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"Huh."

John hated that sound. "What?"

"Hm? Oh, nothing," Rodney said, waving his fingers at John dismissively. "Just some strange readings coming from Cleveland."

"Cleveland," John repeated, brow furrowing at the direction of the conversation.

"Yes, yes."

Rodney's attention was clearly on his laptop. John wasn't sure he wanted to ask, but he did anyway. "What kind of strange readings?"

"There's got to be something wrong with the sensors," Rodney muttered, and John resisted the urge to sigh.

"Rodney."

"Hm?" Rodney glanced up briefly, seeming to come back to himself. "Oh. From what I can tell, somebody opened a wormhole in Cleveland, Ohio."

"A wormhole," John said, feeling a little lost for words at the moment. "In Cleveland."

"Yes," Rodney said, starting to sound annoyed at having to repeat himself. "Somewhere in the vicinity of 41.506 latitude and -81.6996 longitude."

"Browns Stadium?" John said, surprised.

"What?"

"Browns Stadium," John repeated, deciding he wasn't so much as lost as he was a broken record. "The Cleveland Browns? Football?"

"Are you seriously telling me you know the latitude and longitude of every football stadium in the country?" Rodney asked, in that way that meant he was ruing the waste John had made of his brain.

John shrugged. "I was bored one night."

"You were bored one night. Seriously? This is what you chose to do with your -- "

"Rodney, focus," John said. "Wormhole. Cleveland, Ohio, remember?"

"There's got to be something wrong with the sensors," Rodney said again, turning back to his laptop. "I mean, they weren't even calibrated to that area, I was just doing a routine sweep and... "

John could feel the buzz as his adrenaline started to kick in. He wasn't exactly excited about a trip to Cleveland, but it was better than the nothing they'd been doing since they'd been booted out of Atlantis. It still stung to think about, and he tried hard not to. There was still hope that if the talks went well, Helia would allow them back, but given that Woolsey was in charge of negotiations, John wasn't holding his breath.

They'd been assigned to the Daedalus after several failed attempts at trying to set John up with a new team at the SGC. It wasn't permanent, of course. And having Rodney back was great, but they were only one half of a whole. John had added Teyla and Ronon to the list of things he tried hard not to think about pretty much the moment they'd stepped through the 'Gate and landed back on Earth.

He and Rodney, well, mostly Rodney, were running some tests that John refused to let Rodney explain in too much detail. Their assignment was to check out any anomalies that came up.

He was pretty sure that wormholes counted.

John clapped Rodney on the shoulder and grinned when Rodney scowled back up at him. "Let's gear up."

~~

Xander had never liked football. In high school, the jocks hadn't exactly been his friends. It had only taken one tryout to realize he was more of a joke on the field than their mascot. So, he wasn't exactly happy to be heading out to Browns Stadium at just after midnight on a Tuesday night. Or was it Wednesday morning? Whatever.

Not that he had much choice. Or that they were going to be playing any type of football when they got there.

Although, the more Xander thought about it, the better football sounded.

"What type of demon are we looking for again?" Xander asked as they pulled into the empty parking lot.

"Don't know," Spike said. "Red said there was a dimensional portal or some such. Slayer wanted us to check it out."

"You know, now that there are, I don't know, hundreds, you really have to start calling them by their names," Xander said.

"Only one Slayer in these parts now that Buffy's traipsing across Europe," Spike said.

"She's not traipsing." Xander shook his head, though he kind of did feel a little abandoned. Then again, Buffy had never really been given a choice before and Xander couldn't really begrudge her the one she'd made. "And Faith isn't the only Slayer around. What about all the little Slayerettes?"

"Exactly, luv," Spike said.

Xander tried not to laugh, though he couldn't help his grin. He'd never call them that to their faces, since most of them could kill him with their pinky fingers, but he couldn't help thinking of them that way. Even after more than five years of training them and fighting by their sides, Xander just couldn't stop thinking of them as babies.

Maybe it was because, thankfully, he knew that none of them would ever get that hard look; the one that had always been hovering just below the surface in Faith's and Buffy's eyes.

Xander sighed, his amusement gone. He grabbed his ax, and headed out after Spike

"Where is Faith, anyway?" He asked, as Spike broke the lock on the door, pulling it open until the whole mechanism just fell out.

"Heard some rumors about a gathering of Fyarl demons." Spike shrugged.

They came out onto the empty field, and despite himself, Xander couldn't help feeling a little awed. It was a massive space, and the empty rows and rows and rows of seats around them gave Xander the strange feeling of being the center of attention. He couldn't even imagine what it would feel like to run out here with all those seats filled and cheering for you.

The air was cool, but not really cold yet. Summer was just waning into Fall, and this was one of those nights that was more Summer than not. The damp air made his eye patch itch, but it was better than the sticky heat of a humid night. He rubbed at his temple, soothing his chafed skin.

"You all right, luv?" Spike was suddenly right beside him.

"I'm fine," Xander said, smiling even as he shook his head. Spike's concern always gave him mixed feelings. Sometimes his overprotectiveness frustrated Xander, but most of the time it just made Xander feel... good.

"Faith and a couple of the bitlets are supposed to meet us here if they don't run into any leads on the Fyarls," Spike said, fingers ghosting down Xander's arm.

Spike always had to touch. Xander wasn't sure if it was to comfort Xander or Spike, but he didn't mind it. Because he could never resist Spike when he was like this, Xander leaned forward and pressed a quick kiss to Spike's lips.

"I don't see anything, do you?" Xander asked, glancing around the silent stadium. "What exactly did Willow say?"

"Dimensional portals, fluctuating energies," Spike said, shaking his head. "Was researching when I left to pick you up."

"Let me guess, she's gonna meet us here later too, right?"

"Got it in one, luv," Spike said, suddenly stepping away and staring off to the left.

"What?" Xander tightened his grip on the ax, raising it to a more defensive level. "What is it?"

"Heard something," Spike said, shifting into game face. "Get behind me."

Xander rolled his eye. This was one of those frustrating times. He took one step back to appease Spike, mostly because he didn't want to distract him if there really was a threat.

"Is it one of the girls?" Xander said, quietly.

Spike sniffed the air, a growl rising in his throat. "No."

Suddenly, a white blur came flying out from one of the tunnels. Xander had never seen a demon like this one before, though it reminded him vaguely of the uber-vamps The First had used. Except this one had long white hair that fell just below his shoulders.

"Spike!" Xander cried out when he saw Spike go down beneath the other demon. Before he could bring his ax down, Spike kicked out, and the demon went flying.

Spike and the demon were facing off, circling each other. The other demon looked almost human, but his skin was a pale, greenish-white and his eyes were vaguely cat-like. He was tall and lean, and definitely stronger than he looked given the way he'd taken Spike down.

"What are you?" Spike said.

"What are you?" the other demon asked. "You are not human."

Xander shivered at the strange way he said 'human'. Sort of sibilant and kind of alien.

Spike frowned. "'M a vampire. Where have you been? Living under a rock? Every demon knows what a vamp is."

"Demon?" he said, as if he'd never heard the word before.

Something cold and unpleasant slithered down Xander's spine. Nothing about this felt... right. Just then, Xander caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A bright flash of light and all three of them were turning toward the new threat.

There were two men there in dark BDUs, both carrying P-90s. Xander was still continuously amazed at the amount of information he retained from his one fateful night as a soldier, but in this case he was grateful. "Spike, down!" Xander cried out just as one of the men, the one with spiky hair, shouted, "Wraith!"

Both guns went up as Spike and Xander dove to the floor, Spike somehow making it to Xander's side before the gunfire started. He was on top of Xander, shielding him as the two new men opened fire on the demon they'd called a Wraith.

There was an unearthly scream, and then the gunfire ceased and the two men were cursing. When Xander glanced up he saw just a flash as the demon leaped up into the bleachers. He disappeared into one of the tunnels leading to the concession stands and exit gates.

"What the hell was that?" one of them said, sounding a lot more panicked than he'd looked holding that P-90. "What the hell are the Wraith doing here?"

"I don't know," the other man drawled. "Let's check the civilians."

"I'm a civilian, too, remember?"

"Not when you're on my team, you're not."

They continued bickering back and forth as Xander heard their footsteps come closer.

"You all right, luv?" Spike whispered in his ear, then rolled away to help Xander up.

"Yeah, I'm good," Xander was dusting his jeans off when he heard a sharp intake of breath. When he looked up, there were two guns trained on them.

"It's okay, kid," the spiky haired one said. "Just step away from him, we've got you covered."

"Hey! I'm 28," Xander said, offended, even though he was used to being mistaken for someone a lot younger. "And, you've got what covered?"

Xander glanced back at Spike who was snarling and still in game face.

"Oh," Xander said. "Spike, your face," he said from the corner of his mouth.

"Not gonna let them take you or me, Xan," Spike said, dropping into a fighting crouch. "Bloody Initiative, thought you were all dead and gone."

"They're not Initiative, Spike," Xander said, holding out his hands in a placating gesture to all of them. "You're not Initiative, right? Just tell him," Xander said the two soldiers staring at them.

"We're not Initiative," the stocky one said. "But we are human. What the hell is that?" The man's voice went up at least an octave on the last word.

"Look, let's all just settle down," the other stranger said calmly. "I'm Lt. Col. John Sheppard, and this is Dr. Rodney McKay." His voice sounded friendly enough, but Xander noticed that he didn't lower his gun. "And you are?"

"Xander," Xander said, clearing his throat. "Xander Harris and this is Spike."

"He doesn't look like a Wraith," Sheppard said. "Rodney?"

"Despite the fact that I'm not a biologist, no, he doesn't look like any Wraith we've ever seen. Including Michael." Rodney said, "I'd have to get him to the lab to be -- "

At the word 'lab', Spike launched himself at Rodney, Sheppard's gun came up, the report shattering the night's silence.

"No!" Xander shouted. Even though he knew Spike could take a hell of a lot more than a couple of bullets, he still couldn't help the spike of fear that filled him. He dropped to his knees beside Spike. "Damn it, you scared him," Xander chastised Rodney.

"I scared him?" Rodney said, incredulous.

"And you didn't have to shoot him!" Xander glared at Sheppard, who still had his gun up and sighted on them both. "You can stand down now," Xander said, putting a little special forces into his voice.

Spike was already sitting up, but Xander didn't like the look of all that blood. "Are you okay?" Xander said, leaning in for whatever privacy they could get and surreptitiously pulling up his sleeve to reveal bare skin. "Do you need a drink?"

"'M okay, Xan," Spike said, shaking his head and already try to stand, putting himself between Xander and the two soldiers.

"Woah, looks like we're late to the party."

"Faith," Xander breathed in relief.

"What's the sitch, Xan?" Faith said, taking her place beside Xander, the other Slayers taking positions around them.

"Oh, what is this? Attack of the Amazons?" Rodney said.

"Rodney," John said.

"What?" Rodney turned to scowl at John.

"Don't aggravate the natives." John said the words as if they were rote.

"Oh, ha!" Rodney said, rolling his eyes. "Are we really wasting time here while there's a Wraith running around loose on Earth?"

"Cheeky," Faith said. "What's a Wraith?"

"Demon," Xander said. "Must have come through the portal Willow sensed."

John and Rodney gave each other a strange look, then glanced back at them.

"Okay," John said in that slow drawl of his. "Maybe we should talk."

~~

"Oh, hi! Am I late?" A redheaded whirlwind entered the room.

"Hey, Wills," Xander said. "You haven't missed much. Did you know there was a unicorn galaxy?"

"Pegasus," Rodney said, scowling.

"Oh, sure, there are two," the girl John assumed was Willow said. "Irregular and Spheroidal."

"Huh," Rodney said, giving the girl a second look.

John almost laughed, but held himself in check. He'd already reported in to General Landry and gotten Xander and his crew to sign the non-disclosure agreements. He slid one in front of Willow now.

"If you could," John said. "We can't really say anything else until you sign."

"Wow," Willow said. "This is bigger than some of Giles' books."

Xander laughed. "Go ahead and sign, Wills. It's just a promise not to reveal all the secrets of the universe, or at least the galaxy in this case."

John had to admit that he liked the kid's sense of humor.

"Okey-dokey," Willow said, and John had to resist the urge to shake his head. These kids, John didn't care how old Xander said he was, were out saving the world every night? Or so Xander would have them believe.

Although with Spike as evidence, it wasn't as hard to believe as John would have thought.

But John still thought Xander's explanation was crazy. Vampires? Demons? He had to admit that he'd seen a lot of strange things since joining the SGC, but even this was a little much. Life-sucking alien vampires? Okay. He could deal. But real life Dracula vampires?

Except there was Spike; granted he looked like a regular human being at the moment, but John was pretty sure that other face, the demon face, would be burned into his memory forever.

Willow slid the agreement back to him, and John set it with the others.

John wasn't sure how much Xander had told Willow when he'd called so he introduced himself again. "And this is Doctor Rodney McKay," he said, gesturing toward Rodney.

"Oh, I know Dr. McKay," Willow said, brightening even more.

"You've heard of me?" Rodney said, with a smug tilt of his chin. "Of course, you've heard of me."

Willow grinned, and John shook his head. "I've read some of your work."

"Really? And you understood it?" Rodney asked, disbelief coloring his tone.

"Rodney," John admonished.

"Willow's our resident genius," Xander offered.

"Xan," Willow said, blushing and shaking her head. She gave Rodney a self-deprecating look. "See, there was this thing a few years back?" She offered, even though John was pretty sure Rodney didn't care. "There was this big evil, The First, actually, and Spike got pulled into another dimension. I pretty much read everything I could find on inter-dimensional portals and wormholes."

"Enough with the coffee klatch, yeah? Tell us about the demon," Spike cut in, obviously impatient, and from what John could tell, a little embarrassed. That they'd worked so hard to find him? That he obviously mattered to these people? Even with John's admittedly limited experience with vampires, he could figure out that vampires and humans weren't exactly meant to mix.

Spike had showered and changed his clothes so that they were no longer bloodstained. John was glad because he didn't want to think about the fact that he'd healed just as fast as any Wraith John had ever shot. All cleaned up like this, and John could at least pretend that nothing had happened.

"Yeah, well, that actually brings us back to the point we wanted to discuss anyway," John said. "What do you know about the, uh, portal? And what came through it?"

"Seems like you know more about it than we do," Spike said, looking wary.

"We know what came through," Rodney said. "We just don't know why, or how." And John could tell that the not knowing was driving Rodney crazy.

"Did you, uh, call the portal? With your... magic?" He asked slowly, not quite believing despite all he'd seen so far. Beside him, Rodney snorted.

"Me?" Willow's eyebrows went up. "No. I, uhm, try not to use magic, you know, unless I have to."

John watched as Xander's hand sneaked across the table to tangle with Willow's. He squeezed, and she gave him a small smile.

Interesting, John thought.

"I recognized the signs, though. A lot of energy was gathering there, and it wasn't going to be long before something happened," Willow said.

"Oh, something?" Rodney said. "How very scientific."

"Did you, any of you, actually see this portal?" John couldn't actually imagine a wormhole without the 'Gate around it. What would it even look like?

"No," Xander said, shaking his head. "Spike and I were the first one's there and it was pretty much all quiet on the western front, you know? That was, until the demon showed."

"Alien," Rodney corrected. "There's no such -- " He cut himself off and glanced at Spike and then John.

It was strange seeing Rodney so bemused, at least not without an imminent countdown going. John wasn't sure whether he liked seeing Rodney taken down a peg or not. It made him nervous, and made all his protective instincts rear up.

"It might not have even looked like a portal," Willow said. "I mean, maybe it wasn't actually visible. A rip in space time wouldn't necessarily look like a door or anything."

"Hm," Rodney said. "Yes, well, you're right." He sounded almost begrudging.

"I hate to break up your bonding moment here," Faith said glancing at Willow and then Rodney. "But I'd kind of like to know how to kick this Wraith guy's ass. How 'bout you give us the 411 on that?"

John felt a pang of homesickness, a picture of Ronon and how much he'd like Faith flashing through his head.

"They're strong," John said. "Stronger than any man, I know. And if they've recently fed, they're practically impossible to kill. They heal at an enormously fast rate."

"Fed?" Spike asked, looking intrigued.

"They feed on... life energy, for lack of a better term. Their feeding mechanism is in the palm of their right hand," Rodney said, holding his palm up in illustration. "After just a few minutes, they'll leave you looking like Grandma Moses on a bad day."

"So," Spike said. "Super-human strength, fast healing, and it needs to feed on humans to survive." One scarred brow rose, and John swore he could practically hear the sarcasm in that subtle shift of Spike's expression.

"Space vampires," Xander said incredulously, giving Spike a look. "Seriously?"

"A stake to the heart, then?" Faith said, suddenly twirling one in her hand. John was impressed since he hadn't seen her move and definitely hadn't seen anywhere she could have hidden that stake.

"Uh, yeah, probably," John said. He figured a stake to the heart would probably kill most things, supernatural or otherwise. "Enough bullets will do it, too."

"Yeah, not so much with the firepower here. No offense," Faith added.

"None taken," John said, wondering what exactly they'd gotten themselves into.

"I know how to use an M4A1, though," Xander said with a shrug. "If you happen to have one."

Xander didn't look like special forces, hell, he didn't even look like national guard. Not with that slouch and that long fringe of hair.

"Maybe," John said slowly, unsure how the others would take this. "You should let us handle this."

"Oh, right," Faith said, a little smirk on her face. "You and the Brain think you can handle it all on your lonesome, huh?" Faith shook her head.

"Excuse me?" Rodney said, sounding indignant. "We have been fighting Wraith for years. What are your qualifications?"

"Honey, We aren't just a set of pretty faces," Faith said, leaning in and giving Rodney a look that made him blush. "Bet we could teach you a thing or two, sweet cheeks."

"Okay," John said, putting an end to that conversation because now, even he was blushing. "Rodney, do you have any ideas on tracking the Wraith? And, Xander, are you sure you only saw the one? That no others came through the portal?"

Xander shook his head. "Can't be sure, but he's the only one we saw. Right, Spike?"

"Was the only one in the stadium. Leastways, was the only other heartbeat I picked up," Spike said.

"Okay, well, that's probably as close to certain as we're going to get with intel," John said, deciding not to comment on the whole heartbeat thing.

"I may be able to adjust the Daedalus' scanners to check for Wraith life signs, but it's going to take a while," Rodney said, he paused for a long moment, and John had the strange urge to reach out and squeeze his hand the way Xander had done with Willow. "Without access to Atlantis' systems, it's going to take even longer." He scowled. "And though I hate to admit it, I probably could use Zelenka's help."

"Oh!" Willow said. "We can try to scry for him? Except," she said, her smile falling away. "It works best when we have something personal to focus on."

"Scry?" Rodney said, exasperated. "Do you really believe in all this hocus pocus?" John wasn't sure if Rodney was talking to John or the room at large.

"I could call Giles, see if he knows of a locator spell," Willow said, completely ignoring Rodney. John figured she probably had a lot of practice dealing with non-believers.

John shook his head. "Can't talk to anyone on the outside unless they're vetted by us first."

"Oh, really?" Spike said. "Think you can stop us then?"

John shook his head again. "Look, we're all on the same side here. If you think this Giles guy can help, then I'll call General Landry. But you all signed on the dotted line." John gestured toward the stack of confidentiality agreements.

"Call your general," Xander said, putting a hand on Spike's arm, seemingly to soothe his ruffled feathers. "If anyone can find this guy, Giles can."

~~

Xander hated this part. Mostly because he didn't have much to contribute. He wasn't research guy and he wasn't magic guy, so he just kind of watched and waited. Everyone else had gone off to do their thing, and he was still standing here, wondering what to do next.

"Come on, luv," Spike said, breath teasing Xander's ear.

He'd known the moment that Spike had re-entered the room; he always knew when Spike was near. Spike's fingers ghosted down his arm, then tangled with his own.

"Got a few hours to kill, yeah?" Spike said, licking a wet line across Xander's throat.

"Spike," Xander said, leaning into the touch. "We should be helping."

"Will help," Spike said, tongue tracing the whorl of Xander's ear. "Later." Xander shuddered, but didn't reply. "Come on, Xan, you know they don't need either of us for this. Watcher'll be here in a few, 'til then we're free as birds, yeah?"

"That guy, Sheppard, said that they could get Giles here in, like, seconds," Xander said. Even with all the magic and demons he'd been exposed to over the years, the idea of a spaceship, a real live spaceship, the kind that had beaming technology, was totally cool.

Spike snorted. "Think the Watcher'll sign that thing without reading it?" Spike asked, grinning when Xander shrugged. "We've got time, luv."

Spike turned and kissed Xander's temple, right on top of the tether to Xander's eye patch. That always made Xander want to sigh like a little girl, even though he never did. He didn't want to know what Spike would say if he ever did.

"You always think we've got time," Xander said, laughing softly.

"Can make the time. Know how much you like it fast and dirty, luv," Spike said, reaching around to cup Xander's erection.

Xander groaned, pushing up into Spike's hand as Spike's mouth latched onto his pulse point.

They were alone in the empty conference room, but Xander was still aware of the fact that anyone could walk in at any moment. "Spike, we can't," he moaned. "Big evil, remember?"

"I'll show you big evil," Spike said, rubbing his hard cock against Xander's back.

Xander laughed just as a bright burst of light flashed across his vision.

His face flushed as he realized that Spike's hand was still on his cock and Sheppard and Giles were now standing directly in front of them.

"Woah," John said, cheeks a bright red as he turned around, giving them his back. "Sorry."

"Honestly, Spike," Giles said in that familiar exasperated tone, and Xander had to laugh again.

Xander pushed himself away from Spike to wrap his arms around Giles. "I've missed you, G-man," he said. Six, seven years ago, and Xander wouldn't have dreamed of being this touchy-feely, but since they lost Sunnydale, since they lost so many, Xander's learned to show what he feels when he can.

"Sorry, Col. Sheppard," Xander said when he pulled away from Giles.

"John," Sheppard said. "And, hey. We're the ones who, uh, showed up uninvited, right?"

"Too right," Spike said, and Xander threw him a look to behave.

"Where are the others?" Giles asked.

"You know," Xander said. "Faith and the Slayerettes are sparring. I'm pretty sure Wills started without you," Xander pointed in the direction of Willow's lab, for lack of a better word. She had a tendency to concoct potions, as well as spells in there. "And Spike and I, are obviously here, uhm, waiting for you."

Giles gave him a look that reminded Xander so much of the Scooby days that he ached a little.

"Okay," Xander said. "So, we weren't exactly waiting for you."

"No kidding," John muttered, and Xander bit back a grin. John sounded exasperated but not angry or disgusted, which relieved Xander a little. He hadn't known he'd been worried about that until just now.

"Well, I think it's best if I head off to see what Willow's begun," Giles said. "Thank you for the lift, as it were." Sheppard nodded his response, giving Giles a mock, but not mocking salute.

Xander was really beginning to like the guy.

"Maybe we should check out some of your contacts, Spike," Xander said. "New demon in town's probably made some tongues wag."

"Gathering intel?" John said, stepping forward. "Mind if I tag along?"

"Uhm," Xander hemmed, not sure if this was a good idea or not. "You may want to change into civvies. Spike's not the only demon who remembers the Initiative."

Spike scowled at that, and Xander reached out automatically to put a soothing hand on his arm.

"The Initiative?" John arched a brow at them.

"Wankers," Spike said and Xander squeezed his arm.

"Secret group of soldiers that set up camp in Sunnydale. They captured as many demons as they could and, uhm, neutered them, so to speak."

"Hey!" Spike said, indignation turning into a leer. "I'll show you neutered, luv."

"Spike," Xander admonished, then turned back to John. "They put a chip in Spike's head. Stopped him from feeding, from hurting humans."

Xander could see that John wanted to ask what was so wrong with that, but was smart enough to know that neither of them would take too well to that question.

"He couldn't feed, but he couldn't defend himself either," Xander said, hating the thought of Spike so vulnerable. "Demons aren't the only evil out there."

John looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "Fair enough," he replied.

~~

John tried to keep his mind on the mission. He tried to erase the image of Xander's face flushed with arousal as he'd thrown his head back in laughter. John was glad that it was a cool night. Gladder still that they'd had to walk a few klicks before getting to the battered Desoto Spike called a car.

It wasn't so much the picture of Xander's face that he couldn't get out of his mind, either. But the image it had morphed into, namely Rodney, cheeks tinged with heat, slim lips tilted in that crooked smile. He pictured himself, too, in Spike's position. Lips brushing Rodney's neck, hands teasing, touching.

Jesus.

It's not that John hadn't ever thought of Rodney that way. He had. Often. It's just that he knew that thoughts, fantasies, were all they could be. Rodney wasn't gay. He'd gone on and on about Colonel Carter enough to hammer the idea into John's thick skull. He shook his head, resolved to get himself back on track, as they parked the car in front of a seedy looking bar.

Spike led the way inside and though John had tried to prepare himself for it, he still had to hide his reaction to seeing an assortment of demons populating the room. Some looked human, some definitely did not. He hoped that some were actually human, so that he wouldn't feel quite so antsy over being in a room full of creatures he hadn't even realized existed before.

They headed toward the bar where a nasty looking demon with melting skin and a hangdog expression sat with what looked like a rum and coke.

"Clem," Spike nodded at him.

"Hey Spike! Hey Xander!" Clem jumped up and gave them both a hug. "Haven't seen you guys around in a while."

Was it his imagination, or had Clem's ears lifted at the sight of them? Like a puppy who's found a new toy or something. John wasn't sure if that made him more or less approachable.

"This is our friend John Sheppard," Xander said, and John nodded in greeting. He remembered what Xander had said about the initiative and was suddenly glad he'd taken Xander's advice and changed out of his BDUs. He had a feeling he wouldn't want to walk into this place flashing his bars.

"Watch over my boy, will you, Clem?" Spike said, and Xander rolled his eye. "And you - " Spike pointed at John. "Don't leave his side."

John wasn't sure if that was to keep Xander safe or himself out of trouble, but he just nodded in agreement.

"I'm gonna check out the backroom, luv," Spike whispered the last against Xander's lips as he gave him a quick peck before turning in a swirl of black leather toward the back of the bar.

"What's in the backroom?" John asked.

"Poker," Xander said.

John didn't question him any further, knowing that a few beers and a couple of hands of poker were known to loosen a lot of lips. He figured that this was fairly routine for the pair.

"Hey Clem," Xander said, taking the stool next to Clem's. John unobtrusively took the seat beside Xander. He didn't want to get in the way since it was pretty obvious that Xander's relationship with Clem would probably be enough to get the demon talking.

"Hey Xan," Clem smiled at the both of them. John wasn't sure how he felt about the expression, given that he somehow managed to still look sort of droopy and sad at the same time.

"So, any new demons in town lately?" Xander asked casually as he gestured at the bartender.

"A few. Anyone in particular you're looking for?" Clem said.

"Pale guy. White hair. So high," Xander said, holding his hand up a bit above John's head.

Clem laughed. "Sounds like you're talking about Spike!"

Xander grinned back at him. "This guy's a little taller, skin's a little greener. Showed up last night, maybe?"

Clem shook his head, disappointing John.

"Have you heard of a demon who can suck the life out of someone with their hand?" John asked, holding up his right palm.

"Oh, sure." Clem nodded just as the bartender put two beers in front of them.

John couldn't believe the offhand answer. "You know them? Do you know where we can find them? How many there are?"

"Nuh, uh." Clem tossed a handful of peanuts into his mouth, then shook his head. "My mom used to tell me stories, you know? Like, eat your vegetables or the Daenim will get you? I've never actually seen one, though." Clem shrugged. "I always ate my vegetables."

John almost wanted to laugh.

"Like the boogeyman?" Xander asked, sounding surprised.

"No, I've seen them around. In fact, I think Spike's playing poker with one of them. Harry," Clem said, nodding to himself. "I don't think the Daenim have been around for a long time. Since way before I was born, at least. Maybe a few million years or so."

"Are you saying that these... Daenim fed on demons, not humans?" John asked wondering if it was even remotely possible that these Daenim and the Wraith were one and the same. Wondering if the Wraith actually used to reside on Earth.

"Well," Clem said, taking a long swallow of his drink. "According to the stories my cousins used to tell when we were on camp outs? They were around way before humans were, so I guess demons were the only game in town. 'Course, my cousins always liked to tell me scary stories. Not sure if what they said was exactly true."

"Did they say anything else? Do you remember anything else?" Xander asked, just as a burst of laughter came from the back of the bar and Spike came sauntering out of the backroom.

"Don't think so," Clem replied, looking even sadder, presumably because he couldn't be more helpful.

"Thanks, Clem. You've given us a lot to go on," Xander said, patting his back.

Clem grinned. Spike clapped a hand on his shoulder, holding a basket in the other. Clem sniffed the air, and turned toward Spike. "Had a good night, huh?"

"Sure did," Spike said. He winked at Xander and added, "Ready to go, luv?"

"Yeah, I think we are. John?"

John nodded, and pulled a couple of bills from his wallet. "I got it," he said, tossing them onto the bar before Xander could stop him.

"What's in the basket?" he asked after they said their goodbyes to Clem and were making their way to the door.

"My winnings," Spike said, lifting the lid with a grin.

A bundle of fur filled the basket. It looked like at least four or five kittens sleeping in a big kitty pile.

"Seriously?" John said, and Xander just shrugged.

"At least if Spike wins we find them good homes. Sometimes a couple of the Slayerettes will take them in," Xander said.

"And what happens to them when Spike doesn't win?" John asked, brow furrowing.

Xander shuddered. "Don't ask."

~~

When they got back to Slayer Central, or so Xander liked to call it in his head, they found Giles in a room with Rodney and some short, fuzzy-headed guy with glasses. There were computers and equipment that Xander had never seen before, scattered around the room.

"Radek, nice to see you again," John said. "What's the status, Rodney?"

Xander noticed the way John immediately went to stand behind Rodney's shoulder, poking his finger at the computer screen and generally getting Rodney's back up. Though, Xander could tell, too, that Rodney wasn't really as annoyed as he pretended.

"The status is," Rodney said. "That we still don't know where the hell the Wraith is."

"We were unable to modify the Daedalus' systems to our needs. The programming is too intricate and we have not the time to reverse engineer the scanners. And General Landry has not been able to recall Colonel Carter from the field," the man John had called Radek explained as he gestured toward the equipment they'd obviously brought down from the ship with them.

"Not that we need her," Rodney added quickly, making John grin for some reason.

"I have been searching for any mention of a demon that feeds through his hand in my texts, but I've found very little so far," Giles mumbled as he flipped through one of his books.

"What good are ancient texts when the Wraith just got here? What? You think there was a prophecy or something?" Rodney scoffed.

"Rodney," Radek admonished. He sounded like it was something he'd done often. "It is best that we try everything, yes?"

"Yeah, yeah," Rodney mumbled. "Why don't we just spin in a circle three times and make a wish on a star?"

Xander had to stifle a laugh when John slapped the back of Rodney's head. Rodney returned the gesture with a deep scowl.

"As it happens, G-man, we might have come up with something," Xander said. "Clem mentioned something called a Daenim. He said there were stories his mother told him of demons that go bump in the night."

Giles' back stiffened and he glanced up. "Xander, are you absolutely sure that he said Daenim?"

"Yeah," Xander said, and looked to John for confirmation.

"We both heard him," John said.

Giles was flipping through the pages of his book in rapid succession.

"What are you looking for now?" Rodney asked, sounding exasperated.

"Before humans, the world was populated by demons, old ones. For millenia, it was literally Hell on Earth. Slowly they began to lose their purchase on this reality. They began disappearing until only one demon was left. He fed off a human and mixed their blood before leaving this dimension. The human was, shall we say, infected. He bit another, and he bit another, and so on and so forth." Giles told the familiar story. "That demon, the final one, some argue 'one' meaning one species, rather than one individual, but I digress. Some books call them the Daenim."

"Clem said they used to feed on demons because they were around even before humans," Xander said.

"Are you telling me the Wraith were here millions of years ago? If so, why the hell did they leave? Weren't they sitting pretty?" John asked.

"If what Rodney and Radek have told me is true," Giles started.

"Of course it's true!" Rodney said, offended.

"Of course, apologies," Giles said. "If so, then they probably left for better feeding grounds. As the stories say, humans were just beginning to crawl out of the ether as it were. And if the other demons had been slowly disappearing, then there wouldn't have been much left for the Wraith, or the Daenim, as it were."

"Incredible," Radek said, shaking his head.

"Oh, please! Are you falling for this, too?" Rodney said. "How did they get here? And how come they don't remember ever being here before? Or how they got here the first time?"

Xander thought those were all pretty good questions, though he wasn't going to say so out loud. And it kind of creeped him out that the Wraith might be one of Spike's ancestors. I mean, not after everything John and Rodney had told them about Wraith and the whole aging thing. At least blood regenerated, right?

"Maybe there's an easy way to find out," John said. "At least, whether the Wraith are the demon Giles' books are talking about."

"Oh, really?" Rodney said, sarcasm dripping from every word.

"Yeah," John said, giving Rodney what looked like well-practiced look. "Send a sample of Spike's DNA off to Carson and see if he can find any trace of the Wraith in him."

"It's not like this guy was my sire," Spike said. "How do you think this Carson bloke is going to find any connection after millions of years?"

"He's a geneticist. One of the best," John said. "If there's a connection, he'll find it. Right Rodney?"

"Again, not a voodoo scientist," Rodney snapped, then relented. "But, yes, Carson is good."

"I did think the guy we saw reminded me of one of the uber-vamps," Xander added, not sure if that mattered.

"Hmm," Giles said. "Interesting."

Spike slid closer to him and wrapped an arm around his waist. Xander leaned in, though he didn't really need the support. Spike always did that. Thought that talking about the First and those last days in Sunnydale were difficult on Xander. He wasn't always wrong. And Xander appreciated it.

"What about the - " Radek snapped his fingers toward Giles. "Infection? Wraith have never been known to infect others while feeding."

"No," John said, shuddering. "But it's obvious they can. The retrovirus Carson came up with changed Ellia enough to infect me. Maybe back then, Wraith were more primitive or something. Maybe the last Wraith bit or scratched or something during feeding and infected a human. And somehow it evolved into the vampires, like Spike, that are here today?"

"You were infected by one of these demons?" Giles said, studying John closely.

"Yes," Rodney answered for John, and subtly moved to sort of place himself between Giles and John. "But he's fine now. Carson cured him."

"Really? Without a spell?" Giles asked, curious.

"Look, I may accuse Carson of practicing voodoo now and then, but Wraith aren't demons. Spells and magic and whatever else you people do weren't necessary. Carson saved John with science," Rodney said, sounding a little defensive.

"Anyway," Spike said. "Whether this demon's my great uncle Bob or not, doesn't get us any closer to killing the bastard. How are we going to find him?"

"Well, boys, that would be where we come in," Faith said from the doorway, Willow bouncing beside her with excitement.

~~

Before John could quite figure out what was going on, they all found themselves back at Browns Stadium. Well, all except Zelenka, who had returned to the Daedalus to test the new code that he and Rodney had been able to put together and to try to get hold of Beckett. He'd left armed with several swabs of Spike's DNA, though Spike hadn't consented to offer them until Xander had given him a look that Spike apparently couldn't refuse.

"Status, Major," John said, tapping his radio.

Lorne's voice echoed tinny in his ear. "All secure, sir. No Wraith or, uh, other hostiles have been sighted in the area."

John nodded to himself. He'd left Lorne and a small detachment of marines patrolling the area just in case the Wraith returned.

"Copy that," John said, and gave Lorne instructions to continue the patrol while they took a look inside.

"Yes, sir," came Lorne's crisp reply.

"I don't suppose it could have been that easy," Rodney said with a sigh that sounded almost wistful.

When they emerged from the team tunnel and onto the field, John saw Willow glancing around until her eyes fell on him. "Which tunnel did he escape into?" she asked.

"Oh, like he would know," Rodney said, waving his hands and making John scowl. "He gets turned around in a long hallway." When Willow gave him a confused look, Rodney added, "He has no sense of direction."

"Isn't he a pilot?" Xander asked.

"Oh, sure," Rodney said. "He's only hopeless on the ground."

"Rodney."

"Please, you know it's true." Rodney waved in a northwesterly direction. "He jumped into the bleachers and went through there." Rodney pointed toward the fifth tunnel from the left.

"Do you remember where exactly he jumped from?" Willow asked, starting to head in the direction Rodney had pointed.

"What are we doing here, anyway, Wills?" Xander asked, trudging along next to Spike.

"You guys said you hurt him, right? Shot him?" Willow asked, and John nodded. "I need his blood."

"For what?" Rodney asked, absently adjusting the P-90 clipped to his vest. "We already know he's a Wraith. We don't need any DNA analysis."

"It's for the spell," Willow answered, nonchalant.

"Oh, here we go again," Rodney said. John reached out and put a hand on his arm, squeezing in warning. Rodney rolled his eyes, and John had to suppress a grin.

"I have all the other ingredients. And I can do the spell without his blood, but it would be so much more potent with it." Willow started studying the ground as she walked. "Fresh would be better, but dried works, too."

John shuddered at that for some reason. He'd seen plenty of blood in his career, but he didn't really like the idea of hunting for some, so to speak.

"Yes," Giles said, walking just a few steps behind Willow. It was extremely strange to see him walking around with a crossbow cocked and ready. He didn't seem like the type to carry a weapon, let alone know how to use one. But apparently this group was used to being prepared. "And dried blood can be enhanced with some additional mugwort."

Rodney sputtered, and John squeezed his arm again, only then realizing that he'd never let go. He pulled his hand back quickly, laying it on the butt of his P-90 instead.

"Look!" Willow said excitedly, hurrying toward a section of the field hidden in dark shadows.

Willow had produced a jar from somewhere and was scooping up a patch of dirt and grass to fill it. "Perfect," she said, screwing on the lid.

"You sure you got enough?" John asked.

"Oh, yeah," Willow said, "I only really need a drop."

Rodney mumbled something that John ignored. He glanced around and wondered out loud, "Why Browns Stadium? Of all the places for a wormhole and a Wraith to appear." He shook his head.

"It's the Hellmouth," Xander replied, shrugging.

"Excuse me?" Rodney said.

"You know, the Mouth of Hell?" Xander said, as if that cleared up anything.

"A lot of… energy converges here. It draws demons, and some humans, with its power," Giles explained.

"Here?" John asked, pointing to the ground. "At Browns Stadium?"

"They don't call you a genius for nothing, huh?" Faith said, smacking her gum.

"I'm the genius, he's the muscle," Rodney said.

"Hey!"

Rodney gave John a look that basically said 'what? It's true!' and John threw up his hands in surrender. Before the suddenly ridiculous conversation could continue, John's radio crackled in his ear.

"Heads up, Colonel!" Lorne panted in his ear, obviously on the run. "We've got a group of unfriendlies, at least we think they're unfriendlies, heading your way."

John brought his P-90 up and signaled the others to stop. "We've got company."

"What the hell are those," Rodney said, voice rising an octave or so as a dozen demons with horns curving from their heads swarmed onto the field.

They were big, and though they looked frail with their bones showing like some anorexic on steroids, Xander knew they were strong. He glanced at the wary, almost horrified look on Rodney's face. They were probably more in line with a civilian's (as Xander thought of John and Rodney) idea of what a real demon should look like.

"Fyarls," Giles said, kind of snarling the word. Giles, Xander knew, had intimate knowledge of Fyarl demons. Knowledge he probably wanted to forget. "I don't suppose you've loaded those rifles with silver bullets," Giles said, raising his crossbow.

"Silver bullets? Like for werewolves?" John asked.

"Werewolves aren't the only thing that can be killed with silver," Giles said.

"Don't tell me, that means we can't kill them, right?" Rodney grumbled, even as he fired off a volley. He hit one of the Fyarls, but it only slowed him down for a few seconds.

"No," Xander said, "Just means you gotta put some muscle into it." He hefted his ax and took a stand beside Spike.

"Fyarls are dumb as rocks," Spike added. "But they're strong. Takes a lot to bring 'em down." He vamped and turned back with a grin. Xander knew it was in anticipation of the fight, but he wasn't sure how John and Rodney would take it. For someone who didn't know Spike, it looked pretty evil. Xander glanced over at them just as Spike added, "Oh, yeah. Watch out for the mucus." And then Spike was gone, darting forward into the fight. Xander had to check the impulse to tell him to be careful.

Spike never appreciated it.

Xander saw the way Rodney's face scrunched up in disgust. "He's kidding right?" Rodney said.

Xander shook his head. "Nope. You should avoid it." He hoped that they were taking this seriously. "It's paralyzing. They shoot it from their noses."

"Of course they do," Rodney said, sounding exasperated.

Faith had already engaged one of the Fyarls farther down the field, her smile as wide and joyful as Spike's had been. Xander caught movement just past Faith, at the entrance to the team tunnel the demons had just come from. Soldiers dressed in the same black BDUs and tac vests that John and Rodney wore came in with their guns up.

"Friends of yours?" Xander asked, and John nodded.

"The patrol I left in place just in case the Wraith decided to return," John explained.

The Fyarls that weren't already fighting were close now. One of Giles' arrows whizzed by, hitting a Fyarl in the shoulder. The demon roared and ripped the arrow out, barely pausing. Xander felt a little bad for the Fyarls, mostly because Spike was right. They were dumb. They did whatever their bosses told them without thought of consequences.

Of course, Xander didn't feel bad enough not to kill any of them. Especially when he saw Spike take a hit that sent him flying across the field.

"Spike!" Xander shouted over the report of John and Rodney's P-90s. He shot forward, hoping the two could take care of themselves.

Xander raised his ax, knowing that he had to aim for the Fyarl's neck. Their hide was too thick everywhere else for the ax to do any good. But before he could reach his first target, the demon went up in flames, screaming and waving its arms. It flailed enough to catch another of the demons in the fire with him, taking out both of them.

Xander could hear Willow's voice like a low thrum of thunder. It was strange to hear her over all the shouts and gunfire and explosions. The hairs on the back of his neck rose and his skin tingled. Another demon went up in flames. Giles' voice joined Willows as Xander took a swipe at the nearest Fyarl. The ax hit bone, and Xander had to work to free it.

He heard Rodney shouting, saw a set of marines empty their clips into a single Fyarl, who fell to his knees. "Aim for their throats!" Xander shouted, knowing that if they aimed for the head any bullets that hit the Fyarl's horns would ricochet unpredictably. Even aiming for their throats was cutting it close.

Xander swung again, this time the ax broke through and blood spurted everywhere. The demon fell, unable to roar as it drowned in its own blood. He glanced up and saw Spike running toward him, saw his lips moving, but couldn't hear the words.

The rush of sound that was Giles' and Willows' voices had steadily grown louder, and was now drowning out everything else. Xander began to move forward, toward Spike, but before he could take more than two steps, pain blossomed in his head and he fell.

Xander rolled onto his back, opening his eye to the sight of a Fyarl bearing down on him. He'd lost his ax somewhere and felt his stomach lurch with nausea as he tried to push himself up. Giles' and Willow's voices were even louder now, the sound buzzing all around Xander. Then, for half a heartbeat, everything stopped. It felt as if they were cocooned in a bubble of silence, as if everyone had been suspended in time.

Then, a sudden booming crash of sound, and everything shattered. Xander had just a second to hope that everyone was all right before darkness crept in and he passed out.

~~

"So, how's Xander?" John asked as Rodney entered his room and closed the door behind him.

"How's Xander?" Rodney repeated, throwing up his hands in surrender. "You almost get yourself killed, again, and all you can say is 'how's Xander'?"

"Rodney, I'm fine."

"Fine?" Rodney said. "You know, Sheppard, even you can take the stoic soldier thing too far."

John played with the edge of the blanket covering him. He hated hospitals. Not that this was a real hospital, but it reminded him enough of the infirmary that it was enough to put his nerves on edge. "I'm not being stoic. I'm fine," John said.

"Only because they did actual voodoo to save you!" Rodney nearly shouted the words.

John lowered his eyes, knowing the truth of what Rodney said. One of the Fyarls had gone after Rodney after he'd used up his last clip. John hadn't been any better off, but he'd pulled his sidearm and ran at the demon to draw his attention.

He'd gotten his wish and before he'd been able to sidestep the attack, thick claws were raking across his side. He remembers thinking that Willow must have made a mistake because he had been sure he was on fire. The claws had gone so deep that John was pretty sure they'd left scores on his ribs.

Then Rodney was screaming and the world was exploding around him.

When he'd woken, he'd been here, in the medical wing of what Xander called Slayer Central. His side still hurt, but it felt more like a bruised rib than the reality that was having his intestines ripped out of his body.

Giles had explained what happened as Rodney had sat slumped at the end of his bed. The look on his face, so pale and defeated, was one that John would never forget.

John glanced up to find Rodney glowering down at him. At least now he looked more angry than defeated.

"Look," John said, sighing tiredly. "I did what I had to do. It's my job to protect you." John knew it was more than just a job, a duty, but he didn't think that Rodney would really appreciate that. It was more than just the fact that they were best friends. John didn't think he could hide what Rodney really meant to him if he ever tried to explain it.

"You did what you had to do?" Rodney said, voice almost a whisper. It was such a sharp contrast to the shouting he'd done earlier that John felt his stomach twist with guilt. "You weren't just a blip on the screen this time, John. You were there, right in front of me, getting your insides ripped out." Rodney lowered himself to the edge of John's bed. He was close enough now to touch, so John reached out to squeeze his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, buddy." They'd talked about John's suicide run only once, but John knew how much it had affected Rodney. Privately, John thought he was mostly angry that John had left without saying goodbye. But by then Rodney had already become closer to John than anyone before, and John hadn't been able to bring himself to say it.

They sat like that for a few minutes before John finally removed his hand. The silence stretched until John finally said, "I'd do it again if I had to." John knew he should probably have kept that to himself, but it was only the truth.

"I know," Rodney said, shaking his head. John couldn't tell what he was thinking and that worried him.

"So, any other injured I should know about?" John asked, trying to change the subject.

"You and Xander were the worst of it. Lorne and Williams had to get some stitches, and Faith was hit with some flying mucus at the end." Rodney made a face. "Xander's fine." Rodney added. "Spike's taking care of him."

"I figured," John said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rodney asked, turning more fully to face him.

"What? You haven't figured out that Spike and Xander are... " John didn't think he had to finish the sentence.

"Huh," Rodney said, looking thoughtful. "Really?"

"Really," John said. "Haven't you noticed how protective Spike is of Xander?"

"Yes, but, hello? You almost died protecting me tonight," Rodney said, gesturing toward him. "And we're not..."

John could feel the tips of his ears going red. He concentrated on his breathing and keeping his features expressionless.

"Huh," Rodney said again.

Panic began to claw at John's chest. "You know, I'm starting to feel pretty tired after all. I probably should get some rest."

Rodney stared at him in that intense way he had. As if he were trying to look inside John and figure out exactly how he worked.

"I did almost die tonight," John said, almost desperately.

Rodney snorted. "I'm glad you noticed." Rodney stood and straightened the blankets, sort of tucking them tighter as he went. "Do you need anything? Water? Pain pill?" There was a bottle of aspirin on the nightstand. John supposed he didn't need anything stronger, given that whatever Giles and Willow had done to him had healed the worst of his injuries.

"A couple of aspirin couldn't hurt," John said, smiling a little when Rodney rolled his eyes at the lame joke. Rodney shook two aspirin into John's palm and filled a cup of water for him. "Thanks."

"You need a shave," Rodney said, reaching out to brush the backs of his fingers over John's jaw as he took the cup away. John jerked back, face flushing. Rodney had never instigated a touch that felt so... intimate before.

John saw the speculation in Rodney's eye and wasn't sure what to do. He felt like he was free falling without any controls, fear and adrenaline rushing through him.

And then Rodney was there, his lips pressing lightly against John's. He couldn't help tilting his face up for more, increasing contact and releasing a soft sigh as Rodney kissed him. The kiss was soft, gentle, but it didn't stop John's heart from pounding like a mad thing. He raised his hand to cup Rodney's face, thumb caressing Rodney's cheekbone.

Rodney pulled back, and John held his breath as Rodney studied him once more.

"You definitely need a shave," Rodney said, nodding to himself.

"What was that?" John had to ask, clearing his throat.

"Just testing a hypothesis," Rodney said.

"A hypothesis, huh?" John said.

"Get some rest," Rodney ordered, and began to turn away.

"Were the results, uh, positive?" John asked, feeling like a schoolboy.

Rodney turned back with a crooked grin. "I'm not done gathering data." And then he was gone, the door shutting quietly behind him.

~~

"I'm fine, Spike," Xander said. His head still hurt, but given what could have happened, he figured he was lucky. Spike was curled around him in bed. He always got this way when Xander was injured, as if he was afraid to let go, or maybe he needed the physical reassurance. Xander wasn't sure.

He didn't mind it really.

He turned his head and found Spike's lips with his own. "Really. I'm fine."

"Should've stayed with you," Spike said, nuzzling at Xander's throat. Xander always thought that the nuzzling must be a vampire thing.

"No, you shouldn't have."

"Got hurt," Spike said, pouting. "Could've been killed."

"But I wasn't," Xander said. "I'm alive. I'm here. I'm fine."

Spike's arms tightened around him.

Xander really was fine. His temples throbbed with the headache, but that was it. He rubbed at them now, glad that he didn't have to worry about his eye patch getting in the way. Alone, at night with Spike was one of the few times he didn't bother wearing it. He knew Spike didn't care, and being with him never made Xander feel self-conscious.

Spike's hands were moving over him, touching more to reassure than arouse.

"I'm here," Xander said again, rubbing a palm up and down Spike's arm.

Spike shifted, pressing his lips to Xander's pulse point before kissing his way down Xander's chest.

"Spike."

"Let me, luv," Spike said, pausing to press a kiss to the skin just above where Xander's heart beat.

Spike's lips were cool and soft against his skin. Xander sighed and let his head fall back into the pillows, let Spike take over completely. Spike always needed this after a close call. He needed to take back control. Of Xander, of everything.

"I'm here," Xander said again. "I'm okay."

Spike's kisses turned urgent, his mouth leaving light bruises where he concentrated his attentions. Xander groaned when Spike's mouth covered one of his nipples, laving and suckling the sensitive nub. His headache pulsed in the background, easily forgotten under the onslaught of sensations Spike was causing.

Xander shifted, arching up into Spike's mouth. His nipples had always been sensitive, and Spike loved to torture him that way. Blunt teeth scraped over his nub and Xander cried out, feeling the first drops of pre-come escape the tip of his cock.

"Spike," Xander gasped, no longer thinking about anything but the arousal that was spiraling through him.

"Need to taste you, luv," Spike said, licking his way down Xander's belly to his cock. He took his time teasing, licking at the shaft but not taking Xander into his mouth. Spike's tongue rasped over his balls and Xander shuddered.

"Please," Xander said, teeth clenched. "Take me in your mouth, Spike. Suck on me."

"I'm in charge tonight, pet." Spike dipped lower instead of acceding to Xander's wishes. He licked at Xander's perineum, using the tip of his tongue to press against the sensitive spot. Xander bucked, both wanting more and wanting to get away.

Spike's hands pushed at Xander's ankles, forcing him to raise his legs and open himself up. Then Spike's tongue was circling the rim of his entrance, teasing and taunting.

"God," Xander breathed. He had to clutch at the blankets to keep from reaching for Spike, to keep from guiding him where he wanted.

Xander gasped when Spike's tongue finally pierced inside him. He pushed back, moaning even as Spike pulled out and thrust back in again. Spike's hands were on Xander's hips, caressing him. The touch was such a contrast to the aggressive way Spike was tongue fucking him, that Xander's brain short circuited.

Spike's tongue disappeared and Xander whined at the loss. Then a cool, wet drizzle of lube and Spike's fingers were pushing inside. And then Spike's mouth was on his cock and Xander nearly lost it. But Spike knew, like he always did, and wrapped tight fingers around the base to keep Xander from coming.

Spike took his time stretching Xander, bringing him to the brink over and over again without letting him fall over the edge. Xander couldn't stop this time, his fingers dug themselves into Spike's hair, nails digging into his scalp as Xander tried to pull him closer. Xander thrust up, knowing he couldn't hurt Spike. And even though Xander knew that all of this was leading up to Spike fucking him, that Spike needed that, he couldn't help thrusting into Spike's mouth again and again.

Then Spike's fingers were sliding free, leaving Xander feeling empty and cold. His mouth was gone too and Xander deflated, sinking back into the bed. He was breathing hard, his skin flushed and sweaty as he waited and watched. Spike was studying him, eyes cataloging every bit of muscle and bone, every bit of Xander.

"I'm here, Spike. I'm okay."

Spike nodded once, but he didn't stop his intense scrutiny. Xander held his breath, and wished he knew how to keep Spike from worrying so much about him. He knew how hard it was for Spike though, knowing how mortal Xander was.

Eyes closed now, Spike pressed forward, the head of his cock slowly easing inside Xander. Xander hissed at the slow burn of Spike's entry, loving the feel of Spike as he filled him. Once Spike was fully sheathed inside Xander, he shifted to cover him completely and then paused, as if memorizing the way Xander felt around him.

"Spike," Xander said, trying to break him from the mood he was in.

Spike turned his head and kissed the side of Xander's jaw, his cheek, then his mouth. They spent long minutes tasting each other, Spike so still inside Xander. Then slowly, he began to move, his mouth still covering Xander's.

Xander moaned into Spike's mouth, wrapping his legs around Spike's waist. He rocked back against each of Spike's thrusts, letting Spike control the rhythm and intensity. "Yours," Xander whispered against Spike's ear, knowing what he needed to hear. Spike growled, thrusting harder and burying his face against Xander's neck, suckling on his pulse point.

"You've got me. I'm all yours, Spike." Xander shuddered when Spike hit his prostate. Spike must have felt Xander jerk and tighten, because he hit it again and then again. "God, Spike, I'm gonna - "

"Come for me, luv," Spike said, voice hoarse as he ground his hips against Xander's. "Need it. Need you."

"Yes." Xander jerked, his cock spurting between them. Spike was clinging to him, his own hips jerking against Xander as he came. "I'm yours, Spike. You have me," Xander said again, wrapping his arms around Spike and holding him close.

"Luv," Spike said, arms tightening for just a second before finally releasing Xander. He pulled away enough to study Xander's face. "Don't do that to me again, Xan."

Xander couldn't promise that and Spike knew it. "I'll try," he said instead and Spike sighed. But he nodded, kissing Xander once more.

~~

John still felt pretty battered the next morning, but it wasn't enough to keep him down. He found Rodney and the others in the conference room they'd met in that first night.

"Did those demons knock some IQ points out of your head? What are you doing out of bed?" Rodney said, standing and moving to John's side.

"I'm fine, Rodney," John said, his cheeks going red at the way Rodney was fussing over him in front of everyone. He couldn't stop Rodney from helping him sit, and when he glanced up Spike was smirking at him. Since he didn't have a good retort, he just ignored it. "What's going on?"

"Followed the Fyarls' trail, found their HQ," Faith said, bouncing a little in her seat. If John didn't know any better he'd think she was still riding an adrenaline high. "None left that we could find. Looks like we got 'em all during the attack."

"We did however, canvass the area," Giles said, pulling his glasses off and wiping them with a white handkerchief he kept in his pocket. "There have been several reports of demons found desiccated."

"Sounds like our boy," John said.

"Yes," Giles agreed. "If he was injured, as you say, when he first arrived, I doubt very much he is still so depleted. He has probably fed enough to have restored himself."

"Obviously," Rodney said, sighing.

"Do you think he sent those Fyarls after us?" Willow asked.

"I can't imagine where he would have gotten the funds to hire them, but I suppose threats might have been sufficient. He might also have only promised them payment. Fyarls are not the brightest of demons.," Giles explained.

"So, what's the plan now?" John asked. He was starting to feel antsy, wanting to find the Wraith and eliminate the threat already. "Did you get everything you needed from the stadium?"

"Oh, yes," Willow said. "I've got the ingredients steeping right now. Once they're ready we can perform the spell. With Giles here, it'll be snap!"

She actually snapped her fingers, which made John smile, if a bit ruefully. How these kids did this night after night still eluded him. Willow was just so... innocent, though something told John that she was trying hard to maintain that part of herself. It didn't seem like it would be difficult, but John had glimpsed something during the fight at the stadium that didn't exactly mesh with the sweet and innocent persona Willow usually gave off.

There had been something dark and intent about her when during her spell casting the other night. And John had to think that someone completely innocent wouldn't be able to pull off a spell that basically blew the enemy into a billion little dust particles. There had been nothing left of the demons when Willow and Giles had finished their work.

"What exactly is your... spell supposed to do?"

John could tell that Rodney still had trouble swallowing the word spell. John couldn't blame him, but neither of them could deny what they'd seen at that stadium.

"It will bring the Wraith to us," Willow said. "See, I couldn't find a spell locator, and then I thought, hey! Why not try a retrieval spell! And I found one, except, you know, like I said, we needed his blood. Lucky thing you guys shot him that first night, huh?"

"Yeah, lucky," Rodney said, not bothering to hide his sarcasm.

"If this spell is supposed to bring the Wraith to us, where exactly are you going to, uh, perform it?" John asked.

"Oh, we'll have to go back to the stadium," Willow said. "It's best there anyway, with the Hellmouth and everything."

"Of course," John said. Faith grinned widely at him.
"Where are Lorne and the other marines?" John asked, suddenly looking around.

"They went back to the stadium to keep patrol," Rodney said. "I told you, none of them were really injured."

John wrinkled his brow. He would have liked to have seen his men himself, but he trusted Lorne's judgment. If any of the men had needed further medical attention he would have rotated them back onto the Daedalus. No need to patrol with injured men when there were several teams ready and willing on the ship.

"All right, then," Giles said. "If there are no other questions." He paused, and looked around the room, nodding when nobody spoke up. "We'll meet back in the lobby at sunset. That will give the potion enough time to steep and will allow Spike to accompany us back to the stadium."

"Damn right, I'm going. Think I'm going to let Xan out with you lot by himself?" Spike said.

"Spike," Xander said, putting a hand on Spike's arm.

Spike visibly relaxed at Xander's touch. John didn't say anything, but he could understand Spike's attitude. He didn't want to think about it, particularly after what happened last night, but he knew he was just as protective of Rodney. He did try to hide it better, though.

~~

It figured that it was raining. It was only a light drizzle but it seemed the perfect gloomy end to this whole crazy thing. At least Xander hoped this was the end.

Spike had tried to convince Xander to stay home tonight, but Xander had refused. Even though he didn't show it, Xander was just as protective of Spike as he was of Xander. And he wasn't about to let Spike go off to a fight like this on his own. Xander knew the absurdity of that given that Spike wasn't exactly helpless and he wasn't exactly going alone. He knew, but it didn't matter, Xander still wanted to be there himself.

This time, Sheppard's team of marines entered the stadium with them. They took up posts around the field, guarding the group within. In the middle of the field Willow was setting up for her spell with Giles' help. Giles was drawing something in the grass with salt, while Willow checked her magic bag.

Spike was circling around them all, glancing at Xander every few seconds to make sure the earth hadn't spontaneously opened and swallowed him up. Faith was equally antsy, pacing back and forth in between trying to hurry Willow along.

Xander thought about the pictures John and Rodney had shown them. The Wraith looked pretty bad, and with their healing powers, pretty hard to kill. But looking around at the group the Wraith had waiting for him, Xander didn't think it would be much of a contest. Of course, he wasn't about to say that out loud and jinx them all.

"We're ready!" Willow called out and they all gathered around. They kept a good distance between them, not wanting to get in each other's way if the Wraith had any surprises.

Xander felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise as the marines surrounding them all lifted their guns. Xander didn't really have anything against guns, but he wasn't exactly comfortable with them either. He knew how to use them when necessary, but that was the thing. Over the years, they'd only ever used them as a last resort. Seeing them gave Xander a chill that left him wondering just how over confident he'd been.

But, seriously, one demon against all of them, how bad could it be? It wasn't like this was an apocalypse or anything.

Willow started chanting while Giles circled around her, sprinkling the potion they'd made using the Wraith's blood as needed. Spike took his place beside Xander as the wind began to whip around them. It wasn't actually part of the spell, just the storm getting stronger. The drizzle turned into more of a light rain, just as Willow's voice grew silent.

For a heartbeat nobody moved, and then with a roar the Wraith appeared in the middle of the symbol Giles had drawn. But he wasn't alone. Half a dozen more Fyarls arrived with him. Obviously the Wraith had been trying to hire more minions and they must have all been pulled in by the strength of Willow's spell.

The Wraith hissed, glaring at them all, pausing when it caught sight of John. "You!" he snarled. The Fyarls were closing ranks, creating a protective wall around the Wraith.

"Do we know each other?" John said, glancing at Rodney, who only shook his head.

"You caused this," The Wraith accused. "You sent me here."

"Me?" John said, raising his P-90 a little higher. "I guarantee you that this is the last place I'd send you."

One corner of the Wraith's mouth lifted in a twisted, creepy looking grin. "You will be the first that I feast upon."

"I don't think so," Rodney said, and opened fire.

It seemed like the marines took that as permission because suddenly the night was filled with the thunderous sound of automatic weapons fire. Spike dropped low, pulling Xander down with him. One of the Fyarl demons went down under the onslaught.

"Willow!" Xander cried out, seeing another Fyarl closing in on her.

He saw her lips move, even as she scrambled out of the way. The Fyarl slowly lifted to dangle a few feet off the ground. Xander saw Faith moving to take Willow's Fyarl down, before he had to roll away to avoid another demon's claws. Spike landed on the Fyarl's back, his face a mask of anger as he snapped the demon's neck.

Three down, Xander thought as he pushed back onto his feet. Two of the marines had moved to protect Willow, not realizing that she could probably protect them. Even so, Xander was glad that they were with her.

Xander watched as the Wraith was shot several times, the wounds barely slowing him down.

He didn't have time to watch the Wraith's progress any further. Another Fyarl was wrestling with Spike. Xander grabbed the ax he'd dropped when Spike had pulled him to the ground. He'd tried a broadsword once, but it had been too unwieldy for him. He'd found that if he needed something bigger than a stake, an ax was the best bet. The handle was easy to grip, he had a good swing, and there was no denying that an ax could do a lot of damage.

He couldn't swing, though, with Spike so close to the Fyarl.

They shifted and Xander found himself faced with the Fyarl's back. He knew that it would take Spike's strength to break through the hide on the Fyarl's back, even with sharpest blade. So, he flipped the ax over, so the flat of the blade was facing forward as he swung. He wanted more to distract than anything else.

The Fyarl roared and turned toward Xander. He tried to scramble back, but the field had become a slippery mess as the rain strengthened. He fell onto his back but was able to roll away before the Fyarl could shoot its mucus at him.

Xander grabbed for the ax again, this time tossing it toward Spike the moment he wrapped his fingers around the handle. "Spike!"

In one smooth move Spike caught it, spun in a circle that had his duster billowing out with the blade aimed unerringly toward the Fyarl's neck. The head landed just a few feet from Xander's elbow.

"Ew."

Spike shook his head as he reached out a hand to help Xander up. "Come on, luv."

~~

John grunted as he hit the ground, the air knocked out of him. His ribs screamed at him, but he rolled and jumped back to his feet. He wanted to give Rodney enough time to reload, or run; though he knew Rodney well enough by now to know he wouldn't.

The Wraith grinned at him, giving John the creeps.

"How did you get here?" John asked again. "How did you find Earth?"

The Wraith didn't answer, just circled John then bared his teeth, one corner of his mouth tilting up. "It would have been a waste of a good meal," he said instead.

"What would have?" John asked, tightening his grip on the sidearm he'd pulled as he'd come up onto his feet. Even though his instinct was to pull the trigger until his clip was empty, he needed to know where the Wraith had come from and if there were anymore.

"Leaving you to die in that desert." The Wraith flew at him, feeding hand extended and John fired, squeezing the trigger again and again. The Wraith jerked but didn't stop its forward motion.

"John!" He heard Rodney's voice, just as Xander appeared in his peripheral vision, ax slashing downward.

The Wraith roared as his feeding hand fell to the ground. Blood splashed onto John's clothes. John fired again as the Wraith turned toward Xander. The Wraith slammed his remaining hand into Xander's chest, sending him flying back into Spike who caught him with a grunt.

John dropped his empty gun onto the ground and threw a right hook, catching the Wraith's jaw. It was a good hit, but of course he didn't go down. John cursed, throwing another punch, this time to the Wraith's gut.

"John, down!" Rodney yelled, and John dropped without hesitation.

He expected to hear automatic gunfire, but instead he felt the whoosh of air as someone dove over him and tackled the Wraith. He looked up to find Faith in hand to hand with the Wraith. A stake appeared in her hand and she plunged it into his chest.

John wasn't sure what he'd expected, but it felt a bit anticlimactic when the Wraith did nothing but fall backward. His body jerked once, then expelled one quiet moan before he went still. Rodney was at John's side, P-90 still up and aimed at the Wraith, even as Faith wiped her bloodied hands onto her jeans.

"I think he's dead, Rodney," John said.

"Yes, well," Rodney said, "Excuse me if I need a little more proof."

"You always do," John said with a grin. The adrenaline was still pumping through him, keeping him from being too disappointed that he hadn't gotten any answers from the Wraith; and from feeling the pain he knew was waiting just around the corner.

"Are you all right?" Rodney asked quietly as they watched Spike check the Wraith.

"Vamps are cleaner," Spike said with a shrug, just as Giles joined them.

"Everyone all right, then?" Giles asked.

John glanced around the field, noticing all the Fyarl bodies strewn across the grass. He wondered briefly how they'd cleaned up the mess the night before, but had vague memories of Willow's spell taking care of most of it.

"Nothing left but the clean up," John said. He tapped his ear pierce. "Lorne, status?" He could see Lorne across the way, turning one of the demon bodies onto its back.

"Nothing major, sir," Lorne said, "We're good to go."

"No injuries on our side," John told Giles.

"Excellent," Giles said.

"Oh, please," Rodney said under his breath.

"I'm fine, Rodney," John said, noticing that at least Rodney had finally lowered his rifle.

"I'll be the judge of that," Rodney said, his tone just that side of commanding that John was used to hearing in the labs. It sent an unexpected shiver through him.

Against his (and Xander's) protests, they were left to mostly light duty when it came to the clean up. John didn't really mind, though, since he was actually starting to feel the effects of the fight.

It was almost dawn by the time they were done. John had nearly forgotten about their earlier conversation and Radek's errand until they returned to find both Radek and Carson waiting for them.

~~

Spike snarled and Xander moved to lay a soothing hand on his shoulder. "Who the bloody hell are you?"

"My apologies," the man said, his Scottish brogue thick with excitement. "Dr. Carson Beckett." He held out his hand.

Spike glanced down at it, then raised a brow. "Yeah?"

"Spike," Xander reprimanded, shaking Carson's hand himself. "I'm Xander, this is Spike."

"Incredible," Carson said, circling Spike with a curious look. "Are you truly a vampire, then?" He sounded both excited and disbelieving at the same time.

"You want a demonstration?" Spike growled, face exploding into his vampire mask.

John laughed, and Xander threw him an exasperated look, silently urging him not to encourage Spike.

"Were you able to discover anything about the relationship between Spike and the Wraith?" Giles asked.

"Yes, in fact," Carson shifted his attention to Giles, though he couldn't help glancing back at Spike very few seconds. "There's definitely a correlation between the two. I believe, like humans are the second evolution of Ancients, so are the vampires to the Wraith."

"Incredible," Giles said, and this time Xander laughed at the way Giles was now eyeing Carson. He'd seen that look before. Giles was on the hunt. He was sure that once Giles got Carson started, he wasn't going to let him go until he'd gotten the entire history of the Wraith. And possibly any theories the doctor might have on how the Wraith had infected the first human to become a vampire.

"Right," Spike said. He grabbed Xander's elbow and began leading him away. "We're off then."

"Wait! That is," Carson said, clearing his throat. "I was hoping to take a few more samples." He gestured toward Spike. "If I may?"

"Don't like needles," Spike said, sounding like a petulant child. Xander understood the sentiment, though. Since the Initiative, Spike didn't like the idea of any type of experimentation. It had taken a lot of sweet talk just to get him to give the sample they'd already sent off to Carson.

Xander wrapped a hand around Spike's wrist and squeezed. "Uhm, maybe that's not such a good idea."

Carson looked disappointed, but Giles seemed sympathetic. Xander knew that he probably would try to talk to them again, citing the historical significance of detailing the relationship between the two demons. But Xander could feel Spike's reluctance, the stiffness in his body.

"This is all very interesting, but we've got an injured man here," Rodney said, gesturing toward John.

"Just bruises," John said, holding his hands up when Carson gave him a questioning look. "I swear." John could tell that Carson wanted to check him over, but was fascinated enough by Spike to let it go for now.

"Yeah, well," Rodney said, pushing John toward the door. "You might be able to fool him, but you can't fool me."

Xander watched them go, John leading the way back to the rooms they'd been assigned. Before anyone could add anything else, Spike was pulling him out the door, as well. "Got my own boy to take care of," Spike said, and Xander sighed.

"I'm fine, Spike," he said, though Xander was fine with letting Spike coddle him if it meant taking his mind off memories of the Initiative. They'd deal with Giles and Carson together, and Xander would support whatever decision Spike made. For now, he'd let Spike take care of him, and be glad that they both survived another demon showdown.

~~

John didn't really protest when Rodney ordered him to take his shirt off. He was sore and his clothes had been chaffing him all night. When John heard Rodney's deep intake of breath, he glanced down. The bruise was a dark purple blossom of color stretching from his hip to halfway up his torso.

"Damn it," Rodney said. "I knew you were hurt."

"I'm f --," John started, but ended with a gasp. Rodney had reached out to trace his fingers along the edges of the bruise. Goosebumps erupted across John's skin, even as he forced himself to go still. He didn't want to move, to do anything that might make Rodney stop.

Rodney's fingers danced over his skin, so careful, that it made John whisper, "I really am fine, Rodney."

He didn't respond, and John could see the conflict in his eyes. He hated seeing that look, it reminded him too much of the night he'd returned from his suicide run during the siege their first year. There'd been something in Rodney's eyes that night, too. Something that John hadn't been sure how to read.

John leaned in slowly, watching Rodney's eyes the entire time. Rodney didn't move, and when his eyes fluttered closed, John took his mouth in a warm, semi-apologetic kiss. He didn't like knowing he'd put that look there, and he did everything he could to take it away.

He forgot sometimes that Rodney could be just as protective as he could.

Rodney's lips were warm and soft, but the most surprising thing of all was the way they trembled as John kissed them. Rodney's hand flattened against his side, caressing without any pain.

"Rodney," John whispered against his mouth.

"We can't," Rodney said, groaning a little. "You're hurt."

"I feel fine," John said, "See?" He thrust his hips forward, letting Rodney feel his arousal. "I'm good."

"I saw that," Rodney said when John tried to hide the wince shifting his hips had caused.

"Rodney," John said, resting his forehead against Rodney's. "I don't want to wait." Their lives were one crisis after another. And he was afraid if they didn't… if they waited, they'd be waiting forever.

"Okay," Rodney said, tilting his face up to press a fast kiss to John's lips. "But we do this my way."

John grinned in both relief and anticipation. He let Rodney lead him to the bed, submitting when Rodney stripped him; the process slow because Rodney kept pausing to kiss John's body as it was bared. Rodney continued the sweet torture as he freed John's cock, dropping wet kisses along the shaft then lightly sucking the tip.

John gasped, "Oh, fuck."

"Uh, uh," Rodney said, grabbing John's hips and pressing them to the mattress. "Don't move. I will kill you if you make me explain to Carson why you need extra pain pills."

John laughed, loving that Rodney could do that to him even as arousal beat like a drum through his veins.

"Not gonna last," he said, pushing up against Rodney's hands, unable to stop himself.

"Good," Rodney said, then took nearly half of John's cock down his throat. John moaned as Rodney swallowed around him, muscles tightening, hot and slick around him.

John came with Rodney's name on his lips.

He watched, breathless and sated as Rodney rose from the bed, stripping his clothes with trembling fingers. His cock was hard and wet at the tip. John couldn't stop himself from reaching out and encircling it with his fingers, stroking slowly up the silken shaft.

Rodney moaned, thrusting into John's fist.

"Do it, Rodney," John said, tightening his hand around the shaft. "Next time, I want you inside me."

"Christ," Rodney said, thrusting again and again. In moments, he was shuddering, coming all over John's chest and belly.

Afterward, they lay tangled together beneath the blankets.

"So, you prove that hypothesis of yours yet?" John said, turning to spoon Rodney's body and wrap an arm around his waist.

"What are you, a moron?" Rodney said with a snort. "No one can prove a hypothesis."

John grinned. "Okay," he said. "Are you done gathering data, then?"

Rodney sighed, resting his hand atop John's and lacing their fingers together. "A true scientist is never done gathering data," he said, making John's grin widen.

"And you're definitely a real scientist."

"Of course, I am," Rodney said and squeezed John's hand.

~~

Epilogue

It was good to be home, John thought. He hadn't really believed that they'd ever be back. Atlantis was theirs again. He didn't feel guilty about that, though he wished that the Ancients hadn't had to die for it to happen.

But he had his team back.

Satisfaction and warmth filled him. Teyla was smiling across the table at him, shaking her head at Ronon's teasing and Rodney's typically acerbic response. Ronon's laughter was deep and infectious. Rodney turned a wounded look on John when he joined in.

He gave Rodney a look at that said he'd make it up to him later, and watched as Rodney's cheeks flushed.

"So," Ronon said, glancing from one to the other of them. John felt the tips of his ears begin to heat up. But all Ronon said was, "Anything interesting happen while you were back on Earth?"

"Oh, you know." Rodney's hands fluttered as if to finish his sentence.

"The usual," John said, grinning broadly at Rodney.

Teyla raised a brow at them, a knowing look on her face. "Perhaps you can tell us of this… usual at our next team night?"

"Uh," Rodney said, and John laughed again.

"We did end up saving the Earth from Wraith," John teased.

"Well, one, anyway," Rodney added, giving John a crooked grin.

"You had Wraith on Earth?" Ronon said, suddenly sitting up straighter. "What happened?"

"It's a long story," John and Rodney said together.

Ronon scowled at them, and they both grinned.

"It was a rip in space time," Rodney finally said, though Ronon didn't look very satisfied with that explanation.

"What do you think he meant about that dying in the desert thing, anyway?" John asked, feeling shiver of unease race down his spine. He didn't like the idea of dying in any timeline.

"Who knows?" Rodney shrugged his shoulders, but John felt Rodney's knee nudge his under the table. "He was from an alternate reality, remember? Maybe that Earth had been taken over by the Wraith."

No one at the table looked happy at the prospect.

"There was a mission report from Daniel once about an alternate Earth that had been overrun by the Gou'ald," Rodney said, backing up his own theory.

"That is not a pleasing thought," Teyla said, one eyebrow raised. "I would not like to think of the Wraith winning in any galaxy."

"Well, they obviously didn't have us in this alternate reality," Rodney said, chin tilting arrogantly.

"They had me," John said. "At least, they did."

"Apparently, your alternate self wasn't smart enough to have me," Rodney said, then blushed when he realized the way it had sounded. "I mean, I, uh, would have saved you if I'd been there. Like always."

John grinned. "Yeah, good thing I'm practically a genius in this reality, huh?"

"Right," Rodney said. "You could have been in Mensa. How could I forget?"

Teyla smiled at them both indulgently.

"What's Mensa?" Ronon asked

John laughed as Rodney shook his head.

"Well, I'm smart enough to have you, at least," John said, voice going softer than he'd meant.

Rodney ducked his head, cheeks still warmed with a faint blush, surprising John a little with his shyness. And if Ronon or Teyla thought anything of it, neither said a word.

 

THE END.