When the smoke cleared and the ground stopped shaking, there was the Ancient platform in the clearing, there was a startled Radek Zelenka (jumping like a scared squirrel), there were the terrified minions (whom Rodney remembered being named Soup and Salad – that couldn’t be right but what did it matter then, anyway – clutching each other’s hands like church ladies). And Sheppard – wait, where was Sheppard? He’d taken his eyes off of him for a second to look at the pillar at the perimeter of the stone circle and the flyboy was nowhere to be seen. Rodney’s heart sped up. He trotted a few steps closer, batting at the curling – smoke? dust? – on the air.
“Sheppard!” he bellowed. He clicked his radio and called for him again to no avail. No answer.
Damn it. When the ground had started shaking, Sheppard had been furthest ahead, standing on the platform and glancing down at the stones with some mild (not great) interest. Then the ground started rattling, a plume of smoke or silt or something fanned into the air, and now, Sheppard was nowhere to be seen. Which could never be good. And they’d just started…whatever it was when Sheppard put his hand down Rodney’s pants one Sunday while they were playing video games. If Rodney hadn’t been playing it cool, acting like he wasn’t watching Sheppard, he would’ve seen what happened. But for all he knew, the Ancient platform sucked Sheppard in like some tufty haired genie, or it ascended him (which would really, really suck for a number of purposes), or it transported him to another planet (which, just no).
So Rodney hadn’t been watching Sheppard when it happened, and Teyla and Ronon were back in the village (checking in with Atlantis), but what was Zelenka’s excuse for letting Rodney’s best friend slash boyfriend go MIA? There would be hell to pay for…whatever had happened.
For then, Zelenka spun around, startled by Rodney’s roar, and the minions squeaked at the sound of Rodney snapping a twig underfoot.
Rodney scanned the tree line as a flock of silver winged birds took flight. “Sheppard!” he called out. His voice rang out over the trees as clearly as it rang out over the science labs. The birds weren’t the only ones Rodney made nervous because Soup and Salad were trembling.
At the edge of the clearing, a voice called back, “Dr. McKay!” but it was the dulcet tones of Teyla Emmagan, not Sheppard’s reedy (too annoying, charming, cute) voice. When she was near, Teyla asked, “What happened? We felt the ground shake as we were leaving the village.”
“It was an earthqu—uh, tremor,” Salad cut in. “This region is known for—”
“Yes, we know,” Rodney snapped. “Sheppard is gone.”
“What d’you mean Sheppard’s gone?” Ronon asked at Teyla’s shoulder. He looked menacing as usual – and like this was all Rodney’s fault, which, of course, it totally wasn’t.
“What do you mean, what do I mean? I mean Sheppard’s gone! He’s not answering his radio and he’s clearly, nowhere to be seen.” Rodney snapped with a wave at the trees surrounding them. “I mean, he was right here, looking at the device one minute, then there was the tremor – and I told him not to touch—” Rodney felt his face blaze. “But nooo, those instructions are too difficult for devil-may-care, rakish—”
A loud squeak cut Rodney’s building, ever-so-heterosexual tirade off at the pass. Ronon, for one, looked a little relieved that it shut Rodney up. Rodney blinked owlishly at the trees. Teyla and Ronon looked at Rodney’s feet where something curled around his ankle.
Rodney jumped, but when he looked down, he relaxed considerably. “Oh—” He bent over and peered down at his feet. Another piercing squeak. Looking up at him was something that looked exactly like a little black Earth kitten. Flyaway tufts of fur pushed this way and that, tiny paws in the leaves on the forest floor. And beside it, Sheppard’s comm set poked up between the twigs. “What’s—well, that’s—” He stopped short, brow creasing as the kitten leaned left and raised one paw, claws outspread. It batted at the comm. Its eyes were an unusual color – not the yellowish green most cats’ eyes were – they were almost…hazel.
Rodney’s heart thudded in dull panic. “Oh, god. Soup—!”
“Sue,” the blond technician interrupted.
Rodney turned a bright and glowering expression at her. “Whatever – what does that inscription say?” he demanded.
Sue bent over, complaining into her chest about translating Ancient, and adjusted her smudged glasses. “Something flagstones, something, something, conversion. I think that’s ‘conversion’…”
Rodney groaned. He felt his face flush but before the storm could break, Teyla laid a hand on his arm. “What is it, Rodney?” she asked. “What are you thinking?”
Rodney didn’t think he could bring himself to say it. It was too absurd. He pointed at the kitten but what came out of his mouth was a stream of broken English too fractured to actually follow. The only word the others caught was the name Sheppard.
Teyla furrowed her brow, looking down at the kitten. She opened her mouth and closed it. The kitten meowed, dodging to the right and swatting the air. Her hand closed on her holster as though she wished the problem were something she could easily shoot, not a crazy kitty conversion tool.
“So Sheppard’s a cat now?” Ronon rumbled. Trust him to cut to the chase.
Rodney groaned. If his blood sugar was lower, he’d pass out. As was, he just got lightheaded. “Well, isn’t it obvious?” he demanded. “Wouldn’t it just be a ridiculous coincidence if Sheppard just happened to step onto the conversion platform and this cat appeared in the exact place his radio fell off? Look, it has cowlicks!”
Ronon appeared skeptical. Or disinterested. Even after years of friendship, Rodney had trouble reading him. Fortunately, Teyla appeared more willing to believe what Rodney was saying. “It is your opinion that Colonel Sheppard was transformed when he stepped on the pedestal?” she asked.
“Well, yes!” Rodney sputtered. “Is it really all that feasible that an earthquake occurred right when Sheppard stepped on the platform but it didn’t trigger some kind of reaction? Is it a crazy coincidence that a cat that looks exactly like Sheppard—”
“I do not believe it looks exactly like Sheppard,” Zelenka muttered.
“—quiet! Appeared right when Sheppard disappeared?” He picked up the cat. “Somebody check to make sure it’s male.”
Teyla stepped back behind Ronon. Zelenka was suddenly very busy cleaning his glasses. And Soup and Salad were examining the nearby foliage with murmurs of “Very interesting” and “I should take a sample.” Rodney balked at them. “Are you kidding me? None of you are willing to just check?”
Before Rodney could really work up to it, Ronon plucked the cat out of Rodney’s arms. With a brief “Sorry, Sheppard,” he pulled the cat’s tail up and checked the situation out. “It’s a guy cat.”
Rodney felt his face flame. He was unprepared when Ronon foisted the kitten off on him. “Well, yes, because I told you.” Kitten Sheppard head butted Rodney square in the chest, his chest vibrating under Rodney’s fingers. If Rodney thought his face could get no hotter, it became hotter then.
“He likes you,” Ronon commented mildly.
“I can see that!” Rodney cried. Even for Sheppard, it was an unorthodox expression. Except, maybe when he was transformed, his consciousness was also transformed. Or maybe human thought processes were too complex for a cat brain, and this was Sheppard as Sheppard the cat was – stripped down of the human restraints and behaviorisms. Maybe he did like Rodney. It would explain the thing with putting his hand in Rodney’s pants.
For a second, the image of Sheppard (human Sheppard), curling up against him on the couch or in bed bloomed in Rodney’s mind’s eye, strands of his hair, like the kitten’s whiskers tickling Rodney’s nose, tickling Rodney’s chin as Sheppard leaned against him.
Rodney held the cat further away from him lest Sheppard think he’d gotten away with himself when Sheppard was transformed back. “Okay, what are the instructions?” he asked.
Now Soup wasn’t too busy looking at greenery to lean over and read the inscription in the pillar by the stone circle. “It just says ‘step up’.”
Rodney grimaced. “Very specific. I hate Ancients.”
“Rodney,” Teyla said slowly, “are you sure that this animal is Colonel Sheppard?”
Rodney scowled. “No, I just propose absurd theories for fun. I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think—” He shook his head and peered down at the cat. Up close, the Sheppard kitten’s fur wasn’t all black and wispy white hairs stuck out here and there. Like the stray white strands at Sheppard’s temples. And his eyes blinked, hazel green, at Rodney. He was the spitting image of John.
“He looks exactly like him! See?” Rodney badgered Teyla. He thrust the kitten in her direction.
Teyla subtly bowed back. “Yes, Rodney, I see. And I believe that I told you I am sensitive to—” a huge sneeze followed by a delicate sniff, “—animal fur, so I would appreciate it if you keep him further away.” Her watering eyes were narrowed.
Rodney wrinkled his nose. “Please, Teyla. He’s human. It’s hardly the same concept. You don’t see me sneezing and I’m so sensitive to dander, my family had to move when the neighbor got a Chihuahua.” He thrust the cat toward Ronon.
Ronon glowered as the Sheppard cat butted his head into Ronon’s goatee, kitty eyes closed in a beatific expression that had Rodney’s hackles up in jealousy. What the hell, Sheppard? There was no excuse for that kind of public affection.
Rodney snatched Sheppard back, carefully holding him an inch from his chest (probably a reasonable distance to make sure that he wasn’t cuddling his teammate). Looking into the Sheppard kitten’s face, Rodney felt a stab of panic. He performed miracles on a daily basis but what if this was outside of his abilities? What if Atlantis was without its unorthodox military leader? What if Sheppard – John – was forever relegated to chomping on kitty chow at the end of the team table? What if, instead of beers on the pier, it was beer (singular) and a cream saucer? Rodney’s chest tightened uncomfortably, remembering the corners of Sheppard’s eyes creasing as he gave a crooked grin. They had to change this. He had to fix this. He couldn’t let this just be the end of it.
“Rodney, if Sheppard has turned into a cat, why is the cat not full grown?” Radek asked. “Does it not follow that Sheppard should be an adult cat if he has, indeed, transformed?”
“Do I look like I have the answers? Sorry, I don’t! I’m just playing by ear here, thank you, and it would be a lot easier to think if I didn’t have everyone looking to me for answers when I—”
Teyla stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Breathe, Rodney.”
Rodney took a shuddering breath. The Sheppard kitten appeared to be vibrating, too, but he realized after a moment that it was just his hands shaking. He let it out and took another long breath. “I’m breathing,” he said, flushing.
“Good.” Teyla looked around at the others. “We need to radio Atlantis and apprise Mr. Woolsey of the situation. Dr. Zelenka, if you would continue working on the device – Ronon, stay behind with Dr. Zelenka while Rodney and I go back to the Gate—”
“Wait a second,” Rodney interrupted. “It’s better if I stay behind and take a look at the device—”
“I will need you to explain to Woolsey the manner in which the machine works.” Teyla looked so calm, so collected, Rodney deflated without a fight.
“Dr. Sue and Dr. Salah, please stay behind to assist Dr. Zelenka, if need be.”
“But don’t touch anything,” Rodney interrupted savagely. “Ask first before touching – don’t even touch yourselves without asking—” He flushed as Zelenka peered at him over the rims of his glasses. “You know what I mean.”
Teyla looked at the others and nodded. Rodney felt a stab of undignified envy at her calm resolve. Sheppard got turned into a cat by a rampaging Ancient device and Teyla never lost her cool while Rodney was steaming. “We will return shortly.” She touched Rodney’s elbow and they set off the way they’d come.
This was probably the soonest they’d ever had to call back Atlantis to tell them, “On second thought, mission has gone FUBAR,” after a fairly positive check in. If only Rodney hadn’t been looking at John’s ass, he might’ve been watching Sheppard’s back like he was supposed to.
“This is my fault,” Rodney admitted in an undertone. They were far enough away now that there wasn’t any real threat it would be overheard.
Teyla looked at him sidelong. She shook her head. “Rodney, do not be discouraged.”
“Who’s discouraged?” Rodney asked. “I just said—I was thinking about something else and I let John touch it without warning him and now,” he indicated the kitten with the nod of his head.
“You are not thinking straight, Rodney.” She had no idea. “When you’ve gathered your thoughts, the solution will become clear to you. In the meantime, we will contact Atlantis.” Her hand brushed over Rodney’s arm. Like ripples spread over the surface of a pond, the touch instilled a sense of calm in Rodney.
They were in sight of the village, the curve of the Gate rose over the thatched rooftops and stone buildings. Sheppard was simultaneously purring against Rodney’s chest and scrambling to get out of his hands.
They were at the edge of town when a voice called out from ahead. “Rodney! Teyla!” He’d recognize the reedy tones from a hundred feet away, even if he couldn’t quite make him out.
“Sheppard!” Rodney was so distracted, he squeezed the kitten and started at the sound of his squeak. He looked down at the Sheppard kitten. No, just a kitten, since Sheppard was striding out over the low blond grass. Oh, crap. Rodney was going to hear about this until he was hard of hearing.
Teyla jogged a few steps to meet Sheppard, smiling widely. “So you were not transformed into a cat after all.” She rested a hand on Sheppard’s arm. “I am relieved.”
Sheppard’s eyebrows furled. “A what?” he asked. He had a scrape on one cheek and a smudge of dirt over his left eye. “I thought you guys found the crack behind the pedestal.” Right then, he saw the kitten against Rodney’s chest. “You thought what?” he asked. The beginnings of a smile curved one corner of his mouth.
Rodney’s face went hot. “It was perfectly reasonable, Colonel. There were extenuating circumstances!”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Sheppard laughed.
Teyla smiled. “In hindsight, it does seem silly but in our defense, it would not be the oddest thing we have encountered on our missions.” She seemed relieved she wouldn’t have to tell Woolsey that the commanding officer of Atlantis was presently more focused on playing with yarn than with fighting the forces of evil in the Pegasus Galaxy. “What happened? Rodney said that you disappeared after the tremor.”
Sheppard scrubbed a hand through his hair, shaking dust onto his shoulders. “Ground opened up under me. I fell into one of those tunnels they were talking about in town.” Ah, the conversation Rodney had paid no attention to. “When you guys didn’t hear me yelling, I walked back using the signs on the wall.”
“Oh.” Rodney was oddly crestfallen. And embarrassed. As though Sheppard hadn’t thought something patently ridiculous. Hello, they were down the rabbit hole already.
* * *
It was terrible. Rodney was going to salve his wounds in a bubble bath with some iced coffee.
At least, he was headed in that direction after a private talk with Woolsey about the Ancient not-kitten-conversion device when he caught sight of Sheppard outside the Gateroom. Rodney wheeled around but before he could slip, unseen, into the transporter, Sheppard jogged up with a grin and got in with him. Rodney bore a hole into the console with his eyes as Sheppard settled against the back wall of the transporter beside him. He was doing that thing where he sort of bounced on the balls of his feet. So utterly undignified. It wasn’t a surprise Rodney had mistaken a goofy black cat for the CO of an intergalactic expedition.
“Ronon said he thinks you were jealous the cat liked him better,” Sheppard deadpanned as the doors closed.
Rodney made a face. “That’s ridiculous. He barely interacted with it. If anything, I was concerned the cat was too attached to me.” He sniffed. “I would have said more of a good-bye in the village but I didn’t want to hurt that child’s feelings that his pet preferred a stranger to him.”
“I don’t know about that, Rodney. Seemed like the little guy was pretty happy to get back to Basa.” Sheppard was grinning gamely, that annoyingly charming smirk that disarmed random passers-by so easily. He pursed his lips and Rodney steeled himself for the teasing. “So who do you like better – cat me or me me?” he asked.
Rodney’s face glowed bright red. “What? That’s just—obviously—It’s not a contest.” He was in the middle of sputtering when John leaned forward and caught his mouth in a kiss. It was soft as kitten’s fur, a light brush of John’s mouth over his, but Rodney was bright red and hot as a pulsar when John pulled back.
He smirked. “And Teyla thought maybe you liked me better.” Even with the rakish smirk, Sheppard’s voice had an edge of breathlessness to it, like Rodney made him a little nervous, too. That was something, anyway.
It took Rodney a minute to pull words out of the air. He was red. He knew it. It was his eighth grade dance and Katrina Gallup all over again. His palms were sweaty.
He settled back against the wall and looked up at the little light on the transporter map. “I think I preferred the cat, actually. It talked less.”
Sheppard’s jaw dropped satisfactorily. “Hey, now!”