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Rodney stares down at the I'd never believe it if it weren't happening in front of me sight of Sheppard kneeling, then undoing his fly and, with tongue-slicked lips, sucking down Rodney's cock. Under a blissed-out fog ramped up by a clever tongue and pouty lips, he's powerless to do anything except to gasp out “Joanie”.

THEN:
Rodney's face was screwed up in a grimace. No, no, a thousand times no. There was no way in hell he was going to reveal his most closely guarded secret. He didn't care what those mumbo-jumbo muttering natives had intimated. He was not going to succumb to whatever their allegedly sacred Power-of-the-Hidden-Gem threatened. Because it was most likely – wait, make that obviously - a fake, so there wouldn't be any consequences. Except for letting Sheppard know everything about him.

He didn't care that Teyla and Ronon had blithely revealed their secrets – as if there were anything that he and John didn't already know. Even from a distance, he could see the light from the apparently not that well-hidden Gem blazing through the open window of the sacred hut on the hill. And, then, it was his turn to be secluded along with John. With one glance at John's tortured face, he knew that whatever John was hiding had to be almost as bad as his own shameful secrets. Which meant a whole galaxy of fucked-upedness.

Triple fuck these natives and stupid truth ceremonies. He'd bet they could con their way through if they revealed something that wasn't as embarrassing ... say the third or fourth-worst secret. He could live with that, as long as Sheppard kept his mouth shut afterwards. Which shouldn't be that hard, especially if Rodney had equally damaging intel on him.

NOW:
Rodney spots the shimmering dress hanging on a hook as soon as he enters the bathroom between his and Sheppard's bedrooms. His breath catches. It can mean only one thing: that Sheppard will be okay with this, definitely okay since it had been Sheppard's decision alone.

Not surprisingly, when they're all gathered for dinner in the communal space, the rest of the team is okay, too. Rodney wonders why they had worried about it. Ronon usually dismisses odd expedition phobias or practices as either “stupid Earth shit” or, if he's making a point in Rodney-as-evolved-Canadian's favour especially, “stupid American military shit”. This time he just grunts, as if to convey What's the big deal?

Teyla's eyes widen – just a fraction – when she enters, but she greets them just as warmly as ever, perhaps a beat longer as she inclines her forehead toward each of them.

Rodney relaxes for the first time since P37 X99, unclenching muscles he didn't know existed. But then he glances over at Sheppard ... whose appearance seems boneless, so languid and effortless, eyes bright and youthful, seemingly without a care in the world ... and really knows that his worries can be laid to rest.

For a rare change, Rodney doesn't take over all conversation during and after dinner, but simply watches Sheppard interacting unselfconsciously with their teammates. Rodney's content just to smile and nod at the appropriate intervals. He can't help but glance frequently at Sheppard who looks perfect in the dress. Rodney just feels smug that he managed to barter for it at a recent fair offworld. The blues, greens and bronzes shimmer along its length. The top is a simple, Grecian style, with gathers at the shoulders and waist. He's relieved that it seems to fit Sheppard as if custom made. But, then, that's probably the Sheppard pedigree, too. Could probably make a potato sack look like couture.

THEN:
Oops! Busted. It appears that their reluctance – after several hours of pretending (or in reality alternating between scheming and a round of prime/not prime) - to tell their worst secret was deemed not merely disrespectful but antagonistic to their hosts, so Teyla marched into the hut and glared at them. “I do not care which one of you is refusing to participate fully in this ceremony, but you will do it now or I will report to Mr. Woolsey that neither of you is fit to be on the first contact team.”

Shit. Rodney didn't doubt that Teyla would do that. She cared too much about Pegasus, mending bridges especially since their return. And the last thing they needed was to be ratted out to the ... principal. Or to be replaced by the B team. Not as if anyone else could replace him. Or Sheppard. Rodney could predict that Teyla and Ronon would easily interject themselves smoothly into any team, whether Sheppard was in charge of roster changes or not.

“But, Teyla, seriously. You can't believe all this mumbo-jumbo is real.” Hey, she had to cut him some slack for his natural scientific scepticism.

Her voice was gentler than before. More patient. “Rodney, I know you dismiss things you cannot understand from a logical viewpoint. You believe this Gem is just a pretty but worthless trinket, that it has no capacity to sense one's truthfulness.”

Rodney nodded eagerly. It was plain that Teyla had picked up a lot of his scientific values over the years. But his face fell, once she resumed speaking.

“Do you not have countless machines that work without wires so that you cannot tell how they can take readings when you do not see the interior of the apparatus? What if this entire hut is a highly sophisticated medical scanner, one that can immediately calibrate when your heartbeat, respiration and blood pressure are spiking and then calming. Or even gauge your brain waves or release of stress hormones. And that is how it determines whether you have shared your deepest secret – or near enough to it. And only then will the Gem glow. Allowing us - all of us - to depart from this world without bringing shame to Atlantis.” Then she pulled out the guilt trip. “Or to me, personally, as your Pegasus guide.”

Rodney had to give her credit. She had been observing him and listening carefully, especially over the last couple of years. And she definitely had the diplomatic niceties covered. Even before she laid the guilt trip on them.

He darted his eyes to rest on John's face. John had his eyes closed, his head leaning back against the wall, but Rodney could see the tension in his clenched hands.

“Okay, Teyla. You won't have to tattle on us where Woolsey's concerned. Give us another 30 minutes – one hour tops – to make that light blaze.”

Teyla nodded at him, then took a few steps closer to John before she touched his shoulder. “Be well, John. Bringing your secrets to the light will not be the end of your unique bond of friendship with Rodney.”

John opened his eyes and gazed wearily at his once-again serene teammate. “I sure hope so, Teyla.”

Teyla left, shutting the door behind her, leaving them alone again. Along with their stubborn secrets.

Rodney was the first to speak. “You know, not trusting me could be a sign that you don't trust yourself to keep my secret.”

John's eyes blazed with heat. “Dammit, Rodney. I've been keeping secrets – my own and others' – all my life.” His face twisted, his lips tightened, “I think I can manage to keep one more.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

Well, this snippy stubbornness wouldn't get them far and the hour would be up before they actually got to the secrets, so Rodney took a deep breath. “I guess I'll have to take the reins here and start. I'm trusting you with this and I expect you to take this to your deathbed.”

John's ire had bled away as quickly as it had flared and he looked genuinely relieved to hear that Rodney was willing to go first. “Yeah, buddy, you have my word.”

Rodney's voice was soft but the words easy to understand. “When I was born, I had – I had ... ambiguous genitalia that classified me as intersex. Just as well I was born north of the middle of nowhere - aka Fort McMurray. Alberta – where we didn't have fancy hospitals with big shot surgeons who'd insist that operating – I'd call it butchery - on me was crucial. If you've ever wondered why I consider medicine to be voodoo, I think it goes all the way back to my birth.”

He shuddered and took a few deep, calming breaths again. He noticed that John's eyes had closed and there were goosebumps all up his arms, despite the heat of the day.

“So, even if my parents might have caved in to medical intervention for the sake of a more normal looking baby, it just didn't exist up there. But that didn't stop them from screwing up my head. My mother always wanted a girl, so she was determined to superimpose as many identifying female characteristics. Including my wishy-washy name. I've got her to blame for 'Meredith', no matter how many times I heard it was my great uncle's name. It was just because my father put his foot down that she didn't get to stick me with 'Ariadne' as my middle name. That's how I got 'Rodney'. Six of one and half dozen of the other. Equals a mess. Do you have any idea of how hard it was to find baby outfits that weren't either pink or blue – because that was the other issue on which my father refused to budge. He said he'd tear up every single thing she bought if it were pink. But she couldn't – wouldn't - capitulate over to the blue side. So, I got to wear green or yellow a lot.”

Rodney sighed as the more unpleasant memories rose to the surface. “To make things worse for me – and so she'd have yet another reason to hate my existence – she couldn't employ any babysitters until I was old enough to go to the bathroom on my own. Otherwise, her shameful secret would have been blabbed all over town. And she couldn't have borne that. That just gave her another reason to resent me, for keeping her a prisoner in her own home. Because the allergies and the rest weren't enough of a burden. Obviously only for her, as the possibility of me dying was insignificant when compared to her drama.”

He took another look at John and saw that his eyes were now open, but simply considering, and not judging.

“Though I never showed any inclination to be or act like a girl and she couldn't make me wear pink, my mother kept pushing me to do girls' things. Like playing the piano. Don't misunderstand me. I loved playing the piano, but hated the idea that my talent and sensitivity for it would be attributed to my being more like a real girl. So I started to shy away from playing all the great romantics, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, even though I had the hands and dexterity for all the ethereal passages. I began to play nothing but Bach in the most clinical way possible. Huh, could've called it RoboBach.”

Rodney paused, extended his hands, looking sad while he flexed his fingers. “I hated what I was doing, denying my artistic side especially because I really felt the music, but knew it was the only way to get out of piano lessons. When my teacher finally admitted I was a fine technical player but had no soul, something inside me broke, something that bitch of my mother had wrenched from me. But it was the only way I could extricate myself from a primarily girlish existence. Because you've got to admit that building a non-working nuclear bomb in Grade Six is not something a traditional girl would do.”

John's lips curled up. “Not even in Canada?”

“Not even in Canada.” Rodney's lips quirked briefly in response. “Moron.” So far, this seemed to be going well. There was a bit more to reveal, then it would be John's turn. Rodney could ... would get through it and then relax.

“That's why I switched to science, but I was still being treated like an outcast despite the 'M' on my birth certificate. I recall my dad telling me that he'd argued with the hospital officials that I was indeed a boy because there was something on the outside. And, in those days, there simply wasn't the knowledge of what intersex could involve internally. It didn't help that I was a knockout – way more than Jeannie – into my late teens. I might still have some blackmail-type photos hidden, so I can prove it to you. Blond curls and a slender body. Even eyeliner, but you can blame Boy George for that. Though thankfully no boobs. I don't think I could have handled those. And, with my mixed-up genetics, no period.”

Rodney shuddered, remembering playing the waiting game with his mother as keenly prying observer, wondering whether each successive month would bring that unwanted surprise, which was the primary reason for the extensive tests whose happy – for him - results released him from his mother's interference. Though, he wondered why nobody had questioned just how any bleeding would have exited his body when he lacked an opening other than the urethra. Now he knew better – and shuddered some more. But, then, he didn't expect logic to govern his mother's wishes and actions.

Rodney ran his fingers through his thinning brown hair. “I know, I know. Who'd have thought that I'd end up with a middle-aged receding hairline?”

John didn't know how to put this delicately. “So ... uh ... you did finally grow into a male body? Not that I've ever stared, you know, but you look just like a regular guy.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “Yes, I did turn into a regular guy. Another reason to be thankful for the lack of butchery after I was born. Because what I have works, thank you very much. Well, actually, I have Carson to thank for that aspect. You're the only one, other than Carson and me, who now knows of his involvement. If it weren't for his unorthodox genetic research and – ah – perhaps a bit of undocumented tinkering with alien tech, I wouldn't be how I am today.”

Rodney waved an arm at his upper torso. “I did manage to bulk up by swimming. This was another benefit from skipping all those grades. No P.E. with the other boys because I was so much younger. No thanks to my mother, though; it was my dad who insisted I be excused. Don't ask me what she was thinking. That I should be exposed to communal showers or horsing around. Or, more likely, being picked on, bullied and beaten, especially as everything below my waist was still in a holding pattern. Was that her ultimate revenge because I rejected the opportunity to be her daughter? She was so fucked up in the head. But, anyway, as long as I had my attendance recorded twice-weekly at the local Y, I got the school credit.”

Rodney tilted his head, as if recalling something else. “Oh, I just remembered. When you and I were linked in the infirmary because of the crystal entity and I told you about April Bingham, the throwing up wasn't only from medical reasons. I was terrified she'd want to go further than second base, but there was no way I could let her – or anyone – into my pants.”

Rodney sighed. “I thought it was all in the past, being treated like a girl because that's what my mother wanted. But, no, then Pegasus had to cram Cadman's mind into my body. I was in such a panic. If there hadn't been the degenerative effects on my body and threat to my physical existence, who knows if she'd been stuck in there forever? I still get antsy around her now, though she's not bad as a person, certainly not usually girly, not that Marines are. Oh, don't give me that look. You know there are all sorts of people under those buzz cuts.”

He paused, frowing. “But can you imagine how horrifying it would have been the other way around? Had my mind been trapped in Cadman's body? If it didn't mean destroying another person at the same time, it's quite possible I might have killed myself ... uh ... her. It was enough that she was making me walk like her and talk like her, when she was in charge of my body. To her it was just such a big joke.”

John had moved closer while Rodney was speaking and grasped his hands. “I'm just glad that didn't happen and that you're back to being you. Is that it or is there more?”

Rodney glanced at his not girlish hands, being held in John's. “There's just a bit more that might give you some insight into my relationship – or lack thereof – with Jeannie. You can imagine just how thrilled my mother was to be pregnant again a few years later and finally to get the real girl she'd always wanted. Even the epilepsy didn't matter, especially as it fit into the overall dainty and frail stereotype of what my mother wanted. That just made me feel more isolated from my parents and hating Jeannie's existence for somehow negating the validity and reality of mine. Then, when I heard she was knocked up, that was the last straw. There she was, glorying in her perfectly female fecundity. Well, that's how our mother thought. I just couldn't handle the comparison, even though I no longer looked like her 'Meredith'. So I stayed away until fate got us back together recently. But Jeannie doesn't know any of this, so she'll never understand. Just like she just doesn't get why being called “Meredith” or even “Mer” irritates me so much. Still, I don't blame her. It's not her fault that she was an otherwise normal girl – even if she's brilliant - so I'm not going to mess things up just because I want to get this off my chest.”

“It seems you just did.”

“Almost there.” Rodney peered at John, still sitting close to him even though his hands had fallen away. “So, you think I look like a regular guy?”

“Geeze, Rodney. It's not as if I've been staring at you during an emergency decon scrubbing! But, yeah. It all looks ... normal to me.”

Rodney shook his head. “Sorry, not meaning to make you uncomfortable. But, yeah, it looks normal and it works. Mostly. The only problem is that internally there's no sperm produced, so the only way I'll ever pass my genius along is when they can create sperm out of my cells. That's what tanked my relationship with Jennifer. She wanted outstanding babies - my babies obviously - and wasn't willing to wait until medical science made it possible. Oh, don't worry. She doesn't know my back story, just that I couldn't get her pregnant.”

“I'm sorry, buddy. But I'm sure we'll eventually find something on Atlantis that will give you a mini McKay. Or two.”

Rodney's torso jerked as if jolted by electricity. “I'm not jumping to change diapers, Sheppard, so no unauthorised gizmo searches in the city. Got it?”

John held his hands up. “Okay, okay. I'm not pushing, just think you should keep an open mind. But – sorry if this is mind your own damn business TMI territory - how'd you find out you were shooting blanks?”

Rodney's arms waved, revealing more of his naturally animated personality. “Well, even though Carson was able to give me outward – stop snickering, you idiot – functionality, there was no way to create viable sperm production. I'd always wanted to bank sperm, foreseeing some future lab catastrophe turning me sterile. Carson checked the first couple deposits for motility and all that crap and that's when he found out. And obviously told me. At the time it didn't really bother me. But, now, it just makes me feel empty, every now and then.”

John nodded in solidarity. “Well, I guess it comes as a shock to any guy, even if he never thinks of actually having kids. But, hey, this is Pegasus. Where anything can happen. Would be a pleasant change if it was something good for once. Uh ... is it my turn now?” His voice was suddenly strained, the cords of his neck tightening in discomfort at the thought of peeling away the protective layers that had shielded him for most of his life.

Before Rodney had a chance to reply, the Gem glowed, only for a few seconds, but it was enough for both of them to react to the higher light intensity.

“I guess that's my answer. And my turn. This is going to go all over the map, because I've never thought of how I would say any of it. First of all, I like guys, but I'm not gay.”

Rodney's face screwed up. “You know that doesn't make sense unless it's just your convoluted way of saying you're bisexual.”

“Nope. Not gay and not bi either. Despite being married once. Don't worry. I'll get there ... eventually. I hope it'll be enough for this meddling Gem thingy.”

Rodney relaxed against the wall, a lot more comfortable now that he'd shared his secrets. He could be patient, for John's sake. Rodney didn't expect the small, slightly bitter chuckle that emerged from John's lips.

“You and I both have something in common from our mothers. Yours had always wanted to have a girl. Mine may not have said so openly, but I'd catch her looking wistfully at me when I was growing up and releasing a little sigh.”

Seeing Rodney on the verge of opening his mouth to comment, John held up his hands in front of his chest in protest. “No, don't tell me I'd just imagined it. A couple of times, I'd heard her whisper “Joanie” and something inside me just shrivelled up and died, because I couldn't be what she really wanted. I had a delayed adolescence and, though I kept getting taller, I didn't have the hairiness or deeper voice yet. I just looked more and more like her every day.”

John sighed and shrugged, the gesture appearing to highlight his helplessness. “I couldn't be what my father wanted. Luckily for him, he also got the real son he needed to fill his shoes with Dave as his second child. If I'd been born into a girl's body, dad would never have intended for the top job to be mine. Would have muttered it should be passed down to the first-born son instead and sent me off to the CIA – uh, that's the other one – Culinary Institute of America. So I would have been spared something I didn't want in the first place and grown up to become the vivacious hostess married to some business magnate. The only way to get out of his vision for me was to buck the whole system and defy him. Even better, Dave with his square jaw and no-nonsense attitude resembled him physically, while I'd always taken after my mother ... sproingy hair and all.”

Here Rodney couldn't stay silent, no matter how supportive he was trying to be. “But, seriously, Sheppard, it's got to be more than having a case of 'sproingy' hair and wanting to fulfill someone else's dreams and aspirations for you.”

John butted in before Rodney could get any more words out. “But that's just it. I wanted to be those things ... to be a girl, for myself, too. Even while I was getting taller but yelling at my body to stop the fuck with the growing already, I still felt like a girl on the inside. I could even relate to getting a period. Oh, don't screw up your face. It was just another way I bonded with my mom and how comfortable she felt around me to be open about it. She knew she could count on me to make her tea with milk and then read her fave poetry while she was lying on the couch when the cramps were bad.” John paused, a wistful look on his face, lost in fond memory of cherished private moments with his mother.

Then his voice became stronger, his eyes focused far beyond the confines of the small hut. “It was only later that I read everything I could find on gender dysphoria – years before the term became widespread. But I just couldn't contemplate transitioning, couldn't sacrifice what I really wanted to do. I would have had to give it all up. In the early days, if you were serious about transitioning, you actually had to quit your male-identified job and live as a woman while doing women's work for at least a year before the medical profession would consider approving reassignment surgery. I always thought it was how a male-dominated profession punished someone for rejecting male identity and privilege.”

Rodney's eyes were piercing, though compassionate. “Because you wanted ... needed ... to fly.”

“Yeah. More than anything else in the world apparently. Not that anyone ever knew to what extent. Today it's easier. Women can fly, at least in some of the services. Naval aviator. Or National Guard. But back then I was set on joining the Air Force. I even had a poster of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman on my bedroom wall. Of course, my mom and Dave thought it was because I had a crush on her and her invisible plane, but it was because all I could think of was how much I'd like to be her. When I got older, I used to get off just by remembering that poster.”

Rodney interrupted him. “Isn't the military still dead set against allowing in people who are transgender, even while they were contemplating getting rid of DADT?”

John nodded. “Well, that's the obvious main reason for not transitioning. If I'd been a nobody – and not a Sheppard - I might have been able to get away with it and sworn my family to secrecy. But dear old dad would have blown a gasket to see a son of his turn into a daughter. You know, people think that having money is liberating, but sometimes it's the tightest straightjacket in the world. All the money I needed to transition but absolutely no privacy. I couldn't take the risk that genetic testing wouldn't reveal the XY chromosome either. Or wondering how much extra plastic surgery I would have needed so that there were no tell-tale scars left. All that secrecy would have been for nothing, especially if someone from my former life discovered what I was hiding and destroyed my career prospects. But I wonder what might have happened if I'd still ended up in Antarctica or some other place where Carson got to examine my blood. Would the ATA gene have been enough to insert me on the mission. Because Atlantis became just as important to me as flying. But can you imagine how Sumner would have reacted? Hating my guts even more? Just a huge can of worms.”

John sighed and breathed deeply. “So, instead, here I am, walking a tightrope every damn day, balanced between what I want most to be and what I actually have to do. Which is to act like a man. The man who's in charge of the whole fucking deal. Well, unless you count Woolsey.”

Rodney's soft “John?” startled him. John looked up and saw the concern and pain on his closest friend's face. “Is that why you end up taking unnecessary risks so often?”

John shook his head emphatically. “Fuck, no. I'd be like that no matter what body I was in. That's just me though. Come to think of it, that could be my mom's mother hen tendencies asserting themselves. She'd always stood up to authority, whether it was unfair bureaucracy ... or dad. She protected us, but mostly me, from when he was in one of his moods, bitching about why he couldn't have had two normal sons. Huh. That explains a lot, not only about how he treated me, but how he modelled masculinity for Dave, too. Poor bastard.”

Rodney felt John needed to move off the subject of his overbearing and unwelcome masculine influences. “Not to pry, but how did you end up getting married?”

“Nah, you're not prying and I guess I should be thorough – just for the sake of this stupid ritual. Nancy was useful – I'm really sorry to say that word – for two reasons. First of all, she was my last-ditch attempt to regain my dad's favour. Yeah, yeah. I don't know why I even tried, but I was still young and impulsive. And the second reason is even worse. If I couldn't be a woman, at least I could get close enough to it by marrying one. The weirdest thing is that it just made me feel like a lesbian. Don't laugh but that eventually led to bed death because I didn't identify with being a lesbian. It started with me being away too often on secret missions and then things got even worse between us when I couldn't hide the resentment that her body was everything mine would never be. I'm just glad she's not bitter and that she has a great guy in her life now.”

Rodney's gentle hand on John's shoulder gave him the strength to continue. John wasn't even half done with his revelations. “Now I have to wake up every day and slide into my uniform, after I've pasted on the appropriate male facial expressions. You know, that's one of the good things about living on base, being in the field. Unless it's a dress occasion, both men and women wear the same type of clothing every day. That makes it a bit easier for me to fit in without feeling as if I'm betraying who I am inside ... and wish I were on the outside.”

Rodney dared to ask a question he didn't know John would answer. “What would you do if your outside matched your inside, Joanie?”

John's swift inhalation was only the first reaction as he began to tremble. His voice quivered as he made a conscious effort to reveal everything to Rodney – and not to the damned intrusive Gem. “I'd – I'd ask you out - on a date. That's what I've wanted to do for a very long time. Even after you showed me the ring you meant to give Katie ... or every time you talked about Jennifer. I knew I was making myself miserable, continuing to dream about the impossible. And feeling more like a pathetic fraud every day.”

Rodney's warm hand dropped away from John's shoulder. Before he could feel a sense of abandonment, Rodney's hand had insinuated itself into John's. “Joanie, ask me now. I think you'll like the answer.”

John's shocked expression was matched only by the overwhelming blaze of light that seemed to emanate from every corner of the hut. The colours of the spectrum coalesced in the middle above their heads, rendering both speechless.

However, John didn't hesitate to stand up, drawing Rodney to his feet by the hand. “Listen, buddy, I'm done telling all my secrets to this stupid Gem. Anything else, I want to be just between the two of us. So how about we go make nice with these natives now that we've demonstrated our good faith probably better than they were anticipating, then get back to Atlantis, where I promise I will ask you that question.”

Rodney nodded eagerly. His mood had lightened considerably the longer he and John had talked. Now that the conversation had become more ... personal, he couldn't wait to get under John's skin. Where Joanie apparently still lived, having been in exile all her life. But Joanie was just as much of a survivor as John was.

As the team walked in the direction of the gate, Rodney's mind was whirling. He'd never consciously admitted to himself how much he admired John. Might even want John. Was that why the thought of Joanie wasn't freaking him out? Shouldn't he be panicking right about now? But, then, he also reminded himself, Hello, bisexual here. Just got thrown a curveball instead.

Finally, he did something unusual – for him. He just told his brain to shut up. John was important to him. So Joanie would be, too. He didn't think that John – no, Joanie – would fault him for any awkwardness as they explored where they were headed.

LATER:
It was weeks before anything else happened. With one emergency piled atop another, Rodney blamed Pegasus. If in doubt, it was usually a predictable guess. When the calm struck (only Rodney could think of calm as a palpable physical force), Rodney didn't know what to do with himself. Luckily, too many sleepless nights had provided him with the out his lethargic body and mind were demanding: sleep. Lots and lots of uninterrupted sleep. Unfortunately, the universe had not received the memo. So, when his door chime sounded, he wearily sent the command to open.

An equally worn-out Sheppard was barely upright on the other side. Desperate eyes met his. “Can I – can I come in. I just can't....”

Rodney thought out his words carefully. He didn't want to presume anything. “What do you need? What can I give you?”

The ragged whisper stunned him. “Just hold me.”

“Joanie?”

“Yeah. Please.”

Spoken so softly, it was barely more than two weak puffs of air. But Rodney had had years of practice deciphering Sheppard-speak. Even if there was a gender variant expressing itself now.

Rodney placed firm hands on Joanie's shoulders and turned the shaking body in the direction of his bed. Much easier to offer comfort while lying down. That wasn't just an excuse to cop a cheap feel.

Once they'd reached the bed, Rodney pulled the covers back and waited. He observed the partial disrobing in silence. Boots and socks, then the shirt, leaving only BDU trousers and the ubiquitous black tee. Then it was his turn. He only had to discard his old bathrobe, leaving him in his boxers and nothing else. It seemed to be the right decision as he heard the soft sigh to his side.

Rodney climbed in first, then opened his arms, the left one lying across the second pillow. Suddenly, there was a needy body in them. He tightened the circle with his left arm as he pulled the covers back up. Then he held Joanie in a strong protective embrace. For a moment, he remembered John's arms on him when he'd collapsed on his way either to a premature death or Ascension. And his arms on John's when Rodney was otherwise losing his unique mind to Second Childhood. He understood now what it had meant to feel secure, to be reassured and comforted. So it wasn't awkward for him to try to return a similar measure of emotional warmth to the body in his arms.

Rodney directed Joanie's head to rest on his shoulder before burying his face in her lush hair. “Come on, let's get some sleep. You know we both need it like hell. Even more than talking.”

He could feel the hesitant nod of Joanie's head underneath his chin and chuckled softly. “You're just happy I'm postponing talking about how you feel. But, really, you know it'll never again be as bad as the ritual was.”

Joanie's voice was muffled. “I'll still remember.”

Rodney stroked her shoulder. “But you'll never have to remember it all by yourself.”

Joanie sighed. The room fell silent as they both settled into a deep, healing sleep.

The next morning, there was no sign of Joanie, not that Rodney expected there to be. After all, Joanie had to slide back into the identity of John. It probably wasn't something she wanted to do before an audience, even a sympathetic one.

But, that evening, Joanie was back. Not as hesitant and early enough they could just hang out. Rodney suggested playing chess. As Rodney watched John's slender fingers caress each chess piece, he recalled how graceful John always was when playing chess before. And then remembered that now adorably (in retrospect) triumphal “Ha” that still confused Rodney. “When we used to play in the past, were you lowering your guard, letting hints of Joanie out, not to mention infuriating me? Was that Joanie being daring and flirtatious?”

Joanie put down the chess piece, shook her hair, blinked dramatically and tilted her head to the side. “Maybe?”

“Oh, don't you go 'maybeing' me, you- you- you hussy!”

“Aww, Rodney. You can't call me a hussy when I've barely had any experience. After all, I never see it coming.”

Rodney grumbled but returned his attention to the board. Bit by bit, he'd end up solving the jigsaw puzzle that was occasionally free to be Joanie, at least in his presence. That night, when Joanie slept, unselfconsciously in his arms, he knew he had to expand her world.

The next day, Rodney paid Teyla a visit. Luckily, they had lots of privacy as Kanaan had taken Torren John down to the secondary mess kitchens where he was teaching him – and the cooks - how to make tuttleroot soup.

“So you see, Teyla, we need to pull together to create a better family environment for John. Dave is all that he has but he's back on earth.” No, Rodney hadn't betrayed Joanie's secrets, but had instead used the excuse of how alienated both he and John had been during the ritual, that they couldn't be honest with one another until Teyla had put her foot down.

“I believe I have a solution that will help John – and you - integrate into more natural bonds of friendship ... of kinship with each other and with us. I have not mentioned this before because it has always been awkward to show the separation that exists between the peoples of Pegasus and those from your expedition. It does not make my responsibility as your guide any easier when other worlds see our first contact team dividing into pairs according to where our homes were. It is not healthy and it fosters suspicion of outsiders. Those of us who have thrived have had to become more flexible. I think your leadership could adopt some of our traits.”

Rodney listened, fascinated, as Teyla outlined her proposal.

A mere three weeks later, the proposal was implemented, beginning with the premier contact team setting the example. Though John was initially reluctant, Rodney could tell that Joanie was relieved, knowing she wouldn't need to hide how often she was taking refuge in Rodney's bed at night.

The stunning yet simple solution was for the team to take over new family-style quarters that had been opened up during their lengthy stay on earth. Crews had overseen the repairs and restocking of modern furnishings and amenities. Rodney had chosen their new home specifically with Joanie in mind. There were three enormous but separate suites on an entire floor. Rodney and John/Joanie shared a bathroom connected to each of their bedrooms. It was a perfect way to hide the bed sharing and intimate conversations. Rodney was content because the bathroom contained a luxury tub as well as a shower. The other rooms in their suite included a soundproofed gaming space, a kitchen, and entertaining space.

Teyla and her family had equally large quarters though with a much larger bedroom designed for a couple and a smaller room for TJ. Along with two full bathrooms. Their entertaining space had low couches covered in wool rugs and cushions.

Ronon's quarters contained a massive bedroom. Though his relationship with Amelia wasn't official, she was welcome to both his bed and family grouping. There was a second personal room lined entirely in mirrors. Ronon had shown them the newest way for him to hone his fighting techniques, by being able to see his body from all angles. It was also a fun place for Amelia to kick-box with him.

The first evening they had moved in together, they congregated in the communal space. Teyla had asked them to each bring something from their old lives they could offer as a sacrifice. Ronon's gesture seemed to be the most dramatic. He'd cut off his dreadlocks that had kept him connected to a world now lost for over a decade and placed the cloth bag into the small leather chest. Teyla offered her locket as a reminder of her Wraith-touched blood. Rodney had brought his parents' wedding picture as a sign that he refused to be defined by their failed marriage or restrictions on his personal autonomy. And John his birth certificate. For him, it no longer represented a life-long prison sentence; it was just a laminated piece of paper.

Teyla had uttered a simple acknowledgement of their gifts, then locked the chest with a key she said she would give to Torren John for safekeeping.

The remainder of the evening was low-key as they were tired from moving in. Teyla served a soothing tea and Athosian biscuits while they chatted. It was their first evening together but they would definitely have more pleasant gatherings in the future. They finally separated, each to return to their respective quarters on the floor.

Joanie sighed as she entered Rodney's bedroom. She stripped down to black tee and boxers and slid into bed. Rodney joined her.

“What's the matter?”

“I feel like a coward. I'm scared to let them know.”

Rodney took her hand in his, stroking along the elegant fingers. “Do you think they wouldn't understand? This is Pegasus, after all, the home of the weird and the Wraith. You don't have to do it all immediately. Remember, this was only our first night as a new family. Give it time.”

“I guess that's all I can do.” Joanie wriggled about in an attempt to get more comfortable. Rodney's bed was a huge improvement on the munchkin mattress she'd slept on for years. She wondered idly if she'd put up with it in a futile attempt to make herself feel smaller.

With the lights turned off, Rodney's voice came as a surprise. “During the ritual, you mentioned we might still find an Ancient device that could give me babies. Have you ever wondered if there could be another miracle piece of Ancient equipment to turn John physically into Joanie?”

There was quiet for a long time but Joanie finally spoke. “Only if it were irreversible so I couldn't be forced to change back. Just as you dreaded the Cadman experience, I could see how I could lose it and try to off myself. I also wouldn't want there to be any blame cast for whoever found the device, though it would solve all my troubles if I were the one to accidentally activate it. But, what if I changed? Would I ever get to see Dave again? Declassification would go a long way toward a simpler explanation as to how I left as 'John' and returned as 'Joanie'.”

“I guess we'll just keep our eyes open, especially during all the spare time we don't seem to ever have.” Rodney harrumphed at the thought of a workload that never seemed to diminish, no matter how long they'd lived in the city. “ But, come to think of it, if we found your device, it could be the answer for people back on earth to transition without major surgery being involved.”

Joanie added, “And, if we found your device, there'd be a lot of happy new parents, right Daddy Rodney?”

“Well, we're not going to be finding any devices if we don't get some sleep. And I don't need to be thinking about becoming a Daddy quite yet.”

Joanie tightened her grasp around Rodney's waist and fell asleep easily. Her life hadn't magically become perfect, but it was a lot better than it had been. And she had not only Rodney's support but – she hoped – her teammates' also.

NOW, AGAIN:
Rodney pushes Joanie's head, firmly though gently, away from his groin. As much as he really, really likes the idea of a blow job – and Joanie's full lips are so irresistible – this is not how he wants their first time to be. He cups Joanie's jaw, making her look up at him bashfully, but still with a determined longing in her eyes. “As much as I'd love you to keep going, this is not how I want you to be with me. Not down on your knees. At least not this time.” Despite the seriousness of his words, he can't help but grin. And gets a saucy wink from Joanie in return.

He grasps her shoulders, pulling up. As Joanie rises, the dress rustles faintly, a reminder of how far Joanie has come to be able to wear it with confidence, something she never expected to have, not on her own and certainly never with a partner.

Rodney's palms feel so good against her cheeks, his thumbs firm under her clean-shaven jaw. It's the most intimate they've ever been – discounting the abrupt stop to the blow job. They've cuddled in the same bed and held hands. But never kissed. It seems that's about to change now.

Rodney drags an index finger along Joanie's lower lip, then the top, delineating the bow shape.

Joanie doesn't dare to take a breath lest the spell be broken. But Rodney doesn't stop with the simple caress. He leans in, blowing lightly against the join of ear and neck. Joanie's skin prickles with anticipation. There's a whisper of a kiss on the neck. And another.

And, then, finally, Rodney's lips are on her own. She can't help but moan at the sensation. The kiss deepens. Rodney is taking charge and she has no other desire than to yield to him. Her body and mind are telling her that it only took another galaxy and a pushy Canadian scientist to finally make her feel at ease as a woman.

Rodney, naturally, has to break into her meandering reverie. “You know, though you'll never be Lynda Carter, you'll always be my Wonder Woman.”

It's a good thing they're next to the bed because Joanie topples Rodney down onto it before sliding up his body, the dress having been pushed up all the way to her hips. It's another freedom, that she finally doesn't feel she needs the dress to cover her, or to hide random bits of flesh.

She looks down at Rodney's face, sees the wonder, the excitement and knows it's all for her, and only for her. Right now, she is Wonder Woman and knows she'll never be anything less.

END