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John Sheppard didn't have Lieutenant Ford's luxury of making a joyous leap through the watery portal of the Stargate. He'd never tested his senses this way—his unbonded Sentinel senses. There was nothing to be done about it now. John tamped his senses down as much as he dared, scrunched up his face, and stepped through the gate.

Somehow, he managed to keep from stumbling as he came out the other side. Surrounded by darkness, at first he thought his senses were acting up. John hadn't had a zone out in years and he sure as hell didn't need one now. He took a cautious step forward and then relaxed as the lights began coming on. His senses weren't wacked out; it was the city reacting to his presence.

He slowly climbed the stairs, the lights leading him up and forward. If he'd found his guide and that person were here with him now, John could've turn his senses up to hear the city sing her welcome. Crippled like this, all he heard was a muffled hum. As much as he hated muting that song, he couldn't risk it, couldn't risk falling into a zone out, not here like this.

After years of searching and hoping, he'd finally given up on finding his guide. Even knowing it meant his days were numbered, it gave him an odd sense of relief. No more searching. No more crushing disappointment when a potential guide failed to be his match.

John knew as well as anyone that unbonded sentinels rarely lived past forty. The stress of suppressing their senses wreaked havoc with their biology. Zone outs became more frequent and lasted longer. More than one unbonded Sentinel had breathed their last, staring off into the sunset in a catatonic freeze. So, when his freaky ATA gene turned out to be valuable enough for Dr. Weir to request his presence on the expedition, John agreed.

He considered it a chance to do something both amazing and useful before he died. Ironically, since no guides had ever been located anywhere but on Earth, he'd also thrown away any slim chance of finding his guide the moment he stepped through the Stargate and into the Pegasus galaxy. With long practice, he shoved aside a pang of regret and got on with the business of protecting his people.

"Sentinel Sheppard!" Dr. Zelenka came running up to him. "The shield is on the verge of collapsing!"

"You're sure?" John asked. "We just got here."

"Yes, I'm sure." Radek pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. "The numbers don't lie. The shield is under tremendous stress with tons of water pressing down on it, and we are losing power rapidly."

"Got it. We're underwater. I'd noticed."

"Yes. Dr. Weir sent me to ask you if there is anything you can do. If you could try to use your gene to—to bring us to the surface."

"I can do that?" John asked.

Radek shrugged. "We do not know, but it cannot hurt to try. I would like very much not to drown today."

"I'm with you there, only I don't know how…." John began and then he realized he did know. All he had to do was stop suppressing his senses. The city hovered just beyond his reach; if he turned up his dials high enough to make contact, then all he would have to do was ask. He'd also be risking the biggest damn zone out of his life.

He woke up in the infirmary. What it lacked in décor it made up for in hastily assembled medical equipment. That or he'd been out of it longer than he wanted to consider. "Doc?"

"Awake now, are we?" Dr. Beckett came over to John's bedside and began checking him over. He kept his voice soft and his movements slow and gentle. Unlike some doctors, he didn’t try to shine a bright light in John's eyes or shove an ice-cold stethoscope against his chest.

"Sentinel trained?" John asked.

"Aye. Dr. Weir insisted the expedition have at least one sentinel-trained physician along. You gave us a right scare. You've been zoned out for almost twenty hours."

It didn't take sentinel senses to pick up on the sympathy in Beckett's voice. John ignored it. "At least tell me it worked."

"Making a connection to the city so she'd to rise to the surface? It did indeed. I can't say I approve of putting yourself in danger like that, but what you did saved everyone. We're floating on top of the ocean as gentle as a babe in the cradle, thanks to you."

Thankfully, Beckett's training kept him from patting John's hand despite how much he looked like he wanted to.

"When can I get out of here?" John scratched at his arm. Red splotches bloomed over his skin. Before he could say anything else, Beckett began helping him from the bed and yelling at the nurses as softly as a man could yell.

"I'm so sorry, Sentinel Sheppard." He stripped John's gown off and pulled him under the nearest showerhead. "Bloody hell, they were supposed to use sentinel safe products on anything that touches you and that includes the bedding. The shower should be safe enough. It's hooked to a separate tank using distilled water. Can you stand without help?"

"Yeah." John braced both hands on the shower walls and bent his neck. The warm water running over his skin felt wonderful. "You take this sentinel stuff pretty seriously, Doc."

Dr. Beckett looked pole-axed as though he couldn't imagine anyone who wouldn't take it seriously. John knew plenty of people who didn't. Sentinels and guides were rare enough some people still believed it was a hoax, something the government claimed existed just to get more funding. His own father hadn't—well, suffice to say this baby rash he was dealing with was nothing compared to half the stuff he'd dealt with growing up.

Maybe he'd read something in John's face. Or hell, maybe he'd read John's file. For whatever reason, Beckett's expression softened. "I'll see to a fresh gown and make sure it's sentinel safe, myself. If you feel the slightest bit woozy, lad, call me."

The warm water sluiced over John's skin relaxing muscles he hadn't realized had frozen tight. If he hadn't already known the zone out had been a bad one that would have cinched it. He wanted to protest, tell Beckett he was ready to go back on duty, but right now, he couldn't fight a kitten.

He didn't utter a peep when Beckett shooed him back into bed, just gratefully accepted the dry toast and unsalted broth. A half dozen mouthfuls later, he was sound asleep.

***

Hands curled over the balcony rail, John gazed out over the ocean. He'd come here straight from a meeting with Weir and he was still processing. He'd missed out on the last thirty hours due to a zone out and a hell of a lot gone down in his absence.

For starters, once the city had risen Sumner began sending teams of Marines through the Stargate. In part to find trading partners, but more importantly to find a ZPM. Unfortunately, he'd been a little too gung-ho.

The scientists exploring the city didn't have enough military protection to keep them safe—not in John's opinion—and it made his hackles rise. He intended to have a little chat with both Sumner and Weir about that.

Colonel Sumer might be head of the military and Dr. Weir in charge of the expedition, but John was the expedition Sentinel. Bonded or unbonded it didn't matter; his sentinel status put him on equal footing.

Granted, on Earth, he'd have to answer to the Sentinel Prime, but until someone could prove different, he was the only Sentinel in the Pegasus galaxy. And somehow, he was going to have to find a way to protect his people from the Wraith.

John's thoughts were busy bouncing between the idea of an alien species that could suck out a person's life with their hands and practicing the phrase Sentinel Prime of Pegasus when he heard footsteps.

"Sentinel Sheppard?"

"Miss Emmagan." He gave her a welcoming smile. Dr. Weir had brought the Athosian leader to Atlantis despite Sumner's protests. John couldn't sense any trace of lie in her words or demeanor.

"Call me Teyla, please."

John would have much preferred to catch up on the mission reports before meeting new personnel. However, Dr. Weir hadn't seen it that way and she'd called a senior staff meeting shortly after Beckett released him from the infirmary. Hell he'd barely had time to get his boots on. He'd understood the reason for the rush once Teyla began telling them about the Wraith.

"How are you settling in?" John asked.

"The wonders of this city are remarkable, but my people have not yet decided if they wish to stay." She gazed out over the water, seemingly as taken by the view as John, before she turned to face him. "Still, I admit, Dr. Weir's offer is generous."

"Once we get the shield up and running we can better protect you and your people from the Wraith. Doesn't seem like that hard a decision to make."

"As you said, Sentinel Sheppard, once you have the shield. You still need a power source before that can happen."

She had him there. "Is there anything I can help you with? I sensed some tension between you and Colonel Sumner." John didn't add that the tension between them reeked, fouling the air so completely that he couldn't miss it, even with his senses dulled.

"Colonel Sumner brushes the concerns of my people aside. He looks through me as though I am not there. But you do not. For that, I am willing to take you into the old city in Athos.

"The place Colonel Sumner wanted to explore?" John asked.

She tilted her head to stare him in the eyes. "Yes. But only you. To respect the concerns of my people, we must travel there alone."

John met her gaze and turned up his senses. Strength and sincerity rolled off her in waves. "Well then, since we're going to be working together, call me John." The Sentinel Prime of Pegasus still sounded cool in his head, but he had a sneaking suspicion Teyla would roll her eyes.

It took a few days to set things in motion. Meanwhile, Sumner agreed to keep more Marines available for scientist detail. The extra safety precaution for the civilians meant John could leave Atlantis with an easier mind.

***

Rodney McKay flinched and ducked. Damn sparks. He refrained from throwing the burnt out device across the room but only because getting a replacement was impossible. If he couldn't fix the relocation device on the quantum mirror, he and Lorne were going to be stuck here forever.

Lorne shouldn't have followed him. Rodney didn't need him. Except for the handy way he kept finding food for them. Or how he insisted on clearing the unexplored areas of the old city before he'd let Rodney go in. Fine, he could admit Lorne was an excellent shot and decent cook—and he may have saved his life a few times.

But it was Rodney who'd found a way to power up parts of the city. Possibly Lorne's ATA gene contributed marginally to that. Nevertheless, it was his work on the device giving them their best chance of getting back to their own universe.

Rodney owed Lorne that much. That he had no intention of going back with him didn't need to be mentioned right now. Fortunately, he didn't have worry about that at the moment because Lorne had left the city for a few days to go do Lorne-like things.

That usually meant meat for dinner or weapons or other supplies. Occasionally, he'd bring back entertaining gossip. Entertaining meaning frightful in the way that supplies usually meant some poor bastard had been eaten by a Wraith and had left a few useful belongings behind.

It hit him just how alone he was. This place had been abandoned centuries ago, reason unknown. Shadows crept along the wall, despite it being midday. He knew it was an effect of the alien architecture and completely explainable. Adding to the unpleasantness his workroom had taken on an uncomfortable chill. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and turned on the small coil he used to heat water for tea. What he wouldn't give for a cup of honest-to-god coffee right now.

***

At the last minute, John decided to bring along a thermos of coffee. He made a quick detour to the mess on way his to the gate room. He was still early but Teyla was already there waiting for him.

"Looks like we're ready. Dial the gate, Chuck." John dulled his sense of touch and hearing. He could close his eyes just before he stepped through but he still remembered the roar of the vortex and his stumbling, unsteady gait his first time through the Stargate.

A few steps later, he and Teyla were on the other side.

"Is something wrong, John?"

"No it's just—you know—I'm standing on another world." And wasn't that weird. It looked remarkably Earth-like. Now that he thought about it, Atlantis hadn't seemed alien at all. If anything, it seemed like an extension of the Antarctic base.

But here it struck him, he was staring up at an alien sky, seeing alien trees, and Teyla…. Teyla had a very amused expression on her face. Well fuck, he was never going to get that five minutes of dignity back. John cleared his throat. "Right, you go through the gate all the time."

"There is something I feel you should know before we go into the old city," she said.

"It's taboo, and your people aren't happy with the idea of anyone going there. I got that that much from Colonel Sumner."

"Yes, but the city is not, as my people believe, entirely empty."

John stopped in his tracks. "I think you'd better explain before we go any further."

She kept walking towards the city, forcing him to keep up. With a sigh, John gave in and kept pace. It went against the grain of every instinct he possessed to let her walk alone into unknown territory.

"For many years, John, we believed the city to be abandoned. We also believed that entering the city would bring the Wraith down upon us. We were wrong.

"One night I found a stranger sneaking into our encampment, for the purpose of food I suspect. He carried himself stiffly, as though he'd been injured. He held no weapons and I deemed him no threat. But I was curious and I followed him." She pushed aside a bush and revealed a cave entrance. "And discovered a short cut."

Not having a choice in the matter, John turned on his flashlight and followed her inside. They walked in silence for a while, until Teyla pointed to a painting on the cave wall. "A Wraith culling."

"So someone must have hid out here at one time. Your mysterious stranger?" John asked.

"These drawings are much older than that. And the stranger's name is Rodney McKay."

"Not exactly an Athosian name."

"It is not."

John's brain scrambled to make sense of it. Someone with a very Earthlike name had made themselves at home in an abandoned Ancient city. Coincidence? Or could the SGC have sent an earlier expedition to Pegasus and hushed it up for some reason?

They reached the city's main entrance and Teyla led him toward one of the better-maintained buildings.

"Before we announce ourselves I should warn you that Rodney is a difficult person to get to know. He will not be happy I brought you here. However, I am certain that if there is anyone that can help you find a way to power Atlantis, it will be him."

"Okay." John took a deep breath. He waved his hand over the door crystal and activated the chime. Nothing happened. He shared a look with Teyla who looked puzzled.

"He rarely leaves but perhaps he is out." She sounded uncertain.

"Well then, let's just let ourselves in." John opened the door with another wave of his hand. He didn't know what they'd be walking into so he heightened his senses a few degrees, surprised when it didn't result in a headache. Too grateful to question it, he raised his firearm and stepped through the door ahead of Teyla.

They made their way down a long hallway that ended in a choice of doors. "That one." John pointed to a door two down on their left. "Someone's in there; I can hear them moving around."

"I should go first. Rodney knows me."

John couldn't argue with her reasoning as much as he hated the idea of Teyla putting herself between him and possible danger. "Got you covered."

"I doubt that will be necessary, Sentinel." Without a backward glance, she stepped through the door.

John was right behind her.

The moment he entered the room his senses snapped into place. Guide! His guide was here. Everything rushed at him with a clarity he hadn't felt since he first came online. Only years of suppression kept him from turning primal on the spot.

He breathed through his mouth, the better to smell his guide. But he couldn't see him. His guide was hidden from him, crouched down behind a desk, and too scared to stand. The scent of fear grew and John pulled back. This man, who was clearly his guide, was terrified. "I'm not—we're not going to hurt you. You're safe."

"Rodney, you know me," Teyla said. She pulled a bread roll and wedge of cheese from her pack and held it out. "We brought you food. See? We only want to talk."

John remembered the thermos. "And coffee. Bet you like coffee, right?"

"Coffee?" Rodney slowly stood.

Fear still rolled off his guide keeping John from approaching. If he spooked his guide—hell, he didn't even want to think about that. He passed the thermos to Teyla and she handed it to Rodney.

Rodney grabbed it, unscrewed the top, and inhaled. Watching as an expression of bliss crossed his guide's face gave John the first glimmer of hope that everything would be okay.

"You're Rodney McKay," John said taking a tentative step forward.

"Dr. Rodney McKay." Rodney had already poured a cup of coffee and made his point between sips.

His entire body vibrated with that knowledge that this was his guide. But instead of sharing a mutual recognition, Rodney didn't seem to realize it. John found himself in the strange position of trying to talk his guide into coming with him. He'd never heard of anything like that happening before.

"We…" John paused. He couldn't exactly say he wanted to drag Rodney off and claim him. He shot a desperate, begging glance at Teyla.

"Rodney, this is Sen—."

"Sheppard. John Sheppard." John interrupted. This wasn't the time to explain about sentinels. "We have a proposition for you."

"A proposition?" Rodney clutched the thermos to his chest like a lifeline. "Will it have more coffee?"

Teyla smiled. "I think that can be arranged."

"Well, get on with it. I don't have all day. What's this proposition?"

"John Sheppard and his people have settled in the Ancient city of Atlantis. I know you have heard of it."

"That's where all of your people went, isn't it?" Rodney asked.

"For now. We would indeed find it a welcome haven if it only had a power source to raise its protective shield."

"We could sure use your help," John said, putting every ounce of sincerity in his voice he possessed.

"Well, of course you could." Rodney puffed his chest out.

"I couldn't help notice that you're been working on crystal power conduits." John pointed to the equipment spread out on the desk.

"You know what this is?" Rodney sounded both doubtful and impressed.

"Perhaps we could interest you in a trade?" Teyla asked.

John nodded solemnly. "Yes, a trade. You let us have a couple of those power conduits and we let you come to Atlantis."

"I don't know…." Rodney didn't quite wring his hands but he looked like he wanted to scoop up all of his equipment and hide it out of sight.

"If your conduits work and we are able to power the shield, you would be safe there from the Wraith," Teyla pointed out.

"Of course they'll work! Um, are there a lot of people there? I'm not good with people. They give me a headache. I don't know why no one believes me when I tell them that."

John believed him. It was a classic unbonded guide symptom. "We can give you private quarters. Dr. Weir will understand."

"Dr. Weir?" Rodney turned to Teyla. "What should I do?"

"Dr. Weir is a kind and capable leader. Rodney, you should come with us. Every moment we delay is a moment the Wraith could find you here."

"If I don't go, you're just going to come back and pester me, aren't you?"

Come back? John wasn’t going anywhere without his guide. Teyla could leave and make his excuses but there was no way he was going to leave here without Rodney.

Whatever Rodney saw in their faces must have been enough to convince him. He gathered up his things, including the thermos of coffee. John had a feeling he wouldn't be getting that back anytime soon.

Almost as an afterthought, Rodney scribbled down a note and stuck it to the desk. "Okay, I'm ready. But I need to be back in two days."

John nodded. In two days, he planned for them to be bonded. They could work out everything else after that.

***

Dr. Weir met them in the gate room. She'd handled the negotiations with the Sentinel council to get approval for John to come on the expedition so he shouldn't have been surprised when she recognized Rodney's guide aura. She probably understood better than most exactly what finding his guide meant to him. But, just to make sure, John put his hand on Rodney's shoulder and silently mouthed the word, mine.

Her eyes widened in acknowledgment and she stepped forward to greet Rodney with a smile. Teyla began the introductions and agreed to fill Weir in on the details later in the privacy of her office.

Rodney gazed around the gate room as if he owned it. He began talking to himself and making comparisons between Atlantis technology and the old city they'd just left.

To be honest, John wasn't listening. Instead, he let the words and his guide's voice wash over him. Something tight in his chest, something that had been there for as long as he could remember, broke free. He smiled. He just hoped he didn't look as besotted with his guide as he felt.

Speaking softly, knowing Rodney was still skittish, he said, "Come on, I'll help you get settled in."

"Settled in?" Rodney looked terrified and John ached to reach out and reassure him. Once he claimed him he'd be able to help Rodney when he felt distressed. But right now, he had no idea how to even approach the subject of a bond.

His guide couldn't reject him, could he? John tried to recall any stories where that had happened and couldn't think of a single one.

***

Without thinking, John walked Rodney to his own quarters. He opened the door expecting Rodney would approve of his sentinel safe furnishings. One look at Rodney's shock-pale face and he knew he'd misjudged badly.

John panicked. "You don't have to stay here. We'll find… I mean I'm sure Dr. Weir will assign you your own quarters."

Rodney looked skeptical but at least the color was coming back to his face.

"Hey, you know what, we should go check in with Dr. Beckett. Standard procedure. He'll make sure there's nothing here in Atlantis you might be allergic to."

"Don't sugarcoat it. You mean you want him to check me over for possibly infestations," Rodney blustered.

And it was bluster, but if that's what it took to wipe the fear from his eyes John would happily take it.

"Normally I'd be insulted at the suggestion but considering where I've been living for the last six months it's actually a decent idea."

"Great." One task down. Now John just had to figure out what Rodney was so afraid of and find a way to fix it.

***

Rodney had pieces of his device spread out over his worktable. The accommodations here were decent. There were some surprising similarities between the two cities, enough so that it didn't take him long to feel right at home.

Dr. Weir had granted him this lab space and he only had to share it with one other person. Granted, an annoying person. Once Rodney introduced himself, Dr. Zelka-something pushed his glasses up on his nose, tilted his head to the side and announced, "A Dr. McKay was asked to come on the expedition. She refused. Apparently too involved in planning her honeymoon, if the gossip s to be believed. Perhaps you two are related?"

"Doubtful." Rodney wasn't about to discuss alternate realities and quantum mirrors at this point. Thankfully, the annoying scientist had gone, off working on something called puddle jumpers.

Puddle jumpers. Odd name. He couldn't help notice how Sheppard's eyes lit up at the mention of them. His absent lab mate, had dragged John off with him for jumper 'readings.' A twinge of jealously flared in his chest and Rodney viciously stomped it down.

He poured another cup of coffee and began studying the main junction of the power conduit. He needed it to do more than supply a narrow stream of ergs. That might be enough to power a coffee maker after six months but it would take decades to recharge a ZPM that way. The problem lie in the way the Ancient crystals accessed subspace, he was sure of it.

He needed an empty ZPM to practice on. Dr. Weir had just raised her eyebrows when he asked for one of theirs. She said she'd consider it, after he'd been here longer than a day. At least Lorne promised to try to find him one. Hopefully Lorne was having better luck than he was right now.

Lorne—Rodney hoped he didn't get back from his scavenging run early. He was going to have a fit if he got back and found out Rodney gone. For someone who wasn't a sentinel, Lorne had a protective streak to rival the best of them.

It didn't help that he knew coming here was a bad idea. He'd been safe in the abandoned Athos city—relatively speaking. But here, trying to work under a sentinel's nose had to be the stupidest thing he'd ever done. God, he was never going to get away with this.

It would have been hard enough saying no to Teyla. Aside from Lorne, she was his only friend and actually seemed to like him. Well, tolerate at least.

But when a sentinel asked for his help, disarmingly soft-spoken and hot enough to melt a polar ice cap, he couldn't say no. Stupid guide instincts. He doubted he had two days before Sheppard found out he was lying. He certainly would have noticed already if it weren't so painfully obvious he was trying to give Rodney some space.

He realized he was taking advantage of the only decent sentinel he'd ever met. Fuck, he was a horrible guide. He was a horrible guide and there was every reason to believe that Sheppard was, in fact, his sentinel. Rodney buried his face in his hands. He was so doomed.

***

Heading back from the jumper bay, John halted in his tracks when Beckett waved to get his attention.

"I won't keep you away from your guide long, I just wanted to speak with you a moment, Sentinel Sheppard." Beckett said.

"You know? About Rodney being a guide?"

"Aye. And not just any guide. He's yours, if I haven't missed my guess. Congratulations."

"Don't be too hasty to congratulate us. He's…" John lifted his hands helplessly.

"Too busy denying it," Beckett finished for him. "I noticed that as well. He doesn't act as if he even knows what a sentinel/guide pair is. But if I'm any judge, he's powerful. He'd have to be high on the guide scale to attract a sentinel with five enhanced senses.

"Six. Maybe." Under Carson Beckett's sharp gaze John felt a schoolboy scuffing his toe in the sand."

"I think you'd best explain."

"Probably it's just the ATA gene but ever since I talked Atlantis into rising from the ocean I feel more connected. And after Rodney arrived that presence has felt even stronger. I can't really explain it."

"Then it's fortunate you found your guide when you did." Beckett held up his hand. "Let me finish. When I heard there was going to be an unbonded sentinel on the expedition I was dead set against it. Oh, don't ruffle your feathers at me. It had never been done before. Honestly, I thought you were coming here to die. That said, never have I been so happy to be proven wrong."

John caught the sound of a soft inhale coming from the door. He spun on his heel. Rodney. From the expression on his face, he must have heard every word. "Rodney—."

"Don't. Just take me back to Athos. I need to go back right now."

The despair on Rodney's face went straight to John's heart. His guide was rejecting him. It felt like the room was closing in. He couldn't breathe; he couldn't see. The only sound he heard was that of some animal howling in pain, but eventually even that died away.

***

He found himself deep in an unfamiliar forest. Just a few paces away a cheetah paced back and forth in front of him. After a few minutes, with one last baleful look, it finally relaxed enough to lie down a few feet away from him. John stayed very still.

 

A wolf howled. The brush parted and a timber wolf stepped into the glade. The animal was in rough shape, so gaunt John could count his ribs. His blue eyes were haunted with shadows and he crept forward with his head bent low, as though it were too heavy to lift.

The wolf's approach didn't startle the cheetah so John held his ground. Creeping closer, belly to the ground, the wolf avoided him and inched forward until he was close enough to lick the big cat's nose. The cheetah didn't just put up with it; he began licking the wolf's face, treating him like a large overgrown kitten.

The forest faded away and a harsh light pricked at his eyelids. He could hear the steady beeping of nearby medical equipment and under that—a heartbeat. He opened his eyes.

This time was completely different from the last time he woke up in the infirmary. For one thing, he was in complete control of his senses. More importantly, a warm hand gripped his, hanging onto him like a lifeline. Rodney.

Rodney had fallen asleep with his hand clutching John's. He had dark circles under his eyes and sported a day's worth of scruff. He was the best thing John had ever seen and he was never letting go.

"He hasn't left your side since you collapsed," Beckett said softly.

"Doc?" John gathered his wits together. "I saw something, dreamt it maybe. Spirit animals. Was…was I hallucinating?" His hand tightened on Rodney's.

"Easy lad. Perfectly normal considering what you've just been through." Beckett held a penlight up. "Ready?"

John nodded. What a difference it made with his guide here. The light became a flicker of annoyance instead of a recipe for a migraine.

"Your entire neurological system suffered a massive shock. Rodney must be an incredibly powerful guide to pull you back from the edge like that. You should be dead."

"Gee, thanks for the pep talk, Doc."

"You're welcome, you cheeky bugger." Beckett's gaze slid to Rodney. "I don't know how he did it but you may well be in the best health I've ever seen you in. Your guide however, is in sore need of a shower, a good meal, and some proper bed rest."

Beckett held up his hand. "For pity's sake, give the poor fellow that much before you instigate the bond. Seeing how the two of you are already entangled, the wait won't kill you." He chuckled. "Well, obviously."

Rodney's eyelids fluttered open. "You're alive."

John reached out and smoothed Rodney's sleep ruffled hair. "Thanks to you. Get up here."
With a gentle tug, he encouraged Rodney to climb onto bed with him. Ignoring Beckett's indulgent eye roll, he wrapped his arms around his guide.

The blissful moment was shattered when Rodney's stomach growled.

"That's it. Sentinel, go take your Guide and take proper care of him. And no bonding until I've cleared you both!"

John lifted an eyebrow.

"Oh, all right," Beckett huffed. "I know when I've overstepped my bounds. Just, for pity's sake, let him get his strength up before the two of you disappear for three days."

Three days? John snorted. Beckett must think they were both teenagers. "I'll take good care of him."

John kept one arm around Rodney's waist all the way back to their quarters. The touch did more than keep him grounded; it reinforced the prebond. Touch, sight, smell, hearing—the only thing missing was taste. Unable to resist, John nuzzled Rodney's ear. Sensation burst across his lips, and he held tighter to his guide until he could steady his weakening knees.

He was definitely going to have to feed them both before any actual bonding or he might not survive. Grinning at the prospect, he opened the door to their quarters. John intended to ask for suitable rooms for a sentinel/guide pair just as soon as enough rooms had been cleared by engineering.

Thinking he could help speed that process along by using his senses, especially with his guide's help, he tucked Rodney into bed, sat down, and got ready to remove his boots.

"Rodney?"

Rodney had fallen back to sleep. As much as he wanted to crawl into bed with him, his guide needed to rest. According to Beckett, he'd barely slept at all while John was in the process of dying.

Just how much of his life energy had Rodney poured into him to pull him back from the edge? No wonder he looked so pale and exhausted. He curled his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. God damn it. He didn't deserve—. He shook the thought aside. He had the rest of his life now to prove his worthiness to his guide.

It was a wrench to leave him but John needed to take care of a few things, starting with food —not to mention coffee. He patted Rodney's blanket covered knee. "Be right back, buddy."

***

John loaded his tray with double helpings of everything he thought Rodney might like. He was just adding a large mug of coffee to the load when he heard his name being called. "Teyla?"

"John. I am glad to see you looking so well for someone nearly dead a few hours ago." She turned to introduce her companion. "This is Guardsman Lorne. Lorne, this is Sentinel John Sheppard."

"Pleased to meet you. Mind telling me what brings you here?" John asked. He didn't have to work very hard to detect the nervousness rolling off Lorne.

"Rodney would not leave your side so he asked me to go to the old city, find Lorne, and bring him back here. We would like to speak with you, Sentinel Sheppard." Teyla's expression made it clear that this conversation needed to happen somewhere less pubic.

"Sure, but not now. My guide is waiting for me." John could no more wipe the possessiveness from his voice than he could stop breathing.

"I see," Teyla said, taking in the astounding amount of food John had packed onto his tray.

"It's about Rodney." Lorne said.

John paused. "Okay. Follow me. I need to drop this food off then run up to Weir's office and have her get the Sentinel/Guide paperwork started. We'll talk on the way."

"For starters," Lorne began, "the paperwork could pose a problem."

As soon as they were far enough away from eavesdroppers, John asked, "How so?"

"Did Rodney tell you about the quantum mirror?" Lorne asked.

"Not exactly."

Lorne sighed. "Of course not. Look, we're not from your Earth. We ended up here by accident. Sort of by accident. I mean, we didn't know it was going to be this Earth."

John raised one eyebrow.

"Damn, I'm not explaining this well."

"Parallel universe about sum it up?" Certain SGC reports were required reading and that was one of them. "Tell me," John's voice grew cold. "Does your Earth know about sentinels and guides?

Looking very uncomfortable with the question, Lorne nodded.

"So Rodney knew all along he was a guide, which meant he must have known I was a sentinel. He lied to me."

"And that's what I want to talk to you about. Whatever jealous ideas are going through your head right now about Rodney wanting to stay with me instead of being your guide, you can just forget. I was with Rodney because I'm a guardsman." Lorne lifted his chin. "Where I'm from we don't let unbonded guides go anywhere alone."

"Why is that exactly?" John didn't like the sound of this one little bit. Lorne spoke as if unbonded guides needed some kind of watchdog.

Pain flashed across Lorne's face. "To keep guides from escaping." He cleared his throat. "Since being assigned to Rodney, I've come to the realization that guardsmen aren't anything more than glorified jailors. If I could undo…."

He took a deep breath. "But I didn't follow Rodney through the mirror for that reason. He's clever, as you've no doubt noticed. He got himself assigned to working on the device before the rest of us even knew what it was. By the time I became aware of his escape plan, we'd become friends. I couldn't let him dive off into the unknown all by himself."

"Rodney told me that he was trying to find a way for you to return." Teyla looked at a loss for words and finally gave up on diplomacy. "I don't like the sound of your Earth."

"No you wouldn't like at all," Lorne agreed. "As far as going back, he should stop trying. If I go back, all my people will see is that I lost a guide on my watch. Let's just say they're not the forgiving kind."

"There's more, isn't there," John said with a sinking feeling. They'd reached his quarters. "Give me minute."

He could hear Rodney snoring through the door. Quietly, he stepped in, leaving Lorne and Teyla on the other side. He put the tray down, found Rodney's pack with the thermos, and after a quick rinse, poured the cup of coffee in to keep it hot.

Feeling pleased with himself for providing for his sleeping guide, John rejoined the others. He might not like what Lorne had to say, but he needed to hear it.

"I don't care which Earth my guide's from, I'm still asking Dr. Weir do the paperwork." In other words, John was making his claim known and nothing was going to stop him.

With a brisk nod of acceptance, Lorne continued. "It hasn't been easy living in the abandoned city. We arrived with very few supplies. The last few weeks we've been living hand-to-mouth and it would have been worse without Miss Emmagan's generosity. Despite that, for Rodney, his life's been a lot easier."

"Easier?" John scowled.

"Please don't be mad at Rodney for lying," Lorne continued. "He was just trying to protect himself. Our Earth doesn't exactly treat guides well. Unbonded guides can't own property or earn money. They aren't allowed to travel unescorted—ever.

"Even after they're claimed, they can't do anything without a sentinel's express permission," Lorne continued. "It says something about Rodney's guide skills that he could work around the system to gain access to the mirror in the first place."

"I'm guessing he had no way of knowing it's different here?" John asked.

"None," Lorne answered. "He took a crazy, terrible risk jumping through the way he did. For all either of us knew we could have ended up where things were much worse for him."

"And we have no guides or sentinels on Athos to show him otherwise," Teyla said gravely.

”Damn." John had a sudden, overwhelming urge to get back to his guide. "Teyla, would you…?"

"Go, John. Get back to Rodney. I will put in your request to Dr. Weir to begin your paperwork."

John waited just long enough to see Teyla indicate that Lorne should come with her, and then he ran.

***

Before John even opened the door to their quarters, he could hear Rodney up and moving around the room. Judging from the soft sounds of gastric satisfaction coming from the other side of the door, his guide had found the coffee and food. Encouraged, John walked into the room.

His guide looked better. His color was back and the dark circles under his eyes had faded. John held onto the hope that he could make things better between them despite Rodney's downturned expression.

"I talked to Lorne. He told me what it was like for you, for unbonded guides on your Earth. I don't blame you for hiding. God, how can you even stand to be with me after all that?"

"Stop being such martyr, Sheppard. I survived, didn't I?" Rodney jumped up from the table, grabbed John by the shirt, and tugged until John tumbled onto bed with Rodney sprawled on top of him.

Rodney buried his face in John's shoulder, and mumbled, "Don't ever scare me again like that. You almost died."

"I won't." John stroked his hands down his guide's back. He kept it up until Rodney stopped trembling. "I promise."

Cuddled together like this in the privacy of their room the need to claim his guide grew imperative. With relief, he could feel the need for a bond rising in his guide too.

"So you probably know this scares the shit out of me," Rodney confessed into John's chest.

John rested his hand on the nape of Rodney's neck and pressed a kiss onto the top of his head.
"Didn't anyone ever explain to you, Guide, that it goes both ways? A sentinel doesn't just claim his guide—a guide claims his sentinel."

It hurt but he had to do it. John let go. He spread his arms out the side and fixed his gaze on the ceiling. He couldn't bear to see rejection in his guide's eyes and this had to be Rodney's choice. "I'm yours to claim, Rodney." John held his breath and waited.

"Oh, for the love of idiot sentinels!" Rodney sat up and pulled his shirt off over his head and then began stripping John out of his. "I've wanted you since the moment I saw you. I—" He paused in the process of removing the rest of his clothes. "I let fear get the better of me. I can be a stubborn, petty man sometimes. You should probably know that about me."

"Not a problem." He would say anything at that point to get his guide naked and in bed with him. John quickly shed the rest of his clothes, tossing them across the room before lying back down. His nostrils flared. His guide smelled delicious and his whole focus now was to see if he tasted as good as his smelled.

John growled.

"That should not be as hot as it is." Clothes left in a puddle on the floor, Rodney scrambled up onto the bed. His eyes grew wide at the sight of John's cock rising up to meet him. "What do I do?"

"Anything you want," John panted, already caught in the throes of bonding. "Please."

He expected his guide to be either equally driven or shyly uncertain. He didn't expect Rodney to study his entire body with a speculative look in his eye.

"You need to claim me with all five senses," Rodney said.

John was slowly losing his mind to the bonding heat and Rodney was calmly talking to him like he'd studied up on it. Which, fuck, of course he had. He'd always expected to be paired with a sentinel.

"Touch for you, taste for me." Rodney firmly gripped John's cock in one hand and began licking along the underside from root to tip.

He reached out, curling his fingers in Rodney's short, fine hair when Rodney noisily started sucking him in earnest. "Sound," John moaned.

"John, look at me."

Look at him? He couldn't tear his eyes away from him. Rodney's wet, pink mouth surrounded the head of John's cock. He was sucking it with soft, slurpy sounding noises that made John so hard he could have drilled nails into the wall.

"Sight," John gasped. His head dropped back down on the pillow. He had a feeling Rodney was just getting started.

Unable to bear it any longer, John flipped Rodney over so that he was on top. "My turn to taste."

His guide's cock was full, heavy, and waiting to be swallowed. He was tempted take it all, swallow him down until Rodney's cock scraped deep inside his throat. Instead, he kept up an easy pace of sucking and enjoyed the sound of his guide panting and begging for more. Besides, John had something else in mind.

He pushed Rodney's legs up until he had an unobstructed view of his goal. John took his time licking his way down, parting Rodney's cheeks with first his thumb and then trailing the same path with his tongue. Once there, he circled that Rodney's hole with his tongue, lavishing it with attention until it began to loosen. "Taste."

"Lube. Use lube, you Neanderthal," Rodney gasped. He was squirming now, lifting his ass and using his hands to hold his legs up and open.

John grunted. His guide was ready.

A tube of lube hit him in the chest. John blinked, coming out of his haze long enough to put two and two together. He managed to get the cap off and slick himself up. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he had to protect his guide first. John squeezed out palmful of lube and slapped it onto Rodney's ass.

"At least you got some of it in the right spot," Rodney huffed. "C'mon, c'mon, stop dicking around and fuck me."

The videos John had watched never pointed out how hard it was to stay coordinated during a bonding heat. Twice now the head of his cock had slipped, sliding off Rodney's round ass to get caught in the crease of his thigh.

John concentrated. Brow furrowed, his tongue peeked out between his lips as he aimed home.
"Stop squirming. It's screwing up my aim."

"Bossy bossy, Sentinel. Would you like me to draw you a map?"

With a growl, John shoved into him. He froze. The head of his cock was completely embedded in Rodney's ass. It felt fucking fantastic. He wanted to keep going, keep going until he was balls deep. Only he had to ask, "Are you all right?"

"Yes! Don't stop now!" Rodney whined.

His guide was tight. Tight and perfect and all his. The power of the bond swirled up around them, dictating a rhythm as old as time. They became, not one pushing against the other, but pushing together as one.

Time lost meaning; there was only now. John came hard, wrapped in his Guide. Rodney, surrounded in the safety of his Sentinel's mental shields, came in equal measure. They collapsed together, utterly spent.

Curled up together on bed, John breathed in scent of their come. "Smell."

It had been worth waiting for.

John was about to fall asleep when Rodney nudged him with his elbow. "Don't move but look over by the door."

The wolf and cheetah sat in front of the door guarding it.

"Do you think that means we have to keep having sex until they leave?" Rodney whispered.

"If that's the case," John whispered back, "I hope to god they realize we're both not seventeen anymore. I don't think my back can take it."

Rodney snorted. "Right, and your cheetah's grinning at us like a Cheshire cat because he's so on board with that."

Christ, Rodney was right. He was going to have to have sex with his guide who knew how many times or how long for?

"Sheppard? John?" Rodney poked him in the ribs a little less gently this time. "You've got the same expression on your face as your spirit animal. Should I be worried? John?"

~*~