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Never Quite What It Looks Like (The Virtual Remix)

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You would think that after more than five years on Atlantis, a person with an IQ several standard deviations past measurable would have learned to expect the unexpected. But you would think wrong, because the unexpected never happened when a person was braced for it, aware and alert to every possibility. Oh, no. The unexpected snuck up on you when you dropped your guard, like when you were comfortably holed up in your private lab with a nice, hot cup of coffee and three different simulations running at once.

There you were, minding your own business (and your three computer screens), when your door slid open (if you had a door, which, actually, Rodney didn't, and quite frankly that was the one structural flaw in his otherwise perfect lab), and in walked something like . . .

John.

Right, because John apparently didn't know the meaning of One's Lab is One's Castle—not having a lab or, as far as Rodney had ever noticed, an office. Which was apparently why John felt no compunction about dropping in on other peoples' labs completely uninvited, and distracting them with video games or popsicles or really weird looking Ancient devices.

"Hey," John said, and held the thing out. It was green and gold and looked sort of like a joystick, if the joystick were shaped like an Art Deco sculpture of a bird. "Got you a present."

"Really?" It didn't look like anything Rodney had ever wanted. It was . . . gaudy. Sparkly, even, which probably meant it wasn't Ancient after all, except the gold lines across the surface looked distractingly like the patterns on Atlantis's windows.

"No," John said, and set it down on the table next to Rodney's third laptop. It clinked, like it was made of metal. "Martinez's team brought it in. Coleman couldn't make heads or tails of it, so I figured I'd bring it to you."

Rodney frowned and didn't pick it up. "Don't tell me. You have a bet riding that I'll be able to figure it out."

John lifted his eyebrows, the picture of innocence. "Would I do that?"

"Yes," Rodney said.

"It was only a little bet," John said. "Just that case of beer I got in last Friday."

"Hey," Rodney said, because honestly. "I thought you were going to share that with me."

"Two bottles of scotch if we win," John said. "It's the good stuff."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "So basically, you want me to alter my vitally important research schedule just so you can get drunk faster."

John gave him a suspiciously winning smile. "Oh, there's no hurry. You have a whole twenty-four hours to figure it out."

"Twenty-four hours? Are you kidding me?"

John's smile went impish. "Have fun," he said, and then he was out the door, leaving Rodney with three simulations running and an absolutely ridiculous make-work assignment. The stupid thing was probably some sort of useless trinket—a salt shaker, or possibly a dildo.

Okay, no. Seriously, that was just . . . except it actually kind of looked like a dildo—the beak part was blunt enough to be the tip, and it flared toward the other end, which would be . . . no, no, it couldn't be. There were subtle ridges curled around the central part, spaced exactly a finger's breadth apart. Clearly it was meant to be held in the hand, like he'd thought at first. Like a joystick, he'd thought, because that was how John had been holding it.

It fit into his palm perfectly, the flare at the base of his thumb, the ridges spacing his fingers comfortably. It was heavier than he'd expected, and smoothly metallic, but it warmed in his hand, like . . . oh, shit.

The lab had disappeared entirely, and in its place was a wide, torch-lit pavilion full of people in fancy costumes and tables loaded with food. Rodney looked around wildly. It was impossible, unless the device was some sort of instantaneous transporter. Or a communications stone? But no, no. What he could see of his body looked like himself—his own hands, his own jacket.

And he recognized the place, too. It was M4H-835. It had to be, because this was clearly the Anovi festival of Tith Hana'h, and wasn't that supposed to happen only every four cycles or something? But he was here, and so were John and Ronon and Teyla, and everything looked a little fuzzy around the edges, like he'd had too much of their i'eth wine again.

Okay, he'd definitely had too much wine. Way too much, because John's arm was around him for support, which was . . . different, and then John turned from watching the dancers to looking down into Rodney's eyes and the whole world swooped and spun.

"John?" Rodney said. "What the hell is going on here?" Or he tried to say it, but the last part never actually came out, because for no discernible reason, John's head had descended and his lips were pressing against Rodney's, and oh God, they were kissing. He was kissing John Sheppard, or rather, John was kissing him, and it was bizarrely sweet and also fairly quick, because John was pulling back with a completely unprecedented soft and . . . and fond look in his eyes.

"What the hell was that for?" Rodney asked, because he was dating Jennifer and John knew it. And then with a sickening lurch he was back in his own lab, the sparkly green device still clenched in his right hand, and . . . oh, thank God.

It wasn't real. It couldn't be. It had to have been a vision of some sort, or an alternate universe, because everything had been exactly the same as it was the last time they were on M4H-835, except for the part where John had put an arm around him and kissed him.

But it hadn't happened like that. Rodney remembered all too well what had really happened: he'd pitched forward and thrown up all over John's boots. So whatever the device thought it was showing him, it was seriously out to lunch. And honestly, it couldn't even be an alternate universe, because Rodney was pretty sure there was no universe where John Sheppard wanted to kiss him. There were some branches of the multiverse that were simply impossible.

He set the device down gingerly and glared at it. Maybe it was some sort of instrument of torture, thumbscrews for the brain. Or maybe it really was a sex toy—a ridiculous sort of virtual sex machine, and he was just lucky to get out of there before John could do more than kiss him.

Only if that was what it was, why John? Why not Jennifer, or even some random, gorgeous blonde? Surely a device sophisticated enough to produce a experience with such clarity—he could still feel John's lips against his—could have chosen a more plausible partner.

Right, well, that was the mystery he was going to solve, even if he didn't give a damn about John's stupid bet. Because he couldn't ignore it now. It was like Christmas presents and piñatas, and if he didn't figure out what it was, it would haunt him for the rest of his days. Or at least until the next major crisis distracted him enough to forget about it.

Careful not to touch the thing again, Rodney pulled out his scanner and set to work.

 

 



 

 

He'd figured a few things out by the time his radio came to life in his ear, but not nearly enough to map the workings of the device, so it was possible that he answered Jennifer's perfectly pleasant, "Rodney?" a bit more snippily than he should have.

"What?"

"You weren't in your quarters," Jennifer said. "Are you still in the lab?"

"Of course I'm still in the lab," Rodney said, because honestly, she ought to be used to this by now. "I have three simulations to . . . oh, no. It's movie night, isn't it?" He dropped his scanner on the table and shoved his chair back, tugging his jacket down and running a hand over his hair. "When does it start?"

"Five minutes ago," Jennifer said dryly. "Listen, I think we should talk."

Oh, dear. That didn't sound good. He was in the doghouse again, and he still hadn't figured out a reliable method for getting out. "Um. Right. Talk. We can do that. I mean, we talk all of the time, don't we?"

"I'll be there in ten minutes," Jennifer said.

She made it in five, which was plenty of time for Rodney to contemplate his strategy. Groveling was always good, of course, but it was possible Jennifer was tired of groveling, so he had to consider logic, and excuses, and kissing. Well, Jennifer wasn't usually distracted by kissing when she was mad, but maybe if he did it really well, maybe if he managed to go all soft and romantic the way John had in the vision—

Shit. He had not just had that thought. Seriously, that thought had to belong to someone else entirely, because there hadn't been anything the least bit pleasant or convincing about that kiss. It had been weird, and it still made him feel strangely queasy, and he really had to stop thinking about it and start thinking about ways to make things up to Jennifer. Without slipping up and mentioning the stupid device or visions of kissing—being kissed by—John.

"Hi," Jennifer said at his door, and she was a little breathless and her hair was falling all soft and wispy around her face, and really, she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

So. Groveling it was.

"Hi," Rodney said, "Um. Ah, come in."

Jennifer was, of course, already in the room. "It's quiet up here at night," she said, and maybe she wasn't mad at him. Maybe this was going to be fine and he wasn't going to have to walk around on eggshells for days.

"Yes, well, everyone else is eating or sleeping. Or, ah, you know."

"Enjoying movie night?" Okay, so maybe things weren't fine. Maybe they weren't fine at all. Jennifer was moving around restlessly, which was totally not like her, just as it was totally not like her to just reach out and—

"Don't, don't, don't touch that!" Rodney squeaked, but it was too late. She'd already picked the shiny green device up and was turning it over in her hand, fitting it into her palm exactly the way Rodney had, mere hours ago.

"What?" Jennifer said with a puzzled smile, but she seemed fine. She hadn't even blinked.

"You didn't . . . see anything? No out-of-body experiences? No visions?" Rodney asked. And, oh, God, please let her not have just kissed John Sheppard.

Jennifer frowned and put it down on the desk. "No, of course not. Should I have?"

"No," Rodney said. "No, that's good. That's great, actually. Just please, please don't go touching things in my lab. Remember what happened that time when you touched that communications stone?"

"Oh, God," Jennifer said. "This isn't one of those, is it?"

"I don't think so," Rodney said, and he was pretty sure it wasn't. Well, it was obviously some sort of communications device, but it didn't appear to work in the same way at all. Although, huh, obviously John had been the one to touch it right before Rodney had, so maybe it did work along similar premises, after all. "I mean, I haven't exactly figured out what it is yet, but you should be okay."

He looked up to find Jennifer watching him, her lips pressed together. "Rodney, we have to talk."

"Yes, yes, mouths moving, words exchanged. Isn't that what we're doing?"

"No," Jennifer said, and her smile was a little sad. "I mean, we have to talk."

 

 



 

 

He wasn't as bad as he'd expected afterward, mostly because Jennifer had been right. They hadn't been making each other happy, not any more, not for awhile. And in a weird way it was almost a relief to have that out in the open, even though he still loved her. He was pretty sure he would always love her, just maybe not exactly in the way he'd been hoping to.

At least she wasn't going to do anything foolish like go back to Earth. She belonged here, just like he did. And maybe now they'd succeed in doing what she wanted. Maybe they'd be friends.

So he was feeling mostly okay when John stopped by his lab in the morning.

"Hey," John said, slouching his way over. "Any luck with it?"

"Any luck with . . . oh, right," Rodney said, because he'd forgotten about the device entirely. "The answer is no."

John's eyes snapped to meet his. "Really?"

Rodney sighed. "Look, I might as well tell you, because you're going to find out eventually anyway. Jennifer and I broke up last night."

"Oh," John said, and his face went blank. "Crap. I'm sorry."

"Yes, well, it's not like it had anything to do with you." And shit, shit, he hadn't said that, because of course it hadn't, but now John was going to start thinking . . . oh, God.

John's eyebrows were up under his hair. "Right," he said slowly. "Is there something I should know?"

"No, no, absolutely not," Rodney said, because there wasn't. "Look, we just weren't making each other happy. She wanted something different than I did, I guess."

John wasn't looking at him. "Kids?" he said.

"What? No, no, of course not. Are you crazy? It didn't even come up."

"Okay," John said, and leaned awkwardly against the table, one hand stuffed in his pocket, the other rubbing the back of his neck. "Wow, I don't really, ah . . . hey, you want to go hit some balls off the pier?"

It was less than an hour after breakfast, and Rodney had plenty of things to do, not even counting John's stupid bet. "What about your case of beer?"

John shrugged. "Someone else can drink it. Come on."

 

 



 

 

He wasn't exactly spending his every waking moment on it—more like his spare time, whenever he had a minute or two—but it didn't take Rodney particularly long to figure out three things about the device. First, the visions were a complex but straightforward sensory projection, a sort of short-term virtual reality; second, there was no sign of any link to alternate universes; and third, it appeared to have an imprinting function that connected the projection to the previous person who had touched it, which explained the whole thing about John, even if it didn't explain the kissing part.

He still didn't understand how to control the content of the visions, or whether there even was any sort of control, but it would probably have been enough to win John's bet, if he'd figured it out three days earlier and actually gave a damn. John didn't mention the beer again, which was nice of him, and Rodney had stopped having flashbacks to the kiss in the vision, so that was good, too. And the stupid device stayed right where it was on his lab table. Where he hadn't dared to touch it.

Except . . . Jennifer had touched it. Jennifer had picked it up and claimed she hadn't felt a thing. So either she was really good at hiding things or . . . huh. Rodney hadn't figured out everything about the imprinting function, but Jennifer had touched it. Jennifer was now the last person to have touched it. And Rodney was feeling just maudlin enough to . . .

Okay, no. He didn't fully understand how it worked yet. There was no point in taking any risks. But it was still lying there, and it was just a sensory projector. What harm could it do?

He reached for the device and curled his hand around it. For a moment it just lay in his palm, cool and green, and then—

He was in John's quarters. Sitting on John's bed, and Jennifer was nowhere in sight. John was, though. John was right there next to him. Wearing a black t-shirt and jeans rather than his uniform, and looking . . . open and sympathetic. "That's tough luck," John said. "Guess you're pretty broken up about it."

"About Jennifer?" Rodney said, even though he already knew that was what John meant. "Well, yes. I mean, obviously." And then, without any conscious volition on his part at all, his hand reached over and patted John on the knee. John looked down at his hand and up at his face, and then, despite the fact that he wasn't even trying to speak, Rodney heard his own voice say, "I don't suppose you'd be up for a little . . . comfort?"

It was like being in a dream, the kind that starts out feeling perfectly real and then takes a sharp left turn into the land of the bizarre. Rodney tried to pull his hand back, but it wouldn't move, and then John's palm was covering his. "You sure this is what you want?"

"Yes," Rodney's voice said. "Absolutely. Exactly what I want. Out with the old, in with the new." And then he leaned in and he was the one kissing John, slow but not the least bit tentative. John's mouth opened and his eyes fluttered closed, and—what the hell?—this was like some kind of soft-focus movie. The only things missing were the candlelight and the cheesy music.

Rodney wrenched his mouth away, panting, and with a stomach-turning jerk he was back in his lab, his fist clenched tight around gaudy green metal.

"Okay, seriously, no," Rodney said, and shoved it back onto his lab table. "That's just . . . I mean, what is that?" That wasn't him. He hadn't done that. He didn't need comfort and he sure as hell didn't want to kiss John Sheppard—any more than John would want to kiss him.

Right, well, clearly the imprinting mechanism hadn't reset when Jennifer had picked it up, which meant either it was only sensitive to ATA carriers or else it stayed tuned to the same person until it was somehow manually reset, and right now Rodney didn't even want to know. The thing was sick, and who the hell would create a kind of virtual reality that made you do things you didn't want to do? Things that were completely out of character for all parties involved? Oh, right, it was an Ancient device. And the Ancients were pretty screwed up, as John was so fond of saying.

Rodney found a pair of tongs to pick the thing up, locked it in a specimen case, and shoved it in the far corner of the lab. If he never saw it again, it would be too soon.

 

 



 

 

The thing was, life went on. The ridiculous sensory projector stayed in its case. John kept right on acting like John, which meant trash talking Rodney's radio-car modifications and not mentioning Jennifer again, which was fine by Rodney. Jennifer was a little awkward around him for awhile, but then Rodney ended up with three splinters on three consecutive days, and she rolled her eyes at him and pulled them out so carefully he barely felt a thing, and somehow things were okay between them. Not great, not without the occasional wince and apology, but okay, and he could tell she was grateful for that, so he was grateful, too.

And then there was an earthquake.

It was the stupidest thing ever—none of the previous teams to visit M26-3K4 had noticed any seismic irregularities, but of course it had happened when they were all down in an abandoned mine, and of course John had shoved Ronon out of the way and taken the force of a falling beam straight on his chest.

He almost died. Not like, had a little brush with danger but ha, ha, everything was really just fine. Seriously almost died. Rodney spent the night pacing outside the OR, even after Teyla left to take care of Torren and Ronon fell asleep in a waiting-room chair. He paced while Ronon snored, paced while the lights in the corridor dimmed for the night shift, paced until Jennifer finally came out with deep circles under her eyes and told him to go to bed.

"I want to see him," Rodney said, and yes, that was his voice, all hoarse and cracking. "You have no idea—it took us hours to get him out, and the whole time I thought he was going to die before we got to him."

"I know," Jennifer said, and put a gentle hand on his arm. "You told me. Listen, he's not really ready for visitors yet, and you need to get some rest."

"He hasn't woken up yet?"

"Oh, no, he has," Jennifer said. "He's in recovery right now. He's a little woozy, but he's chatting up the nurses. Don't worry, you can see him in a couple of hours. After you get some sleep."

Rodney had a sudden, horrible thought. "Oh, God. Please tell me he didn't lose any body parts."

"Well, he's now short a spleen," Jennifer said, "but other than that, it's mostly contusions and some cracked ribs. He'll have a few extra scars. Nothing major. I'm sure he'll still, you know, be able to get a date."

"Look," Rodney said, because the tight feeling in his gut really wasn't easing any, "you have to let me see him. Just for a minute, okay? I promise, I won't ask for anything else."

Jennifer looked at him, her mouth pulled sideways in thought. "Okay," she said finally. "But one minute, and try not to freak him out. It looks a lot worse than it is."

That didn't exactly ease the pounding of Rodney's heart, and his palms were sweating when Jennifer pulled the curtain back and let him in. Against the white sheets, John looked smaller than he usually did, thinner and more fragile, with all of the tubes and monitor wires snaking everywhere. And his face . . . oh God, he looked awful. So swollen he was almost unrecognizable, his skin blotchy and dark with bruises. If it hadn't been for the hair, Rodney would have wondered for a moment if it was really him.

"Rodney," John said, and it sounded like sandpaper. He blinked the one eye that wasn't swollen shut. "Hey."

"Wow," Rodney said, "you look like shit."

Jennifer cleared her throat meaningfully, but John made a sound that might have been a laugh. "You sure know how to make a guy feel better."

"Oh, like you're the master of bedside manner, yourself."

John rolled his good eye, but Rodney was pretty sure he was still smiling. Even if it was kind of hard to tell. "Nice to see you, too, McKay."

"No, really," Rodney said. "Isn't Ronon the one who's supposed to push you out of the way?"

"Hey," John said, but before he could say anything more, Jennifer interrupted with, "Okay, your time's up."

Rodney gaped at her. "Wait, seriously? That wasn't even thirty seconds!"

"He's just come out of the anesthesia," Jennifer said. "You can see him in the morning."

John's eye drifted closed. "Thanks for stopping by."

"Yeah, no problem," Rodney said, and then there was nothing to do but let Jennifer herd him out and close the curtain behind them.

"Really," she said. "It looks a lot worse than it is."

"Right," Rodney said. And then, because it was Jennifer and she hadn't had to do that, "Thanks for letting me see him."

"You're welcome. Now go get some sleep."

He meant to go back to his quarters. He really did. But he couldn't get John's face out of his head, all purple and awful, even if he managed to block that out, he could still hear the monitors' steady, fragile beeping. So many monitors.

Somehow he found himself in his lab. There was no way he was going to be able to sleep, but maybe he could get some work done. Only he couldn't concentrate on theoretical work, either. He needed John to be okay. He needed to see John being okay, and his little foray behind the curtain hadn't done the trick.

And that was when he saw it. Tucked into the corner of the lab, the case that contained the sensory projection device. Of course, it was ridiculous—seriously, there was no way he wanted a repeat of either of the previous scenarios—but it would be John, whole and healthy. And maybe that would erase the vision of John's poor, battered face from his mind.

That would be worth putting up with a kiss or two, wouldn't it?

His hands were shaking as he opened the case, but he managed to get his fingers around the smooth, green metal and then . . .

Damn it. He was in the infirmary again. It even smelled right, like iodine and antiseptic. There was a curtained-off bed in front of him, just like before, and Rodney's stomach went queasy. But he braced himself, pulled the curtain to the side, and stepped inside.

John was there, in the bed, just like he had been, only, thank God, not like that at all. There were a few wires coming out from under the covers, but John's face looked almost normal, apart from an artfully placed cut across his left cheekbone.

"Hi," John said, and he sounded good, too—a bit weaker than normal, but not all dry and rasping. "Thanks for coming."

"I had to," Rodney admitted, and yes, he was staring, but John looked so good, so alive, that he couldn't help himself. "I can't believe you . . . you almost died!"

"Just doing my job." John shrugged, and then winced like it hurt, and damn it, it was completely unfair that even here he was in pain.

"Yes, well, could you maybe do it without getting crushed by a half a ton of rubble next time?"

"That's a good plan," John said, settling back down into his pillow. "I'll have to remember that one."

"Oh, you are just so . . . so . . ." And then Rodney felt himself lean in. He managed to stop just inches from John's mouth, but John's gaze dropped, like he was looking at Rodney's lips, like he really wanted this. And okay, fine, this wasn't real, and it had nothing to do with the actual John, broken and bruised in the infirmary, but suddenly Rodney didn't care. This John wanted it, and it was a small thing to do for him.

Such a small thing.

It wasn't hard to put one hand on the pillow beside John's head and bend the rest of the way down. It wasn't hard to touch his mouth to John's, and it felt shockingly real—the warm press of lips, the soft puff of John's breath as he sighed and opened his mouth. Rodney kept the kiss light—this John might not be real, but his pain felt real—but John reached up and slid his fingers into Rodney's hair and pulled him closer, and then the kiss was really, really not light, and that was John's tongue, and Jesus.

But before Rodney could pull away, John's hand eased up on his neck and slid down to pat his cheek.

"Sorry," John said, and Rodney lifted his head to take in the rueful expression quirking John's eyebrows. "Crappy timing. I'm not going to be good for much any time soon."

Oh, God, he didn't mean . . . okay, yes. He did. "Oh, don't worry about it," Rodney said. "That's fine. Seriously, I'm perfectly okay with, ah, waiting. I just, you know, want you to get better. We wouldn't want to tax your strength, now, would we?"

John grinned at him, his real, unguarded smile, the one Rodney didn't see nearly often enough, and that was worth the kisses, and even the tongue. He lifted his head, and Rodney bent to kiss him one more time—sweetly, mouth closed—before pulling back up.

"I should probably go," he managed, and John had the grace not to look too disappointed.

"Sure," he said easily. "See you later?"

"Of course," Rodney said, and only then realized he had no way of knowing . . . except this John wasn't real, so it didn't matter what he said. "Soon," he added, and then patted John's shoulder once, just because he could.

When he straightened, he realized he had absolutely no idea how to end the scenario. Before he'd always panicked, but somehow he couldn't summon the energy right now. Perhaps if he closed his eyes?

Rodney squeezed them shut, but nothing happened. No sickening lurch, no feeling of metal in his hand. He peeked and saw John still in the bed, watching him with an amused expression.

"Right, sorry," Rodney said. "Really leaving this time." And he had no idea what he did, but a moment later the ground was shifting under him and he was back in his lab.

Back in reality, where John was bruised to the point of unrecognizability, and they didn't kiss. Rodney took a deep breath, but the image in his head was of John's smile, the real one, the one he so rarely saw.

He put the device gently back in its case and headed out for his quarters. He had a feeling that this time, he might actually be able to sleep.

 

 



 

 

John did look better in the morning. Well, he was still bruised and beaten, but the swelling was down, and he was apparently on the good drugs, because he was grinning at everyone who stopped by for a visit, even Woolsey.

It wasn't the same smile he'd given Rodney in the vision, and Rodney felt weirdly pleased by that—which was ridiculous, because the John who had smiled that smile wasn't real. But at least the real John wasn't just giving it away to all and sundry.

But John was fine. He was even cracking jokes about learning to duck. So there was really no reason for Rodney to be thinking about the sensory projector. None at all.

In fact, he didn't think about it for two whole days. Two days where he was distracted and cranky and not getting nearly as much work done as he ought to have been. And then Jennifer mentioned she was keeping John for another day and a half minimum, and something snapped.

The last time, the projected John had been days ahead in his recovery. Surely he'd be on his feet by now. And Rodney wouldn't stay long, not long enough to get tongue involved. He'd just check in and get out.

The device felt comfortable in his hand by now, smooth and familiar. Rodney wrapped his fingers around it . . . and found himself inside a large, billowing cloth tent. The air was hot and dry and smelled of salt, and at least it wasn't the infirmary, but . . . wait, this was M4S-736, where they'd met with the Tintano, just a month ago. Except instead of tables, there was a broad platform in the center of the tent, with a wide, cloth-covered bench right in the middle. Wide enough to be a bed.

The Tintano weren't acting much like the Tintano, either. Instead of asking pointed questions about trade, they all had their arms crossed over their chests, and they were staring rather menacingly at Rodney. And John. Because of course John was there, right next to him. Looking perfectly fine—on his feet and everything. He didn't even have a scar from the cut on his cheek, and Rodney took a minute to just drink that in. He looked good. Really, really good.

"Well," John said. "I guess we're going to have to do this."

"What?" Rodney said, and looked away from John's face to find the Tintano circled around them, their expressions severe. Several were holding enormous spears, which was ridiculous, because they were nearly as technologically advanced as the Travelers. Or, at least, the real Tintano were.

"For the record," John said, "this isn't how I wanted our first time to go."

Rodney whipped his head back around to see John unbuckling his belt, like he . . . oh, fuck. The bench apparently really was a bed, and the Tintano were all watching, and they wanted them to . . . seriously? On the bed, in front of everyone?

John had his holster off, and his vest, too, and he was starting on his fly, and that was just . . . no. No way. Not a chance.

The world lurched, and it all disappeared: the tent, the bed, the spears, and John.

"Oh, my God," Rodney said to his empty lab.

Apparently there were some things he wasn't prepared for, after all.

 

 



 

 

Rodney wasn't an idiot. There was obviously something about the sensory projector he hadn't figured out yet, and when he put his mind and his diagnostic tools to it, it didn't take long to discover what it was.

The thing wasn't just a sensory projector. It was a receiver as well. It worked by uploading complex cortical patterns and translating them into raw perception, which meant . . . oh, holy hell. That was his subconscious? Seriously? The device projected John—because apparently it really was still stuck on John—and his brain came up with that?

It was . . . revealing, in the disturbing sense of the word. And it wasn't that he had anything against the idea of sex with guys—in theory, anyway (hell, getting off was getting off, and there had, of course, been that incident with his roommate in grad school)—but he'd certainly never thought of John like that. John was just . . . well, John. Brave to the point of foolhardy, occasionally infuriating, surprisingly good to hang out with, but just John. Rodney had certainly never contemplated kissing him.

Until now. Because whether the sensory projector was feeding off his subconscious or making it all up wholesale, Rodney couldn't stop thinking about it. About John's lips, soft and warm against his. About the look on John's face when he thought Rodney was going to kiss him. And yes, fine, about John's hands undoing the buttons of his fly.

Damn it all. It made things weird when he went to visit John in the infirmary, which turned into getting John released and then walking him back to his quarters. The only thing that saved Rodney's sanity was that John apparently hadn't had anything but sponge baths in a week and was getting pretty ripe. If it hadn't been for that, he might have embarrassed himself.

"You okay?" Rodney asked, when John had sunk down onto his bed and was all too obviously trying not to show that he was exhausted.

"I'm fine," John said.

"Do you need anything? Do you want me to, um, stay?" And Jesus, he hadn't just asked that.

John's eyes flicked up to his, then skidded away just as fast, and Rodney had no idea what that meant. "I'm good."

"Here," Rodney said, grabbing the carafe that was always next to John's bed. "I'll get you some fresh water."

He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror as the carafe filled. He had to get a grip. He was acting like this was one of the scenarios from the sensory projector, and it really, really wasn't. Also, John needed a shower. Really, really badly.

"There you go," he said too brightly, setting the carafe down on the bedside tray. "If you need anything else you can, um, just holler."

"Got my radio on," John said, and tapped it to show him.

"Right. Well. I'll just be going, then."

John was looking at him a little oddly, and Rodney couldn't tell if he had noticed anything strange or was just tired. But all John said was, "Thanks," so Rodney slipped out the door.

He made it to his lab so fast he was still breathing hard when he fumbled for the lock on the case. And then his fingers were closing around smooth green metal, and . . .

"Oh my God, it's freezing in here," Rodney heard his own voice say, and whoa, he was right. He was in a narrow room—come to think of it, the architecture looked like the houses on M5L-028, which had been perfectly temperate the last time they'd visited—and he could see frost on the inside of the windows. And for whatever reason, he wasn't wearing his jacket.

"Come here," John said, and Rodney whirled to see him coming out of the next room carrying a thick blanket. "We can stay warm until Ronon and Teyla come get us in the morning."

"Oh, yes, yes, that's exactly what I need," Rodney said, trying to take it, but John wouldn't let go, and that was when Rodney noticed he was in a t-shirt, too.

"We can share," John said, and okay, Rodney had been wondering when this scenario would get to the point. The totally ridiculous point—seriously, huddling together for warmth?—but whatever. At least there weren't any menacing people with spears.

They settled on a deep couch with the blanket draped around their shoulders, which meant Rodney's arm was right up against John, and so was his thigh. It was almost instantly warmer, which wasn't exactly realistic, but apparently the device didn't care, and neither, really, did Rodney. John felt good. Solid and healthy and whole, and if this was what his subconscious wanted, well, Rodney was willing to indulge. He was willing to indulge it all the way to settling back against the cushions and even leaning his head against John's shoulder, just a little.

John sighed and tipped his head back, exposing the long line of his throat. And it was strange; Rodney had never really thought of a guy's neck as attractive before, but John's was . . . nice, Adam's apple and all. And then John turned his head and his mouth was right there, and . . . okay, why not? This was why his subconscious wanted him here, wasn't it?

Rodney lifted his head and found John's mouth, and John sighed into the kiss, turning and sliding one hand into Rodney's hair.

It felt familiar by now, warm and natural and yes, good. Rodney was getting to know the shape of John's lips, the way the curve of the lower one fit against his, filling the empty spaces between them. Rodney slid a hand around John's shoulder, and that was new, but the curl of John's back felt pleasantly sturdy under his palm, and John let out a soft, happy noise and eased closer. But he didn't take it any farther than that, just kissed and kissed, and after awhile Rodney had to pull back and take stock of the situation.

He was lying back among the couch cushions with John over him, but John's hips were twisted to one side, which meant . . . huh. John really wasn't pushing it. Well, okay, from the dark eyes and the soft, sleepy expression, he was probably pretty far gone, but he wasn't shedding any clothes, not like the last time. So apparently the device had decided that was too much, too fast? Well, Rodney could live with that.

"You cold?" John asked, and his thumb stroked Rodney's cheek.

"Me? No, I'm good. Quite warm, actually. Your methods are remarkably, ah, effective."

John smiled a slow, shy smile, and ran his thumb across Rodney's cheek again. "Guess I should've tried this a long time ago."

"Oh," Rodney said. "Actually, um. This is kind of a recent thing?"

"Ah," John said.

"But it's okay," Rodney said quickly, because he didn't want John pulling back. "I'm totally fine with it. With the kissing, I mean. One hundred percent on board."

"Okay," John said, and his smile was back. "I can work with that."

They kissed some more after that, long, easy kisses, sprawled together against the cushions. They kissed until Rodney was warm all the way to his toes, until his lips ached pleasantly, until he was so sleepy he didn't protest when John finally pulled back. But all John did was tuck his head up against Rodney's neck, and it felt so surreal and yet so right that the only thing Rodney could do was close his eyes and give in to the warmth and darkness.

 

 



 

 

He woke with his head on his lab table, the sensory projector lying next to his unclenched hand. His back hurt and he was stiff and cold, and no, the irony of that was not lost on him.

He staggered to his feet, managed to put the device away in its proper case, and headed down the stairs. He needed coffee and a shower, in that order, and the nearest place to get coffee was the mess.

Teyla and was there, sitting at a table by the window, and she had John with her, which Rodney hadn't expected, and the thing he really hadn't expected was the overwhelming wave of guilt that crashed over him. John looked somewhat better than he had, but his face was still covered in fading yellow bruises and he looked kind of stiff, and Rodney had used him last night.

And okay, fine, it hadn't been the real John, but in the too-bright light of morning, Rodney was all too aware that the real John didn't know what he had done, what he'd been doing, what he had no right to do. It wasn't like the guy in the visions was just some random computer creation that bore a passing resemblance to a co-worker. He looked like John. He talked like John. He said the kinds of things John would really say. The only difference was he was into kissing Rodney, but it wasn't like that would make the real John any happier if he knew about it.

"Won't you sit down with us?"

Rodney spun, slopping recently poured coffee all over his hand, and found Teyla standing right behind him. "Oh, ah, hi," he said, setting his coffee cup back on the table and grabbing for a napkin to wipe up his hand. At least it hadn't been hot enough to burn. "Actually, I was just here for a, you know, quick cup of coffee."

"I am certain you can spare a few minutes," Teyla said, and damn it, she was impossible when she was right.

"Yes, well, if it's only a few, I suppose I could." And he followed Teyla over to the table by the window.

John had a cup of coffee and a bowl of something that looked like mush—right, he probably wasn't on a completely solid diet yet. "What happened, you sleep in your lab last night?"

Sheesh, when had he turned psychic? "Yes, actually," Rodney admitted. "I was working."

"I can see that," John said, gesturing with his coffee cup. "Got a little friendly with your keyboard, there."

Rodney raised his hand to his right cheek, and whoa, John was right. He could actually still feel the imprint, just a little. "You're looking disgustingly chipper. What's got into you?"

John smiled and took a sip of his coffee. "Slept in my own bed last night."

Rodney frowned, purposefully not thinking about where the other John had slept, the one who wasn't real. "It can't be that comfortable. It's no bigger than the one in the infirmary."

But John didn't rise to the bait. "We can't all have a prescription mattress, McKay."

"I am sure John was merely happy to be out of the infirmary," Teyla said, giving Rodney a pointed look.

"Of course he was," Rodney said. Because of course the real John wouldn't have wanted to sleep anywhere else, well, not with Rodney, anyway, and wow, he was cranky this morning.

"I think someone got up on the wrong side of the keyboard," John told Teyla.

"Yes, well, some of us have work to do," Rodney said. "Vitally important work, which, oh hey, I should be doing right now." He pushed his chair back. "I'll, ah, see you later?"

"Of course," Teyla said, and John said, "Sure thing," and gave him another amused look, and damn it, he looked so good Rodney wanted to kiss him. Which was not good. So not good.

"Hey," John said as he turned to go. "Next time you might want to consider sleeping in a bed. Probably help your mood in the morning."

"Right," Rodney said, and fled.

 

 



 

 

He wasn't going to try it again. The guilt was bad enough without the ridiculous little heart-jerks he felt every time he looked at John's lips. It was distracting, and even if the team was grounded until John recovered, he had work to do. He'd had a little epiphany about power generation for a laser weapon he'd been developing, and then there were the usual city maintenance issues, which Radek always seemed to want to involve him in.

It would have been a lot easier if he could have simply avoided John, but John was there at lunch, too, and then he stopped by in the afternoon, saying Jennifer had told him he needed to walk to build up his strength, and Rodney's lab was conveniently located.

Well, yes, it was conveniently located, but that didn't mean John needed to actually come in and stand around looking kissable.

"Do you mind?" Rodney said. "I'm working."

"Oh yeah?" John slouched closer, which didn't help Rodney's blood pressure at all. "Whatcha working on?"

"It's a laser," Rodney said. "I think I may have come up with a way to power a really, really big one. Remember the alternate reality drive on that other Daedalus we encountered last year? It was powered by subspace."

"Hang on a minute," John said. "Wasn't there a problem shutting that thing down? You said it was like a water tap with no valve."

"Well, yes," Rodney admitted. "But I think I may be able to solve that, too."

John's eyes narrowed. "Please tell me this has nothing to do with Doranda."

"No," Rodney said. "No, of course not. Well, only a little. And I promise not to test it until I'm absolutely certain I can shut it down."

"You'd better be damn sure," John said.

"It's a giant space laser," Rodney said. "You of all people ought to appreciate that."

"I do," John said. "I will. I just don't want you blowing yourself or anyone else up in the process."

"Trust me, I intend to avoid that scenario."

"Glad to hear it," John said, and clapped him on the shoulder.

 

 



 

 

He managed to hold out for three days, but it just kept getting worse. He needed some kind of relief. And if relief came in the shape of a Ancient joystick, well, who was it hurting, anyway?

Rodney took it back to his quarters, this time, because there was no way he was going to sleep in his lab again. He got himself comfy—changed into a t-shirt and boxers, brushed his teeth—and settled down on his bed before opening the case.

The device looked just like it always did, sparkly and green and inviting. Rodney reached for it and closed his eyes.

When he opened them, he was on a grassy hillside, and John was next to him. The planet looked familiar—M5W-092? Or, no, no, it was M7P-545, the one with the gorgeous warrior women who had chased them all the way to the gate after John made the mistake of winking at one of them.

"Seriously?" Rodney said, looking around wildly. "Have you forgotten what happened the last time we were here?"

"It'll be fine," John said, and he started down the slope. "I have a plan."

"Oh, wonderful," Rodney said, trotting to catch up. "They better not have any spears."

They made it halfway down the slope before the warrior women appeared, in full armor with swords and crossbows and wait, was that a blaster?

"Okay," Rodney said, "I take back what I said about the spears." But John was smiling at them, his best "we come in peace" smile.

"Hi," John said. "Look, I'm sorry for the misunderstanding last time. Guess I forgot to mention that McKay here is my, ah, you know. Boyfriend." And he slung an arm around Rodney's shoulder.

"What are you doing?" Rodney whispered, because this was getting less plausible by the minute.

"Just play along," John whispered back. "If they think you're with me, they're not going to take a little friendliness the wrong way."

"Oh, please," Rodney said, because honestly, this was the most ridiculous scenario yet. "Do we really have to go through all of this rigmarole? Can't we just skip the idiotic set-up and go somewhere we can make out?"

John's arm tightened around Rodney's shoulder; then his laugh rang out. "Jesus, Rodney. Only you." But when Rodney looked up, the warrior women were gone, and in their place was a small cottage.

So the dreamscape was mutable, after all. That was interesting. "After you," Rodney said, and followed John through the door. The inside was pleasantly homey, with oversized chairs and a fireplace and what looked like a door to another room, but Rodney didn't waste any time, just pushed John against the nearest wall and kissed him.

And oh, God, it was as good as the last time. Better, even, because John's mouth opened for him, and there was exploring to do, and tongue—not too much tongue, because John was obviously still taking this easy, but Rodney was done with easy. He braced a hand on either side of John's head and sucked John's lower lip in, and John moaned and grabbed his shoulders.

"Rodney," John said, low and breathy, and John's hips hitched forward and wow, the hard ridge against Rodney's pants was John's dick. So maybe this wasn't real, maybe it would never be real, but it felt real. Hell, it felt amazing, and Rodney pressed against John, and that felt even better.

"I know it's ridiculous," Rodney said, rubbing up against John's hip in small, erratic circles. "But I can't stop thinking about this. About you."

"You're not the only one," John said.

"I can't concentrate on my work," Rodney said. "I can't even do simple n-space math in my head. I'm in a total rut."

John laughed and kissed him again—deeper, and with more tongue. "You want me to stop coming by your lab?"

Rodney froze, because that was the real world he was talking about, but no, no. If the device had access to his subconscious, of course it knew that John had been stopping by.

"Not much point in that," Rodney said, and went back to making circles with his hips, hard against John's. "I'm distracted even when you're not there."

"Sorry about that," John said, not sounding sorry at all, and leaned in for another kiss.

Things got hazy for awhile. John gave up on taking it easy and Rodney gave up on thinking, and he ended up with his palms on either side of John's face and John's hands up under his shirt.

"Rodney," John said, a breathy gasp in his ear. "Christ. I think . . . there might be . . . a bedroom here somewhere."

"Oh God," Rodney whimpered, because he was pretty sure that meant John, naked, and oh, oh, oh fuck, he was coming in his pants. Like a teenager, no self control at all, and damn it, he'd wanted to see John with his clothes off.

Rodney opened his eyes, still gasping, to see his own bedroom, his own bed, and no, no, no, he wasn't done, yet. He couldn't be, because John hadn't come. And maybe it wasn't something he'd ever thought he'd want, but he wanted it now, wanted to see John's face go slack and sweet, wanted to kiss him while he jerked and shuddered.

The sensory projector was lying there on the blanket, and Rodney grabbed it and screwed his eyes shut, but when he opened them he was still in his room. "Come on, come on, come on," he said, willing it to work, and then there was a disconcerting ripple across his field of vision, and he was back in the cottage. John was there, head tipped back against the wall, and he had one hand in his pants, working himself fast and hard.

"John," Rodney said, and John's eyes flew open, and then John was staring wide-eyed at Rodney and, God, yes, coming all over his hand and his shirt.

Rodney lurched forward and got a fistful of John's shirt, then managed to find John's mouth with his own. But as he opened his mouth to John's, he felt John go bizarrely insubstantial, like he was dissolving against Rodney's skin, and with another wrench, Rodney was back in his bed.

The device was still in his hand this time, and Rodney clenched it tightly, willing it to take him back, but nothing happened. His walls stayed stubbornly in place around him, his prescription mattress too firm beneath his back.

He finally gave up, letting the device roll from his palm and sitting up slowly. He felt . . . sated and bereft. He wanted more, right now. He couldn't have gotten it up if he'd tried, and yes, his shorts were sticky on the inside, so it hadn't been just a virtual orgasm. But damn it, what about the afterglow?

Yes, well, apparently that was the trouble with virtual sex—it wasn't real, in the same way that the visions weren't real because John would never do that. Hell, even in an alternate universe where John Sheppard was attracted to Rodney McKay—assuming such a thing could possibly exist—John would never pretend they were a couple just to get a chance to make out. Or any of the other bizarre scenarios the stupid device kept coming up with.

Because John was cool. He wasn't some kind of soppy romantic. And why Rodney's subconscious persisted in making him into one, he had no idea. It was perfectly ridiculous.

Even if, on some, bizarre level, Rodney kind of almost really liked it.

 

 



 

 

"Hey," John said, and Rodney jerked around. It had sounded low and breathy, just like in the visions, but this was his lab, and John looked . . . just like John always looked. He was standing in the doorway with his hands in his pockets, and there was nothing in unusual his expression, no sign of heat or hidden desire. "How's the giant laser coming?"

Of course there wasn't, because John hadn't changed. The one who had changed was Rodney. He knew it was him, because he was the one just standing here and staring. But John looked good. Really good. The bruises were almost entirely faded, now, and he was moving more easily, like his ribs weren't hurting him quite as much. Which of course only served to make him look more kissable, and that was just . . . right. What was the question?

"Oh, the laser. The laser is fine. Well, I haven't entirely solved the power shut-off problem, but I'm making progress. Lots and lots of progress."

"Good," John said. "That's good, Rodney." And okay, this conversation was rapidly devolving into the inane.

"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, it is good. But I should be, you know, getting back to it."

"Okay," John said, but he didn't move for a moment. "Uh, see you for lunch?"

"Sure," Rodney said, his heart doing a flip in his chest, because they ate together a lot, sure, but they almost never planned it. They usually just happened to show up at the mess at the same time.

"Cool," John said, and then with one more casual, quick glance, he was gone.

 

 



 

 

Rodney had meant to wait until evening, but he couldn't stand it. John had been driving him just as crazy at lunch, even though they'd sat with Ronon and hadn't talked about anything apart from lasers and whether intelligence should count as a superpower and when they should go back to M4B-232 and lasers, and honestly, John was the one who brought up the lasers the second time, and then Ronon had wanted to know what they'd be good for, so Rodney had had an excuse for going on about them.

But really, just seeing John's eyes light up at the thought of a Giant Space Laser was enough to make it impossible to concentrate for the rest of the afternoon. So it wasn't shirking his duty when he headed to his quarters rather than the lab. He was just going to get it out of his system, and then he'd go right back to work. He locked the door and shucked off his pants for good measure, then settled on the bed and reached for the sensory device.

If he'd expected anything, it would have been a repeat of the cottage, possibly with a foray to the bedroom. But when he opened his eyes, Rodney was on the bridge of a Daedalus-class ship, surrounded by people, including many of Atlantis's best and brightest as well as Sam Carter, and oh, of course. It was the General Hammond, which he'd actually never been on, but his imagination was apparently perfectly capable of supplying the proper details.

John was standing next to him—of course John was there—but he wasn't looking at Rodney. His eyes were fixed on the view out the forward windows, where four hive ships had just popped out of hyperspace.

"Fire at will," Sam said, and a giant beam shot out from the Hammond, crossing the hull of the nearest hive and leaving a trail of explosions. The beam hit the second ship, and the third and fourth, and within minutes, there were debris fields where the hives had been, and the entire bridge was erupting in cheers.

"Oh, my God, that was my laser!" Rodney said. He turned to John, who was grinning back at him. "Did you see that? That was my laser!"

Someone clapped him on the back and he lurched toward John, who grabbed him by the arm. And then he was looking up into John's face and right, this wasn't real, so why the hell not?

John's lips were warm and familiar, and maybe it was weird to be doing this on in front of everyone on the Hammond, but Rodney couldn't bring himself to care. John's hands came up to cup his face and he slid his own around to John's ass, and whoa, the bridge was erupting in cheers again. Rodney pulled back, disoriented, but there were no new hive ships exploding. Everyone was looking at him. And John. And wait, that was a whistle, and somewhere across the room he heard a cat call.

No one was freaking out. They were celebrating, and it was so bizarre that Rodney blinked, and when he opened his eyes, he was in his own room.

"Damn it," he said out loud, but when he clasped the device again, nothing more happened. Of course not. He'd wanted a little afternoon release, and what he'd gotten were cat calls.

That was weird. Not to mention unfair. And if that was what his subconscious wanted, he needed to give it a stern talking to.

 

 



 

 

The more he thought about it, though, the more it didn't make sense. So maybe he wasn't the most self-reflective person in the galaxy, but he was pretty sure he knew himself well enough to know he'd never fantasized about kissing in public. Well, not that he'd never kissed someone in front of someone else, but not like that. Not with cheering.

He grabbed a sandwich instead of going to dinner and holed up in his lab with the device, rerunning every test he'd ever done on it. But all the answers came up the same. It was a receiver, clearly programmed to scan the user's brain and translate their thoughts to a virtual sensory projection. It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense, unless . . .

Okay, what if it was somehow operating remotely? There was no way to . . . wait, yes. It was possible. The scanner didn't require physical contact. It could be reading anyone's mind within a certain radius, and the only way to find out was . . . yes. Yes, he could do it. All he had to do was set up a sensor to track the direction and power of the scanner's focus beam.

Of course, it meant he'd have to activate the device again, but that wasn't exactly a hardship.

Rodney set up the necessary equipment, settled comfortably in his lab chair, and picked up the device.

"Oh, hey," John said, turning away from the broad window. A view of Atlantis's spires filled the expanse of glass, and the room was . . . nice. Living quarters, obviously, but bigger than anything Rodney had seen, with what looked like kitchen facilities cobbled together from Ancient equipment and a few Earth appliances. The living area was spacious and inviting, with couches and throw pillows and sparkly curtains on the window.

John's sparkly curtains.

"I'm heading down to the commissary," John was saying. "Can you think of anything we need? I've got eggs and powdered milk down, and I'll check to see if they have any of that cereal you like. You think we need laundry detergent?"

"What?" Rodney said, because that didn't make any sense at all, unless . . . oh, God. This wasn't his fantasy, either. His fantasies were light years behind this—hell, he was still at the desperate-to-see-John-naked stage—so this was just . . . Jesus.

"You okay?" John was asking, and suddenly Rodney had everything he needed.

"I have to go," he said, and squeezed his eyes shut.

He opened them to his lab, to the readouts that said exactly what he already knew they would. The device was downloading brain patterns remotely, all right.

From the precise direction of John's quarters.

Rodney grabbed the case, slipped the device inside, and, oh, right, he should turn off his equipment and his computer and oh, oh God.

He had to see John. Right now.

 

 



 

 

John's door opened when Rodney swiped the crystals, and John looked up from where he was sitting on his bed. His computer was propped on his knees, and Rodney could just make out some sort of diagram on the screen.

"McKay," John said, and turned back to his screen, but Rodney crossed the room, undeterred, the case still in his hand. Because he knew, now, and why he hadn't figured it out before, he had no idea, only it had seemed so impossible, so utterly beyond the realm of the conceivable that he'd dismissed it out of hand.

"I know everything," he said, stopping at the foot of the bed with the rightness of it bubbling up inside him. "And okay, fine, it took me awhile to figure out, but I think I can be forgiven for not realizing you were such a sap. I mean, seriously, huddling together for warmth? The Tintano with spears? Where do you come up with these things, anyway?"

John set his computer on his bedside table and swung his feet over the edge of the mattress, giving Rodney a quelling stare. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"The visions!" Rodney crowed. "I know you've been having them, because I've been having them, too. It's the sensory projector. You know, the green thing you gave me a few weeks back." He held up the case, popped the lid open, and tipped it in John's direction, just to make himself perfectly clear. "It's a communications device. It allows us to create a shared virtual reality. Well, okay, you're apparently the one who creates it, but I seem to have a certain amount of agency as well, and don't you understand what this means?" He was bouncing on his toes, but John was still just staring at him.

"No," John said, rising to his feet and crossing his arms over his chest.

"Oh, please," Rodney said, and snapped the case closed again. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. The shared living quarters? The kiss on the Hammond? The warrior women on M7P-545? Only you got rid of them and found us a place to make out, remember?"

"Oh holy fuck," John said, and his whole face went tight and distant.

"John?" Rodney said, and took an uncertain step toward him.

"So you're telling me," John said, his eyes straying to the case still in Rodney's hand and then shying away again, "that that . . . device has been letting you read my mind?"

"It wasn't mind reading," Rodney said. "It was a full sense-surround experience. It felt like I was there. Wait, are you saying it wasn't the same for you?"

"There was no damn virtual reality, Rodney." John's lips pressed together. "Okay, I might have had some thoughts about you that were . . . kind of vivid. But that was it. There were no 'visions.'"

"Oh," Rodney said, and he wasn't disappointed. Well, okay, yes, he was, because he didn't want it to have been one-sided. He wanted John to have been there. "'Kind of vivid'?"

"Just thoughts," John said. "It wasn't real."

"It was real," Rodney said. "Well, okay, it was virtual. But the things that mattered were real."

"No," John said. "They weren't." And he shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at something over Rodney's left shoulder.

"What, that's it?" Rodney said. "That's all you have to say? How can you even . . . ? Do you have any idea what these past few weeks have been like for me? I thought it was all in my head, and now when I find out it isn't, you're telling me it didn't mean anything? That is just . . . oh, come on, that is not fair."

John's eyes flicked back to his. "Nobody said anything about fair," he said. "It wasn't exactly fair of you to go snooping in my head."

"It wasn't intentional!" Rodney said, because this was so not the way this was supposed to go. "You told me to figure out what the thing did, so I figured! And to be honest, I only just realized it was coming from you. I thought it was my subconscious."

"I see," John said, but his face was still completely closed off.

"I think I can be excused for that," Rodney said. "It was really . . . well, okay, in the beginning it was a little strange, but then I got used to it, and then it was—"

"'Got used to it'?" John said.

"Well, obviously. I mean, I'd certainly never thought about you like that before. Not that it, ah, makes a difference, of course, since I'm obviously thinking about you like that now."

But John's face looked the way he did when he'd been shot and was pretending it didn't hurt. "Let me get this straight. That . . . device . . . gave you direct access to my perverted thoughts about you, right around the time you broke up with your girlfriend. And you were lonely enough and horny enough that it got you off."

"No!" Rodney said. "Well, okay, yes, I got off. But it wasn't like that. You're not . . . it wasn't perverted. It was . . ." Sweet, he wanted to say, but he didn't think John would take that the right way. "You seemed pretty into the kissing. And I, ah, like kissing."

"Great," John said, and sat down heavily on his bed, his head in his hands.

Rodney took a step toward him, then another. He really wanted to be touching right now, but he was pretty sure that would make things worse, rather than better. In fact, he was pretty sure he was going about this whole thing entirely the wrong way. He just didn't know what the right way was.

And then he got a closer look at the schematic on John's laptop screen. It was a floor plan. For living quarters. A roomy apartment, with two bedrooms and a spacious living area and yes, a convenient spot to set up a makeshift kitchen.

"Nice place," Rodney said.

John's head came up, but when he spoke, his voice was tired. "Woolsey wants to open up some new living quarters. He asked me to check them over for security issues."

"Of course," Rodney said, and took a deep breath. "You know, you could do a lot with that." He waved a hand at the screen. "A couple of couches, maybe some throw pillows—I bet we could even rig up a kitchen. Oh, and curtains. That window's going to need curtains." He looked up at John's face, which was still bleak. "Of course, a place like that would be awfully big for just one person."

John shook his head. "I'm not planning to move."

"Okay," Rodney said, because this wasn't going very well. "But we could, right? I mean, not right now, not right away. But after we have some time to try this out in the real world?"

"Rodney—"

"So, what, you don't actually want it? You were perfectly happy messing with my head, but faced with the real Rodney McKay, you'll take a pass?"

John clenched his jaw. "Okay, first of all, I had no idea I was messing with your head. And second . . ." He trailed off.

"Yes? Second what?"

John's jaw worked a couple of times before he spoke. "Sometimes I want things I can't have."

"But you can! How have I not made myself obvious? I'm right here, and I . . . I want this." John still wasn't saying anything, so Rodney plunged on. "Look, it's really not such a stretch, is it? I mean, we've been friends . . . seriously, I've loved you for years. This just adds another dimension."

"It's not," John said through gritted teeth, "the same."

"Oh, what, then? Are you saying you've been pining after me for the past five years and I never even . . . oh, my God. You are." Because the look on John's face was completely undeniable, at least to anyone who knew him as well as Rodney did. "I can't believe you never said anything."

"Look," John said. "Can we just drop this? Chalk it up to those wacky Ancients and forget about it?"

Rodney set the case down and sat on the bed, so close their thighs were touching. "No. No, actually, we can't." And he lifted one hand to John's cheek and leaned in to kiss him.

It was just like it had been in the visions, and nothing like it at all. There was the same sweetness, and John's eyes closed, just like they always did. But John's stubble was prickly—huh, apparently in the visions he'd always projected himself freshly shaved—and his lips were chapped and he smelled like John, warm and human and a little spicy.

Rodney was half expecting John to pull away, but he leaned in instead, bringing his hand up to stroke his thumb across the point of Rodney's shoulder. And when Rodney finally pulled back, John opened his eyes slowly, like he was surfacing from deep water.

"Come on," Rodney said, reaching for John's shirt buttons, because there was no way he was going to lose the advantage, here. "We need to get you out of this."

"Um," John said, "That's not really such a great idea."

But Rodney's fingers weren't nimble for nothing, and he had all of the buttons undone in mere seconds. John held his breath as Rodney eased the shirt off his shoulders and down his arms, but when Rodney went to lift his t-shirt hem, he put a hand out.

"I mean it," John said. "We don't have to go any farther than this."

"Oh, please," Rodney said, and tugged the t-shirt up. And then it was over John's head and he was looking at . . . okay, how the hell had he forgotten? John was less than a week out of the infirmary. There was an ace bandage wrapped around his rib cage, just below his nipples, and the scars from his recent surgery showed below it, bright pink and puckered.

"Sorry," John said, and reached for the t-shirt that was still in Rodney's hands.

"Are you kidding?" Rodney said. "I've seen a lot worse."

"Yeah, well, I'm not exactly up for anything athletic," John muttered.

Rodney grinned, because that was totally a capitulation. "I think we can come up with something we can do." And he leaned in and kissed John again.

John melted against his mouth—apparently they were beyond the noble objections phase—and Rodney used the advantage to lower him down onto the bed until they were lying side by side. Rodney ran a hand down John's side, gentle as he could, and he wouldn't have even noticed if they hadn't been kissing, but John winced, just a little.

Rodney pulled back. "Wait, it's still that bad? I thought you were getting better."

"It's fine," John said. "It only hurts when I breathe."

"Yes, well, in case you never noticed, having sex generally requires a little breathing."

"I'll be fine," John said, and reached to pull Rodney in for another kiss. But now that Rodney was looking for it, he was feeling it with almost every change in position. He was careful to keep his weight off of John, but every time he shifted even a little, he felt John tighten and then relax too quickly, like he was trying to hide how much it hurt.

"Okay," Rodney said, lifting his head. "This is really not working."

John closed his eyes. "Shit."

"I know, I know. Crappy timing. You said it yourself."

John's eyes flew open. "What do you . . . ? Okay, this is going to take some getting used to."

"Yes, well, I'm sure you can . . . wait," Rodney said, snapping his fingers. "Remember that part where I'm a genius?"

John rolled his eyes. "Like you ever let me forget."

"No, listen," Rodney said, because it was an amazing idea. A brilliant idea. "We can use the device. The projection works through touch, so if we were both touching it at the same time . . ."

John lifted his head and stared. "I finally have you in my bed, and you want to have virtual sex?"

"Do you have a better idea? Because I have to tell you, the idea of hurting you is really not turning me on."

John's eyebrows went up, but then he sighed and dropped his head back onto his pillow. "I said I was fine."

"Believe me, I heard you," Rodney said. "But I think I've known you long enough to know you don't use that word the way everyone else does."

"Hey," John said, but Rodney leaned in to shut him up with a quick kiss, and then twisted around so that he could lean off the bed to grab the case. He popped the latches and used John's t-shirt to pick the device up.

"Okay, I think the most important thing is to get comfortable, so you don't get hurt by mistake when we're there," Rodney said. "So maybe I should take the couch?"

"Not a chance," John growled. "If we're doing this, we're doing it right." And, okay, Rodney wasn't about to argue with that. He stretched out next to John, careful to give him as much room as possible on the narrow mattress, and put the device, still nestled in John's t-shirt, between them.

"So what do we do?" John asked, and Rodney took his hand.

"Easiest thing in the world," he said, and guided John's hand down to the shiny green metal.

Rodney blinked and he was there, in the generous living quarters with the couches and the ingenious kitchen, only this time Rodney noticed the door to the left, which opened into a large, sunlit bedroom.

"Whoa," John said beside him. "This is what it's been like for you?"

"Mmm-hmmm," Rodney said, distracted, because John was wearing a pair of tight jeans and nothing else. He looked good, no scars or bruises or bandages. No, scratch that. He looked amazing.

"I can see why you wanted to try this," John said.

"Yes, yes," Rodney said. "Shall we get on with it?" And he reached for John and hauled him in, fitting their mouths together with a happy sigh.

John was back to no stubble, but he tasted the same and his skin was warm and smooth and so solid it was hard to remember this was virtual. So maybe it was better with John really here. Or maybe it was just knowing that it was really John. Only . . . okay, how did Rodney know for sure?

"Wait," Rodney said, pulling back.

John wrinkled his nose and tried to drag Rodney back, but this was serious.

"No, really," Rodney said. "How do I know this is you, you? How do I know you're really here in the virtual reality and not just projecting your thoughts?"

John scowled. "I think I would know."

"Yes, yes, but . . . okay, hold that thought." Rodney closed his eyes. He'd broken the connection so many times now that it was almost second nature, and then he was lying in John's bed, next to a John who was, wow, cranky.

"Was that really necessary?" John said.

"I just needed to know," Rodney explained. "You were there? It felt real?"

"Yes," John said. "And I wasn't in pain, so can we go back?"

"Really? It didn't hurt at all?" But John was glowering at him. "Right, right," Rodney said, and closed his hand around John's and the device once more.

The scene hadn't changed at all. He was still in John's arms, and John's mouth was descending on his, and okay, seriously, best use of virtual reality ever.

"C'mon," Rodney said, pulling John toward the open bedroom door, and, okay, the bed was huge. Overcompensation for John's real bed, no doubt, but Rodney wasn't about to complain. He flopped down and yanked John down on top of him, and then he was lying in the streaming sunlight looking up into John's eyes, and the only thing wrong was that they were both still wearing pants.

"Oh, hey," Rodney said. "Think you can get rid of our clothes?"

John's eyebrows quirked. "You mean, with my mind? Why don't you do it?"

"I don't think I can," Rodney said, and tried to wish John's jeans away. "I think it's still imprinted on your thought patterns."

"So I'm in charge, here?" John said, and leave it to him to see it that way. "Cool." And suddenly they were both naked, pressed up against each other, skin everywhere.

"Wow," John said and Rodney grinned at him.

"Yeah," he said. "Wow." And he pulled John's head down for a kiss.

John was oddly more hesitant with his clothes off, but it didn't take too much effort to get him back with the program. A little tongue did the trick nicely, and when John's hips started to move it was . . . okay, this was seriously better without the clothes, and why they hadn't done this before, Rodney had no idea.

"Christ, Rodney," John said. "You're really okay with this?"

"Hang on, let me think a second," Rodney said. "Yes. Now will you stop thinking I'm going to change my mind halfway through? Because I'm starting feel insulted."

John laughed and lowered his head to kiss Rodney some more, and they were back to the hazy part, the part Rodney liked best, and oh, it felt good to run his hands over the skin of John's back and rock his hips in time with John's.

And then John reached between them and took Rodney's cock in his hand, lifting up on his knees and aligning their bodies like they were . . .

"Jesus," Rodney said, because his cock was right there. "Don't we have to, I don't know, get you ready first?" Because in his admittedly somewhat limited experience, anal sex had always involved things like coaxing and stretching and lots and lots of lube.

"Rodney," John said, "it's virtual. We can do it any way we damn well please." And then oh, oh, he was sliding all the way down, and Rodney was inside him and things were really, really not hazy anymore.

"Oh, God," Rodney whimpered, and then John started to move.

So, right, it was still virtual, but it didn't feel virtual. It felt hot and raw and needy, and if Rodney had had any control of things, he would have made it last. But John was in the driver's seat and John was riding him hard, swearing and panting above him, and then John said, "C'mon, Rodney, come for me," and it tore through him like a sob as John shook and came apart above him.

"Oh, my God," Rodney said, as John collapsed down next to him. Still in the virtual world, but apparently neither of them were ready to end this. "Do you always do it like this?"

John's cheeks were flushed—from the exertion, no doubt—but he looked away and slid his hand up to play with Rodney's chest hair. "Not always," he said. "Maybe we could try it again sometime. Do it a little differently."

"Oh, for crying out loud," Rodney said. "Did I or did I not offer to move in with you?"

John lifted his head, and the flush was, if anything, more pronounced. "You know I can't do that, right? There's this little thing called regulations."

"Yes, yes, I know all about your backward country's asinine rules," Rodney said. "I thought they were changing?"

"That's the rumor," John said. "We're not there yet."

"Yes, well, they'd better change soon," Rodney said. "Because I have plans."

"You do know you can always request nicer quarters on your own, right?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Not those kinds of plans. I was thinking something more along the lines of . . . well, I can't promise I'll kiss you on the bridge of the General Hammond, but perhaps the Gateroom would do?"

"Rodney, Jesus," John said, flushing bright again. "I don't want—"

But Rodney wasn't quite as gullible as he used to be. "Yes, actually, you do. I've been inside your fantasies, remember?"

"Crap," John said.

"No, it's good. It's actually . . . I mean, seriously, I would never have guessed any of that stuff. And it's not like you were about to come out and tell me, were you?"

John lifted one shoulder, not quite meeting Rodney's gaze. "Probably not."

"You see?" Rodney said. "At least this way I have a clue about what you like. Which, I think you'll find, is likely to prove beneficial for both of us. Although I was wondering if, ah, maybe we could skip the thing with the Tintano?"

John rolled his eyes. "You think?"

"Oh, don't even," Rodney said, and reached up to pull him in for a kiss.