to do the friendship thing," Rodney shakily reminded.

John gave him one of those gamin grins that always got to him and said, "I'm a very friendly kinda guy. You rest up. I'll be by later with your laptop. Sweet dreams."

As he watched John leave, that kiss still burning on his lips, Rodney couldn't help but wonder if he'd made a terrible mistake. He should have nipped this insanity in the bud, not encouraged it. It wasn't ten minutes since they'd decided to go slow and wait until they both felt the same, and John was already taking crazy risks like kissing him in the infirmary.

But ... John had kissed him! Rodney felt a smile grow as he closed his eyes. He mightn't be John's ferris wheel yet, but, damn, that kiss had definitely been a majorly cool kiddy ride.

Feeling happy about his personal life for the first time in memory, Rodney let sleep claim him again.

*~*~*

Chapter 3

John had a lot to think about over the next few weeks. They saw little of each other off duty, but that was all right. It wasn't the same kind of avoidance they'd been practicing before P3M-736. That kiss had thrown everything off, and John sensed that both of them needed time to process the changes.

So, John flung himself into his work. It wasn't hard. With the new replacements, he had a ton of training to oversee, as well as determining which of the new personnel would best suit away teams as permanent members.

That last was a particularly sensitive point. Ford wasn't coming back any time soon, so John was going to have to find a replacement for him on his own team. He'd hoped that Major Lorne would work out, but Lorne's contempt of Rodney made that an impossibility.

John would have been hard pressed to find another suitable candidate, if it weren't for Ronon. The stranger had everything John was looking for in a team member - he was good in a fight, brave, knew his way around the Pegasus galaxy as well as Teyla did, and hated the Wraith as much as they did. Ronon was a little short on words, but he seemed decent enough. The way the man had avoided human settlements for years while on the run from the Wraith spoke of Ronon's integrity and concern for the lives of others.

Perhaps most important of all, the taciturn Ronon didn't seem put off by McKay. It was hard to believe that that would be his major criteria for choosing a team member, but John couldn't afford to have friction on the team. Their lives were always in each other's hands. He couldn't have anyone on his team who couldn't shrug off Rodney's bitching. Major Lorne would be fine as backup, but when it came to his core team members, John wanted Ronon if he had his choice.

So, he was doing his best to convince Ronon to stay - showing the guy around Atlantis, introducing him to people, doing everything he could to make Atlantis an attractive home to a man who'd lost his entire world.

John couldn't even imagine what the destruction of Ronon's home world had done to him. Nothing showed on Ronon's stoic surface, but he had to be hurting bad.

When John had agreed to come to the Pegasus galaxy, he'd known that there was a good chance he'd never see Earth again. But choosing to leave your home on the greatest adventure in history was a far cry from having your home blasted to pieces. All along, John had known that that there was a possibility of going back. He didn't want to think about how it would feel knowing that there was nothing there to return to, that everyone and everything he'd ever known was now little more than dust.

Ronon was handling his loss better than anyone had a right to expect. It impressed the hell out of him. He wanted that kind of man on his team. What's more, he wanted to give that kind of man a home to make up for the one Ronon had lost. After all Ronon had been through, the guy deserved a break. John only hoped that he could convince Ronon that Atlantis was what he was looking for.

When John wasn't sweet-talking Ronon, he was thinking about Rodney. Or maybe he was thinking about Rodney when he did that, too, because Rodney seemed to be on his mind all the time now.

This whole thing was putting him through a lot of changes.

He'd thought he'd known what he wanted when he walked into the infirmary to talk to Rodney that night, but Rodney had blown him out of the water by refusing to indulge what John now had to admit had been a fairly lukewarm attraction.

Rodney had been right. He'd been more scared than aroused. He was still scared, if for different reasons.

That late night infirmary conversation had driven home how very easy it would be for him to hurt Rodney. John wasn't used to having that kind of power over someone. It was strange, but even though he'd had a lot of very successful affairs in his life, he liked to keep things light. He wasn't really used to mattering that much to whatever woman he was with. He mattered to Rodney, probably more than was healthy for either of them.

If Rodney had been a woman, he would have been running for the door after that infirmary conversation, because Rodney was demanding that he give more of himself than John was usually willing to put into an affair. He'd considered bailing. He knew Rodney was expecting him to. Only ... he couldn't get some of the things Rodney had said out of his head.

He'd lain awake in bed most nights thinking about Rodney telling him that he'd come on command. Had anyone ever said anything like that to him in his life? Then Rodney had gone on to say that he was Rodney's ferris wheel and fast car. The guy knew how to touch him where he lived, that was certain.

And that bit about Rodney wanting to be his ferris wheel ....

John tried to equate these shockingly erotic and moving avowals with the clueless geek he knew - the guy who got all tongue-tied every time the pretty new redheaded botanist talked to him; the guy who hadn't even noticed the Daganian woman Allina coming on to him; that was the Rodney McKay he knew. This guy who talked about coming and ferris wheels, John had never seen him before.

On the surface, these Rodneys seemed to be two very different people, but John was beginning to recognize that they weren't. There wasn't another guy in either galaxy who would have lain himself so completely open to him the way Rodney had when he'd said those things. Most men would have postured and tried to play it cool, even if they had wanted him as badly as Rodney did. But Rodney hadn't known how to do that. He'd only known what he felt and had shared those feelings in a manner that was as blunt as his normal bungling.

But, inappropriate as that naked honesty might have been, it had moved John to his very core. Even as it had scared him with its reality.

That was the difference here. Rodney was real. The feelings Rodney held for him were not lightweight, and Rodney wasn't willing to cheapen them by accepting anything less from him.

As much as it had frustrated John that Rodney hadn't been willing to take a chance and go for it, it had impressed the hell out of him that Rodney was willing to hold out for what he wanted, especially after how open Rodney had been about wanting him. That had taken guts, but, then, he knew Rodney's courage, even if Rodney didn't.

They hadn't seen each other outside of work for almost three weeks now, John realized. They talked a lot on duty about inconsequential issues, but both of them seemed to instinctively understand that they weren't ready for anything too intense yet. Or hadn't been. John felt as though something had changed inside him. He wasn't sure what. All he knew was that he wasn't satisfied with the distance between them any longer.

Tired of chasing Rodney thoughts around his head, John decided to drag Rodney out of his lab and let Rodney distract him from Rodney.

It was nearly 2600 Atlantis time when John stepped through the lab doors. Zelenka was still there, working on some weird kind of abacus-like Ancient device that used glowing pulses instead of beads. Rodney was bent over his laptop at his desk, typing furiously away. Otherwise, the lab was deserted.

John wasn't expecting the frisson that shivered through him as he looked at Rodney. His friend looked the same as normal, if a little better dressed. The new slate gray and blue science uniforms suited Rodney. They seemed to accentuate the breadth of his shoulders while streamlining his waist.

John's gaze fixed on Rodney's brown hair. While he did notice how it was thinning out and receding, all John really wanted to do was touch it. It always looked so soft. John wondered how long it would be before they were at a place where he'd be entitled to do that, to just reach out and touch.

He was surprised that he wanted to. His affairs were usually pretty straightforward, in that he was willing to do nearly anything in the sack, but once he walked out the door, John was usually content with having little contact until the next time they got together. It wasn't like that with Rodney. They hadn't even slept together yet, and he was wanting things he'd never needed in his life.

John still wasn't sure how he felt about that.

Realizing how long he'd been standing here staring at Rodney when Zelenka turned to peer curiously up at him, he shook himself into motion. Giving Zelenka a wave, John crossed to Rodney.

"Hi, there," John greeted.

Rodney started and looked up at him with a smile, "Colonel."

Even though it had felt like a slap in the face when Rodney had called him that before P3M-736, tonight his title sounded almost like an endearment. Or maybe it was just the light in Rodney's eyes that made the difference. They sparked with excitement instead of Rodney's usual disdain. John didn't think he'd ever noticed just how bright a blue Rodney's eyes were before.

"Have you eaten yet?" John asked.

"Lunch," Rodney answered, gesturing to a pile of power bar wrappers on the other side of the laptop.

"Well, Mr. Hypoglycemia, how about going down to the mess with me and eating dinner like normal people before your blood sugar drops and you pass out from manly hunger?" John asked.

"That sounds good," Rodney agreed, closing down his computer and grabbing the Big Gulp mug he drank his coffee out of. It was large enough to comfortably house a couple of goldfish.

They both gave Zelenka a parting wave and walked out.

John was surprised how good it was to be in Rodney's presence again. Even though they weren't talking, it felt like some kind of communicating was going on as they made their way through the nearly empty corridors to the mess hall.

That was nearly vacant as well. There wasn't even a food line for once.

"Aren't you going to have any stew?" John asked as Rodney loaded up his tray with three MREs instead of the freshly-cooked meal. "It's really good."

"I like these better," Rodney said, his chin gesturing at the rationed meals as he filled up his black plastic Big Gulp mug with an entire carafe of coffee.

"You're weird, you know that?" John pointed out.

Rodney smiled. "We'll see who's weird when you get food poisoning. You can never be too careful about what you eat."

"Rodney, you're carrying a tray with three preservative-laden hamburgers and fries. There isn't anything remotely healthy or nutritional on it."

"Maybe, but I know for a fact that there isn't any citrus in it," Rodney answered as they claimed a table.

"Do you really think that there's citrus in the beef stew?" John asked, taking a big spoonful of it while Rodney slathered the first of his meals with ketchup until the thing looked like something out of a George Romero film.

"There could be, so I avoid it. Believe me, you don't want to be around me if I make a mistake," Rodney said.

They ate in silence for a few minutes before Rodney looked over at him and said, "I, er, have a dilemma I need to talk to you about."

"What kind of dilemma?" John asked. Rodney's problems could often involve naquadah generators exploding.

"Do you know that new botanist, Dr. Brown?" Rodney questioned.

"The pretty redhead who's been giving you the come on for the last month?" John returned with a smile. It was worth it just to see Rodney's expression.

"Yes, well, she, er, asked me out to dinner two weeks ago. I've been putting her off, but I'm running out of excuses," Rodney said.

"I see. What is it you're asking me?" John tried not to be put out by what Rodney had told him. It wasn't like Rodney was bragging or anything.

"I don't know what to do. I've never ... well, women don't usually ask me out," Rodney said.

"Do you like her?" John questioned, watching Rodney closely. The man was a terrible liar.

"She's nice. A month ago I would have said hot, even, but ..." Rodney shrugged. He didn't look like he was asking for permission to go play footsie with the botanist. Rodney looked like he really didn't know what to do about the invitation.

Rodney's expression made it plain that John was the issue here, not the date. John heard the bigger question Rodney wasn't asking - how were they going to handle this kind of thing, because even if it was rare for Rodney to be asked out by a woman, John had more than his share of admirers. They were going to have to deal with this kind of thing, only ... they weren't even an 'us' yet. All they'd shared was a single kiss and some talk. It didn't seem right to be ironing out this kind of issue when they'd never even done it.

"This is just dinner right?" John asked. He'd seen Dr. Brown. The word demure could have been coined for her. She didn't seem like the type to jump a guy, but if she was used to dating scientists like Rodney, she might have learned that the only way to get through to them was to be aggressive.

"Yes," Rodney said.

"Then maybe you should go," John suggested, really not sure what he should say to Rodney.

"What?" Rodney didn't quite yelp. "I thought that we - "

Rodney shut up abruptly and stared down at his ketchup-splattered meal, as if hiding his eyes would be enough to hide his reaction.

"Look, I don't like the idea, either, but it's bound to happen every now and then," John said as evenly as possible. "Are we going to freak out every time someone asks one of us out?"

"So you, er, want to see other people while we're ..." Rodney couldn't even look at him while he asked that question; he was so upset.

It was a subject they were going to have to address. John just wished that they could have actually been involved before they had to make these kinds of decisions.

"Rodney, we haven't done anything yet," John reminded.

"So you don't care if I see her?" Rodney asked in a tight voice.

"I care, all right. I just ... do we have to settle this now?" John pleaded.

He'd messed up again big time. John knew it as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

Rodney gave a slow, negative shake of his head. He didn't say anything snarky or make any kind of complaint, but that light that had made John so happy before was gone from his eyes.

Before John could say anything to redeem himself, his headset went off.

"Colonel Sheppard," Grodin's replacement, Wing Chan, said in his Hong Kong accented voice, "you're needed at the Gate Room. Away Team Five has returned."

"Damn," John said, looking from Rodney to his half-finished stew bowl. "Sorry. I - "

"Go ahead, Colonel. We can finish this later if you think it's important," Rodney replied.

The Colonel wasn't an endearment anymore.

"I'll see you later, Rodney." Wishing everything didn't have to be so damn hard with Rodney, John nodded goodbye, told Chan he was on his way, and left Rodney sitting there alone in the near empty mess hall.

*~*~*

It was amazing how much could happen in two days, Rodney reflected. He'd been culled by a Wraith dart, blown out of the sky by his teammates, trapped as energy engrams in the broken Wraith transporter processor, played host to a stranger's consciousness, had his body hi-jacked by said stranger ... he'd kissed Carson Beckett in front of the entire Atlantis command and science staff, and, as if that weren't enough, there had been another life or death race for answers crammed in there as well. That was a lot for anyone to handle, even him.

When Carson finally cleared him and Lt. Cadman from the infirmary, Rodney fled to his quarters. He'd hoped that John would come by when he was being released, but John had been painfully absent these last few days.

Well, that wasn't entirely accurate. John had been there for all the life and death crises, but that one awkward, late night conversation they'd had in the hall while Cadman had been inhabiting his body had shown them both how impossible it was for them to try to communicate with a stranger witnessing their every word.

He'd hoped ... Rodney wasn't certain what he'd hoped anymore. All he knew was that he ached inside.

The news of him kissing Carson was all over the city. He knew he couldn't be held responsible for what Cadman had done while she'd had control over his body, but it was he who had to put up with the jokes and sniggers, not Cadman. He didn't even want to think about what his next off-world mission would be like. Major Lorne already considered him a liability and a wuss. It wasn't hard to imagine the crap he was going to have to endure after that very public kiss.

At least Carson had been cool about it.

Sitting on his bed, Rodney looked around his cabin. He'd thought he'd wanted to be alone when he left med lab, but now he wasn't so sure.

A quick glance at the clock on his night table showed him that it was almost lunchtime. Maybe he could hook up with John in the mess hall.

Cheered by the thought, Rodney headed to the transporter.

He'd guessed right. John was in the mess hall. However, John wasn't alone. He was having lunch with Ronon the Barbarian. Again. In the weeks since they'd brought Ronon back to Atlantis, this had become a painfully familiar sight. John was so caught up in his animated, if apparently mostly one-sided, conversation with Ronon Dex that he didn't even notice Rodney enter the room.

Rodney stood there watching. Every time he'd turned around since they'd gotten back from the radioactive hellhole of P3M-736, John had been with this guy. Down in the gym, up in the target range, in the mess hall. Rodney was beginning to wonder if John were letting Ronon go to the bathroom on his own.

As he observed the odd pair, Rodney couldn't help but notice how John's bright gaze never left Ronon. It was more than a crush. John seemed almost obsessed with the newcomer.

And why wouldn't John be, Rodney thought, trying to stamp down on the bitterness. The Klingon was some kind of superhero - bigger than life, in all ways. Rodney looked at the muscles upon muscles on Ronon's body, and couldn't help but make the comparison with his own. He knew he fell miserably short. There wasn't a spare ounce of flesh anywhere on Ronon, nothing soft or weak about the alien at all. The long, thick dreadlocks were striking, his hairline nowhere near receding. Ronon had more hair in two of the dangling locks than Rodney had on his entire body. Ronon's face was handsome and strong. No double chin. The Klingon had quiet cool down to an art form, and he certainly had more in common with John than Rodney ever would. Add to all that, Ronon's skills in the fields John respected were unparalleled from all reports. If someone were into guys, Ronon would be irresistible.

Providing conversation wasn't a high priority. Rodney sighed at the catty thought, but he couldn't help it.

This was so damn unfair. Just when things were starting to turn around for John and him, Ronon the Barbarian here had to show up. Looking at the muscle-bound alien - who seemed to have thankfully gotten past eating with his fingers - Rodney wondered how the hell he was supposed to compete with something like that?

John had practically had an orgasm when he was singing Ronon's praises after their first target practice session. Everything John respected, this guy was an expert at. While Rodney ... he barely knew how to reload his 9 mm.

Standing there watching his oblivious, almost-lover chat with the taciturn alien, Rodney realized that there was no way in hell he could compete. He had nothing to offer that would rival that. Ronon was like a walking wet dream.

Rodney reviewed the events of the last few weeks. Suddenly, John's suggesting that Rodney accept Katie's dinner invitation took on a whole new meaning. Sick at heart, he realized that John's suggestion had come after John had started palling around with Ronon.

He was pathetic. As usual, it took having the truth thrown in his face for him to buy a clue. He hadn't understood why John hadn't been bothered by the idea of him seeing someone else socially, but now he understood that it must have been a relief for John. It left the field open for John, with his newly reawakened self-awareness, to cultivate Ronon.

He couldn't really blame John. Ronon was hot beyond words, and, well, Rodney couldn't picture the Klingon insisting that John be sure of what he wanted before they did it. Hot body, hot sex, what more could John want? Certainly not a pudgy physicist with a penchant for whining.

Rodney supposed he was lucky that he'd figured this out now, before he made an even bigger fool of himself. Only, he didn't feel lucky. He felt ... crushed.

Taking one long, last look at John sitting there watching Ronon like he was a ferris wheel, fast car, and jumper ship combined in one hunky body, Rodney turned on his heel and left the mess hall.

*~*~*

"Rodney?" John called through his headset, since the ringer on Rodney's quarters had remained unanswered.

These last few days had been hard. With Lt. Cadman's consciousness inhabiting Rodney's brain, John really hadn't had an opportunity to assure himself that his friend was back in one piece, whole and sound. John had thought it would get better once the lieutenant was returned to her own body, but as soon as Beckett had released Rodney from med lab, Rodney had holed himself up in his quarters for some alone time.

Rodney'd had nearly two days of alone time now. Surely, that had to be long enough to get over the trauma of having to share his body with a virtual stranger.

Even if it wasn't, John needed to see Rodney. The nauseating sense of dread he'd felt on the planet when Carson had told him Rodney had been culled was still with him. It was strange how a little thing like that could put everything else in perspective. All John had been able to think about while Rodney and Lt. Cadman were trapped in the Wraith transporter matrix was that they were never going to get a chance to be together. After that startlingly arousing kiss in the infirmary, it had been too easy for them both to fall back into old patterns. They'd spent the last month tiptoeing around each other. John had regretted every wasted second when Rodney had been trapped in that Wraith machine.

He meant to make up for lost opportunities tonight. If nothing else, he'd make it plain to Rodney that he wanted to move their relationship to the next level. That was, if Rodney would ever open his damn door.

After what felt like forever, Rodney's voice came over his headset. "Yes?"

Confused by the tense tone, John said, "It's me. Can I come in?"

"I'm sleeping," Rodney said.

Shivering at the uninflected voice, John answered, "Come on, McKay. You've been in there for two days."

"One day, actually," Rodney corrected. "Carson told me to rest. So I'm resting."

"Can we have this conversation on the other side of this door?" John asked as a pair of Marines passed him, giving him a strange look. "People are starting to stare."

"There's nothing to talk about," Rodney answered, as truculent as a teenager.

John took a deep breath. He'd been concerned by Rodney's withdrawal this afternoon. Now he was getting angry. "Open the damn door, McKay."

To his relief, the doors slid apart.

John stepped into Rodney's quarters. The lights were low, but unless total power was cut, things never really got dark in Atlantis, not with the glowing wall banks that always put out a subdued, gentle light now that they had a fully functional ZPM.

The first thing John noticed were all the diplomas on what had been an empty wall the last time he'd visited Rodney's quarters. In the center of that impressive collection, was a picture of a much younger Rodney, grinning like a jack-o-lantern as he proudly displayed his first PhD to the camera.

John looked from that happy picture to the Rodney before him. The man stretched out on the bed in a black tee shirt and gray sweat pants, with his arm covering his eyes seemed to have nothing in common with that younger, more enthusiastic version of McKay. If John didn't know better, he'd swear that all the life had been sucked out of Rodney.

"Are you all right?" John asked, realizing how stupid a question it was immediately after he'd spoken. Of course, Rodney wasn't all right. When Rodney was all right, he was down in the lab, gleefully experimenting with all his Ancient toys.

"I'm fine," Rodney answered, not moving the arm shielding his eyes to even look at him. "Did you want something?"

"To see you," John said. He'd known that hosting Lt. Cadman's consciousness was a strain on Rodney; he'd just never realized it had been this big a trauma. Rodney hadn't looked like this since they'd lost Gall and Abrams.

"Well, you've seen me. Can I go back to sleep now?" Rodney asked in a tone dripping sarcasm.

"Rodney, what's wrong?" John asked, approaching the bed.

He couldn't help but notice how Rodney's entire body seemed to tense. Rodney must have heard his footsteps, for he certainly hadn't seen him through his elbow. It was almost like he'd felt his approach.

"What could be wrong?" That response was almost a snarl.

"Rodney ... come on. Talk to me," John pleaded, worry eating at him. Carson had said that Rodney was in good spirits when he left med lab yesterday afternoon. What the hell could have changed that in the short walk between the infirmary and Rodney's quarters?

"What? Isn't your new company capable of conversation or doesn't he know words of more than one syllable?" Rodney spat.

"Huh?"

John's eyes widened as Rodney sprang up, fast as a snake, from his bed. His eyes blazing, Rodney sneered, "I know you think I'm oblivious, but even I eventually buy a clue!"

Confronted with an obviously furious Rodney, John ran a hand through his disorderly hair and tried to figure out what he was missing here, for clearly, Rodney was mad as hell at him. Which made absolutely no sense, because he hadn't seen the man in nearly two days. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Would you mind telling me what I did?"

"Don't! At least be honest about it," Rodney commanded.

"Okay, I'm going to try this one more time. I don't know what you're talking about. Why don't you pretend I'm as stupid as you think I am and spell it out for me?" John asked, losing patience in the face of McKay's vitriol.

"If you've got to play Captain Kirk, couldn't you at least confine it to off-world missions? Did you have to do it here in Atlantis, now ... when we were just getting somewhere? You could have told me, John. I wouldn't have stood in your way." Rodney sounded so damn hurt that John couldn't stay mad at him.

He still didn't know what Rodney was so mad about, but at least the Kirk reference gave him some idea of what might be going on. The last time Rodney had used it on him, he'd been seeing Chaya. So, Rodney seemed to think he was playing Captain Kirk again, but with whom? Rodney was the one who'd had the big date this week, not him. All he'd been doing was working his tail off to put the new teams together.

John took a deep breath and tried again. He'd never been good at explaining himself, nor had he ever had much patience with jealousy. "It sounds like you think I'm seeing someone. I'm not."

"I've seen you, John," Rodney said in that dead tone that made John's hair stand on end.

It would have been easier if it had been an angry accusation.

"Seen what? Rodney, I haven't been doing anything this week but working."

"And you're really into your work, aren't you?" Rodney snarled.

Not liking the ugly direction the conversation was taking, John tried again. "Why don't you tell me what you think you've seen?"

Was Rodney talking about Teyla? They'd worked out the other day, but Rodney had to know that he wasn't interested in Teyla. She was the only woman besides Elizabeth John had spent any time with, and he just couldn't believe that Rodney would seriously be suggesting that he was seeing Elizabeth.

"You and Ronon the Barbarian. The Colonel and the Klingon. I feel like I'm trapped in some stupid Sci Fi Channel space opera," Rodney said.

John could only gape at the man, because Rodney seemed dead serious.

"You think I'm ... with Ronon?" John was too shocked to be anything but appalled. If Rodney weren't so upset, the entire thing would almost be funny.

Rodney gave a stiff nod, holding his gaze.

It took John a minute to find his voice, he was having such trouble believing the accusation.

"Rodney, I'm not interested in, seeing, or sleeping with Ronon Dex. I'm just trying to talk him into staying on Atlantis and taking Ford's place on our team," John stated up front. Part of him knew he should be angry over this, only ... Rodney had insinuated enough about his past for John to realize that his friend had probably been played like this before. "Elizabeth gave me the okay to ask him to join the team the other day."

"She did?" Rodney asked in a small voice.

"She did. Ronon's thinking about it." John watched as belief and embarrassment replaced the hurt expression on Rodney's face. "Rodney, I haven't been alone once with Ronon in private since he arrived. I know I've been spending a lot of time with him, but it's not like that. I swear."

"I, er," Rodney's gaze dropped as his cheeks filled with color, "You must think I'm a total jerk. I owe you an apology. I-I'm sorry. It's just ... he's so hot, and you're so ... it makes sense that you'd want someone like that."

And not me, John heard those words as clearly as if Rodney had shouted them. His gut twisting in response, he moved closer to Rodney until he was in the man's personal space.

They were nearly the same height, though Rodney was broader and stockier than him. After all those years with women, it felt strange to rest his hands on shoulders strong enough to bear his full weight, weird to be this close to someone whose chin was as blue as his own with beard stubble.

Rodney didn't smell of perfumes and body lotions. He smelt of sweat, coffee, soap, and that clean, fresh scent that was particular to Rodney McKay. John breathed it in and felt his pulse race faster.

Rodney was watching him as though he thought John might punch him.

"I'm not interested in Ronon Dex. I'm interested in you, the guy who comes on command," John said. "What could be hotter than that?"

John slipped his left hand up to cradle the back of Rodney's head, touching Rodney's hair for the very first time, and then moved in for a kiss.

The solid, warm body so close to his own seemed frozen in shock at the first brush of their lips, but then Rodney melted against him with a strangled sound of pleasure. Hands that were as large and powerful as John's own slipped around his back as Rodney's mouth came to life like an awakened Wraith. The resulting kiss was definitely that famished.

When they'd kissed in the infirmary that night last month, it had been good, but nothing like this. Rodney's mouth was as eloquent at kissing as it was at talking. It opened to him almost immediately. Rodney tasted of sweet, dark coffee.

The slick tongue that met his own wasn't the least bit shy. It moved right into John's mouth and explored every tooth and slick surface it could reach until they were sharing spit and breath. Then Rodney pulled back a little to draw John's lower lip into his mouth and feed on that.

By the time they parted for breath, John's knees were weak and he was shaking all over. He wasn't used to having this strong a reaction, not to a simple kiss.

But calling anything about Rodney McKay simple was a mistake; John was beginning to understand that. The man in his arms was a confounding mix of brilliance and insecurity, logic and wild passion, bitter sarcasm and humor.

"You like that?" Rodney asked as he nuzzled the stubble on John's chin, following it down his neck until John was shuddering all over.

The most coherent response John could manage was a groaned out, "Aaaaaah."

Rodney seemed as good at translating that as he was at Ancient, for he kept nuzzling till he reached John's Adam's apple, which Rodney then started to suck.

John stumbled, and would have gone down like a rock if Rodney hadn't braced him up with his body. Still sucking his neck, Rodney maneuvered him backwards, past the desk, until he came up against the wall with all the diplomas on it. John heard them rattle as he leaned against them. A couple of their frames dug into his spine as Rodney's hands cupped his head. Then they were kissing again, and John lost awareness of everything but Rodney.

Rodney leaned against him. That was weird, too, feeling how much heavier and broader Rodney was than him. The eager erection pressing through both their clothes into his hip was the most erotic thing John had felt since high school.

Rodney's hands were moving over his chest, sides, and flanks, exploring everything they could reach. John's own were doing a good job of mapping out every muscle and vertebrae beneath Rodney's sweaty tee shirt.

It was only as he noticed how soaked Rodney's shirt was that John realized how profusely Rodney was sweating. Seeing several large beads of perspiration drip down Rodney's neck to pool in the hollow of his throat right above the tee shirt collar, John leaned forward and licked up the salty drops. The concentrated Rodney flavor burned through him like a potent narcotic.

Rodney threw back his head and groaned like he was coming.

John didn't need any of the diplomas digging into his back to know that Rodney's restriction that they not do it until Rodney was his ferris wheel had flown out the window. There was no way they were stopping, not now. Nor any reason to. John had never been on a ferris wheel that made him feel like this.

He was about to suggest that they move to the bed, when Rodney's hands grasped the waistband of his pants, unbuttoning and carefully unzipping him with practiced skill. Rodney reached in through the placket of his boxers and drew him out to the cooler air. John didn't think he'd ever felt anything as perfect as that big, slightly-clammy palm gripping him.

He moaned and grabbed onto Rodney to keep himself from sliding down the wall when his knees turned to rubber.

Rodney's eyes were fixed on what his right hand was doing. John looked down, too, watching as Rodney pumped his already-full erection to critical mass. John was struck by the contrast of his blood-engorged shaft against Rodney's utter paleness, so different, but so right.

Then Rodney dropped to his knees in front of him, and all coherency absolutely fled. The sight of Rodney McKay on his knees was nearly enough to make him come on its own.

Wild-eyed, John watched Rodney bend forward towards him, his kiss-swollen mouth opening. Wet heat surrounded him, so perfect it hurt. It had been so long, so fucking long since anyone had touched him like this, and even then John couldn't remember anyone having Rodney's enthusiasm. Certainly, no woman had ever looked at his cock with such ... reverence, as though he were something sacred and that it was a gift just to be permitted to do this for him.

Rodney's mouth gave a pull, and John groaned, giving himself totally over to the experience. The suction was sublime. Something so wet shouldn't burn, but John felt like he'd liquefy from that fiery connection.

He tried to do the polite thing and not shove himself down Rodney's throat, but Rodney made this incredibly sexy sound, a pleased hum that vibrated through John's cock, driving him out of his mind from the sensation. Then Rodney's hands moved around behind him to grip his buttocks and guide his thrusts.

John knew his groans sounded like the soundtrack to some cheap skin flick, but he couldn't hold the sounds back. Rodney didn't seem offended. Rodney just sucked away, making loud, slurpy, pornographic noises himself.

Rodney took him all the way in, deep-throating him like a twenty-dollar hooker. Rodney's hands encouraged John's hips to thrust faster and deeper until he was fucking his mouth. It was raw; it was wild; it was perfect.

John tumbled over into orgasm with a strained shout, staring in mindless astonishment as Rodney drank him down. It felt like he came forever. Halfway through it, Rodney gasped around his cock and his swallowing seemed to falter momentarily before he picked up the rhythm again.

Finally, the pulses stopped and Rodney lifted his face from John's crotch and released his butt with visible reluctance. Deprived of that support, John's knees gave out and he slipped down the wall.

"God, Rodney," he said, looking over at his friend with the strange feeling that he really didn't know a fucking thing about Rodney McKay.

Rodney's eyes were so brilliant a blue at the moment that they seemed incandescent. John didn't think he'd ever seen anything as erotic as the bright spots of color in those passion-flushed cheeks. That and the red, red lips made Rodney appear totally debauched.

Belatedly recognizing that he'd made no effort to get his partner off, John roused himself to reach for Rodney's sweat pants.

Those swollen, berry red lips broke into a goofy grin. "Thank you for the compliment, but my recovery time's not that fast."

"Huh?" John said, proud to make something like an intelligent comment. His brain was still in pieces where it had been blasted into the stratosphere by that talented mouth. "Let me - "

"You already did," Rodney said, leaning forward to kiss him.

John shivered as he tasted the sour flavor of his semen in Rodney's mouth. "You ... came? Just from that?"

"There isn't any 'just' about it. John, you taste great, really great. I could get addicted to it," Rodney said.

Rodney had come, just from sucking him off. That had never happened, even when he was a kid and messing around with his buddies.

John waited for the post-coital, need-to-get-out-of-here awkwardness that followed so many of his first time encounters to set in, but the seconds ticked past and they just stared at each other.

"That was ... something else," John said at last, wondering if his voice sounded half as awed to Rodney as it did to him.

"Yeah," Rodney seemed a bit more sober now, but that glow was still lighting his face.

John hoped to God that he wouldn't do anything to ruin that any time soon. Rodney looked damn good when he was all glowy like that.

"Bed?" John suggested, proud that he was managing to sound so coherent when all he wanted to do was gibber on about how incredible Rodney McKay's mouth was.

Rodney smiled and then they crawled over to the bed. John sank down onto the floor beside it, undid his boots, then shucked his pants and socks off, leaving only his boxers and tee shirt on.

Rodney had already climbed up into the bed, still wearing his black tee shirt and the sweatpants with the dark wet spot over his left thigh. Rodney held the covers up in invitation as John climbed to his knees and crawled into bed.

John wasn't a cuddler by nature. Most times, when the sex was over, all he wanted to do was go home and shower. But tonight it felt right to reach out for Rodney and draw the other man into his arms.

John rolled onto his back, and a heartbeat later, Rodney's head settled on his chest, a warm and intimate weight. John reached out to stroke Rodney's baby fine hair as he breathed in his friend's scent. Rodney smelt as good as he had before, only now there was the added hint of sex, and that was so much better. "Your hair's so soft."

"What's left of it." Rodney gave a sleepy, self-deprecating chuckle.

"I like it," John insisted.

"Mmmm," Rodney made an agreeing sound and seemed to be asleep in seconds.

John smiled fondly down at the top of Rodney's head until his own eyes slipped shut.

*~*~*

The awkwardness didn't hit until John woke up in the strange bed, not knowing where he was.

Panicked, he rolled over replacing the sight of a photo of an almost familiar cat with the living image of Rodney McKay lying there lightly snoring, with his mouth open and a thin trail of drool shining on his chin.

It shouldn't have been a pretty image. Rodney's hair had been pushed up off his brow during the night, highlighting how far back his hairline had retreated, and, no matter who it was, there was nothing sexy about drool, and yet ... as John watched Rodney sleep, an unfamiliar, protective warmth spread through him.

Maybe it was because he wasn't used to seeing Rodney look so relaxed and innocent.

As he watched, Rodney's eyelids twitched and slowly parted. Rodney blinked in confusion, and then focused on him. "John?"

It took a moment for that incredible mind to catch up with last night's activities. John could almost hear the wheels turning. He saw the exact moment Rodney remembered. The man was almost indecently transparent.

"Hi," John said, trying a shy smile. Why he felt shy, he didn't know; he just did.

Rodney looked as though he were having similar issues.

"About last night," Rodney began, totally on his guard.

Hating the sudden awkwardness between them, John decided to make his opinion clear up front. "It was fantastic."

"It was?" Rodney blinked, his expression going from worried to startled pleasure from one breath to the next.

"Oh, yeah," John started to lean in for a kiss, but Rodney stopped him with a hand to his chest.

"My mouth tastes like the bottom of a cat litter box," Rodney warned, not breathing in John's direction as a blush claimed his cheeks.

John leaned forward and kissed him anyway. If they were going to do this, they were going to have to get used to each other. Rodney tasted ... strong, but not unbearably bad.

Rodney looked more than a little unfocused when John pulled back with a breathy, "No, you don't. Take my word for it."

"I don't?"

John shook his head 'no' and smiled into those uncertain eyes, wanting to put that glow back in them.

"I, er, don't do mornings sexy," Rodney seemed to force himself to say as he sat up and ran a hand through his hair, smoothing it over the empty area in front in what looked like an unconscious gesture. When he saw John following the movement, Rodney blushed again.

"Who does?" John shrugged, sitting up himself. He glanced at the clock beside the cat photo. It was early. They had some time, but not much. John wanted to be on his way before the corridors became too crowded.

"You're doing a damn good job of it," Rodney said with an endearing mix of admiration and resentment.

"Thanks," John said. Needing to say it again, he added a more serious, "You were amazing last night."

"I was?" Rodney said before he seemed able to stop himself. From his stunned tone, John suspected that morning after compliments were few and far between in Rodney's world.

John nodded.

"I'm sorry about the jealousy thing. I'm not usually like that," Rodney said, holding his gaze. "I just ... I know I can't compete with someone like Ronon and it got the better of me."

Anyone else would never have brought up that topic. Most men would have hoped that the sex would have erased the memory of their argument entirely. John had to admire Rodney's willingness to tackle these difficult issues, even as he cringed at how open Rodney left himself with that last comment.

John swallowed around a suddenly tight throat. "Rodney, there isn't any competition, and even if there were ... you already won it. Hands down."

"I - " Rodney's jaw dropped open in shock.

John leaned in and closed it with another strong-flavored kiss. When he pulled back for air, he added, "I know people have hurt you, but I'm not them. If I want out, you'll be the first to know. I'm not good at handling jealousy, so let's not do that again, okay?"

Rodney was watching him with the same expression he'd use to evaluate a new anomaly on an alien world. After a moment, Rodney softly offered, "You handled it damn well last night."

"Let's just say that losing you to that Wraith dart put a lot of things in perspective," John answered. He still wasn't sure why he accepted behaviors from Rodney that would have had him out the door in any other affair; all he knew was that he wanted to get past all this. "I don't want to be testing that too often, though."

Rodney nodded, that same incredulous reverence he'd had when he'd gone down on him last night all over his face. "John ..."

It wasn't often Rodney McKay was robbed of speech. John smiled and assured, "We're cool."

Rodney gave one of his rare, gleeful grins and repeated the phrase he'd used a few nights ago. "No, you're cool. I'm fine."

John gave a negative shake of his head. "You're much more than fine, Rodney McKay. Cool doesn't even come close to it."

Rodney's gulp was loud in the morning quiet. "You're killing me here. No one ever - "

"If they didn't know special when they held it in their arms, they're too stupid to live," John said, wanting to erase those shadows from Rodney's heart and eyes. John held Rodney's gaze. He could almost feel how much every word he was saying meant to his friend. "I'm not stupid. Umphf - "

John grunted as Rodney landed on top of him, flattening him into the bed as their mouths mashed desperately together. As he ran his hand over that broad back, John marveled at how damn solid Rodney was. He'd never had a lover who weighed this much or was this strong. It should have intimidated him, but it felt good.

The cotton of Rodney's tee shirt was warm beneath his palm as John's palm stroked down Rodney's back, learning it by feel. Here in Rodney's bed, he could smell Rodney all around him.

Rodney pulled back with visible reluctance a breathy time later. "I've got a briefing with Elizabeth in thirty-five minutes."

John sighed and tried to convince a certain part of himself to calm down. "Oh, guess this will have to wait till later, then."

"Yes, sorry," Rodney said, still watching him with that shocked disbelief. It looked damn good on Rodney.

"Nothing to be sorry about. We've got plenty of time," John answered.

"I need to get showered and dressed," Rodney said, sitting up, his eyes on John's mouth like he was fighting back the urge to jump him again.

"Before you go, I, ah, had something I actually wanted to ask you last night before we got ... absorbed," John said, wondering why he should feel so nervous after what they'd done. Rodney obviously liked him - a lot.

"What's that?" Rodney asked.

"Do you have plans tonight?" John checked.

"Other than being with you, no. No plans ... for the foreseeable future," Rodney said.

John couldn't believe Rodney gave him that, made it that easy for him. The man had so little artifice; it was frightening.

"What did you have in mind - if not what we did last night?" Rodney questioned.

"You know that since the city's population has grown so large, Elizabeth has been trying to increase the recreational opportunities," John said.

"She doesn't want us all to get cabin fever, though I don't see how anyone could ever be bored here in the city. There's just so much to learn -"

"Not everyone's as addicted to their work as you. Focus, Rodney. You're on a tight schedule here." John smiled. "Well, Elizabeth has arranged a concert over in that auditorium we found down near the west docks for tonight. I think most of the city will be going. I wanted to know if you'd come with me?" John questioned.

"You mean like a date?" Rodney questioned, with an attractive flush.

"Or as much of one as Atlantis' military commander and lead scientist can manage," John explained. "What do you think? Do you want to go?"

Rodney gave an eager nod and asked, "What time?"

"Should we meet in the mess hall for dinner at 1900 and head over after that?" John suggested.

"Sounds like a plan. Now, I really have to run," Rodney said, pausing for another lengthy kiss before he hurried off to the bathroom.

As John watched his new lover rush to get ready for work, he couldn't help but notice how much more animated Rodney seemed today. He hadn't seen Rodney this excited since the day they'd been practicing with the Ancient personal shield.

Feeling pretty excited himself, John lay back on the bed to relax and wait his own turn in the bathroom.

*~*~*

Chapter 4

Unlike the disaster that had been his last date, no one knew about his scheduled night out with John.

It felt to Rodney like he floated through the day in a state of subdued euphoria. He barely recalled a thing Elizabeth and he had discussed at this morning's meeting, but he remembered every word John had said to him in bed this morning. When his staff messed up the energy calculations for powering an Ancient device with regular electricity and showered the room in sparks and the smoke of burning insulation, he'd barely raised his voice. That had earned him a concerned look from Zelenka, but Rodney had hardly noticed that as well.

John Sheppard and he had had sex last night, and John had said that it, and he, were fantastic. And in just a few short minutes, he and John were going out on a date. Life just didn't get any better than that.

Realizing that the equation he was working on was probably as incorrect as those he'd done when Lt. Cadman had been sharing his consciousness, Rodney powered down his laptop without saving the calculations, picked up his Big Gulp travel mug, and stood up to leave four hours earlier than his norm.

"You're going home now?" Zelenka asked from his nearby desk, staring at him with the same open worry that he'd worn when he was waiting for Rodney's brain to explode during the nanovirus scare.

"Yes," Rodney answered.

"But it's barely 1800," Zelenka protested.

Rodney grinned. "I know. But I'm going to that concert over on the west dock. You should try to make it, too."

"Are you going with Dr. Brown?" Zelenka asked.

"No," Rodney said.

A mischievous twinkle entered Zelenka's pale blue eyes as he questioned, "With Dr. Beckett, then?"

Although that joke was getting old, Rodney suppressed his annoyance, at least as much as he could. "No, I'm not going with Dr. Beckett. If it's any of your concern, I'm going with Colonel Sheppard."

"Oh," Zelenka appeared bored, which was fine with Rodney. "Have fun, then."

"You don't want to go?" Rodney really didn't want Radek to accompany John and him, but there was something in him that still made him feel he had to offer.

"No, I'd rather finish up here," Zelenka said, gesturing towards his mysterious Ancient abacus with its strobing lights.

"Just don't blow anything up, okay?" Rodney grinned.

"I'll do my best. Good night, McKay."

"Good night," Rodney answered, then quickly made his way from his lab to his quarters.

A quick shower and shave, and he was standing in a towel before his clothes trunk, trying to decide what to wear. Normally, he would have simply gone from the lab in his uniform, but this was a date. A date with John Sheppard. He still trembled inside every time he remembered what he'd done with John last night, and the things John had said to him this morning.

No, his uniform just wouldn't do, but it wasn't like he'd ever been a clotheshorse. He had better fashion sense than some of his colleagues, at least enough to know that white socks and pants that didn't reach his ankles were not a fashion statement in any galaxy, but he'd never paid much attention to his clothes. Until now, there'd never been much reason to. And, it wasn't like he had all that much to work with here. No matter what he wore, he was still going to look like himself, but ... John didn't seem to mind the way he looked. In fact, the way John had touched and held him last night seemed to indicate that John actually liked his body. Or liked him enough not to care what he looked like. Either way, it was a pleasant change.

Well, maybe not so much of a change, Rodney thought, reminding himself that Katie Brown had seemed to like his looks just fine. Maybe things were starting to turn around for him, finally.

Still riding high on this morning's elation, Rodney sorted through his folded street clothes wardrobe. Almost everything from last year was too baggy on him now. He'd dropped fifteen pounds in their three-week race to stop the Wraith hive ships from destroying Atlantis.

After much poking around, he unearthed the new black pants he'd bought on his leave on Earth. They were the same brand and style as the tan ones he'd worn on his date with Katie. They mightn't be sexy, but at least they fit. A moment's consideration, and he added a black tee shirt and a brilliant magnetic blue crew neck sweater to the pile. The blue sweater was the most colorful piece of clothing he owned. He'd never had an opportunity to wear it before.

Ten minutes later, Rodney was dressed and making his way nervously to the mess hall.

John was already waiting there for him, sitting at a table for two in the less crowded corner of the mess. Dressed entirely in black, John looked positively edible. Rodney nearly stumbled when he ran his eyes down that sleek form. Black jeans, black button down shirt, black leather jacket and boots ... John was the hottest thing he'd ever seen in his life. That he was waiting there for him seemed almost impossible to believe.

It took him an extra moment to notice that there were two meal trays on the table. Feeling slightly ill at ease, Rodney crossed to John's side. The part of him that couldn't believe that he could ever have anyone as cool as John Sheppard was already panicking, but he forced himself to remain as calm and collected as possible.

"Hi," John looked up with a grin that utterly melted him.

"Hi, yourself," Rodney answered and gestured towards the crowded tray across from John's chair. "Is someone else sitting there?"

"I know what your sense of time is like. I wasn't sure if you'd leave yourself enough to eat, so I picked you up three MREs. Do you like lasagna?" John asked.

"Love it." Looking down, Rodney noticed that John had also brought two huge Styrofoam coffees for him as well. There were ten little sugar packages piled beside the cups. "Thanks. This was really thoughtful of you."

John shrugged and refrained from making his usual smart-ass comment about being a thoughtful kind of guy. Instead, he said in a quiet tone that would travel no further than where Rodney was standing, "I wasn't sure how to do the dating thing with a guy."

Rodney sat down, glanced around to ensure their continued privacy, and admitted, "Me, neither. This is new to me, too."

"I, er, thought you ... well, that you'd done this before. You sure seemed to know what you were doing last night," John said. Somehow, it came out as a compliment.

"I know about that part of it. Not so much the getting to know you part. I'm afraid what I knew was all rather ... sordid," Rodney reluctantly offered.

"Sordid can be good," John said with a grin.

Rodney wanted to joke about it, but most of those memories were too painful to revisit. "Yes, but this wasn't."

"Oh." John took a spoon of his mashed potatoes.

Wanting to break the pall-like silence that had come over the table, Rodney perked up and asked, "So have you sweet-talked Ronon into joining the team yet?"

"He's still thinking about it." John gave him a strange, narrow-eyed look and then asked, "Are you okay with the idea of having him on the team?"

"He saved my life," Rodney said, trying his best to be an adult. The team needed a fourth, someone with weapons experience. Ronon was certainly easier to deal with than Major Lorne.

"I meant after what we talked about yesterday," John said.

"Um ... someone made me see the error of my ways this morning," Rodney said, trying a hopeful smile.

John grinned back at him.

"That's good to hear." Those hazel eyes did a quick scan of their surroundings before John asked, "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Shoot," Rodney said, opening up his first meal.

"Um, you seem ... well, you're not the way you usually are with women with me. Not that I'm complaining. I was just wondering is all," John said.

"You mean I'm not tripping over my tongue," Rodney translated.

John gave a reluctant nod. "I was wondering what the difference is."

"I guess I know you. I mean, most times when I like someone, they're not interested. Or if they're interested, I'm so ... caught up in work that I don't notice they are or else I've already decided it couldn't happen, so I don't look at them that way. Then when the situation does come up, it throws me and I start to blither – like now," Rodney finished with a nervous smile when he realized how quickly he was talking. Fortunately, he'd kept his voice pitched low. "Guess I'm not that different with you, after all."

"Take my word for it; you're different. Good different," John specified.

"Oh, that's okay then." Not knowing what else to say, he dug into his meal, hoping he wasn't blushing. It still felt a little weird to be here with John in this new context. He could see that John was experiencing something similar.

Surprised, Rodney noticed how smooth John's chin was. His friend had shaved for him. It was a small thing, but it made him feel special.

They finished their meal in a companionable silence. Whenever Rodney glanced over at John, he'd find John watching him with an unfamiliar expression on his face. In the past, that type of pensive expression normally preceded his getting dumped. But he didn't think that was what was going on here.

It took him a while to realize that they were both trying to work this new view of each other into their existing relationship. Some of their familiar patterns didn't feel right right now. Rodney expected that if/when they grew more comfortable with this new level of intimacy, they might return to their normal, enjoyable playful barb slinging, but tonight they both seemed to instinctively need to tread carefully around each other.

"You ready?" John asked when Rodney had finished the last of his three prepackaged tiramisu desserts.

"Yes. I suppose I should have asked earlier, but what kind of concert is it?" Rodney questioned as they walked from the mess hall to the nearest transporter. It was paranoid, he knew, but as they walked through the city's corridors side by side, Rodney couldn't help but wonder if anyone could tell what they'd done together last night. Rodney thought it was written all over him, but John seemed to be handling it with his usual quiet cool.

John answered, "They brought in some instruments from Earth on the last Daedalus trip and some of the new personnel brought their own instruments with them since SGC lifted the restriction on personal items. That new Recreation Director, what's his name?"

"You're asking me? It took me three weeks to remember Zelenka's name and I see him every day," Rodney said, making them both laugh.

The laughter felt good. John didn't give in to true laughter often. Whenever he did, it always felt special to Rodney.

Once they'd calmed, John said, "Well, the new director put together a volunteer band. I think they're doing show tunes tonight. It's not my usual thing, but you can only watch the same twenty videos so many times."

"Oh, I don't know, some of the classics never get old. I can watch original Trek and Twilight Zone all day, every day, and never get tired of it," Rodney protested as they left the transporter and joined the groups of people moving towards the west dock auditorium.

"You're such a fanboy, Rodney," John joked in a throaty undertone.

Rodney stopped in his tracks, blinked at John, and laughed. "It takes one to know one, doesn't it, Colonel? How would you even be familiar with that phrase if you weren't part of the subculture?"

Rodney tagged the 'colonel' on because there was a large chance of being overheard in the now-crowded corridor.

"Guilty as charged." John chuckled. "Only, with me, Lost In Space was my first love."

"Considering your sense of direction, that makes perfect sense," Rodney said. "The science sucked on Lost In Space."

"I wasn't watching it for its science," John protested.

"Don't tell me – Judy, right?" Rodney guessed.

John looked around, leaned in to his ear, and whispered, "Don West, actually, but let's keep that between us, all right?"

John gave him a wink and his lopsided grin as he pulled away, so Rodney couldn't be certain John was serious, but he joined John in chuckling and attempted to ignore the shiver caused by John's warm breath on his ear.

As they approached the doors to the auditorium, Elizabeth's familiar voice sounded behind them. "Good evening, gentlemen."

Rodney and John turned to greet her. She was wearing a gray tunic and black pants that complimented her figure perfectly. Rodney wished Zelenka had come. His coworker would have appreciated the view.

"Hi, Elizabeth," he and John said, nearly in unison, causing all three of them to chuckle.

John met his eyes with a questioning glance. Rodney wondered if they were really reading each other this well, for he thought that he could clearly read John's intention. He gave a nearly undetectable nod in response, waiting to see if he'd guessed right, and John immediately asked without a noticeable break in the conversation, "You're joining us, right?"

Bingo. He had read John correctly. They both knew how lonely Elizabeth's position as expedition leader could sometimes be. All three of them often experienced that same sense of isolation that came from having to maintain a certain distance from their subordinates. John and Elizabeth felt it more intensely than he did, of course. No one in the science section had any respect for the distinctions of rank.

She gave them a happy smile and said, "Thanks. I'd like that. How are you feeling, Rodney? No lingering effects from sharing your consciousness with Lt. Cadman?"

"Aside from the ridicule I've received after her last impulsive gesture in the lab, I'm fine," he didn't quite snap.

Both Elizabeth and John grinned at him.

"I think you'll survive," Elizabeth said.

"Please, don't overwhelm me with your sympathy to my plight," Rodney said with his usual sarcasm.

Unlike so many of his associates in the past, his cranky response only made Elizabeth and John's grins broaden. There was a time when Rodney would have thought he was being mocked, but he knew these people well enough to recognize the affection behind their joking. Their teasing was gentle, with no true malice to it.

"Cadman's here with Beckett," John said as they entered the huge auditorium.

It was a circular theatre, facing a raised dais at the western end. The towering walls were stained glass. The setting sun was streaming through the western wall behind the stage, creating a strangely churchlike effect. The rose window on Notre Dame in Paris had nothing on the Ancients' skill with stained glass.

Long rows of those odd, padded Ancient benches filled the hall. There was enough seating for perhaps five hundred people. Which was a good thing, Rodney thought, since it looked like the entire city was attending the performance tonight.

A podium stood at stage left, but Rodney barely saw it. A gleaming black baby grand had center stage. Two dozen plastic Earth chairs with music stands in front of them surrounded it. The set up was reminiscent of many a high school band performance.

Rodney couldn't take his eyes off the piano as he followed Elizabeth and John down the center aisle to the second row. As ever, whenever he saw a piano, his heart thrilled with an almost sexual excitement; he felt so drawn to the instrument.

"Oh?" Elizabeth said in response to John's comment about Carson and Laura, looking in the direction John indicated.

"They're over there," John said.

"They look good together," Elizabeth said as they took their seats.

"Yeah," John agreed. When they'd settled onto the padded white cushion, John leaned over to whisper into Rodney's ear, "Are you all right?"

John was so close Rodney could smell his aftershave. Not Aqua Velva or whatever he'd mistaken for Aqua Velva tonight. This smelt more like sandalwood.

Rodney gulped and forced his eyes away from the baby grand, his fingers still aching to touch those brilliant white and black keys.

"I'm fine," Rodney assured, though he wasn't quite certain. He hadn't expected the piano. He'd known the Daedalus' cargo hold was huge, but this seemed almost excessive.

"You sure?" John asked with endearing softness.

Rodney forced a smile and nodded.

As if becoming conscious of their surroundings, John sat back and said, "Elizabeth, what's the name of the new Recreation Director?"

"Dr. Martin Bishop. You've met him three times," she answered with an indulgent smile.

"I can't believe you got Landry to okay a baby grand," John voiced Rodney's earlier thought.

"Dr. Heightmeyer's report strongly emphasized Atlantis' need for stress relief and creative outlets. I think the Recreational Department is a wonderful idea. Dr. Bishop is setting up art, theatre, dance, and athletics departments as well," Elizabeth answered, then added, "Oh, that's my cue," as an intense-looking, dark haired man Rodney vaguely remembered from staff meetings poked his head from behind the stage curtains that had been erected in back of the stage and waved at Weir.

Elizabeth left them. They watched as she climbed up the platform stairs to take her place behind the podium.

The auditorium was nearly filled.

The conversations and laughter died down as Elizabeth cleared her throat, the sound carrying through the Ancient speaker network. "Welcome. Thank you all for coming. This is a very exciting night for Atlantis. We are all incredibly lucky to have Dr. Bishop and his fellow musicians here to perform for us. I know this will be the first of many wonderful performances. Please join me in welcoming Atlantis' first band, the Atlantis Impromptu Orchestra, with guest singers, Drs. Amanda Rodriguez, Sandy Weiner, Phillip Nardone, and Walter Parrish."

The theatre erupted into lively applause and cheers as the musicians, all scientists and military personnel whom Rodney had seen, if not actually met, took their places. The curly haired Bishop took the bench behind the baby grand.

Rodney tried to breathe out the envy that blazed through him as Bishop's fingers touched the keys. Damn, this was ridiculous. He'd walked away from the bloody thing twenty-five years ago. It shouldn't hurt like this, but he felt nearly as bad as he had the day before yesterday when he'd seen John in the cafeteria with Ronon and misinterpreted the situation.

Elizabeth returned to her seat beside them, and a moment later the performance began.

It wasn't half-bad, for show tunes, Rodney grudgingly acknowledged. The singers mightn't be professionals, but they were competent. The band was a little overbalanced in the ratio of strings to horns, but Bishop added a few innovative touches to the familiar arrangements to compensate that made the material seem new. On the whole, it was an entertaining show. Bishop wasn't even bad, Rodney decided, though it startled him to realize he'd been better himself. But that was years ago.

"That was really fun," Elizabeth said as the overwhelming applause and the band's standing ovation finally died down around them and people began to make their way out of the auditorium.

"Yeah, if you like show tunes," John agreed. "I think it'll be a while before they play my kinda music."

"And your kind of music would be?" Elizabeth asked.

"Country," John said.

Elizabeth grinned at him. "Yes, I think you might be right. It might be a while."

"What did you think of the show, Dr. Weir?" an unfamiliar voice asked from nearby.

They all turned to see Dr. Bishop and three of the musicians at the end of their row.

Elizabeth moved to greet Bishop. "It was wonderful, Martin. The best performance I've been to in years."

"You mean the only performance you've seen in years, don't you?" Bishop laughed.

As Elizabeth and the musicians continued along that line, Rodney finally forced his attention from the piano and back to John.

Normally, John was hard to read. He met the world with what seemed good humor, but Rodney always sensed that happy-go-lucky attitude was a facade. Too many times, Rodney would catch a somber expression like the one John was wearing now as they waited for the crowd to clear out enough to leave their seats. It only happened when John thought himself completely unobserved.

Rodney sat back down beside his new lover as Weir and Bishop discussed the next event, a classical music recital from the sounds of it. The other musicians had moved to accept praises from their friends in the audience.

"Hey," Rodney softly said.

It almost hurt how quickly John forced his smile as he turned to him. Rodney hoped that they would someday reach a place where such shields weren't necessary with each other. But Rodney had his own smokescreens he was reluctant to part with, so he wasn't about to force the issue, certainly not this early in the game.

Taking a guess as to the possible cause of John's mood, Rodney asked, "You really miss your music, don't you?"

John gave a slow nod. "Yeah. I brought some CDs back with me after our leave, but it's not the same as hearing it live. I used to go most every week and listen to live bands, even in McMurdo. We'll be celebrating our centennial here before we get a C&W night. Country music's not exactly popular among you high-brow types."

"So says a man who turned up his nose at MENSA," Rodney said to lighten the mood.

John gave him a smile, but that sense of melancholy still seemed to be there beneath it.

Rodney was about to make another try, when Teyla and Ronon approached in the row behind them. If either of the two looked hot on their own, together the pair was positively sizzling.

Teyla's outfits were always provocative. Tonight she was stunning in skintight brown pants, close fitting black leather bodice revealing a flash of flat stomach under a flowing tan vest. With Ronon in his usual Mad Max get up, she looked even more exotic than usual.

Rodney wasn't surprised to see them together. Even he'd noticed the way Teyla looked at Ronon. He couldn't help but wonder if they were an item already.

"Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay," Teyla greeted, her eyes bright with excitement.

"Hi ya, Teyla, Ronon," John said, rising to his feet to greet them, all smiles again. "How did you like the performance?"

"We enjoyed it very much. What are these show tunes from? The introductions seemed to indicate that they were excerpts from a larger body of work," Teyla questioned.

As John made an attempt at explaining Broadway Musicals to her that was only slightly more coherent than his attempt at defining the Hail Mary football play, Rodney stepped over to where Elizabeth and Dr. Bishop were still speaking a few feet away.

"Excellent show," Rodney said to Bishop during a lull in his conversation with Elizabeth when her attention was claimed by one of the violinists. He glanced over to where John was still occupied with their teammates, an idea forming in his mind. It could be a smashing success, or an absolute disaster. It was like all his plans that way. There wouldn't be any middle ground.

"Thank you, Dr. McKay," Bishop said, still glowing from the post-performance high.

"You guys sounded like you'd been playing together forever and not simply a few months," Rodney said. "I was especially impressed with that deceptive cadence you added in the bridge of The Sound of Music suite. The Klangfarbenmelodie in the Chorus Line number was well done, as well."

Bishop blinked. "You are a musician?"

"I played piano for years." Rodney said. Using every ounce of his nearly non-existent people skills, he admitted, "To be perfectly honest, I was envious of you tonight. It's been forever since I had the opportunity to play."

"You must come down and play, then," Bishop insisted. "We've set up a reservation schedule for practice time on the baby grand, and we have fifty electronic keyboards for practice as well that we will be loaning out."

Rodney took a deep breath and made his gambit. John would be much better at this with his sincerity, but this was for John, so he couldn't enlist his aid. "Actually, I was wondering if you'd have any objection to my playing for a while once the theatre emptied out?"

"You mean tonight?" Bishop asked, visibly surprised.

"Yes. I, er, think if I give myself time to think about it, I'll never get back in front of the keyboard." That was the absolute truth. Rodney knew if he thought about this too much, he'd freak.

"I don't see why not. Just lock up when you leave. I'll give you the code," Bishop offered.

"Actually, I've got clearance everywhere," Rodney tried not to sound self-important.

"Okay, then. Just make sure the doors lock when you leave," Bishop requested.

"Thank you," Rodney said.

"You're most welcome. You must come down and play with us some day," Bishop said.

"I'll see what my schedule allows," Rodney answered, though he knew he probably never would.

As a group of smiling women approached to compliment Bishop, Rodney turned back to John. He felt a smile touch his own face as he realized that John was describing the Rocky Horror Picture Show to Teyla and Ronon, both of whom appeared understandably lost. He couldn't imagine how they'd gotten on that subject, because Bishop hadn't included anything from the Rocky Horror in tonight's performance. But John's mind worked in mysterious and sometimes scary ways.

"They are never going to get the Time Warp, Colonel, not without seeing it. Give it up," Rodney advised, causing Teyla to laugh and Ronon's poker-face mouth to twitch a little at the ends.

"I believe Dr. McKay is right," Teyla agreed. "It was kind of you to answer our questions. We will see you tomorrow."

"Good night, guys," John said as the two left, adding when they were out of earshot, "Do you think they're a couple?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing," Rodney said with a grin.

"Goodnight, John, Rodney," Elizabeth called. Grodin's replacement, Wing Chan was at her side now, gesturing at a notepad in his hands. Chan must have been the only person on Atlantis actually still on duty tonight. Dr. Chan was still pointing at his datapad and speaking quite earnestly as the two left with the last of the stragglers.

"Well, whatever it is, it can't be too bad since they didn't need us," John said. "Looks like we're gonna be the last ones out of here."

Rodney nodded, suddenly unsure how good an idea this was. Twenty-five years was a long time. "I, er, have a surprise for you."

"I'll just bet you do," John said in what Rodney was beginning to recognize as his bedroom voice.

"Not that. That's for later. Come with me," Rodney said, and started for the nearby platform.

"What are you doing? Where are we going?" John asked, trailing him up the stage steps with visible reluctance.

Rodney took one last look out over the huge auditorium to ensure that it was really empty before striding determinedly to the piano. As he sat down at the bench, John came to stand beside him. John was looking around as if he expected to be yelled at.

"Rodney, what are we doing up here?"

"Ssssh, let me think for a minute," Rodney said, opening the keyboard lid. His feet found the baby grand's three pedals like it had only been yesterday since he'd last touched what had been his childhood passion instead of a lifetime ago.

It should have been an effort to remember after all this time, but the second his fingertips made contact with the ivories, they were flying in a fast minuet. He was rusty and stumbled in a few places, but by his third run through, it was sounding fairly acceptable.

"My god, Rodney, I didn't know you played," John's stunned voice sounded beside him. John stepped over to snag one of the nearby folding chairs. He set it down next to Rodney's bench and then straddled it, leaning his chin on the arms he had folded over the back of the chair in an unconsciously sensual position.

Rodney could feel John's avid gaze on his fingers as he answered, "I haven't, not since I was a kid."

Remembering that this was for John and not for him, he left off the Chopin and tried for a simpler style. None of the music he wanted to play had been written for the piano. But since he couldn't play the guitar, even if they'd had one, they were going to have to make do.

Transposing as fast as he could, he started out with the piece he was most familiar with. It had been Lindstrom's favorite song. His friend had hummed it under his breath while working so many times that the tune was enough to drive Rodney to distraction, but he needed something that familiar to start with. He'd barely gotten through the first bar when John's excited voice exclaimed, "Hey, I know that one! That's Ring of Fire!"

Rodney grinned at the excited tone. "After seeing that poster in your room, I figured that the Man in Black was a safe choice."

"You sound great," John said. "I can't believe you know this song. How do you know this song? You're not going to tell me you like Country Music."

"I spent two years at Area 51 in the Nevada desert. We got eight FM stations: one Mexican, one Christian Rock, one news, and five C&W stations. Lindstrom used to listen to this stuff all the time," Rodney answered, trying not to think too much about the last time he'd seen Lindstrom.

Rodney stretched his brain, attempting to recall all the Johnny Cash songs he'd ever heard. He was good for about twenty minutes, but then he had to ask, "What happens in this one next?"

"Huh?" John started, sounding like he'd been woken from a deep sleep.

"Can you hum the next part for me?" Rodney asked.

"Um ... it goes, 'On a sleepy city sidewalk, I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned ...'" John started out speaking but then he sang the next part of Sunday Morning Coming Down in a fairly decent tenor.

"You've been holding out on me, Sheppard," Rodney grinned, quickly picking up the tune as John continued to sing along softly.

Rodney didn't know how long they spent at the piano playing every song he could get John to hum or sing enough of the tune for him to follow, but it was some of the happiest quality time he'd spent since he'd given up the piano at twelve.

He looked up when John laid his hand on his shoulder some time later in a pause between songs.

"You know, you're a genius at everything. I can't believe how good you are," John told him, his eyes glittering with true admiration.

Rodney felt that old pain hit him hard as he had to confess, "Technically perfect, no real soul."

"What?" John's smile faltered, his eyes narrowing.

Rodney couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice as he explained. "That's what my teacher said when I was twelve. He said I had no soul. I wanted to play Carnegie, but I just wasn't a real artist. So I gave it up. It was the only thing I ever really wanted."

"Your teacher told you that – when you were twelve? What the hell kind of jackass was he?" John seemed scandalized.

"John, you don't have to – "

"Rodney, you just spent the last hour serenading me. You never missed a beat or a note, on songs you barely knew," John argued, passion hardening his voice.

"That's the 'technically perfect' part," Rodney hollowly answered.

"Bullshit. I don't know who this jerk was, but I know he was dead wrong," John insisted.

"Maybe you don't know music well enough to know the difference," Rodney pointed out, unsure why it hurt so much to hear John telling him these things.

John wasn't about to be distracted. "Maybe I don't know classical, but I know what you just played. It had soul, Rodney, real soul. You didn't just parrot the guitar chords. You added all kinds of little touches that brought the music to life. That's true art. I couldn't have done that on the guitar."

"You play guitar?" Rodney asked, grabbing at this incidentally offered piece of information.

"Some, but not like you play piano. Rodney, you were great, really great."

"John – " he began.

But John cut him off with an insistent, impassioned, "Who the hell tells a twelve year old something like that? Maybe you just weren't playing the kind of music that would touch a kid's soul back then. Or maybe this guy was jealous."

"Jealous? He'd been a virtuoso when he was in his early thirties. He'd done it all – played Carnegie, done the world tour bit. Why would he be jealous of me?"

"Oh, I don't know – how about because you're so damn good it's scary? Think about it, Rodney. You're too smart for your own good sometimes. You know how people envy that. Why should your teacher be any different? He's got this kid there, barely twelve, and already perfect. He had to have seen how much potential you had, and it probably killed him that he'd never be able to accomplish half the things you'd have the time to do."

"Being able to play perfectly isn't the same as having art. It's a matter of heart," Rodney corrected.

"And you think you have no heart?" John questioned in a tentative, stunned tone.

"When it comes to art, no," Rodney forced himself to be honest.

"Because of something a teacher said to you?" John sounded like he was checking his facts. "When you were twelve?"

"Mr. Pastori was an expert, John. He'd been teaching for more than thirty years. He was so good you had to audition to be taken on as his student."

"And you did that at what? Ten?" John asked.

"Er, five." Rodney hesitantly admitted. He was relieved that John simply seemed shocked. He wasn't staring at him like he was some kind of freak, which was the usual reaction when he mentioned how young he'd been when he'd started piano.

"Rodney, you were just a kid, for Christ's sake."

"It doesn't matter how old I was. All that mattered was that I didn't have what it took to be a true artist," Rodney could hear the bitterness in his voice, though he was doing his best to stamp down on it.

"Maybe you hadn't developed your own style yet, but who has style at that age? How much soul or art does any twelve-year-old have? You might be a genius, but I know you. You're ... just a regular guy under all your smarts. You couldn't have been much different from me at twelve – well, aside from the homemade atom bomb thing. We're into monsters and loud burps at that age. The fact that you could sit down and play like this after not doing it for years ... it's just incredible."

He could see how sincere John was, not the wide-eyed, you're-gonna-like-me-because-I'm-a-really-cool-guy, artificial sincerity he used when meeting the indigenous people of the planets they visited, but genuine earnestness. What was even more touching was that John obviously didn't view him as some kind of weirdo because of his precocious ability. Rodney gulped and said, "You're prejudiced."

John's hand tightened on his shoulder. "I'm right about this. Johnny Cash himself couldn't have put more soul into it."

Not wanting to continue along this painful line, Rodney asked in a strained voice, "Did you want to hear anything else?"

"Maybe some other time? You must be tired by now," John said, those perceptive eyes digging into him, obviously reading him too well.

Rodney swallowed hard and closed the lid over the keyboard. Part of him still wanted to keep playing. The part of him that had been devastated by Mr. Pastori's evaluation wanted to turn and run.

"Rodney?"

Almost afraid, he looked over into that handsome face. The gentleness in John's eyes made his heart skip a beat.

"Thank you," John said, getting up from his chair. "That was amazing."

"You're welcome," he replied, trying to play it cool, like it hadn't been any big deal.

Hoping to cover his uneasiness, Rodney rose from the bench. They were standing so close that they were perfectly angled for a kiss. John looked like he might go for it, but Rodney put a hand on the soft black shirt covering his chest and said, "This isn't safe. Not here. I know we're alone at the moment, but ..."

"You're right," John said.

Side by side, they left the stage, walking down the long center aisle of what now felt like a huge, empty cavern. Rodney remembered to key the lock as promised when they got to the main doors. The lights were already out inside as the doors closed behind them.

John seemed unnaturally quiet as they headed for the transporter. Rodney couldn't help but wonder if his own mood had put a damper on the night.

"Rodney?"

"Yes?" he answered, worried by the tentative tone. He didn't hear it often from John. The last time John had used it was when he'd confessed that it had been his orders that had brought down the Wraith dart, which had catalyzed Cadman and his shared consciousness ordeal.

"You really haven't played since you were twelve?"

That wasn't what he was expecting. "No. It ... hurt too much, knowing I'd never become what I'd always wanted to be."

"Why'd you do it tonight, then?" John asked, meeting his eye as they stepped into the transporter. "You did something you've been actively avoiding for twenty-five years simply to make me happy?"

"It didn't seem fair that you'd have to wait for Atlantis' centennial to hear music that you miss so much," Rodney answered self-consciously, still not sure why he'd done it. "Not when I could give you that."

It sounded lame to his own ears.

For a moment, John didn't say anything, then he offered in a gruff voice, "Thanks again. That was the best gift, ever."

"It was?" Rodney tried to shake off the vulnerable feeling, but he felt like he'd revealed too much.

"Yeah," John confirmed. "How, um, hard was it for you?"

John looked like he really wanted to know, like he was worried. It was weird to have someone feeling protective of him. Most times it seemed to Rodney that he could be dying of radiation poisoning and all people did was laugh at him. Even Beckett, who was so compassionate that he'd offer a Wraith mercy, mocked him when he was paralyzed and helpless.

So instead of hiding from John, he tried to be honest, "After all those years, it was like ... throwing breadcrumbs to a starving man."

"How's that?" John softly asked.

"I, umm, had almost managed to forget how much I missed it. But feeling how the keys responded to me ... it was a rush, like sex. It just drove home everything I'll never have. I can't really explain it well."

"But you seemed to really enjoy it," John pointed out. "I mean, except for what we did last night, I don't think I've ever seen you so into anything. You were glowing the whole time."

"I ... really loved to play," he admitted in a choked voice, ambushed by his sense of loss.

"How important was the Carnegie part of it, Rodney?"

"What?"

"The way you talk about it, it sounds like the way I'd talk about having to give up flying," John said. Rodney thought he saw him give an actual shudder at the thought as they stepped out of the transporter onto their living quarters' deck.

"That's how it felt," Rodney said, stunned that someone could actually understand.

"So you stopped playing completely and deprived yourself of the thing you loved most in life because some asshole told you you'd never be the top of the class? I know you've got a pretty huge ego, but you're not a quitter. I don't see you walking away from something simply because you can't be the best at it." John said. "Was it really that important to play Carnegie? Couldn't you just play to enjoy playing, like I fly to enjoy flying?"

Twenty-five years of hurting twisted his gut as he tried to make John understand. "I ... it was the no art part. There were so many compositions I was working on. I was in the middle of composing my first symphony ... if all of that was crap, without heart, what was the point?"

"Damn it, Rodney, listen to yourself. Please. Step back from the emotion and use that impressive brain of yours for a minute here," John practically pleaded.

"What do you mean?"

"People who lack art and soul don't compose symphonies. They don't create professionally scored arrangements in their heads after twenty-five years of not touching an instrument. I'm telling you that prick was intimidated by you. You're not twelve anymore. You've seen how malicious jealous people can be."

"He didn't have anything to be – "

"If he were as good as you're saying, wouldn't he have been teaching in Julliard or someplace like that? Instead, he's teaching five year olds, in Canada, not that there's anything wrong with teaching five-year-olds or Canada, but I'd think it would be sort of like playing Summerstock thirty years after you'd gotten your last Oscar. It would have to rankle. Maybe he was just taking his frustration out on you because he saw that you really had what it takes," John suggested.

The Summerstock allusion caught his attention. Instead of instantly dismissing what John was saying, Rodney tried to consider the possibility. There had been historical precedence for what John was suggesting, but he'd never cast Mr. Pastori in the role of Antonio Salieri to his Mozart before.

Was it possible?

He let himself remember his lessons with Mr. Pastori, tall, and gray, and so severe. Rodney searched for any hint that John might be right. Week after week, they'd sit at that piano in Mr. Pastori's living room together. The old man would show him some new technique or introduce what Pastori would call a difficult piece, and nine times out of ten, Rodney could play it through perfectly on his first or second try. Only now, looking back from an adult perspective, did Rodney consider how what he'd interpreted as his teacher's displeasure with his flat and soulless performance might really have been the old man's bitter envy of a frighteningly gifted prodigy.

Music wasn't the same as math or science. His teachers in the sciences had always been overjoyed by his unnatural abilities, but from the very start Pastori had never seemed pleased by his accomplishments.

Rodney stumbled to a halt as he realized that John could be right. A has-been celebrity forced to teach school children to support himself might be jealous enough of a talented young student to sabotage his career, especially a student with his own social handicaps, who was always pushing the limits and demanding Why not?.

"Rodney?' John's hand touched his arm. "You okay?"

They were standing by a potted tree in the corridor a few yards away from his quarters, but all Rodney could see was the smile on Pastori's face during that final lesson when he'd given Rodney his 'honest' evaluation of his abilities. It was the only genuine smile he could recall.

"I ... gave it all up because of what Mr. Pastori told me," he was shaking as he recognized the scope of the error he might have made. "My whole life – "

John's hand closed around his arm and guided him towards his door. It whooshed open as the sensors recognized Rodney's specific ATA genetic code and closed behind them.

"Not your whole life," John corrected, gripping him by both arms. "You're an artist at what you do here every day in Atlantis, Rodney. We'd all have been dead the week we arrived without your creativity. This is bigger than Carnegie. It's as big as it gets – and you're the guy in the spotlight all the time. But that doesn't mean that science is the only thing you can devote that creativity to. Maybe there's room for music, too?"

Rodney could barely hear what John was saying. He had no idea what his face must be revealing. The tumult inside him was unbearable, a bitter mix of shock, agony, and fury, because the more he thought about it, the more it seemed that perhaps John was right, and he'd thrown everything away for nothing. Rodney opened his mouth to shout that out, but then he looked at John, really looked at him, and saw how John was braced for just such an explosion – and was still standing there, willing to endure it.

As angry as he was at that malicious old man, Rodney realized that if he had followed his heart's dream back then, he wouldn't be standing here with John. He would have never gone for his astrophysics degree, would never have worked for the United States Air Force, would never have gone to Siberia, Antarctica, or the Pegasus galaxy. John and he would never have met. And somehow, knowing that, it allowed him to breathe out his fury.

If he had to choose between the piano and being John Sheppard's friend and holding him in his arms, there was no contest.

"You all right?" John tentatively questioned, rubbing his hands up and down the outside of Rodney's arms.

It was a very grounding gesture. Rodney swallowed hard. "You ... could be right."

"No 'could be' about it," John corrected, that protective worry still in his eyes. "I heard you play."

"It's ... a lot to take in," Rodney heard himself whisper.

"Yeah. Do you ... need to be alone?" John asked, removing his hands.

"Not unless you want to go." Rodney belatedly realized that none of this could be particularly enjoyable for John. He couldn't help but wonder if he'd ever get through one evening alone with John without having some kind of melt down.

"No. I want to stay," John quickly answered.

"Some first date, huh?" Rodney said. "I'm sor – "

"Don't," John instructed. "This was important. I can't believe no one ever talked to you about this before. Didn't your folks have this argument with you when you were twelve?"

"They were too busy arguing with each other," Rodney said.

John's question made him realize how little they truly knew of each other outside of work. He knew John liked football, country music, sci fi, ferris wheels, anything that went faster than 200 mph, and popcorn. And tonight he'd learned that John also played guitar. That wasn't a hell of a lot.

It occurred to him that he knew absolutely nothing about John's family or home life, not even to the point of knowing if he'd had one. He'd be amazed to learn that this accomplished man had been a foster child or an orphan, but stranger things had happened. Ford had mentioned to him in confidence that John hadn't sent any messages home when they'd reestablished communication with Earth, which had struck him as strange at the time, but he hadn't felt it his place to pry. Still didn't, really.

"Oh. Like that, was it?" John gently asked in response to Rodney's comment about his parents fighting.

"You didn't think my charming personality was the product of a happy home, did you?" Rodney tried to joke.

"I thought it was your genius manifesting itself in artistic temperament," John smoothly replied.

Rodney searched for some trace of mockery, but John didn't seem to be using the 'artistic temperament' sarcastically. Making a concentrated effort not to get lost in the past, Rodney answered, "Well, that, too, of course.

"You okay now?" John checked.

He was here with John Sheppard in his quarters. That was a lot better than okay.

"Yeah. Thanks for ... you know," Rodney faltered. He didn't want to revive the former conversation, but he wanted John to know that he appreciated everything he'd said.

"You're welcome. Thank you for the music," John replied in that melodious tone he used when making a point.

"It was my pleasure," Rodney replied.

In the silence that followed, they stood there staring at each other. Rodney was intensely aware of John's hands on his biceps and his proximity. He could feel the body heat pouring off that slender, black-clad figure.

From one heartbeat to the next, the entire mood changed.

John's hazel eyes filled with a smoky desire as he said in that sensual drawl of his, "I never did get to sample it last night, you know."

"What's that?" Rodney asked, his mouth running dry under the look John was giving him.

"Your pleasure."

As if the lazy drawl weren't temptation enough, John turned on the wide-eyed, sincere beseeching. Puppy dogs had nothing on John Sheppard in full persuasion mode.

At that moment, Rodney recognized that he was well and truly doomed. Before he'd had sex with John, he'd found that manipulation annoying, but now ... he'd give the man a kidney when John turned that look on him, and that was so not good.

Yet, how could nonverbal communicating with John possibly be wrong, Rodney asked himself as he stepped closer until they had no personal space left at all.

John released his arms long enough to slip his leather jacket off his shoulders and toss it at the desk chair.

Rodney shivered as John's groin brushed his right hip. He felt the flesh there twitch and grow. Because of him. Knowing that he turned John on was still as much of a rush as touching John.

His own body doing a similar morphing, Rodney slipped his hands around John's narrow waist.

John's hands slid up his arms, over his shoulders, up the back of his neck, coming to a stop in his hair. He reached for John's far more generous shock of hair, most of which was standing straight up as usual. Funny, he couldn't remember touching it at all last night, but then, it would have been a little hard to reach from his knees.

As he sampled the texture of the vertical hair, which was a little stiff from whatever product John used to get it to stand that way, Rodney wondered what John would want tonight. John hadn't done guys in nearly as long as he hadn't done pianos. This had to be stranger for him.

But John wasn't acting like he was finding any of it hard to do. There was nothing but eagerness in John's expression as he leaned forward to kiss him.

Last night, that had startled Rodney. Most of the men he'd been involved with didn't kiss him, but John seemed to enjoy it. Rodney realized that if John hadn't done this since high school, he probably didn't know any better. John was probably just applying the moves he'd use with women on him, and, brother, were those moves devastating. He'd never tell John, of course, but after last night and this morning, Rodney was fully convinced that John could teach Captain Kirk a thing or two in the romance department.

That was what the difference was, Rodney distractedly realized. John was romantic with him. The kissing, tonight's date ... there was more to it than hitting the sheets and then moving on immediately afterwards. John acted as though he mattered to him.

Rodney opened his mouth at the first swipe of John's tongue and made it welcome by sucking on it. John's whole body seemed to surge closer to him at that. Rodney himself was nearly blasted away by the sweet, natural flavor of John's mouth. The man had even tasted good first thing in the morning, which was just so unfair that Rodney didn't want to think about it. To be this good looking, and inoffensive first thing in the morning seemed an embarrassment of riches.

Their hands roved each other's heads, necks, and backs as their mouths worked hungrily against each other. Rodney moaned into the kiss as John's hands slipped lower to give his butt a tentative squeeze. Raw ecstasy ripped through Rodney at that first, hesitant foray.

"You like that?" John breathed into his mouth. His hands settled more solidly there and squeezed Rodney's cheeks again.

"Ahhh," Rodney cried out and clung to John for support until the sensation let up.

He almost sobbed as John abandoned his ass to run his hands up and down the back of his sweater again. John snagged it at the bottom and started to slowly draw it up.

Rodney broke the kiss with a shocked gasp and raised his arms over his head to assist. Cool air hit his overheated skin as the garment was peeled away. He felt like he was burning up already, and they'd barely touched.

John tossed the blue sweater on top of his black leather jacket on the nearby desk chair. John didn't waste any time. His hands returned to pull the hem of Rodney's tee shirt free of his pants.

John cocked his head to the side, a question in his eyes.

Rodney gulped and nodded. Moment of truth. At least John wasn't naked yet, so there would be no comparisons to be drawn, but Rodney knew he never fared well at the first unveiling. There was rarely a second one, at least with men. His slightly flabby body was just so not what most men were looking for. Rodney knew he wasn't bad looking, per se. He simply didn't have the slender, hot body that was preferred by men who liked men.

Rodney was staring straight at what most men wanted a taste of. John had it all: the look, the style, the sheer physicality.

Only, he wanted so much more than a taste. John's physical perfection was the least of what attracted him to the man, though at the moment he was nearly overwhelmed by it. He wanted to know the scope of the intelligence John hid as though it were something to be ashamed of. He wanted to learn what those shadows in John's eyes were about, and then, he wanted to take them away. But right now, he'd content himself with taking care of the impressive erection he could see stretching the front of John's black pants. That was an obtainable goal. The rest would take a level of intimacy Rodney had never achieved before.

Rodney gave a nervous smile, bowed his head again, and obligingly raised his arms. The tee shirt was on the sweaty side and took a bit more work to get off. John tossed it over with the sweater, and then moved back a step to look at him as Rodney straightened up and lowered his arms.

Rodney wondered what John saw. He'd lost a lot of weight these past few months, but his stomach was still soft and bulged over the waist of his pants. He didn't have near as much hair on his chest as John, but had too much to be considered smooth. Double chin, receding hairline ... Rodney knew that he was so out of his league here that it wasn't even funny.

Needing to know the worst, Rodney dared John's gaze. Those hazel eyes were still fixed on his bare chest. John didn't seem disappointed. Rodney could see how hard the other man was breathing.

He shook as John's right hand slowly rose to run his fingers from the hollow of his neck, down the center of his chest where the sparse hair grew thickest.

"Nice," John said with what sounded like sincere appreciation.

Taking heart from that kindness, Rodney swallowed hard and pointed out as he gave a gentle tug at the front of John's shirt, "This is a little one-sided. Can we get rid of this?"

John nodded and started unbuttoning. He peeked up at Rodney in a boyishly charming manner, his usual bravado lacking as he said while opening his shirt, "I've got a bit of the Chewbacca thing going on."

It sounded like a warning.

Rodney was so focused on the sexy, dark-furred chest being revealed that it was a while before the meaning of John's words registered. "What?"

"It's not to everyone's taste," John said as he slipped the shirt off and threw it over with the rest of the clothes. He'd seen John's naked chest that time that the Wraith bug had attached itself to John's neck, but with the jumper being stuck in the Stargate at the time, Rodney hadn't had a second to spare on anything but figuring out the Ancient power systems.

Now that he had an open opportunity, he looked his full. John wasn't very wide, but he was well developed. The lean, corded muscles looked hot as hell under all that soft, dark body hair. It was all Rodney could do to keep from openly salivating. Although, he supposed that was an acceptable response in their current situation.

The meaning of John's last words took a moment to register. What wasn't to everyone's taste? What the hell was John talking about? It took another minute or so to figure out that John had been talking about his own body, warning him the way Rodney had occasionally mentioned his own flab before disrobing. Rodney was shocked to realize that John was serious. "What's not?"

"The hair," John said, gesturing at his dark furred chest.

"There's someone out there whose taste doesn't run to manly perfection?" Rodney challenged softly.

John blinked at him, surprise gentling his features. "Manly perfection, huh?"

"Oh, yeah. Captain Kirk would have killed for that chest of yours," Rodney whispered, stepping closer. It was something of a revelation to recognize that even gorgeous people had hang ups about their bodies.

"Can we leave him out of this?" John chuckled, reaching for him again, his momentary discomfort seemingly gone.

Rodney wished he could get past his own hang-ups that easily.

As they took up residence in each other's personal space again, he breathed in John's scent and gave a pleased hiss as their naked chests brushed. Warm, John was incredibly warm and soft against his overheated skin.

Their mouths found each other again. While their tongues danced and played a game of wet tag, Rodney slid his right hand between them to stroke John's sternum.

There was truly a remarkable amount of hair there. When Rodney's fingertips tentatively touched it, it felt soft as kitten fur. Losing himself in the kiss, he tactilely explored. Unlike his own, John's chest hair didn't just get thick in the middle and then taper out halfway across his chest. It lightly coated John's entire sternum and ribcage, running in a thick wide swath straight down the center of that flat, tight stomach to disappear under the waistband of his pants.

Rodney felt John's right nipple poke up through the pleasing mat of hair as his fingers acquainted themselves with the area. John made a needy sound into the kiss as Rodney fingered the pert bud.

Rodney couldn't have resisted that sweet lure if his life had depended upon it. Breaking the kiss, he lowered his head to the right nipple and sucked it in. It tasted fully as tantalizing as it looked. A hint of the salt of John's sweat, the sweet oils from his skin, and something more that was the essence of John Sheppard. The flavor danced through his blood like champagne bubbles.

The moan John released sounded like it was dragged up from the depths of his soul. John's hands clamped onto Rodney's arms as if to keep himself upright.

Rodney pulled back from the nipple, and blew a soft stream of air across the wet flesh.

"God, Rodney," John groaned as his fingertips dug into Rodney's bare arms. Clearly, he was extremely sensitive there.

"Bed?" Rodney questioned, willing to go down on John again if John weren't comfortable with the idea of getting horizontal with him. But John didn't seem to be having any kind of crisis here beyond the needing to get laid right now kind that Rodney was experiencing himself.

John's easy acceptance and eager touches were as much of a gift to Rodney as the sex itself. It wasn't often that he felt truly wanted. John was giving him that, and then some. The way John kept kissing and caressing him, it was like he couldn't get enough of him.

John stepped, well, more like staggered backwards towards the bed in response to Rodney's suggestion, practically dragging Rodney with him. Clearly, John was all right with the bed idea.

They paused long enough beside it for John to fumble off his boots and Rodney to get out of his shoes. Then John was all over him again and they were falling for the mattress.

As he tried to keep John from pulling his full weight down on top of him, Rodney realized that as the more experienced one with gay sex here, that he should find out what John was comfortable doing. John certainly didn't have a problem with kissing, because it took Rodney nearly three minutes to free his mouth enough to ask, "John?"

Rodney shifted so that they were lying side by side, facing each other across his pillow.

"Mmmm?" John responded, seeming more interested in tracing Rodney's ear with his index finger than conversation.

Shuddering all over from the sensation, Rodney squirmed and forced himself to ask, "What did you have in mind?"

"You're kidding, right?" John sounded shocked.

Recognizing that he'd been misunderstood, Rodney explained, "You said that it's been twenty years since you did this. I don't want to do anything you don't ..." Feeling like an idiot under those amused eyes, he asked, "What did you like back then?"

John grinned. "I was a kid. I liked getting off."

"That's not exactly helpful," Rodney complained, wanting nothing more than to forget about the talking and dive back in, but that could lead to problems he'd rather avoid.

"I haven't changed all that much. Still like getting off, but you're asking me what I'll do, aren't you?" John finally seemed to twig. The humor left his gaze.

"It would help to know upfront that you don't like having your toes sucked or the back of your knees licked," Rodney said, hoping John would hear what he was really asking.

"Jesus, Rodney," John gasped. "Toe sucking?"

"If you like," Rodney answered, wondering if John had any idea of the things he'd be willing to do for him. "What did you do with your friends?"

John still seemed caught on the toe sucking image, for it took him a moment to answer. "Mostly kids' stuff. Handjobs, blowjobs, some frottage. Nothing heavy."

Rodney nodded. It was pretty much what he'd expected. "Anything you hate?"

John gave a slow, negative shake of his head. "Not that I know of, but it's all new to me again. I don't know if I'm ready to, you know ..."

Rodney spared John the necessity of finishing. "Of course. Just ... let me know if anything makes you uncomfortable."

"What about you?" John questioned, running his fingers down Rodney's neck. "Any no fly zones I should know about?"

It was hard to think with that touch shivering through him. After drawing in a calming breath, Rodney hesitantly said, "I don't seriously think this will be an issue with you, but I ... don't like to be hurt."

He'd startled John again. "That's good, because I don't like to hurt. Anything else?"

Rodney gave a negative shake of his head, barely able to believe that he was lying here with John discussing what they liked in bed.

"What about ... you know," John asked, running his hand down Rodney's side and over his flank.

Those fingers seemed to burn through his trousers. Shuddering in response to that roving hand, Rodney gave a breathless, "If you want."

"That wasn't the question," John said with what sounded like affection, his gaze warm despite his surprised expression. "Do you like to?"

There was no judgment in John's face, only curiosity.

Rodney forced himself to concentrate. "I've only done it a couple of times that way, but, yes, I liked it. A lot."

The minute he'd been honest, he'd known this question would follow. John didn't disappoint him, asking immediately, "If you like it, why'd you only do it a couple of times, then?" John sounded like he was really confused, but trying to understand.

"There's a trust issue involved. It leaves you kind of ... vulnerable," Rodney tried to explain.

"But you'd do it with me?" John appeared stunned.

Feeling that vulnerable at this moment, Rodney could only nod.

"God, Rodney. You're killing me here," John whispered in a shaky tone and kissed him.

Their bodies seemed to melt together.

Being horizontal with John was amazing. John was pressing closer and closer to him, until Rodney rolled over onto his back and pulled him on top of him.

That was better. John was thin, but solid. His heat and weight covered Rodney like an organic blanket.

The sensation of that hairy chest pushed tight against his own was incredible. Rodney was always plagued by easy perspiration, and his entire body dewed with sweat as that erotic heat blazed through him. He was soaked within seconds.

John's fingers seemed aware of the change in Rodney's skin, for they rubbed against his perspiration-sheened shoulders as though testing the consistency of his sweat. A second later, John broke the kiss and licked down his throat.

Rodney couldn't suppress his groan. His lower body arced up at John like he'd been galvanized with a couple of thousand volts of electricity.

John drew back off him to give himself some maneuvering room. Once there was sufficient space, John's right hand played through Rodney's sparse chest hair, giving his nipple a playful tap.

It hardened immediately, poking almost pleadingly up at John. Rodney felt like his entire body was begging for attention. He was always touch-starved, but this was worse than normal. The fact that it was John doing these things to him made the feelings that much more intense.

John didn't tease him or keep him waiting.

Rodney watched in wide-eyed amazement as that dark head lowered over his chest. Warm breath rustled through the hair there, making Rodney shudder, and a second later, the liquid heat of John's mouth surrounded his nipple. The suction that followed was enough to make him come. Rodney couldn't even begin to categorize the noises he was making. John was practically having to hold him down, he was thrashing around so much in reaction. But John didn't seem to mind.

John's talented fingers trailed the thin, nearly-invisible trail of hair down the center of his chest and over his rounded stomach, where they paused to just stroke the skin, with a light pressure that barely touched. The delicate caress thundered through Rodney's system like an orgasm.

Gasping, Rodney gripped John's sturdy shoulders and held on for dear life.

After a couple of minutes of that sublime torment, John lifted his mouth from the nipple he'd been sucking to thickly comment, "You're so soft."

The embarrassing area of his stomach right above where it bulged over the waistline of his pants seemed to have been what inspired that comment.

"Soft – stomachs – aren't – a – good – thing," Rodney grunted out, shaking as John's fingertips continued their odd caress to his flab.

"I like it," John insisted, turning a bit so that the left arm, which he'd been leaning on, could come into play.

Rodney writhed as the fingers of both John's hands stroked and explored his fleshy stomach. If the pressure of those fingertips had been the slightest bit different, the touch might have tickled, instead of being the sensual delight it was. Rodney had never felt anything like what John was doing to him. Probably because so few of the people he'd had sex with in the past had really liked him enough to want to touch him this way, he realized.

John's hands seemed to play there for forever before finally moving on.

"Soft is good. Hard is better," John gave a throaty growl as his right hand covered the erection that was attempting to poke its way through the fly of Rodney's pants.

John wasn't shy. He reached out and undid Rodney's button and zipper as though they'd done this a thousand times before.

Rodney hissed in a sharp breath as John carefully eased his zipper down, nearly passing out at the immediate sense of relief that assailed him as his constricted flesh bobbed up.

John took hold of the waistband of both his pants and boxers and tugged them down.

Rodney lifted his hips to assist, shivering as the cool air brushed over his sweaty flesh.

John was thorough, he had to give the man that. Not only did he get rid of the pants, but Rodney's socks were also peeled off with so little fuss that he barely noticed.

Normally, at this point Rodney would be undergoing the whole naked together for the first time panic, but there was no mistaking John's expression for anything but arousal. John's gaze all but branded him as it ran down his nude body; it was so heated.

"You weren't kidding about being pale. Your skin's almost translucent here," John said, reaching out to stroke Rodney's lower abdomen, where the blue veins were visible beneath the skin.

Rodney gasped in reaction. His erection seemed equally stirred by the touch, for it twitched hopefully up at John. He shivered as that hazel gaze moved over it.

Rodney had wondered if John would be intimidated by having an erection aimed at him after so long a time, but John seemed perfectly at ease as he looked Rodney over.

"Mmmm, talk about manly perfection," John gave his own words back to Rodney with an outrageous grin that totally broke any lingering tension.

Rodney looked down at the area in question. His shaft was a pale, pinkish white. The head was the only place that had any true color, being nearly blood red. This was the one part of his body that he'd never had any hang-ups about. He was well-endowed and meaty enough to have never received a complaint, even from the most critical of partners.

Though, in all honesty, Rodney had preferred John's slightly more streamlined, darker shaft last night. Maybe it was just because it had been John, but Rodney didn't think that he'd ever seen so beautiful a cock in his life.

"You now?" Rodney begged once John had tossed his pants and socks over at the pile of clothing spilling off his desk chair.

John nodded and then moved far enough back to undo his pants. Rodney watched his friend skim off pants, briefs, and socks in record time, and then lay back down at his side, facing, but not touching him.

Rodney devoured the view. His gaze followed the chest hair where it trailed down John's center in a wide, thick swath. The mass of dark curls at the base of John's purple-veined cock was nearly as impressive as the organ itself. The hair festival didn't stop there, but spilled over to adorn John's muscular thighs. He began to understand what John had meant by the Chewbacca comment. If someone wasn't really into body hair, it might be a bit much, but, fortunately, Rodney loved the way it looked on John.

Rodney had the impression that an entire conversation passed between their eyes when their gazes touched again. Questions were asked and answered without having to pass through the cumbersome medium of words.

John breathed a deep, contented sigh and said only, "Okay, then?"

Rodney didn't even have to answer, because their lips had already found each other.

This time when Rodney steered John on top of him, they both moaned into the kiss.

Their cocks nestled intimately together in the squashed press of their pelvises. It felt like heaven. Skin to skin down every square inch of them. Their sweat, saliva, and breath commingling ... the position might be simple, but the emotions were anything but. This was a closeness Rodney had rarely sampled in a lifetime of one-night stands.

He ran his hands down John's warm back. John seemed to be almost as slicked with sweat now as he was himself. John rocked his hips, sending them both skyrocketing with delight.

As their mouths worked ravenously at each other, Rodney kept stroking John's back, learning every vertebrae, indent, and scar by touch. He was startled by the light dusting of hair in the small of John's back. But considering the bounty John had elsewhere, he realized that it really wasn't all that surprising, and it felt so damn good. Rodney spent a long time simply playing with that scanty smattering of down before stroking lower.

John gave a harsh groan as Rodney carefully skimmed his hands over his lover's butt. The slightly rounded cheeks were soft as velvet under his hands. Curious to see John's reaction, he let his hands linger there. Cupping the slender cheeks, he gave a cautious squeeze.

John's mouth broke free of his, giving a sharp cry as his hips thrust powerfully against Rodney.

Hearing the need there, Rodney gave a more determined squeeze, with similar results. Taking firm hold of John, Rodney leaned up to latch onto that half-open mouth again, and then began to guide John's hips into a luscious rhythm.

They'd talked, well, insinuated, that they'd be open to more adventurous love play earlier, but this seemed to be just what both of them needed. Rodney couldn't remember anything feeling better than John Sheppard pressing down on every inch of his body.

They fed at each other's mouths like it had been years since either of them had felt a human touch. Well, that was the truth in his own case, but he knew John had done it with that Ascended space lady just six months ago. Only John's kiss had the same kind of hunger as his did, his hands the same trembling eagerness. And when they finally tumbled over into orgasm, the cry John gave sounded just as piercing as his own.

As his body shook while their cocks pulsed between them, John's mouth fastened onto Rodney's neck. Rodney gripped those narrow shoulders and hung on like a drowning man as he was rocked by wave upon wave of pleasure.

Such a simple position shouldn't have been so devastating, but Rodney felt like every cell that was touching John simultaneously climaxed.

As the sweat cooled on them both, Rodney lay there savoring the feel, scent, and taste of John Sheppard.

The scent of sex was strong in the air. Rodney knew he was crazy. Semen was semen. But it still seemed like the combined scent of John and his seed smelled different, somehow distinctive and better, than any sex he'd had before.

Feeling a shiver pass through John, Rodney forced his right hand from John's butt long enough to wrestle the blanket out from under them and cover them both.

John shifted into a more comfortable position, tightened his arm across him, gave his cheek a sleepy kiss, and appeared to be asleep in two seconds flat.

Rodney might have been insulted if the plug to his own consciousness hadn't been pulled at about the same time. His last semi-coherent thought was that this had been the best first date in the entire history of first dates.

*~*~*

Chapter 5

"McKay, do you have those specs Martelli was working on yesterday? He's off today and I need those figures."

Rodney looked up from the equation he was valiantly trying to make his way through. The memory of how John's entire body quivered as he came had been tempting him from his work all morning. He'd gotten next to nothing done for the second day in a row.

His brain kept flitting like a nectar-drunk butterfly between memories of the sex, to how absolutely incredible it had felt to play the piano last night, to some of the things John had said to him. Like how he might be an artist, after all, and how he might have thrown his world away for nothing because of an old man's malice. It was a lot to consider.

But this wasn't the appropriate time for it. Forcing all the memories from his mind, he put his hand into his jacket pocket where he'd put the disk after Zelenka gave it to him last night, but this was a clean uniform, so the disk wasn't there.

"I forgot it," Rodney said.

Zelenka left his desk to come stand beside him.

Helga and Kavanagh were the only other scientists in the lab, and both seemed totally absorbed in their work on the far side of the huge chamber.

"Rodney, are you all right?" Zelenka asked in a quiet voice.

"Huh? What do you mean?" Rodney tensed, wondering if he'd given John and him away already. He was a horrible liar. He hoped Radek wouldn't call him on anything.

"You haven't been yourself, well, since the incident with Lt. Cadman. I imagine having to share your brain and body with someone was very disturbing," Zelenka commented.

"It was, but I'm better now." Remembering his manners, and that for far too many years no one would have cared enough to even notice if he were off his game, Rodney added, "Thanks for asking."

"Are things not going well with Dr. Brown?" Zelenka tentatively questioned.

"Ah, not really. I haven't seen her since our date last week." Though, he'd passed Katie in the hall yesterday and she'd glared at him as though he'd killed her dog or something. Rodney didn't know what was up with that.

Apparently, his response was enough to satisfy Zelenka's curiosity, for he gave a reassuring sounding, "That must be it, then. I wouldn't worry about it."

Rodney wasn't worried about it, now that he knew that Zelenka's concerns had nothing to do with his seeing John. "Okay. I'll go get the disk and give it a look. I never got to it last night."

Zelenka nodded and wandered back to his desk.

Thinking that he'd get a refill for his coffee on the way back, Rodney snagged his empty Big Gulp mug and hurried off to his quarters.

The second the doors whooshed open, Rodney knew something was off. The desk shouldn't be that close to the nightstand, but it was almost touching it.

It hadn't been like that when John and he had left for breakfast early this morning.

Tensing, Rodney stared around his room. The empty mug dropped from his hand with a hollow, plastic bang as his eyes settled upon the reason that the furniture had been shifted around.

A Yamaha electronic keyboard with gleaming white and black keys, stood against the wall between his desk and the bathroom. It beckoned to him like a long lost lover, pulling at him from the inside in that same, almost-painful yearning he got every time he allowed himself to think about playing.

Noticing the white piece of paper that was taped to the music stand on the back of the keyboard, Rodney crossed to read it.

It was John Sheppard's handwriting, of course. Who else would have done this?

The note was almost painfully succinct.

No pressure. Just think about it. Please? JS

Stunned almost beyond thought, Rodney ran his hand along the keys. Unlike a real piano, these remained silent save for a little clicking sound when each key was pressed down.

Without conscious volition, Rodney flicked the power on, snagged his desk chair, pushed last night's date clothes onto the floor, and then sat down. A moment later, his fingers were flying across the keyboard. It wasn't nearly as satisfying a sound as the baby grand, but it wasn't bad.

How long he sat there and played, he didn't know.

What he did know was that the sounds he was making weren't flat or soulless or dead. Nor were they cold and perfect. As Rodney contemplated all the years he'd denied himself this outlet because of a single person's biased opinion of his ability, anger and hatred thundered through his music. It mightn't be perfect, but it sure as hell was cathartic. Rodney hammered his fury at Pastori out on the unsuspecting, but very obliging keyboard in a tumultuous progression too raw for even someone with his damaged self-esteem to view as cold perfection. The music he found inside himself was the very soul of anger. It was ugly, and violent, and destructive. It scared Rodney that he had something like that inside him, but as he let it out, one thing became clear. No one who lacked art could ever have created something that powerful.

By the time he stopped, his fingers hurt, but the agony that had been eating him from the inside out for the last twenty-five years was diminished.

John had done this, had given him back his music.

Rodney wanted to run and find the man ... and what?

What could he possibly say in public to John? Thanks wouldn't cover it, and anything more would get John court-martialed.

Taking a deep, shaky breath, Rodney turned off the keyboard. He sat for a while longer staring at the keys, before he finally got up and went to his laundry hamper to find the disk that had brought him here.

He paused at the door to look back at the keyboard one last time and thought of the man who had left it here. An utterly unfamiliar warmth assailed him as he gave the instrument a smile before hurrying back to the lab with the data Zelenka needed.

*~*~*

It was probably a mistake, John realized that as soon as he'd left Bishop's Recreation Department with the keyboard on a cart. But he hadn't been able to resist the impulse.

He knew it wasn't his place to force Rodney's hand in this. He just had to think back to the crushed expression in Rodney's eyes when he'd told him that he had no art to know that this was no lightweight wound he was mucking around with, but a blow to the other man's soul. But even knowing that, he hadn't been able to leave it alone, not after hearing Rodney play last night, not after seeing the sheer joy on Rodney's face as his fingers flew across the keyboard.

So, he'd conned Dr. Bishop into lending him one of the practice keyboards Elizabeth had told him the Daedalus had brought, and set it up in Rodney's quarters.

Now, eight hours later as he sat in his office reviewing Away Team 5's mission report, John was rethinking the wisdom of his action.

Beyond the arrogance of interfering in this, there was the invasion of Rodney's personal space to consider. Rodney might go ballistic over what he'd done. Or, worse yet, it might hurt him, and that was the one thing John didn't think he could handle.

The more he heard about Rodney's past, the more he'd come to recognize that the man had known very little friendship or love in his life. John's own past might be filled with tragedy, but he'd always had good friends who'd stood by him through the worst of it. He was beginning to suspect that Rodney had never had a single true friend. As for Rodney's lovers ...

What little Rodney had told him of his love life was disturbing, to say the least. That Rodney would even bring up the fact that he didn't like to be hurt in a casual discussion of what they liked shook him to the core with what it implied about his experiences.

Recalling what he was supposed to be doing, John forced himself to concentrate on the briefing report. He signed it and put it on the top of a truly intimidating pile of similar documents. The bureaucracy of command was daunting, and he'd been at this all day.

A glance at the clock told him that it was way past quitting time.

He couldn't help but wonder where Rodney was, and whether or not Rodney had discovered what John had left in his quarters this morning. Probably not, John decided, thinking that he'd have heard from Rodney if Rodney had found the keyboard. McKay was doubtlessly still down in his lab. John knew his friend spent upwards of nineteen hours there some days.

Clicking his headset to the channel for Atlantis personal communication, he called, "Dr. McKay?"

A second later Rodney answered, "Colonel."

"Where are you?" John asked.

Rodney chuckled. "Where else? The lab."

A pause followed. Personal radio communication was theoretically private, but John wasn't about to take any chances. "You still up for that game of chess you promised me tonight?"

John could almost feel that he'd thrown Rodney, but then Rodney obviously figured out that they were on a line that could be easily accessed and answered, "Yes, of course. Have you eaten yet?"

"Nope. Meet you in the mess hall in a half hour?" John suggested, giving himself time for a quick shower and shave.

"See you then," Rodney said and signed off.

Thirty minutes later, John entered the crowded mess hall. He couldn't believe how nervous he was. He didn't know for a fact that Rodney had used the last half hour to clean up as he had, but it made sense. Which meant that Rodney had probably found the surprise he'd left for him. So, he was probably going to be dealing with an angry or upset McKay here in this very public mess hall. Providing Rodney showed at all, of course.

That last concern vanished as he caught sight of Rodney's familiar profile at one of the tables in the less crowded sections they usually frequented. Like John himself, Rodney was wearing civvies, so he'd obviously been back to his quarters.

The tan pants and dark green, long sleeved shirt suited Rodney's fair complexion. John was a little surprised by the erotic quiver that passed through him when he looked at Rodney. Rodney hadn't changed any in the last two months. Physically, he was still the same geeky genius John had worked with this last year and a half, but something had changed in John over these last few weeks. He didn't know when sarcasm and scathing intelligence had become sexy to him, but clearly it had happened.

Rodney apparently noticed him, for he gave a wave.

His stomach knotting, John approached the table, wondering what kind of mood Rodney would be in.

The sight of the second meal tray in front of the empty seat across from Rodney eased some of his concerns. Rodney had obviously followed his lead from the other night and brought his food over for him. John didn't think Rodney would have done that if he were furious with him.

"Hi," John greeted.

"Hi." Rodney's voice had an odd quality to it, not quite strained, but tense.

John slid into his chair and gestured at the tray with a still-steaming turkey dinner on it. "Thanks, turkey's my favorite."

"I know," Rodney said, taking a spoonful of his second MRE dinner, which appeared to be spaghetti and meatballs. The third one sat unopened at his right, the empty one to his left, beside the ever-present Big Gulp mug.

"So, you, uh, went back to your quarters," John decided to tackle the issue head on. He watched Rodney's face, searching for a reaction.

Rodney glanced down at his meal and softly asked, "Can we talk about that later?"

It wasn't a reprieve, then, merely a temporary stay of execution, John realized. Not wanting to start the fuss he'd hoped to avoid, John nodded and said, "Sure."

He couldn't read Rodney at all, which was strange. Normally, the man was painfully transparent. All John could tell from Rodney's expression was that he was suppressing something strong. Hoping that Rodney would simply read him the riot act for his idiotic stunt, John picked at the mashed potatoes on his plate as the silence closed in around them.

"So, um, anything new going on?" Rodney startled him by asking into the silence.

Rodney was looking directly at him, and John couldn't find any traces of the expected fury, but there was something there, something John couldn't interpret.

Grateful for the effort Rodney was making, John swallowed the potatoes in his mouth and answered, "Ronon's agreed to give the team a try."

"That's great," Rodney said. "He'll make a good addition."

"I think so. Elizabeth's still going to take some convincing, though," John said.

"Yes, well, kidnapping isn't an acceptable form of introduction in most of the circles Elizabeth moved in on Earth," Rodney reminded.

"Yeah, there's that. How 'bout you? Anything interesting happening?" John questioned, trying to keep the conversation going.

"Always. We found this cool device that we think the Ancients were experimenting with to nullify gravity," Rodney began, and launched into a long, involved technical description of the process Zelenka and he were using to continue the work the Ancients had started. For the most part, the only words John understood fully were the articles Rodney used to define the concepts; the rest was an excited gibberish of quantum physics. But it filled the quiet, and allowed them to eat in a semblance of peace.

Rodney finished his third MRE about the same time John finished his own dinner.

"Chess time?" Rodney asked with a wry twist of his lips.

"Sounds good to me."

They disposed of their trash and left the mess hall to head for the nearby transporter.

John still couldn't figure out Rodney's mood. Subdued, maybe, he decided. Rodney's loquaciousness at dinner had pretty much eliminated 'angry' from John's list of possible responses. Although he was pretty certain Rodney could have given that same talk on the ancient anti-grav machine Zelenka and he were working on with no one present, the amount of eye contact they'd made during dinner seemed to indicate that whatever was going on, Rodney wasn't harboring any ill will towards him. That still didn't mean he'd gotten off scot-free. John knew there was doubtless a lecture about respecting each other's privacy looming in his immediate future, but he could handle a pissy Rodney speech. What he couldn't handle was hurting or alienating the man.

Rodney didn't say a word on the way to his quarters.

As the doors to Rodney's place swooshed closed behind them, John's nervous gaze jumped to where he'd left the keyboard this morning. It was still there, although the note he'd left on it was gone.

He turned to Rodney, ready for all hell to break loose. What he wasn't expecting was the strong hands that gripped the front of his black long sleeved shirt and tugged him forward. Before John even knew what was happening, their mouths were locked in a fierce kiss.

John's stressed nerves instantly decided that this beat the argument he'd been dreading, hands down. His mouth opened at the first poke of Rodney's tongue. The combined, intoxicating flavors of coffee, spaghetti sauce, and Rodney flooded his system as they fed on each other with a ravenous hunger more appropriate to a month-long separation than the few hours they'd actually been apart.

Rodney pushed the black hooded jacket off John's shoulders, and then moved to quickly tug the black shirt from beneath his pants. John's own hands were making great progress at getting the green pullover shirt up Rodney's chest.

They broke apart with a gasp when both their efforts reached the point where they needed to pull their shirts over their heads.

One steamy glance was sufficient communication to get them stripping down as fast as their hands could move. John was naked in record time, his clothes strewn about the floor at their feet like rock concert detritus.

Rodney wasn't far behind him. Unlike him, Rodney had apparently had the foresight to remove his socks before tackling pants and boxers, for when John turned to check on his progress, Rodney's bare leg and foot were emerging from his pants' leg.

As John observed Rodney's nude body, he was once again struck by how good Rodney looked naked. He would never have suspected it a month ago, but Rodney was damn hot without his clothes on. All pale, white skin with its blue-ribboned veins, unexpected strength, wild passion, and velvet softness wherever John touched. And that pale, red-tipped dick of Rodney's ... a work of art in itself.

Clothes dispensed with, they fell into another embrace, their mouths targeting each other with one of the Ancients' drone's precision.

John moaned as their fronts crushed together. He could smell Rodney all around him, a warm, heady scent, sweeter and more arousing than perfume.

His cock throbbed to fullness as Rodney's nudged it and nestled in the space between John's right thigh and testicle. They were both breathing fast around the kiss, their hands moving restlessly over each other's backs, shoulders, and butts.

Rodney's entire body broke out in a sudden sweat. It was a slick sheen between their skins. John loved how the beads glistened on that creamy flesh. What got to him even more was that it appeared to be a reaction to him. On all three nights they'd been together, when the action reached a certain level of intensity, Rodney seemed to literally liquefy, the perspiration pouring off his skin and soaking that baby fine hair.

They stood there feeding on each other's mouths for what felt like an eternity before John started to shuffle them back towards the bed. They attained the horizontal without incurring any life-threatening injuries, mostly because Rodney had a flair for twisting them around as they fell towards the bed, so that they hit side by side, instead of on top of each other.

Everything was better in this position – the kissing, the touching.

John didn't know what had inspired Rodney to jump him like that when they'd entered the room, but the passion storm he found himself caught up in was irresistible. Before he knew what was happening, John was flat on the bed with Rodney's considerable weight on top of him, flattening him as he kissed him breathless.

John had just about decided that Rodney must have been channeling the pearl diving talents he'd acquired in a previous life when Rodney finally pulled back for air. He stared into that familiar face. The flush of passion was new, but it suited Rodney.

John found himself admiring the curve of Rodney's nose, the slender, but well-shaped lips, the high, intelligent brow. Rodney wasn't sneering now or red with temper. A totally endearing softness was gentling his features.

The more he was with Rodney, the more his definition of beauty was being rewritten. These days beauty wasn't some shapely alien woman. True beauty was Rodney McKay, all hot and bothered and ready to come on command. They hadn't tested that claim yet, but as he gazed into Rodney's excited eyes, John was in no doubt that it would work. If he wanted to waste it like that.

Rodney's hands reached out to frame his face. Another bone-melting kiss followed. Rodney threw all that he was into it, kissing him as though he were attempting to take up residence in his skin or as if it were the last time they'd be allowed to share this. It was deep, and wild, and sexy as all hell, but there was a frantic quality to it that was unsettling as well.

Rather than fuelling that brushfire desire, John concentrated on gentling the kiss. He didn't know what was going on, but an out of control Rodney was never a good thing.
Using his mouth, tongue, and hands, John did his best to give Rodney the reassurance the frantic, sensual barrage seemed to be begging for.

When they parted for breath this time, John softly whispered, "Easy, easy there. We've got all night," and stroked Rodney's slick back.

"John?"

Wishing he could remove the desperation that made those heated blue eyes seem almost sad, he answered, "Yes?"

"Will you let me ..." Rodney began and stopped abruptly.

There was only one thing he could imagine Rodney feeling he had to ask for at this point in their relationship. His guts clenched tight at the thought, and not in a good way. John didn't think he was ready for that yet, if that was even what Rodney were really requesting.

"Will I let you – what?" John questioned, still not sure what was going on.

"I really need to touch you," Rodney grated out, his entire body going taut as though anticipating a rejection or rebuke.

"I thought that's what we were doing," John said, relaxing once it became clear that his own fears and inhibitions had been shadowing the situation. Rodney didn't seem to be asking him for ... that. Although, John wasn't sure what his friend actually needed.

"Yes, but – " Rodney stopped and bit his lower lip, as though unable to articulate what he wanted, or like he thought it was too much to ask.

John reached out and lifted Rodney's chin back up until their eyes met again. He left his hand there, running his thumb over the indent that segmented Rodney's chin. It wasn't a cleft like Dr. Zelenka's chin had, because it wasn't there all the time, but the little dimple was there frequently enough for John to be used to it. "What do you need me to do?"

"Really?" How Rodney managed to cram so much emotion into one word amazed John, but at the moment his lover sounded startled, hopeful, and excited all at the same time.

"Really," John assured. If Rodney had something in mind that he wasn't sanguine about, he knew that Rodney wouldn't force the issue. "Tell me what you want."

The smile that earned him was like a sunrise. It spilled over Rodney's eager face, bringing a warm glow that was bright enough to read by. "Could you just lie back and let me take care of you?"

"You mean don't do anything, just lay there?" John checked, confused.

Rodney nodded, his expression sobering. "I know some guys aren't comfortable unless they're running the show in bed. If you don't want to – "

Once again, John had to wonder what kind of jerks Rodney had been with. "No, it's fine. It just seems a little one-sided, that's all. I sort of got the feeling that you liked my touch."

The last was almost a question. This wasn't the strangest request he'd ever had, but it was among the most inexplicable. He'd seen how hungry Rodney was for physical contact. It seemed weird that Rodney would ask him not to touch him.

"I like it too much," Rodney said. "It'll distract me."

"From?" John asked, still not getting it.

"You gave me back my music," Rodney explained, wearing that same expression of incredulity John had seen several times during the last two nights. It was a bigger turn on than the most perfect breasts he'd ever touched.

"You're not mad about the keyboard, then?" John asked. He still didn't get what this had to do with not touching Rodney, but at least it relieved his earlier concerns.

A faraway look shadowed Rodney's eyes as he softly said, "When I stopped playing, my mother was the only one who commented on it. She asked one question. 'So we don't have to pay for lessons anymore, then?' That was it. The thing I loved most in my life was gone, and that was the sum total of reaction. I wasn't a complete pariah. I had friends, but not one of them ever asked why I stopped playing. My whole world was gone, and it was like nothing had happened. You think I'm going to get mad because you cared?"

His throat was doing that tightening up thing again. John swallowed hard, but still couldn't get the painful lump to go away. Finally, he rasped out, "But what's that got to do with not touching you?"

"There's no way I could ever thank you for the things you said to me last night and for bringing the Yamaha here, but I'd like to try to show you how much it means to me," Rodney said.

"Rodney, you don't have to – "

"I know," Rodney interrupted. "I want to. I need to. No one ever did anything like that for me before. Ever. Will you let me give something back to you?"

John didn't think he'd have been able to say no now even if Rodney were asking to take him, as he'd first thought. So, he gave another tight swallow and said, "Okay."

"Cool." Rodney grinned.

John relaxed against Rodney's pillow and watched those bright blue eyes run down the length of his body. He knew most people found him attractive, but there was nothing like seeing Rodney's erection twitch and grow larger to let him know that he was really wanted. His own was doubling in size under the heat in that gaze.

John wasn't sure what to expect. He was used to being the aggressor when it came to love play. It felt weird to simply lie here, not doing anything, stretched out like some sacrificial offering while Rodney's eyes moved up and down his body, as though considering the moves he'd make.

What felt like a breathless eternity later, Rodney finally reached for him. John shivered as Rodney's fingertips stroked over his chest where the hair was the thickest, following its trail down his center. The touch was so light and delicate it almost felt reverent.

John didn't know what to make of that. He'd had dozens of lovers in his life, but not a one of them had ever looked at him or touched him the way Rodney did. He had to admit, it was a nice change. There wasn't any pressure with Rodney. He didn't feel like he was competing with an old memory or had to dazzle with his technique. Rodney seemed dazzled just by having him in his bed with him.

Considering Rodney's past, maybe that wasn't so surprising. What was surprising was how good a lover Rodney was. He'd seen how self-absorbed Rodney could be. When he'd debated getting involved with Rodney, he'd really thought it would be like the kids' stuff he'd done with his high school buddies, that it would be all about getting off, something they did with their bodies that had nothing to do with the rest of their lives. But it wasn't like that at all.

Rodney was generous, thoughtful, sensitive, playful, indulgent ... Every time they got together John discovered some new facet of the man. As Rodney leaned down to lick the trail his fingers had blazed down the center of John's chest, John learned how utterly sensual Rodney could be. The stream of breath Rodney blew over the moist flesh and hair left him a shuddering wreck.

Rodney leaned against him and kissed him again after that, deep and long. When they parted, those talented lips moved to kiss and lick every one of John's facial features. While Rodney taste-tested his eyebrows and nose, Rodney's hands moved to his neck, beginning a light, sensual massage.

It felt incredible. Rodney's fingers seemed to find every little nub of tension and work it free, while Rodney's mouth literally worshipped him. John could find no other word to describe the tenderness of Rodney's touches. Every move Rodney made seemed designed to let John know how special he was to him.

The sensual rubbing moved to John's shoulders and then down his arms when Rodney finished sampling his face to move on to his throat and ears.

John's ears were always ultra-sensitive. He was shaking all over from the brush of Rodney's moist breath against the skin there. When Rodney did that licking/blowing thing behind his right ear, it nearly destroyed him.

While his fingers worked every bit of stress out of John's arms, Rodney took his time at John's neck. Not a single inch of his throat was left untouched by the time Rodney moved on.

He expected Rodney to move back to his chest immediately after the neck, but once again his friend surprised him. Rodney pushed his left arm up above his head. Then those wonderful fingertips stroked down the white sensitive flesh of his arm, down to the hair-crowded underarm.

John gasped as Rodney's fingertips explored the sweat-dampened hair there. He couldn't remember any other lover intentionally touching him there. He wouldn't have thought it would feel good, but the shivery sensation rocked through him like Rodney was nuzzling his ear again. When Rodney lowered his head over the area and actually nuzzled his armpit, John's entire body jolted up off the bed as he was flooded by the most shocking, rawest pleasure he could remember.

John was beginning to think that he'd never known his own body. That the seemingly sexually-clueless Rodney could introduce him to such sensual delights was unbelievable. How did Rodney learn this? How could Rodney have been mistreated the way he'd been when he could do something like this to a lover? Who in their right mind would ever walk away from this?

John wasn't certain he'd ever walk again, period. The pleasure was that devastating.

When Rodney finished with his underarm, Rodney's mouth moved down his side a bit, and then worked its way up to John's left nipple. It was like he'd never been touched there before, like Rodney's mouth was the first to ever lick and suck the hungry bud of flesh.

Pleasure built upon pleasure as Rodney migrated across his chest to his right nipple, and introduced it to nerve endings he'd never suspected existed before. After that, his right arm was pushed up and given the same treatment his left underarm had received.

Once that area was loved to capacity, Rodney nipped his way down John's right side in playful, toothless bites that woke that flesh to life as well.

John's shaft was past aroused, but Rodney never stayed long enough in any one place for the sensations to become overwhelming enough to result in actual climax. The slow build was killing him.

John cried out as Rodney licked his way across his underbelly to his navel. More of that shuddery, blowy attention followed. When Rodney's tongue dipped into his shallow bellybutton, it felt as intense as a hand squeezing his cock.

John told himself that it couldn't be much longer now. Rodney was finally approaching the area that was screaming for his attention. But when Rodney at long last moved downwards, he ignored John's straining cock entirely.

Rather than sucking him in and giving him relief, Rodney licked down the crease between John's pelvis and thigh, sending him totally out of his mind. He barely noticed when Rodney's strong hands gripped his thighs and parted them.

The next thing to claim his conscious attention was that silky tongue stroking down the thick hair of his inner thigh. The stream of air that flowed across it afterwards brought a whimper to John's lips as his nervous system skyrocketed with delight. It was the sensual version of when the Wraith were pummeling Atlantis' shield with their laser blasts, burst upon burst of power jolted through him with nowhere to go, no way to disperse. It just built and built.

Rodney taught him that the back of his knee was fully as sensitive as his ears, and that his calves and ankles were also erotic zones that no one had ever had the ingenuity to explore before. And then ... then Rodney reached his toes.

That whole toe-sucking comment last night had grossed him out as much as titillated him. John had had his feet rubbed on occasion, but in no way did that prepare him for how violently his body would react to Rodney taking his big toe into his mouth and sucking it. John jerked up off the bed like all the lightning from that monster storm that had forced them to evacuate Atlantis last year suddenly burst through him.

Overwhelmed, John moaned and thrashed as Rodney moved from toe to toe. He thought he might be in for some relief when Rodney finished with his little toe, but he'd forgotten that he had two feet. It started all over again, on his left leg, only this time Rodney worked his way upwards. That somehow made it feel different, new again.

John had lost all hope of sanity by the time Rodney reached his groin again. He was nothing but a blob of pulsating, pleasure-blasted cells. Everything resembling a nerve ending had been melted. Or so he thought.

Rodney collected his balls into his hand and taught him differently.

Rodney rolled them in his hand like dice and then bent down, ignoring his insanely pleading cock to nuzzle the velvet fur of his sacs. It was agony, and ecstasy, and everything in between. And what was the most mind-blowing thing about it of all was the fact that this was Rodney – Rodney who couldn't talk to a pretty woman without tripping over himself – doing this to him.

John was long past any kind of resistance. When Rodney pushed his knees up to his chest, he moved like putty, letting Rodney mold him however he pleased. Part of John recognized that this wasn't a position he'd wanted to be in. He did not want to end up with his ass in the air, totally open to another man's cock, but that was where he was, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. Apparently, the word 'no' no longer existed in his limited vocabulary.

A tingle that was equal parts fear and desire shivered through him when Rodney's hands gripped his buttocks and carefully opened him. John searched for the word he needed to stop this, but there was nothing in his world other than the brain-melting need Rodney had built in him.

John knew he was about to be fucked. What guy would stop now, when they had him laid out like this? It wasn't even like he could really blame Rodney. His lover had given him every opportunity to protest, but he hadn't said a word.

Not wanting to watch, John gulped and tightly squeezed his eyes shut ... and then cried out in shock as the slick, wet tongue that had charted every inch of his body probed the part of him he hardly ever let anyone touch.

It was strange how one bad, teenage experience could make a man deny himself a lifetime of pleasure. That was where John had been at his entire life, fearing to allow even his girlfriends to play with him there because of how one careless adolescent lover had hurt him by finger-fucking him too dry. But as Rodney's juicy tongue delicately circled that tight bud of muscle, his entire world was rocked.

John knew he was moaning, pleading in a completely embarrassing manner, but he was beyond control. He would have offered Rodney anything at that point to come, even his virginity. As Rodney's tongue pushed up inside him, John realized that he was Rodney's for the taking. If Rodney did him now, he wouldn't even hold it against him. Anyone capable of giving this kind of delight deserved to reap the rewards of his labor.

But Rodney didn't take him. That tongue spent forever there, but at no time did Rodney's fingers violate his body, they just held him open so Rodney could lick.

John had just about resigned himself to the fact that he was going to be suffering on the verge of climax for the rest of his life when Rodney's tongue slid up over his perineum, and balls, up the underside of his engorged cock, to finally suck him into that luscious, wet heat.

The shock of his cock getting the attention it had been screaming for was too much to take on top of everything else. He exploded at Rodney's first suck. Everything inside him liquefied, and geysered out in pulse after powerful pulse. It felt like it went on forever.

Trapped in that apex of ecstasy, John was only vaguely conscious of the warm spurts of Rodney's seed hitting his hips and lower belly as the man curled around his groin climaxed. That was the second time Rodney had come without a single touch.

As the explosion taking place in his pleasure centers slowly subsided, the shattered pieces of John's brain gradually coalesced into an utterly stunned whole. Rodney had done this to him. Rodney, who everyone joked about. The Rodney who fretted about his health, and whined about radiation poisoning, sunburn, and beestings on missions like a five year old on a road trip. That Rodney had just sent him into the stratosphere with what he could do with his lips and tongue. Who would have thought it?

Gasping in breaths of cool air, John simply laid there, too blown away to even consider independent movement.

After a while, Rodney sat up, rubbed the back of his neck, and then looked over at John.

At first, John didn't get the tentative expression on Rodney's face, but then he understood. Rodney had just bared his soul to him again. Only this time, he'd done it with actions instead of words.

Their gender didn't handle extreme emotional exposure well. In fact, most guys ran when things got too heavy. What they'd just done together put a whole new meaning to the word intense.

John wondered if this was where most of the jerks Rodney had dated bailed on him, if they'd even made it this far. John had a feeling that most of Rodney's relationships ended as fast as they started. He also had the impression that Rodney had never done this for anyone else before. He couldn't say why he thought that, just something in Rodney's expression. Maybe because Rodney was looking at him like he'd given all he had to give and was waiting to be kicked in the teeth.

"Come here," John grated out, opening his arms.

As ever, Rodney was indecently transparent. He was like a kid in so many ways, John thought, watching instant joy replace the uncertainty in Rodney's eyes as he crawled up to him.

Curling up with Rodney's hairy leg between his own shouldn't have felt so natural, but it was almost like coming home. John kissed his lover as Rodney settled against him, searching out his own flavor in Rodney's mouth. Just thinking about some of the places that tongue had been made him blush.

When they parted, John stroked Rodney's sweat-soaked hair and commented, "If I'd known you'd have that kind of reaction to getting an instrument, I'd've bought you a whole damn orchestra."

Rodney shook with laughter and hugged him tighter.

"Seriously," John said, pulling back far enough to look into Rodney's eyes, "That was the best ever. Thank you."

"The best ever?" Rodney echoed. "For real?"

"Yeah," John assured.

"Wow ... thanks. I've never been anyone's best ever," Rodney said, flushing with pleasure.

"Only because they were too stupid to live," John reminded, snuggling down beside Rodney, his nose resting in the crook of Rodney's neck.

Rodney squirmed around a little, tugging at the bedclothes, and a moment later the blanket covered John. That was his last conscious awareness for the next eight hours or more.

*~*~*

Chapter 6

"You up for a game of chess?" John asked him as they exited the debriefing.

Stepping aside to allow the marine to escort Eldon to his quarters, Rodney turned a startled look on the haggard man beside him. John was just as tired and stressed out as he was, and he wanted to get together now? Rodney didn't think he'd be able to get it up even for John Sheppard tonight.

Their first mission with Ronon Dex hadn't been an unmitigated disaster, in that no one had died. At least no one on their team. They were down another jumper ship, but they'd gained another refugee. That had to count for something.

It hardly seemed a victory, though. The Wraith had claimed yet another planet. One more human civilization bites the dust. Another potential ally lost, and this one had been so promising. Rodney might have had objections to the Olesians' ethics and penal system, but that explosive ore the Magistrate had mentioned had sounded truly promising. A non-radioactive catalyst for fusion. What he wouldn't have given to have examined it. He knew better than to even ask about the possibility of returning to collect ore samples. With the Wraith actively culling Olesia, it would be a cold day in hell before either Elizabeth or John would approve a return.

They'd been lucky to get out of there with their lives. No one knew that better than him. There'd been a point there when Torrell was holding his team hostage that Rodney had been convinced that everyone was going to die because he couldn't think of a way to do the impossible and repair the damaged jumper.

It was hardly the first time he'd been thrown into that kind of horrible countdown to death. Maybe heroes like John got used to the pressure, but Rodney hated it. Yet, it seemed that he was asked to save the world in two minutes time with frightening regularity.

That kind of situation was harder now that John was his lover. If he hadn't come up with that plan to repair the ship enough to open the gate, John would have died. Because he couldn't think fast enough on his feet.

"Rodney?" John called, obviously not for the first time.

Rodney started out of his daze. They were still standing in front of Elizabeth's office. This wasn't the place to lose it. "Sorry."

"It's been a long day," John dismissed his lapse of attention.

"Yes, a long day," Rodney echoed.

"So, chess? Or food first?" John asked with forced eagerness.

Rodney wondered why John was even trying. The man looked dead on his feet, not to mention filthy, bruised, and beaten. It hadn't been a good day for any of them.

"I couldn't eat a thing," Rodney finally answered, the thought of food turning his already painful stomach. A couple of more days like this and he'd have an ulcer for sure.

"Chess, then," John said, taking a light hold on his elbow and moving him towards the transporter.

Rodney didn't protest. He didn't have the energy for any more conflicts. All he wanted to do was crawl into his bed and forget today ever happened.

When they were alone in the tiny transporter chamber, Rodney warned, "I'm not going to be very good company tonight. You might want to take a rain check."

His mood was so foul Rodney didn't know if he'd hold it together long enough to make it to his quarters.

But John simply shrugged and said, "That's okay. You don't have to entertain me. Unless you don't want me there?"

The doors opened before Rodney could reply. He looked at the three people waiting to board the transporter and stepped out. It took him a moment to realize that John wasn't beside him, but was standing at the transporter controls, an uncertain expression in his weary eyes as he looked out at him.

Damn. He couldn't deal with this now.

"Are you coming?" Rodney testily demanded, recognizing that they were on the verge of making a scene.

John exited the lift. The nurse and two engineers waiting stepped in, the doors closed behind them, and they were alone in the corridor.

John didn't comment on his bad temper, but simply fell into step beside him as they walked the last few yards to Rodney's door. Rodney sighed as it closed behind them, stumbled over to the bed, sank down onto its edge, and allowed his eyes to sink shut.

If John weren't here, he'd be free to fall apart now, but John was here, so he held it together.

A moment later, Rodney felt the mattress dip beside him. A heavy arm settled across his shoulders and the scent of strong, male sweat filled his lungs. After all the running, fighting, and worrying they'd done, they both stank to high heavens.

Rodney couldn't imagine how bad he must smell. He sweated like a pig at the best of times, and today had certainly not been the best.

The hand on his shoulder gave a light tug. After the briefest of hesitations, Rodney allowed himself to lean against John, to breathe in the living warmth of the man as he tentatively rested his cheek on John's left shoulder. John was a solid, reassuring heat down his right side.

"You did great today, Rodney," John said into the silence a long time later, his voice low and sincere.

Wrapping his arms around John, Rodney buried his face between John's collar and neck. A shudder wracking through him, he did his best to hold back a sob. He wasn't a hero like John. He couldn't take these things in his stride and soldier on as though nothing had happened. He needed time to pull himself together. But first, he needed to let himself fall apart.

"I ... don't want you to see me like this," Rodney forced himself to say at last, reluctant to release John's warmth, for all that he thought he wanted to be alone.

"Like what?" John asked, rubbing a hand gently over Rodney's back, turning his face to plant a kiss somewhere in his dirty hair.

"I'm a mess," Rodney reluctantly confessed, feeling his cheeks warming. When John was sweaty and dirty, he still managed to look hot. Rodney knew that he himself only looked grubby in the same state. But his physical appearance was the least of his concerns tonight. He couldn't bounce like John. He was an emotional basket case at the moment.

"You think I'm any better?" The question was very soft, very gentle.

He raised his head to meet John's eyes. John's arms didn't release him. "I'm not a hero like you. I don't just bounce back after days like this."

"You're a bigger hero than you know," John answered. "Guys like Ronon and me, we trained for years to handle combat situations. You were dumped into the middle of it with nothing more than basic weapons training. You do great, Rodney. And, you're wrong about me."

"Wrong?" Rodney asked, wishing he could read what the tension in John's face really meant.

"I'm not a hero. I'm just doing my job," John said.

"That's just what Captain Kirk would have said," Rodney said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"Rodney, cut the crap. I'm no different than you. You think today was any easier on me than you?"

"You're holding it together," Rodney pointed out.

"I'm in command. I have to hold it together. It's part of the job," John answered, his tension seeming more brittle.

"Are you on the job now? Do you have to be in command here, when we're alone together in my bed?" His frustration getting the better of him, Rodney demanded, "Do you have any idea how hard it is to have someone so in control and perfect watching you while you fall apart?

"Perfect? Did you miss what happened today?" His voice finally filling with anger, John continued, "Everything that happens to us on a mission is my responsibility. We were shot out of the sky today. I lost another jumper. We were overwhelmed by superior numbers, beaten, held hostage, damn near murdered by a psychopath ... and then I chose to condemn an entire civilization to the Wraith. That's as far from perfect as it gets without actually losing your team, which I nearly did. It was a piss poor day all around."

Rodney swallowed hard, shocked by John's sudden vehemence. And he'd thought he'd had a bad day. At least he wasn't carrying something like the death of a thriving civilization around inside him. He found the strength from somewhere to protest, "You didn't condemn the Olesians. We both know the reawakened Wraith wouldn't have been content with feeding off the prisoners for long. It was only a matter of time before their planet was culled the same as all the others."

For perhaps the first time outside of when they were having sex, John seemed to let his shields drop entirely. "But it was my decision to hasten that process. Christ, Rodney, I was the one who woke the Wraith up early in the first place. Whole civilizations are dying because there aren't enough humans to feed them."

"Once again, not your fault," Rodney insisted. He reached out to brush a hand over John's grimy cheek. "John, the Wraith are monsters. No matter when those bad boys awaken, it's not going to be good. This year, a hundred years from now. It doesn't matter. The results are going to be the same. You've heard Teyla describe it. Even when the feeding grounds are rich, they destroy everything and leave barely enough humans left to continue the race."

"But now they're not leaving anyone," John said.

"Still not your fault," Rodney repeated, stroking his fingers over that troubled brow. John was right. They were both a mess. But in spite of being so bruised and shaky inside, it felt damn good that John trusted him enough to be so open with him, even if he'd had to force the issue.

John peeked up at him out of those long, dark lashes. He looked so young and vulnerable when he did that that Rodney was totally lost. "Whose fault is it then? I'm in command."

"You're not in command of the universe. Neither am I. We're in an impossible situation. We're both doing the best we can," Rodney said.

John searched his face, as if looking for a lie, and then gave a tight nod. "I don't feel like I did my best today."

Rodney nodded. "Some days our best isn't going to be good enough, John. Even Captain Kirk had missions that went sour or met bad guys he couldn't beat, and he had a dozen people writing scripts for him. You're doing it ad lib, and doing a fine job of it. Today sucked, but tomorrow you'll kick Wraith ass. Wait and see."

John reached up to brush Rodney's sweat-lank hair off his brow as he asked in a soft tone, "What happened to gloom and doom Rodney McKay? You're the one who's always telling me that the sky is falling down."

It was amazing, considering the day he'd had, but that actually made Rodney smile. "That's because you're the guy who can fix it. Listen to what I'm saying. I'm the smartest man in two galaxies and I'm never wrong."

That got John chuckling.

"Damn, you make me feel great," John said when he calmed. He appeared nearly stunned by the realization.

"Since I planned on spending the night falling apart face down in my pillow, I can honestly return the compliment," Rodney said.

"Are you okay?" John asked, running his fingers through Rodney's hair again.

Rodney took stock of himself. "It doesn't make a whit of sense, but ... I do feel better."

"That's my Rodney," John said, his smile soft and warm.

That smile went straight to his gut, melting it. Did John really think of him as his Rodney?

Swallowing hard, Rodney resisted the impulse to question the assertion. They'd been together less than six weeks. That was a record for him, but for normal people, it was still a short time for a new relationship. It was way too soon to be pushing the envelope. As good as things were between them, Rodney knew fully well that everything could fall apart tomorrow. It had happened before. He didn't think John was like the rest, but ... John hadn't had him yet and he'd been played for a fool before. This could still turn out like it had with Pete, who had been out the door the morning after he'd finally taken him.

So, instead of pushing things, Rodney smiled at John and rubbed his hand over the back of John's sweaty, black, zippered long-sleeved shirt.

They held on to each other without saying anything.

Finally, John pulled back a bit and said, "It's been a while since I had someone to vent to. Thanks."

"Me, too," Rodney confessed. Unlike John, he vented all the time, but there was a difference between inflicting his feelings on his coworkers and having someone who actively wanted to know how he was feeling at any given moment.

"That's good, then. So we're cool again?"

Rodney smiled. "You'll always be cool. I'm almost fine."

The tension was totally gone from John's face as he grinned.

His aching back telling him how long they'd been up, Rodney softly said. "We've got that follow up briefing with Elizabeth first thing tomorrow. We really should get some sleep."

John nodded. "Can I stay?"

Like he could say no – ever. Needing to be honest, Rodney warned, "I'm not up to much."

"Me, either," John said, adding a hesitant, "But I, umm – "

John might deny it with his dying breath, but he really was a hero, and heroes always had trouble voicing their needs.

Wanting to make it easier, Rodney completed, "Don't want to be alone? Me, too."

That hadn't been true earlier, but it was now. He really didn't want John to leave.

Rodney rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "I should probably shower. I reek."

"So do I," John said.

They both looked at each other, and then looked at the bathroom, which seemed a million miles away.

If Rodney had been alone, he would have sacked out for the night and waited till morning to clean up, but he couldn't inflict himself on John in such a small bed.

John sighed. "Not to sound disgusting, but I don't mind, if you don't."

"As long as sleep is involved, I'm down with it," Rodney said.

They sat back to undo their boots, adding the smell of hot feet to the mix.

Rodney shrugged out of his grungy gray tee shirt, and then quickly stripped off his gray pants, boxers and socks, all of which were nearly filthy enough to stand up on their own.

Turning back to John, he couldn't hold in his gasp when he caught sight of the black and blue marks splattering John's arms, legs, and torso. John's entire right knee was purple. "God, John."

"It's not as bad as it looks," John said, though he winced when he bent to pull the bedclothes down.

They climbed in together, with Rodney on the inside. John was so mottled with bruises that Rodney was almost afraid to touch him.

After a momentary awkwardness, John settled his right arm over Rodney's waist and then insinuated his banged up right knee between Rodney's.

John's hair smelled of wood smoke, the rest of him of stale sweat. Rodney knew he couldn't smell any better. But as he breathed John in and relaxed against his lover's warm body, none of that seemed to matter. Against all odds, they were here together, alive. That was all that counted.

John released a deep, contented sigh after a few minutes of quiet.

Rodney was nearly asleep when John asked in an exhausted, playful voice, "Still think I'm perfect now that I'm stinking up your bed?"

Being careful not to put too much pressure on discolored areas, Rodney gave John's furry chest an appreciative stroke, smiled, and mumbled, "Even geniuses are entitled to the occasional delusion."

John's confused, "Was that a compliment?" was the last thing he heard before tumbling over into sleep.

*~*~*

"Colonel Sheppard!" Teyla's familiar voice stopped him on his way from the food line to claim the table in the less occupied section of the mess hall that had become Rodney and his regular dinner spot.

John looked around, and finally caught sight of Teyla and Ronon over in the busiest part of the mess. He looked down at the overcrowded tray he held, where his dinner was precariously balanced next to Rodney's three MREs and his lover's caffeine fix. Deciding that it couldn't be helped, he squared his shoulders and joined his two teammates in the noisy center section.

"Hi, guys," John greeted, as he put Rodney's meals and huge Styrofoam coffees down in front of the empty chair next to Teyla, while placing his own next to Ronon.

"You must be very hungry tonight, Colonel," Teyla joked as she pointed to the tray he'd left for Rodney.

"McKay's joining me. I figured I'd spare the cooks another lecture on the lethal dangers of citrus," John joked.

"Citrus?" Ronon repeated. Even after the weeks Ronon had spent on Atlantis, they discovered new gaps in their cultures every day. "What sort of weapon is citrus? You haven't introduced me to that one yet."

Teyla and John both laughed.

"You're eating some now," Teyla said, pointing at the fruit cup on Ronon's tray. "The orange pieces are an Earth citrus fruit. The red is a native citrus fruit my people discovered."

"Fruit is a deadly weapon?" Ronon repeated, eyeing his dessert cup as though he thought they'd poisoned it.

"It is in McKay's world," John said. "He's allergic to it."

"Oh. Okay." Obviously, Ronon was acquainted enough with Rodney's peccadilloes to require no further explanation. It was amusing, really, how quickly people got to know Rodney McKay.

"How's the leg?" John asked Ronon, taking a bite of his chicken and rice dinner.

"It's fine," Ronon replied in his usual near-monotone.

The amazing part was, his leg really was fine. Three hours after an arrow had passed straight through his calf, Ronon had been showing no hint of distress. John didn't even know if his teammate had been down to see Beckett about the arrow wound. Now, four days later, there was no visible indication that Ronon had been injured at all. The guy had the constitution of a Wraith.

Catching sight of Rodney entering the hall, John stood up and called out, "McKay! Over here."

Rodney was wearing that magnetic blue sweater he'd worn on their first official date, the one that made his eyes look incandescent.

John blanked his face, hoping that the surge his pulse gave upon seeing Rodney wouldn't show.

"Hi," Rodney said a minute later as he slid into the chair between John and Teyla.

John couldn't help but note that he smelled of soap.

"How's the leg?" Rodney asked Ronon, and then whined, "What?" as all three of them broke into laughter.

"We just did that," John explained. "The leg is fine. The food is fine. Atlantis is fine. What else is fine, Ronon?"

"That beer Major Lorne gave me last night wasn't bad," Ronon said.

"Lorne's got beer?" Rodney and he parroted in unison, making everyone laugh again.

"Not anymore," Teyla said.

"So how's Elrond settling in?" John asked Rodney.

"Eldon," Rodney corrected between chews of his first MRE chicken chow mein dinner of the night.. "He's not an elf. He's doing all right. He's actually got a flair for mathematics, so I've got him doing the same computations Kavanagh is working on. I figure between the two of them, something might turn out right."

"What is an elf?" Teyla asked, taking a spoon of her fruit cup, despite the glare Rodney was giving it.

"Depending on what universe you're working in, an elf is either a pointed-eared, tiny, wispy winged creature or a six foot superhero with pointed ears and perfect hair," Rodney explained.

"Eldon does not appear to fit either of those descriptions," Teyla said.

"He might have pointed ears," Ronon objected. "He never did take off his hat."

Ronon sounded serious.

"No," Rodney responded as though the ears were a possibility, "he's wearing a science section uniform now. No pointed ears."

"Pity, we could have used some elven magic to fight our orcs," John lamented.

"Orcs?" Teyla persevered.

"Really ugly bad guys that will eat you, and not in a good way," Rodney succinctly defined. "Sort of like the Wraith without the Goth clothes."

"I see," Teyla said, though it was obvious she didn't.

Rodney and he exchanged a smile. John really enjoyed these conversations. When Rodney was in a good mood, he could be extremely entertaining, and Teyla was a natural straight man.

"So where do these orcs and elves come from?" Teyla questioned. "Another television show?"

She had grasped enough of Earth culture to know that television was one of the unifying forces on their home world.

"No," Rodney answered so fast that John suspected he was attempting to keep him from explaining the subject. "They're from this wonderful book called The Lord of the Rings. I'll lend you a copy, if you like."

"It sounds as if you are both very fond of this book," Teyla said.

"It was the only thing my sister and I ever had in common," Rodney said. "We used to play act it when I was very small. She was Gandalf. I got to be Frodo."

"I didn't know you had a sister, Dr. McKay," Teyla said.

"Neither did I," John said, shocked. Rodney was such an incessant talker that he was certain he’d have heard about a sister before now. But it wasn't like he could throw any stones on that account, not unless he wanted to answer some uncomfortable questions himself.

"Yes, Jeannie. She's four years older than me. We were never very close. My fault, really. She was our parents’ favorite and I resented the hell out of her for it," Rodney said with his usual honesty.

"I never had a sister or brother," Teyla said. "But I always wanted one."

Ronon startled them all by offering, "I had two older brothers. They both fell in defense of Sateda."

"Sateda?" Rodney asked around a full mouth.

"My home world," Ronon explained.

"What about you, Colonel?" Teyla asked with a bright smile.

It was like a fist closed around his heart. John took a deep breath, very aware of the three curious gazes waiting his response. His normal, 'Nothing to tell,' wouldn't fly in this company, nor could he use his usual tactic and smoothly change the topic. His team members were the closest thing he had to a family. They had rights that casual acquaintances didn't. But they were in the middle of the crowded mess hall, and even if they weren't ....

John's panicked gaze caught sight of Elizabeth passing two tables over. Knowing he was being abrupt, but having to get out of here now, John jumped to his feet and said, "Excuse me a minute. There's something I forgot to tell Elizabeth at this morning's briefing."

With that, John fled the table. He then had to invent something to talk to Elizabeth about for five minutes, but fortunately, there was always an away team mission that Elizabeth needed to be informed about. When John returned, all three of his friends gave him concerned looks, but no one made any mention of his sudden departure. More tellingly, no one revived the former topic.

"Ronon and I are going to go for a walk around the deck perimeter, if you would like to join us?" Teyla invited when they'd all finished their meals.

"Outside? Are you nuts? It's freezing out there," Rodney said with reassuring predictability. "I'm already sniffling from the extreme change in temperatures of our last mission. I'll get pneumonia if I go out in those winter winds."

"What about you, Colonel?" Teyla invited.

John couldn't offer the chess cover story to Teyla that he'd prepared in case he was ever questioned about all the time he was spending with Rodney lately. So, he declined with an honest, "I ran Beckett over to the mainland this afternoon to inoculate the new babies. We got stuck in a squall. I've had my share of the outdoors for the day. You two go on and have fun."

"Goodnight, then, Colonel, Dr. McKay," Teyla said, rising. Ronon's deeper voice echoed the sentiment.

"Have fun," John said, enjoying the view as Teyla gathered her skimpy clothing about her.

"But don't come sharing your germs when you catch something," Rodney warned. "I'm telling you, this is seriously not a good idea."

Teyla was laughing when she and Ronon walked away.

Once they were gone, Rodney turned to him and said, "They are so doing it."

John nodded. "Yeah. That's the feeling I get."

"You all right?" Rodney asked in a softer voice.

John tensed and gave a challenging, "I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"

Part of the problem with letting someone matter was that it got so they could see through your smokescreens. John didn't know why he felt so threatened by Rodney at the moment. The guy was just sitting there eating his third cherry pie dessert of the night.
Maybe it was the concerned looks Rodney kept throwing him when he thought he wasn't looking that were getting to him.

"Oh, I don't know, maybe because you fled the table at a simple question like the Wraith were on your tail," Rodney replied, not letting him get away with anything, as usual

Only, this was one area he couldn't take interference in. "Drop it, Rodney. I said I'm fine."

"Of course you are," Rodney answered, clearly sitting on a lot of anger.

"You still up for that chess?" John asked after a tense quiet, wondering if Rodney were POed enough to bail on him for the night. He hadn't meant his reply to come out as contentious as it had, but even he'd been able to hear the pique in his tone.

"If you are. If you're going to keep snapping my head off, maybe we should call it a night."

That was one of the things he found most endearing about Rodney, how he would complain about receiving the treatment he gave everyone else. Unfortunately, John could see the legitimate hurt Rodney was attempting to hide.

Taking a deep breath, John tried to defuse the situation. "You're right. That was uncalled for."

Rodney gave him a searching glance, rose to his feet and snapped, "All right then. Apology accepted. Let's get out of here."

After disposing of their trash, they headed to the nearest transporter chamber.

John searched for something with which to break the silence, but couldn't figure out what to say. He had a feeling that he was in for an inquisition as soon as they got to Rodney's.

But the doors slid shut behind them and no inquiry came. Rodney stopped in the center of the room, watching him as he came in.

"Rodney?" John was forced to ask at last when Rodney made no move towards him or began a new line of conversation. He could see his lover was still smarting over what had happened in the mess hall.

"It's up to you. I'm not going to force your confidence," Rodney said. "So stop looking at me like I'm an execution squad."

"Sorry. It's just ..." Just what? How could he explain this without explaining it? John was fairly certain that Rodney wouldn't walk away from him after hearing the truth, but it was the shadow of uncertainty that caused him to hold back. He wanted Rodney to know, but at the same time, he didn't want things to change between them. This would change things. Irrevocably.

"Just what?" Rodney echoed his thought. When John couldn't explain, an even more visibly upset Rodney continued with, "I know. It's the unwritten law of being cool, right? Never endanger the mystique."

The sarcasm dripping from Rodney's every syllable told John how much he'd hurt him.

"This isn't about being cool," John tried to keep his tone even, because nothing got to him faster than a pissy Rodney and he had absolutely no objectivity when it came to this particular topic.

"Not to worry. You're light-years beyond cool. You're a goddamned cipher, you know that? Every time I feel like I'm finally getting to know you, you throw up a roadblock like this and I'm back at square one."

"What the hell are you talking about?" John demanded, his intentions of holding onto his temper shot to hell.

"I know you never asked to hear any of it, but I've told you things I've never shared with another person in my life. You're sleeping with me. Those other people at the table with you tonight were your teammates. Would it have killed you to have let us know something about you beyond your name, rank, and serial number? We weren't asking for a pint of blood, just a bonding moment. Even a geek like me and a Klingon like Ronon could manage that. But you won't give any of us even a little bit of yourself, beyond who you are at this moment in time. I'm sleeping with you, and you won't even tell me something as simple and basic as whether or not you're an only child. Have you any idea how that makes me feel?" Rodney was shouting by the time he got to the end of his diatribe.

John hadn't really considered that end of it, mostly because he'd never let anyone get this close to him before. "This is why I don't get involved."

The angry flush in Rodney's cheeks deepened until his entire face was scarlet. "Don't worry, Mr. Cool. You're not involved. That's painfully clear. I really can choose them, can't I?"

Rodney turned his back to him and crossed to his desk, but not before John had seen the brightness in the corners of Rodney's eyes. His spine stiff and straight as a flagpole, Rodney held on to the edge of his desk and stood there with his head bent.

Feeling trapped and guilty, John stared at that taut back. This was the man who'd sucked his toes and put his tongue up inside him, the person who'd talked him down after that disastrous mission on Olesia, the guy who would come on command for him. Rodney didn't deserve this kind of pain, not for just wanting to know what should have been simple facts about the man he was sleeping with.

Only, the facts weren't simple. They were agonizing.

His guilt swamping him, John snapped. "Okay, you want a bonding moment, you've got it. Only, remember you asked for it."

Rodney turned back to face him. Thankfully, his eyes were dry. Clearly, he'd been standing there struggling for control.

John held those upset eyes, which were such a reflective blue that they almost looked brown at times, like now, and said in a voice so tight with emotion that it felt like it would crack and shatter in his throat before he could get the sounds out, "You wanted to know about my family. I'm an only surviving child. I had a brother. The fact that that's past tense is entirely my fault."

"Oh my God," Rodney whispered.

John watched the horror dawn on Rodney's face as he waited there frozen in the disbelief that he'd actually told someone. The reality was too much, too raw. He'd let the genie out of the bottle and couldn't stuff it back in. All those old feelings swamping him, John turned on his heel and left, faster than a Wraith dart out of the Stargate.

He didn't want to go back to his quarters. He didn't go anywhere where he might meet people. Not knowing where he could lick his wounds, he stood in the empty transporter chamber staring at the map. Finally, he pushed the west dock destination.

A moment later, the transporter doors whooshed open on the dark corridor between the amphitheatre and auditorium. The uninhabited section was lit only with emergency lighting. As John stepped into the deserted hall, the Ancients' sensors picked up his ATA gene and the lights came on at normal level. Now that they had a fully charged ZPM, this happened whenever someone with the ATA gene entered empty sections of the city. He could also hear the life support systems upping the airflow to increase the temperature to make it more comfortable for human habitation.

He didn't want to inhabit the area. He passed through the corridor quickly, heading for the doors that led out to the deck that wrapped around the amphitheatre where they'd had the meet and greet party months ago.

Rodney was right, as usual. It was freezing. The icy wind ripped at John's face, stinging his eyes. But the physical pain felt good.

It was a clear, bitter cold night. Starlight glistened off the choppy ocean swells and turned the amphitheatre's glass walls into a slick mirror. The tower looked like it was made of crystal or considering the temperature, maybe ice, as it reached for the star-strewn night sky.

John glanced back towards the inhabited parts of the city. The glittering windows bejeweling the Ancient spires resembled some enchanted fairy island against the black sea, rather than the familiar city skylines of Earth.

It was so cold that there was actually a thin layer of ice on the inside of the rails.

John followed the empty deck around to the north end, where the winds were strongest. Pulled by some instinct he didn't understand, he stopped in almost the exact spot where the drunken Rodney had stumbled into his arms months ago. Holding onto the freezing deck rail to keep the winds from knocking him off his feet, he stared out to sea while the gusts tore at him.

This was where it had all started. It seemed fitting that he should come here to mourn it when it was over. Because, John knew it was over. Whenever his lovers started squawking about his inability to open up, it was only a matter of time before it ended. Normally, John was the one who walked at this point. Trembling from both the cold and emotion, he wondered if that was what he'd just done. It sure as hell felt like it.

Even if he hadn't ...

In hindsight, John realized how inherently cruel he'd been to Rodney. Rodney hadn't known what he was unleashing with those simple requests for information. It wasn't Rodney's fault he didn't have a normal background to offer him. John wished he hadn't been so ....

So what? So scared? So hurt? So angry?

Twenty-three years, and it still felt like it had happened yesterday. There was no distance, no perspective. John recognized that it was possible that there never would be. That hideous mistake that had cost him everything as a kid was going to make him unlovable for the rest of his life. It was never going to go away, never going to be just another part of his past. And maybe it shouldn't. He had the mark of Cain on him, after all.

There wasn't anything he could do to make up for something like that. His mother had said he'd burn in Hell for what he'd done, but John was beginning to think that maybe his punishment had started already.

"John?"

He nearly jumped out of his skin at the quiet call. It wasn't coming from his headset. He turned from the view of the open, slick black waters to see Rodney standing a few feet away in the shadow of the amphitheatre tower.

Rodney wasn't wearing a parka. He still had on only that bright blue sweater and looked like he'd come straight from his quarters to find him. The wind was blowing his baby fine hair around his head. Rodney's nose was already bright red from the cold and beginning to drip. Even from where he stood, John could see that Rodney was shuddering.

"How'd you find me?" John asked.

"I figured you wouldn't want company, so I searched the vacant sections of the city for any power expenditures that would indicate the presence of someone with the ATA gene activating previously dormant systems," Rodney said.

"Bright," John approved, finding it easier to discuss this than the subject that had sent him out into the night.

Normally, Rodney would have preened at the praise, but he hardly seemed to notice.

"John," Rodney said in a rush, "I'm sorry. It's no excuse, but I didn't know. I shouldn't have – "

"No, I'm the one who's sorry," John firmly interjected.

"Huh? For what?" Rodney really sounded confused, like the whole lack of communication argument hadn't happened.

"You didn't deserve to be told like that. I ... don't handle it well," John hesitantly admitted. This wasn't going at all as he'd thought it would. Rodney was here gently talking to him instead of cross-examining him or making plans to be elsewhere for the rest of his life.

"Who would?" Rodney answered, stepping closer.

John tensed. This was where the inquisition was supposed to come, but Rodney didn't say another word. He didn't pull back as Rodney entered his personal space.

Rodney's entire approach was tentative, almost as though he were testing the waters. When he didn't retreat, Rodney laid a cautious hand on his arm.

John looked down at that hand. Starlight made everything pale, but Rodney was unnaturally white to begin with. However, even in the uncertain light, John could see that Rodney's hand was turning pink from the cold. He was obviously suffering from the wind and extreme temperature, but hadn't voiced a single complaint.

When his touch wasn't immediately rejected, Rodney put his other hand on John's free arm.

John met Rodney's eyes. They were no more than hints of silvery white in the thick shadow of the tower. It was too dark to read expression. But he could feel his lover's worry. When Rodney eased another step closer, John felt his body heat beckoning to him.

His own shivering form gravitated closer to that beseeching warmth. As if reading his acceptance, Rodney carefully slipped his arms around his back. Rodney didn't force the embrace by pulling him closer. Instead, Rodney allowed him the choice of accepting or rejecting the intimacy.

It was only after John sank against his chest with a shuddery breath and clutched at that sturdy warmth that Rodney's arms locked around him. John buried his face in between the collar of Rodney's sweater and his neck, breathing in the familiar, reassuring scent of his lover's skin. Even there, he could find traces of the briny scent of the sea. The winds were leaving a clammy, invisible residue on them both.

John clung on for dear life, but finally he was forced to acknowledge how violently Rodney was shaking and withdraw far enough to point out, "You're freezing."

"Th-that's o-k-kay," Rodney protested between chattering teeth.

"Come on." Stepping back, John laid his left arm across Rodney's broad shoulders, hooked his far shoulder, and steered him back towards the deck entrance on the west side of the crystal tower.

The warm air actually hurt his face when they entered the building. John could tell from the hiss Rodney gave that he was similarly afflicted, but Rodney still didn't make a single protest.

"That was a pretty stupid place to go," John admitted as they both attempted to rub sensation back into their tingling hands under the bright lights of the empty corridor.

"I don't know. If you wanted a place where no one would look, it was perfect," Rodney said.

"You found me," John pointed out.

"The sensors found you. I just followed their lead," Rodney said. It sounded like he was going out of his way to keep the conversation light.

Once their smarting extremities began to feel like flesh again, they stopped rubbing and looked at each other.

There were a dozen questions in Rodney's eyes, but he didn't voice a one of them.

John appreciated the restraint. Rodney had a scientist's curiosity and an author's skill with words. It had to be killing him to remain so silent. Taking pity on the suffering man at his side, he asked, "You ready to head back home?"

"Yeah. Are you – " Rodney seemed to stop himself, but John read the questions in his eyes.

Coming with me? Are you okay?

John nodded and started walking towards the transporter. He felt like an idiot for making this big fuss. It was clear he'd scared the hell out of Rodney.

Once at the transporter, John pressed the destination for the living quarters deck.

When they arrived, Rodney stopped outside the transporter, as if waiting to see whose quarters John would head for. John had the feeling Rodney wouldn't follow him if he went to his own.

Stifling a sigh, he turned towards Rodney's place.

It felt like he'd been gone for days, but no more than an hour had passed since he'd left. John looked around the familiar room where he'd spent his nights for the last six weeks. He'd read all of Rodney's diplomas, examined all the Ancient curios on the bookshelves, and memorized the picture of the cat and the one of Rodney holding his diploma. He was as familiar and at ease here as he was in his own rooms. So, why did he feel so weird all of a sudden?

Rodney's silence probably had something to do with it. The only times John could remember his lover ever being this quiet for so long was when he was unconscious or paralyzed by a Wraith stunner.

John ran a hand through his windblown hair and tried to figure out what his next move should be. Despite Rodney's dissatisfaction with their lack of communication, Rodney was here, and not pushing.

It was clear that Rodney was equally unsure what to do now.

Rodney was still flushed from his exposure to the cold and his nose was still dripping. As if realizing this last fact, Rodney crossed to the nightstand, opened the drawer, and removed a tissue.

John watched as the other man noisily blew his nose, and then threw the used tissue in the nearby trashcan. Then it was back to staring at each other, with Rodney standing beside the bed, and John over by the keyboard. It wasn't even like Rodney was putting silent pressure on him to make him talk. Rodney seemed to be waiting to take his cue from him.

Deciding that it was now or never, John took a deep breath and said, "My brother's name was Robbie. He was five years younger than me."

Rodney tensed and softly offered, "John, you don't have to talk about this if you don't want to."

"Yeah, I do," John corrected. "You were right before. You've opened yourself up to me on every level, and I haven't given you anything in return."

"I didn't know ... how painful what I was asking of you was," Rodney said, still seeming upset over how he'd pushed before.

"Maybe not. But you have a right to know who you're sleeping with," John said. "A right to choose if you still want to be with me or not."

That was the reason John had avoided this discussion his whole life. Something big enough to make a kid's parents turn their backs on him and walk away wasn't something anyone was going to be able to take in stride. John pretty much accepted that as soon as someone knew the truth, they'd be out of his life. He'd just never allowed himself to test the theory by letting anyone get close enough so that he'd have to tell them. He didn't think Rodney would run, but then, he'd never expected his parents to turn their backs on him, either.

A frown puckered Rodney's face. "There isn't anything you could tell me that would change my ... regard for you. I mightn't know what happened, but I know you, John."

"Thanks," John said, and warned, "But don't speak too fast. This is ... bad, Rodney ... really bad."

He was trembling already, and he hadn't even started talking yet.

"Okay. It's bad. So tell me," Rodney said in a serious, but calm tone, sitting down on the side of his bed, looking up at John with those big, expressive eyes of his.

It helped that there was so much space between them. Realizing that he couldn't say this staring into anyone's eyes, John focused his attention on the black and white keys on the Yamaha beside him and began, "Robbie was a great kid. Everybody loved him. We were military brats and moved around a lot, so even though there was a lot of space between our ages, we were really close. I guess that I was, ah, sort of his hero. He used to follow me around everywhere."

"I could see how that would happen," Rodney said into the silence. "You're a lot of people's hero."

John bit his lower lip. Rodney was only trying to comfort him, but he knew he didn't deserve it, not when it came to this. "When I was thirteen, we were stationed in Pennsylvania. We'd been there a while, so Robbie and I had made some friends on the base. We used to play in this park right outside the base that was near the railroad tracks. There was this old, crumbling bridge that went over the tracks. My buddies and I used to climb the fence at the back of the park and shimmy along this narrow ledge that was about twenty feet over the tracks to get to the bridge. We'd climb out on the bridge when the trains were going by and hang on while it shook like it was going to bring us down on top of the passing train. It was better than a roller coaster... a cool thrill to us thirteen-year-olds. We did it so often that we actually knew the train schedules for the bridge."

John took a quick glance at Rodney. Rodney's tensed expression made it plain that his lover suspected where this story was heading.

Looking back at the keyboard, John tried to emotionally distance himself as much as he could from the events he was about to relate. He tried to tell it like he'd give a mission report at a debriefing. "The day we started summer vacation, June 23rd, we were down at the park. Robbie had just turned eight. I was minding him while my mother did the grocery shopping. My friends were all there, and we wanted to hang out without the little guys tagging along. Craig had a brother about Robbie's age. We put the kids on the swings and told them to stay there, then we climbed the fence and made our way out to the bridge to wait for the twelve o'clock train to pass. We didn't know that Robbie and Billy followed us. We were too busy having fun. The train came thundering down the tracks right on schedule. I thought I heard something weird right before it got to us, like a cat or something, but ... the train was so loud I couldn't tell what it was. We hung on to the shaking bridge, laughing our heads off as usual, and the freight train went by. Once it passed, we heard the screaming and saw Craig's brother Billy in hysterics hanging on to the fence behind the ledge. Robbie was ..." John closed his eyes, hit with the image of the road kill that was all the train had left of his blue-eyed, dark haired baby brother. Gulping, John forced himself to finish the story, "He'd fallen between the cars. The driver never even knew he hit him."

"My God," Rodney whispered into the silence that followed.

"My parents were devastated. They, ah, blamed me, rightfully so. My mom said that it should have been me who fell and that I'd burn in hell for killing him. My dad couldn't even look at me."

John wanted to see how Rodney was reacting, but he couldn't make himself look up from the comforting white and black line of keys on the electronic keyboard. There was utter silence on the other side of the room.

John nearly jumped out of his skin as a hand softly touched his shoulder. "It was an accident, John. You didn't kill him."

The shakily voiced assurance shook him the way that train used to shake the bridge. Rodney's arms surrounded him from behind, banding his chest. Shaking all over, John leaned back against the stocky, sturdy heat that was Rodney McKay.

"You were a kid. You did something stupid. There was no malice involved. You didn't kill him," Rodney repeated into his ear, hooking his chin over his shoulder. He sounded like he was choking back tears.

Tears. Not disgust, not recrimination.

John clutched Rodney's hands tight to his chest. His head bent and his eyes squeezed tightly shut to hold back a reaction that wouldn't be thwarted. He was losing it, the way he'd known he would if he talked about this stuff. Only, he wasn't alone in his bed like he usually was after a nightmare left him with no choice but to revisit the past. Rodney's arms were around him, holding him up from behind and comforting him without forcing him to reveal the embarrassing wetness on his cheeks.

Rodney held him like that for a long time. It was only after John's breathing leveled out to something like normal and the shuddering stopped that Rodney asked in a tentative tone, "What happened to you after that? Your parents must have realized that it wasn't your fault."

"No, they didn't. I, ah, pretty much stuck to my room in those days right after Robbie ... died. It was a closed casket funeral. My grandmother came in from California for it. My mom and she didn't get on, so we never saw her much, but she was a terrific lady. There was a lot of yelling downstairs after she arrived. The night after the funeral, she came up to my room and asked if I'd like to come stay with her in California for a while," John said.

"She didn't blame you, then," Rodney sounded relieved.

"No, she was ... like you are now. The night Gran got there, she told me that it was an accident, that both Robbie and I had done something dangerous, and that Robbie had paid for his mistake, and that she was just glad that I hadn't fallen, too. She said that I was special and that terrible trials often test special people. She said that this was my test and I had to learn to be strong and live with it," John could barely get the words out. He missed her so much, even after all this time.

"She sounds like something special herself," Rodney said.

"She was. She took me back to Camarillo with her after the funeral. The day after we got there, she taught me how to surf."

"Your grandmother taught you how to surf?" Rodney sounded astonished.

"Yeah. She was an amazing woman. Smart, athletic, she'd have fit in well here. She worked really hard to keep me sane those first few months after I got there. She was always telling me that I had to live for both Robbie and myself now. She taught me to surf. Bought me my first guitar. Took me rock climbing, hang-gliding, and skydiving ... anything to keep my mind off what happened."

"How long were you with her?" Rodney softly asked.

"I stayed with her until the cancer took her when I was eighteen. I went straight into the Air Force Academy after that."

Rodney's arms tightened around him again when he spoke of Gran's death. After a long silence, Rodney softly asked, "Your parents ... did you ever ... ?"

"No," John answered. To his intense relief, Rodney didn't pursue the topic. Straightening up some, he rested the back of his neck on Rodney's left shoulder and leaned his full weight into Rodney's embrace. Rodney took his weight and held him up. It felt good to just stand here and be held, to depend on someone else's strength for a change.

"You know that your parents were wrong to blame you for what happened, don't you?" Rodney asked a long, quiet time later.

John had the feeling Rodney had been standing there angsting over how to approach this sensitive issue for all the time he'd been holding him.

"Robbie was following me, Rodney, just like he always did. He'd have never done it if I hadn't gone first," John said. Facts were facts. He'd learned to live with it, but that didn't change what had happened.

"Would you have gone out on that bridge that day if you'd known what was going to happen?" Rodney questioned.

John hitched in an outraged breath. "Of course not!"

"Then, it's not your fault. It was an accident. If your parents had been doing their jobs, you wouldn't have been out on that bridge, either," Rodney said, sounding angry.

"What?" John turned around so that he could see Rodney's face and stepped out of his arms.

Rodney did look angry, but it didn't seem to be directed at him. "You were just a kid, too, John. Kids do stupid stuff. You didn't belong up on that bridge anymore than Robbie did. You could have died too that day. Your grandmother knew that. If your parents had been supervising you properly, you wouldn't have been there, either."

"I was thirteen, not three," John protested, but he was shaken, because in all the years he'd been eating himself up over this, it had never really occurred to him that his parents had some responsibility in what had happened, too. All he'd ever been able to see was that Robbie had followed him to his death.

"Okay, let's do it this way. Here's the scenario. You, John Sheppard, the age you are now, are passing a train bridge and see a bunch of kids doing what you guys were doing. What do you do?" Rodney demanded, something hard in his eyes.

John thought for a moment. "What do you mean?"

"Well, would you just walk away and leave them there?" Rodney asked.

"No, I'd – " John stopped, beginning to get Rodney's point.

"You'd yell at them and make them get down, wouldn't you?" Rodney checked.

John nodded.

"Would you stand there and try to figure out if they were eight or thirteen or sixteen before saying anything? Would their age even make a difference?" Rodney continued.

John gave a slow, negative shake of his head.

"No, of course it wouldn't. It wouldn't matter how old the kid was. You'd just see kids doing something dangerous. If one of them got hurt, would you blame it on the others?"

"I ..." John stopped and stared at Rodney.

"No, you wouldn't. We've already seen how you handle this scenario. Jinto unleashed a monster on this city that could have killed us all, and you never once yelled at him or blamed him for disobeying the rules, because you knew he was just a kid and meant no harm in what he was doing, even though the results could have been deadly," Rodney pointed out. "You were no more responsible than Jinto was, John. You were just a kid, breaking the rules the way all kids do."

John swallowed hard. He could see that Rodney truly believed what he was saying, really thought he wasn't ... to blame. What's more, when John tried to look at what had happened from an adult perspective, thinking how he'd react in the scenarios Rodney had given him, he realized that Rodney was right about a lot of it. "I never thought of it that way before. I ... thank you, Rodney."

Rodney blinked at the choked-off tone in his voice and denied, "I didn't say anything you probably haven't heard a hundred times before."

John gave a negative shake of his head. "No. Gran and I didn't talk about what happened to Robbie much. I ... couldn't handle it back then."

"Didn't any of your friends ever say any of this to you?" Rodney seemed really confused.

"I ... you're the first person I've ever told," John hesitantly admitted.

"What?" Rodney sounded almost panicked.

"When people ask about my family, I usually tell them that there's nothing to tell and they let the subject drop, or else I change the subject," John admitted. "Most guys don't push the issue."

"But ... you told me you've had thirty-seven relationships," the way Rodney voiced the number made it sound like an incredible amount of lovers for twenty years.

"No, I said I had thirty-seven affairs, with people that the only thing I had in common with was that we liked the way each other looked," John corrected. "I'm really good at evasion, Rodney."

"Oh." Rodney was visibly shocked. "You really never told anyone but me?"

"Why so shocked?" John questioned, reminding, "You said that you'd never told anyone about why you stopped playing the piano."

"But that was different. That wasn't something that was likely to come up in casual conversation. And, even if it weren't, I've always . .. you've always been – " Rodney stopped so abruptly it sounded like he'd bitten his tongue or something.

John read that Rodney feared he'd said too much in his eyes. He had the vivid memory of Rodney telling him that he was his ferris wheel back before all this started. Six weeks down the line, and Rodney was obviously still feeling that the relationship was more important to him than it was to John. When they'd been fighting before Rodney had come straight out and told him that he didn't believe that John was involved. That had to have hurt like hell, and, yet, Rodney was here comforting him, trying to soothe injuries that were older than some of the people they worked with.

What that said about Rodney's feelings for him was humbling. That lump back in his throat, John swallowed hard and took a tentative step closer to Rodney. "You were wrong before. You're not just someone I'm sleeping with. I'm not ... uninvolved. I've never been in this deep in my life."

John heard the noisy gulp Rodney gave, saw the fragile emotion in Rodney's expressive eyes. "You haven't?"

Hating the doubt that Rodney couldn't hide, John shook his head 'no'. "Rodney, you're not a ferris wheel, a fast car, or even flying. You're nothing that simple. You're surfing."

"Surfing?" Rodney echoed, like he wasn't sure that was a good thing.

"Yeah. It's not easy with us. There's been a lot of hard paddling and a lot of rough duck diving, but when we get it right, you're like ... like riding an epic swell. It's a balancing act to stay above the curl, and I know all the time that I might wipe out or even drown because it's so deep with you, but it's the most exhilarating, addictive ride of my life."

John could see that Rodney didn't understand most of the surfing references, but he appeared to get the gist of what John was saying.

When he stopped speaking, John felt self-conscious, but the glow that suffused Rodney's face was worth the risk of exposure.

His eyes a bright, brilliant blue, Rodney wrapped his arms around him and kissed him.

Once again, John was riding that crest. His whole being surged towards Rodney. He went from upset and self-conscious to on fire in a heartbeat.

Rodney's mouth was hot, wet, and welcoming. His hands moved all over John's shoulders, back, sides, and butt, eagerly roaming as they attempted to suck each other's tonsils out.

John rode that wave of passion the way his Gran had taught him to surf all those years ago, by trusting everything he was to the movement. Rodney was his ocean, and he knew the rhythms of Rodney's body the way he used to know the Malibu waters.

They parted only long enough to get rid of their clothes.

John surveyed the pale, bulky length of Rodney's body. The wind had left its toll on Rodney's sensitive skin, leaving his cheeks a bright red. It was a sharp contrast to the pallor of those wide shoulders. John's pulse thundered as he caught sight of the artful dusting of chest hair, an excited tingle frissoning through him when his gaze moved lower to Rodney's blushing dick. Rodney already looked good to go.

Which was a really good thing, because John's own body was already in hyper drive.

Even after six weeks, it was still a thrill to feel Rodney's sturdy bulk pressed up tight to him. They fit so well, like their forms had been carved for each other. As the kiss rocked through them, their cocks, nestled snugly together, pulsed and swelled larger.

They staggered to the bed and somehow avoided injuring each other as they crashed down onto the mattress.

John was never sure whose idea it was, but he always seemed to end up on top of Rodney, doing his best to flatten his lover. Tonight was no different. The fact that Rodney's fingers were on his shoulders, digging in to pull him closer, made him think that maybe Rodney orchestrated it this way. He'd probably never know for sure, because the moment he got horizontal with this man, all coherent thought went the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon.

Air becoming a pressing issue, John ripped his mouth free, gasped in a few lungfuls, and made a dive for Rodney's neck. Kissing and nuzzling the tender, flesh there, John could still taste the sea salts on Rodney's skin. Shivering at the exotic flavor, he ran his palms over Rodney's chest, making sure he stroked over those sexy pink nipples.

Rodney was making shocked moans that drove John wild.

"That is so incredibly hot," John breathed into Rodney's ear, smiling at the shudder that claimed the body beneath him.

"What ... is?" Rodney rasped out, his gaze unfocused. Rodney's body had apparently melted again, for he was dewed with sweat.

"You. All of you. The way you moan, the way you taste, the way you sweat ... you're just so ... hot," John repeated.

Whenever he said anything like that, Rodney always looked at him as if no one had ever given him a kind word during sex in his life. It was no different now. Rodney's eyes searched his face, as though he thought he might be joking, and when Rodney realized he wasn't, his eyes bugged out like a kid's on Christmas morning. John loved putting that expression in his eyes.

Rodney's fingers dug into his hair and pulled him down into another kiss that was oddly gentle.

John rocked his hips against Rodney, creating a lovely friction at their groins. This was one of his favorite positions. He loved when they sucked each other off, but feeling Rodney's naked, sweaty skin pressed tight to every inch of his own was sheer heaven. That they could kiss the entire time in this position if they wanted only added to its attractions.

"J-John?" Rodney gasped as they parted for air.

"Mmmm?" John answered, too busy licking the sweat from the hollow of Rodney's throat for a more intelligent inquiry.

"Hang on a second, would you?" Rodney said, and then did the unforgivable by moving away. Rodney shifted onto his side, opened the nightstand drawer, and hunted around in its dark depths for something while John curled around his back and licked the skin under the hair at the back of his neck.

"God, John," Rodney sighed. "That's – "

"What're you doing?" John asked, realizing that his hedonist was now frozen in place, no doubt savoring the new sensation of having the back of his neck licked.

"That feels terrific," Rodney said, slipping over fully onto his stomach as he finally retrieved whatever he'd been looking for from the drawer and shoved it under the pillow.

John ran his fingertips down Rodney's sweat-sheened back. Considering how he always ended up squashing Rodney into the bed, John rarely ever got to touch this area. He'd forgotten how lush and soft the skin was on the back of Rodney's shoulders, not to mention those milky cheeks below.

"Want more?" John asked into Rodney's ear, knowing the feel of his hot breath there would reduce his lover to pulsating protoplasm.

"Yes, pleasssse," Rodney all but purred, slipping his hands up under the pillow and bunching it under his head as he turned his face to the side. Rodney's shifted a little more until he was laid out flat on the bed like a sacrificial offering. To John's bemusement, from what he could see of his expression in profile, Rodney appeared almost overjoyed by the change in position, even though his groin was now crushed into the mattress instead of open to John's caresses.

But John couldn't deny the lure of all that wonderful skin. Shifting around a bit, he experimentally stroked down Rodney's spine. That earned him another sigh.

It was hardly surprising. He got the feeling Rodney had never been touched with much affection. For all that his brilliant geek was the most indulgent lover John had ever had, Rodney always acted stunned when John returned the favor and took time with him.

How Rodney could be so accommodating when he'd seemed to have had so little joy himself confused John. He would have thought such deprivation would have made Rodney selfish and insensitive, but Rodney was almost too generous to him. Sometimes he thought Rodney made everything up as he went along, doing the things to him that Rodney had always imagined someone doing to him.

Remembering how often Rodney would massage his shoulders and neck over the last six weeks, and how amazingly wonderful it felt, John decided it was high time he gave Rodney a taste of that.

It wasn't like he hadn't tried. But Rodney was always so busy doing for him that he hardly ever let John have free reign with him. Rodney never said no or refused any touch; his lover simply orchestrated things so that John got caught up in sensation. In retrospect, John realized that it was almost as if Rodney were running himself ragged to be the most accommodating lover he'd ever had. It wasn't like Rodney hadn't enjoyed everything they'd done, but John was beginning to recognize the insecurity and desperation motivating Rodney's actions as Rodney tried to hold onto a lover he believed uninvolved. That was going to change, as of tonight.

Bringing his hands back up to Rodney's shoulders, John started to carefully rub the tension bunched in the thick muscles there.

"Oh, god, yesss ..." Rodney all but pleaded.

That was all the encouragement John needed. Glorying in the contented grunts and sighs Rodney kept releasing as his fingers found the proper rhythm, John slowly worked his way down Rodney's spine, dismantling each vertebrae, finding every little ball of tension.

Rodney was so slick with sweat that he didn't even need any kind of massage oil. By the time Rodney got his clothes off, his skin was usually glistening like a well-oiled bodybuilder's. He knew Rodney didn't understand his fascination with his sweat, but Rodney couldn't see himself the way John saw him. Rodney was always complaining that he sweated like a pig, but he couldn't know how it made his skin glow, how the flush of passion when combined with that silvery sheen made him one of the hottest sights John had ever seen.

His hands easily skimmed the broad back, familiarizing himself with every inch of flesh. As he worked, John noticed that Rodney's hips were rhythmically grinding into the bed. Rodney was clearly loving the hell out of this.

"Careful there," Rodney suddenly warned when John got to the small of his back. "That's where it always hurts."

Reducing the pressure, John cautiously investigated the area. Knot upon knot of tension ribboned the muscles there. Taking his time, he coaxed the balls of pain out one by one, to Rodney's stunned hisses and moans.

"Oh, god, John, that's ... sublime ... " Rodney muttered, in between shocked outbursts of "Right there!", "Yesssss!", and "Harder!"

When he reached Rodney's buttocks, his lover was practically vibrating with pleasure. John was hard as a rock himself and having difficulty keeping the massage up.

Even with a coating of sweat, those tender-skinned cheeks were soft as velvet. They fit his hands like they'd been designed for him. John took his time massaging the sweet flesh there, but as his fingers worked their way towards that shadowed cleft, his own breathing became so hitched that he could hardly keep up the rhythm of his hands.

John hadn't intended to do it, but as he gave both cheeks a sweeping caress, his thumbs sank down that moist crevice.

Rodney hissed out, "Yesssss," his body arching in pleasure.

John shivered as his thumbs passed over the tight bud of muscle hidden there, his gut clenching in unexpected delight, even as quicksilver fear quivered down his spine. He'd never touched Rodney here before. The first night they'd been together in this bed, Rodney had offered him this, but John had never taken him up on it. It just hadn't seemed fair to do something he wasn't ready to give Rodney in return.

John tried to tell himself that hadn't changed, but as good as he was at manipulating his reality, he knew that the playing field had just altered drastically and probably irreversibly. He wanted this, and the quivering flesh beneath his fingers told him how much Rodney wanted it, too.

"Rodney?" John grated out, almost scared. He was looking down the length of Rodney's back. His friend had never seemed more vulnerable.

"Here," Rodney said, pulling something out from under the pillow and passing it up to John over his shoulder. It was a tube of homemade hand cream and a little square, foil package.

John belatedly realized that this must have been what Rodney had fetched out of the drawer earlier, before he'd even begun the massage.

"You want me to – " John cut off the ridiculous question.

"Since the first night," Rodney said into the pillow.

That first night, when Rodney had told him that he'd only done this a couple of times because of the trust issue.

John felt the muscles beneath his fingers tense. He absently rubbed his index finger over the nearby dimple formed in that perfect butt cheek by the contracting muscle. He wasn't expecting the hiss of pleasure that earned him.

Rodney's thighs splayed wide apart.

All John could do was stare at where his thumbs were still inserted in that dark, mysterious cleft.

"Pleassse, John?" Rodney asked, his voice strained and tight, like he was dying of embarrassment at the delay.

Annoyed at his own stupidity, John bent forward to kiss the nape of Rodney's neck and murmur, "I should be the one begging you. Have you any idea how incredible you look lying there like that?"

"Incredible?" Rodney asked in a soft voice.

"Yeah, delectable," John said, moving his fingers across the velvet cheeks.

John leaned forward for a sideways kiss before drawing back, and then Rodney relaxed back against the pillow.

To see what would happen, John gave the cheeks his hands were still in possession of a tentative squeeze.

Rodney's cry was one of sheer delight. It pulsed right to John's cock, making him want to do things to hear that sound again.

Convinced that Rodney really was all right with this, John let his fingers fall back into the now familiar rhythm of massage. He carefully worked his thumbs into the curved flesh of the cleft they still rested in. The groan Rodney gave sounded like it was ripped from deep inside him.

Every bone Rodney had seemed to melt. Or maybe Rodney's tension had just migrated into John's own body. Despite the desire throbbing through him, he felt like he was about to panic. Or maybe it was stage fright. He'd never been more aware of his lack of experience in certain areas in his life.

Rodney had said this was a trust issue, and was trusting him to do it right; only, he'd never done it before.

John stamped down hard on the incipient panic. How different could it be? Granted, the topography was entirely different than the juicy vaginas he was accustomed to sinking into, but that time Rodney had put his tongue up inside him had been enough to show John how truly sensitive that area could be. Rodney was already flying. All he had to do was loosen Rodney up some, slather that cream on them both, and then do what came naturally.

Taking deep breaths to calm his own need, John squeezed the lush cheeks in his hands with careful pressure, letting the tips of his thumbs push against that hidden entrance.

Rodney whimpered and spread his already open thighs further apart, pushing his rump back up at John.

John pulled his hands clear. He shifted down on the bed to get closer to his objective, resting his left arm on the small of Rodney's back as he curled the rest of himself around Rodney's bottom. He let his right index finger slip between Rodney's cheeks, experimentally running it over the tight-guarded opening to judge Rodney's sensitivity.

With a shocked outcry, Rodney bucked up at him again.

Okay, way sensitive there, John acknowledged. At a loss for a moment, he considered his options. He could start by inserting a finger. He knew Rodney would enjoy that, only he remembered what Rodney had done to him the night he'd given Rodney the keyboard. He didn't think anything had ever felt as wonderful or as intense as Rodney's tongue up inside him.

John didn't have many inhibitions, but that was definitely one of them. While his index finger stroked that tight bud of muscle hidden between Rodney's buttocks and drove his lover wild, John wrestled his demons.

That Rodney was offering this to him tonight when he wouldn't have blamed Rodney for walking away made it all the more meaningful. He wanted to make Rodney feel as good as Rodney always made him feel. Rodney was lying here totally at his mercy, with his legs spread wide, offering himself up for his pleasure. Was he going to let his delicate sensibilities stand in the way of making this an experience Rodney would never forget? Or was he going to be like all the other selfish bastards who had taken everything Rodney had to offer without ever thinking of Rodney's needs?

Stamping down hard on his instinctive, squeamish rejection of the idea, John took a deep breath and lowered his head. He held the soft cheeks open and pushed his face up into the sweaty hollow.

"John ... you don't have to ... aaaaaahhhhhh ..." Rodney's polite protest ended in a shocked exclamation of pleasure as the air trapped in John's lungs whooshed out into the steamy cleft.

Hit by the scent and sweaty heat, John's head swam at the raw carnality of what he was doing. He breathed in as best he could, no easy job when he was up close and personal like this, and then stuck his tongue out to tentatively swipe the nearby bud of muscle. Vaguely, he heard Rodney whimper.

Rodney had showered before dinner, but that had been hours ago. There was no mistaking where John was or what he was doing, but the taste wasn't what he'd expected. The yuck factor retreating, John sampled the heady flavor on his tongue. It was bitter and raw, but definitely doable.

This time he put a bit more enthusiasm into his foray, delicately flicking the tip of his tongue over the tensed opening. Rodney's resulting cry rocked the room as the muscle under John's tongue quivered.

John diligently worked the entrance to Rodney's body, while Rodney shook and cried out in unmistakable ecstasy. Slowly, the tight, quivering bud seemed to unfurl, and John was able to slip his tongue up inside Rodney.

His lover seemed to be insensible at this point, lying there stretched out and open, bathed in a new flash of sweat, panting for breath, making needy sounds of pleasure that rocked right through John. He was shaking with need himself now and his tongue was beginning to hurt. He'd never realized before how physically demanding this could be.

When John didn't think he could hold out much longer, he withdrew his tongue and pulled away with true reluctance. His body was on fire. He wanted to plunge into Rodney and find sweet release.

Frantic, he felt around the blanket below them for the hand cream. Snagging the tube, he quickly opened it and oozed some out onto his left hand. It wasn't as fragrant as most. It had a clean scent, like aloes. He held the cream in his palm a second to warm it – that much he did know – and then transferred the white cream to his right middle and index fingers.

Rodney's entire body seemed to be quivering as John slipped his fingers between those beautiful cheeks. He found the entrance by touch. It still felt slick from his saliva. Even so, John was careful to move slowly as he eased his cream-coated middle finger into the tight ring. Rodney felt so snug and small here that it was hard to believe his cock would fit.

He kept his other three fingers and thumb curled together as he pushed further and further in.

The tight heat gripping his middle finger was amazing. John inched it steadily in, curiously feeling around the slick passage. When he reached a rounded protrusion in the previously smooth channel, Rodney gasped and pushed back against his finger as if someone had just squeezed his cock.

John realized that he must have hit Rodney's prostate. An experimental push against it caused Rodney to jerk and groan. Loving what that hidden organic pleasure button was doing to Rodney, John spent some time getting to know it.

Eventually, he noticed that the passageway around his finger had loosened up some, so he withdrew his finger to Rodney's moaning protest, slathered on some more cream, and then pressed both his index and middle fingers back in. That was good. Nowhere as thick as his cock, of course, but at least it promised the possibility.

John kept his fingers locked together at first, circling them around, pressing against that magic spot that sent Rodney shooting into the stratosphere. The sound effects Rodney was making were truly awesome now, panting little grunts, interspersed with piercing moans whenever John made nice with his prostate.

Feeling the tract loosen yet again, John began to scissor his fingers open and closed. Rodney was stretching far more easily now. After a few minutes of that, John pressed his fingers back together again, pulled them almost all the way out, and then pushed them back in, mimicking the act he hoped to be engaging in in the near future. Every time he pressed inside, Rodney's butt eagerly humped up to meet his fingers.

At last, it seemed that Rodney was as loose as he was going to get.

Knowing that he couldn't hold out much longer himself, John carefully extracted his fingers. He was so ready, he didn't even know if he'd be able to get the condom on without coming.

Opening the tiny foil packet soon became the task of the century. He was shaking so much with need and his fingers were so sticky with lube that he couldn't get a firm grasp on the damn thing. It took so long that eventually Rodney looked back over his shoulder to see what was going on.

Meeting Rodney's hot, unfocused gaze, John shrugged and gave a self-deprecating, "It's a latex world. Fuck, I hate these things. You'd think they'd package them so you could get into – "

"John?"

Still wrestling with the foil and feeling stupider by the second, John said, "Hmmm?"

"Did you sleep with anyone while on leave on Earth last June?" Rodney asked in a strained voice.

It was a weird time to be asking something like that, and Rodney hardly ever asked him anything that intensely personal to start with. Still, personal questions were better than mockery. This damn wrapper was starting to make him feel like an idiot. Happy that his lover wasn't teasing him over his incompetence with the condom, John absently answered, "No. I hit a few amusement parks for the ferris wheels and surfed a lot. Mostly, I just helped Elizabeth choose the new recruits. Why?"

"Carson tests for everything before he okays anyone for duty in the Pegasus galaxy. We're all clean. Providing that neither of us slept with anyone on leave ... there isn't anything either of us could transmit to the other. It doesn't have to be a latex world unless you want it to be," Rodney said in a soft, uncertain voice.

John's fingers froze. He moved his gaze from the cream-smeared package in his hands to Rodney's eyes. He couldn't believe what Rodney was suggesting. "I haven't done it without a condom since I was sixteen."

"Me, neither. Hell, I haven't done it at all before you ... in ... years," Rodney admitted with obvious self-consciousness. "We're both clean, so it's ... safe to ditch the latex."

"You're going to take my word on it?" John asked, stunned. Rodney was nothing if not cautious about his health. This was the guy who wore both a 100 SPF sunscreen and a radiation suit to guarantee his safety. He couldn't imagine Rodney being careless in bed.

"With anyone else, never, but ... you're taking my word on it, too," Rodney reminded.

"Oh, yeah, that's right," John said. It had never occurred to him that Rodney would lie about something that important.

The idea was tempting. Rodney was right. Everyone had to have a clean bill of health before SGC would let them set foot through the Stargate. It had been two decades since his cock had sunk into someone's body without a barrier of rubber separating it. There was no risk of unwanted pregnancy here. If there was no possibility of transmitting or receiving a STD, then there really was no reason for the condom, and, God, just the idea of someone welcoming his naked cock and not looking at it like it was carrying the plague was hot as hell.

Still, there was an almost instinctive reluctance to dispense with the protection after twenty years of being careful. He could see the same hesitation in Rodney's eyes, and knew how hard it must have been for his hypochondriac lover to even make the suggestion.

Maybe it came from a lifetime of dating nothing but strangers, but there wasn't a single person other than Rodney that John would consider doing it with unprotected.

Their thoughts seemed to be mirroring each other, for Rodney said, "It's the whole trust issue. Either we have it or we don't and ..."

"We have it," John assured, his heart thumping madly at this demonstration of just how deeply Rodney trusted him. "So, we'll, uh ..."

"Dump the latex," Rodney said and then asked with a hopeful looking smile, "Back to the fun part now?"

Rodney's offer left him a melted lump of protoplasm. Barely able to breathe, let alone think, John leaned forward over the length of Rodney's back, rested his cheek on Rodney's shoulder, kissed those smiling lips, and tossed the foil package over the side of the bed.

While their mouths were absorbed with each other, John moved his right hand back down to Rodney's butt, which his own stomach was resting against so that they could kiss. Squeezing his hand between their tight-pressed bodies, his fingers slipped between the cheeks. He located Rodney's sphincter by touch and carefully eased two fingers back in. He mightn't know a hell of a lot about taking a man, but he figured it was best to make sure that Rodney was still relaxed enough to do it.

Rodney moaned into this kiss as John's fingers penetrated him again.

It was a good thing he'd checked. The offer of doing it au natural obviously hadn't been an easy one because Rodney's body was tensed with nervousness.

John let his kiss show Rodney how much this meant to him as he moved his fingers around inside him. The first brush against Rodney's prostate seemed to take care of the nervousness. After that, it was all sheer indulgence. He could have spent forever kissing Rodney and playing his lover's pleasure from that secret spot deep inside Rodney, if his own body hadn't reminded him how long it had been waiting. His throbbing erection was pressing so hard against Rodney's left buttock that it would probably leave a bruise, if it didn't drill a hole right through it.

John withdrew his fingers from inside his friend, broke the kiss with a gasp, and fumbled for the hand cream. He grabbed the tube and slathered the white cream into his palm. The touch of his own hand was nearly enough to finish him. Gasping, trembling all over, John forced himself to hold on.

Once again parting Rodney's cheeks, John positioned himself against that puckered, red entrance. He still looked way too big, but Rodney arched up to meet him with unmistakable enthusiasm. A careful push, and his snub cock head was through the tight guarding ring.

Even though the prolonged foreplay had left John a needy wreck, there was no sense of urgency as Rodney's body accepted him inch by slow inch. Sinking into Rodney was the most exquisite, transcendental experience of a lifetime of wild encounters.

John couldn't even remember the last time he'd been inside someone without a layer of protective latex separating them. He could feel Rodney against the sensitive skin of his cock. Rodney was a snug, slick heat around his shaft, gripping his every inch as he slipped more and more of himself inside. It was intense, and raw, and powerful, but at the same time, there was a part of John that felt like he was coming home, to the home he'd always longed for, but never had.

John went deeper and deeper, until his cock was totally buried in Rodney and his pelvis was pressed tight to Rodney's buttocks. He froze there, savoring the sensation of being encased in the living heat that was Rodney McKay.

Rodney squeezed his shaft in a mind-blowing, unexpected move that nearly toppled John right into orgasm.

"Easy, Rodney," John grated out, barely hanging on under the surge of pleasure that splashed through him.

"Up," Rodney hoarsely ordered.

"What?" John tried for coherency, but nothing was making sense other than the unbelievable feel of Rodney around him. Up? Could they even get any higher?

Rodney's butt banged back into him, crushing him in even further, making his senses spin. As Rodney kept pushing steadily back at him with more and more pressure, John finally bought a clue. Still buried to the hilt in Rodney, he shifted up onto his knees. Rodney followed him up onto all fours.

His lover really was a genius. If he ever regained the capacity to speak again, John was resolved to tell him so.

John didn't need any further stage direction. He grabbed hold of Rodney's hips and went for broke. Taking advantage of the greater maneuverability of the new position, he eased his cock out and then carefully thrust back in.

Rodney didn't act like it hurt. From John's end, the move was fully as delightful as anticipated. The way Rodney humped up to meet his next thrust told him that his lover more than agreed.

John fell into a rhythm that seemed to be waiting for them. In and out, deeper and still deeper, he rode Rodney with a fierce, primal passion he'd never felt before. Every thrust sent his senses spiraling away, stoking the brushfire delight that was consuming him from the inside out.

Rodney was no passive partner. He slammed up to meet him with every stroke, pushing John higher and higher.

Rodney's right hand suddenly left the bed, jumping to his groin to pump his cock.

The move left them off balance, so the next time John thrust home, Rodney toppled forward. His forehead mashed in the mattress again, his butt high in the air. The slip never even broke their rhythm. John continued to pound home; Rodney continued to rise to meet him.

Wanting to experience all of Rodney, John fumbled his right hand off Rodney's hip and reached around to appropriate his lover's meaty cock. This wasn't something he'd ever done before, jerked a guy off while taking him from behind. In its own way, it was as difficult to master as giving head. Fortunately, John was a fast learner. Or maybe Rodney was just so far gone that even a bumbling first-timer felt good to him. Either way, it worked for them.

It got so that John wasn't sure who was taking whom. Rodney seemed to be pulling him further and further in. He wasn't sure where he ended and where Rodney began. They seeped into each other until they were a single pounding, pulse of pleasure. All there was was the rhythm and burning need. Nothing else mattered or ever would again. There was only Rodney, grunting and rasping out his name, as they did their best to meld into one flesh.

John cried out as the fiery delight dancing along his nerves flared to unbearable brightness. As if from a distance, he heard Rodney's matching cry, then they were both melting.

The cock in John's hand pulsed and squirted its impressive load all over his fist and the bed in powerful spasms. Deep inside Rodney, John's own cock did the same thing as ecstasy claimed him. Their sweat mingling between their tight-pressed skins, they shuddered together, frozen at that eternal apex of sensation.

Everything he was seemed to go into Rodney, and everything Rodney was seemed to open up and embrace him. John had never felt this kind of attachment to someone during sex ... or outside of it. He hadn't been joking before when he'd told Rodney he'd never been in this deep. Rodney was his ocean, and he was drowning in the man. But that was okay because .. . well, because it was Rodney, and how could drowning in Rodney ever be a bad thing?

As suddenly as it had claimed them, the passion cut off.

John felt like a marionette whose strings had been cut. He collapsed on top of Rodney, unable to move.

The same neglectful puppeteer was clearly manipulating Rodney, for his knees went out from under them and they both banged down onto the bed, John still inside his lover.

Trying to remember how to breathe, John laid there, not thinking as his penis deflated and slipped out of Rodney's slick body. John slid his hands around Rodney's waist, buried his face in the back of Rodney's neck, and just breathed him in. It was weird, but he still felt like they were connected beneath their skins.

A very long time later, Rodney rasped out a pillow-muffled, "Are you alive?"

John thought about it. "Maybe. You?"

"Breathing might help," Rodney said in a strained tone.

Belatedly recognizing that he was still crushing down his full weight on Rodney, John rolled onto his side. "Sorry. That better?"

"No," Rodney answered, turning over onto his back. "Closer was better, but breathing is good."

John shifted nearer, laying his right arm across Rodney's middle and insinuating his right leg between Rodney's. He stared at the wind-burnt man whose pillow he was sharing, the man he'd just taken. His body was still floating high on an afterglow so potent that Beckett could have amputated all his major organs minus anesthesia without him feeling it.

He didn't have to ask if his lover had enjoyed himself. Rodney was still looking at him like he was Captain Kirk, Superman, and Starbucks' coffee all rolled into one.

John played with the sparse, soft hairs near Rodney's left nipple. He felt he should say something about what they'd just done, but he didn't know what. A simple thank you wouldn't cover it. Finally, he looked up into Rodney's eyes from the hair he was curling around his finger, and said, "That got pretty intense."

"Yeah," Rodney agreed, some of his glow dimming. "Is that bad?"

"What?" John was still having difficulty focusing. He was totally wiped out. A heavy lethargy was starting to ebb through him. He really, really wanted to sleep, but it seemed more important to make contact with Rodney. Hell, he still wanted to crawl inside him and take up permanent residence in his skin.

"Intense isn't to everyone's taste."

John had heard that fragile tone of voice before. It was the one Rodney used when he was trying to keep up his professional front, but had taken a major hit.

"Hey, I live for intense," John reminded. "Remember – surfing, ferris wheels, flying." He couldn't imagine how vulnerable and off kilter Rodney must be feeling at the moment. For all that Rodney had obviously loved what they'd done, it had to be nerve-wracking afterwards. Letting another man take you couldn't help but affect the dynamics of the relationship. Sensing that Rodney needed something more than what he'd given him, John quietly offered, "You beat them all."

"Yeah?" Rodney questioned.

"Definitely." John wanted to ask who'd hurt Rodney so bad that he expected it, but knew this wasn't the time. Settling back against the pillow, he gave Rodney's chest a tentative pull towards him. Rodney came to him with reassuring speed, shifting to rest his cheek over John's heart.

John reached around Rodney to pull the semen-splattered blanket over them both. The bed was a wreck and they really should change the sheets, but John felt too good to even try moving. Fortunately, Rodney didn't seem to be fussy about the kind of thing either.

After only six weeks, it shouldn't have felt so natural to end the night with Rodney wrapped around him this way, but when they were on missions now that kept them on a planet overnight, John had difficulty falling asleep without that trusting weight on his left side.

"You're pretty amazing yourself, you know," Rodney said once they got comfortable.

John smiled at the tentative tone. Trying to keep the smile out of his voice, he answered as seriously as possible, "Thank you. The inspiration was impressive."

He could almost feel the wheels turning in Rodney's head.

After a short pause, Rodney said, "You don't have to sweet talk me. That isn't necessary."

"I know, and I wasn't," John assured. "Just giving credit where credit's due."

"Oh." Rodney was quiet, but John could tell he wasn't falling asleep yet. "John, can I ask you something?"

Wishing he had the energy to be worried, because it was never good when Rodney asked if he could ask a question, John gave a weary, "What?"

"What's duck diving?"

"Huh?" The apparent non-sequitur nearly woke him up.

"Before, when you said I was like surfing, you said that we'd been through a lot of rough duck diving. I just wondered what that was," Rodney explained.

John chuckled. Leave it to Rodney to ask something ridiculous like that when they were lying here after the best sex of their lives.

"Never been surfing, huh?" John asked.

"Hello, Canada," Rodney answered.

"You did live in the States," John reminded.

"In a desert," Rodney said. "The only other places I've lived were Siberia and Antarctica, neither of which were exactly Moondoggie's idea of surfers' paradise."

"You've gotta be kidding me. Gidget movies?" John nearly choked on his laughter. He couldn't remember if he'd ever had a lover he could lie in bed and laugh with like this after sex. Though nothing would ever beat what they'd just done, this was a fantastic gift in itself.

"It's the closest I ever got to a surfboard," Rodney admitted, going on in a sterner voice, "And don't laugh. Gidget was kinda hot in a scarily wholesome way."

"Scarily wholesome hot? GIDGET?" John couldn't get past the idea of Rodney watching those hokey movies.

"Forget about Gidget. What's with the duck diving?" Rodney asked.

"I can't forget. The image of you lusting over a scarily wholesome Gidget is now burned forever in my mind," John laughed again.

"The duck diving?" Rodney returned to his original question with the stubborn persistence of a Jack Russell terrier or a scientist on a quest for answers. The two were usually about the same level of annoying.

"It's how you get out far enough to catch the big waves. If you try to paddle over the incoming waves, you get pushed back to shore. So you have to duck your board through the smaller swells to reach the choice peaks," John explained, aware that he'd never get any sleep until he did. "They call going through the incoming waves duck diving."

"Oh," Rodney sounded disappointed. "No real ducks, then. It really is a foreign language, isn't it?"

"Only to a gremos," John smiled, hoping that he wouldn't be forced to translate. The designation didn't really fit Rodney, since high-risk sports were probably the only thing in two galaxies in which Rodney wouldn't know what he was doing.

"Very funny," Rodney said, but John could hear his smile.

Bending down, John kissed the top of Rodney's head, leaving his lips resting in the thinning, soft hair that was sticky from sea salts and sweat. "Goodnight, Rodney. If you're a very good boy, I'll take you surfing on the mainland when spring breaks."

"Is Elizabeth giving us spring breaks this year?" Rodney sassed, and then asked, "You'll really teach me to surf?"

"If you want," John said, suppressing a horrified shudder at the very idea of Rodney on a surfboard, though he knew he would teach him if Rodney really wanted to learn. Providing they could get the boards, of course. Stifling a yawn, he asked, "Aren't you sleepy?"

"I'm getting there," Rodney said.

"You usually crash, the same as me," John pointed out.

"Yeah, well, like you said, tonight was pretty intense," Rodney answered.

John rubbed Rodney's back. The scratchy weight of the blanket on his knuckles was a sharp contrast to the ultra-soft skin beneath his palm. "I never did what we did tonight before. It was sort of ... ultimate. Did it ... hurt when I ... ?"

Rodney seemed to get the gist of his stumbling inquiry, for he answered with a scientist's attention to detail, "Physically? The penetration hurts at first, but the discomfort gets blasted away after a minute or two."

Rodney's first word told John that it wasn't the physical aspect of what they'd done that was keeping Rodney awake. "And the non-physical?"

Rodney raised his head up to meet his eyes. "I've ... never had anything like this before, John. Mind-blowing sex, intelligent companionship ... and you keep coming back for more. It's a bit overwhelming."

"It's new to me, too," John admitted. Picking out the one odd note in Rodney's explanation, he added, "You're incredible. Who wouldn't come back for more?"

He wanted those shadows gone from Rodney's eyes. He wanted his lover to feel secure and desired.

But the pain in Rodney's gaze only deepened as he answered the rhetorical question with, "Everyone. The last time I did what we did tonight, he was gone the next morning, and everything I thought was a beginning turned out to be an ending. It's always the same. I never know what I did wrong or why they leave ... they're just ... gone."

The bewildered hurt in Rodney's voice was like a vise squeezing down on his gut. John looked at this man, who could be as irritating as endearing, and didn't know what to say. He could see how that kind of thing could happen. Rodney had said it himself, not everyone liked intense. Rodney was just so complex that anyone looking for a casual fuck would probably be out the door as fast as they could get their clothes on.

There was also the fact that Rodney could spend nineteen hours in the lab before returning home to sleep. John had no problem going to collect Rodney after thirteen or fourteen hours because he understood how his lover had no concept of time whatsoever, but he knew that most people weren't that understanding, that Rodney's dedication to his work might be taken as a personal slight. So he could see how it would happen.

"I'm not going anywhere, Rodney," John gruffly assured. "And if we ever get to the point where I'm thinking about bailing, I give you my word that you'll know why. I won't pull a disappearing act on you."

Rodney's gaze scoured his face.

John let go of Rodney's back and reached up to frame his face. "You trusted your life to my integrity tonight. Trust me in this?"

Rodney gulped. "It's harder with the heart."

Once again, Rodney upped the stakes, bringing his honesty to what they were doing here. Neither of them had mentioned the L word in the last six weeks, even though John was fairly certain that Rodney had been in love with him for quite some time before they'd become involved. His own gun-shy heart was beginning to recognize how special Rodney was to him, but he'd been so damaged by the losses of his youth that John wasn't sure he even knew how to love anymore. All he knew was that whatever it was he felt for Rodney, it was the strongest attachment he'd ever had.

John nodded. "Yeah, it is. But you're not in this alone, not this time."

"I'm not?"

The tentative hope finished him. John prayed his answer would be sufficient as he firmly said, "No, you're not. We're in this together." Because if it weren't enough, he knew he'd give Rodney anything he needed to hear.

"I ... that's ... " Rodney appeared completely blown away.

John guided Rodney down into a kiss so gentle that it hurt.

When they finally parted for air, John softly asked, "Better now?"

Rodney nodded. "You?"

It took John a moment to figure out that Rodney was referring to the painful disclosure that had sent him running into the winter night hours ago.

John nodded back.

Rodney smiled and lowered his head back to its resting place above John's heart. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Rodney," John whispered back.

If his arms were tighter than normal around Rodney as they finally drifted off to sleep, neither of them seemed inclined to complain.

*~*~*

Chapter 7

Good just kept getting better. Or so it seemed to Rodney as John and his fourth month anniversary passed unnoticed by anyone but him. Four months, a landmark in a lifetime where the longest relationship he'd ever maintained was twelve days. In this case, quality ran neck and neck with quantity. It wasn't just that it was four months, but that it was four unbelievably fantastic months. That was sixteen weeks, 112 days, 2,688 hours, 161,280 minutes, or 9,676,800 seconds, all spent as Lt. Colonel John Sheppard's lover.

"Hey, what are you grinning at?" John's voice interrupted his musings.

Rodney looked to where John was seated in the pilot's seat of the jumper, and then glanced behind him to where Teyla and Ronon were softly speaking in the chairs behind them. "I'm on spring break. Aren't I allowed to grin?"

"Spring break?" Teyla enquired from behind, proving that their companions hadn't been as absorbed as they seemed.

"School children in many countries on Earth get a week long holiday every spring called spring break," John explained.

"But we are not on a week long holiday, Dr. McKay. In fact, we promised Dr. Weir that we would have the jumper back by sunset," Teyla pointed out.

"Well, this is as close as we're likely to get to any kind of vacation in Atlantis at the present time," Rodney said.

"A whole day off and away from the city," John agreed. "Pure heaven. Pity I couldn't get hold of those surf boards."

Rodney did his best not to blush as he remembered the circumstances surrounding the surfing discussion they'd had weeks ago. John had said that he was like surfing – and John loved to surf.

Teyla asked the expected, "Surf boards?" question and John launched into an explanation of his long-missed passion. Halfway through it, John looked over at Rodney and interrupted himself by asking, "You want to take the controls for a while? Try landing?"

"For real?" Rodney asked. John got a perverse pleasure from asking him that kind of question as a joke. But sometimes, he actually let him take the controls, so Rodney never knew how to respond.

"Yeah," John answered. "The beach is wide open. Soft sand. It's the perfect place to practice landing. You up for it?"

"Sure," Rodney agreed, happily shifting seats. He could feel John's gaze upon him as he settled his hands on the controls and did his best to keep the jumper on course and flying in a straight line.

"That's perfect, Rodney. Keep it up," John approved, and turned back to enthusiastically explain the difference between longboards, shortboards, skim boards, and something called boogy boards to Teyla. Rodney thought Teyla had looked less confused with John's explanation of the Rocky Horror.

He still couldn't believe that John was actually letting him pilot the jumper. This was one of the things he loved most about John Sheppard. John was everything most kids wanted to grow up to be. He was good-looking, popular, athletic, accomplished, macho without being dense with it, in short, totally cool. A guy like John could have very easily amused himself by accentuating how uncool the braincase scientist who got on everyone's nerves was. Rodney had suffered that treatment his entire life; it was how the jocks got revenge for their lack of intelligence. Even Aiden Ford, who had genuinely liked him, hadn't been immune to the lure of pointing out Rodney's deficiencies. But John had never done it.

From the start, John had encouraged him to try to do things that no one else would have ever thought a geek could do – like explore new planets on an away team or pilot a jumper ship. Rodney knew John always had an eye on him when he was behind the controls, and John certainly wasn't above critiquing his performance when needed, but there was never any malice behind it. John was just teaching him, the same way he'd teach any novice.

The surfboard conversation had become so esoteric now that Rodney pitied Teyla.
Rodney was from Earth and theoretically shared the same language as his American lover, but as John blithered on about basils, bullwinkling, brahs, drop ins, el rollos, duck dives, grommets, jabbas, j-walkers, kooks, and something called killa warra, John sounded like he was speaking a language more alien than that of the Ancients.

"Um, we're getting close to land," Rodney said, glancing over at his companions.

John actually seemed disappointed at being interrupted. He looked at Teyla and said, "Hold that thought," and then turned his full attention on the windows in front of them.

Before Rodney turned away, he saw the impish smile Ronon gave the visibly bewildered Teyla. Asking John to explain anything was always a crapshoot. Sometimes you'd get a concise, one or two line sentence that was right on target, other times, you'd get the unabridged Encyclopedia Britannica version as John attempted to ef the ineffable.

"Okay, now, ease up on the speed a little," John instructed him in a calm tone. "You want to slow us down gradually, not jerk us to a stop. Jerking to a stop in the air will plummet us into a nose dive that could cause a fiery explosion on impact or drown us all in the ocean below."

"Thanks for the image," Rodney said. "Fiery death or drowning if I screw up. No pressure, that's what I like."

"You can do this, Rodney. Just relax and concentrate," John encouraged.

Rodney began to sympathize with how Carson must have felt when he used to browbeat the poor guy into activating the chair in Antarctica. But he tried to do as John instructed as the previously distant landmass became clearer and larger. Pleased, he felt the jumper respond to his thoughts.

The data screen on the front window that John had raised with a thought to monitor their speed showed a gradual reduction.

"Very good," John approved. "Can you see the beach?"

Rodney stared at the window. "The golden line in front of the water?"

"Yeah, that's it. I want you to think about settling the ship down there gently, a nice easy landing," John said.

The logistics overwhelming him as he envisioned how a single error could result in a dozen painful deaths, Rodney searched for something to give him confidence. Finally, he asked in a tense tone, "Angle of descent?"

"Thirty degrees should do it. You're doing fine, Rodney," John said.

No doubt, John had noticed the sweat that was now dripping down his brow.

"Picture us touching down like a feather landing," John suggested.

The imagery helped. As the golden line resolved into a sandy beach fringed by a forest of what looked like a mix of conifers and deciduous trees with red rock cliffs rising behind it, Rodney felt the ship slow further and begin an almost leisurely thirty degree descent.

His fingers tensed on the controls as the shore got so close that he could distinguish a flock of white birds picking in the sand at the waterline. They looked like whooping cranes and took off in a frantic rush as the jumper approached. Silently repeating the mantra of Gentle as a feather, land gentle as a feather, Rodney grit his teeth and took the ship in.

A small bump, and the jumper came to a complete stop.

"Perfect," John praised beside him as Rodney released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Couldn't have done better myself."

"That was very well done, Dr. McKay," Teyla complimented from behind.

Rodney could feel the grin on his face and knew he was blushing like a bashful adolescent at their praise, but it really did feel great to know he could land the ship.

"All right, people," John said, swiveling his chair around to face Teyla and Ronon as well as Rodney. "We need to be back to the ship in twelve hours or it will be a long time before Dr. Weir let's us out to play again."

"We will be here, Colonel," Teyla assured as she and Ronon rose from their seats to gather up their packs, a pair of primitive bows, and two bags of quills. They both looked very barbaric in their leather and suede clothing as they flung the bows over their shoulders. Ronon was especially picturesque. He'd gone from his Mad Max/Next Gen Klingon look to the Last of the Mohicans since he'd donned that new buckskin tunic. Teyla adjusted her leather long coat and asked, "Are you sure you won't change your mind and come with us?"

John grinned and shook his head. "Hunting's not my cup of tea."

"You are welcome to join us as well, Dr. McKay," Teyla offered.

"Surely, you jest," Rodney answered. "Me hunting?"

"The animals will hear him from miles away," John teased. "And Ronon will end up having to shoot him."

"Only on purpose," Ronon added in that deep growling voice of his.

"Oh, that makes it okay then," Rodney pretended to be annoyed, but he couldn't quite keep the smile off his face. He could see the humor in Ronon's eyes.

"We will see you in twelve hours, then," Teyla said, moving to the panel to open the hatch.

An intriguing olfactory mix of saltwater and floral scents filled the jumper as the sea breeze blew in the open hatch. It rustled through John's already unruly hair in such a sensual wave that Rodney had to force his eyes away.

John and he weren't alone. Although Rodney trusted both Teyla and Ronon, he would do nothing to endanger John's position. He had a feeling that Teyla suspected their relationship, but she had been the soul of discretion and had never even hinted she knew.

"Bye," Ronon said, following Teyla down the ramp into the bright sunshine.

"Have fun," John called after them.

Rodney got up from his chair to hunt through his backpack for his sunscreen.

"You want some?" he asked John as he slathered the cocoa-scented cream on his exposed face, neck, and arms. A little of the cream splashed onto the arm of his shirt, but it didn't stain.

"No, thanks. Did you decide what you wanted to do?" John asked.

The moment of truth had arrived. Rodney tried to ignore the panic that coursed through him. He'd been silently angsting over this outing since John had suggested it a week ago. These past four months had been amazing. That John and he had been able to forge the type of relationship they had was a source of daily wonder to Rodney. They got along so well, were so good together both in and out of bed, that Rodney often managed to forget how truly different they were.

There would be no masking it here. Rodney kept telling himself that he was being ridiculous, but he couldn't help but view this daytrip as the proving ground of their relationship. He knew his lover was into active forms of recreation – surfing, volleyball, football, parachuting, rock climbing – all the macho sports that geeks like him sucked at, providing they could find the nerve to try them at all. Rodney had the nerve. But he knew he wasn't good at any of it.

John probably knew that as well, but Rodney didn't want to reinforce how inept he was at the things John loved. He didn't want to disappoint John, either by messing up his fun with his lack of ability or by forcing John to refrain from doing the things he wanted because he couldn't keep up.

So he was left with the choice of going along with John and trying to do something beyond his physical abilities, which would make him look like a total dork in his lover's eyes when he inevitably failed, or he could suggest that he simply watch John do whatever manly pursuit John was interested in, which would put a definite wet blanket on the proceedings. Some choice.

"Rodney?" John called. "Did you hear me?"

"Yeah, I was thinking about it." Rodney stepped down the ramp.

The sun was almost blindingly bright, but the air was cool enough to raise gooseflesh on his exposed arms. It was only early spring on the mainland.

Teyla and Ronon would be comfortable in their leather, Rodney thought as he watched the exotic pair enter the woods on what looked like some kind of trail.

"It feels too cold for swimming," Rodney said, wondering if he'd brought enough clothing along.

They were both wearing long pants. John had on a pair of faded black jeans that looked older than Ronon. They hugged his slender figure like a second skin. John wore his usual zippered black long sleeve top above it. Somehow that everyday work shirt looked sexy on top of the denim, but, then, John looked sexy most of the time.

Rodney thought his own sturdy brown corduroy trousers with the button-down green patterned shirt looked very uncool beside John's rugged sensuality. He didn't even know how to dress properly for this kind of outing. John had just told him to wear something comfortable, that he could move in.

"Yeah, I figured next month would be better for the water," John agreed to his swimming comment. He said it like he was already making plans for their next trip.

Rodney tried to hide his worry as he asked, "What did you have in mind for today?"

"I thought maybe we could hike a bit," John suggested, something in his expression and tone telling Rodney that he hadn't concealed his anxieties as well as he'd hoped.

"Hike?" That didn't sound too bad, Rodney decided, relaxing some. John's suggestion seemed to indicate that John had put some thought into what type of activities they might be able to share, given their divergent tastes and levels of physical fitness. Hiking was a good compromise. It probably wasn't what John would have chosen to do if he were here with Ronon, Lorne, or any of the other military guys, but John seemed to be trying to find something that they could do together.

They both knew that Rodney wouldn't have been here at all on a day off if not for his involvement with John.

"Yeah. The trail Teyla and Ronon took splits. The north fork goes through the forest to the Athosian village; the south goes over towards the cliffs. There's a trail up to the top. It's a little steep, with some bouldering involved, but the view's fantastic," John enthused.

Bouldering. Of course. Thinking that it could have been much worse, Rodney said, "That sounds good."

"I thought I saw some ruins up top when I was flying the supplies in last week," John offered.

"Ruins?" Rodney asked, perking up.

John grinned. "That's my Rodney." The grin faded. "What?"

John had called him that a few times in the past, but Rodney had never felt confident enough to question the sentiment. Emboldened by John's consideration in choosing a mutually satisfactory pastime, Rodney stepped closer, bit his lower lip, and softly asked, "Am I?"

"Are you what?" John questioned, laying his hand on Rodney's sunscreen sticky arm.

"Your Rodney?"

John's hazel eyes flickered to the open port, as if to guarantee that their teammates were out of sight, and then John closed the distance between them, slipped his arms around Rodney's waist, and tentatively answered, "It feels that way to me."

"To me, too," Rodney said.

They seemed to melt into the kiss. They'd slept together every night they weren't on away missions for the last four months and John had taken him every night for the last two. The newness and mystery should have been long gone, but John's kiss was still careful and tender, as if John were still wooing him.

John pulled back with visible reluctance. "We keep that up and we're gonna end up doing it on the jumper floor."

Rodney gulped and tried to convince a certain part of his body to calm down. "Intriguing as that sounds, it's probably not a good idea."

"No, probably not," John agreed, but he looked like he was considering it.

"Hiking?" Rodney suggested, taking a deep breath.

"Hiking," John said.

They turned to gather their packs. Rodney stuffed his jacket in his, and then took the first aid kit from behind the pilot's chair, doing his best to ignore John's amused smile.

They headed down the ramp. John closed the hatch with the remote, pausing to stick the device deep in his pack before continuing.

At Rodney's questioning glance, John explained, "When I was hiking the Sequoias the car keys fell out of my pants pocket. I don't think we want to take a chance with the remote. It's a long way for Triple A."

"Oh, that makes sense."

Rodney took a deep breath of the unprocessed air. It was early enough in the season that his allergies shouldn't be a major issue, but he'd taken his antihistamine this morning just to be on the safe side.

The sand was soft and shifting beneath his feet, the breeze soft and cool in his hair.

John was standing beside him, gazing longingly out at the tall, white-topped, curving breakers crashing in onto the seashell-speckled beach.

John's hazel eyes were almost like opals. They picked up the colors in his environment and reflected them back. Right now, the blue of the outer ring of John's eyes was accentuated, but Rodney knew when they moved into the woods it would be the flecks of green near the pupils that stood out most, and when they were near golds and brown, John's eyes would turn almost amber.

"What kind of surfboard did you use?" Rodney asked in a quiet tone, not wanting to break John's reflective mood.

John was silent a moment. "A nine foot Colin Pro. It was a beauty."

"The Daedalus will be back by next month. We could ask SGC to order you one," Rodney said, already resolved to do so when they got back to the city tonight. All that accumulated back pay had to be good for something besides mail ordering DVDs.

Giving the idea serious consideration, Rodney decided that it would probably be best to order four. He knew John would want to teach Teyla and Ronon, which would guarantee that John would have at least two people to surf with. Surfing on an alien planet didn't seem like something anyone should be doing on their own, and Rodney had a feeling his own performance would probably make the surfing lessons a one time deal. But he wasn't banking on that. Like piloting the jumper ship, it might turn out to be something he enjoyed. Though somehow he doubted that learning to stand on top of a twelve-foot wave would have quite the same appeal to him that piloting an Ancient spaceship did.

"Nah," John said, resolutely turning his back on the water.

As they walked towards the woods, Rodney could tell how much John really wanted to be out there riding those waves.

"It's amazing how much like Earth this place is," Rodney commented when they reached the forest, eyeing the vegetation at the trailhead.

"Yeah, the pine trees look just like white pines. The leaves on the deciduous trees are shaped differently than those of home, but they smell the same in the fall," John said, seeming to shake off the subdued air that had surrounded him since he'd seen those waves.

Rodney examined the leaves on a nearby bush as they passed. John was right. The newly sprung green leaves were diamond shaped. He watched something that looked like a ten-legged ant wander across the leaf before falling back into step beside John.

Although Rodney had never really liked exercise for exercise's sake, the next couple of hours were surprisingly enjoyable. The wood trail wasn't very rocky, so he wasn't stumbling every two feet. The temperature was cool without being cold.

It was almost nice to be under the tall trees, with the dappled light shifting through newly-opened leaves and John Sheppard walking at his side. John wasn't pushing the pace, so Rodney didn't have to embarrass himself by requesting too many rest stops. When he did ask, John didn't act like it was any big deal. By the time they reached the cliffs, Rodney was actually having fun.

"Careful here," John advised as they scrambled over the man-sized boulders that made up this part of the trail. The rock formation they were stopped at now was much steeper than the others and would require a bit of actual climbing. "This is the hardest part. Once we're over it, we're up top. The rest is a cakewalk. Wait for me to get up there. Watch where I put my hands and feet, and then follow me up."

"Okay," Rodney said, staring skeptically at the lumpy rock form that towered over him.

The steep rock face was nearly twelve feet tall, but John climbed it in seconds.

"Hand your pack up to me," John said, lying flat on top of the rock to reach down for the backpack.

Rodney fumbled out of the straps and handed it up. It was a close call. John could barely reach the top of the pack; the outcropping was so big.

"What have you got in there – rocks? No wonder your back hurts all the time," John chuckled as he pulled the backpack up. A moment later, John's face appeared over the edge of the ledge again. "Do you want to take my hand?"

Tempted by the offer, Rodney's pride made him shake his head. It wasn't Mt. Everest. He should be able to do it.

"Only if I get stuck," Rodney denied, taking a firm hold of the rock while placing his right foot where John had started out.

It was a lot harder than John made it look, Rodney realized as his arms screamed under the stress of holding all his weight up, while his feet scrambled for toeholds. When he was about four feet up, he made the mistake of looking down and froze.

"Don't look down," John ordered the instant Rodney turned his head.

"Too late," Rodney said, feeling the sweat break out all over him.

"You're doing great, Rodney. It's only a few more feet. You can do it."

Rodney gasped in air, praying that there weren't any poisonous spiders living on the rock that he had a feeling he was going to be spending the remainder of his life clinging to.

"Rodney?"

Venting a deep breath, he shook off his panic as best he could while hanging onto a cliff and asked, "There are really ruins up here?"

"Yeah. They're over on the west side. I don't think anyone's ever been there. The Athosians have never mentioned them," John sweetened the pot, and then asked, "Do you want a hand up?"

"I want an elevator up," he snapped, "but, no, I can do it. Thank you all the same."

Rodney knew he was being pissy, but he couldn't help it. He was not going to be pulled up something John had gone over in a couple of seconds. His stubbornness overcoming his fear, he searched around for another handhold, pulled himself up a foot or so, and then repeated the scramble for toeholds. Two more similar moves, and he was crawling over the edge, panting like he'd outrun a Wraith dart.

Rodney lay there flat on his stomach on the top, with the sun hot on his neck and sweaty back, gasping for air. The muscles of his arms and legs were screaming like they were seceding from his body. It felt worse than when Cadman had hijacked his body for her stupid jog.

John's hand settled on his back. "Great job."

"Tell me that when I stop shaking," Rodney growled, causing John to howl with laughter. He loved how often John actually laughed when they were alone.

When his heart finally stopped racing and the protests in his limbs died down to a manageable throb, Rodney sat up, and gasped. They'd been traveling a gentle slope upwards for the last hour. They were now on top of the ridge over the beach, probably a thousand feet above the water.

The white-capped ocean stretched out as far as the eye could see. Blue above, blue below. The jagged red cliffs stretched on, seemingly to infinity. It was magnificent, untouched, and windy, very windy.

Shivering as the cold gusts hit his sweaty skin, Rodney tried to make himself as comfortable as he could as he sat on the hard rock and asked, "Would you get my jacket out of the pack, and my water?"

"You ready for lunch? I brought sandwiches," John said, passing Rodney his pack.

Rodney quickly unzipped it and pulled out his jacket, holding on tight as the wind tried to rip it out of his hands.

"And I brought MREs," Rodney said as he shouldered into his new blue and gray uniform jacket. It clashed terribly with his brown pants, but at least he was warmish now. "What do you feel like – chicken and dumplings or lasagna?"

"You hauled MREs up to the top of the world?" John laughed.

"Well, I didn't know we were climbing to the top of the world, now, did I? I thought we'd be having a picnic on the beach, under a nice shade tarp where I could power nap and use my laptop. So which do you want? Chicken or lasagna? I like them all equally," Rodney said, pulling out the food and his water bottle.

"The chicken," John decided.

Rodney separated the three chicken MREs, and handed them to John.

"Rodney, how many of those things have you got? I only need one," John said.

"Fine. More for me," he said, laughing at John's expression.

The lasagna was the best food he'd ever tasted in his life. Ravenous from the exercise, Rodney wolfed the first MRE down before John had even gotten his meal open.

"Please tell me your laptop isn't in there, too?" John asked when he was halfway through his chicken.

"No, I decided to leave it in Atlantis. Figured if I were power napping, that there'd probably be something I wanted to do more than type," Rodney answered with a suggestive lift of his brows.

"Hike?" John questioned, almost keeping the smile from his beautifully striated eyes.

Keeping firm control over his features, Rodney deadpanned, "Investigate ruins, actually."

They both chuckled.

Sharing out bites of their desserts, they finished the meal. Their gazes got lost in each other's eyes with as much frequency as the majestic view, Rodney was happy to note. He'd never had anyone look at him the way John Sheppard did. It made him feel ... sexy.

"You ready to find those ruins?" John questioned once they'd stored their trash in their backpacks.

"Of course," Rodney answered. Climbing to his feet, he kept a wide berth from the cliff edge.

John, of course, walked up to the very brink to stare out at the beach. The wind ripped at clothes and hair as if attempting to tear them off. John was remarkably strong, but he didn't have much in the way of bulk. Rodney had no trouble imagining those gales knocking his slender lover right off the cliff.

About to admonish John to step back, Rodney bit his tongue and tried a less contentious line. "You've got the car keys. Teyla and Ronon are going to be very annoyed if they have to search through the forest down there for your pulverized remains."

"You wouldn't come look for me?" John asked in an exaggeratedly hurt tone. He, did, however, step back from the edge, which was all Rodney cared about.

"Since I'm going to break my neck without your help getting down that deathtrap we just climbed up, it's a moot point."

John chuckled, and then gazed around the sloped mounds of the slick rock ridge they stood on. "I think the ruins are that way."

Rodney looked in the direction John was pointing and sighed.

"What?" John asked.

"You said the ruins were west," Rodney reminded.

"So?"

"So, that's southeast. Are you sure you know where we're going? It's going to be humiliating to have to have Atlantis send another jumper to get an aerial fix on our radios to give us directions back to the beach."

"It's definitely west," John insisted. "I checked it on the jumper's navigation system."

"Then we have to go that way," Rodney pointed to their left.

"You sure?" John asked.

"More sure than you are about the ruins," Rodney snapped, starting off to the west. A moment later, John fell into step beside him.

Aside from some stunted, hardy-looking shrubs that were growing out of crevices in the red rock, some lichen, and moss, the top of the ridge was fairly barren. Just white and black stained reddish brown stone as far as the eye could see.

"I wouldn't want to do this in the rain," John said as he gave him a hand down an especially steep section of the slick rock.

Ruins or no ruins, Rodney was beginning to rethink the wisdom of this side trip when John suddenly exclaimed, "There they are!"

Rodney ignored the surprise in John's voice, which was only confirmation that his lover really had no sense of direction on foot whatsoever, and turned where John was pointing.

At first he didn't see anything, but then he noticed that the ridge sloped downwards here and there seemed to be some kind of hollow. When they were close enough to look down into the wide chasm in the cliff, Rodney understood why no one had reported this find before now. It would have been virtually invisible to everything but a direct flyover.

The structures were definitely Ancient ruins, all right. As Rodney took in the remains of the buildings, he could see why the other jumpers had failed to distinguish them from the rock. They were composed of the native stone and were nearly indistinguishable from their surroundings. The collapsed structures lined the walls of the sloped hollow, except for a few huge rectangular standing stones with lintels that stood out by themselves in the flat-bottomed hollow.

As they got closer, Rodney thought that the structures must have looked like a bizarre conglomeration of Stonehenge and Anasazi cliff dwellings in their heyday, for the buildings had originally been built into the side of the hollow. Or perhaps the Ancients had blasted out the top of the ridge to create the hollow; it was hard to tell after ten thousand years.

Wishing he had his scanner, Rodney hurried to the structures with John following at a more sedate pace.

"This is incredible," Rodney called back to John as he reached the buildings and plunged into the darkened doorway of what looked to be the most intact of the remains.

Fortunately, most of the ceiling had caved in, so there was plenty of light once he passed through the entryway. He'd forgotten to pack a flashlight – an oversight that could prove deadly given his guide's pitiful sense of direction.

Rodney stared around at the distinctive consoles of Ancient instruments. They were buried beneath millennia worth of rubble, dust and dirt. Most had been obliterated by the ceiling's collapse, but two still looked fairly intact, as far as structure went. He didn't know what effect all that dirt would have on the instrumentation.

Carefully picking his way across the ankle-breaking obstacle course of fallen rock, Rodney moved to the nearest console. Taking off his jacket, he used it to push the dirt off the machine. He dug down until he got to the metal beneath.

The instrumentation wasn't too dissimilar from that in the Atlantis control tower, although obviously intended for a different purpose. He stared at the Ancient script above some of the console controls, deciphering what little he could read through the grime of ages.

At least the palmset that activated the console was fairly clear. Rodney placed his hand on it. Nothing happened.

"John?"

"Yeah?"

Rodney tried not to jump at the nearby reply. Sometimes he forgot that John was trained for battle. The man had moved through the debris as silently as a cat.

"Would you bring that magic gene of yours over here and see if it will start this up? It doesn't like my artificial one," Rodney said.

"What's it do?" John asked. His suspicion was clear as he stepped closer. He didn't put his hand on the console yet.

Rodney double-checked what he could read and offered, "I think this place was a weather tower. The Ancients probably built it to monitor those monster storms that nearly destroyed the city last year. I can't be sure, but I think this console monitors and possibly interacts with barometric pressure."

"What do you mean 'interacts with'?" John questioned, openly suspicious now.

"I mean changes it to specification. If I'm reading this right," Rodney qualified.

"And you want to screw around with the barometric pressure while we're at the top of a cliff?" John asked, giving him one of those serious looks that made Rodney crazy, for they seemed to silently question both his competency and his sanity.

"No, of course, I'm not going to screw with the weather. I just want to see if it works. Will you try to activate it?" Rodney asked as nicely as he could.

Holding his gaze, John laid his hand down on the dirty palmset. It was clear John was only doing it to humor him.

Rodney watched the console and looked around at some of the other fairly intact equipment scattered amid the debris. Nothing lit. No holographic images appeared. No screens manifested. The only things that moved were some dead leaves being blown around by the ever-present wind.

"Guess it's broken," Rodney said.

"Sorry," John sounded like he meant it.

"Let me just check one more thing," Rodney said, kneeling down in the dirt to pry the cover off the bottom.

The interior of the Ancient device was still intact and as pristine as the innards of the control consoles in Atlantis. The crystals and filaments were dead and dark, however.

"I think I found the problem, Rodney."

"Hmmmm?" Rodney asked, concentrating on the crystals he was adjusting. Sometimes rearranging the processor crystals would reroute the power from faulty lines to one of the many redundant functioning pathways.

The console remained depressingly dead.

"Look at this," John said.

Rodney closed the cover, rose to his feet, and dusted off his hands on his now-filthy pants. He crossed to the other side of the room where John was looking at something in the area where most of the far wall had collapsed inwards.

It took a moment for Rodney to process what he was seeing. "Oh, my God."

Four shattered ZPMs littered the top of what Rodney recognized as an Ancient generator.

"Whatever this place did, it required a shitload of power," John said in a hushed voice.

"If only one of them had survived," Rodney whispered, thinking of all the things he could get his city to do with a second fully charged ZPM.

"Do you want to poke around some more?" John asked.

Rodney looked at the obliterated ZPMs, then back to the dead consoles. "No. Without power, this place is as useless as a Gameboy without batteries."

John nodded and placed a hand on his arm in a consoling gesture. "Okay. Guess there's no point hanging around in here, then."

"No," Rodney agreed. With one last look at the consoles, he turned to follow John out, squinting as the bright sun assaulted his eyes after the shaded interior.

"You okay?" John asked once they stepped out of the building's entrance.

The standing stones stood in front of them like a transported Stonehenge. The station had clearly taken some hits during the Wraith attack on Atlantis, for some of the lintel stones had toppled from their bases and were blasted to pieces like the buildings behind them. But most of the stones stood in their original glory. Like Atlantis itself and all of the Ancient structures they'd ever visited, the monoliths had an eerie presence to them that felt like more than the expectable awe.

"I'm fine. It just gets frustrating after a while. We keep finding all these incredible artifacts, most of which are still in working order, only we never have the power to get them running," Rodney said.

"We'll find additional power sources," John said.

"I know," Rodney answered, though he was nowhere near as certain as John was anymore.

"The wind's not too bad down here," John noted as they drifted over to the standing stones. "Do you want to rest under the stones for a while?"

John was right. The stones seemed to be blocking most of the wind.

"Sure," Rodney said, ambling over to a tempting batch of shade under the largest monolith. Even with his homemade sunscreen, his skin wasn't fond of bright sunlight.

Rodney sat down with his back to the sturdy rock. This enclosed place was like being at the bottom of a very wide well. The cliff face rose all around them, with the ruined buildings lining them. The sky was a brilliant blue way overhead. There were a few anemic shrubs growing in the spaces between the rubble, but otherwise John and he were the only living things in sight.

Rodney realized that he hadn't even seen a bug since they'd descended into the hollow. It was as if the Wraith really had blasted all life from the outpost.

John settled in beside him a moment later, and opened his pack to pull out his water bottle.

Realizing how dusty and thirsty his throat felt, Rodney did the same. When he turned back to John after a deep, refreshing guzzle, John was watching him with that look that made him feel like Brad Pitt.

"The instruments mightn't work, but I think this place is still pretty cool," John said. "I never did get to Stonehenge."

"Me, either," Rodney answered. "The Ancients probably built that, too."

"You think it controls weather like this one?" John asked.

"Who knows? From what I hear of England, if ever a place needed climate control, it's there. I can't stand the damp."

Rodney was confused to see John stick his thumb in his mouth. He was even more bewildered when John removed his thumb and reached for his face.

"You've got dirt on your cheek," John explained as he rubbed his saliva-slick thumb over what must have been the dirty part of his left cheek.

Rodney shivered at the feel of John's finger moving over his skin. The spark in those green and gold striated, blue-ringed eyes told him that John caught his reaction.

Rodney braced John's shoulders as John's mouth gravitated towards his own. The resulting kiss was slow and unrushed, for all that it left Rodney breathless and quivering when they finally withdrew for air.

"I packed the lube," Rodney offered.

John's heated gaze looked from him to their surroundings, before John said with visible reluctance, "This place isn't exactly comfortable. And there aren't any facilities to wash up. We have to fly back with Teyla and Ronon."

"You're right. They'd probably smell the sex on us," Rodney laughed. "So neat and tidy instead?"

John nodded and moved in for another kiss.

"You ever do it in Ancient ruins before?" John asked, sounding as if that were a viable possibility, as if Rodney had so many opportunities to have sex that he would have done it in some place this exotic.

He thought he'd told John how long it had been since he'd been with anyone. Rodney realized that he had. In a way it was flattering that John kept forgetting how limited his sex life had always been. John always acted like they were on equal ground in that respect. Rodney shook his head 'no' and admitted, "I've never done it outside before. You?"

"The outside or the ruins?" John asked, running his hands over the front of Rodney's shirt until his nipples peaked to attention.

Getting lost in sensation, Rodney tried for coherency. "Both."

"Lots of times outside. Never in ruins."

"So, this is a first for you," Rodney said, pleased.

John's hands momentarily stopped moving on him. "You're a first for me. Everything feels new with you, even kissing."

John took so long to demonstrate that Rodney forgot that there had been a conversation going. He kissed back with everything he had, his hands moving restlessly over John's back and sides.

When they shifted to get horizontal and more comfortable, Rodney understood why John hadn't been too keen on doing anything adventurous out here.

As they slid to the ground, John's hand jumped out to cradle the back of Rodney's head. "Easy there. That's rock we're on."

His head still hit hard, but with John's hand buffering the blow, he didn't get hurt. Another kiss, and Rodney barely felt the ungiving stone at his back. All there was was John's warm weight on top of him as they moved together unbuttoning and unzipping their clothing.

Even though the stone beneath them was icy cold and the air above only cool, Rodney barely noticed. There was something incredibly arousing about doing it in the open like this. Before he'd held John Sheppard in his arms under an open sky, the whole doing it outdoors had seemed stupid. Why be uncomfortable and at risk of being discovered at any moment when there were prescription mattresses and locked doors at home? But despite the potential for beestings and the like, Rodney finally got what John saw in this.

There was a rawness to it that gave every kiss and caress a wild edge. As their bodies struggled to get closer, driven by the throb of desire thundering through them, Rodney could almost feel a similar beat pounding through the rock around them. It was as if the world itself had a matching heartbeat. Those separate beats meshed until he felt part of it all. The uncomfortable stone beneath his back, the fiercely bright sunlight hitting their feet, the cool shadows of the monolith, the refreshing breeze, the incredible man on top of him ... He was part of it all.

John released a long, grating moan as Rodney took possession of his hard erection. Rodney echoed the exclamation when John collected him into his palm.

They'd agreed on neat and tidy. Almost as though they'd practiced the move for this open venue, they both shifted to lean over each other's groins, the action oddly graceful and synchronized.

Rodney looked past the cock dangling in front of him over their intersecting bodies to watch wide-eyed as John went down on him.

The sight of that dark head bending over him never failed to amaze him. John was so sensual, so beautiful. That this handsome, desirable man wanted to do this with him was a source of constant wonder to Rodney. He kept waiting for John to get bored with him and move on like everyone else always did, but John behaved as though he really found him as exciting as Rodney found him. As that warm, wet mouth absorbed him, Rodney decided that there was absolutely nothing in the universe neater than John Sheppard's mouth, except perhaps John Sheppard's cock.

Seeing the blood-engorged organ in question twitch pleadingly into his line of sight, Rodney forced his attention back to what he was supposed to be doing.

John's sigh brushed over him gentle as a caress as Rodney sucked that powerful shaft into his mouth. John's taste was too familiar now to be exotic, but it was now forever designated as the flavor of passion in Rodney's mind. John was what sex tasted like. John was what it smelled like.

Rodney prayed he'd never lose this, because he knew that no one was ever going to taste or smell right to him again.

This was perfect. John and he were so in sync when they touched like this that they really felt like one being, one being eating itself. As he deep-throated that impressive cock, Rodney tried to recall the name of the mythological snake that achieved eternal life by feeding off itself. If the softer sciences like the voodoo they called medicine had never been disciplined enough to gain his respect, studies like mythology had little hope of being viewed as anything other than complete jokes. If it wasn't used in Tolkein or sci fi, he didn't know it. Only, the frustrating part was that he didn't have this excuse with the snake. He was pretty damn sure they'd used it in an X-Files episode, so he should know this. Berating himself, he racked his brain trying to remember the name of that damn snake.

Was it Cerebus? No, Rodney was fairly certain that was a three-headed dog.

As John's whole body convulsed and the cock in his mouth twitched and exploded, the answer suddenly popped into his mind. Ouroboros. The snake was Ouroboros.

As John's way too talented mouth sent him spiraling into the stratosphere with pleasure, Rodney pulled off John's cock and cried out, "Ouroboros!" before he could control himself.

John froze around him for an instant, but continued to suck him until he was limp as the proverbial wet noodle. Only then did John draw back.

They collapsed against each other's thighs, resting their faces in each other's groins with a familiarity Rodney had never experienced with anyone else. He could feel John's warm, moist breath whispering over his balls in a shivery caress, and saw his own ruffle John's crisp, dark pubic hair.

"Did you just call me Ouroboros?" John asked in that sleepy, amused drawl of his once reality started to filter back.

"Ah," Rodney looked for an explanation, but only had the truth. "Yeah. I was trying to remember its name. That's the snake, right?"

"Let me get this straight – I'm here giving you my all and you're reviewing mythology?" John still sounded more amused than angry.

"Er ..." There really was no way to get out of this. He raised his head to meet John's eyes, and gave him the truth. "When we do it that way, it always feels like we're one being, eating itself. The image of the snake came into my mind and I couldn't shake it."

The humorous light left John's eyes, making Rodney worry that he might have said too much again. He wasn't good at playing it cool in post-coital bliss. The truth tumbled out far less elegantly than he would have preferred to offer it were he in his right mind.

But John just reached out to touch his cheek. "You were right. Its name is Ouroboros. Do you know what it symbolizes?"

Feeling stupider by the minute, Rodney shrugged and offered in a small voice, "Something to do with eternal life? I think they used it in an X-Files episode."

"It represents cycles that begin again as soon as they end, eternally. It's like the Yin and Yang, opposites in harmony rather than conflict," John said.

Thinking that he might have revealed way too much with that little Freudian slip, Rodney tried to joke, "Count on a California boy to know something like that."

John's lips twitched. "Be careful or I'll do your zodiac chart."

Rodney knew his snort was sufficient to give his full opinion on that topic.

After a quiet moment of watching him and no doubt reading far too much, John commented, "The symbol suits us."

"You're not ...." Rodney shut his mouth before he could further embarrass himself. John had let him off easy this time. If his lover ever suspected how big a sap he really was ....

"Not what?" John encouraged.

Rodney took the easy out. "Mad that I was thinking about mythology while you were giving me your all."

John chuckled. "I know you're weird. It's one of the things I love about you."

Rodney went as tense as the stone beneath them. It was a turn of phrase, nothing more. John didn't mean that word the way he needed him to mean it. Rodney knew the fastest way to lose what they had was to push for the impossible, so he tried to let the moment pass.

John clearly caught his reaction, for he asked "What?" in a gentle tone.

There were no lies between them. Even when they'd merely been friends, they gave each other the truth.

Swallowing hard, Rodney hesitantly pointed out, "You've never said that before."

Rodney was nervous as hell broaching the topic, even though he hadn't been the one to bring it up. John had said it, after all. Not him. It wouldn't be logical for John to become angry with him for something John had done himself, but Rodney had had enough relationships self-destruct around him to know that logic had very little to do with the human heart.

John blinked and focused on him. He couldn't tell if John were being serious or trying to evade the topic when his lover answered, "What do you mean? I tell you you're weird at least once a day. Maybe not in so many words, but – "

"Not that," Rodney said, deciding to go for broke. "The other thing."

He'd make John tell him that it was just a turn of phrase. He needed to hear it spelled out in black and white. He'd had his hopes dashed so many times that this deviation from that familiar pattern was more than a little scary.

Rodney knew how to weather being used for convenient sex and then discarded afterwards. How often had he come home to an empty apartment? No lover, no note, no nothing. He had handling abandonment down to an art form. In all honesty, he was usually relieved when his lovers left, because it took the pressure off him. In every one of his previous affairs, he'd felt like he was stumbling through a landmine, never knowing when everything would explode around him. But this thing with John … it was different.

John wasn't using him, and after four months, Rodney was pretty sure he wasn't going to come home to an empty place. When he lost track of time in the lab, John didn't sulk or throw a fit. If it was really late, John just came and got him. John didn't insist that he change to be with him. To the contrary, John seemed to like him the way he was. There was a casual affection here, and . . . well, fun that had been missing from all his other relationships. What they had was comfortable. Rodney didn't want to do anything to change that. But comfortable didn't equate to the L word.

Rodney didn't know how long he could keep playing it cool with John if John started saying things like that on a regular basis. If John told him straight out how impossible and preposterous the idea that he could ever love him was, maybe then his heart would start believing it and give him some peace. This hoping for the unobtainable was killing him by small degrees.

Rodney expected John to go all tense, but John just looked at him and calmly said, "Oh, that."

The silence stretched.

Somehow, Rodney sensed that John wasn't as calm as he seemed.

His mouth suddenly as dry as a desert, Rodney offered John the same kind of easy out John had given him earlier. "An ill-chosen turn of phrase offered in the heat of the moment, I expect."

Rodney hadn't meant to sound so bitter, but even he could hear it in his voice.

John didn't seem to take exception to his tone. After watching him for a long, silent moment, John quietly offered, "No, Rodney."

His heart pounding, Rodney repeated, "No?"

Forcing himself to really look at John, to see what was actually there, rather than the repudiation he anticipated, Rodney finally caught the uncertainty. John was looking at him as though John were the one expecting to be read the riot act.

John gave a noisy swallow and said in that same subdued tone, "I really do ... love you."

It took Rodney's brain almost a full minute to accept that he'd heard what he'd just heard. John loved him? His self-preservation instincts were demanding that he not accept this at face value, but John appeared so nervous that he couldn't help but take the words as truth.

It wasn't like either of them had any experience with this subject, Rodney ruefully acknowledged. John might have had more lovers than he'd had, but John had told him something of his past over these last few months. John's affairs were far more numerous than his and from the sound of them, had ended with less bitterness than all of his had, but the fact was, every one of John's relationships ended before they became too serious. Except this one.

Seeing that John was fully as scared as he was, Rodney softly confessed, "It can't have escaped your notice that I've felt that way about you for some time now."

John's eyes told him that this wasn't new news to him. But there was no sense of victory or smugness in John's expression as he said, "Sorry it took me so long to get with the program."

"I didn't expect us to be on the same page in this at all," Rodney admitted. "It's not like our being together makes any sense. You're so hot, and I'm – "

John's mouth covered his before he could finish the sentence. When John pulled back a long time later, he said in a gruff voice, "We make perfect sense."

John accentuated his point by taking hold of Rodney's reawakening cock and giving the moist shaft a friendly squeeze.

As the sensations splashed over him, Rodney was forced to admit that John was right. They made perfect sense. All lucid thought cut off as John's head lowered over him to support his argument with irrefutable evidence.

*~*~*

Chapter 8

Love really did make all things new again, or so it seemed to John Sheppard as the next few weeks flew by. Being in love was like being on some exhilarating drug that really needed to come with a warning label, John decided. Or maybe it was a madness like the poets claimed, because nothing was the way it used to be. The impossible seemed doable, and, conversely, things that had once been simple were transformed into ordeals that tested him on every level.

Take something as routine and boring as this morning's staff heads’ briefing. Try as he would to keep his attention on the monthly supply requisition, John would find his gaze straying to Rodney across the conference table. Normally, John would have been foaming at the bit to get out of the briefing to start the away mission they had scheduled for later this morning, but today all he could think about were the incredible things that Rodney's irritation-pursed mouth had done to him the night before, or how the new gray and blue uniforms really accentuated Rodney's broad shoulders. What the new pants did for his lover's butt defied description. He honestly couldn't allow himself to think about Rodney's ass in public. That's how bad it was.

He lived on the verge of embarrassing himself from moment to moment. Whenever they were in a room together, John's fingers ached to be buried in that baby soft hair. His tongue longed to taste test Rodney's beard stubble, or slink into the line defining the separation between Rodney's double chin. He couldn't help but muse on how weird that was, that someone's double chin would turn him on or that he'd find Rodney's rounded belly hotter than Elizabeth's pert little tits.

Everything he'd ever thought he'd known about beauty and desire had been rewritten in the last few months. Rodney could steal his breath with a single glance or leave him shaking with a simple hello. It made no sense at all. He was a grown man, used to controlling himself, but when it came to Rodney McKay, his hormones thought he was back in high school.

John really felt like he was falling apart. Only, it was the best kind of falling apart he'd ever known, because Rodney was there every single night to put him back together again. John had never suspected that it could be like this with someone, that you could come inside someone's body every night for two months straight, and still ache to do it again the instant opportunity presented itself. He couldn't get enough of Rodney. That Rodney seemed to be equally addicted to him was just ... too cool for words.

Not that Rodney was ever cool, either temperamentally or socially. When they'd first met in Antarctica, McKay had seemed restrained, if not downright distant, a Spock-like scientist, as cold as the ice outside the Ancient outpost. John realized now that that distance had been a cover. Rodney had been in an environment he could control totally, and was consequently able to restrain the more excitable parts of his nature to some degree. But out here in the Pegasus galaxy where death was constantly one Wraith away, all bets were off. The real Rodney McKay showed through, with no filters, no control. The real Rodney was spirit on fire. His intellect, his passions, his humor, his complaints, even his pettiness, and hypochondriacal tendencies, all of it was intense and larger than life, and all of it moved John on levels no other human had touched before.

Rodney amazed him. There was no getting around that.

The part that John found the most astounding was the fact that his lover seemed more disciplined and better at hiding their relationship than he was. Rodney's lack of artifice had worried him when they'd started seeing each other. Every day, John expected Rodney, who was the worst liar he'd ever met, to slip up and give them away, but Rodney never did.

When they were outside the privacy of their quarters, Rodney was faultlessly professional. He called him nothing but "Colonel," even when they seemed to be alone together. Rodney rarely touched him casually in public. Nor did his lover look at him in an inappropriate or suggestive manner. In short, Rodney was the soul of discretion, and that made absolutely no sense to John, until he remembered that Rodney had had a thing for him for quite some time before they'd actually become involved. Clearly, Rodney had learned how to hide his feelings for him, and was now continuing those old patterns to protect their secret.

John knew that it was he himself who was the weak link in their chain of secrecy, for he felt like his feelings for Rodney showed all over him. But so far no one had called him on it. Maybe the chaos inside him wasn't visible from the outside, or so he hoped.

He was trying to be as professional as Rodney. Some days were easier than others.

"Colonel, a word?" Rodney asked as the briefing room began to clear out.

Dr. Beckett gave them both a parting nod as he walked out beside Elizabeth.

"How about a coffee? I don't know about you, but I missed breakfast this morning," John said as Elizabeth and Carson passed his chair.

"Coffee's fine," Rodney agreed, falling into step beside him as they turned towards the transporter. When the door closed behind them and they were alone in the chamber, Rodney's face lost its calm set and he demanded angrily, "What the hell did you think you were doing in there?"

"What?" John asked, feeling like he'd missed a major part of the conversation.

"Don't give me that wide-eyed innocent look! You were – " the transporter doors opened before Rodney could finish whatever he'd been about to say.

"Is the mess hall really the right place for this conversation?" John asked, seeing the second wave of breakfast crowd heading towards the mess.

"No, you're right. Come on." Rodney pushed the transporter chamber closest to his quarters on the destination screen. A moment later, the doors opened onto the hallway they'd left only forty minutes ago.

Of course, Rodney hadn't been angry at him, then.

Once the doors to Rodney's room closed behind them, Rodney's face went from tense anticipation to livid in no time flat. "Are you trying to get court-martialed?"

"Rodney, I – "

"You what? Lost your mind? You are Atlantis' head military officer. You can't be mooning over another man across a briefing room table at a staff meeting. Do you have any idea how you were looking at me? I could barely concentrate," Rodney said. "I'm only flesh and blood. If I start looking back at you that way, the gig is up."

That explained the irritation-pursed mouth. John had thought Rodney had been angry about Elizabeth's refusal to fill science section's rather costly wish list this month.

"I know. I'm sorry," John said, realizing that he was in the wrong here.

"John, this is serious. We got lucky today. Carson thinks you're sweet on Elizabeth."

"What?" John questioned.

"Well, what else was he going to think with the way you were staring over in our direction with that glazed look in your eyes? We're lucky she was sitting beside me these last few meetings," Rodney said, running a hand through the hair John had been staring at for most of the briefing. "You're doing it again right now! What the hell is wrong with you? Do you have a death wish I don't know about?"

John started at the snap. He didn't think another sorry would carry much weight, not with the way Rodney was glaring at him. "I, ah ..."

"You, what? John, this isn't a game. It's your career, maybe even your life, at stake here."

"I know. I just ... never felt this way before. I know it's no excuse. I'm an adult and an officer, I just ..."

The anger left Rodney's eyes. John's entire body surged as Rodney reached out to lay an innocent hand on his arm. "It's difficult. Believe me, I know. But we can't afford to be sloppy. We work together. You've got to get a handle on this."

"How?" John asked. "It's not like I'm not trying. I don't understand this. Usually, you're the one ... "

"Out of control?" Rodney suggested with a self-deprecating smile when John couldn't find the right words.

"Something like that. But you never slip up on this, not once. How do you do it?" John questioned, because if he knew one thing as fact in this world, it was that Rodney had genuine feelings for him.

Rodney's hand left his arm to brush the locks dangling over John's brow back with the rest of the unruly, upright hair. The gentleness in his touch was mirrored in his eyes. "Do you really want to know? It's nothing exotic or magical."

John nodded.

Rodney's face suddenly became deadly serious.

"Every time I feel myself beginning to slip, I remind myself that it's you who's going to pay if I screw up. A single mistake, and I could get you dishonorably discharged or even killed," Rodney said in a hesitant tone. It didn't take much work on John's part to recognize that this was something Rodney worried about, a lot.

"That's ..." That's what love was, John realized, worrying about the other person first. "I don't know what to say. Humbling? But I'm not sure your tactic will work for me. I, ah, don't think anyone will really care if they find out you're involved with a man."

John didn't mention that many of their acquaintances assumed Rodney was gay from the start. He didn't think that would help either the present conversation or Rodney's self-image any.

"Being a civilian contractor and the smartest man in two galaxies does have its benefits," Rodney agreed.

This dichotomy was one of the things he loved most about Rodney, how the man could be utterly arrogant about his intellectual superiority, and yet completely clueless when it came to what he had to offer on an emotional level.

"So I'm back at square one," John lamented.

"Maybe not," Rodney said, that same serious look in his eyes.

"Oh?" John encouraged. "You have an idea?"

"Always," Rodney said. "But the success of this plan will depend solely upon how important my happiness is to you."

"How's that?" John asked, not understanding.

"My life and livelihood mightn't be at risk like yours are, but how do you think being used as the instrument of your destruction is going to make me feel? If you get court-martialed or hurt because you're sleeping with me, it'll kill me. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it's the truth," Rodney said.

Staring into Rodney's troubled eyes, John believed him. He knew about this part of love. It was the same with friendship and duty. It was easier to take a hit yourself than to see those that depended on you suffer.

"I, ah, guess I wasn't thinking about how this would affect you if it goes bad," John said. Still uncertain of Rodney's mood, he cautiously slipped his arms around Rodney's waist.

Rodney sighed and moved into the offered embrace, resting his forehead on John's chest with comfortable intimacy. "If you're anything like me, I doubt you're thinking at all when it happens. I do understand, John. I ... never thought I'd have anything like this."

"Me, neither." John buried his face between Rodney's collar and neck, breathing him in as he rubbed Rodney's back in reassuring circles.

They stayed that way for a long time, just holding on to one another and soaking up each other's body warmth.

"Wish we had time for – " John said at last.

"Yeah," Rodney said, seeming to force himself to draw back. "Mission to Duranda this afternoon, and then tonight ..."

"Tonight I get to look at you as long as I like, without your clothes on," John declared.

He loved how Rodney would light up every time he said something like that. "It's a date. I've really got to run now."

"Me, too," John said.

A quick kiss, and they were out the door for the second time that morning.

*~*~*

They didn't get their date that night, or any night in the following two weeks.

John tried to be patient and supportive. He knew that the discovery of the unique power source for that Ancient weapon on Duranda was the answer to Atlantis' prayers. He couldn't blame Rodney for being excited. But it still irked him that the only time he'd ever seen Rodney look near as happy as he did when telling Elizabeth about the ultimate power source was the day that he'd told Rodney he loved him.

That day seemed like it had been a hundred years ago. John had become so used to falling asleep curled around Rodney in that cramped, hard bed that when Rodney disappeared into his lab for the duration, John found it impossible to sleep. He stayed in Rodney's room on the off chance that they could grab a few minutes together when his lover would return home, but Rodney always crawled into bed in the wee hours of the Atlantis mornings and was gone again before John's alarm clock went off. It was frustrating and lonely.

He hardly even caught a glimpse of Rodney during the following weeks. His lover never seemed to leave the lab, and, yet, the few times he did see Rodney in passing, the man didn't look exhausted or stressed out. Rodney looked jubilant.

They hadn't even kissed in twelve days, and Rodney was the happiest he'd ever seen him. That just didn't seem right to John, not when he himself was feeling like an addict cut off from his source.

But there was a lot about this situation that didn't feel right to him.

Project Octurus. That's what the Ancients had called the damn thing. From the moment John had seen those two desiccated corpses lying in the Durandan lab, he'd had a really bad feeling about this mission. A graveyard of decimated Wraith warships in orbit, a planet of corpses and blasted apart buildings, a single structure standing untouched amidst all the decay ... the set up creeped John out from the get go.

There was something inherently wrong about an Ancient lab being the only thing to survive a Wraith attack. By all logic, the Ancient outpost should have taken the heaviest hits. Even Rodney had found its survival puzzling, back when he was still thinking about anything other than physics.

Obsession didn't even begin to describe Rodney during this period. Once Rodney had gotten a look at the weapon's unique power system, all other concerns were forgotten. His lover had found that ultimate power source that he'd been hungering for, and nothing would stand in Rodney's way in achieving his goal of getting it up and running.

And get it running, Rodney did. Less than fourteen days after they stepped into the Durandan lab, the Ancient power source was fired up for the first time in ten thousand years ... and there was another corpse on the floor in seconds, lying in almost the exact spot Ronon had found the Ancients' bodies.

John had barely known Collins. But he knew Rodney, Zelenka, Optimon, and most of the others. That corpse could have been any of them.

He didn't have to be a rocket scientist like Rodney to see that the Ancient weapon was too dangerous to play around with, and yet Rodney didn't seem capable of understanding that. Rodney wanted to go back and try again, even after John had to remind him in the follow up briefing to the first disastrous test about the man he'd lost.

Fortunately, Elizabeth wasn't willing to take the risk. John was grateful it was her call, and not his, because it hurt to see Rodney looking so blasted apart emotionally as he argued for a second chance.

"You have the data from your first attempt. You can run all the simulations you want," Elizabeth said in her firmest leader voice.

"Come on, Elizabeth," Rodney argued. "Do you really think the military is going to let this go, huh? I mean, at the very least, we should be the first ones in there to spearhead the research."

"That's what this is about?" Elizabeth demanded, anger entering her tone for the first time. "You want to beat them to it? I'm sorry, the answer is no."

She didn't give Rodney the opportunity to respond, but got up and left before the argument could continue.

John watched as an equally upset looking Dr. Zelenka gave Rodney a what-can-you-do shrug before leaving. Col. Caldwell and Dr. Beckett cleared the area at top speed as well.

Only John lingered, staring across the wide table at Rodney, who looked like he was holding himself together by a very thin thread.

It took Rodney several minutes to even notice John was still there. When he did, his eyes grew hard and angry as he sneered a sarcastic, "Thanks for your support. It's good to know I can always count on you."

John took a quick look around the empty room and then answered in as calm a tone as he could manage, "This isn't about us, Rodney. It's about saving lives."

"Right," Rodney answered in a brittle tone, his wounded gaze moving to his hands as he shut down his laptop.

If this were anyone else, any other lover he'd had in his life, John would have been out the door at this point and left the other person to brood, but he couldn't ignore how Rodney was suffering.

"Have you gotten any sleep at all since we got back?" John questioned, rising to his feet and moving to Rodney's end of the table.

"I've got work to do," Rodney answered, still not meeting his eyes.

Sensing how close Rodney was to breaking down, John took hold of his lover's tense shoulder. "You need to rest. Let's go back to your room and lie down for a while. I haven't seen you in nearly two weeks. I miss you."

Rodney flinched as though he'd flicked him with a whip. "I said I have work to do."

"It can wait. You need some sleep," John said softly, not responding to Rodney's nasty tone.

"Do you think I don't know what you're doing?" Rodney angrily demanded.

"What are you talking about?" John asked.

"If I go back there with you, you're going to try to change my mind, sweet talk me into giving up."

"Rodney, you need to rest," John said.

"No, I need to figure this out. I don't have the energy for these kinds of head games right now," Rodney said, rising to his feet.

"Head games? What the hell are you talking about?" John demanded, angry himself now.

"What else would you call it? You made your position perfectly clear in the briefing," Rodney said.

Reading just how much his lack of support had hurt Rodney, John made a conscious effort to calm down. They were both new to this relationship stuff. Rodney was so upset right now that he probably had viewed his lover's difference of opinion as a betrayal. "You're not thinking clearly right now. You need to eat and sleep."

"I need to figure out what went wrong," Rodney said, and then turned to leave without another word.

"Rodney? RODNEY!"

Rodney didn't even slow down. John watched his lover walk away with slumped shoulders until the closing doors cut off his sight of Rodney.

When John reached the briefing room door himself, Rodney was long gone.

*~*~*

As it had a habit of doing, bad went to worse in record speed.

Refusing to let Rodney into his quarters last night when Rodney came to ask him to talk Elizabeth into giving the Octurus Project a second chance was one of the hardest things John ever had to do. He'd seen how ripped apart Rodney was over Collins' loss, how desperately Rodney was struggling to give some meaning to his coworker's death. But in spite of how moved he'd been by his lover's pain, John had been afraid that Rodney would do exactly what Rodney had accused him of doing the other morning – use their love to influence him professionally. And, even without letting him in, Rodney had still managed to do it.

John hated that Rodney had made this whole thing personal. It was bad enough that Rodney viewed his disagreeing on work issues as a betrayal, without his making John's compliance in this suicide venture a trust issue.

But that's exactly what Rodney had done.

Trust me. I won't let you down.

Right.

John had been introduced to a side of his lover today that he wished he'd never met.

All Rodney had been able to see was that goddamned Nobel Prize, the one that was much more likely to happen than the tear a hole in the fabric of the universe scenario that actually occurred. Even when their friends called to warn them, Rodney had been adamant. So fucking sure that he was right and everyone else was wrong. Dr. Zelenka had told Rodney exactly what would happen, and all Rodney could do was accuse his friend of petty jealousy. It took the goddamned planet being on the brink of explosion for Rodney's self-preservation instincts to kick in enough to convince him to evacuate the lab.

The whole thing made John sick. Rodney's arrogance, his utter refusal to listen, to even consider the possibility that he could be mistaken, smacked of the same kind of megalomaniac pride Colonel Williams had displayed the day he'd gotten all those guys killed in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the hardest part of the whole thing for John was being forced to acknowledge that his trust, that his love had been meaningless to Rodney. When their very lives were on the line, it had been more important to Rodney that he be vindicated than that the person trusting his life to him be safe. John realized that his love had been no match for the lure of Nobel Prizes and ultimate power sources. Rodney had used him as the means to an end, and John had absolutely no idea where that left them. If anywhere.

"Colonel, oh, Colonel!" Rodney's breathless voice called from behind him as John hurried down the corridor to evade the person he'd spent the last four and a half months climaxing with as Rodney said, "I've been looking all over for you."

Bracing himself, John turned and faced Rodney. He could see the nervous light in his lover's eyes, could tell how anxious he was. And it didn't mean a thing.

Rodney should be a lot more than nervous. There was nothing but rubble and space dust in the Durandan system where five planets had existed this morning. If Colonel Caldwell weren't the honorable officer he was, both Rodney and he would be part of that space dust right now.

Letting his tone convey his feelings, John answered, "I heard."

Despair flickered through Rodney's gaze.

"Ah, I suppose I deserve that," Rodney acknowledged, and then continued in a rush, "Look, I just, um, I wanted to apologize about what happened. I was wrong, sorry. And I want to assure you that, ah, I intend not being right again about everything effective immediately." When John could do nothing but stare at the continued arrogance, Rodney added quickly, "That was a joke."

A joke? Five planets were gone and they'd barely gotten out of there alive and Rodney was making jokes?

Disgusted, John said, "Good one," and turned on his heel to enter the transporter chamber. He didn't trust himself to say anything more, not when he was this angry.

Apparently, not even someone as self-centered as Rodney McKay could fail to pick up on his mood, for Rodney quickly offered, "I've already apologized to Elizabeth. And Radek. And I thanked Colonel Caldwell for caring enough to spy on the experiment from orbit. I sent him a nice little email, actually. But I saved you till last," All of the arrogance and pride that John hated abruptly vanished from Rodney's countenance. Seeming sincere and troubled, Rodney continued, "Cause, um, honestly, I would hate to think that recent events might have permanently dimmed your faith in my abilities. Or your trust." When John made no effort to contradict his words, Rodney said with tangible desperation, "At the very least, I hope that I can earn that back."

John was angry enough to throw everything away at the present moment, but he knew that things often seemed different once some time had passed. He just didn't know if he'd ever be able to look at Rodney the same way he had two weeks ago. Right now, he could barely stand the sight of him; he'd been let down so badly.

Not wanting to sugarcoat the situation, John warned, "That might take some time."

John saw his words hit Rodney like a blow.

"I see," Rodney said in a crushed, quiet tone while something died in his eyes.

John didn't want to be moved by the distress he'd caused. Rodney hadn't simply made a mistake today; he'd undermined the very fundament of their friendship with his overconfidence and arrogance, not to mention the damage his cavalier attitude had done to their love. But even though Rodney probably deserved it, John couldn't just leave him with no hope, because under all the disappointment and anger, all John really wanted was to just turn back time so that he could find a way to prevent them from going to the places Rodney's ego had taken them today.

So, instead of leaving it at that as he stepped into the transporter, John met those forlorn eyes and offered, "But I'm sure you can do it, if you really, really try."

Thankfully, the transporter doors slid shut before Rodney could say anything more.

Feeling like his entire world had ended, John made his way back to his lonely quarters.

*~*~*

There was a certain irony to recent events that Rodney couldn't help but be painfully aware of. In the past, he'd always believed that knowing why a relationship ended would make it easier to accept. He'd thought if he could figure out what he'd done wrong, that he could make sure he didn't repeat the mistake next time around. He'd truly thought that knowing would be better.

Turned out, that was just another of the many things he'd been wrong about.

Ignorance truly was bliss. When you didn't know for certain, you could tell yourself pretty lies to comfort yourself over the loss: It wasn't your fault. The other person was a loser with feet of clay. You gave it your best; you couldn't be blamed because it didn't work out ...

Only, none of those old lines would work in this situation. John Sheppard wasn't a loser with feet of clay. John was a straight shooter who'd given him his heart on a platter the other day, for no other reason than because he'd asked it of John, and he'd thrown it right back in John's face as though that gift were worthless.

Rodney knew that he was the one who'd screwed up big time here. He'd had everything he'd ever longed for – someone who was kind and fun and smart, someone who truly loved him – and he'd thrown it away as if it were nothing. For the sake of a glorified battery. What the hell had he been thinking?

Clearly, he hadn't. All he'd been able to see was the potential benefits that Ancient device could offer them ... and the Nobel Prize he'd win for working the bugs out. Even now, he wanted to wail in frustration because he'd been right. If the laws of physics hadn't been violated from the stress of drawing vacuum power from their own universe, his equations would have worked like a charm and Atlantis would now be singing his praises instead of treating him like persona non grata.

Rodney supposed he deserved that, too. His error had resulted in the destruction of the better part of a solar system. He was having trouble getting his mind around that. It was the level of mistake that the mad scientists in Superman used to make, so Rodney figured he'd earned some grief.

He could take the silent treatment. He could handle the frost in Elizabeth's voice when she spoke to him. He could work around Radek's disappointment. He could pretend that he didn't see the open distrust in his team's faces as he supervised them. Although they hadn't done so when the accident happened, it was obvious that most of the science staff now blamed him for Collins' death as well. He could bear even that. Somehow.

The one thing he couldn't get a grip on was having lost John. That was what every thought kept coming back to.

John was so hurt and angry that he could barely meet his eyes. They hadn't seen each other outside of a staff meeting for nearly five days now.

Rodney couldn't remember the last time he'd slept. His eyes felt like sandpaper. Worse, he was forgetting to eat. He'd nearly taken a header over the electron microscope this morning, but Radek had grabbed hold of him and prevented his fall. He couldn't concentrate. He couldn't relax.

He couldn't believe that he'd lost John.

John had told him that he could win back his trust if he really, really tried, but how could he do that if John wouldn't spend a single second of off duty time in his company? It wasn't like he could say anything significant while on the job. How was he supposed to make amends if John wouldn't even speak to him?

Rodney knew that John was the injured party. He knew that it was his place to make the first move, and he'd tried. Every day after the morning staff meeting Rodney would invite John for coffee; John would give him that cold look and politely decline. Rodney had sent more than a dozen emails, every one of them apologizing for being wrong, all but begging John to give him a second chance. No matter what he wrote to John, the emails came back with the same one line response, 'I'm not there yet.' He couldn't even be certain that John had actually read anything he'd written to him.

Three weeks ago John Sheppard had loved him, and now it was like there was nothing left of that love. The expression in John's eyes seemed to indicate that he wasn't even sure if he liked Rodney anymore.

Not that Rodney could blame him. This was all his fault, so it was his responsibility to make it better. He just had to keep trying.

Rodney checked the time at the bottom of his laptop screen. Wednesday evenings John usually worked out with Teyla around this time. If he hurried, Rodney thought he might be able to get John alone for a minute. Maybe if he tried hard enough, John would agree to have dinner with him.

Rodney shut down his laptop, and rose from his chair.

"Good night, Rodney," Radek's voice said from the nearest worktable.

Startled, Rodney looked over to where Radek was still working with his Ancient abacus. This was the first time since the Durandan debacle that anyone in the lab had offered him such pleasantries. "Ah, good night, Radek. Um, thanks."

Radek nodded, and Rodney left before anyone could see how that unexpected kindness had thrown him.

Out in the corridor, Rodney paused beside a potted tree with his back to the wall to take a few deep breaths out of the way while people passed. If Radek were starting to thaw, maybe John would too.

Encouraged, Rodney pulled himself together and hurried to the transporter. If he were in luck, he'd get to the room Teyla and John used for workouts before they finished their practice session. John had told him how since they'd reestablished contact with Earth, the gym had too much equipment and too many people in it for Teyla to practice her martial art without ending up with a huge audience, so she'd moved the practice sessions to an empty room in one of the east dock towers.

To his utter astonishment, his luck held. When Rodney reached the corridor in the east tower, he could hear the loud wooden clash of staves. They were still practicing.

He had to wait in the empty hall for nearly fifteen minutes before the noise stopped. A few minutes after that, the opaque doors slid apart and a very sweaty Teyla, Ronon, and John all emerged laughing from the practice room with gym bags slung over their shoulders and towels around their necks.

Rodney stepped forward to intercept John before he could hurry away.

All three of his teammates stopped dead in their tracks, staring at him with varying degrees of surprise.

Rodney's stomach tensed when he realized that John's was the least friendly face.

"Good evening, Dr. McKay," Teyla greeted with what seemed genuine cheer.

"McKay," Ronon seemed to follow her lead.

John gave a guarded, "Rodney."

"Colonel? Might I have a word with you in private?" Rodney asked, wondering if John would humiliate him by refusing in front of the others. He could see the temptation to do just that in John's hard eyes. "Please? It's important."

Suspicion filled John's angular, handsome face. After what felt like an eternity, John looked over at Teyla and Ronon and said, "You guys go on ahead. I'll catch up with you in the mess hall in a few minutes."

"As you wish," Teyla replied. "Good night, Dr. McKay."

"Good night, guys," Rodney said, genuinely grateful. Teyla was the only one who hadn't treated him any differently since Duranda. He supposed Ronon had been the same to him as well, but they had so little real communication that it was hard to tell. Once the pair had entered the transporter at the end of the corridor, Rodney said to John, "Thank you."

He knew he couldn't afford to take even common courtesy for granted right now.

John just nodded and pointed at the practice room. "Let's get out of the corridor."

Rodney followed John into the huge, vacant room. This was the first time he'd been in the practice room. It looked like the Ancient version of the dance studio Jeannie used to take her ballet lessons in when they were kids. Shafts of gold, rust, and orange light filtered in through the stained glass windows at the far end. The place smelled of sweat.

The golden light touched John's perspiration-sheened skin, turning his eyes to amber, and giving him a strange glow as he settled his gym bag on the floor.

It had been so many days since Rodney had been this close to John physically that he couldn't take his eyes off the sweat-soaked, black workout tee shirt and pants that were clinging to John like a second skin. He watched a large bead of sweat slide down John's long throat to pool in the hollow there. As he stared at it, Rodney had the abrupt, visceral memory of what John's perspiration tasted like, all bitter salt and sharp metal tang.

How could he know something that intimate about a person and still feel so awfully uncomfortable under their gaze?

"Well?" John prompted in an irritated tone. "What was it you wanted?"

Rodney nearly said You, but managed to stop himself at the last moment.

On some level, he'd harbored the ridiculous notion that the instant they were alone together, they'd fall into each other's arms and everything would be all right between them again. Needless to say, that didn't happen.

"I wanted to talk to you," Rodney said.

"About?" John clearly wasn't going to give him a single inch here.

Rodney tried to keep his disappointment from showing. This was a lot harder than he'd thought it would be. John's gaze was more distant than a stranger's. "You told me that you would give me a chance to earn your trust back. How can I do that if you keep avoiding me? You won't even talk to me outside of work, John."

"I told you that it was going to take a while. Did you think a thing like this would go away overnight?" John demanded, not even attempting to mask his irritation.

"It's been almost a week," Rodney said, although it had felt like a year, a year alone in his suddenly cavernous, cold, and empty bed, clutching a pillow that still smelled of John.

"And that's long enough in your world to get past your nearly blowing us to smithereens?" John asked, still in confrontation mode.

"Look, I said I was sorry. I'm really, really sorry I was wrong. What can I do to make you believe that?"

"You still don't get it, do you?" John asked. His anger seemed to be growing rather than receding.

"Get what?" Rodney asked, and knew the words were yet another mistake from the fire that flared in John's eerie amber gaze.

"I don't care that you were wrong. Everybody is wrong at some point in their life. What I care about is that you wouldn't listen. You asked me to entrust you with my life on a mission I'd already told you I thought was too dangerous. You swore to me that I could trust you, that you wouldn't let me down, and yet when our friends called to warn us about the danger we were in, you didn't just ignore them, you berated them. You didn't care that if you were wrong, you'd be placing both our lives in jeopardy. You didn't care that I was your lover and that I was trusting you when you said you knew these Ancient systems better than everyone else. My safety was meaningless to you. I was your lover and you didn't care that I'd die if you were wrong!" The last was offered in a tone somewhere between a shout and a cry.

Rodney couldn't help but flinch at John's use of the preterit tense. John had said was your lover, not am your lover.

Rodney squeezed his eyes shut at the open condemnation in John's furious face. After a moment, he forced himself to meet John's gaze and frantically tried to do some damage control. "You're right. My priorities were way out of line. I was caught up in the heat of the moment and – "

"You didn't care," John repeated.

Rodney wished he had some excuse to make, but there was nothing he could say that would change the past.

"Aren't you going to deny the accusation?" John challenged.

Utterly miserable, Rodney shook his head 'no'. "How can I? I nearly got us both killed. I am sorry, sorrier than I've ever been about anything. What can I do to make you believe me?"

John searched his face before finally allowing, "I do believe you."

Seeing no change in the guarded features, Rodney's insides clenched with dread. "But it doesn't matter how sorry I am. You're ... really mad at me."

"Rodney, I saw that kind of thing too many times in Afghanistan – Army colonels who wouldn't listen to the scouts' advice, who sent their men into certain death because they couldn't stand the idea of being wrong. I can't count the number of times I nearly got my ass shot out of the air trying to get those poor guys out of hellholes where no sane commander would have ordered his men to go. You were just like those colonels that day last week, only it was a million time worse because it was my lover doing it to me."

Rodney shook under the accusation. Once again, he had no defense to offer. "I can't undo what I did that day, John. If I could, I would, and I am sorry."

John nodded his acceptance of that fact again.

"So where does this leave us?" Rodney forced himself to ask. "You gave me your word once that you'd tell me upfront when we were over. Is that where we're at?"

John sighed and ran his hand through the wreck of his sweat-drenched hair. Rodney's fingers could remember exactly how the wet, clammy locks felt sliding between them.

"I don't know," John said in a hesitant tone.

His world crashing around him, Rodney lowered his burning gaze to the floor. "I see."

"No, you don't," John countered, sounding furious again. "I don't want it to be over. I wish I did, because that'd be easier all around, but I ... just don't. Only, I'm too angry with you right now to try to be close to you."

"You don't want it to end?" Rodney looked back up at John, baffled by the contradictory statement.

"That doesn't mean that it won't, Rodney. I want a lot of things I never get," John warned.

"You tell me what to do to make this better, and I'll do it," Rodney impulsively offered, stepping closer to John's sweaty heat.

John moved quickly out of touching distance with a disgusted look on his face. "Back off. Give me space to try to get past this anger."

"How are we going to get past it if you won't talk to me? I can't make it up to you if you're avoiding me," Rodney practically pleaded.

"This isn't something you can make up for," John corrected. "It's a part of your character that I have to decide if I can live with, and that's going to take me some time."

On that depressing note, John picked his gym bag up from the floor and left the workout room without a backwards glance.

Maybe always giving each other the truth wasn't such a great idea.

Rodney hadn't imagined that things could be worse than he'd perceived them, but clearly he was wrong about that, too. He'd been wrong about so much, so damn much. And now he was going to have to hang here in limbo until John decided if he could stomach his less attractive personality traits.

Rodney knew how much of a chance he had of that happening. They were as good as over. The only thing missing was an actual goodbye, but, then, Rodney had never really gotten one before, so why should he expect it to be any different with John? He'd had his chance at love and he'd blown it to hell.

He was barely aware of his knees impacting the hard wood floor as his legs gave out from under him and the low-level trembling that had been running through him for days blossomed into full-blown shaking. There wasn't anybody there to see him fall apart, and, even if there had been, no one would have cared. Not now.

*~*~*

"Good morning, John," Elizabeth's cheerful voice sounded from behind him on the food line.

John Sheppard turned and smiled. For once, the smile was almost real. His fellow insomniac looked just as under-slept as he felt. Her curls were perfectly in place, but the rims of her eyes were nearly as red as the mock turtleneck she wore.

"What's so good about it?" John joked.

She grinned back at him, moving her tray along the line as they spoke. "Does fresh eggs this morning qualify?"

"Oh, yeah, that qualifies," John agreed, loading up his own plate with the scrambled eggs. He didn't know what kind of eggs they were. The Athosians had been raising some kind of wild game bird these last few months, but the eggs tasted damn good.

After collecting the rest of their breakfast, they moved to a nearby table.

A few minutes of contented coffee slurping on Elizabeth's part and tea slurping on his own passed before Elizabeth looked over at him to ask, "How are you doing?"

"Okay, I guess," he answered. Sometimes it was almost true. He was keeping as busy as humanly possible, filling his days up with training maneuvers for the military and paperwork. He hadn't been this caught up on his paperwork since the day command of the military had fallen to him.

He spent the early part of his evenings in workouts with Teyla and Ronon together, and long jogs around the uninhabited sections of the city with Ronon alone. He'd ordered a Taylor dreadnaught acoustic guitar several months ago with the idea of playing with Rodney. It had arrived on the Daedalus three weeks before their big split, but he'd been so busy with Rodney that he'd never even gotten a chance to open the box to see how rusty he was.

He had way too much time on his hands now. So, when he was alone in his quarters after everyone else had gone home to sleep, he worked on reclaiming the basic chords he'd known as a kid. Anything to avoid trying to sleep in that ice-cold bed.

It made absolutely no sense. That room had been his only home here in Atlantis before he and Rodney had started doing the every night thing. How could a familiar room with all his stuff in it feel alien and hostile after only four months of not sleeping there? How could someone else's cramped, rock-hard bed feel more like home than his own space?

John didn't understand it. All he knew was that he felt like he'd been exiled from his homeland. That the decision to cool things with Rodney had been entirely his own didn't make it any easier to live with.

He barely slept at all anymore. The bed never seemed warm enough without that other body slumbering beside him. He missed Rodney on a gut level. He missed the passion, the laughter, the complaints ... hell, he even missed Rodney's snoring.

"Did you hear that Dr. Bishop is planning another concert?" Elizabeth asked.

"No, I didn't. Country music this time?" John asked hopefully.

Elizabeth smiled. "I'm afraid not. Another classical recital."

"Oh." John was really irritated that his first thought on hearing that was that Rodney would really enjoy it. He was beginning to resent how thoroughly Rodney had encroached upon his life. He hadn't realized how completely they'd meshed, but there really seemed to be no aspect of his life that was the same now that they weren't together. John wondered if this were what divorce felt like.

John reminded himself that he was doing better than two weeks ago. He could speak to Rodney now at staff meetings and other work related interactions without his hurt and anger overwhelming him. Perhaps in another couple of weeks, he'd be able to deal with Rodney socially, but right now the sense of betrayal was too sharp for close contact. Still, the situation was better than it had been, which was a major relief.

As usually happened whenever he started thinking he was getting a handle on going it solo, he was presented with the ultimate test of his resolve. Rodney in the flesh.

Every bit of progress he'd told himself he'd made was proven a lie. When he saw Rodney's familiar figure enter the mess hall, his insides clenched up just as painfully now as they had two weeks ago when they'd stopped sleeping together.

If John himself felt exhausted, Rodney looked like the walking dead. Even from clear across the room, he could see the purple rings under Rodney's eyes. The gray and black uniform that had fit Rodney so well last month almost seemed as baggy on him now as last year's clothes.

Rodney's steps faltered as their gazes met. John wondered if Rodney's heart gave the same agonizing lurch his own did.

For a frozen moment, they stared at each other. Rodney's hopeful, tired eyes asked the same question they'd been silently begging him with for the last two weeks.

John swallowed hard. All he really wanted was to give in and let everything that had happened on Duranda go, only ... he was still furious with Rodney for betraying his trust. Nothing had changed. Nor was it likely to.

Steeling himself, John gave Rodney a polite nod of acknowledgement and then purposefully turned his gaze back to Elizabeth. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Rodney listlessly get a tray and take his place at the end of the food line.

When John actually returned his attention to Elizabeth, he found that his silent interaction with Rodney had not gone unobserved.

Her greenish hazel eyes were troubled as Elizabeth asked, "How are things with you and Dr. McKay?"

John sighed. "Tense."

"Can you still work with him on away missions?" Elizabeth asked.

"What?" John hadn't expected that particular question.

"Rodney asked you to trust him on Duranda and his poor judgment almost got you killed." Elizabeth was a born leader. She mightn't always know what the best course was, but her instincts about what was most important were always right on target. John could hear in her voice how angry she still was about Rodney's refusal to heed Dr. Zelenka's warnings. "Many commanders wouldn't feel comfortable trusting their team to Dr. McKay's judgment after that."

John took a deep breath. "I don't think Rodney will be making that kind of mistake again any time in the near future."

"You didn't think he'd make it last time either," Elizabeth reminded.

"No, I didn't, but I think he's had a rather painful wakeup call," John said, gesturing with his chin to where Rodney was taking a seat at an empty table in the less crowded section where John and he used to sit, despite the fact that Rodney had passed Drs. Beckett, Brown, Parrish, and Lt. Cadman at a large table that had more than enough room for him to have joined them. No one was especially happy with Rodney these days, it seemed.

"I'm just saying if you're not comfortable working with him as your scientific advisor on away missions at the present time, it wouldn't be unreasonable to request a temporary replacement," Elizabeth said.

"Are you saying that you don't want Rodney going off-world anymore?" John asked, something inside him freezing up at the thought.

"John, you were there on Duranda. You know what happened. I'll be honest. My confidence has been shaken."

"You're right. I was there. Elizabeth, he made a mistake. A huge mother of a mistake, but a mistake all the same. We all make them," John said.

"Yes, but most of our mistakes don't result in the destruction of solar systems," Elizabeth pointed out.

"I know. But ... even though Rodney was way overconfident and didn't heed safety warnings, he never disobeyed me. When I ordered him to abort the test when the weapon started to overload, Rodney immediately followed my order. The device wouldn't respond – "

"Because Dr. Zelenka was correct," Elizabeth said.

"Yes," John said. "And maybe Rodney should have listened to him."

"There's no maybe about that. It wasn't simply his own life he was risking," Elizabeth said.

"I know," John agreed. "And I won't kid you, I'm mad as hell at him for being so pigheaded. But to take him off the away team because of his one big mistake? I'm sorry, I just can't do that to him."

"This isn't about Rodney McKay. This is about the safety of your team," Elizabeth said. "Can you really tell me that Rodney has your full confidence in the field after what happened on Duranda?"

John glanced over to where Rodney was picking at his food at his isolated table, and then looked back at Elizabeth. He hated these kinds of discussions. He especially hated how conflicted he was. He was still furious at Rodney, but at the moment his loyalty was vying with his anger. "Rodney McKay is a member of my team. I have absolute confidence in him."

"All right, John," Elizabeth said. "I won't recommend any changes at this time. But if something like this happens again –"

"It won't," John assured.

"You have that much faith in him?" Elizabeth seemed genuinely surprised.

"Yeah, I do," John said, making it true, at least for the present moment.

It was apparently enough to soothe Elizabeth's worries. She seemed far more at ease as she turned her attention to her food.

John wished he could be as certain as he'd sounded. Pushing his cold eggs around his plate, he tried very hard not to look over to where Rodney was sitting with slumped shoulders across the room, staring off into space, not even pretending to eat anymore.

Realizing where his gaze was once again focused, John turned his attention to his own food.

*~*~*

The mess hall, of all places, was beginning to become John Sheppard's most dreaded ordeal. It didn't matter what time he went in there; Rodney McKay always showed up within minutes of his own arrival. John would have thought Rodney was stalking him, except Rodney's dismay upon seeing him was nearly tangible.

John hated how guilty he'd feel when he'd be sitting there with Teyla and Ronon or Elizabeth or Carson and Rodney would pass them on his way to their lonely old table. At least people were starting to greet Rodney again, even if they weren't asking him to join them yet. Why he should care, John didn't know, but he did.

That was the root of his problem. He was still furious with Rodney for taking his trust so lightly, but ... beneath all the resentment, John still cared about the egotistical bastard. Still missed him. Still wanted him.

John kept hoping that last would change. Then it could be over like every other affair he'd ever had and he could get on with his life. Only that wasn't happening. But his anger wasn't going anywhere, either; so it was a frustrating situation all around.

"Colonel, would you mind if I joined you?"

John froze, his heart racing because the 'Colonel' made him think Rodney was addressing him, but when he turned in his chair to see who had spoken to him, it was Dr. Zelenka standing behind him.

"Hi, Doc," John greeted. "Pull up a chair. How's it going?"

John watched the slender-boned scientist with his flyaway hair slide gracefully into the seat across from him and put his lunch tray down on the table.

"It is going, as they say," Zelenka answered, taking a bite of his sandwich.

John bit into his own roast beef sandwich and waited. He was familiar enough with Zelenka to know that the man had something specific on his mind.

Although they were both geniuses in their own right, in many ways, Dr. Zelenka was the antithesis of Rodney. When Rodney was working up a theory, his mouth and hands moved as fast as his thoughts as he talked his way through the ideas that he would then immediately fling himself into actualizing. Zelenka seemed to keep his ideas to himself until they were fully formed, and, even then, from what John had seen of the man, Zelenka seemed to prefer to cautiously test his theories in repeated, painful simulations before bringing them forward.

"Something on your mind, Doc?" John asked, giving the visibly nervous Zelenka an opening and a friendly smile.

Zelenka finished chewing his mouthful of food and then nodded. "Yes. At Dr. Weir's request, I have spent the last two weeks reviewing Dr. McKay's work on Project Octurus."

As happened whenever John thought about what had happened in that Ancients' lab, a lead weight settled in his stomach. Trying for cool, he gave an inquiring, "Oh?"

Uneasiness entered his pale blue eyes as Zelenka tentatively said, "I wasn't certain if you knew precisely what happened on Duranda, Colonel."

That old anger rushing through him hot and strong, John's voice hardened as he said, "Dr. McKay wouldn't listen to your advice and three-quarters of the Durandan solar system ended up being destroyed as a result."

"Yes, that happened, too," Zelenka softly agreed, his face and gaze grave in a way John really wished Rodney's had been at the scope of his error. "But ... I thought you should know. Rodney was right."

"What do you mean 'Rodney was right'? He blew up the whole system!" John reminded.

Zelenka's face set with determination as he continued, "I have reviewed all of Rodney's calculations. He was correct. There was an error in the Ancients' equations. Rodney's changes fixed it. Theoretically, his work was flawless."

"Flawless or not, the solar system still blew up," John repeated, not understanding where Zelenka was going with this.

"Yes, it did. It blew up because a level of pressure was created in the containment field that was so high that it somehow bent the laws of physics. What happened on Duranda was not logical. It should not have occurred."

"Why are you telling me this?" John asked, belatedly realizing that this sort of information was normally given to Elizabeth. As head of the military, John didn't need to know the minutia of every scientific project, only those projects that directly affected the safety of the city or the deployment of his men.

Zelenka shifted uneasily in his seat. "I am telling you this because I see my colleague and friend being blamed for events that no scientist could predict. I do not believe that the opinions of the others matter too much to Rodney. Your opinion, however, does."

"How can you defend him? I was there. I heard how he treated you, what he said to you when you tried to warn him about what would happen," John said.

"Yes, he behaved very badly. But ... if it were anybody but me, Rodney would have been justified in those accusations as well," Zelenka said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" John questioned, genuinely confused by Zelenka's continued defense of Rodney's intolerable behavior.

"You must understand something, Colonel. I am very good at what I do. Back home, there was none better. Everyone in the science section is like that – the best of the very best. But Rodney McKay ... he is unnaturally gifted. He can glance at calculations we've been working on for weeks, and pinpoint an error as fast as he can read the equation. When he says that he understands these principles on a level none of the rest of us do, it is not an idle brag. It is fact. People don't just envy him because of that talent; they hate him," Zelenka explained.

Still fuming over Rodney's arrogance, John said, "Rodney's problems aren't solely the result of professional jealousy, Doc."

"Yes, he can be insufferable at times," Zelenka agreed in a mild voice. "The wonder is that McKay is not always that terrible. I have only met two other men with his level of ability. Both were ... the way Rodney was on Duranda during the second test. Only, they were that way all the time."

"Maybe he isn't the monster he could be, but that still doesn't alter the fact that McKay was so damn overconfident that he destroyed a solar system – after being warned that that was precisely what would happen," John reminded.

"Rodney put his faith in science. As a scientist, I cannot fault him for that," Zelenka said.

"But you warned him – "

"About a process that violated the very laws of physics. For all the sense this reaction made scientifically, I might as well have been telling him that the field attracted evil spirits. Think how you would respond if I told you not to fire your gun in a battle situation because gravity was working backwards for no explainable reason. What I was suggesting to Rodney that day was that illogical a phenomenon, Colonel."

Touched by Zelenka's sincerity, John nodded and mulled over what Zelenka had said. Curious about something, John said, "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course," Zelenka answered.

"Before you said that many of the other scientists hate McKay because of his abilities. Why don't you?" John questioned. If Rodney spoke to him the way he often abused Zelenka, he'd hate him.

"I have learned more working with Rodney McKay in the last year and a half than I have in my entire life," Zelenka said. "More than that, he is a good man. A difficult man, yes, but a good one. And, he is my friend. As I believe he is yours?"

The pointed question took him by surprise. John held that challenging gaze and gave a slow nod. "Yes, he is, even if I am very angry with him at the present time."

"That is understandable. Rodney behaved reprehensibly the day of the test." Zelenka said and resumed eating his sandwich.

After a moment, John picked his own back up and started eating again.

John was puzzled as to why Zelenka had shared this information and his thoughts on Rodney with him, but then he realized that Zelenka was probably Rodney's closest friend, after himself. Obviously, Zelenka had noticed the rift in Rodney and his relationship. In his own discreet way, Zelenka was trying to help. John appreciated that Zelenka hadn't overtly asked him to do anything to change his behavior towards Rodney, nor had he absolved Rodney of responsibility for his immature behavior. All Zelenka had done was to place some perspective on Rodney's actions. It meant something that the only person who understood what had happened on Duranda nearly as well as Rodney did didn't hold Rodney responsible for the disaster to the degree everyone else did. It was a lot to think about.

John didn't know if anything Zelenka said changed his feelings about Rodney taking his safety so lightly, but at least it made Rodney's insistence on going through with the test despite the warnings more understandable. That gravity not working analogy had helped a lot.

John finished his sandwich and gave Zelenka a grin as he got to his feet. "Thanks for the update, Doc. Rodney's lucky to have such a good friend. I'm not sure he deserves you just now."

Zelenka looked up at him and gave him an enigmatic, "And where would any of us be if we got exactly what we deserve, I wonder."

"Good point," John said. "I'll see you around."

Impressed by Zelenka's style, John made his way back to the east dock where today's training maneuvers were taking place.

*~*~*

Chapter 9

The goodbye Rodney expected after his talk with John in the workout room didn't come that week, or the following week, or the week after that. But neither was there any indication that John's anger had abated. John was still faultlessly professional with him at staff meetings and away missions, but there was a dead zone in John's eyes every time Rodney tried to get personal with him. He'd been politely rebuffed so many times in the last three weeks that it was getting hard to keep trying.

But even with his growing despair of ever being able to repair the damage he'd done their relationship, Rodney really had to admire the man. Not many people could be as fair to someone they were this angry with as John was to him. He didn't know how John managed it, but his probably-ex-lover never revealed his anger on the job. Rodney was having trouble harnessing his own resentment at the impossible situation, but John treated him with the politeness of a complete stranger.

It was killing him by slow degrees.

The away missions were the worst. Rodney would watch with envy as John joked familiarly with Teyla and Ronon. If he tried to enter the conversation, John would respond with whatever platitude civility demanded. John never ostracized, ignored him, or did anything else to make him feel that he wasn't a part of the team, but John never really smiled at him or relaxed around him either. John was constantly guarding himself against him now, and there was never a chink in his armor, never a single flaw.

Every time he looked into John's barricaded eyes, Rodney knew how deeply his lack of regard for his lover's safety on Duranda had wounded John.

In some ways, John was a very simple man. His life was ruled by his emotions. He commanded by instinct and compassion, which was why John Sheppard was so much more effective in first contact situations with alien cultures than some gung-ho, by-the-book officer. John didn't assume that different was dangerous or bad. He based those judgments on people's actions rather than xenophobic fears. If someone were his friend, that person had John Sheppard's complete loyalty. Conversely, when people revealed themselves to be hostiles, John was perfectly capable of eliminating them with a ruthlessness that would rival the most paranoid jarhead. Rodney only had to remember how effectively John had dealt with Kolya's Genii invasion force to know that. Seventy men, eliminated in less than four hours.

What had happened on Duranda had put John through some major trauma. To have the person he was in love with demonstrate so little regard for his well-being ... it didn't take much for Rodney to realize how that would rip an instinct-driven man like John to pieces, because it would put the very foundation of his being into question. The only reason John had backed him over giving the Octurus Project a second chance was because he, John's lover, had sworn to John that he could have faith in his abilities, despite all evidence to the contrary. He knew John had to be asking himself if his instincts had been so wrong about that regarding him, what else were they wrong about?

Rodney now recognized that when push had come to shove, he had failed John on every level possible. He hadn't simply overestimated his own abilities and intelligence, he'd jeopardized John's very life with a completely callous disregard. Who wouldn't be crushed after having their nose rubbed in how wrong they'd been to trust someone?

John had always been good at barricading what mattered to him behind that deceptively approachable front. John was good at sharing the pleasant parts of his personality like his humor and his compassion, but he hid everything dark and serious deep inside himself. Since they'd become lovers, John had been letting him through his shields more and more, letting him see what really hurt him. But now ...

Rodney felt as if he'd suddenly lost the capacity to connect with John's heart. John simply refused to react to him emotionally anymore. Although he hadn't exactly been in a joking mood lately, these days John didn't even crack a smile at the few attempts at jokes Rodney did make, and humor had always been one of the levels they had connected on best.

John had always gotten his jokes, and that was rare. Now John acted as if there were nothing at all funny about him.

As the one-month anniversary of his new status as planet killer rolled around, Rodney almost wished that John would get angry with him again. Anything was better than this cool civility. But he didn't push John. He was doing his best to comply with John's request for space while he awaited John's verdict. Still, it was on his mind 24/7, or rather Atlantis' 29.6/7.

"Rodney?" Radek's soft voice interrupted his musing.

"Yes?" he looked up from the report he was writing on the device they'd discovered during last week's off-world mission.

Radek approached him and said in a hesitant tone, "These figures, I think they are wrong."

Rodney looked down at the equations on the datapad in Radek's slender hands. They were the schematics for the new anti-grav field he was working on. It only took him a moment to pinpoint the error that Radek had found. "You're right. Trash it."

"What?"

"Just trash it, Radek. If that one's off, all the dependent arguments are wrong as well. I'll start from scratch tomorrow."

"Rodney ... "

"What?" Rodney tried to keep the sharpness out of his voice, but he thought that one more mistake might finish him right now.

"Are you all right, my friend?" Zelenka asked.

The gentle question surprised him. It had been more than a month since anyone had cared how he was doing. "I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"

Radek's pale blue eyes became even softer. "No reason. They've finally started delivering the personal items and mail that the Daedalus brought back. I, er, received some new DVDs this morning. There is a new Batman movie in the batch. I thought you might like to watch it tonight?"

Touched by the offer, Rodney swallowed hard. He and Radek frequently watched sci fi movies together, but this was the first time Radek had asked him since Duranda.

"Thanks. My head's killing me. I wouldn't be much company. Maybe tomorrow?" Rodney suggested, bracing himself for the words that had followed similar invitations from Zelenka over the last three months, the 'Perhaps Colonel Sheppard would care to join us?' question.

But Radek didn't say anything to tear his heart out. Radek just gave him another smile and said, "Tomorrow, then."

It felt strange to have something planned to do in the evening other than brood. Rodney had been trying to keep close to his quarters at night, on the off chance that John might show up to talk. But that hadn't happened yet and he was getting tired of waiting around for John to make up his mind. Maybe it was time he started having however much of a social life a planet killer could manage.

It wasn't like he was cheating on John or anything. Radek was straight and hopelessly infatuated with Elizabeth.

Rodney managed a smile. "Thanks, Radek. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Good night, Rodney," Zelenka said, wandering back to his own workstation.

Rodney decided to stop at the mess hall on his way to his quarters to pick up a couple of MREs, refill his coffee mug, and test out a theory at the same time. Eating alone this last month had been hard enough, but the fact that he seemed to run into John virtually every time he entered the mess hall only made it all the more difficult. It didn't matter what time of the day he came in here. John always seemed to be here at the same time.

Today, Rodney was more than an hour later than normal. If the forces that governed the universe thought kindly of him at all, his ex-lover would have been long gone by now.

Apparently, that petty tyrant of a god, the one whose existence he'd been forced to acknowledge while hanging upside down from a tree on P3M-736, still had it in for him. No sooner had Rodney set foot in the mess hall than his gaze was irresistibly drawn to a pair of laughing hazel eyes in the crowded section.

John was here with Teyla and Ronon. All three had a tremendous amount of food on the trays in front of them. They all looked hot and sweaty, so Rodney figured they'd probably been working out together. Either that or they'd just had sex. Rodney didn't think that either Teyla or Ronon would have a problem with a threesome. The flash of jealousy that flared through him at the ridiculous thought was utterly embarrassing.

Deciding that he really was losing it, Rodney watched the laughter die in John's eyes as he noticed him enter. The usual nod followed. John never ignored him completely.

Rodney nodded back, trying to keep his heart from plummeting as John resolutely returned his attention to his companions.

Used to that reaction now, Rodney stiffened his shoulders and walked determinedly to the food line. As he passed by his teammate's table, Teyla gave him a sad smile and a wave. Any kind of smile was beyond him, but he waved back and kept walking.

This was so high school it was ridiculous. How the hell long was John going to keep this childishness up? Rodney knew he'd screwed up big time, but it had been a whole month.

Silently fuming, he refilled his Big Gulp mug, grabbed three MREs without checking what they were, and stalked out of the mess. With the way his life was going lately, he probably had a bunch of lemon chicken MREs in his hand.

Rodney's mind was so focused on the intolerable situation with John that he didn't notice the pile of packages outside his quarters until he realized they were blocking the palmset to get him into his room. The usual square box with the New York return address was from the company from which he'd been ordering his DVDs since the Daedalus' arrival reestablished communication with Earth. He was expecting that.

The four ten-foot long slender boxes were a mystery, as was the four-foot square one. Wondering if some his lab orders had been misdirected to his quarters, Rodney put his mug and MREs down on the box of DVDs and manhandled the four-foot box around until he could find a return address.

The blood seemed to literally freeze in his veins as he read the words 'Sonny's Surfer Haven, 2300 Seabreeze Road, Catalina, CA, 90704 '. He could see that the label on the front ten-foot box was the same.

Shit. He'd entirely forgotten about his impulse buy. These were the surfboards, wetsuits, and other gear he'd ordered the day after their one and only outing ... the day John had told him he loved him for the first time. It seemed a lifetime away now.

Unsure what he was going to do with the things, Rodney manhandled the heavy boxes into his quarters. They weighed a ton.

*~*~*

Maybe he'd be able to sleep tonight, John thought. Three hours of training maneuvers and then a two-hour workout with Teyla and Ronon had left him so exhausted that he could barely place one foot in front of the other. By rights, he should sleep like the dead. But it seemed as soon as he'd crawl into that cold, too-soft bed, a nervous tension would come over him and he'd spend the entire night tossing and turning, seeking a warmth that wasn't there ... the warmth he'd voluntarily walked away from.

John stopped dead in his tracks as the doors to his room slid closed behind him. Five huge cardboard boxes stood stacked against the wall in the area between his desk and the bathroom alcove.

What the ... ?

Only command staff had the right to override his privacy locks. He couldn't imagine why any of his coworkers would bypass his locks. It wasn't as though he were off-world and out of communication range when these boxes arrived. He'd been across the city, a ten-second transporter trip away. But, most importantly, he hadn't ordered anything that big, and even if he had, it wasn't as though Atlantis had a crime problem. They'd been leaving boxes stacked in the hall outside people's quarters for months now with no problem.

Cautiously assessing the possible threat, John slowly approached the boxes.

Seeing a label on the square box, he leaned down to read it. It was strange how the part of him that controlled his self-preservation instincts relaxed the minute he saw Rodney's name on the shipping label, and stranger still how his heart and gut tensed instead.

The return address had been carefully torn off all five boxes.

Curious now more than worried, John took hold of one of the four slender boxes that were taller than him, pulled his Swiss knife from his pocket, and sliced the mailing tape open on the seam that ran down the front of the box.

A few moments of shuffling Styrofoam and other packing materials aside, and his gaze fell upon the most incredible nine-foot Colin Pro he'd ever seen in his life. The board was a black so dark it glistened. It had red and white waves hand-painted on the surface. The custom paintjob was exquisite.

Stunned, he quickly opened the other three tall boxes. There were three more boards of similar quality: a seven and a half foot red one with blue patches, an eleven foot yellow and black one, and another nine foot green and red one.

At first, John couldn't figure out why there were four boards there, instead of two, but then he realized that the smaller board and the eleven foot one would fit Teyla and Ronon perfectly.

When he opened up the square box, John found four wetsuits of varying sizes, leashes, and a plethora of other gear. Everything a person would need to surf was in the box. There had to be six to ten thousand dollars worth of gear in those five boxes.

Rodney had done this?

His confused gaze lit upon a piece of white paper amidst the packing materials that had apparently fallen to the floor when he'd moved one of the boxes. Picking it up, John saw Rodney's distinctive script.

I regret the invasion of your privacy. It won't happen again.

Don't worry. I'm not trying to buy your affections. I ordered these for the team after our daytrip to the mainland. It would be a shame to waste them. Feel free to give the fourth board to any interested party. Obviously, I have no use for it now.

The note was signed only 'Rodney McKay'.

Damn.

John stared from the note to the boards. Something brittle inside him felt like it was about to break. John had a feeling it might be his heart.

Taking a deep breath, he put the note down and went to find Rodney.

The doors to McKay's quarters swooshed open at his first buzz. What with their estrangement, it had a month now since John had set foot in this room.

It shouldn't feel like coming home, but it did. Everything looked exactly the same – the diplomas on the wall, the picture of the cat, the keyboard in the corner. The only thing different was that the fully dressed man sitting at the desk working on his laptop didn't grin at him when he turned to face him.

Rodney didn't look surprised to see him, but, then, after the generous gesture he'd made, John figured his arrival couldn't be a complete surprise.

"Do you have a minute?" John asked.

His face still somber, his gaze watching John as though he expected John to pull a gun on him and shoot him, Rodney gave a quiet, "Sure," and swung his chair around to face him.

For a long moment they simply stared at each other, neither of them seeming to know what to say. Finally, John cleared his throat and said, "That was a very generous gesture. Thank you. I know how expensive that stuff was. You shouldn't have done it."

Some of the worry seemed to ease from Rodney's red-rimmed, tired eyes as he stiffly replied, "There are many things I shouldn't have done. That wasn't one of them."

John was temporarily thrown by the quiet admission. Gathering his wits about him, he stuck to his plan and said, "I'm going to pay you for them, of course."

"Don't insult me, all right? This is hard enough without – "

"Rodney," John said when the other man faltered, "those boards and gear had to cost ten thousand dollars or more. I can't just accept – "

"Look," Rodney cut him off, "the timing of their arrival sucks, but ... when I ordered that stuff, that was the happiest I've ever been. Don't ruin those memories by making this into a major production. Please?"

"I can't just accept – "

"Yes, you can," Rodney interrupted him again in a firm voice. "And before you start worrying about it, I know this doesn't change anything. I'm not trying to manipulate you or buy my way back into your affections, it's just ... bad timing. So let's not worry about this and get on with life, okay? We'll act like it never happened."

John stared into those pleading eyes, torn. This was the Rodney he was most susceptible to, the vulnerable man who hid his goodness the way most other people hid unattractive traits. After a moment, John swallowed hard and said, "You know, a lot of people would have just sent that stuff back."

John knew that that would have been the easiest and least embarrassing course for Rodney to take. He also suspected that it was what he himself would have done.

Rodney sighed. "I'm an egomaniacal, planet-killing mad scientist, not a melodramatic thirteen year old. Besides, did you ever try to return custom made items? Believe me, this is easier. Just ... don't break your neck, okay?"

"I still don't feel right about this," John insisted.

"It was my choice. And it's not like the money means anything. We both know what the government is paying me. It's not like I'll even miss it," Rodney said.

"That's not the point," John tried to keep his voice controlled.

"I know. But ... let it go, anyway, all right? You know Teyla and Ronon will love surfing. Elizabeth gave us that day off next week. Take them out to the mainland and have fun."

John's throat was doing that tightening up thing it had a habit of doing in these kinds of discussions with Rodney. "You should come, then. You got them for the team."

Rodney's face went very still before he said in a tight voice, "Thanks, but no thanks."

"But – " John tried to argue. It didn't make sense for Rodney to spend all this money on something for the team and then not partake in it.

"This doesn't change anything," Rodney cut in again. "You've made it more than clear this last month that you don't want to even be breathing the same air as me off duty. You've given me the cold shoulder so often I've got frostbite. I don't need that on my day off. Radek and I are going to have a monster movie fest. You go surf. We'll both be happier that way."

He wasn't used to cold anger from Rodney. Rodney was all heat and fire and dramatic overreaction. Recognizing how deeply he'd wounded Rodney, John softly admitted, "I'm not enjoying the way things are between us either."

"Yes, well, it was your choice. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to finish," Rodney said.

"Rodney ..."

"What?" Rodney demanded, all his distance gone. "You want me to feel sorry for you? I'm not that big a person. I've really, really tried to win back your trust, but you won't give me the chance ... so ... don't ask me to feel sorry for you. I know you're the offended party here. I know I hurt you and screwed up bigger than anyone screwed up in the history of the world, but I can't undo what happened. I can't put those planets back together. I can't resurrect poor Collins. All I can do is live with it."

John could hear how hard Rodney was breathing when he was done speaking from across the room.

Taking a deep breath himself, John tried to make some kind of an answer. "I'm still trying to work past it."

"That's nice," Rodney sneered before John could say anything else. "Drop me an email when you're there. But don't take too long, John."

"Why? Are you going somewhere?" John couldn't help but respond. He hadn't come here to fight, but when Rodney took that tone with him it pushed every button he had.

Rodney looked like he wanted to yell some more, but he seemed to force himself to take a deep breath before saying in a brittle tone, "I grew up in a house without forgiveness. I'm not going to live my adult life that way. I know I let you down and you have a right to be angry, but I can't wait in limbo forever. So, either you start letting me earn your trust back soon or ... there is no 'or', is there?" Rodney acknowledged, seeming defeated. Rodney looked down at the hands twisted in his lap for a moment before visibly pulling himself together enough to say, "You should go now."

John wanted to reply, but he didn't know what to say. He'd come here to thank Rodney and pay him for the boards, not hurt him, but there seemed to be no way around that lately.

Deciding not to push things any further, John gulped around that rock lodged in his throat, nodded, and said, "Good night, then, and ... thanks."

He tried not to see the shattered expression on Rodney's face as he took his leave.

*~*~*

He hadn't gotten a wink of sleep last night, but that was no big surprise, Rodney thought as he entered the mess hall. His talk with John hadn't gone as badly as it might have, but as with everything in life, that was a relative thing. The talk hadn't gone badly for people who hated each other's guts. For two people who'd been living in each other's pockets seven weeks ago, it had been sheer torture.

Rodney wasn't the least bit startled to see John sitting at a table with Teyla and Elizabeth. John didn't look as though he'd slept that much either. His chin was blue with unshaven stubble, his hair its usual bed-wreck.

Used to the drill now, Rodney didn't wait for John's nod. He nodded himself, quickly averted his gaze from John's, and headed for the food line. Which, of course, meant passing directly by John's centrally located table. If he detoured and took the long way around, Rodney knew it would be obvious that John's avoidance was getting to him. The most important part of this kind of game was that the hurt stay hidden.

"Rodney?" John's voice called when Rodney was close to his table.

His insides quivering with dread at this deviation from the normal routine, Rodney froze and forced himself to meet John's eyes again. He could feel Elizabeth and Teyla watching him. He hoped he hadn't broken out in a sweat, but knew that was pretty much a given when he was this nervous. "Yes?"

"Would you care to join us?" John asked.

At first, it was like the words weren't even in a language Rodney understood. When his brain finally deciphered John's words and recognized the uncertainty in that hazel gaze, he faltered. His pride was insisting that he thank John for the offer, but decline, and go back to his usual table on the far side of the mess hall. Only ... it was his pride and arrogance that had lost him John. Last night he'd told John not to take much longer making his decision, and now, the first time they'd seen each other since that request, John was making an effort. That had to count for something.

Swallowing his pride, Rodney stumbled. "Ah, yeah. Thanks. Let me just grab some food."

Rodney could feel all three gazes on him all the way to the food line. He couldn't help but wonder what Elizabeth might be saying to John now. She'd been as polite as John these last six weeks, but not nearly as good at hiding her disappointment in him.

He was glad Teyla was there. For all that she was probably John's closest friend after himself, she'd never treated him any different since Duranda.

"Good morning, Dr. McKay," Teyla greeted as he returned to John's table and slid into the empty chair across from Elizabeth. Both Elizabeth and John echoed Teyla's words.

"Ah, hi," Rodney answered, trying to control the shaking inside. He wasn't sure what to say or how to act right now. He felt like he was on trial for his life.

Rodney wished his hands were firmer as he fumbled open the little package of maple syrup to add to his pancakes, but they were quivering so badly that he sloshed the first package over his eggs and bacon as well as the pancakes. He could only hope the others failed to notice. The silence was unbearable.

"Teyla?" Ronon's deep growling voice called from the doorway.

"I will see you later," Teyla said, rising gracefully to her feet. "We must leave for Goreela now." Her bright brown gaze settled upon Rodney, "It is good to have you with us at mealtimes again, Dr. McKay."

"Ah, thanks," Rodney said around a mouthful of pancakes, dismayed that she was leaving so soon.

With a flounce of her brown leather longcoat, Teyla was gone.

"I can't believe Teyla is taking Ronon with her on another trade negotiation," Elizabeth commented into the silence. "She told me he pulled a knife on the Balkan negotiator last time."

"I'm sure word of that got around," John said. "Just having Ronon sit silently at her side is probably intimidating enough to keep the proceedings on the up and up."

Elizabeth laughed. "I'm sure you're right. Well, I have to go over those requisitions with Wing in a few minutes. I haven't even had a chance to glance at them yet. John, Rodney."

"Bye, Elizabeth," John said.

Rodney echoed the words, and she departed with a smile. Which left them alone at the table.

They stared at each other awkwardly for a moment after Elizabeth left, neither seeming to know what to say.

Rodney broke the staring contest and resumed eating, although the food was settling in his stomach like congealing cement. Finally, he looked over at John again and said, "Thank you for inviting me to join you, but if you're doing it just because of those stupid surfboards, I'd rather you didn't. I really didn't do that to force your hand."

"I know," John said.

"It doesn't change anything," Rodney said, returning his attention to his soggy pancakes because John's sleepy gaze was making him uncomfortable.

"Yeah, it does," John said. "I've been ... pretty hard on you these last few weeks. You could have been petty and sent those things back without ever saying a word about what you'd done, but you didn't. You chose to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation for my sake, and I do appreciate that."

Rodney swallowed the sickly sweet food in his mouth and tried to breathe. He really felt like he might break down and cry at John's unexpected words. Refusing to do anything that weak, Rodney got a handle on his emotions and took another bite of the syrup-splattered eggs.

"It wasn't a big deal," Rodney said at last. "Or anything noble. It really was easier to just give you the damn things than to try to return them."

"You could have kept them and not said a word about it. It wasn't like I was expecting them," John pointed out.

"Where was I going to store them? Under my mattress?" Rodney asked.

John did something then that he hadn't done over the last six weeks to anything Rodney had said. John chuckled. It was such a wonderful, sweet sound that Rodney nearly lost it again.

Unable to stop himself, Rodney hungrily watched the laughter shimmer through John's eyes. His heart needed that more than he needed oxygen at the present moment.

The quicksilver laughter died all too soon, but that was okay. John had let him behind his guards for even a brief moment at a time when Rodney had begun to despair of that ever happening again.

They ate a few more bites of their breakfasts in silence before John said, "Can I ask you something?"

His heart hammering against the wall of his chest at the lack of contention in John's entire attitude, Rodney nodded, willing to give John anything he asked for.

"You, ah, don't usually talk much about your childhood. Last night you said that you'd grown up in a house without forgiveness. What did you mean by that?" John asked.

Two days ago John would have been too angry to have noticed that kind of slip, let alone cared to find out more. Rodney knew this was real progress, but at the same time he felt so vulnerable in John's presence that he wasn't sure he was up to discussing anything this painful.

Rodney debated answering for a moment, and then chose to lay it all out there on the line. John didn't need any additional ammunition to destroy him. His former lover could do that any time he chose to by simply telling him that they were over for good. So, instead of evading, Rodney took a sip of coffee to brace his nerves and softly offered, "My parents fought all the time. They hated each other, and blamed me for it. Not without some justification. I ... wasn't an easy child."

"Kids are kids," John said with a shrug of his shoulders. "They can't be blamed for the failures of the adults around them."

Rodney couldn't remember the last time he'd appreciated words more. Taking a deep breath, he explained, "They, ah, just wanted a normal family. There was no way they could have that with me around. They never forgave me for being different. No matter what I did, it was either too much or not enough."

"Different isn't bad," John said.

Needing John to know just how different he'd been, Rodney explained, "I was speaking in full sentences by nine months. My sister taught me to read before I was eighteen months old. I was allergic to everything, and, well, you know my temperament. I could barely walk and I was correcting them and pointing out when things were wrong. I was …. quite the tyrant."

John's eyes widened at that, but he didn't act like that accelerated development made him a freak like most people usually did. John just nodded and said, "That still doesn't make their marital problems your fault."

God, how he'd missed John's humanity.

"Well, it's nice to know that something isn't my fault," Rodney tried to joke.

It fell flat, and John only winced. After a minute or so, John said, "Things will get better."

Rodney nodded and took another forkful of his now cold pancakes. He was racking his mind for another conversational topic when John's headset went off with, "Colonel Sheppard?"

John's left had rose to tap on the transmitter. "Yes?"

"You asked to be notified the minute Away Team Five returned. The Gate just activated and we're receiving Captain Stackhouse's IDC signal now," the disembodied voice reported.

Rodney wondered when Stackhouse had been promoted. He hadn't seen him much since they'd received the new replacements. Atlantis veterans like Stackhouse were now leading away teams instead of acting as backup on missions.

"On my way. Sheppard out," John answered, clicking the transmitter off. John's gaze met his. "I, ah, have to go now. They missed two scheduled report ins."

Rodney nodded. "Of course."

Even though it was clear he had to be elsewhere, John didn't move. After a short silence, he asked, "Do you want to meet for dinner?"

Rodney felt like he might pass out from manly relief. He didn't even have to consider his response. His "Yes," was out before he could even begin to evaluate what this meant to their relationship.

John nodded. "Good. Usual time, barring rescue missions?"

"That works for me," Rodney replied with as much cool as he could muster. Inside, he felt like hopping up and down and shouting in triumph. Considering what they'd lost, dinner mightn't be much, but it was a start.

"Great. I'll see you later, then," John said and reached for his tray.

"Leave it," Rodney offered. "I'll take care of it."

"Thanks," John said.

Rodney watched John rise to his feet and hurry out the door.

*~*~*

The next few weeks were an oddly comforting period of slow reconnection. Rodney wasn't pushing anything. He knew it was a miracle that John wanted to interact with him off-duty at all.

They ate all their meals together, but didn't see anything of each other outside of that. Rodney had always lived to eat, but now he found himself living for that brief contact he had with John three times a day. They weren't back at their old secluded table, so most meals weren't private. Teyla, Ronon, Elizabeth, Radek, Carson, and sometimes even Laura Cadman, with or without the good doctor, joined them. But even that was all right. Sometimes having a third, fourth, or even a fifth person at the table de-emphasized the tension between them.

Sitting with John at every meal was also doing wonders to improve people's attitude towards him. Apparently, seeing that Sheppard, the person most directly affected by Rodney's actions on Duranda, was able to forgive him enough to socialize with him made their other coworkers realize that it was time to move past what had happened. It had been more than a week now since anyone had given Rodney the cold shoulder. People were greeting him in the halls again and speaking to him outside of the required work interaction. Things weren't normal by any stretch of the imagination, but at least conditions weren't unbearable anymore.

Rodney had never realized how much he'd come to rely on that casual pleasant contact until he'd become a pariah. Even if John never learned to trust him enough to take him back to his bed, Rodney would always be grateful to him for the collateral goodwill John's eating with him had earned him.

But, god, he hoped John would want him again some day.

Mostly, these last two weeks had been good, which was why the present breakfast was especially painful. Had they still been completely estranged, Rodney wouldn't have been particularly affected by the rest of the team using their rare day off to go surfing on the mainland, especially since he'd refused John's initial invitation. But seeing John show up for breakfast in a pair of light blue chinos, black tee shirt, and matching blue windbreaker, with his bare feet stuck into sneakers, made Rodney ache to be included in the outing.

John looked so sexy. Rodney couldn't help but imagine how he'd look in a bathing suit on a surfboard. Or maybe without a bathing suit. They'd brought a lot of personal gear back from Earth on their last visit, but there hadn't been room for everything. His common sense reminded him that John would no doubt surf in his boxers if he didn't have a legitimate pair of trunks, but his imagination liked the naked scenario better, so Rodney went with it.

"I wish you'd change your mind and come with us," John startled him by saying as the two of them sat there in the mess hall sipping their respective tea and coffee once they'd finished eating.

That pang of longing grew more intense. This was the first time John had asked him to do anything other than eat with him. Rodney swallowed hard and said, "I really wish I could, but I told Radek we'd spend the day watching those monster movies."

John nodded. "Next time for sure, then. Elizabeth told me that she wants to initiate regular days off for everyone. We're not under as much pressure now that the Wraith think Atlantis has been destroyed, and the new personnel have really helped ease the workload. So, hopefully, there will be a lot more opportunities for surfing and the like."

Rodney nodded. Once days off had only meant that he would be alone in the lab and able to get more done without interruption, but now ... it would be good to have a regular break from the non-stop stress.

After a quiet moment, John met his eyes and asked in a very soft voice, "Do you have plans for Friday night?"

Rodney was so surprised he nearly dropped his Big Gulp mug into his lap. Hoping that John wouldn't be able to see how wildly his heart was hammering against his chest, Rodney tried to play it cool as he answered, "Um, no."

Rodney forced himself not to ask why John was interested. A line like that was usually a prelude to an invitation, but he wasn't making any assumptions here. This could be a work related question.

"You know Dr. Bishop is giving that classical concert, don't you?" John questioned.

"I'd heard," Rodney replied, thinking that perhaps John was just letting him know what was going on.

"I was wondering if you wanted to go?" John asked.

Still not sure if this were an actual invitation, Rodney asked for more info. "With you?"

John didn't snap 'Of course, with me,' like someone else might at such a stupid question. Instead, his hazel gaze gentled as he answered, "Yes."

"You, ah, don't like classical music," Rodney reminded.

John nodded. "But you do. What do you think?"

Rodney gulped, and took a quick glance around their immediate area. Although they were in the crowded section of the mess hall, it was still early enough that there were many empty tables separating the diners. No one would hear him if he kept his voice down. "Is this a date or ... ?"

John appeared as confused and uncertain as Rodney felt. "I don’t know. I just know that I'd like to see more of you."

The tumult his pounding heart was making had to be audible where John was sitting. Rodney's ears were roaring so loud, he could hardly think, and, he wasn't sure, but he thought his lungs might truly have forgotten how to breathe.

"Rodney?" John looked and sounded worried.

"Ah ..." Control. He had to get a grip on himself. There was no way he was going to allow himself to break down in front of John over such a simple statement, but Rodney really felt as though he'd been released from purgatory.

A warm hand settled firmly on his shoulder. It was the first time John had voluntarily touched him outside the line of duty in two months. For some reason, that only made the situation worse.

"It's okay," John said in a low tone.

Rodney made a desperate grab for control and finally managed some semblance of functional. Inside, he was shaking so hard that he thought he'd break apart, but he made damn sure that his emotions stayed in check and that he did nothing to publicly embarrass John.

"Sorry," Rodney said at last in a soft, clipped voice. It wasn't the sob that wanted to come out, so that was definite progress.

"It's all right," John said, but his eyes were troubled.

"Sheppard?" Ronon Dex's deep voice called from the mess hall door.

John and he both glanced over at where the seriously underdressed Ronon stood in leather pants, boots, and nothing else.

The entire breakfast crowd was gaping at Ronon's bare chest and muscled arms like they'd never seen a man without a shirt on before. But, then, Rodney had to allow that he'd rarely seen a man built like Ronon without a shirt, so perhaps there was some justification for the stares.

John winced and said, "I'm late."

"You'd better leave before there's a riot," Rodney tried to joke.

John didn't laugh, but it wasn't because he was closed off from him like before. John seemed almost torn as he softly asked, "Are you going to be all right?"

Cursing his weakness, Rodney forced himself to relax. "I'm fine. It's all good. I, er, would really like to go with you on Friday."

"I got that," John said, his gaze incredibly gentle as it rested on him. "I'm sorry, Rodney."

"Huh?" The air supply must have cut off from his brain because those last few words made no sense to Rodney. What did John have to apologize for? Was he going to tell him that the invitation had been a joke?

"Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla's voice called from the doorway.

They both turned to see Teyla beside Ronon. She was wearing a little more than Dex, but not much. Her laced brown leather bodice left nothing to the imagination, and the numerous slits in her knee length flowy black skirt revealed more than they concealed.

"She's going swimming in that?" Rodney whispered, their personal business temporarily forgotten.

John's eyes seemed a little glazed as he took in Teyla's appearance. "It's what she works out in."

"But a leather swimsuit?" Rodney wondered.

"Maybe she'll take it off," John suggested in too innocent a tone.

"Rub it in, why don't you?" Rodney laughed, the idea of Teyla swimming naked perfectly dovetailing into his existing nude surfer John fantasy.

"I'm sure she'll wear a wetsuit," John said.

"Yeah, right. Destroy my fantasy here, why don't you?"

John chuckled. "I'll see you later. Have fun with Radek."

"You, too," Rodney said. "Be careful."

Their eyes held a moment longer than was absolutely necessary, and then John was gone.

Rodney sat at the empty table after John left.

John had asked him out on what might or might not be a date. It hardly mattered which it was. All that was important was that John wanted to spend time with him again. Hopeful for what felt like the first time in forever, Rodney pulled himself together and went to find Radek.

*~*~*

Chapter 10

John Sheppard clapped until his hands hurt. He wasn't the only one. The theatre was once again packed to capacity. The entertainment-starved Atlantis staff was so grateful for any diversion that even a C&W lover like himself was willing to admit that the highbrow classic stuff wasn't so bad in small doses. Of course, the company might have a lot to do with his enjoyment of the event.

John glanced at the man at his side. Rodney had a grin on his face and was madly clapping away like everyone else. But that didn't mean he was overly impressed with the performance. Rodney had been wearing that same goofy grin for most of the night.

John could sympathize. This was the first time in two months that he'd felt anywhere near normal, and he'd been the one who'd chosen to cool things down. He couldn't imagine how Rodney must be feeling.

If he hadn't had a clue before, Tuesday morning's breakfast had shown him how Rodney was suffering because of their separation. Granted, Rodney was always high-strung and emotional, but the guy had nearly broken down in tears when John had asked him to join him tonight. Simply because he'd asked him to do something with him. It had shaken him more than he could say.

The standing ovation died down and the lights came up in the hall.

"It was a wonderful show, wasn't it?" Elizabeth asked from their right.

"For classical, it was pretty tolerable," John admitted. "Oh, here comes Bishop now."

The pleasure-flushed head of the Recreation Department was hurrying towards their second row seats, his dark curls bobbing around his head.

"Well, goodnight, John, Rodney," Elizabeth said as she moved to compliment Dr. Bishop.

Everyone else was clearing out as well.

"Goodbye, Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay," Teyla said from their other side as she and Ronon made their way into the crowded aisle.

"Bye, guys," John answered, and gave Carson and Laura a wave as they were caught up in the stream of exiting people.

"They did sound pretty good tonight, didn't they?" John said as he and Rodney left their seats to join the departing crowd. He didn't know good classical from awful, but Rodney had seemed to be enjoying the music whenever he glanced over at him. Truth be told, John hadn't cared what type of music they were playing. It had just felt damn good to sit next to Rodney and steal whiffs of his perhaps-former lover's scent.

"They were actually fairly good," Rodney allowed.

The volume of the moving crowd prevented further speech until they were out of the theatre entirely and in the corridor. The line for the transporter was longer than the drinks line had been during intermission. They stopped outside the doors and stood over to the side, waiting for the lines to clear up.

"Good thing there's not a fire marshal here yet. We'd be raided," John commented.

Rodney chuckled. His face was still flushed with excitement, his lips moist and glistening under the lights. He was wearing that bright blue sweater that made his eyes almost a neon blue. John couldn't stop looking at him.

As their gazes touched, Rodney's smile faded. "I, ah, really had a good time tonight. Thanks for inviting me."

John shifted uncomfortably. This was one of the things that made this whole situation so hard. Given Rodney's personality, when John had split them up, he had expected his lover to be constantly pushing him for a reunion or resolution. Patience simply wasn't a quality he associated with Rodney McKay. But after he'd made it plain how angry he was, Rodney hadn't pushed him at all. Well, maybe a little when Rodney had voiced his discontent two weeks ago on the night that John now thought of as the Surfboard Fight, but even that had been restrained for Rodney.

It had taken him a while to realize that Rodney's restraint was a testament to how important he was to the man. Even now, Rodney was clearly so damn grateful for even this limited contact that it hurt.

"I had a good time, too," John admitted. A glance at the noisy crowd waiting for the transporter showed that the line hadn't eased up any. "It's early yet. Do you want to take a walk out on the deck and let the crowd thin out?"

John didn't understand the loud gulp Rodney gave or why Rodney sounded so subdued when he agreed, "Sure."

So, instead of joining the milling crowd, they turned the other way and walked out the doors onto the night-dark deck.

The stars were glistening on the water and there was a gentle, briny breeze blowing in off the waves below. The cool air felt good after the heat of the auditorium.

They walked side by side off towards the west end of the dock, listening to the waves crash below. There wasn't a soul out here other than them. The city shimmered behind them like a fairytale castle. The dark sea stretched on endlessly in front of them. John felt at harmony with the night and the man at his side. That was a good feeling because, for a while there, he hadn't been sure if he'd ever be able to forgive Rodney.

Not that he was certain that he'd forgiven Rodney totally, but the anger was mostly gone now.

They passed one of the grounding stations that they'd disabled during that destructive storm last year. The station was now up and running again. Once the bulky machine was at their backs, they lost sight of where they'd entered the deck. This part of the city wasn't inhabited and was rarely visited. The dark deck wasn't exactly a deserted beach, but it was as close as they were likely to get in Atlantis.

When nearly to ten minutes had passed without Rodney saying anything, John paused beside the deck rail and softly commented, "You're very quiet tonight."

He watched Rodney's profile as his companion stared out over the water. "Not much to say, is there?"

"How's that?" John questioned.

"Maybe we shouldn't talk about this," Rodney advised.

"That didn't work when we were strangers," John said. "I'd really like to know."

He left it up to Rodney, not pushing too hard.

After a moment, Rodney sighed and said, "A million years ago, this would have been fun. Now it just ... accentuates everything we've lost."

John was startled. He hadn't felt that way at all. He'd actually been enjoying the quiet time alone with Rodney. In retrospect, John recognized that he should have realized how painful a romantic walk under the stars might be for Rodney in their current circumstances. "I'm sorry. I guess I wasn't thinking."

Suddenly, being alone with Rodney out here miles from anyone didn't seem as comfortable as it had before.

"It's not your fault," Rodney quickly said. "None of this is your fault. I'm the one that screwed everything up and I know I'm lucky that you want to try to rebuild these bridges at all. It just ... hurts. I miss you all the time, John, so damn much."

John couldn't ignore the utter dejection in Rodney's voice. He reached out to lay a reassuring hand on Rodney's arm, but Rodney flinched and pulled away as though he'd burned him.

"Don't, please, not unless you mean it." Rodney ran a hand through the thin hair that the breeze was blowing around. "This was probably a mistake. I'm going to go home now. I'm ... sorry that I'm not handling this better. I had a good time tonight ... and I truly hope that this will be the first of many such evenings. Goodnight."

Rodney sounded as though he could barely get the words out, but as he turned to walk away, his shoulders were firmly squared.

John watched him go about five steps before he softly called after him, "Rodney, I miss you, too."

Rodney froze and slowly turned to face him again. "That doesn't change anything, though, does it?"

John looked for an answer, but there was only that same gaping hurt. Two months had been enough to get him past most of his resentment, but not quite enough to heal the damaged trust. He was scared to trust Rodney totally again, afraid of what might happen the next time his heart overrode his reason.

But even with all that fear, John realized that this was one of those crossroad moments that changed a person's life. You could only hurt a person so much before they started to wall you out of their heart. Every instinct he owned told him that Rodney was in that place. If he let Rodney walk away tonight, they might manage to salvage some anemic semblance of what they'd lost, but it would never be the same because they would both be nursing these wounds.

"I want things to change," John said. "Don't go. Please?"

"John?"

John reached his open hand out. "Come back here? Please?"

It felt almost indecent to watch the emotions play across Rodney's open face. Even by starlight, John could see the man was nearly terrified to reach for him. There'd just been so much hurt on both sides.

John honestly didn't know what choice Rodney would make.

After a moment of torturous delay, Rodney stumbled back to him.

They stared at each other in the starlight, each seeming afraid to make any kind of move. John realized that Rodney couldn't because of the situation, while he himself ... wouldn't – or wouldn't up until now. If things were going to change between them, he was going to have to be the one to initiate those changes; only John hadn't a clue as to what he should do, how far he should take this. All he knew was that he didn't want them hurting one another anymore.

Fortunately, John's arms remembered what they were for and collected his trembling companion close to him without further delay.

Tension stiffened Rodney's muscles as John drew him into the embrace, but as their bodies reacted to each other and curled around each other with long-missed familiarity, the unnatural stiffness left Rodney. With a muffled sob, Rodney melted against him.

Feeling Rodney relax into his arms felt like that first breath of air after a prolonged swim underwater. John gloried in the familiar warmth and scent. It felt like forever since anything had felt this right.

Rodney's arms hugged him back just as tightly. Rodney's respiration was still sobs more than breaths and John could feel Rodney's back shaking. But no sound emerged and Rodney kept his face buried in John's black zippered shirt.

John rubbed his palm across the soft wool covering Rodney's back and rested his cheek against the side of Rodney's head.

They clung to each other for what felt like forever. John wasn't sure who was comforting whom. All he knew was that this contact was what his soul needed.

A long time later, Rodney lifted his head to meet his gaze.

John had to respect how Rodney made no effort to hide his wet cheeks and moisture-bright eyes from him. Even by starlight John could read Rodney's vulnerability, could see how easy it would be to hurt him on any number of levels.

His conscience bothering him, John softly said, "I'm sorry, Rodney, really sorry."

"For?" Rodney asked, his hands loosening as he stepped back. Resignation filled his features. Clearly, he was anticipating the worst.

Recognizing how his apology might have been misinterpreted as yet another rejection, John laid his hands on Rodney's arms before Rodney could put any more distance between them. "For hurting you for so long."

He could see that his words threw Rodney. At first, it seemed Rodney didn't know how to react, but then he self-consciously said, "It wasn't like I didn't have it coming to me. I nearly got you killed."

John didn't have to search hard to see how that reality haunted Rodney. The reaction might be two months too late, but at least Rodney was cognizant of how close he'd come to killing them both. "Yes, you did. But what you did on Duranda that day, you didn't do it with malice. You didn't do it to intentionally hurt me. I can't say the same thing about my own behavior the past two months, and I am sorry about that."

Rodney's gulp was audible over the sound of the waves. "John, you're the injured party here. You don't have anything to apologize for."

"I think we both were injured by this," John answered. "I just ... I don't want to hurt you anymore."

"What do you want?" Rodney asked, still cautious, still looking at him as though he expected to have his heart ripped out of his chest and handed to him on a platter.

"Right now? To kiss you. See where it goes from there," John said and watched the resulting shiver course through Rodney. Thinking that turnabout was fair play, he asked, "What about you? What do you want?"

Considering how amenable Rodney had been to his every suggestion, John didn't think it likely that Rodney wouldn't be interested in trying again, but it was possible. John knew he had gone out of his way to hurt Rodney at every opportunity for nearly six weeks. Another type of man might hold that against him and not want anything more to do with him, but, then, that type of man wouldn't be out here with him now.

"More than anything? A time machine. Barring that ... anything you want to give me," Rodney answered. "Kissing would be great."

John's heart twisted at the desperate hope Rodney wasn't even trying to conceal. His throat so tight that he couldn't even attempt to speak, he reached out and buried his hands in Rodney's baby-soft hair and leaned in towards those glistening lips.

If the previous embrace was like the first breath that prevented drowning, this first kiss after so long an estrangement was like reviving from a Wraith stunner. As their lips met and tentatively opened to each other, John's body seemed to come out of some horrible paralysis and start feeling again.

Every one of his senses thrummed with pleasure. Rodney's skin and hair were the softest, most addictive textures he'd ever encountered. The man's warmth was incredible. It seeped through every inch where they were connected, warming all those places that had been freezing for the last two months. He'd been ODing on Rodney's soap-fresh scent all night, but up close like this, it was nearly intoxicating. The familiar rhythm of Rodney's breath in his ear was comforting on a visceral level. John hadn't realized just how damn much he'd missed the sound of someone else breathing at night.

As for taste, Rodney tasted fantastic. A faint trace of the coffee he'd drunk during intermission lingered, but otherwise the flavor was pure, undiluted Rodney McKay. He drank from that sweet fountain like he'd been stranded in a desert for the past two months, which in a way, he had.

Rodney's hands gripped his shoulders, his fingers digging down painfully through his black long-sleeved shirt as though to prevent him from escaping.

A surprisingly hot stream of liquid touched John's cheek and chin where they were plastered against Rodney's face. It took his bewildered and pleasure-focused brain a few minutes to figure out that Rodney was silently crying while kissing him.

Concerned, John drew back, his fingers rising to touch the silver trail on Rodney's cheek.

Rodney's eyes were screwed tightly closed. After a moment, they opened.

John didn't even know how to ask. He didn't want to embarrass Rodney, but he wanted to know what was going on. For all that Rodney was high-strung and emotional, John didn't think that he'd ever seen him actually cry before tonight.

They both were pretty much the same that way. They didn't cry openly. Despite all the horrible things that had befallen them in the last year and a half, Rodney had only seen him lose it on that night he'd told Rodney about Robbie. And as for seeing Rodney cry ... Rodney had come close to it a time or two, maybe to the point of even having tears in his eyes, but they'd never fallen. Why they'd be falling now when things seemed to be working out okay was confusing and alarming.

"You okay?" John whispered.

Rodney gave a noisy swallow. "I, ah, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to kill the mood. It's just ... I never thought you'd want to do that again."

Now it was John's turn to give a noisy gulp. Rodney certainly hadn't lost his talent for destroying him with a single line.

Reading the uncertainty and worry that was seeping into Rodney's expressive eyes, John forced his voice to work and gruffly admitted, "I didn't know that I would, but ... I really, really want to."

"That's ..." Words seemed to fail Rodney.

Knowing exactly how he felt, John said, "Yeah," and leaned forward for another kiss.

The last thing he expected was for Rodney's hand to intercept his cheek to stop him.

"What?" John asked, wondering what could have gone wrong now. Rodney looked really nervous and worried again, which didn't make a bit of sense.

"I, ah, know this is going to sound totally paranoid, considering that we're out here alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere, but ... this could be dangerous. Maybe we should continue this conversation inside behind closed doors?" Rodney suggested, his attitude seeming to indicate that he feared that his objection might ruin the fragile connections they were rebuilding.

Even fearing that stopping would rob him of what he'd wanted most these last two months, Rodney's first concern was still protecting his lover's position. John knew how badly Rodney wanted him back. That Rodney would jeopardize that, simply to protect him ... John could barely wrap his mind around it.

Beginning to appreciate just how much he'd nearly lost here, John softly answered, "That sounds like a good idea."

"It does?" Rodney appeared as shocked as relieved.

"Yeah," John said. Not wanting to lose contact, he put his hand on Rodney's back as they started walking back towards the grounding station and the amphitheatre.

The trip back took considerably less time than it had to walk out. When they entered the entrance near the amphitheatre and the transporter chamber, there was no one in the corridor and the auditorium doors were shut. In no time at all, they were back on the living quarters deck.

John removed his hand from Rodney's back a moment before the transporter deposited them on their living quarters' deck.

As they stepped out of the chamber, Rodney paused to ask, "Did you want to go back to your place or ... ?"

Being on home territory was often an advantage in difficult situations, only his own quarters still didn't feel right to him. Appreciating that Rodney was still bending over backwards to offer him every possible advantage, John answered, "Masochistic as it may sound, I've been kinda missing that rock you call a bed. Let's go back to your place, all right?"

"Sure," Rodney instantly agreed.

Rodney's quarters looked the same as they always did. John took a long look around as they came in. He'd missed everything so much: The bed where they made love; the keyboard where Rodney would play for him; hell, he'd even missed the picture of the cat.

John smiled as he caught sight of the mess of clothing lying near Rodney's clothes trunk. Today's uniform was tangled in a heap with some socks and underwear. Clearly, Rodney had been in a hurry to get ready for tonight's date.

"I've missed this place," John said when he saw Rodney watching him.

"It's, ah, felt very weird the past few months ... too big and empty. I think it missed you, too," Rodney paused and then softly admitted, "I know I did. I, ah, still can't believe you're really here."

That was perfectly obvious from Rodney's expression.

John stepped back into Rodney's personal space, and they were lip-locked in seconds. He'd always heard about how unbelievably hot make-up sex could be, but until now, he'd never had a relationship that was important enough to test it. By the time they parted for air, they were both trembling uncontrollably.

Rodney was watching him with that same desperate hope, as though, even now, he expected him to bail.

John gruffly suggested, "Bed?"

It was the right word. The worry vanished from Rodney's face as his lover bent to pull his sweater off over his head.

John shed his clothes in record speed. When he turned to his companion, Rodney was only down to his pants.

"My god, you're tanned," Rodney shakily whispered as he got his first look at John's naked body.

John could tell that Rodney really liked the way he looked from Rodney's blown-away expression.

"Yeah. We've been surfing and we practiced with the sticks out in the sun a couple of times this month." John's own gaze was busy feasting on all that milky white flesh that the removal of Rodney's tee shirt had revealed. Rodney's face, neck, and arms were a little darker because of their infrequent exposure to sunlight, but everywhere else, John could clearly see the blue veins ribboning the flesh beneath that nearly translucent skin. It was strange how beautiful that pale, soft flesh was.

His own gaze dropped a little lower. Startled, he noticed that the curve of Rodney's stomach above the waistline of his black trousers was nowhere near as pronounced as it had been two months ago.

"You've lost weight," John said softly. Unlike his own tan and all the muscles he'd built up during his endless runs and workouts, he knew that the change in Rodney 's physique wasn't intentional or the result of fun pursuits.

"I guess." Rodney shrugged. "That's a good thing, right?"

John stepped forward and ran his palm down Rodney's chest and much trimmer belly, making Rodney gasp. It felt ... different. Rodney was always really, really soft there, and padded. The firmer stomach felt wrong somehow. "I don't know."

"Huh?" Rodney blinked, seeming to be trying to control himself as his body visibly shuddered in reaction to his touch.

"I know it's weird, but I, ah, really liked your stomach the way it was," John carefully admitted, trying hard not to insult.

"You preferred me flabby?" Rodney didn't seem offended, just bewildered.

John shrugged. "I know you weren't trying to lose weight. I mean, if you wanted to, that'd be fine, but ... I really dug how solid you were, and how ... soft."

"Neither of those traits are considered attractive, John," Rodney pointed out, looking down at his pale stomach with an odd expression on his face.

"Maybe not, but ... they were you, and I just ... liked it." John wondered if he sounded as big an idiot as he felt, so he tagged on, "Not that you don't look great now."

Rodney wasn't looking at him like he was brain-damaged. It was startled pleasure warming those previously uncertain eyes.

John reached for the button on Rodney's pants and undid it, slowly unzipping him. He could hear Rodney's breathing quicken, could feel the impressive bulge beneath the fingers holding the little zipper twitch and grow even larger.

John hooked the waistband of the blue and white boxers and drew them down Rodney's legs with the pants.

John had nearly forgotten just how beautiful Rodney's cock was. Pale, red-tipped, rising out of that patch of light brown curls above the heavy pink balls. John could barely concentrate on what his hands were doing, he was so focused on that shaft.

Rodney sat back on the bed behind them once the pants passed his knees and let John deal with removing the pants, shoes, and socks, while he sat there stroking his fingers through John's hair.

When the last sock was gone, Rodney swung his surprisingly muscular legs up onto the bed and lay flat on his back.

John took a moment to admire how good all that snowy flesh looked spread out against the light blue comforter. It had been so damn long; he could barely believe he was here again.

Rodney's left hand reached out to stroke John's tanned, hairy thigh. The pleasure that burst through him at that unexpected caress broke John's stasis. He slid into the bed, carefully easing himself partially on top of Rodney.

The nearly identical sigh they both released as their naked bodies settled familiarly together made them both laugh.

"God, you feel incredible," John whispered.

"So do you. Your tan line is ... really hot," Rodney said as he stared down John's sun-browned back to his startlingly white ass.

John chuckled. "I feel like that kid on the Coppertone poster."

"You don't look like her, thank God," Rodney said, and then they were kissing, deep and long.

Their hands moved with frantic need to stroke and touch everywhere they could reach. Neither of them seemed to be able to get enough of the other.

When they parted for air a long time later, Rodney's left hand abandoned John's body. Not breaking their locked gaze, Rodney opened the nightstand drawer to blindly fish out the familiar white tube of homemade hand cream and pass it over to him.

Normally, Rodney would turn over at this point, because he seemed to prefer being on his stomach or knees when he was taken, but tonight Rodney pulled his knees up to grip the side of John's chest.

Quickly getting with the program, John rose to his knees and fumbled open the cream.

Rodney's butt was as luscious as ever. Before he actually squirted the cream out of the tube, John spent some time running his hands and tongue over those beautiful rounded cheeks, while Rodney held his knees pressed tight to his chest. John was relieved to note that Rodney hadn't lost any weight back here. Those shapely mounds were exactly as he remembered them. This was one place he definitely didn't want to see change in any way.

Because it had been so long, and because he really wanted to do something extraordinary to make up for all the pain he'd knowingly inflicted on Rodney, John carefully parted those cheeks and pressed his face down between them.

Rodney's cry was one of sheer, shocked pleasure.

John's tongue found its objective. Even though they didn't do this too often, he'd long ago lost his inhibitions. John's tongue found that tight bud of muscle and spent the next five minutes driving Rodney out of his mind.

It had been so long since he'd touched his lover this intimately that John felt like he might come simply from rimming him. The ragged whimpers Rodney was giving, the scent, the taste, the sweat, the humid heat of the position ... it was all nearly too much for his touch-hungry senses.

Rodney's body was boneless as jello when John finished.

Trying to hold it together long enough to do right by Rodney, John spurted some of the hand cream into his left palm, warmed it a moment or two, and then transferred it to his fingers.

Rodney's groan as John's middle finger entered him played along John's nerves like a lick down his spine. Shuddering with reaction, he moved his finger around that snug opening. He was shocked by how tight Rodney was here again. John supposed it had something to do with how long it had been, but it was almost like the first time again as he patiently worked at opening Rodney up to him.

He could feel Rodney's gaze fixed on his face, hungrily watching his every move.

Finally, the slick channel felt relaxed enough to accept him. John slathered some more cream into his palm, gave his own hungry dick a few strokes to coat it, bit his lip to keep from coming, and then carefully positioned himself.

Taking Rodney's legs over his shoulder, John sank home with a sigh. Rodney's body momentarily tensed upon entry, but gradually accepted him. John sank in slow as melting butter, insinuating himself as Rodney's flesh loosened to accommodate him, rather than thrusting in and forcing that acceptance.

He knew being on his back was harder on Rodney. His lover's back problems aside, the position itself made for a deeper penetration, but Rodney seemed to want the eye contact, and, John couldn't really blame him, not after their painful estrangement. It was a thrill to watch the play of emotions across Rodney's familiar, handsome face as he eased into him, sinking deeper than he felt he'd ever gone before.

Rodney's mouth was open in a silent, shocked O, his eyes glazed over as he obviously concentrated on the sensations working through him.

Home, this was what home felt like. He'd never been so welcome or wanted anywhere in his life. Rodney's eyes had that incandescent glow as they watched him penetrate him. His lover's face was pleasingly flushed, his lips red and swollen from the kissing and glistening invitingly.

John sank all the way into Rodney's body, and then just paused there on that apex of perfection for as long as he could hold it together. When the imperative to move became irresistible, he palmed Rodney's straining shaft, and started thrusting, his hand and hips falling into an amazingly fulfilling rhythm.

Reality was blasted away by the searing ecstasy. He was on fire. Rodney both fueled and eased that burning as they moved together in the most primal of dances. Deep, deeper, deepest ... every thrust fused them closer and closer together.

John's awareness of where he stopped and where Rodney began melted, like their flesh was melting under this burning passion. While some might say that by taking Rodney, he was making Rodney his own, every thrust seemed to bind him to this incredible man. The fearsome delight ripped away all artifice, all barriers, branding John's very soul as Rodney's.

His world exploded around him as burst after burst of transcendental pleasure ripped through him. His melted being spurted deep into Rodney's body, as Rodney's own scalding being sprayed both their chests.

Immolation, implosion, explosion ... John didn't know how to classify the experience. All he knew was that his pleasure centers reached critical mass, overloading like that Ancient weapon on Duranda, and the fabric of the universe shifted and ripped around him.

It was so intense it was scary. Incoherent with awe, he could only ride it out.

An eternity seemed to pass before it was finally over, and another one before John's cock deflated and slid out of Rodney.

Vaguely recognizing that being twisted up like a human pretzel couldn't possibly be good for Rodney's back, John lifted his lover's legs off his shoulders and eased Rodney down flat.

The groan Rodney gave told him that his lover would pay for this later, but Rodney's arms closed around him and pulled him down on top of him. It couldn't be comfortable, but all that hot, perspiration-slick flesh under every inch of him felt too good for John to protest. Resting his cheek on the sparse, sweat-beaded hair on Rodney's chest, John breathed in Rodney's long-missed scent.

"That was ..." Rodney began and stopped, because, after all, what could be said about the world supernovaing around them?

"Yeah," John agreed.

Normally, they would have crashed now, but John could feel that the man below him was just as wound up as he was.

After another prolonged silence, Rodney said in a small voice, "I never thought we'd do that again."

"I didn't, either," John said, adding, "I'm glad we did, though."

He could feel Rodney's mind working as he lay there reveling in the soft strokes Rodney was giving his back.

The tension that took Rodney's body told him that Rodney's next words weren't going to be easy. As usual, he wasn't proven wrong.

"Are we ... okay now ... or was this just ... you know, to ease the tension between us?" Rodney asked in a quiet voice that sounded like he'd already been crushed.

John sighed. Rodney never could take the easy path. He always had to poke at everything and analyze it to death. Although, John supposed that after just having his brains fucked out, Rodney had a right to ask.

That Rodney had laid himself open that bare, given him everything he'd just given him, while being uncertain as to whether it was a new beginning for them or just some for old times' sake sex shook John to his core.

Before he could answer, Rodney rushed on to say, "Either way is okay. I, ah, I'd just like to know."

John raised his head up until he could look down into Rodney's eyes.

The sex had left Rodney without any protective defenses whatsoever. John could see that he was lying there, just waiting to be discarded again.

Searching himself, John gave Rodney the truth. "We're ... solid."

Rodney released a shaky breath. "Good ... that's ... thank you. I ..."

John brushed his fingers over Rodney's cheekbone. "You don't have anything to thank me for. I ... need us to be solid, too."

His confession seemed to throw Rodney. Rodney's hands tightened spasmodically on his back for a moment before gentling again.

After a long time of staring into his eyes, Rodney gave his upper lip a nervous lick and softly said, "I, um, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the things you said to me that day in the workout room."

John froze. He'd been furious that day and had torn into Rodney without mercy. "I, ah, was very angry with you then. I ..."

John wished he could say that he hadn't meant his words, but he had. That part of Rodney still scared the shit out of him, because as comfortable and as loving as they were right now, John knew it could all fall apart the next time they stumbled upon some Ancient device that promised the same things the Octurus Project had.

"You didn't say anything that wasn't true," Rodney said. "I know ... I get like that. I ... wish I didn't, but ... you were right. I do. I think I know what's best and I stop listening. Most times, I do know what's best, but ..."

"Yeah," John said. It was that 'but' that terrified him.

Rodney was quiet for a moment. "I don't want to blow any more planets up, ever. But, more than that, I don't want to lose you again, John."

"I know," John said, stroking Rodney's shoulder, wanting to calm him, wishing there were something he could do to make this shadow pass for good, but he couldn't. Rodney's arrogance had the capacity to destroy them like no other outside force they could come up against.

"As much as I'd like to, I, ah, know I can't change that part of me, but ... I think I've thought of something that might help control it," Rodney said in a hesitant tone.

John wondered how much it was taking for him to discuss this subject at all. He couldn't imagine what it felt like to have blown up five planets by being pigheaded. "What's that?"

"If we ever get into a situation like that again – where I stop listening to something important – I want you to say the word Duranda to me. I, um, give you my solemn word that I will stop whatever I'm obsessing on and do what you tell me in that situation. Only, don't misuse it, okay? Save it for the big stuff – like blowing up solar systems."

John's heart twisted as he stared into those pleading eyes. He could see how terribly earnest Rodney was, how his lover had obviously thought long and hard on a solution to what John had thought an insurmountable problem. He also appreciated how much it took for his control freak of a lover to offer that kind of power up to him. Swallowing around the lump in his throat, he ran his fingers through Rodney's lank, sweat-damp hair and asked, "Do you seriously think you'll listen to me at a time like that?"

Rodney seemed to consider it for a moment. "No. I probably won't listen, but I promise that I will stop and do what you tell me to do, even if it goes against every bit of my common sense. I don't want to be some comic book mad scientist. I don't want to blow up planets or get any more of my people killed. I just ... want to be your Supergeek again."

"With your superego superpower," John said with a soft smile, leaning down to kiss Rodney's frowning brow.

"I know I can't change those parts of myself, John, but I can trust you to control them," Rodney said when they parted. "There isn't anyone else I'd give that kind of power over me, but I promise I will stop whatever I'm doing if you ever say that word to me, no matter what. Do you think that will be enough?"

"Enough?" John echoed, confused because Rodney said the word like John had required something from him.

Rodney gulped. "That day in the workout room, you said that you didn't know if you could live with those parts of me. I ... honestly don't think I can eradicate them from my character. I really need to believe in myself, to believe that I'm right, to do half the ridiculous stuff I've had to do to try to keep this city alive. If I start second-guessing myself at every turn ..."

"We'd be dead in five minutes," John said, running his thumb over Rodney's dimpled chin. "I've always ... admired how confident you are in your abilities. I don't want you second-guessing yourself, either."

"Will a shut-down word do it?" Rodney questioned. "Do you think it could work?"

Touched by the anxiety Rodney couldn't hide, John admitted, "It isn't something I would have even thought of. To be honest, I'm sort of shocked that you'd even suggest something like it."

"These last two months have been ... really awful, John. I lost you. No one was talking to me. And ... I blew up five planets. I still have trouble getting my mind around that. All of that happened because of that part of me that has to be right. I, er, wish I'd had a switch that I could just turn that part of me off on Duranda, but I didn't, so ... I thought if I gave you an off switch, it might ... help. Do you think it will work?"

Rodney was so hopeful, it was heartbreaking. John brushed his fingers through Rodney's mussed hair, swallowed hard, and tried to be honest. "It will work if you actually listen enough to hear the shut-down word."

"There isn't going to be any negotiating, John," Rodney said, his face serious and determined. "You say that word, and I will stop whatever I'm doing. I don't ever want what happened on Duranda to happen again. I ... I need you to know that you can trust me again, the way you used to."

There wasn't anyone who'd ever worked this hard to get back into his good graces. John knew that simply admitting to the mistake he'd made on Duranda had to be agonizing for Rodney. That his error had troubled Rodney enough to come up with this solution was incredible. John would never have believed that his often-arrogant lover could be painfully self-honest enough to accept responsibility for what had happened. For Rodney to promise that he'd bow to someone else's judgment without argument ... it meant a lot.

His heart taking a dive for what felt like the final time, John cupped Rodney's cheek and said, "I do trust you." Reading the doubt in Rodney's eyes, and recognizing that he had a lot of hurting to make up for himself, John added, "I couldn't be here with you like this if I didn't trust you. Even though I was mad as hell at you, I ... I never stopped loving you."

Rodney's hands had been resting on his shoulders. His fingers dug into John's skin painfully for a second or two as the body beneath John gave a shudder.

"I've never loved anything more than you," Rodney hesitantly admitted.

John was startled to realize that this was the first time Rodney had actually said the words to him. "Me, either." After a moment of staring into Rodney's happy eyes, John said, "Thank you for that shut-down word. I appreciate how hard that must have been for you."

"It wasn't as hard as losing you," Rodney confessed. "I still can't believe you're really here, that I'm not going to wake up alone to find out this was just another dream."

"You're not going to wake up alone. I promise. We're ... going to be all right now," John whispered, bending to kiss Rodney's puckered brow. He laid back against the pillow when he withdrew.

Their arms and legs still tangled together, they lay there simply watching each other's faces across the pillow until Rodney gave a tremendous yawn.

"We probably should get some sleep," Rodney suggested with visible reluctance.

"Yeah," John agreed.

They shifted around in the bed until they were in their old sleeping position, John flat on his back with Rodney's head pillowed on his chest. Even though they were both exhausted, they seemed to lie there just reveling in the closeness for a long time.

Finally, Rodney gave a sleepy whisper of, "Love you," before the stillness of deep sleep claimed his body.

It was a while before John succumbed himself. His last conscious thought of the night was that they really were going to be all right. Then, the seductive rhythm of Rodney's light snores worked their magic on him, and he tumbled over into sleep himself.

The End

Cover art by Krys

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