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By the time Teyla told them that they were nearing the settlement, Rodney's running-commentary-slash-litany-of-complaints (ranging from the ridiculous time differences made possible by 'gate travel, the likelihood of some heretofore unknown type of radiation poisoning from the planet's unusual double sun, the unfairness of a universe in which alien pollen was just as detrimental to his delicate sinuses as Earth-standard pollen, the deplorable state of the barely-there path that the team was only following in a cursory manner, the poor quality of the breakfast in the mess segueing into how much Ancient tech Rodney would be willing to trade for something bacon-and-egg-like from the natives, and, of course, the stupidity of humanity as a whole) had morphed into an absent grumble. John noticed because he could actually hear most of Teyla's 'about the natives' speech, which he usually only caught about every fourth word of. Once he connected that to the lack of bitter rambling, he pivoted until he had Rodney in his line of sight, just checking to make sure he was still okay, still with them. Bizarrely enough, Rodney's constant, bitchy monologue had become the aural equivalent of 'all is right with the world' in John's head, and he laughed silently at the idea, at himself. Rodney was with them, even more or less keeping up, though he was deeply involved in something he was doing with his data pad.

"… a very orderly society," Teyla was telling them, her tone clearly indicating her approval of such order. She threw John a long look over one shoulder, and John looked back with his 'politely interested' expression firmly in place. "Their technology level is low, and they are content with that. My people have long traded with them, most often for food when our own harvests were poor, but also for cloth and occasionally for metal…"

"Metal," Rodney muttered. "Hmm." But it was quiet, and only John heard him.

"Get to the part where you tell us what not to do," Ronon said, voice completely serious, but somehow resonating with laughter.

"Very well," Teyla agreed, face as serious as Ronon's voice, and yet still conveying an eyeroll. Ronon tipped his chin toward her, all blank and careful attention, and John turned away, grinning, keeping Rodney in his line of sight, just out of the corner of his eye.

The planet was in the fervent grasp of late spring, the part where the flowers were everywhere and the sun was hot-but-not-scorching, and the air held a hint of cool moisture without actually being muggy. In spite of himself, John thought, Well, it's about time we got an easy mission, and then winced.

"… believe that the age of reason begins when a child first begins to speak, and from that time on every citizen is held accountable for their actions, without exception…"

"Huh," Rodney exhaled, and John changed direction just enough to cause their paths to intersect. Rodney didn't notice. He was paying more attention to the data pad in his hands than to his forward locomotion, which made his gait uneven, almost staggering, in spite of the nearly-flat terrain.

"… almost entirely physical; law-breakers are rare, and repeat offenders almost unheard of. I must caution you all to take great care not to violate…"

"What have you got, McKay," he asked softly (not wanting to interrupt Teyla, or earn a scolding for not paying attention, because he was, sort of), falling in beside him. Rodney jumped and gave John a 'die, moron, die' look. John scratched his chin with the barrel of his P90. Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Maybe nothing," Rodney said with a little shrug, turning his attention away from John and back to the data pad cradled in one curled arm. He tapped on the surface with the fingertips of his free hand, eyes narrowed against the glare of the sunlight on the screen.

"Maybe something?" John asked.

"…simple enough to obey. Anything unusual is always conveyed to visitors immediately…"

"Maybe," Rodney agreed absently, eyes flying across the screen, fingertips slip-tapping nearly as quickly. "Go away, Colonel; your stupid hair is making muppet-shadows on my screen."

Rodney, still not paying any attention whatsoever to the ground, veered sharply enough to cross between Teyla (on point) and Ronon (on their six), falling in parallel to John and equi-distant to Ronon and Teyla. Accidental Rhombus? John wondered. He doubted it, but he couldn't actually ask, of course. Rodney would pull out one of his really very effective expressions of disdain, and then John would be tempted to smack him, or possibly start telling knock-knock jokes. That drove Rodney totally bugshit. He was actually opening his mouth to start the one with the aardvark when Teyla announced, "I believe our welcoming party approaches," and John closed his mouth reluctantly and followed her gaze toward the tree line.

The four of them changed course and drew together as one. Rodney still didn't look up from his data pad. John grimaced and decided to talk to him about it later, though not too harshly. A year ago he wouldn't have expected Rodney to take a moment to size up the situation before being sucked back into his data; the fact that John did expect it now, and was annoyed at not getting it, wasn't lost on him.

Teyla was waving at the approaching natives, three of them, and they waved back. Ronon's hand curled and uncurled restlessly around the butt of his gun, so John joined in the waving, just to be reassuring. Rodney's fingertips were tapping like hail against the screen of the data pad, and John watched, amused, as he took three steps to the right and spun in a slow circle, another step, a frown, and then another spin. A pagan dance to the deities of data, John decided, and then Rodney took three sideways steps, which brought him to John's side (disabusing him of the notion that Rodney was paying no attention at all to his surroundings), and said, "Naquadah."

There was a pause, a handful of heartbeats, while John considered. "How much," he asked, because he'd done enough research to know that for the most valuable metal in two galaxies, naquadah was weirdly ubiquitous in trace amounts.

"More than just ground soil," Rodney murmured back as the natives drew near. "I'm not finding any concentrated deposits, but the range on the data pad really isn't optimal without the Puddle Jumper's power supply to back it up; I doubt I'm getting more than a couple of miles out of it. But. More than trace amounts, definitely."

John nodded just as they all stopped in the middle of the path to say hi to the natives, feeling the topography of the mission altering in his mind, going from, ‘hey, fresh fruit prevents scurvy’ and ‘it’s nice to have friends’ to ‘reactors and nukes.’ He tried really really hard to resist the urge to drool and daydream about the possibility of McKay getting his hands on enough naquadah to actually build them a few more Mark IIs.

"Teyla," the most obviously important of the three natives said with clear pleasure. He was wearing a kind-of-robe and a big flashy necklace that John tried not to think of as 'native bling' for fear that Teyla would hear him thinking it. He enfolded one of her hands in one of his, free hand cupping her elbow. Teyla looked equally delighted.

"Keenan, I am happy to see you," Teyla replied, and she really did seem to be, her smile wide and real, but John was still surprised when they reached for one another's shoulders simultaneously and tipped their foreheads together.

Surprised or not, he grinned, because he couldn't see how this could be a bad thing. Not just a planet Teyla was familiar with, not even just a culture (because Teyla wasn't infallible, witness the Genii), but a person, a single individual she treated as a valued friend. John let his P90 dangle against his hip by the carry strap. His good mood ratcheted up a notch. Teyla smiling like that meant safety, just like Rodney's restless litany of dissatisfaction meant safety, like Ronon's roaming gaze and steady attention meant safety. No need to worry about anyone stealing their scientist, or their gene-carrier for that matter, no need to worry about anyone turning their former runner over to the Wraith. No need… well, actually, nothing too bad ever really seemed to happen to Teyla, a fact that made John grin a little ruefully and wonder what that said about karma, at least as regarded the rest of them.

"Colonel Sheppard, this is Keenan Brahan; he is an Arbiter among his people, a position not unlike Elizabeth's. He was a good friend to my father, and to me." She beamed at John, and then at Keenan. "Keenan, Colonel Sheppard is the military leader of a team of explorers, a team that I have joined. Also with us are Doctor Rodney McKay and Ronon Dex. We come in hopes of trade, and I will admit, in hopes that the Kurnei will show these people the same friendship they have always shown the Athosians."

"We are well met, Teyla," Keenan said, and then to all of them, "You are all very welcome among us." He shook John's hand firmly, though without the elbow-fondling, for which John was fairly sure he was grateful. Keenan correctly read the 'Do Not Touch Me' body language Ronon was constantly transmitting, and didn't seem offended at merely exchanging nods.

Rodney, still enraptured by his data pad, delivered the briskest handshake known to man and a muttered, "Yes, yes, charmed."

"I hope that you will all join us at the settlement for a meal and conversation," Keenan offered, which John really hoped translated to something like, 'eat yourself stupid and bullshit a while.'

"We'd be happy to," he said, and then had to actually nudge Rodney with one elbow when he didn't start walking when everyone else did.

Keenan and Teyla did most of the talking, walking some distance ahead with both of the other natives in attendance. John amused himself by getting close enough to eavesdrop without seeming to eavesdrop. His impression of the two of them trusting one another was reinforced by the extremely abbreviated business portion of the mission, which was completed within about ten yards and went something along the lines of:

"Your new friends wish to trade?"

"Trade, yes, and alliances. They are from far away, and very much alone."

"Not alone with you as a champion, Teyla."

"I do not champion, Keenan, truly. They have no need of it. You will see."

"I believe you. What do you seek from us, materially?"

"Much as the Athosians did, I believe. Food, some cloth. I remember my father bringing home things of metal; it may be that they will wish to trade for that as well, though I do not know if it is required. Much of what they wish for is simply good will and information, and what they offer in return is often sorely needed medicines and knowledge. Technology, to those who wish it, and the understanding to use it. They trade as allies do, Keenan. For the good of both peoples."

"Ah. Well, our crops were bountiful this year, and our good will is freely given, as you know. We will help you, if we can."

John believed him, which came as a pleasant surprise. And that was it, he was pretty sure, everything settled but the details, and he wondered why they hadn't come here before now. Teyla had been providing intel on likely planets for a while now, after all, and it seemed a little weird to him. But still, it was nice to know that Teyla's good relationship with the Kurnei would make things so much easier, a foregone conclusion, as long as no one did anything outrageously stupid.

**

The settlement wasn't far, and John looked around it with interest. It wasn't Atlantis, but it was pretty, in a pastoral kind of way. There was a fountain in the center of town, and a small, crescent-shaped park-like area with benches and flowers and large, shade-giving trees. A few larger wooden structures that looked to John like public buildings -- an inn, maybe, and a general store -- surrounded the park on two sides, and set back from the public buildings on the third side, was a long, low building with only one door and no windows. The houses were a little further out, and were all in good repair, with real glass windows and unpainted exteriors.

Keenan showed them around casually, introducing them to a few people, explaining the simple barter system the settlement used, and pointing out things of local significance. It was all going very well until Rodney stopped dead in his tracks, chin coming up. He threw a glance at John, and then at Keenan, and then back to his data pad for a moment, licking at his lips, his data pad practically quivering with excitement. "What's that?" he demanded, already moving in the direction he'd pointed without taking his eyes off the data pad.

The rest of them were several steps behind when Rodney stopped next to what looked to John like a native gazebo, open to the air but roofed over as neatly as the rest of the buildings in the settlement. Rodney tapped at the data pad screen, and murmured, "Hello, hello," hunkering down to take a closer look in that way he only did when he'd found something that made him forget about native germs or straining his lower back, a swift, purposeful movement that was precise and graceful and would've probably surprised the hell out of Rodney if he could see himself doing that on video or something.

"Please, Doctor McKay, I must ask you not to touch the tablet," Keenan said, appearing beside Rodney like magic. His voice was a little tight, but he didn't move to shield the object from Rodney, didn't sound upset or angry. His tone was as even and polite as it had been from the beginning. "It is not… appropriate to handle it."

"Yes, yes," Rodney conceded, craning forward to get a better look. "But what is it?"

"We do not know," Keenan admitted, watching Rodney tap at his data pad curiously, still looking not the least bit alarmed. "It was here when we settled here, and is not a thing made by our people. We keep it as we found it, aside from the enclosure protecting it."

"Huh," Rodney said, and John came closer so that he could see what they were talking about. The object was deep enough in the shadow of the gazebo that it was difficult to make out any details, even once John was standing directly over Rodney's shoulder; from what he could see, it was flat, about the size of a pizza, and was covered with what looked like corrosion of some sort. John was pretty sure it was metal by the dull gleam that shone through in spots. "You're standing in my light, Colonel," Rodney complained, but only absently, too absorbed in what he was looking at to sound truly bitter about it.

John moved six inches to one side to let the sunlight past him, and saw… "Hey, is that Ancient?"

And bit his tongue as soon as the words left his lips.

"Rodney," Teyla said warningly, and,

"Please, Doctor McKay--" Keenan exclaimed, but too late, of course.

Rodney's fingertips were already gently, dexterously rubbing at a corner of the object until it gleamed mellowly, revealing what was definitely a half-dozen Ancient letters scored deeply into the surface.

**

"And you yell at me for touching Ancient artifacts!" John hissed, glaring at Rodney, who was glaring not-at-all-repentantly back.

"Oh, please, is something wrong with your eyes? It's not an Ancient artifact, Colonel, give me a little credit," Rodney hissed back. The four of them were in a huddle, Rodney, John, and Teyla leaning together to 'discuss the situation,' while Ronon stared warningly at the natives over their heads. Several of the natives were in a similar huddle a few feet away, and the only good thing about the situation that John could come up with was that they hadn't been tied up, shot at, or even yelled at thus far. "It's something else, not something gene-activated. The fact that it's got Ancient writing on it doesn't necessarily mean it was left by the Ancients. We aren't the only people in this galaxy that can read and write in Ancient."

"Well, what is it then?" John demanded.

"I don't know!" Rodney hissed furiously. "Somebody jerked me away from it before I could even get a look at it. Something that merits further study almost certainly, especially if it was written by the Ancients, because in case you haven't noticed, they haven't left a whole lot of hard copy littered about the place, and what they have left has a tendency to be very, very helpful!" John opened his mouth to snap back, and Rodney added, "Also, it's made of naquadah."

"It does not matter what it is," Teyla interrupted, the only one of them not hissing, or even attempting to lower her voice, and John and Rodney both turned to look at her because she sounded completely unlike herself, voice clipped and edged with something that sounded whole lot like disappointment. "It is a thing under the protection of the Kurnei, a thing you were clearly instructed not to touch, Rodney." She shook her head once, sharply. "I thought that you understood clearly the kind of culture the Kurnei have, but I think you must not if you will stand here, now, and argue about this when reparations must be made."

"Reparations," John repeated, already not liking the sound of that. "What exactly does that mean, Teyla?"

She gave him a brief, exasperated look. "You were not listening to me." She sighed. "I went to great trouble to explain how we must behave while we were among the Kurnei, and you were not listening to me."

"I was listening," John objected, working to project an air of wounded innocence while he frantically tried to remember what she'd been talking about before he'd been distracted by Rodney's distraction. "You said they were very orderly, and criminals were all but unheard of." He looked to Rodney and Ronon for help, but Rodney rolled his eyes and Ronon gave him a smile with a lot of teeth in it. "I was listening!" John objected again, but Teyla just pressed her lips together and shook her head.

"I was listening," Ronon said, and John gave him a nasty look.

Keenan and his escort -- still the same two young guys with no weapons and no military feel, which he took as a good sign -- chose that moment to break huddle and start back in their direction.

"Teyla?" John's hands curled around his P90.

"We are in no danger, Colonel," Teyla assured him softly. "The Kurnei will offer no threat. It is not their way."

And then Keenan was in front of them, and John forced himself to let go of his gun and put on a grave-yet-non-threatening expression. He didn't look angry, just solemn, and John let himself hope that things hadn't already devolved past salvaging. "We have discussed it," he told John, and gave him a nod. "Your ways are not our ways, Colonel; of this we are keenly conscious. I have requested and been granted some measure of leniency for Doctor McKay in light of that."

"Thank you, we appreciate that," but he hadn't missed the carefully phrased 'some measure of leniency.' "What does that mean, exactly?"

"Minor discipline," Keenan said simply, as if that would be explanation enough. John shot Teyla a glance.

"Wait, what?" One of Rodney's hands gesticulated crazily while the other held the data pad protectively against his chest. "Minor discipline? What does that even mean?"

Teyla caught Rodney's crazy hand and forced it down, took a breath and just held it for a few seconds. "Keenan, I beg your indulgence," she said without letting go of Rodney's wrist. "I… believe I was not clear enough in explaining to my people the expectations of the Kurnei. I believe that this situation is a direct result of my failure. As the failing was mine, I should be held accountable in Doctor McKay's stead."

Keenan cocked his head, considering. "Your people, Teyla?"

"As much as the Athosians, Keenan," she agreed, chin coming up a little. "I would willingly accept responsibility for any or all of them. The fault is mine."

"Okay, just hold on now." John threw a glance at Rodney, who was being uncharacteristically silent, but Rodney was just staring at Teyla, looking a little surprised. He was behaving, however, so John let him be. "Before anyone is disciplined in anybody's stead, let's all just settle down. Let's start with the basics. Keenan, when you say minor discipline, what exactly do you mean?"

Keenan gave Teyla a brief, puzzled look, but Teyla had gone all tranquil and Zen (and John was very aware of just how much calm, methodical shit he was going to catch for this later, and couldn't even be righteously offended, because he so deserved it), so he looked back at John. "I mean it is the same kind of discipline one would require of a child, Colonel, to punish an offense that is not serious, but must be discouraged."

Rodney inhaled sharply, and then made a short, choked sort of sound, and John saw that Teyla's hand around his wrist had tightened so much that the ligaments were visible beneath the skin. "The same kind of…" John repeated, frowning a little as he tried to work out the specifics of that, and he abruptly remembered Teyla's voice in the background while he talked softly with Rodney: "The Kurnei are remarkably civilized. They believe it is in everyone's best interests that people be well-behaved, and they are expected to always be so. Any incidence of unacceptable behavior is dealt with at once, and their method of discipline is almost entirely physical; law-breakers are rare, and repeat offenders almost unheard of." And yeah, as it turned out, this was actually his fault, because McKay might have done the deed but John should have known the consequences, should have known to watch out for him. Shit. "You want to give McKay a spanking?" John made himself ask.

Keenan blinked at him, and then flushed a little unaccountably, but nodded. "It is not what we would call it, but yes, Colonel."

"Wait, what?" Rodney yelped, though it clearly wasn't a question. "You want to spank me? Are you people insane? Do you have any concept at all…"

Rodney's voice died as John turned on him. He was fully aware that he was actually far angrier at himself than he was at Rodney, but he wasn't above using that to shut Rodney the hell up. He clamped one hand around Rodney's elbow and dragged him close enough that there would be no need to raise his voice, close enough that he could feel the heat of Rodney's thigh all along the side of his own thigh; he didn't look at Rodney, just said softly, almost gently: "Stop. Talking. Now. McKay."

Rodney jerked his elbow out of John's hand, and John turned to look at him. Rodney's face tightened, and for a second John thought Rodney was actually going to do as he said, but then, yeah, how likely was that, really? "Colonel, if you think for one second…"

"Ifyou'd think for one second, McKay, we wouldn't keep ending up in situations like this," John hissed softly, low enough that probably only Rodney and Teyla could hear him, knowing it was both unfair and untrue even as he said it. Rodney's mouth snapped shut, taut and crookedly unhappy, and he didn't even glare at John in response, just swallowed hard. John let go, feeling like a shithead but unable to actually do anything about it right at the moment. He turned back to Keenan and said the only thing he could say.

"No."

"Colonel," Teyla said, low and earnest, and John waved a hand at her to shut up.

"No. No one lays a hand on my people." John hoped it came out flatly factual, but his voice sounded both wary and a little offended even to his own ears, so he frankly doubted he'd pulled it off.

Keenan looked at John for a long moment, head cocked, and maybe it was wishful thinking, but he looked almost pleased. "Of course," was all he said, though, and either he was going to drop the whole thing, or he really did understand what John was saying, because he gave John a nod that was almost a bow, and went back to his huddle. John hoped it was the latter, because he wasn't relishing the idea of spelling it out for anyone.

And seriously, how did shit like this keep happening to him?

He didn't sigh, and turned back to his own huddle. He didn't think he was imagining Teyla's neutral-close-to-pleased expression, or the slightly more relaxed angle of her shoulders. For a moment, none of them said anything. Ronon met John's gaze without any notable weirdness, which was a relief (though not entirely unexpected; if anyone understood the 'do what you have to do' and 'when in Rome' combination philosophy, it was Ronon). Rodney was looking from John to Teyla and then back again, his expression stating clearly that he knew something was going on, he just hadn't figured out exactly what yet.

"So," Rodney said, abruptly breaking the silence, and John watched, weirdly fascinated, as a slow flush spread upward from Rodney's collar. But all he said was: "Are we going?"

Teyla gave Rodney a long look. "We may choose to, I suppose," she said, but she was as relaxed and untroubled-sounding as she ever got, which was simultaneously a relief, and really irritating. It saved John the humiliation of explaining, yeah, but it was a little irksome at how… casually she was treating the whole thing. "We may apologize and go back to the Stargate, and they will do nothing to stop us. Violence of that nature is not their way. If we choose to do so, however, we must abandon any trade we might have hoped for with the Kurnei. To them, we would seem to be faithless."

Rodney turned and gave the native gazebo protecting the mysterious naquadah slab a yearning look, but then he just turned back and nodded. "Okay, all right," he said, and it was continually amazing to John how someone so damn smart could be so completely oblivious sometimes. Seriously, John was going to kill Rodney some day. He really really was.

"We wouldn't want to be faithless," John drawled, striving for normal. He was going to do this. Damnit. He was going to do this, because maybe there was naquadah, and there was an interesting Ancient something-or-other, too, but mostly because there was definitely the possibility of real friendship here, and because he felt more than comprehended that it was important to Teyla that her friend think well of them, and because. Because it was John's fault for not paying attention, and he wasn't going to shirk the responsibility of that just because it was embarrassing.

He unslung his P-90 from over his shoulder and passed it to Teyla, then shrugged out of his vest, pack still attached, and handed the whole bundle off to Ronon. "Just how public is this going to be, Teyla?"

Rodney frowned at him; Teyla said, "Because the transgression was a minor one, and because the Kurnei are unlikely to wish to damage future dealings with us, I believe it will be done as privately as custom allows."

Which didn't really answer the question as far as John was concerned, but was reassuring anyway.

"Wait," Rodney said, watching John remove his thigh holster with something like disbelief. Then: "You are freaking kidding me!" which came out as a sort of breathless, indignant squawk (and bizarrely, it was kind of a relief to hear it; selfish or not, Rodney or not, it was nice to hear someone vocalize the weird mix of resignation and baffled mortification that John was pretending he wasn't feeling). "Colonel, you aren't seriously considering this. Allow me to once again fill the role of 'voice of reason' in this scenario: this is insane. You don't have to prove anything to anyone!"

Because he honestly tried not to say more than one really mean thing to Rodney per mission, John did not say: "Actually, I do. I have to prove that I'm a stand up guy. I have to prove that you behaving badly is not a reflection on all of Atlantis. I have to prove, by proxy, that we're willing to bend a little, because that's what friends do." Instead, he said, "Let's get this done."

Which seemed to be the magic words, because suddenly Keenan was right there, accompanied by a huge, Conan-the-Barbarian-looking native carrying a box. "Colonel, have you concluded your… discussion?" Keenan's tone was polite, but John was pretty sure he knew what kind of discussion they'd been having.

"Yeah, we're done," John asserted, and stepped away from his team. Rodney caught him by the elbow, startling the crap out of John for just a second, but he managed to turn the flinch into a slow turn of his head and an inquiringly cocked eyebrow.

"Colonel…" Rodney objected, his face tight and unhappy. He shook his head once, sharply, and then confused John completely. "Don't do this. There isn't, really, you shouldn't. I can. Don't… I'll do it."

And truly, could Rodney pick a worse time to have one of his (increasingly common) moments of bravery? "We're done talking about this, McKay." The fierce expression was weird on Rodney's face only because it didn't look out of place. It looked right at home, ferocious determination and barely sublimated fear, and for a long, bizarre second, John fought the urge to smile, because he was standing here feeling proud of McKay. "Don't, Rodney. It's gonna be fine." He registered Rodney's face, flickering through confusion and annoyance and frustration, before he turned to Keenan. "Let's go."

It didn't matter that Rodney meant it. There were certain things that John wouldn't do, couldn't do, and letting someone else physically harm a member of his team was one of them. Even here, even now, in a situation in which John was as sure as he was capable of being that it was safe, that there was no real danger, he just couldn't. It was a bad precedent to set, and considering the fact that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of populated worlds in Pegasus, it was truly bizarre how fast the galactic grapevine seemed to spin gossip. John didn't want precedents like that racing before them. John wasn't letting anyone touch his team, not for any reason. But he had to admit, it was nice to know Rodney objected.

"You do us great honor, Colonel," Keenan told him solemnly, and gave a nod to Conan, who hurried away with the box.

"I do what I have to do," John replied after a few seconds of silence that made it clear that he was expected to say something. Keenan actually smiled faintly, which probably should have pissed him off considering the circumstances, but instead it was oddly reassuring. "Not to be rude," John added, "but do you think we could get on with it?" Before Rodney's head explodes, he did not add.

"Of course," Keenan agreed. "Leovar has just gone to prepare the hall. If you and Doctor McKay would come this way?" He gestured with one hand, and John supposed he really shouldn't have been surprised, but he was. Oh, he got it, but he was surprised.

He threw a quick glance at Rodney, and it was clear that Rodney got it, too. He had his data pad clutched to his chest and he wouldn't meet John's gaze, but he didn't voice a single objection. He didn't even look like he was thinking about it. John didn't sigh. He walked in the direction Keenan was indicating, not at all surprised to see that they were walking toward the long, low building with no windows. He could hear Rodney following, and chose not to look back.

"So, this is where you guys do all your… disciplining?" John inquired, going for 'establishing a rapport with the natives by exhibiting interest in local customs' but pretty sure he was only succeeding at 'mildly anxious babbling.'

"Not at all," Keenan replied easily. "Most discipline is done publicly." He gave John a sideways look that said he knew John knew why, and John did, of course. "The hall is used only in exceptional circumstances."

Behind them, Rodney snorted, but didn't comment.

"I don't guess you'd be willing to decide that a sincere apology would do the trick, considering the 'exceptional circumstances?'" John offered, not thinking for a second that it would work, but willing to try anyway.

Keenan's lips quirked, and unexpectedly, he said, "I like you very much, Colonel. I hope that our people will be good friends."

He opened the door to the hall and went inside, not pausing to be sure that John and Rodney followed. John blinked and followed him in.

The inside of the hall wasn't what John expected. Not that John had had anything specific in mind, really. Just something a little more torture-y, maybe. Instead, it was a single, long room lit by what looked like oil lamps (but weren't, he was sure, and even as he thought it, he could hear Rodney tapping at his data pad, and had to fight back a completely inappropriate smile - again) and a fireplace, which was warm and, with the fairly low ceiling and unstained wood walls, might have even seemed cozy under other circumstances. The end of the room near the door had a low, some-kind-of-leather covered couch bedecked with pillows, and three large, comfortable looking chairs situated around a coffee-type table which rested on a rug in vibrant geometric patterns. The walls were hung with soothingly-neutral tapestries depicting landscapes, and a low table ran the entire length of the back wall.

The far end of the room was occupied by only a single piece of furniture, which looked a lot like a kinky sex bench from where John was standing.

Of course, he thought, not quite able to swing amused but not actually alarmed, either. Because if spanking was something you did on a fairly regular basis, obviously you needed something better than laps to do it over. Which was good, John told himself. He didn't want to become any more closely acquainted with Conan's lap then he was right now.

"Naquadah," Rodney muttered, waggling his data pad at one of the lamps, not quite a question and not quite directed at Keenan, who nodded anyway.

"A minor technology," he said, and shrugged out of the robe-like outer garment he was wearing, probably in deference to the heat of the room. He handed it to Conan, who hung it on a hook on the wall. "Crushed ore mixed with certain chemicals will burn clean and bright for some time. We will show you, if you like." After, was unspoken, but implied.

"Yes, yeah, that would be," Rodney murmured, apparently not catching the implied after, already putting his data pad down next to a lamp and tipping his head to one side to study it, hand hovering near to gauge the heat output.

Keenan followed Rodney with his eyes, then looked at John, both eyebrows arched and clearly bemused. John shrugged helplessly. "Later, Rodney."

"Oh, yes. Right. I'll just." He backed away from the lamp, still tapping at his data pad's screen one-handed.

"It's not going anywhere, Rodney," John said, sighing. "Can we just do this, please?"

Rodney glared briefly, but with nothing like the usual degree of exasperating arrogance, and walked back to John and then commenced to just stand there, silent and waiting. John had fully expected him to say at least something cutting, probably directed at John rather than Keenan, because Rodney was sometimes an asshole, but one of the things you rarely had to worry about was Rodney making the same mistake twice.

John gave him a long look. Quiet-Rodney was starting to freak him out a little.

Keenan gestured to the furnished area, not smiling, and John noticed that the table in the center of the grouping had a tea service set up.

"We're having tea?" Rodney's voice was almost without inflection, a tone that only happened when Rodney was so surprised that he hadn't yet formed an opinion on whether or not whatever caused his surprise was idiotic.

"It is customary," Keenan agreed, and gestured again, without any appearance of being in a hurry. John shrugged mentally, and settled himself into one of the chairs, which was fully as soft as appearances had suggested. Keenan and Conan settled themselves on the couch, and Rodney perched on the edge of one of the other chairs, data pad clutched in both hands. "There are things we must discuss before we begin; things you must know before you make the decision to continue with this. I hope that you will have patience with me. The things I must tell you are things that my people learn over the course of years, things that I'm not often called to impart in this manner."

"And while we do this, we're having tea?" Rodney asked, only the tiniest bit sardonic.

"No, Doctor McKay. The tea will come later, when you understand what it is you're offering to drink." Keenan's expression was arch, still with that faint air of amusement. "Please. I have asked for your patience, and have done nothing to merit a refusal in this. You are a man who seeks for answers, for understanding. Do me the honor of allowing me to offer you some."

"Yes, yes, I was only asking. There isn't any citrus in that, is there?"

Keenan sighed, lips quirking, and John realized (frankly surprised) that Keenan liked Rodney. "This tea is called eilisi and is brewed from the leaves of the eilisis. It provides the drinker with improved memory for a short time."

For the first time, Rodney looked more interested than irritated. "How much improved?" he asked, leaning forward curiously, data pad dangling between his knees.

"Perfect memory, for a period of perhaps half an hour. The time depends on the quantity consumed and the strength of the draught."

"Perfect, really, or perfect according to the ancient stories of your people?" Rodney wanted to know, and John winced a little at how much dubious arrogance Rodney managed to infuse into the sentence, but Keenan didn't seem bothered.

"Truly perfect, Doctor McKay, but there is no need to take my word for it. You will see for yourself." He gestured to the tea service. "It's traditional for the penitent to serve all parties involved. If you would be so kind, Doctor?"

Rodney looked like he had more questions (when did Rodney not have more questions), but John murmured, "Just pour the tea, Rodney." There'd be plenty of time to interrogate the natives about tea and naquadah later.

Rodney shot him a narrow look, and huffed impatiently. He was probably the least penitent penitent in the history of ever, John was willing to bet, but Keenan was still looking amused by Rodney, his eyes a little crinkled from smiling, so John didn't mention it.

"I was serious about the citrus thing," Rodney insisted, and leaned his data pad against the leg of his chair to pour. Once everyone had a cup of tea, Rodney lifted his cup to his nose to sniff suspiciously at it. "Because I'm deathly allergic to citrus, and I know you're not very happy with me just now, but I really don't think poisoning me is the answer."

John rolled his eyes. "Rodney…"

"There is nothing but tea in it, Doctor McKay," Keenan assured, giving Rodney a look that seemed oddly indulgent to John. "The eilisis is not a fruiting plant at all. The blossoms are brewed into this tea, eilisi; when you return, you'll be offered tea brewed from the leaves, eilisum, which will offer relief from that which you remember."

"Is that… a ritual or something?" John wondered, and sniffed at his own tea. It smelled grassy and a little sweet. It actually smelled pretty good. He'd have tried it then, in spite of the fact that it was steaming energetically, except Keenan had specifically said there were things he wanted to tell them before they decided to continue, so he put his cup back on the table.

Keenan frowned thoughtfully. "No. No, not a ritual, Colonel." He gave a self-deprecating little laugh. "I’m trying to think how to tell this." He gave Rodney a wry glance. Rodney was eyeballing his tea. "Quickly," he added, and smiled at John. "So. My people believe that humans have two minds, and that discipline must reach each part of the mind in order for it to be effective. Do you understand this?" He looked hopeful.

"Er," John said. "No?"

Rodney snorted. "He's talking about the intellect and the lizard-brain, moron." Then, presumably for Keenan's benefit, he added, "The intellect being the part of the brain that allows for rational thought, and the lizard brain being the part of the brain that governs instinct and aggression."

"Yes," Keenan beamed. "Precisely, Doctor McKay. That part of your mind that you use to think and the part of your mind that reacts as an animal reacts. We believe that both must be reached, must be affected, in order for any sort of discipline to be useful. This is why we drink eilisi tea before discipline, so that it is indelibly engraved in the mind. It is helpful to both, I believe, but the object is to infuse the memory in the part of the mind that does not think, that merely reacts."

"Behavioral conditioning," Rodney muttered darkly.

Keenan shrugged. "We believe… I believe that in many, perhaps even most cases, improper behavior stems from acting without thought, acting from that part of the mind that does not think. If that part associates pain and embarrassment with improper behavior, such behavior is less likely to occur without deliberation. It is in the nature of people to forget pain as soon as it is over. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism. We drink the tea - both those who are disciplined and those who perform the disciplining - so as to remember the pain. For the same reason, our women drink eilisi tea during childbirth. Do you see?"

John did see, and yeah, Rodney was more or less right. It was behavioral conditioning, but it didn't necessarily seem like a big deal to John, just because of that. It seemed no more harmful than John's knee-jerk desire to open a door for a lady or salute someone with stars on their collar. It wasn't like he couldn't resist either urge, if circumstances demanded it. "I see," John said, and Rodney hmphed but didn't disagree.

Keenan nodded. "I tell you this so you will understand, but truly you won't understand until you've experienced it." He smiled sadly, and shook his head. "Perhaps that, too, is a survival mechanism. There are many things people would not risk if they truly understood the consequences, and some things must be done regardless of the risk."

"Like childbirth," Rodney said pointedly, but Keenan just nodded.

"Precisely. Some women choose never to bear again, with the memory of it always present in their minds. Most, however, choose to drink eilisum, and release the memory. A few keep the memories, and choose to bear again anyhow. But all are allowed to choose. What is worthy of the pain for one woman may not be worthy for her sister. All are allowed to choose."

He gave John a long look. "You are an honorable man, Colonel, and I already know you will do this, for many reasons. I am curious to know if you will find the experience to be worthy of the pain. If you find that it is not, then I will brew the eilisum for you myself."

"This eilisum, when you say 'release the memory' do you mean completely, or is it merely the… antidote for the eilisi, so the memory is still there, but no longer as a 'perfect' memory?" Rodney asked, appearing genuinely interested.

"The memory becomes as any other memory, Doctor McKay, which is to say that it will remain bright in the mind only for a few days or weeks, and then will dull in both detail and significance, over time."

Rodney nodded thoughtfully.

Keenan leaned forward and picked up his cup, which was only steaming gently now. "If you are ready, then?" he asked, and tipped the cup to his lips.

John picked up his own cup, aware of Rodney watching him and waiting for the okay from John before he drank. The tea was mild-tasting, more like green tea than English tea, though it was faintly sweet. It was good. John wasn't a tea kind of guy, mostly, but this was more palatable than most ritual native beverages, and he gave Rodney a little nod.

Rodney took a cautious sip, and then a deeper one. "All right," he muttered absently, "Good, okay. It won't ever replace coffee, I suppose, but it's exponentially better than some of the ritual 'teas' we've had to drink."

"So," John said, taking another swallow of his own tea. "It's obvious why we're drinking the total recall tea, but why do you guys need to drink it?"

"Can you truly think of no reason why it would be necessary for an Arbiter to remember exactly what is about to transpire, Colonel?" Keenan asked, raising one brow in a way that clearly indicated that he didn't believe it, but he didn't wait for John to reply. "All who are involved must remember; all must understand the consequences of what they choose to do."

It would be, John was sure, a pretty effective deterrent. If you could remember every second as clearly as Keenan seemed to think you could, you could never pretend that you hadn't known what would happen, even to yourself. If you could remember every second of delivering every punishment you'd ever delivered, he was betting you'd eventually be pretty proficient at every aspect. Maybe that kept it from going too far. He wondered how Arbiters were chosen.

"Do you ever trade this tea?" Rodney asked, gazing thoughtfully into his cup. He looked calm, maybe a little introspective, but John could almost see his brain hurtling along, compiling all the ways it would be useful to be able to remember everything that happened over a set period of time.

Keenan actually looked a little startled at the question. "No, it is not something we've ever traded."

"Is it, are you opposed to trading it for, for--" Rodney waved a hand, "religious reasons, or whatever?"

"No, not opposed." He gave John a long look, and then gave Rodney a slightly briefer one. "We haven't been asked within living memory. Those from beyond the Ring that become familiar with its use do so just as you are about to. Many of those do not return to Kurn. Most of them we would not consider trading eilisi with in any event. It is valuable to my people, of course, but it is not something others seek out. And why would they?"

Rodney looked at Keenan for a few seconds, and then arched one brow. "You can't think of any reason why it would be useful to someone who wasn't about to participate in corporal punishment to be able to remember things perfectly?"

"Rodney," John said warningly, though he had to admit that, for Rodney, the sarcasm had been fairly low-key.

"No, Colonel, Doctor McKay is right," Keenan interrupted quickly, presumably before John could berate Rodney. "It is a good thing to be reminded to look beyond one's own narrow views." He gave Rodney a deep nod. "I can think of many reasons, Doctor McKay. But how many of those reasons are worthy?"

"Yes, well," Rodney said a little stiffly. "Worthy is an entirely relative term."

He considered Rodney gravely. "When you return, if you wish to offer something in trade for the eilisi, then we will discuss it, Doctor."

John thought Keenan looked dubious.

They lapsed into a somewhat-uncomfortable silence as they finished their tea. Conan still hadn't uttered a single syllable (John was trying not to find his silent-threat thing either irritating or ominous), and Rodney kept shooting sideways glances at John, and then not saying anything, which was weird enough that John avoided thinking about it. He was already keyed-up with the promise of pain, adrenaline flowing liberally; now was not the time to try to decipher Rodney's motives.

Keenan might have been meditating with his eyes open. He looked completely serene, at least until he rose to his feet in a quick, fluid motion. Rodney flinched broadly in a way that would've left John dripping with tea, if Rodney's cup hadn't been the first one empty.

John stood, too, and it occurred to him to ask, "The effects of the tea, are they going to…" knock me on my ass, send me to the moon, cause me to have a snack attack in the middle of my spanking?

"You will not notice the effects until later, Colonel. At first the memory will be so fresh it will seem normal, just as anything else that just happened to you might. In a few hours, or perhaps in the morning, you will begin to understand what it means to have a perfect memory of the next few minutes." He gave John a long, intent look. "I will not pretend that it will not be… unsettling for you, but you will be in no danger, Colonel. You will become accustomed to it, as people do. Within a handful of days, you will have an understanding of what it means to carry it with you, always. If you decide not to keep it, you must drink the eilisum within a handful of days. Any longer and your mind may choose not to let it go."

"Great," John muttered, and ignored Rodney stealing another sideways peek at him. "Let's rock and roll."

Keenan smiled gently, and walked to the other end of the room; John followed, since it'd be pointless to balk now. The bench looked even more like a kinky sex apparatus up close, and Keenan gave John plenty of time to look it over. John eyed it for several seconds obligingly, and just nodded. Out of context, he guessed it might have been a little weird-looking, but considering the situation, he didn't have any questions.

Rodney, standing beside him, either didn't have any questions or was unwilling to ask them. He just looked at it, two bright spots of color burning on his cheeks while the rest of his face, especially around his eyes and mouth, showed nothing but strained apprehension. John couldn't think of anything to say that might reassure him, so he didn't say anything.

Keenan rolled up his sleeves and walked over to the table against the wall, where the box Conan had been carrying earlier was sitting. He opened the box and said, without looking, "To begin, the penitent is stripped, Colonel." Even as he said it, Conan started toward John.

John took a step back without thinking, and, crazily, Rodney stepped in front of him. He did it just as if it was something that happened every day, without hesitation, and (if John ignored the fact that the situation probably didn't call for it) he couldn't help a sharp swell of pride, even though he could feel his eyebrows climbing toward his hairline in surprise at the same time. But he just told Conan, "I think I can manage this part without help, big fella."

Conan hesitated, looking to Keenan, who had turned around holding what was unmistakably a big fucking paddle (John groped for another term for several seconds before deciding there just wasn't anything else to call it); Keenan frowned.

Damnit, John thought, because he could see the why behind every part of this process, including the part where someone else stripped him, and he'd essentially already agreed to this, the whole enchilada, but he honestly wasn't sure he was going to be able to stand still and let some strange guy strip him.

Rodney, he saw, was gripping his data pad in both hands, but holding it awkwardly off to one side, and John realized that Rodney was seriously considering using the delicate equipment to defend John's honor. The whole situation was just too surreal. John kind of wanted to sit down.

"Easy, McKay," he said instead, and put a careful hand on Rodney's shoulder, pulling him backward so that he was beside John again. "It's okay."

Rodney turned to look at him with frantic eyes, and snapped, "This, Colonel, is so far from okay that I can't even see okay from here." He poked John in the upper arm with a vicious forefinger. "Why do you have to be naked?" John frowned a little, taken aback by Rodney's abrupt descent into near-panic, not quite able to figure out what had triggered it, since Rodney had seemed more or less okay sixty seconds ago. He didn't have time to consider it, however.

"Please, Colonel, Doctor McKay," Keenan said with a placating gesture that was miles less effective while he was holding the paddle he was planning on hitting John with. "I do not understand your objection." Rodney hissed a little, and John tightened his hand on Rodney's shoulder, though not enough to hurt him.

He believed that Keenan didn't get it; his expression was openly baffled. John had no idea how to explain it, either. "I don't know how to explain it to you," John admitted, choosing honesty mostly because there didn't seem to be anything to lose by it. "But I have to tell you, if your guy comes over here pawing at my clothes, there's a pretty good chance that I'm going to end up breaking both his arms."

Conan flexed in response, looking interested, and John tensed, rising to the balls of his feet. Keenan just nodded, as if that sounded perfectly reasonable to him, though his brows were still drawn together in perplexity.

"We have," Rodney said hoarsely, but calmly, "some fairly deeply ingrained feelings about strangers forcibly undressing us, Arbiter." The fact that Rodney not only remembered Keenan's title, but was addressing him by it, made John distinctly uneasy.

"I can undress myself," John added.

"I see," Keenan said slowly, clearly not seeing at all. "It is that Leovar is a stranger to you that makes this… objectionable?"

"Yeah," John said, and raised his fingers to the buttons of his BDU shirt, but Keenan shook his head quickly, holding up a hand to stop him.

"Our ways have significance, Colonel," he said, looking pained. "I think that you know this." He gave John a long look, and John didn't deny it, thinking of basic training and of Academy hazing and of what it felt like to be rendered helpless, why it was psychologically a big deal. "I do not understand your ways, your… hesitance, but I accept that it is something you feel strongly about. May we… compromise on this matter?"

His gaze shifted to Rodney.

"No," Rodney objected, and gave John a brief, panicky look before turning back to Keenan. "No, no, no, absolutely not, I am not… will not… It's, it's completely inappropriate, he's my team leader, and there are rules about, about. No. It's out of the question."

"Yes," John said, and braced himself for Rodney's reaction. But there was no reaction from Rodney. He didn't move, didn't object, didn't even turn to glare icy death at John. "McKay," John said evenly, ignoring the flutter of apprehension in his belly. When Rodney didn't acknowledge him, he tried, "Rodney."

Rodney shot John a truly virulent look, and John relaxed into amusement. If Rodney could try and melt John's face off with the power of his furious gaze, then he probably wasn't close to a panic attack. "Jeez, McKay, it's not like I'm asking you to shave my ass, here. Just come take my damn clothes off."

Rodney's eyes widened, fleeting surprise like a beacon, then disbelief, which lasted somewhat longer while John thought, Wait for it, come on, Rodney, and then Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh for God's sake, Colonel," Rodney snapped, closing the distance between them with three quick steps, face folded into familiar angles, Rodney's I can't believe I'm wasting my superior intellect on this idiocy look. John didn't smirk, somehow, but actually had to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep himself from pointing out that compared to a minute ago, when Rodney had been ready to perpetrate bodily assault on Conan the Barbarian with a tablet computer, a little wardrobe help seemed like a pretty reasonable favor.

"This could only happen on an off-world mission with you, Sheppard," Rodney spat disgustedly, and bent to put his data pad on the floor. Then Rodney was in his face, blunt fingertips vindictively stabbing the buttons on John's BDU shirt through their holes. "You'll never read a mission report from Lorne's team that involves the scientist undressing the team leader as a precursor to ritual spanking." John thought it probably wasn't the best time to point out to Rodney that it wasn't 'ritual' spanking, really. Rodney paused to jerk John's shirttail out of his pants so he could reach the last button, then dragged the shirt off John's shoulders in a motion that could best be described as 'ripping,' only to have it stopped abruptly and a little painfully at John's wrists because Rodney had neglected to unbutton the cuffs. "You're lucky I don't put in for a transfer!" Rodney muttered, his fingers brusque and businesslike on John's belt, followed immediately by the button of John's BDU pants.

"Uh, Rodney?" John tried, but apparently there was some kind of momentum at work, because Rodney didn't seem to notice.

"I'm sure any number of 'gate teams would be thrilled to have me as an addition," Rodney muttered, "considering that my already-extensive off-world experience alone would be an undeniable asset, and, of course, I'm a genius." He unzipped John's fly, and then immediately hooked his thumbs in the waist of John's pants at either hip and shoved them down, where they bunched around his ankles. On top of his boots.

John said nothing.

He just stood there in his baby blue boxer shorts with his pants trapped around his ankles and his shirt hanging from both wrists and looked at Rodney.

"Oh," Rodney said anxiously, his eyes everywhere. "Um."

"Yeah," John agreed, going for blisteringly sarcastic and hitting, if he did say so himself, right on the mark. Over by the bench, arms crossed under his manfully bulging pecs, Conan the Barbarian looked alarmingly close to cracking a smile. John wondered if maybe he should have kept his mouth shut and let Conan undress him. Keenan didn't seem even close to smiling, but his eyes held a suspiciously Teyla-like twinkle. "Jesus, McKay, aren't you supposed to be a genius?"

"Oh, shut up," Rodney snapped, and sank to his knees at John's feet.

Which, yeah. Pretty effectively shut John up. He couldn't even tell if he was more horrified or amused, because he was naked and McKay was on his knees.

It didn't shut Rodney up, however. He scrabbled energetically at John's bootlaces, while muttering, "Oh, this is just typical, really, the foremost mind in the galaxy press-ganged into service as an Air Force valet prior to being an unwilling spectator to your ordinary, everyday corporal punishment three million light years from the nearest kink bar." And then, "Lift, please, yes, thank you very much," as he tugged off John's right boot and sock.

John just watched, bemused, as Rodney worked the knots out of the laces of John's left boot -- "I don't seriously have to instruct you twice, Colonel, Christ, thank you!" -- and then repeated the foot lifting to get his pants off. Then Rodney bounced to his feet and neatly folded John's pants -- no mean feat with all the crap John tended to keep in his thigh pockets -- and, after a few seconds of holding John's pants uncertainly against his chest, walked over and put them on the table.

John saw the exact moment Rodney ran out of steam. He turned away from the table and took an uncertain step back in John's direction, faltered, and was abruptly just standing there, staring wide-eyed at John. Not just staring, either, but actually looking, starting at John's bare feet and traveling all the way up to John's face. From anyone else, it probably would have been too fast to be considered a once-over, but Rodney was fast, he did everything at breakneck speeds, and John knew that. He couldn't mistake it for anything else.

He was irritated to find himself suddenly flushed and self-conscious, only slightly comforted by the fact that Rodney was visibly as flustered as he was.

"Jesus, Sheppard," he said uncertainly, and rubbed one hand over his face. "This is the kind of break between rational thought and action that precedes things like PTSD and schizophrenia." And because it was Rodney, it came out sounding like an accusation.

Oh yeah, undressing me will leave you scarred for life; all my exes say so, John didn't say, perversely insulted. He flapped his shirt-trapped hands at his sides, instead. "Can you get these?"

"Oh, yes, yes of course," Rodney agreed, looking like he'd only just noticed the shirt-bondage, which made John want to choke him just a little. He did take the three more steps required to bend and unbutton John's cuffs -- albeit in totally uncharacteristic silence, which just made the weird intimacy of the situation exponentially weirder, since there was no Rodney-babble to distract John from the fact that he could feel Rodney's hot breath puffing against his naked skin -- and peel the shirt off his arms. Rodney folded it carefully and took it over to the table to sit neatly on top of John's pants. "But I'm sure this violates several directives in the appropriate workplace behavior workshops I had to attend in Siberia," he added seriously, voice only a little wobbly.

"No kidding," John agreed, not really that surprised to find his voice wasn't exactly having its steadiest day either. In a just universe, John reflected, he would never have to utter the words 'Doctor McKay, come take off my underpants,' in any combination. In this universe, however, it was looking pretty likely, as Rodney seemed to be stuck three feet away, one hip wedged against the edge of the table as though it was blocking his retreat, hands fisting and unfisting repeatedly at his sides, eyes anywhere but on John.

"Rodney," John began, resigned, but Rodney held up an imperious finger, chin angling up, and actually looked at John, gaze carefully above the neck.

"Just… Just do us both a favor, Colonel, and don't say it," he bit out. "If you do, every time I look at you for the rest of my -- in all probability, very short -- life, I'm going to hear it in my head, and I'm reasonably certain neither of us wants that."

"Okay, Rodney," John said soothingly, because he was pretty good at body language in general, and even better at Rodney's body language in particular, and everything about the way Rodney was holding himself, the cocked chin, clenched fists, squared shoulders, even the crooked-tight line of his mouth, said very clearly that Rodney was holding on to his composure with both hands, and John was willing to do whatever he could do to help Rodney do that. The alternative, most likely, was Rodney making a mad dash for the door, and he was pretty sure even a guy as laid back as Keenan was demonstrating himself to be would take that as an insult.

"I can't believe this is even happening," Rodney muttered resentfully, and then, without actually looking at John at all, walked over to him.

Rodney McKay was not a coward, which John had known almost from the very beginning. He was prickly, prone to exaggeration, arrogant as all hell, and so bad with people that it was almost painful, but he wasn't a coward. Even without the truly stunning examples of bravery in his repertoire (which were getting more extensive all the time), Rodney was brave. John had never met anyone as full of fear as Rodney, had never known anyone so certain that he couldn't trust anyone or anything but his own mind. John got that Rodney was brave every day, just going through the 'gate at all, eating with natives and trusting the food, knowing that he wasn't good in a fight, but fighting anyway, knowing every day when he woke up that no one could really see things the way he could, that communication with other people would always be unsatisfying and inelegant, less than what it should be, knowing that too much of the time his brain was the only thing between Atlantis and extinction.

So John wasn't surprised at all, even as he was surprised, almost shocked, that Rodney didn't even hesitate. He slid two fingers into either side of John's boxers and slid them down John's legs, not hurriedly or frantically, but carefully, so as not to catch on anything tender, and then followed them down so John could step out of them without falling on his ass or having to get a bit of cloth under a foot to disentangle them from around his ankles.

Like it was nothing at all to do that, even after he'd been pitching a fit the whole time about things that were nowhere near as intimate, and John was irritated, but he was also distracted by the fact that for about two seconds he could feel Rodney's breath puffing warmly against parts of himself that had no business knowing what that felt like. John felt himself twitch in response, and was torn between being surreally amused or surreally horrified, either of which was just fucked up. He thought Wraith Wraith Wraith, taking a hurried step backward as Rodney lunged to his feet, John’s boxers clutched to his chest.

John had to fight back a titter. Rodney was breathing hard, and John probably wasn't the only one that was all too aware of how close Rodney's face had been to his crotch, but Rodney didn't do anything worse than breathe harshly and unsteadily for a couple of seconds. Then he took John's boxers over and dropped them on top of the rest of John's clothes.

Rodney stood there for several seconds, his back to John, shoulders curled into a pained hunch, and John couldn't think of a damn thing to say. They didn't exactly cover this at the Academy. He turned his attention deliberately away from Rodney, and arched both brows at Keenan, aware that his expression bordered on belligerent -- he could feel a muscle jumping in his jaw -- but unable to coax it into anything less edged. Keenan looked sympathetic; this time it didn't soothe John at all. As though he sensed it, Keenan merely gestured John toward the bench.

If he wasn't going to just say to hell with this and leave -- and they'd already established that he wasn't -- there was nothing else to do at this point, so John walked over to it and arranged himself on in it the only way that would work. He was intensely aware of the fact that several people, one of them Rodney, were watching his every move, and took steps to distract himself with details. The bench was plain wood, and didn't look particularly comfortable, though it was smooth all over, the corners all rounded and gentle. He jammed his knees into the bend that was clearly meant for knees, and bent over the L of the surface, hipbones pressed against the join, but not uncomfortably so. His chest rested on the slightly higher incline, and his arms dangled stupidly on either side. There was even a padded place to rest his chin, which inexplicably made John want to snarl. Some other padding would have been nice, but not very practical, he guessed. At least the lack of padding made it likely that the bench was clean, since his cock was squashed between the smooth wood and his own skin, and thinking of how many cocks before his had been resting in just that place didn't thrill him.

"Tell me you people sanitize that thing between uses," Rodney demanded from somewhere behind John, his voice a little hoarse and more than usually agitated, but not so much so as to alarm John. Rodney's voice echoing John's thoughts actually made him almost smile. He turned his head to get Rodney into his field of vision, because he was already nervous enough about not being able to see Keenan, also somewhere behind him. As if he sensed John's unease, Rodney moved around to one side of the bench, where John could keep an eye on him easily. John smirked at him; Rodney scowled back.

Something tight in John's belly loosened somewhat. He didn't pretend he wasn't comforted just by Rodney being Rodney, but he also wasn't keen on looking too closely at it. Maybe later. With less nudity.

Keenan assured them that the bench was carefully tended to, which John tried to pretend actually meant there was some kind of disinfectant involved even though he knew from bitter experience that it could have easily meant that goat urine was lovingly rubbed into the silky-smooth surface each full moon. He was trying very hard not to be freaked out; he could see Rodney doing the same thing, his chin tilted, looking determinedly away from John and toward the cozy tea-nook end of the room. He was in no real danger, he told himself; he trusted Keenan. He was pretty sure this was going to hurt, yeah, but he was equally sure he wasn't going to be hurt, so it was pointless to get worked up about it.

But he was. He could hear himself breathing, short and sharp. His palms were sweating. He could feel his heartbeat in his throat and hear it in his ears. He stretched his fingertips to see if he could brace himself against the floor, but they barely reached, so he shifted, hoping to find a position that was marginally more comfortable before the actual hitting began.

"Please be easy, Colonel," Keenan murmured from somewhere far too close-by, making John jerk, startled. "Directly beneath your chin, a hands-width above the floor, there is a place to grip."

John was pretty sure that Keenan's solemn and helpful dignity was no more patronizing than it had been before, which was to say not at all, and that the burst of irritation he felt was purely situational. It didn't help much. He groped for the grip anyway, finding a round, smooth bar which probably ran between the sturdy front legs of the apparatus. There was something leathery attached to either end, according to John's questing fingertips.

He realized what they were at the same time that Rodney said, "Sheppard," tensely unhappy, his gaze now focused on John's hands. "Straps," Rodney added, unnecessarily, though John appreciated the warning anyhow.

Rodney's face helped him get a grip. It was a look John had seen too many times, a kind of unhappy resignation. Never when they were running for their lives, though. Never when Rodney had minutes to pull something out of his ass or they were all going to die. Never when the shooting was actually happening. Afterward, sometimes when they were stuck in the infirmary. When they were being held prisoner, something that happened all too frequently. The look that meant that Rodney knew it was going to be bad, and there wasn't shit he could do about it.

"It's okay, McKay. They aren't going to use them." Which John had extrapolated by the fact that neither Keenan nor Conan had made any move to do so. This is not a big deal, he thought at Rodney, but Rodney just turned his eyes back to the other end of the room.

"Colonel Sheppard does not require them," Conan said, the first time he'd spoken as far as John could recall. "He is trustworthy."

Rodney just pressed his lips together and tapped his data pad against his thigh, as though impatient.

"Can we do this sometime today," John grated out, unaware that he was at the end of his patience until the words were already out. Then, to his horror, he heard himself add, "My feet are getting kinda cold here."

He wondered if that was what it felt like to be Rodney, and shut his mouth firmly.

It occurred to him that this might be the weirdest fucking thing that had ever happened to him, and that was including turning into a bug. He waited expectantly, trying not to tense up because he wasn't sure how much this was going to hurt, and he'd just as soon not appear overly worried about it at this stage in the proceedings.

Three seconds passed, then five, and he was about to say something pointed (okay, something else pointed) when Keenan very gently said, "You must look this way, Doctor McKay."

"No, I really don't think I must," Rodney disagreed, sneering sharp and brittle, and it was the first inkling -- prickling needle-sharp at the small of his naked back, between his shoulder blades, and, oddly, along the soles of his bare feet -- John had that they might have a real problem here. The sneer didn't pack much of a wallop with Rodney's eyes closed and his chin tucked almost into his chest, at least not in terms of blistering several layers of skin off of the intended target of said sneer, but it was effective enough in the way that sent John's heart rate through the roof and jolted all his muscles into readiness, hurtling him abruptly and unexpectedly into fight-or-flight mode.

Conan, who had been standing about three feet in front of John, took a step in Rodney's direction, and John's brain went still and bright.

"Don't," he said, and something in his voice must have drawn Conan's attention, because he stopped. I will kill you, John somehow managed not to say, but the way Conan was looking at him made John think he'd heard it anyway.

"Leovar," Keenan said softly, and Conan raised both hands in John's direction, and took a step back.

"Let's all just settle down," John said, but he didn't sound calm even to himself; he sounded tightly furious, and Rodney was staring at him like he didn't know him. John didn't say anything for a few seconds, and part of his brain was still going, wait, what? because he wasn't sure exactly what just happened. He knew, yeah, but he didn't understand. But he chose to ignore it, for now, because he was still fighting the urge to threaten Conan as well as berate Rodney (because, Christ, this was his fucking discipline, not John's, and he knew Rodney knew that, so how could he not get that he was going to have to just suck it up and watch), both of which would be ultimately useless. He ignored Conan, and focused on Rodney instead. "You have to watch."

"Colonel…"

"Shut up, McKay. Try to pay attention. This is your punishment. Don't even try to make me believe you don't get that. So just shut up and watch." Rodney's face underwent a series of unhappy emotions, none of which John particularly wanted to see, and he thought it was pretty unfair that a mission that had started out so promising kept veering determinedly toward potential disaster every eight minutes or so before sidling unwillingly back to something salvageable (albeit humiliating and frustrating, so far). Rodney's face had settled on that look John hated so much, resigned and hopeless, and John equally hated the fact that he could feel so goddamned bad for Rodney even though this was his fault to begin with. "Damnit, Rodney," he sighed. "When was the last time you ate?"

"The last time I. Wait. What?" Rodney's forehead went scrunched and his eyes widened, and not for the first time, John was grateful that Rodney was exceedingly distractible.

"Food, Rodney," John snapped impatiently. "You're freaking out on me here. Are you going to 'pass out' from 'manly hunger'?"

Rodney spent about two seconds looking baffled while John watched the idea circle in his brain, and then he grabbed onto it with both metaphorical hands like an equally metaphorical life preserver. "Of course, yes, it's been hours, I, yes. Let's--" He flicked his fingers dismissively in John's general direction, and John pretended that he didn't know that Rodney was way too smart not to know that John had just played him. "Obviously I'm in the grips of a hypoglycemic attack, and am not thinking clearly," Rodney said steadily, but he was looking at John, and clearly intended to continue doing so. "I need food. Get on with it."

Seriously. The weirdest. Thing. Ever.

A second later, he forgot even the faintest urge to roll his eyes, because Ow! Christ! and "Shit!" he announced, and curled his hands so tightly around the wood in his hands that it creaked alarmingly. Rodney's eyes went huge and round and he actually swayed in John's direction for a second. This was undoubtedly the worst time ever to be pondering again just how much Rodney had changed since the first time he'd gone through the Stargate, but John wasn't interested in reigning in whatever distractions his brain was capable of clinging to right at the moment. "Surprised me," John managed to gasp out, and then Keenan hit him again, and John bit down firmly on more profanity and locked his jaw, thinking, Jesus, holy crap, at the utterly unexpectedly enormous amount that it hurt.

He was too aware of Rodney staring at him to let himself shout, which was what he wanted to do at every blow -- pain and indignation for the first half a dozen, and then just pain because it hurt too much to bother with indignation. He fixed his eyes unseeingly ahead and just rode it out, focusing on whatever he could find as a barrier to the pain, which, thank God, was something he knew how to do, something he'd had to do before. His feet were no longer cold, at least. His hands were slick around the wooden grip, and he was sweating freely. His jaw ached with tension, and his ass fucking hurt.

Deliberately, he spent a few seconds cataloging things that hurt more than this: being shot, being stabbed, a broken leg, a broken nose, that time when he was seven that he'd fallen on the concrete outside a Stucky's near Oklahoma City and jammed one of his front teeth halfway back up into his gums. Tear gas. Sumner. Ford.

He decided that wasn't helping and concentrated instead on what he could do to alleviate some of his present discomfort. His knees ached a little, as did his shoulders, but both were negligible really, which was good since there wasn't much he could do about either of them. His hipbones slammed into the bend of the bench every time the paddle made contact with his ass, however, and he figured he could pull his hips back a little in anticipation of each blow, try to get a little distance and hopefully lessen the impact, which turned out to work pretty well, though it forced out puffing little breaths every time Keenan's paddle landed as his belly came in forceful contact with the bench. He was definitely going to have bruises tomorrow, and not just on his ass.

He could see Rodney at the edge of his field of vision, though he was deliberately not looking directly at him, uncertain he'd be able to keep his face neutral enough not to send Rodney into a panic attack. He kept his face turned just enough that he could see Rodney without actually looking at him, and wondered if whatever was on that damned tablet could be worth this, and then, surprising the crap out of himself, had an improbably good idea about how to find out. He couldn't quite steady his mind enough to think through the details however, the bursts of pain coming with regularity that should have been numbing, but really really wasn't.

When he saw Rodney move, he looked, had to look; he needed the distraction from the fact that his ass was on fire, and besides that, Rodney couldn't look away because if they had to start again because Rodney fucking wimped out on him, John was going to be really seriously pissed.

Rodney wasn't looking away, though. He'd just shifted his gaze from somewhere in the vicinity of John's face to somewhere further back, and John experienced a moment of bizarre clarity in which he thought, Rodney McKay is looking at my ass. And there was no doubt that that was exactly what Rodney was doing. Not even just looking, but staring, or maybe gazing; John didn't have the right word for what Rodney was doing, though he was very aware that he was doing the same thing in the direction of Rodney's face, because, just, just the way Rodney looked, and John stared, unwillingly captivated.

Rodney was still, for one thing, absolutely still and completely attentive for someone John had had to bamboozle into looking in his direction five minutes ago. He was flushed deeply, his face, yeah, but also his neck all the way down to the collar of his BDU shirt, and his mouth was open and wet and his eyes were wide and weird, intent, focused, but almost glassy, and the whole thing was just bizarrely, insanely mesmerizing.

John blinked, thinking, What the hell, McKay? but he was aware that he was reacting to something about the way Rodney looked, the heat of his ass and his face and the rest of his tense, straining body somehow coalescing and migrating to someplace south of John's navel. He was a little horrified and a little shocked and a little flustered, and yeah, a little turned on, and it had nothing to do with the spanking. John wasn't really into pain, and he'd had enough opportunity for experimentation to be pretty certain of it. Or rather, it had nothing to do with his own reaction to the spanking, but his brain still skittered uncertainly around the edges of the way Rodney looked, the way he was looking. There was nothing like pained resignation on Rodney's face now; he was very obviously looking of his own free will at this point, and looking with an intense and narrow focus that was both familiar and foreign. It wasn't a look John had ever seen before, not on Rodney or anyone else, but it still echoed in John's head in a way that said 'sex' and 'want' and he couldn't stop looking at it. He was so intent on looking at it that he forgot he was trying not to freak McKay out, and the next blow took care of the inappropriate erection, which was great, but it also wrenched a sound out from between his lips that was part groan, part gasp, and part shout.

Rodney's reaction was so immediate as to seem alchemical, transformation of something into something else entirely. His head jerked sideways, and his eyes locked with John's. His mouth snapped shut, a taut, crooked line, and he went white. John actually watched the blood drain out of Rodney's face, leaving him waxy-looking with sweat. The fierce focus blinked out, and left him looking abruptly shaken and off-balance, like he had no idea what was going on, but also humiliated and miserable, like he knew exactly what had just happened. He blinked at John, mouth tugging down a bit further, and then closed his eyes and swayed on his feet, hand drifting slowly upward from his side, palm-out, a warding gesture.

"Rodney," John said, and blinked because he'd managed to lever himself to his feet without noticing he'd done it, and he realized belatedly that Keenan had stopped hitting him. He took a step, and Rodney jerked back, clutching his data pad protectively to his chest, and then the room sort of shimmied around John, and he decided maybe he'd stood up too fast just as one of Rodney's hands clamped solidly around his upper arm.

"Colonel?" Rodney still looked like he might pass out at any second, his eyes too wide and his face too pale, but his mouth was curled downward in concern now, and he looked utterly familiar.

What the hell, McKay? John didn't say.

"A little head rush," John muttered, shocked at how husky and thick his voice sounded. He widened his stance until he felt sure he wasn't going to part ways with his equilibrium again any time soon. "I'm okay. Are you…?"

Rodney shook his head, but not as if he were answering John's question, and his gaze flicked down for a second, and then back up to John's face. He let go of John's arm, his gaze sliding away. "Uh. Maybe… pants, now, Colonel," he said, oddly tentative, and John remembered with genuine surprise that he was naked.

"Oh," John said, and when he turned Keenan was already there, holding his pants in one hand and the paddle of Major Fucking Ow in the other. It was, John noticed for the first time, intricately carved with designs. John guessed he'd be able to match those patterns up to the bruising on his ass tomorrow, if he really wanted to. "I take it we're done here?"

Keenan held out his pants in answer, and John spent several seconds shoving his legs into them and hissing in surprised pain as he drew them up over his ass.

He wouldn't be sitting down voluntarily any time soon, halfway between amused and vaguely pissed off. He was trying to figure out what, exactly, he was pissed about when Keenan pushed a warm stoneware mug in his direction, and it wasn't until he reached gratefully for it that John realized that his hands were shaking. He looked a question at Keenan, who answered, "It's tea. Not eilisi." Conan, John saw, was offering a similar mug to Rodney, who took it without looking up, and John bared his teeth and narrowed his eyes in Conan's direction until Keenan curled a careful hand around his forearm and drew his attention away. Keenan was giving him a look that John was only used to seeing on Elizabeth's face, calm and concern and warning all rolled into one.

It occurred to John that he might be just a little bit fucked up right now (endorphins, shock, adrenaline, yeah, he got it, he knew the aftermath of this level of physicality, he just hadn't expected it to be a part of this, which seemed a little dumb in retrospect), and he clenched his hands around his mug and took a drink of his tea, which was very sweet and very hot, and helped. He drank and took careful stock of himself, finding his body sore and tired but essentially undamaged.

He noticed when Keenan silently dismissed Conan, who slipped out without a word, but chose not to comment. Rodney carried his tea and data pad over to one of the naquadah lamps and began tapping away energetically, and John watched Rodney's shoulders gradually loosen, his face ease, and eventually John felt like he was more or less himself, as well.

Keenan must have thought the same. "You have done us a great honor, Colonel Sheppard. Is there anything further you require of me?"

John blinked and considered the question seriously for a moment. "Yeah," he said finally, surprised all over again at the way his voice sounded, but determined to ignore it. He knew this was probably one of those moments where he should just keep his mouth shut, was beyond certain that Teyla would think so, but he wasn't going to, so he considered what he wanted to know carefully so that he wouldn't get it wrong. The urge to use military doublespeak was strong, even as much as John disliked it as a rule. It would make things so much safer to be vague. "I want to know if what just happened here is going to be a problem for your people." Keenan cocked his head, brows drawing together, so John obligingly rephrased the question. "I want you to look me in the face and tell me that the fact that you just beat the shit out of me isn't going put me in a position of weakness when trading with your people."

Keenan's eyes went wide, and John felt some of the tension knotted in his gut retreat. It must have shown on his face, because Keenan's face relaxed into a wry sort of smirk. "Perhaps that is a question you should have asked before you allowed me to 'beat the shit' out of you, Colonel," he pointed out slyly, and John relaxed a little more, and shrugged.

"It didn't matter before," he said, and Keenan nodded his understanding, which, John thought, was kind of nice. Keenan wasn't military, but the way he thought kind of was. Close enough, anyway. They got each other, and that wasn't something John dismissed lightly.

"No, Colonel. If anything, I think your position with my people has been significantly strengthened by your willingness to adhere to our laws." He looked at John for a long moment, and then offered his hand. John took it, and wasn't surprised when Keenan stepped in close and cupped John's elbow, just holding both warmly for a long moment. "We know you better, now, than we ever could have come to know you from across the width of a bargaining table."

He stepped back, and gave John another slow nod. Unspoken, but clearly expressed, was the solid, comforting truth that Keenan approved of him, of them, and John was satisfied with that. "I will leave you to compose yourself, Colonel. My people will have lunch laid out by now, and we look forward to you joining us at your convenience."

John finished his tea, considering, watching Rodney fiddle with the naquadah lamp, his data pad, and some cables. He ached, his body was literally trembling a little with fatigue as it wound down from the action, but he didn't feel tired. He was hyped, in fact, his mind uncomfortably hectic with things he didn't particularly want to think about right at the moment.

He got dressed, getting used to the way he was going to have to move for the next day or two in order to avoid being really obvious about the fact that his ass hurt, and tried to compose the mission report in his head. It was going to be one of those mission reports, the kind that would have to be either so vague as to be useless, or so detailed as to be overwhelmingly mortifying. John suspected it was going to have to be the latter. If things worked out with the Kurnei -- and John was pretty sure they were going to -- then it would be important that every 'gate team that had dealings with them know exactly what was expected of them, and what they could expect in return.

They had fucked up this time, fucked up and somehow handled the fuck up just right, but they couldn't count on that happening again.

He put himself back together with the sound of McKay tapping away in the background, strangely soothing and business as usual, and he wasn't surprised when McKay said, "I've got something here." That was business as usual, too, even if the stilted, even tone was not.

It wasn't lost on him that the announcement didn't come until John had finished lacing his boots.

John walked obligingly over and rested his hip against the side of the table. Rodney glanced up at him, then down, then made a gesture that could have meant anything. "By, ah, killing all the data pad's other functions, and also siphoning residual power off of a lamp -- they aren't using these things to anywhere near their potential, by the way, just one of them could easily power enough lights of this size to light most of the village with the right conduits in place -- well, I managed to boost the sensors about thirty-eight percent." Which explained the cables. "It only, there's only so much I can do under the, ah, circumstances, but it does give me almost another mile, and I found, there's at least one solid--" He tipped the screen toward John, tapping at the bright mass in one corner with nowhere near the jubilation it deserved if it was what John thought it was. "Well. There's at least one large deposit near the edge of my range. It's impossible to tell the size of it, but it definitely surpasses the confines of the scan."

"Maybe we'll bring a Jumper when we come back, scan the area from the air."

Rodney nodded, and started unhooking the data pad from the lamp without John having to prompt him.

Teyla and Ronon were outside, looking grimly patient while the natives bustled around setting up tables, some of which were already loaded with food. Teyla curled an arm around John's arm, brows together, eyes practically radiating concern. "Colonel. You are well?"

John wasn't sure if he was happy that she'd been worried or aggravated that she didn't think he could handle it, which was enough all by itself to make him sure that he was still kind of fucked up. In light of not having a straightforward answer for the question, he cracked a joke. "A little bruised, frankly. For a little guy, Keenan's got a hell of an arm." He smiled, and Teyla smiled too, but her eyes were a little too alert for John's taste. "Honestly, I was relieved when it turned out his giant pal wasn't going to do it, but in retrospect I don't think the big guy could've hit that much harder."

Ronon smirked, and clapped John on the shoulder. "I could hit you harder," he said with absolute conviction. "If that's what you're into."

John snorted, and made a mental note not to let Ronon hang out with the marines so much. "Thanks, Ronon, you're a real pal," John grinned, and for a few seconds things felt almost normal. Then he caught a glimpse of McKay's still, pale face as he turned toward the fountain, his data pad held in front of him like a shield.

**

They made the walk back to the 'gate in the early evening. It wasn't that far, but they ended up doing the tail end in the dark anyway. It wasn't unusual on missions like this one for them to spend the night off-world -- Keenan had offered, of course -- but Rodney had objected haltingly, muttering something about simulations he had going in the lab, and John had been just as happy to defer a sleepover until the next visit.

He was jumpy and achy and just ready to be home. He was sure that Rodney was just as ready. He had been too quiet all evening, which John had been able to ignore since he'd spent the evening discussing grain and blindenberry wine and naquadah with Keenan. It was harder to ignore as they traced their steps back to the 'gate on the same bad path they'd followed earlier, this time without a word of complaint from McKay. It would have worried him any other time -- hell, it worried him now -- but this time at least he was pretty sure he knew what was going on with McKay, so he just kept his mouth shut and ignored it. He didn't want to discuss it, and he knew Rodney well enough to be fairly certain that he didn't want to discuss it either.

They were going to have to deal with this, but he was really hoping it'd keep a day or two. He was tired, and he was starting to think he knew what the effect of the eilisi tea was going to be like, and he was pretty sure it was going to suck. It wasn't what he would have called a perfect memory -- at least, not yet, though Keenan had said it would take some time -- but it was… distracting.

As long as he was doing something, actively thinking of something else, it was fine, but sometime around the end of supper, as John was sipping something that tasted a little like apple beer and idly watching sparks drift upward from one of several outdoor hearths, there had been an almost vertigo-inducing moment of disorientation (during which he'd spilled his beer, though he hadn't noticed that until later), and he was abruptly watching Rodney's hands on his BDU shirt. They were shaking, he noted, and some part of his brain that seemed to get what was going on pointed out that he hadn't noticed that the first time around, while the rest of his brain flailed in panic for several seconds until the moment passed.

It had happened again when John had ducked off into the wooded area on the outskirts of the village to take a piss, and there were few things in life as disorienting as leaning against a tree with your cock in your hand, pissing and thinking about nothing at all, and then a twist of motion even though he knew he wasn't actually moving, and the sudden feel of the smooth, body-heat warmed wood of the bench under his chest, feeling horizontal even though he knew he was standing up, feeling the abrupt pain of the paddle as if it were actually hitting him that very second, and everything else that had gone with it the first time, the helpless, reactionary tensing of every muscle in his body, the sound of it, the feel of the groan he was trapping in his throat, the creak of the wood his hands were curled around and the counterpoint of Rodney's harsh, fast breathing. John fell, that time, and came back to reality when he hit the ground. He supposed he should be grateful he hadn't pissed on himself, considering.

That was about the time he figured out that it only happened when he wasn't consciously thinking about something else, and he'd spent the rest of the evening keeping his mind otherwise occupied in whatever way he could manage it.

But he was concerned. He wasn't sure if it was even possible to keep his brain working actively every minute of every day, and he was very conscious that it was getting harder already, probably because he was so damned tired. He wanted to get home and get the debriefing out of the way. The mission report could wait until tomorrow, but a few essential facts needed to be communicated to Elizabeth ASAP. Which would be easier, he admitted to himself, with Rodney elsewhere, but probably wasn't going to happen.

The 'gate was in sight when Rodney went down -- and damn everything, John really hoped that particular reaction was just due to them being unaccustomed to the experience, because neither of them could afford the kind of all-encompassing distraction that made you randomly fall over -- and John was on one knee beside him, one hand cushioning Rodney's skull from the ground, so quickly that he realized, somewhat after the fact, that he'd been expecting it.

"McKay," he said brusquely, aware of Ronon and Teyla hurrying over, but preoccupied with Rodney's open, empty eyes, his blank, slack face. Rodney didn't answer; it was like he'd stepped out. "McKay," John snapped again, and gave him a gentle slap upside the head with his free hand. Rodney blinked up at him, breath hitching and gusting out as if he'd been holding it, and then he looked okay again.

"Ow, Colonel," he said, but without rancor, and then he just blinked up at John for another handful of seconds.

"He's all right," John said, tipping his chin to talk over his shoulder. "Teyla, dial the 'gate."

"Shall I have a medical team…" Teyla began, but Rodney sat up quickly, waving his hands energetically enough that John had to dodge out of the way.

"No, I'm fine. It's fine. I." He threw a quick glance at John, and licked his lips. "I misstepped. It's dark out here."

John didn't contradict the lie, just helped Rodney to his feet, and wasn't surprised when Rodney brushed John's hands away from him as soon as he was upright. He took a couple of steps away from John and occupied himself resettling his pack. "I'm good," he muttered, and John pretended not to notice Ronon and Teyla exchanging a look.

They made it back through the 'gate without either of them falling over again, and Elizabeth was waiting, even though it was well after midnight Atlantis-time. Havildar Cheema was beside but slightly behind her, less intrusive with her position than Bates had ever managed to be. John caught her eye and gave her a nod, and she didn't stick around to see any more. She never did.

"Ronon, Teyla, you guys go ahead and turn in. McKay and I will take care of filling Elizabeth in."

"Doctor Zelenka requested that Rodney come to the lab as soon as he arrived," Elizabeth said, frowning when John shook his head.

"Is it an emergency?" he made himself ask, though he wasn't actually sure it mattered.

"No." She looked from John to Rodney and back again. "One of the simulations Radek's been working on is done. He seemed to think Rodney would want to see the results immediately."

"I don't think so," John said, and Rodney frowned, but didn't argue. "Let's go to your office."

Elizabeth just nodded, no questions asked, which was one of the things John liked about her.

John refrained from sitting down, bracing his hands on the back of one of the chairs situated in front of her desk. She gave him a quizzical look, but she didn't ask about that either.

It didn't take that long to fill her in on what had happened, which seemed a little unfair, considering that it seemed to have taken forever to have actually lived it. John didn't leave anything out. He wasn't opposed to editing for television -- he'd been in the military long enough to have a firm grasp of the fact that at least ninety percent of the time the civilians didn't even want to know details of what it took to implement their agendas -- and he'd done his share of it in both debriefings and mission reports, when he felt it was necessary. This time, unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you looked at it, he couldn't justify withholding anything. Too many people were going to be going back to Kurn, and not just 'gate teams. Engineers and miners and people to run the equipment needed to transport the naquadah, and it was essential that every last one of them know exactly what they were getting into, because if even one of them got into it with the Kurnei and ended up getting discipline, John was going to choke the life out of whomever it was with his own two hands.

So, he told Elizabeth what she needed to know, and she regarded him solemnly over her clasped hands, elbows resting on her desk, chin resting on her thumbs.

Rodney sat silently in the other chair and didn't offer anything at all to the conversation, which Elizabeth clearly felt was as bizarre as John would have under any other circumstances. But he'd seen Rodney's face, and he'd already had a couple of memories that felt like flashbacks, and he wasn't surprised.

"I think you should see Carson," Elizabeth said finally, and John sighed.

"No."

"John…"

"No."

"It's just a precaution."

"I am not going to see Carson about my bruised ass, Elizabeth!"

Her lips quirked, but she contained it quickly. "I was actually more concerned with the memory tea, John."

"Oh."

"I," Rodney said. "I got a sample. From. For Carson to take a look at."

"Good thinking, Rodney," Elizabeth nodded. "I want both of you to get checked out, though. Rodney, did you have any experiences like John's, with memories of the incident overwhelming the present?"

"I. No." Rodney licked his lips. "Not yet."

John blinked, but didn't say anything. It bugged him, but he wasn't going to call Rodney out in front of Elizabeth. Not when he didn't understand why Rodney felt the need to lie about it.

"It stands to reason that he will, though," John drawled, "and I think the lab would be a bad place for that to happen."

"I agree. I think you'd better both take a day or two to figure out how this is going to affect you. Then we can make plans about how you'll function in your regular duties." She frowned and straightened. "Rodney, I don't suppose you…"

"Yes, yes, I got samples of both kinds of tea," Rodney muttered impatiently, and John smirked, reassured by Rodney's pissiness. "Hello, genius!"

Elizabeth smiled. "Of course," she agreed mildly, which told John clearly that she'd been worried about Rodney's unusually passive role in this particular debriefing. "I'll have Carson meet you in the infirmary."

"It's late, Elizabeth. Tomorrow will be soon enough." John could tell she was on the verge of insisting, and he grinned. "The Kurnei have been drinking this tea for hundreds of years. I agree that knowing exactly how it works and how it affects Rodney's extremely valuable brain are very important things, but not important enough to wake Carson up in the middle of the night. Tomorrow morning, first thing."

"Fine, fine, but if either of you even suspects any kind of complications…"

"Yes, yes, as if I'm going to risk it if I think there's even the remotest chance that something's wrong." Rodney stood up abruptly. "And on that note, I really am very tired, what with the beating and all, so if we're done here?" Rodney stomped out loudly enough that his footfalls were clearly audible for a good ten seconds after he was out of the room.

John and Elizabeth just looked at each other for several long seconds after Rodney left. "I suppose the whole thing was… uncomfortable for him," Elizabeth said eventually.

John snorted. "Yeah. My heart bleeds. Look, Elizabeth, the thing is. What I'm trying to say here is that we weren't prepared. I mean, we've run into weird cultural stuff before, but these people are very nice, and they're very happy to trade us their naquadah, and I think Keenan actually likes McKay, so I think it would be a very bad idea to let this happen again. And not just because it kind of sucked for me."

Her lips quirked again, but she was already nodding. "No, you're absolutely right. Another incident could complicate things irreparably. We should probably be grateful this happened our first time there. If we'd set up trade, started mining, and then there'd been this sort of a misunderstanding. Well. Thing's could've been much worse."

"Teams should be hand-picked and carefully briefed." He shook his head. "We managed to mess it up and then handle it just right, somehow. I don't think we can count on that happening again."

"I agree, John. You don't have to convince me."

But John thought he kind of did, because in some weird way it had become his responsibility to make sure no one else ended up on the wrong end of a Kurnei paddle. It wasn't that he thought the Kurnei would punish anyone that didn't deserve it, and it wasn't even that he was worried about the naquadah, although he was, a little. It was that John had staked his reputation with the Kurnei on the fact that Atlantis was a worthwhile friend and ally, and he gave a shit about that. He gave a shit because he liked the Kurnei, he like Keenan, and he'd done things he most certainly wouldn't ordinarily do in order to give Atlantis an opportunity to keep this alliance, and he was going to be a whole world of pissed if any of his people fucked that up.

"I think. Yeah. I think I should go along with whoever you decide to send back. My team, I mean. We know what to expect, and we'll be able to…"

"John," Elizabeth interrupted, leaning forward to frown at him. "John, are you wigged about this?" She sounded surprised, but only mildly so.

He grinned at her choice of words, and felt himself relaxing a little. "Yeah, maybe. Maybe a little. I feel… responsible."

She smiled a little ruefully. "You're supposed to feel responsible, Colonel. You're in a position of authority."

"Yeah, but more responsible than usual. I like the Kurnei, and not just because they've got naquadah and fizzy apple-beer. I like Keenan."

Elizabeth's smile faded, and she nodded slowly. "I see. Okay, one last thing and I'll let you get to bed. Do I need to talk to Rodney about this? As his supervisor?"

John just looked at her for a moment. "That just sounds painful for everyone involved." She didn't deny it, but gave him a long, level look that plainly said that she was just as aware as he was that he hadn't actually answered the question. He shrugged. "And do what? Write up a report and stick it in his file?" He shook his head. "Do you think that would do more to affect his future behavior than what happened earlier today? Rodney's… Rodney. It doesn't do any good to be upset about that. We all know…" and he floundered for a moment, trying to find the right words and failing completely. "We all know he's worth having around, even when he's not." Which made no sense at all, of course, and yet Elizabeth looked as though she got it completely.

"I'll leave it to your discretion as his team leader, then. Especially if we send your team to oversee other personnel, I do not want a repeat of this from Rodney."

"I don't think that's likely to be a problem," John told her honestly.
**

John made his way to his quarters through nearly empty corridors, occupying his mind with details of the next couple of days, thinking of meeting with Lorne and having him handle the drills he'd planned for the marines the day after tomorrow in the event that John was still falling over randomly. He pondered whether training with Teyla and running with Ronon would be things he'd have to give up, and regretfully decided it was probable. He didn't think much while doing either of those things; that was kind of the point of doing them.

He smelled Rodney before he saw him, and even had a moment to think how weird it was that he apparently knew what Rodney's fear smelled like. Rodney was sitting on the end of John's narrow bed, his elbows on his knees, his head hanging loosely on his neck, and then John was lost in his head, the bright wash of memory accompanied by that same sensation of falling, vertigo, surrounded by the sharp smell of fear-sweat and the sound of Rodney taking deep, carefully spaced breaths filled the room. He could hear the crackle of the fire in the fireplace and feel the sweat on his chest, sticking a little to the wood of the bench beneath him, and maybe some of that fear-stink was coming from him, but most of it was Rodney; even if he hadn't been able to smell it, he could see it in the way Rodney's hands were clenched, white-knuckled, around the data pad he was holding against his chest, and in the way his head was tipped determinedly down and away from John (as though if he didn't see any of it, it wasn't real), in the strain around his tightly-closed eyes and the sneeringly curled-up corner of Rodney's normally mobile and always-expressive mouth. John's flesh crawled and prickled, the back of his neck, his lower back, all the exposed and vulnerable places where the air touched his naked skin, and his hands tightened on the wood he was gripping in sympathy.

This time, at least, he recognized what was happening when Conan took a step toward Rodney, knew the steps his body took to prepare for a fight. He even understood that it was only peripherally Conan who had twigged him, that he'd have reacted the same way to anyone, anything, that targeted Rodney when Rodney was so clearly vulnerable and afraid. It didn't change the weirdly brittle, cold fury that settled into his brain, and the word, "Don't," felt sharp sliding out of his throat, as though it should bloody his lips. And Conan's face was a revelation as he swung his head to look at John, his brows lowering into a frown that never reached completion as his eyes met John's, morphing into a flutter of fear, his eyes wide and totally aware of the 'I will kill you,' that John didn't actually say, his hands coming up, both to defend and to deny being a threat.

Keenan's voice was both a warning and an order, a softly murmured, "Leovar." Relief and regret in equal parts curled in John's belly as Conan took a step back, because what he wanted, what he really wanted was to bloody the big motherfucker for daring, for daring, when John had said, had made it perfectly fucking clear that no one was touching any of John's people, and if it hadn't been for the lessons learned over the last two years in Pegasus, if it hadn't been for John's rueful understanding of his own responsibility and Atlantis's need, he would have done it, would have demonstrated his fury with great pleasure.

But there was a mission, there was Atlantis, Rodney was afraid, and instead he said, "Let's all just settle down," the right words, even if he couldn't make his voice right. He looked at Rodney, at Rodney's surprise -- which made him even angrier because how could he look at John like that, like he thought John might not protect him when John always protected him -- and fear, though now it was John he was afraid of. It was fear shot through with relief and uncertainty and gratitude, but that made John want to snarl as much as anything else, at the superfluity of it, because Rodney was his, Ronon and Teyla were his, Atlantis was his, and he didn't want or need gratitude from any of them for doing whatever was necessary to protect them, damnit.

"Colonel," Rodney's voice murmured close by, and there was a weird moment of temporal confusion, a discordant space of seconds in which John couldn't actually grasp what was real and what was memory. He found himself reaching for Rodney in a place he wasn't standing, hand closing on nothing; he blinked and it was gone. No, not gone. But retreated enough that he was aware of himself, on his back on the floor of his quarters, and aware of Rodney on his knees at John's side. The anger crouched in his chest was misplaced, chronologically speaking, if not in actuality, but he still sat up quickly, startling Rodney enough that he flailed backward a little, and flinched when John caught both of his upper arms and shook him a little, leftover anger that John couldn't let go of. "Colonel!" he squeaked, eyes wide, mouth pulled down into a frown that was pure misery, no petulance or arrogance in evidence; John got a hold of himself and let go.

"Christ," he spat, and raked both hands through his hair; only then did he become aware of the way he was sitting on the floor, knees up, all his weight pressing really very painfully down on his bruised ass. He struggled up to his knees, which lessened some of the immediate pain, but he still ached all over, bruising and tension and just a long, hard day. "Will you… Christ, what do you want, McKay?"

Rodney flinched back, shoulders hunching like he was expecting a blow, and he waved his hands, part dismissal and part habit, his eyes skittering from some point over John's shoulder to the front of John's shirt, then settled on his own hands, which he wound together in his lap. "Nothing, I just, just thought I should tell you. I just wanted to tell you I didn't mean for this to happen. I didn't think, I never thought. I didn't know."

"You didn't know what?" John grumbled, but he wasn't paying attention, didn't really care what had Rodney's panties in a bunch. Rodney was always sorry after, and John didn't have the patience to deal with it tonight. He was too intent on dealing with the flashback that had just happened, trying to push it away, because he got that he was seeing things in memory that there hadn't been time to consider when everything had actually been happening, and he really just didn't want to have to think about those things right now.

"The, the, the," Rodney stammered, and waved his hands broadly, an encompassing gesture, and then just looked at John helplessly. John looked back, brows raised in question, impatient, and Rodney's face tightened and he shook his head. "No, you know what, no, just. Nevermind." Rodney stood up abruptly, and then swayed on his feet, taking a quick sideways step and bracing a hand against the wall. John noticed for the first time that Rodney was pale, and there was a fine sheen of sweat at his temples. Rodney blinked slowly and cocked his head.

"Did you eat, McKay?" John asked, and tried to remember if Rodney had been eating at supper with the natives. He couldn't remember; he'd been avoiding Rodney as much as Rodney had been avoiding him, after the thing.

"It's fine, I'm," Rodney mumbled distractedly, but John still only barely managed to get to his feet and brace Rodney when his knees buckled.

"McKay," he grated out, spreading his feet to take Rodney's weight because Rodney certainly wasn't supporting any of it. He wasn't surprised when Rodney didn't react. His eyes weren't blank and empty like they had been on the planet, but they were distant, unfocused. He looked like he sometimes looked when he was thinking hard or had just had an idea of ass-saving magnitude. John turned his body enough to get him braced against the wall, which helped; Rodney outweighed him by twenty pounds, probably, and was broad and awkward to boot. Up close, he smelled like PowerBars and shampoo and sweat; John could smell the sour fear that had hit him in the face when he'd first walked into his room, too, but it was less now, not more, so whatever it was Rodney was remembering must have been less scary than… Than what? Than waiting for John to get home and apologizing? John frowned at that.

"Oh," Rodney breathed, and for a second John thought Rodney was with him again, but Rodney just breathed in once, a sharp inhalation, and said, "Oh," again, and John wondered, abruptly uncomfortable, if he had talked during the last flashback, because he didn't want to know what he might have sounded like if he had. Rodney… He sounded wrecked. He sounded close to desperate.

"Rodney," John said, and shook him as much as he could with Rodney wedged between the wall and John's shoulder, but there wasn't much else he could do except hold him there and wait for it to be over, listen to Rodney's fast, almost whistling breaths. He wasn't sure if he thought it would help or if he just didn't want to hear it if Rodney said anything else, but he heard himself saying, "Hey, Rodney, hey, buddy. You're all right, I've got you, I've got you."

He kept repeating it until the sudden tension in Rodney's frame told him Rodney was with him again. John fought the urge to back away immediately, and said, "Can you stand up?"

"I am standing up, Sheppard," Rodney pointed out nastily, and John felt himself smirking tiredly. He pulled back carefully, slowly, and Rodney stayed put, still leaning against the wall, but upright under his own power. "This is just great," Rodney sniped, and rubbed at his face with one hand. "This is just. Really great."

"Yeah," John agreed. "Great."

Rodney sighed. "Not that it hasn't been fun, Colonel, but I'll be turning in now, if you don't mind?"

John didn't point out that Rodney had come to his room. He also didn't ask what specific bit of memory had just played out in Rodney's head. It felt… too personal, in light of the intensity of his own most recent flashback. "Is it going to get better, or worse, do you think?" he asked, as a more-or-less innocent substitute for what he really wanted to know.

"Worse, I imagine," Rodney grumbled without a single snippy comment about voodoo. Then, grudgingly, "But better, eventually. I think. Well, it's not my area, obviously, but if we extrapolate what we can from the information Keenan gave us, there's a period of adjustment; the human brain works a certain way, there's a certain distribution of chemicals and electrical impulses that governs memory, and the tea probably alters that somewhat in this specific instance. It only makes sense that our brains would take some time to incorporate the way this memory works. Or the tea makes the memory work. Or." Rodney glared balefully at John. "You know what, ask Carson tomorrow. I'm going to bed."

John spent a couple of minutes just standing there after the door whooshed closed behind Rodney, anchoring himself in the present with predictions of just how much tomorrow was going to suck.

 

**

It had occurred to John that sleep might be difficult, but it turned out to as easy as lying down and closing his eyes. There was no sense of time having passed at all when he opened his eyes and saw that it was morning.

"Huh," he said out loud, and then it hit him.

He was already lying down, so he didn't fall over, and it was less like a flashback this time, and more like sinking. Maybe because he'd just woke up, or maybe just because the tea had taken full effect while he was sleeping, there was no fighting it.

The mug of tea Keenan handed him was warm and solid in his hands, and the air smelled like wood smoke and sweat. John sipped at his tea, and watched Rodney. He was a little too cool now that all the exertion was over, sweat drying in prickles on his skin, his muscles trembling in the aftermath of adrenaline. He drank tea and watched Rodney's competent hands as he ran cables between the naquadah lamp and his data pad. He got that Rodney was using the work to anchor himself, calming himself down by occupying himself with the routine, and John didn't try to deny that he was doing the same thing, watching Rodney's hands and listening to Rodney make little humming sounds, and using the very familiarity of those things to counteract the craziness of the last twenty minutes. He ached, but it was no worse than he'd get from a hard workout with Teyla. He didn't feel tired. His mind wasn't winding down at the same rate as his body, and he couldn't stop himself from seeing the faint tremor in Rodney's hands as he worked, and the way he was hunched into himself over the data pad. He was uncomfortably aware that this was going to affect them, but he couldn't guess at how. He didn't like the way Rodney looked, though, and he wished he'd been paying more attention when it had actually happened.

That was about the time that he realized that he was aware of exactly what was going on, that he could feel his sheets against his skin and smell the salt-smell of Atlantis. He wasn't caught the way he had been before. He sat up to test that theory, and the memory fell away.

"Huh," he said again, blinking at his quarters thoughtfully, and lay back down.

It took no effort at all to slip back into memory. He spent maybe a second thinking about the cool prickle of sweat drying on his skin and the vertical frown lines between Rodney's brows, and he could see it all, down to the unhappy line of Rodney's mouth as his fingertips skittered over the surface of the data pad.

He dressed slowly, taking the opportunity to stretch a little, feeling where he ached and thinking about how it was going to affect him over the next couple of days, how he would compensate for it if it somehow came to a fight while he was still hurting.

There was a slight quaver in Rodney's voice when he said, "I've got something here." Rodney sounded tense and uncertain, and John relaxed, some of the tightness at the base of his neck fading, because he had been waiting for him to say something, which he hadn't actually realized at the time. In retrospect, it was a little dense of him; he'd been waiting for Rodney to say something because Rodney always said something. John wasn't the one that filled uncomfortable silences. He wasn't the one that tried to fix things between them when they went weird, either. That was always Rodney.

How had he not known that?

It gave him some perspective on last night's little visit, though, and not the good kind. The kind where you become aware, far too late to do anything about it, that you were kind of an asshole. And really, how bizarre was it to suddenly realize that McKay was the one bearing the brunt of the daily maintenance when it came to their friendship.

"Shit," John muttered, and blinked at his ceiling when he heard himself speak and realized he could see his ceiling.

He'd come up out of the memory without realizing it, apparently, slipped out of it easily and without even trying. Well. That was promising, at least. Maybe he was getting a grip on the situation.

His radio beeped at him from the bedside table, and John turned to look at it for a second, surprised, before he fumbled for it, distracted for another second or two as he caught sight of his watch, which told him that it was late. "Sheppard," he said, once he'd fumbled the radio over his ear.

"Colonel," Carson greeted him cheerfully. "Doctor Weir informs me that I should be expecting a visit from you this morning?"

"Yeah, yes," John said, and rubbed at his face with one hand. "I didn't realize it was so late. Let me grab a shower."

"Take your time," Carson agreed.

John fumbled the headset off again and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

He managed to shower and dress without incident, and was on his way to the infirmary when it occurred to him to wonder if Rodney had already made it there with the sample of the eilisi. For about four seconds, he considered stopping by Rodney's quarters to check, and then decided against it. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he owed Rodney an apology, and he didn't even want to think about how aggravating that was probably going to turn out to be before he had some coffee and breakfast in him.

And maybe Rodney had already been to Carson, in which case it was moot anyhow.

He spent a small eternity in the infirmary, of course. He repeated everything he remembered Keenan telling them, related everything about how the memories worked so far, submitted to blood tests and a brain scan in an Ancient machine that presented a fairly cool 3D model of John's brain for them to look at, though he was less thrilled by the way it sliced John's brain into sections for them to examine more closely.

Rodney had, indeed, already dropped off a sample of both kinds of tea for Carson (apparently in the very early hours of the morning), and Carson promised to let John know immediately if he found anything weird or dangerous, either from the samples or from the blood tests and brain scans.

He also refused to allow John to escape without examining what he delicately referred to as "... the physical results..." of the mission, which made John snort even as he bitched bitterly about having to drop trou and lie face down on an exam table while Carson poked him in the ass and muttered about deep muscle bruising, sounding disgruntled, and even more Scottish because of it, as though John's bruised ass was a deeply personal affront.

He firmly refused to clear John for even light duty when John made hopeful sounds in that direction. John wasn't surprised, and couldn't even argue the case in favor.

As John put his pants back on, Carson leaned so close to the display on which John's brain currently rotated in all its 3-D glory that his nose was practically touching it. After a few seconds of that, he flipped another display around, moving them until they were side by side, and stood looking between the two, hands on his hips. Both images showed a lighter splotch in the same general area, weirdly yellow against the varying shades of blue-gray. The splotch on the second screen -- which had to be Rodney's -- was slightly bigger.

"Is that...?" John asked, and Carson nodded and hmmed, nose nearly on the screen again, so John stepped closer, because surely if there was some kind of confidentially thing that meant John couldn't look at Rodney's brain Carson would have yelled at him by now. "Mine looks different than McKay's," John pointed out, tapping the yellowish splotch and frowning a little at the disparity. "His is... bigger."

Carson snickered.

John pivoted toward him in surprise, and Carson waved both hands at him in apology, but he was still clearly trying to suppress laughter. "Sorry, sorry," he half-gasped, lips twitching. "Doctor humor!"

John snorted. "Twelve-year-old-boy humor, you mean," he accused, but he could feel his lips wanting to curve as well. "Jesus, Carson!"

"No, I'm sorry, Colonel. You're absolutely right, totally inappropriate," Carson agreed, schooling his features into solemnity. John made his mouth stop twitching.

They looked at each other.

Carson snorted and dissolved into soft, breathless chuckles, and John grinned, shaking his head and sighing theatrically.

"Something I should know?" Elizabeth asked, rounding the curtain set up in the corner of the infirmary they were occupying. She arched the eyebrow of indulgence at both of them, lips quirking, waiting to be let in on the joke.

"Ah, no," John said hurriedly, and Carson snorted softly again, though at least he was making an effort to conceal his smile by turning back to study the two brains. Both of Elizabeth's eyebrows went up this time, and John mumbled, "Uh, doctor humor, I guess."

"Okay," Elizabeth said, drawing out the word, her tone making it clear that she was allowing them to get away with whatever it was they were getting away with. She turned her attention pointedly toward the brains. "What am I looking at here, Carson?"

"Well, I know it's hard to believe, but this is conclusive proof that Colonel Sheppard has a brain," Carson assured her, and Elizabeth's mouth was now twitching.

"Hey!" John objected; they both ignored him.

"It's bigger than I was expecting," she observed, dead-pan, and then threw John a smirk.

"Now, Elizabeth, that's just mean," John drawled.

"Anyhow, getting back to the matter at hand," Carson said. "Colonel Sheppard had just observed that the affected area of Rodney's brain appears to be slightly larger than the affected area of his own, and I was about to reassure him that it probably didn't mean anything."

"Probably?" Elizabeth asked, which was great, because it was exactly the question he'd been thinking.

"Aye, well, the brain is a complicated thing, and we don't understand a lot of what it can do. We do know that the area affected in both cases is the hippocampus, here," Carson pointed, "And in Colonel Sheppard's scan, the pre-frontal lobe, here. Both are associated with memory in different ways. The pre-frontal lobe handles very short term memory, while the hippocampus handles long term and associative memories. See here, the activity in Rodney's pre-frontal lobe is nothing more than his usual baseline operation, while the Colonel's is still a bit above his baseline readings from past scans. The activity in the hippocampus, too, is somewhat higher in Rodney's case than in Colonel Sheppard's. All this means is that Rodney is processing somewhat faster than Colonel Sheppard, which -- forgive me, Colonel, and no insult intended -- is simply not that surprising. Rodney's baseline pre-frontal activity is already at the upper end of the spectrum, anyhow, which just means this is normal for Rodney."

"Right, Rodney is smarter than me. Alert the presses," John grinned. "But don't alert Rodney. I don't want to listen to him brag about his faster brain-processes or whatever."

Carson smiled wryly, and Elizbeth smirked. "So basically, the tea is doing what the Kurnei say it does, it's not hurting them as far as you can tell, and Rodney's giant brain works better than John's slightly smaller, but still perfectly adequately-sized one?" Elizabeth quipped, smiling. John scowled. He should have known she'd been hiding behind the curtain and listening. Elizabeth was sneaky.

"Basically," Carson agreed, shrugging a little. "The chemical compound of the eilisi tea is going to take some time for me to really decipher. It's not anything we've come across before, not that that's surprising, really. New galaxy and whatnot. Once I've got some progress on that, I'll compare it to the scans, just to be sure that the reactions conform to the chemicals involved. I would like both the Colonel and Rodney to come back at least every twenty-four hours until this runs its course, both as a precaution, and because the data could be extremely useful in understanding memory function. If we can figure it out, anyhow." He tapped at John's brain with his pen thoughtfully. "Maybe even more often, if you've the time?" He gave John a look that contained more hopeful-puppy elements than John was really comfortable seeing in a grown man. "I know you're a busy man, and it's probably not necessary from a health perspective, but. Well, just look." He waved a hand at both brains. "It's a matter of timing. If I had only Rodney's scans to go on, I'd have never known the pre-frontal lobe was even involved in the process. I'd speculate it was, of course, but I'd rather have the hard data."

So John found himself promising to come get his head examined every twenty-four hours at least, but to come by any time he had twenty minutes, as well.

It was early for lunch, but he'd missed breakfast, so he headed to the mess anyway. Sitting down to eat proved problematic; there was no way to sit on the hard plastic cafeteria-type chairs that was even remotely comfortable, and while the discomfort wasn't impossible to live with, it meant that John was thinking about what had caused it pretty much constantly, and fighting not to slip into the tangle of memory that he could feel somehow, lurking just beyond what he was consciously thinking about. He managed to get through the first part of the meal by eating quickly, shifting his weight often, and trying to identify each dish along with what planet they'd traded with for the ingredients. He was trying to come up with something identifying, anything all, about the gelatinous green stuff that wasn't Jell-O and tasted a little like peaches when Ronon and Teyla came in together, and the rest of the meal passed more easily in conversation.

No one mentioned the events of the day before at all, which John considered ideal, until he was toying with the remains of the not Jell-O and trying to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of the day that wasn't work, but somehow occupied his mind enough to keep him from slip-sliding into memory-ville, a prospect that he was slightly less worried about since his experimentation earlier, though he still didn't particularly want to spend the rest of the day wallowing in it.

"You seem distracted, John," Teyla said, giving him one of her familiar too-perceptive gazes. "Are you well?"

It occurred to John that he hadn't even asked Teyla what she knew about the eilisi, because he was clearly a moron. Or because he was embarrassed about the whole thing, and was never a fan of appearing to be at a loss in front of people who were, at least nominally, under his command.

"Yeah, I'm okay. It's the eilisi," he said, watching her face to gauge her reaction. If she didn't know, he figured there was no real reason to enlighten her, since she wouldn't have any helpful information.

"Ah," she nodded, brow clearing a little. "I have never experienced the effects of the eilisi, though I know of it, of course. I was not certain it would be required of you."

John thought about that for a second. "It was requested," he said finally, and shrugged. "And I didn't object."

Teyla smiled. "You behaved with honor, Colonel. I was," and she paused, as though trying to decide how to complete that sentence. "I was most gratified." Which, from Teyla, was a ringing endorsement of his behavior, and enough to make John smile.

"Yeah, tell it to my ass," John muttered, but without any bite to it. He was pleased that she was pleased, and she'd have to be blind or stupid not to know that; Teyla was neither of those things.

"The tea, I believe, is meant to create permanent recollection of the discipline dealt," Teyla said, half-questioning, and John nodded, thinking that was more or less accurate as Keenan had told it, but seemed… inadequate as far as his own experiences thus far. "I regret that I have never witnessed the effects of the tea personally. Are you experiencing difficulties?"

John rubbed at the back of his neck self-consciously. "Not difficulties, exactly, no," even though he was, of course. "It's just distracting, mostly. It comes and goes."

Teyla gave him a long look, and finally offered, "The Kurnei meditate the day following discipline, perhaps until the better part of this 'distraction' has passed?"

Which made sense if the goal was, as Rodney had termed it, behavioral conditioning. In that case, meditating was probably double-speak for remembering. He could see the benefit just from the couple of things he'd remembered that morning, and from the flashbacks the night before. Meditating would mean plenty of time to go through everything, start to finish, with the option of seeing all the little things that he had seen the first time, but which he hadn't had time to register for whatever reason. Which John didn't actually want to do, if he could help it.

He'd already seen more than he really wanted to see, and understood more of it than he wanted to understand. Any more understanding was likely to just make things awkward with Rodney. There were parts of the memory that he didn't want to see again at all, things he was struggling not to allow to edge into his mind even slightly.

He was inclined to think this might be one of those situations in which a little willful ignorance was the only workable solution.

It was like when John was twelve, and walked in on his parents having sex. The best thing to do, the only thing to do, maybe, was for everyone involved to pretend it hadn't happened.

He could do that; John was good at selective memory. There was already so much that he chose not to think about, and not just things that had happened since they'd come to Atlantis. Some memories were razorblades: likely to cut you up if you handled them too much. But too much understanding could make it impossible to set boundaries.

He no longer remembered exactly what his parents had been doing when he walked in on them. The memory was blurred and imperfect, and now, years later, all John really remembered about it was that it had happened, and how mortified they had all been. But there were other things -- Sumner's death, for example -- that John remembered in aching, hateful detail, things that he couldn't forget because every damn day something reminded him, because every damn day he had to think about the Wraith, how to protect his people from them, how to beat them. It was impossible for those memories to grow soft and hazy in his head, impossible to let them become less sharp. And that sucked, yeah, but it was also okay because their survival made it necessary.

But this thing with Rodney was something neither of them had asked for, neither of them had wanted, and the less he allowed himself to think about it, the less awareness he had of what it really meant, the better. For both of them.

Even if John kind of did want to know, in that helpless, train-wreck sort of way.

If meditation was just double-speak for deliberately remembering, it would make it impossible to ignore the things he had no right to know.

Since it was impractical to explain that to Teyla, John just nodded. "I'll think about it," he said.

**

John managed not to spend the day thinking by doing all the random odds-and-ends things that he never had time for when he was allowed to do the part of his job that was actually cool. He spent nearly two hours with Lorne going over training rosters, reviewing 'gate team assignments, and brainstorming how to get as many of the scientists at least nominally field tested in the safest way possible. He spent another hour and a half, at least, simultaneously horrified and impressed with Havildar Cheema's ability to contingency plan disaster scenarios ranging from: Special Protocol 31-C Catastrophic Flooding - Stargate Inoperable to Special Protocol 41-X-D Commanding Officer Possessed - Command Overrides Rescinded.

 

He genuinely couldn't decide whether he was glad he never had time for a detailed review of all of the contingency plans she sent him (to date, there were forty-two), or whether he ought to make time, because rather a lot of them seemed vaguely threatening to him specifically. For example, Special Protocol 19-R: Violation of Quarantine Measures - Neutralize with Extreme Prejudice.

The first time John had met Cheema, he'd thought she was hot. Smart and Hot. It wasn't a thought he'd had in conjunction with her since the first of the Special Protocols had crossed his desk.

Well, he still thought she was smart.

Eventually the horrified fascination at his Head of Security's paranoid streak wore off, so he headed down to the labs to work on initializing the gigantic pile of low-priority Ancient tech. Rodney wasn't there, which made the whole thing a hell of a lot more peaceful than John was used to, but it took enough concentration and mental intent to stave off any undesirable strolls down memory lane.

And it needed doing. It was one of those things that inevitably got back-burnered in favor of saving the galaxy or procuring trade partners or rescuing SGA-5 for the third time in less than a month, so there was an unnervingly huge quantity of it to initialize. It was all at least tentatively identified as non-dangerous via exhaustive database inquiries, but judged to be not likely to be necessary to the day-to-day functioning of the base.

It turned out to be mostly gadgets that were fairly specific in purpose, like the blue-green wand-looking thing that projected any fairly simple thing John could visualize, which he figured was the Ancient version of a laser-pointer-cum-slide-projector, and the small, silver-white globe that parroted back anything he said to it in several languages (some that John recognized, some that he didn't), which was maybe part translator, part digital voice recorder. Some of it was useful, and most of it was interesting, but he'd made it halfway through the two-dozen carefully packed cases without finding anything he'd term vital, so apparently whoever was sorting this stuff (Rodney, most likely) was doing a pretty good job of it.

The coolest thing by far was something that looked like a fancy version of a View-Master, which showed him images of various parts of the city when he looked into the eyepieces. It took him a few minutes to figure this out, because the first few times he looked, all he saw were dark, empty rooms, maybe because he wasn't thinking of any place in particular. It wasn't until he was getting a little bored, and thought he'd head over to the 'gate room just to see what was going on -- and found himself watching Chuck surreptitiously playing with his iPod behind the console -- that the purpose of the device became clear. Or what the device did became clear, anyhow, because even once they figured out what something did, it was often impossible to figure out what the hell the Ancients had needed it for. Though this one was maybe a little clearer than most. He played with it for a little while, and then had Zelenka look through it to see if someone without the gene could use it once it had been initialized. It turned out that he couldn't, which put Zelenka in a snit.

John figured the whole session would be worth it if he got to watch Rodney's malicious glee at being able to use the toy when Zelenka couldn't. As mean as it was, watching Rodney gloat tended to be a lot of fun. It was the gloating thing that made him remember the idea he'd had about how to find out what the naquadah tablet on Kurn said, mostly because he didn't get the chance to have an idea that good before Rodney that often, and he figured it deserved some gloating.

Considering when he'd come up with the idea, it shouldn't have surprised him when it triggered a corresponding chunk of memory, but it did.

Later, he would think that maybe it happened like it did because he'd been working his ass off all day to avoid remembering. Whatever the cause, it wasn't the easy, sinking feeling from that morning, and it wasn't the abruptly helpless falling into the memory of the night before.

This was more like being viciously bitch-slapped with memory, and John heard himself let out a choking little cry of surprise, felt himself falling over (again, damnit), and then:

Rodney was visible, but only barely, just a shape John was holding at the edge of his field of vision. He hurt, it hurt and each blow was enough to startle him all over again, enough to challenge his control over his body, which wanted to jerk and flail away from the paddle. He deliberately kept his face turned mostly away from Rodney because he was using too much of his self-control just to keep still, and he was pretty sure his face was showing far more than Rodney could handle seeing. But he needed to see Rodney, too, needed the distraction it afforded, so he kept his face turned just enough that he could see Rodney without actually looking at Rodney, and he sincerely doubted whatever was on that damned tablet was worth this, though he'd dearly like to find out. The corrosion on the surface made that next to impossible without being able to clean it, however, and John had no intention of making all of this for nothing. On the other hand, the Kurnei hadn't cared about Rodney looking at it, just the touching part, and if he could just figure a way to get a look at the metal beneath the surface filth -- a molecular scanner, maybe, something tuned to the naquadah itself, might work…? But he lost the impetus to further consider the idea when Keenan's paddle landed again, flinching helplessly at how loud it was. He could hear Keenan breathing heavily with exertion; his own breathing was like an echo of that, half a second and the loud crack of the paddle behind.

It surprised him when Rodney moved, and his first reaction was a bolt of almost panicked fury, because they couldn't afford for Rodney to get squeamish now goddamnit, John couldn't afford it and wouldn't tolerate it. He was not doing this again. He turned his head to follow the movement -- a couple of deliberate steps, he realized, not just Rodney turning away, so what was Rodney doing? -- some kind of harsh demand curled and waiting on his tongue, but Rodney hadn't turned away.

No, not away, just away from John's face. The data pad he'd been clutching was hanging loosely, apparently forgotten, in one hand; in fact, all the tension in Rodney's body, that brittle stiffness that was a hallmark of Rodney when he was afraid, was also conspicuously absent. His shoulders were neither painfully stiff nor hunched and rounded. He was focused, though, watching intently, but instead of John's face, he was looking somewhere further back, and for a second John felt a little like he had at the tail end of his third date with MaryAnne Feinberg, right after she'd slapped him resoundingly across the face for sneaking a hand under her sweater. His ears were filled with a surprised, droning ringing, and Rodney McKay was undeniably staring at his ass. Not just looking, but staring, watching, even studying, maybe. He wasn't sure what to call it, but whatever it was, it was deliberate, it was filled with intent that made John's mouth go dry and his brain buzz with bright, if mostly senseless, intensity as he looked back, stared back, whatever-ed back, because, just, just the way Rodney looked, and John couldn't drag his eyes away, couldn't pretend not to be fixated by it.

Rodney was very still, but it was different, nothing like the stiffness he'd been forcing himself to maintain in spite of his obvious desire to run for the hills. This stillness didn't speak of fear and unhappiness, but rather was attentive, even rapt, as though somewhere in the course of the last few minutes things had changed in some way that John wasn't aware of. Rodney had gone from pale to deeply flushed; not the blotchy exertion-and/or-injury flush John was used to seeing on his face either. This flush looked far healthier, less like an impending stroke. It traveled all the way from the tips of his ears down until it disappeared into the open throat of his BDU shirt, where it presumably continued down across his chest. Crazily, it looked good on Rodney, it was bizarrely flattering, and not just the flush, either. His lips were parted and slick, like he'd just licked them; while John watched, his tongue snuck out and slid delicately along his lower lip and something low in John's belly clenched warmly.

What the hell, McKay? John thought, and made a concentrated effort to look away, uncomfortable and unsettled, but Rodney's eyes were huge and dark and… and ravenous, and John couldn't look away. He was suddenly monstrously overheated, and not just his burning ass and his heated face. It was as though all the kinetic energy he was denying his tense and straining body was trying to escape through every pore of his skin simultaneously, and the twisting heat in his belly curled and spiked into something that was nearly pleasure.

John didn't get off on pain; he'd had the odd experience with it, since he was nothing if not adventurous with a willing partner, and it had never done it for him. He'd never been a fan of exhibitionism, either, and he didn't think that was it. In spite of some pretty crushing embarrassment and a side of surprise and confusion, he was hard. And he still couldn't look away from Rodney's face, from the look on Rodney's face, the focus there, which was bizarrely familiar considering the situation. Except it didn't really look like anything John had ever seen before. Never in his life had someone directed a look like that at him, and the experience was bewilderingly yet undeniably mesmerizing. Rodney's eyes were a little narrowed with the strength of his attention, looking at John like he looked at equations or schematics, as though he were bending all of his considerable mental capacity toward solving for x, remembering, knowing everything about what he was looking at. John knew well enough what want looked like; he'd just never seen it look like that, never seen it on Rodney like that. He was looking back so hard that he wasn't even thinking about self-control, so when the next blow fell (killing his hard-on and reaffirming John's certainty that he wasn't a closet masochist), he cried out with it, a choked shout of objection that devolved quickly into a hoarse gasp.

It was enough, apparently, to break Rodney's concentration on John's ass. He flinched, a full-body recoil, and clutched his data pad to his belly. His head snapped around and his eyes met John's. For a long, weighty moment, his eyes were dark, the pupils blown, and he was looking at John with blatant desire. John blinked, off-balance and uncertain, which was unpleasantly unfamiliar in regards to Rodney; he had never had to guess at how to react to Rodney. Nobody did; he was an open book. Then Rodney blinked and his eyes went wide and shocked. His mouth went tight and crooked, and the flush leached out of his face all at once, leaving him looking pale and bleak. He blinked and for a few seconds he looked bewildered and unhappy, as though he wasn't sure what had just happened. John watched as something flickered in his eyes, knowledge and self-loathing pushing the confusion back. Then he closed his eyes and swayed on his feet, strain appearing like malevolent magic around his mouth and eyes, and the flush returned, shame this time, so different that John couldn't imagine ever confusing the two, and he lifted a shaking hand toward John, palm out, an unmistakable gesture of self-defense.

John came to himself with a grunt, and blinked up at the ceiling of the lab before Zelenka appeared above him, hovering and wispy-haired and obviously worried.

"Colonel?" he asked, and poked John in the arm.

"Rodney," John said, and Zelenka's eyes went wide behind the lenses of his glasses.

"Oh dear," Zelenka said. "No, no, no, I am Radek! Rodney is taller and more insulting!"

John's lips twitched into a smirk in spite of his aching head and dry mouth. "I know who you are, Zelenka. I mean, has anybody seen McKay at all today?"

Because at some point while he'd been out, John had realized a couple of things that he really should have already known.

The first thing was that he hadn't seen Rodney all day, and that just never happened. Rodney hadn't been on duty, but that had never stopped him from being in the lab before, and it wasn't like Elizabeth had confined them to their quarters. The second thing was that Rodney had delivered the eilisi and eilisum samples to Carson sometime in the early morning, a time of day that Rodney never encountered consciously if he could help it. Those few times that Rodney was up with the dawn were invariably times when Rodney was merely meeting it from the other direction, usually because he was deeply in the grips of science, or had just escaped from said grips and was on his way to bed.

All of which meant…

Fuck, John had no idea what it meant. It meant that Rodney holing up in his quarters wasn't even remotely surprising. And the fact that John hadn't even consciously noticed that Rodney was MIA probably meant that he had known that, somewhere in that place that John tended to avoid. He'd known it had been embarrassing, God, he was there, and he'd known that Rodney wouldn't want him to have seen the things John had seen on his face. He'd like to think that was one of the reasons he hadn't let himself think about it since then, but realistically, John didn't really want to know those things either. He had no idea how to deal with that look on Rodney's face, with the memory of having had it directed at him. That understanding had no place to go in John's head. It couldn't be consigned to any of the normal categories that comprised his interaction with other people, not even people he actually had slept with at some point, people that had looked at him with recognizable want, because that look, what he'd seen...

He didn't know what the hell to do with that.

But that aside, neither he nor Zelenka had seen or heard from Rodney all day, and that wasn't just passing irregular. That was downright bizarre. What if something was wrong? What if Rodney had had some kind of reaction to the eilisi?

He shook his head and twisted around to get one hand beneath him, grabbed Zelenka's shoulder with the other, and hauled himself upright, ignoring the dull throb of his ass, which he'd clearly landed on again. "Help me up," he huffed, unnecessarily, because Zelenka was already hauling John to his feet with both hands.

John wobbled a little bit, but remained standing.

"I could radio the infirmary," Zelenka suggested, waving one hand a little wildly, but the look on his face said clearly that he wasn't hopeful.

"No, I'm good. Thanks, though."

Zelenka muttered something in Czech as John left the lab.

**

Rodney answered his door by yelling, "Fuck off, please." If by answering you meant didn't answer at all, and just yelled abusive things from the other side in an oddly polite way.

John rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet for a few seconds, considering. He could get in if he wanted to, of course, and not by 'sweet-talking' the city, as Rodney often accused him of doing. He could get in because he'd been working elbow to elbow with Rodney for a couple of years now, and he'd seen Rodney jack a dozen Ancient doors in that time. He was even pretty sure he could manage a door on a Hive ship by now.

But he'd never heard Rodney use the word "fuck" before, and that deserved a moment of consideration. John used it, of course, and Lorne was occasionally known to belt out the f-word in tense situations. Ronon had taken to it like a duck to water. John had even heard Elizabeth use it one time.

But Rodney was strictly soft-core as far as swearing went. In Rodney vernacular, on the upper end of the cursing scale there was a three-way tie between "bastard," "asshole," and "son of a bitch." All of which John had had tossed in his direction at one time or another, come to think of it, though none of them very often. John thought maybe it was a Canadian thing.

And, strictly speaking, just having Rodney answer him was enough to satisfy John's primary purpose for showing up at Rodney's door. He was clearly okay, and no further interaction was really necessary, right? He was conscious and aware, not trapped in memory and helpless to respond, or possibly concussed from having fallen over during a flashback, so John could just keep on walking.

Except that there were degrees of okay, and using the word "fuck" out loud might be an indicator of a fairly low degree of okay coming from Rodney. And, actually, Rodney didn't sound okay. Granted, three words was a fairly small data pool, but that in itself was a fairly strong indicator from Rodney. And for a guy that continually hovered obsessively just a hair shy of hypochondria, Rodney had occasionally shown a disturbing tendency to push his body past what was healthy or even sane, and yeah, those times were usually prefaced by the knowledge of certain death, but still.

And the truth was, John was worried. And slightly freaked out, although that kind of went without saying. The point was, he got why Rodney might not be asking for help even if he needed it right now. The whole thing, from start to finish, made John's scalp prickle with uncomfortable, enforced intimacy, and the more he remembered -- or the more completely he remembered, maybe -- the worse it got. He'd really like nothing better than to hole up in his own quarters and not come out until he'd figured out how to feel normal again.

But Rodney was his team, damnit. Even if this wasn't John's fault -- and he wasn't quite able to believe that it wasn't -- it was still his responsibility.

John shook his head and sighed. To hell with it.

"Let me in, McKay," he said, just loud enough to be sure Rodney could hear him on the other side of the door. After a full minute of nothing but silence, John added, "I'm coming in." Just in case Rodney was naked.

He didn't actually make any attempt to open the door, just waited another handful of seconds, and sure enough the door opened.

Rodney was sitting in the middle of his bed with two laptops and a data pad arranged on the desk, which he'd pulled over close to the bed. He wasn't actually using any of them. Instead, he had a spiral notebook balanced on his bent knees. There were three others, all open, scattered at the foot of the bed.

Rodney looked like crap. His face was drawn and pale, and he was sporting at least a day's growth of stubble. There were dark circles under his eyes, which had a hollow look to them, a look that John recognized from one of Rodney's not infrequent marathon sessions in the lab, most often induced by a pressing need to save all their lives.

Rodney observed him warily as John crossed over to the foot of the bed and peered at one of the notebooks upside-down. He'd expected equations, but instead it was just a long string of numbers, line after line of them, broken occasionally by a semicolon. The notebook was on the last page, and John flipped back a page, then two, then several at once, frowning at the filled pages. It was filled that way all the way to the first page. When John flipped it closed, he saw that a large number "1" had been written on the cover and circled. He flipped through the second notebook, backward again. It was filled with equations, cover to cover. Familiar equations.

The third notebook was also equations, about half full.

He looked a question at Rodney, who was regarding him with less wariness now, one brow arched in what would have probably been amusement if Rodney hadn't looked quite so much like shit on toast. Rodney flipped it closed and tipped it so that John could see the cover, which had "2" circled on the front. John flipped one of the notebooks of equations right side-up and skimmed the first couple of pages.

"So, have you proven it yet?" John asked, since he had to start the conversation somewhere.

Rodney blinked at him. "Proven what?" he asked mildly, though he had that sly look that he got when he was attempting to force John to prove him right.

Usually John liked to bait Rodney ruthlessly when he got that look, but Rodney'd had a hard couple of days. He gave it up without a fight, and without a second thought, drawling, "C'mon, Rodney, don't be like that. If you've proven that the Euler-Mascheroni Constant is actually transcendental and/or irrational, you have a responsibility to mankind to pass on your infinite knowledge!"

Rodney smirked tiredly, and something loosened in John's gut. "It hasn't even been twenty-four hours, Colonel. Even I need longer than that to prove the 'unapproachable.'"

John sighed theatrically. "Honestly, I'd have figured you for a Feigenbaum kind of guy, anyway." He stacked the notebooks into a pile and set them on the edge of the desk, and invited himself to sit down, curling one leg up under him to keep as much weight off his ass as he could.

Rodney's eyebrows climbed up toward his hairline. "And you'd be right, normally, but not if I'm doing it on paper. You do realize it took a supercomputer ages to calculate Feigenbaum's to only 300 decimal places, right?"

John shrugged one shoulder. "Yeah, but I'd put money on your giant brain over a supercomputer any time." Rodney smirked again, and John smirked back. "You ever wish you actually had a piece of paper as big as the universe?" he asked, grinning; Rodney snorted as if to say of course he'd never thought something so ridiculous and impossible, but he was still grinning, a happy, surprised kind of grin, which made something loosen between John's shoulder blades. For the first time since the thing, John started to feel almost okay.

"So, I had this idea," John said, because Rodney was prickly and difficult on his best day, which John was pretty sure this was not, and if he merely launched into the sleep and food lecture portion of the visit Rodney would balk like a three-year-old confronted with naptime. Rodney's brows arched in question, and he sat forward, putting the notebook in his hands on top of the stack John had put on the desk.

"Amaze me," he invited wryly, and he still looked tired, still looked like shit on toast, but John could read the incremental slide toward relaxation in Rodney's body language.

John smirked in satisfaction. "Okay, think about Carson's medical scanner."

Rodney did, eyes going a little distant; he was the only person John had ever met that either could or would do that without knowing the why behind it. He could practically see Rodney composing a list in his head, ticking off all the things he knew about the scanner. "Okay," Rodney said, a hint of impatience coloring his voice.

"Now think about a smaller version of it, hand held, preferably."

Rodney frowned, brows drawing together, but it was his problem-solving frown rather than his 'we're all going to die' frown, which was good. "And what am I doing with this hypothetical scanner?" Rodney wanted to know.

"Well, assuming it works the way I hope it will, you're configuring it to ignore everything but naquadah and creating an image of the tablet on PX8-994, which you can then digitally display without the corrosion factoring into it."

Rodney's mouth dropped open. John pretended the heady rush of pleasure and triumph that reaction triggered was not absolutely ridiculous, but he could feel the grin stretching his lips. Rodney's gaze went sharp on John's face after only a couple of seconds of surprise, and he scowled at John's grin, but it was more habit than anything.

"You, yes, hmm," he said, and turned to the laptop closest to him and began tapping away at it. "The right idea, but the wrong equipment," he told John absently, eyes narrowed as he scanned the screen in front of him. "The medical scanner is specific to organic material." John didn't respond, since it wasn't really a question. It was just what Rodney did when he was thinking. "But, yes, yes, here it is." He slid the laptop around so that the screen was pointing at John, and John leaned forward to look at the image it was displaying. "I can't believe I didn't think of it, it's exactly what you want; it's a diagnostic tool, something to detect stress fractures or impurities in certain heavy metals, but we haven't got to the technical level needed to require the device on anything but an experimental basis since it doesn't work on anything we brought with us from Earth, not even uranium." He gave John a crooked grin. "Even if naquadah isn't one of the current metals in its database, it shouldn't take much to write it in."

John gave him a long look. "We brought uranium from Earth?" He found the idea faintly scandalous, though he wasn't sure why, since they'd also brought nuclear reactors from Earth, and one seemed hardly worse than the other.

"Only a little!" Rodney said.

John snorted, and held out a hand and wiggled his fingers.

Rodney gave him a narrow look. "What?"

"You know what," John said, and smirked when Rodney scowled.

"I don't know how you heard about the incentive program, Colonel, but it's intended for members of the Science Team, not random Colonels who very occasionally happen upon ideas that aren't totally stupid."

"Rodney," John wheedled, and Rodney rolled his eyes.

"I don't even have any here!" Rodney snapped. "I keep it in the lab."

John snorted his disbelief and made gimme hands at Rodney. "Candy baaaaaaar!" John demanded, a la Little Shop of Horrors. Rodney let out an oddly delicate little snort of surprised laughter, but he reached around behind his laptop and grabbed something that crinkled in his hand, tossing it at John before he could see what it was.

"Infant," Rodney huffed, but he was still smirking a little with amusement, so John was willing to call it a win.

"Milky Way," John grinned. "Score." He opened it and bit off approximately half the bar, and seriously, John fucking missed being able to run to the convenience store for chocolate any time he wanted. Even with the Daedalus making regular runs these day, chocolate was a scarce commodity. He handed the remaining half to Rodney, who didn't object to John's generosity or his cooties, though his smirk did soften slightly.

"So, I presume that at some point you'll get around to telling me why you're here?" It would've been a lot more pointed, John figured, if Rodney wasn't speaking through half a candy bar.

John considered prevaricating as he chewed, and decided against it. Even if the whole spanking thing didn't put them past the point where packaging the hard stuff was necessary, two years of nearly getting killed side by side on a weekly basis did. "You need to sleep, McKay." He gestured to the pile of empty PowerBar wrappers beside the bed. "And eat some real food."

"Yes, well," Rodney muttered, licking chocolate off the edge of his thumb while balling the empty Milky Way wrapper up in his other hand, "I'll certainly take that under advisement, Colonel."

"Uh huh," John said, and shifted a little, trying to find a more comfortable position for his bruised ass on Rodney's rock-hard mattress. He braced his elbows on his knees and settled for leaning as far forward as possible. "You're just going to get so tired you'll eventually fall over anyway. Also, I don't think what you're doing is going to help, ultimately."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Rodney said flatly, and leaned to one side to drop the Milky Way wrapper on top of the pile of PowerBar wrappers.

John sighed. "I think sleep is safe enough. I didn't have any problems last night at all."

"Consider me reassured," Rodney sneered. "If that's all, you should feel free to get out." When John didn't immediately move, he added sweetly, "Unless you're planning to stay and tuck me in?"

Which was the kind of thing John normally would've answered with amused mockery, and he opened his mouth to riposte appropriately, but what he actually said was, "Rodney." Rodney went still, a slow flush painting his cheeks and forehead, which was enough to send heat rushing to John's face in answer. "Look," he said, low and urgent, "I know the whole thing was, well, freak-worthy, but do me a favor and try not to freak out anyway. It's. We can just. I mean, it's not that big a deal."

Rodney gave him a withering look that wasn't at all mediated by the fact that he was still blushing scarlet. "Oh, well that's very reassuring, Colonel, happy to know that my crushing humiliation 'isn't a big deal' to you." Rodney's tone was just as pissed off and snappy as his withering glare, but his hands were nervously mauling his sheets, and John had no idea what to say to make this okay.

"No, listen, McKay," he tried. "Nobody knows a thing that happened in there except you and me, and nobody else is going to. It's nothing either of us wanted to happen, and it doesn't change anything."

Rodney rolled his eyes, but he looked so tired it wasn't even insulting. "You're an idiot," he said wearily. "It's already changed everything. Now get out."

John frowned and tried to look determined rather than clueless.

"Sheppard," Rodney sighed, but his voice was oddly gentle. "Why don't you tell me what it is that you think you want to accomplish here so I can make it happen and you can leave me the hell alone."

John blinked, and it actually took him a few seconds to come up with a response to that. "I know you, Rodney. You're sitting in here freaking out."

But he didn't need Rodney's answering eyeroll to know that he was on shaky intellectual ground; Rodney looked tired, but he didn't actually act like he was freaking out. God knew he'd seen it often enough to recognize it by now.

"I'm not, actually. At least, not at the moment. What I'm doing is, at worst, practicing some practical avoidance, which is a time-honored McKay tradition. Which, by the way, your presence here would be rendering rather difficult, if that were the case. At best, I'm coming to terms with the events of the last day or so. If that's the case, by the way, your presence would be just as unwelcome. But leaving that aside for the moment, hypothetically speaking, if I was sitting in here freaking out, what would I be freaking out about?"

"Uh," John said, and blinked again, because he had no idea how to put into words the things he'd been thinking about. Or remembering, at least, since he'd actually been fairly careful to do as little actual thinking on the topic as he could manage.

"Yes, precisely," Rodney agreed. He didn't actually roll his eyes this time, but John was fairly sure it was implied. "Which makes two of us doing whatever this is, the options being a) freaking out, b) avoidance, or c) coming to terms with recent events."

"I'm not freaking out," John insisted, even though he was a little, and had been for a while.

"No, of course not. Which is why you can't verbalize why you're actually here, aside from the obviously peripheral 'food and sleep' angle." Rodney gave him a long look that was equal parts tired and impatient. "Tell you what, Colonel. When you can tell me why you're doing any one of those three things in actual words, come back and bother me. In the meantime, do please feel free to get the hell out of my quarters."

And John left, because he wasn't a super-genius like Rodney, but he wasn't actually an idiot, either, and Rodney wasn't wrong.

**

Twenty feet from the door of McKay's quarters was a cross corridor that led to the mess (eventually) in one direction and to the infirmary (rather more quickly) in the other. Since he didn't really have anything better to do, John figured he'd go get his brain scanned.

He wasn't what you'd call unobservant as a rule, so he was a little irked when he caught a movement from the corner of his eye and turned to find Havildar Cheema walking beside him, looking like she'd been there for a while now and had just been waiting for John to notice her. Great. "Havildar," he said, because he felt obligated to acknowledge her in some way, and calling her Cheema outside his own head never sounded right.

"Lieutenant-Colonel," she responded briskly, but didn't offer anything else in the way of conversation. It didn't particularly surprise John, although it did reinforce his opinion that the Havildar was more than a little odd. He was familiar with this habit of hers, and more or less understood what she was doing and why, even if it was just another thing that made her pretty seriously odd. Not that he had a problem with odd. John didn't have a problem with anyone that could do their job without constant hand-holding, really, and in spite of the weird-factor (and what John considered to be a healthy dose of terror as regarded her emergency protocol reports), John had never regretted slotting her into the position after Bates had shipped back to Earth.

She wasn't Bates. Bates had been a cop, pure and simple, and as much as John had disliked him, he'd been good at it. He'd been good as head of security.

Havildar Cheema was better. If Bates was a cop, Cheema was Secret Service. She wasn't a warrior the way Teyla was, but she didn't need to be. She was coolly intelligent, ruthlessly pragmatic, and eerily effective.

Truthfully, John was kind of glad she hadn't been in charge of security when he had been turned into a bug.

"Hey, if I turned into a bug, would you shoot me?" he asked, mostly just for something to say.

She didn't smile, but it still sort of sounded like she was smiling when she replied, "Of course, sir. Special Protocol 9-I: De-Evolution or Counter-Evolution of Command Staff."

John didn't remember reading that one. Still, he totally believed her. "You're a really comforting person, Havildar, have I mentioned that?"

"I don't believe so, sir," she said.

John snorted. She stopped in front of the infirmary when John did, wordlessly waiting for him to either tell her they had a problem, or tell her nothing at all. By now she had either read his mission report and this was her way of checking in with him. She almost never asked him any questions when she put herself in his path like this. She just assumed that if there was something she needed to know, he'd tell her. It was unsettling as hell only because she was right; he just didn't get how she knew she was right, considering the fact that they'd only ever had one conversation of any appreciable length.

"I'm not possessed or otherwise mentally incapacitated," he said.

"Wonderful," she said, though the word was so inflectionless she could have just as easily said Platypus and it would have sounded equally sincere.

"This is my stop," John drawled, waving a casual hand at the infirmary door. "That'll be all, Havildar."

"Yes, sir," she agreed, and spun smartly on one heel, heading back the way they'd come at a brisk clip.

John watched her go for a few seconds, wondering more or less idly what she had made of what had happened on Kurn. The thing that he found weirdest about Cheema was that he was pretty sure she wasn't speculating on it at all.

He shook the feeling off and steeled himself to let Carson play Doctor with his brain.

Carson excitedly pointed out that John's temporal lobe and frontal cortex were beginning to show elevated activity in isolated areas, which probably meant that the eilisi genuinely, somehow forcibly wired a specific time period into semantic memory, which was apparently "absolutely fascinating" if you were Carson.

The image on the monitor now showed three brighter white-yellow spots against a field of various shades of blue.

John's brain looked like it was coming down with chicken pox. Or possibly acne.

**

About halfway through what John was willing to admit was probably a fairly sullen ramble in the general direction of his quarters (if one was willing to allow that 'in the general direction of' was a very broad qualifier), John's stomach let him know that he hadn't eaten since his ridiculously early lunch and it wasn't all that happy about it. The mess hall seemed so very very far, but the alternative was dining on whatever he could find in his quarters, and since he didn't tend to stock up on things like Rodney did, it was likely to be either very old, very stale PowerBars, or MREs -- Vegetable Manicotte or the dreaded Sloppy Joe. He zagged left instead of right at the next intersection, and came at the mess hall from a slightly odd direction, which might have been the reason that Rodney didn't seem to notice him as he breezed past the doorway John was standing in. That was probably why, John told himself, noting that Rodney had showered and changed into slightly less disreputable looking clothing. He still looked like hammered ass, but at least it was a slightly more presentable version of hammered ass.

He couldn't actually say he was surprised to see Rodney. Statistically speaking, it was totally in line with the way his luck was running. He sighed and grabbed a tray, not really looking forward to the moment when Rodney realized John was standing just behind him, but resigned anyway, since it was beneath him to turn around and head back to his quarters to see if he could dig out a Sloppy Joe MRE, even if he kind of wanted to.

"Oh my God, are you stalking me, Colonel?"

"Yes," John said, surveying the room and finding Ronon a few tables away, his usual small mountain of food piled on his tray. "Yes, McKay, obviously that's the only rational explanation of why I might be in the mess hall at dinner time," he shot over his shoulder as he edged between tables toward Ronon. He ignored Rodney sputtering behind him, or that was the plan, but there was the abrupt and discordant sound of something clattering to the ground, and before he really knew it he'd deposited his tray on the nearest table and turned back, suspecting what he'd see strongly enough that it felt like certainty.

Rodney was down, the contents of his tray strewn in a jumbled mess on the floor around him. John took three seconds to slide a hand under the back of his head, checking for bumps and bleeding; there was no need to check for vitals, as Rodney's eyes were wide open, as though in surprise, and his breathing was clearly audible. "Sheppard," he said, clearly enough that for the second time John thought that Rodney was aware, but then hard on the heels of that, he gasped, "Ah, Jesus God," and closed his eyes.

The slow, rich flush that suffused his face was familiar, utterly so, and John blinked, head swimming a little. Distantly, he wondered again if he talked when this happened (and if so, what had he said in the lab, earlier, with Zelenka looking on).

More immediately, he could hear people babbling around him, Ronon barking McKay's name, and himself muttering, "Damnit, Rodney." From the blush alone he could guess what was going on in Rodney's gigantic brain, and the mess hall seemed like a pretty crappy place to do it.

"Oh," Rodney whispered, low and breathy and disturbingly sexual, "Oh, oh god," and Jesus, the talking just added another level of humiliation to spanking flashbacks in the mess hall; he had to get Rodney the hell out of here. "God, so--" Rodney gasped out, and John slapped a hand over Rodney's mouth, because he did not want to know how that sentence ended. He jerked it back almost immediately, but too late to pretend that he hadn't felt the delicate, barely-there brush of Rodney's tongue against the spot where his middle finger joined his palm. John's skin prickled with awareness of the way Rodney smelled, sweat and lack of sleep and sex, and he could feel himself hardening in his BDUs.

He turned to find Ronon, but before he got that far his gaze snagged unexpectedly on Rodney's crotch, at the very visible erection pressing against the fly of Rodney's pants, and he blinked and thought, oh, and then a bizarre erection montage was flickering through his brain: Rodney dropping to his knees to struggle with John's boots, erection causing the front of his BDUs to bind in a way that John was intimately familiar with so that Rodney bit out a little gasp as he folded down (and Jesus Christ, how had he not seen that the first time?), Rodney staring at Keenan's paddle connecting with John's ass, wet mouth, hot eyes, cock straining at the front of his BDUs, Rodney flushed with shame, eyes closed, hands fumbling his data pad down to hide his groin, and each memory was like a photograph, if a photograph had not only sight, but depth and sound and scent and texture, if you could inadvertently fall into a photograph.

Ronon's legs abruptly appeared in front of John, and he dropped into a crouch at Rodney's side; for a second, John could clearly see Ronon's face, the concern as he reached for Rodney, but John was still only half-present, still trapped in a weird halfway state. He blinked against the feeling, thinking help me get him out of here. But it was Conan behind his eyes, stepping toward McKay, and he was filled with that same and brittle ire, possessive and indignant, and he struck out without thought, the heel of his palm slamming into Conan's solar plexus with the whole force of his body behind it, hard enough that something in John's shoulder blazed with a bright twist of pain.

Which was what snapped him out of it. He was starting to think fondly of the days when he just fell over.

Ronon flew backward and landed on his ass, skidding a foot or two, a feat John never would have managed had Ronon not been crouched like he had been and taken by surprise, and which would have been absolutely hilarious under any other circumstances. Ronon's gaze was fixed on John measuringly, though he looked neither angry nor surprised.

"Shit, Ronon," John said by way of apology, but Ronon merely shifted up to his knees and then knee-walked gracefully back to McKay's side. John glanced around, and there were a good ten or twelve people looking on now. John found himself leaning awkwardly over Rodney's midsection, blocking the obvious tent there from everyone's sight (he hoped), though from where he was kneeling, Ronon wouldn't be able to miss it. The position made his shoulder throb dully, which seemed to awaken the abused muscles of his bruised ass, and John was abruptly pissed and tired and miserable in general.

"Christ," Rodney choked out, but a glance at his face made it clear that he was still in absentia.

"I'll explain later; help me get him out of here," John hissed at Ronon, who merely nodded, eyes flicking from John's face to Rodney's. He leaned in and shoved his arms under Rodney's knees and shoulders, and John leaned back barely in time to avoid getting Rodney's hard-on shoved into his face. He scrambled to his feet at least ten times more awkwardly than Ronon, which was horrendously unfair, considering that John wasn't picking up a grown man, and hadn't just got punched in the solar plexus, and noted that Ronon had managed to angle Rodney in his arms in such a way that his crotch was tipped toward Ronon's chest and not easily visible to anyone. It occurred to him that real friendship was being willing to conceal your sorta-unconscious friend's inappropriate erection by pressing it up against your own chest.

They were outside Rodney's quarters within sixty seconds and without running into anyone else, for which John was absurdly grateful. Ronon might have been the only person in Atlantis who wouldn't insist on a trip straight to Carson, which John was beyond certain was the last thing Rodney would want when he came out of it. John didn't even think about rigging the door the hard way (though he could, if he wanted to, thank you very much); he used his powers for evil, thinking Emergency, and Open up rightthefuck now, and Atlantis opened Rodney's door for him with barely a hesitation.

Ronon lowered Rodney carefully onto his unmade bed, and Rodney whined, "Colonel," low and tight, sounding almost like an objection, if porn flicks featured objections; for the rest of his life, John would never be able to hear Rodney use his rank without hearing that, and damn. Rodney was right after all. It changed everything.

Christ Jesus, John thought, and raked a hand through his hair, trying to figure out what the hell to do next. He could feel Ronon looking at him, and made himself meet Ronon's gaze. His face was hot, but he refused to look away; the situation was weird enough already without acknowledging that it was actually far and away weirder than it seemed even at first glance. "It's the tea," John said harshly. "The memory tea from Kurn. The memories come like... like flashbacks." John paused, wondering if Ronon even knew what he meant by flashbacks, but Ronon was nodding, because he'd been a runner for seven years, so of course he knew. Flashbacks were probably universal. "I didn't mean to... You were someone else, in my head." Ronon raised an eyebrow, lips curling a little. John snorted, because yeah, that had sounded weird. "Look, if you want you can twenty-questions me later," John offered, though Ronon hadn't actually asked a single question. "But I think it'd be better if you aren't here when Rodney comes back. He..." But he let the explanation die because there was no good way to explain it.

Ronon just looked at him, head cocked slightly. "But you don't think he'll care if you're here?" he rumbled.

John sighed. "Oh, he will, but." He shrugged one shoulder. "I'm not leaving him alone."

"Okay," Ronon agreed and left without another word.

From mess hall collapse to the door sliding shut behind Ronon was less than two minutes, and it wasn't anywhere near enough time to come up with any kind of solution to what was turning into a fairly big problem.

At least Rodney had shut the hell up.

But as soon as John realized Rodney had stopped making noise, he was abruptly paranoid, wondering if maybe Carson would have been the right place to take Rodney after all, and never mind Rodney's embarrassment. He propped a knee on the bed beside Rodney and leaned over, but didn't touch him. He didn't have to. Rodney was still visibly breathing, and it felt weird and wrong to touch him when he was like this, so John hovered uncertainly instead (which Rodney certainly would have mocked had he been in any shape to do so). Rodney's eyes were half-open, heavy-lidded; John could barely see the glitter of blue behind his lashes. "Rodney?" he asked, hand hovering just above Rodney's shoulder, half-wanting to give him a little shake. He wasn't sure exactly how out of it Rodney really was.

He was almost sure that it got worse, more overwhelming or more encompassing or something, if you resisted, and Rodney had most likely been deliberately and determinedly not giving in since he'd left John's quarters last night. God, almost twenty hours ago, and after only ten hours of avoidance, it had hit John like a sledgehammer. He wondered how long he'd been out. He should've asked Zelenka, damnit. "Rodney?" A little louder this time, and Rodney shifted, breath hitching a little in his throat, and made a soft, distressed sound that made John feel weirdly frantic, five seconds from screaming for Carson over his headset. "Hey buddy, come on, McKay. Talk to me."

"Colonel Sheppard," Elizabeth said abruptly in his ear, and John jerked in surprise.

"Crap," he said, because he didn't have to guess at what she wanted; news of Rodney falling over unconscious in the mess was certain to have traveled fast. He tapped his ear-piece and answered, "This is Sheppard."

"John, I just heard there was an incident in the cafeteria?" Elizabeth's tone was cool and professional, and more tellingly, the question was unusually vague, which just confirmed how few people knew about what had happened on Kurn, and how much Elizabeth wanted to keep it that way. Not that John didn't agree completely.

He hesitated a moment, and then went with, "Yeah, McKay had a reaction. It's nothing to worry about."

There was a brief moment of silence, and Elizabeth said, "Not to something he was served here, I hope?"

"No, something he had off-world, but it's nothing serious. It wasn't entirely unexpected."

"All right," she said, and John made a mental note to go talk to Elizabeth fairly soon, just for the sake of reassurance. "As long as he's fine."

"Yeah," John lied, eyeballing Rodney and wondering how long he was willing to wait before he called Carson. "He's good. If anything changes, I'll let you know."

"Do that," Elizabeth agreed, and the soft hiss of an open mic clicked into silence.

John frowned down at Rodney's flushed face; his eyelids were fluttering a little. "I really hope this isn't one of those times that you prove me wrong just to be contrary," he said. Rodney didn't actually answer, but did make a soft distressed sound, followed three or four seconds later by a throaty, desperate moan. John swallowed and tried not to think about what might be drawing that particular sound out of Rodney's throat; he kept his hand off of Rodney's shoulder and kept his voice calm and gentle, but John was quietly freaking out, Jesus, surely he'd been out too long by now. "Rodney, goddamnit, if you don't answer me I'm calling Carson," John snarled finally, and his hovering hand settled on Rodney's shoulder of its own accord, feeling the line of Rodney's collarbone against the heel of his palm with something that was like both relief and disquiet at once. He gave in to the urge to shake him sharply enough that Rodney's head snapped forward, and Rodney hissed, an unmistakable sound of discomfort that was reassuringly related to something happening someplace other than in Rodney's head.

"Don't," Rodney said hoarsely, eyes narrow but alert as he glared at John. Rodney's hand clamped hard around John's right wrist. "I'm good, I'm fine." Then, "God, my head." He shut his eyes, but the hand on John's wrist tightened until John could feel the little bones in his wrist scraping against each other. "What the hell happened?" John bit his lip to keep back what was either a semi-hysterical laugh or a furious, McKay-esque rant about Rodney's absolute stupidity.

"Easy, McKay," John muttered instead, twisting his forearm in Rodney's grip until Rodney got the hint and eased his grip. But he couldn't quite stop his gaze from skittering down McKay's body just long enough to note that the inappropriate erection was still present and accounted for. "You passed out from manly flashbacks."

Rodney squinted furiously up at him for a few seconds, and John tried out a smile, because, hey, he'd made a joke, right, which was perfectly normal, but he was still prickling with adrenaline and fright, and he really doubted he pulled it off. The lights in the room dimmed by themselves, and Rodney's glare slid up to the ceiling while John tried to pretend he hadn't just done that without even really meaning to, a helpless reaction to Rodney's squinting. The reprieve from the glare proved to be short-lived; Rodney focused on him again a second later, and, God, he looked like crap, exhausted and unhappy, and just like utter crap. "Christ, McKay, just let it happen!" John growled, and raked a hand through his hair, shifting on the edge of Rodney's bed just enough so that his thigh wasn't pressed up against Rodney's hip. "It's got to be better than letting it bitchslap you around like this!"

"No," Rodney said, short and sharp enough that John shut his mouth, feeling an unexpectedly bright flash of anger. "Spare me whatever comforting drivel you're about to attempt to pander in my general direction, Colonel," Rodney muttered, eyes flickering away from John's face, his lips a bitter curve. He blinked at his hand, still curled around John's wrist, and let go abruptly, frown deepening. "I'm not interested in an intervention, as I believe I've already made abundantly clear. Just get out."

"If you don't let it happen, it just builds up, like a static charge," John said, forcing his voice to stay calm and measured, even though he kind of wanted to scream and wave his hands around just to see if maybe that was what it took to get Rodney to listen. He blew off Rodney's furious sneer, continuing full speed ahead, before Rodney could belittle the analogy. "If you just let it..."

"Are you simple?" Rodney interrupted impatiently and sat up, though the motion lacked Rodney's normal whirlwind effect since he had to struggle upright and was wincing fairly obviously. "Are you deaf? I don't want your advice, Sheppard. It's none of your business how I deal with anything. Get. Out. Now."

"Damnit, will you just listen," John shouted, finally losing his grip on his temper completely and grabbed Rodney by both shoulders to shake the shit out of him. Maybe it was the memory of how Rodney had looked for the last few minutes, more helpless than John had ever seen him, even when he'd been unconscious and bleeding, or maybe it was just the last twenty-four hours catching up with him, but for about ten seconds John genuinely wanted to plant his fist in Rodney's face. From the look on Rodney's face, wide-eyed and shocked, mouth slightly open, Rodney knew it, too. They were both breathing hard and John's fingertips were sunk deeply into the dense flesh of Rodney's shoulders. His eyes were still dark with whatever he'd been remembering.

He wasn't making any effort to pull away from John's hands, though, and John didn't let go. They stared at each other for a handful of long seconds during which John wasn't conscious of having a single lucid thought.

Rodney licked his lips.

Deliberately, carefully, John forced his hands to let Rodney go, fisting them at his sides. "What the hell, Rodney?" he finally asked, a question that had been circling in John's head for the last day at least. It came out sounding a lot more bewildered than John had expected it to, and he was aware that he didn't even know what the hell he meant by it. "What...? Why?" But he didn't know what he meant by that, either.

Rodney closed his mouth, swallowing visibly, and turned his face away.

John's anger drained away as he looked at the tense line of Rodney's jaw, and he just felt tired and wired and a little sick to his stomach. "Okay," he said. "Okay, then."

**

John was many things, but hypocritical wasn't usually one of them.

When he got back to his own quarters, no longer even remotely hungry, he sat down on the edge of his bed and took off his boots. He felt edgy, unsettled almost to the point of being anxious, which wasn't something he had a lot of helpful experience at handling. He was far better at edgy and angry or edgy and determined. This was... the whole thing was just so far outside his realm of experience that he wasn't even ready to guess at what he should be doing about it. If anything.

McKay was a genius, after all. It was pretty likely that he'd work things out without John's apparently intrusive and unwanted assistance.

He grimaced, still aggravated, and did the only thing he knew he could do. If he could figure out the mechanics, the exact formula necessary to slot the memories into place solidly enough that he wasn't tripping all over the damn things given even the slightest parallel stimuli, maybe Rodney would listen. And even if he wouldn't, well, John needed to do it anyway, if only so that he didn't spend the next few days randomly horizontal.

He lay down on his bed and just let the memories come, all of them, just let them swallow him.

There was a lot to see, and John watched it all. He didn't know how long he was lost in it, and he didn't register the slide into sleep; he dreamed of surfing and of the way McKay smelled.

He woke in exactly the same position, flat on his back and on top of the covers, itching and anxious, vaguely hungry, distantly needing to pee. He wasn't surprised when he slipped into memory again, and he didn't fight it. By the time he'd gone through it all again, it was pretty clear that there was always something he hadn't seen before, something that he hadn't been able to devote his attention to. Not when it had been actually happening, not even when he'd gone through it again. It made him wonder -- not quite idly -- if every interaction he'd ever had in his entire life had been completely one-dimensional up to this point.

He knew that he kept his relationships superficial. Most people were just not worth the work of letting things go deeper. He wasn't so different from McKay in that respect; Rodney did it by insulting, belittling and ignoring all but a handful of people that he didn't consider to be a complete waste of time. John did it by deflection, by smiling and projecting an air of obliviousness and lack of concern, but it was the same result. He had his own handful of people he gave a shit about. It wasn't a big deal, mostly, and he was content with keeping things easy. But, still. It was unnerving to think that there was so much more, that it was possible that he might be missing that much of what was going on pretty much all the time.

On a slightly less depressing note, he was pretty sure he could function like this. It might be a day or two before the inadvertent strolls down memory lane stopped entirely, and he could be sure he'd react to what was actually going on as quickly as he needed to without having to fight against the tide of memory that seemingly random things triggered, but he was pretty sure he wouldn't be falling down again any time soon. Or hitting people mostly accidentally.

He was totally sure that if he didn't take a piss soon, he'd be lying in a pool of his own urine.

He felt surprisingly good when he rolled out of bed, physically speaking. For someone who'd been lying in one position for the last twelve hours or so, and who'd recently had his ass whacked with a paddle the size of West Virginia, of course.

He pissed for what felt like ten minutes, showered without incident, and called Teyla while he was getting dressed to see if she was free for their usual morning workout.

She beamed at him when he entered the gym.

"Hey, thanks, Teyla," he said, letting her guide him into a forehead brush. "Sorry for the short notice."

"Do not concern yourself," she said, and flipped both of John's sticks at him with the end of one of hers. He caught one, and had to chase the other. "I was pleased to hear from you. I take it you are feeling less distracted?"

"I think so. I thought this would be a good way to find out." He whirled one of the fighting sticks experimentally; it was comfortably familiar in his hand.

She gave him a knowing look. "And you have recovered physically?"

John shifted uncomfortably. "I'm bruised and sore," he admitted. "Probably not up for more than a couple of rounds today."

She nodded, accepting his assessment without question; he liked that about Teyla. Then she ruined it all by giving him a tiny, fond smile, and asked, "Shall I go easy on you?" apparently not above teasing him.

John rolled one shoulder. "Just don't hit me if I fall over and just lay there," he grinned.

"Agreed," she said, and came at him with both sticks whirling in a fashion that John was pretty confident did not fall under the "taking it easy" category, and for long minutes it was all movement and breathing, the sharp crack of their sticks coming together and the smooth pull of muscle, mostly comfortable, though his ass and thighs still ached dully. He expected to do a hell of a lot worse than he did, to be more distracted than he was, but if anything the physical exertion honed his attention, focused it on Teyla and the way she moved, gorgeous threat, and his own reactions to her movements. After a few minutes, he was comfortable enough to try for more than just keeping her from braining him.

Teyla laughed, as she always did when John chose to go on the offensive, a bright sound of pleasure. He was better at defense -- which he blamed on having done a hell of a lot more practicing on that end, as Teyla was the best hand-to-hand fighter he'd ever seen -- but offense was more fun. He managed two fairly good hits, and cracked the back of her hand once, which made her snarl, before she sidestepped neatly, executed a slithering, sideways slide that John was nowhere near nimble enough to emulate, and swept his ankles from behind, sending him down on his ass. He landed with a jolt of pain that rivaled the actual discipline itself.

He shouted, less from pain and more from surprise, and the room went soft-focus around him. He had the presence of mind to let go of his sticks, knowing Teyla would get it, but otherwise just lay there, caught.

"Shit!" he said, surprised to hear it come out of his mouth, grateful it had been that instead of a yelp. He resettled his hands around the wood of the crossbar, holding tight, but he couldn't stop his arms from flexing and jerking, and the wood creaked and groaned from the pressure of his hands. He was still looking at Rodney and Rodney was still looking back, though he'd lost the almost haughty impatience he'd been projecting when he'd said, "Get on with it." Rodney's eyes were absolutely enormous, his face slack with surprise and dismay. Apparently John hadn't been the only one that hadn't really given much thought to how it would sound in here, the acoustics of the room maybe, but the sound was almost as huge as the pain. Rodney's hand twitched toward him, and John saw his mouth shape his name, and for a moment it looked like he was going to take a step forward, his whole body yearning in John's direction, though he didn't move his feet.

John knew that look, understood it in the basest sense; he knew what it was like to watch someone hurt, to have no way to help except by acting as a witness. He recognized it, and for a moment, between blows, he was proud of Rodney. He had changed, Atlantis had changed him. Atlantis had changed all of them, of course, but none of them as much as McKay. None of them so obviously as Rodney. Honestly, he was grateful for the distraction. "Surprised me," John told him, which was as much comfort as he could manage at the moment, and then the next blow landed, and John locked his jaw. When Rodney's mouth dipped down at one corner, he let himself look away because he couldn't reasonably expect to withstand the shockingly bright pain and Rodney looking at him like that at the same time.

"John?" Teyla asked, and he felt her hand curl around his forearm gently. He pushed the memory away, and it went fairly easily. Teyla looked concerned, but not really worried.

"I'm here," he said. "I'm okay." Though actually his ass hurt like hell. "How long was it?"

Teyla cocked her head, brows drawing together for just an instant, and then relaxing. "Ah. It was but a moment. Perhaps two seconds?" She gave him a long look. "That was a distraction?"

John huffed out a laugh. "Yeah, a memory." He accepted the hand she offered, and let her help drag him to his feet. "But, I think it's getting better."

Teyla straightened and rolled her shoulders, transferring the stick in her left hand so that she was holding them both in her right. "It would seem so," she agreed, but she was frowning a little again. "I believe Doctor Weir was correct in her decision to keep you and Rodney on Atlantis until this has passed, however. Off-world, such distractions could be dangerous."

John nodded, and bent to pick up his sticks, wincing a little as he bent. "Yeah, I'd already figured that out. But that was way better than yesterday in the lab, so by tomorrow or the next day I'll probably be right as rain."

Teyla smiled. "And Rodney? Is he becoming less distracted?"

John didn't know what to say to that, and wasn't willing to lie, so he shrugged. "I want to shower and grab some breakfast pretty soon, but I'm good for another round if you are."

She merely grinned and whirled a stick over the back of her hand.

**

He hadn't actually showered or had breakfast, but oddly enough, he still felt better about nearly everything that had been making him nuts for the last two days. There was a certain amount of perspective to be had in having Teyla hand him his ass three or four times running. It didn't actually change anything, but it was enough to settle him down some, give him some much needed distance. He'd never managed to pick up the knack for meditation. Actually, that wasn't entirely true. He'd never managed to pick up a taste for mediation, which was another kettle of fish entirely. Stick-fighting with Teyla and running with Ronon were his versions of meditation. It worked for him, and didn't make him feel slightly crazed the way actual meditation always did.

He'd also had his brain scanned again. There were now four hotspots, which had made Carson hmm and mutter and flip through a gigantic textbook (which, honestly, someone should tell him was not at all reassuring to see) and then blather at John for twenty-five minutes about the way his frontal lobe, temporal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala were all doing something completely medically opaque (to John, anyway), and no, it wouldn't hurt him, and yes, it was probably what the tea was meant to do, and if John didn't care about the advancement of humanity's understanding of the brain then run along and let him work.

Definitely brain acne, John decided. It was far too emo to be anything else.

He was on his way back to his quarters to tackle the showering part, not really thinking about much of anything, when he found himself standing outside McKay's quarters. He wasn't exactly surprised. McKay's quarters weren't that far from his, off the same corridor, and while he hadn't planned on checking in on him, it had crossed his mind. It wasn't the best idea ever; McKay had made it plain that he didn't want to see John, and John wasn't generally a person who inflicted himself on others when it was clear he wasn't welcome.

And the truth was, he was still pissed off at Rodney. His tolerance for Rodney was fairly high, at least comparatively speaking, but he was just about fed up with this whole situation. It wasn't that he didn't get it; not even close. He got it far more clearly than he wanted it. And as long as Rodney wasn't dealing, John was stuck here, right in this weird mental halfway-state, working hard not to think about all the things he knew, to ignore them so that someday soon, hopefully, he'd be able to look at Rodney and see a friend, a coworker, a teammate. He needed to be able to let go of this if they were ever going to get past it, work around it, whatever it was they had to do so that every time John looked at or thought about Rodney, the first thing that came to mind wasn't that look on Rodney's face. And he couldn't do that unless McKay did the same. He was just about out of patience with Rodney being stubborn as shit, and so goddamned self-involved that he couldn't see that this wasn't just about him dealing.

But even still pissed off, he was worried about Rodney. And if he didn't check on McKay, he'd spend the whole day continuing to worry about him. He knocked before he could talk himself out of it.

He was surprised when the door slid open.

McKay was kneeling on the floor at the foot of his bed. There were bits and pieces of tech scattered around him in a semi-circle; John could see a few crystals, a lot of wires, some blue-white metal pieces in various shapes and sizes, and something that looked a lot like one of the naquadah lamps they'd seen on Kurn, though smaller and sleeker in appearance. Also a little more octopus-like, due to the sheer number of wires running out of it, most of them ending in small boxes that looked to be made out of single sheets of blue-white metal with bits of black and red plastic soldered to them. He was wearing a welding mask and holding a lit blowtorch.

"Oh, it's you," he said, and turned back to what he was doing without another word.

"You're using a blowtorch in your quarters," John said, and really, it boggled the mind that this guy was a goddamned genius.

McKay didn't stop, hands guiding the blue flame of the torch through a smallish sheet of metal, cutting it precisely in two. He thumbed the knob that shut the blowtorch down, setting it to one side. He flipped the welding mask up so he could bring the pieces of metal up close to his face, fingertips smoothing over the edges carefully. "Hmm," he said, and put the pieces down beside the blowtorch. "You didn't see Zelenka coming this way, did you?" But he didn't wait for John to answer before bending down to the lamp and using a tiny screwdriver to flip open the base. He fiddled with something inside for the space of at least a minute, and then shut it again. Then he pressed a button and the new-and-improved naquadah lamp glowed like a tiny sun. John could feel the heat of it from across the room, and looking directly at it was out of the question. McKay absently flipped down the visor of his mask. Several of the little boxes attached to the lamp beeped, and John could see a tiny blue dot of light on the faces of the ones that were pointed in his general direction.

"Blowtorch. In your room," John said, even though the blowtorch seemed a little inconsequential as compared to what seemed to be a tiny, unshielded naquadah generator posing as a lamp.

"Yes, thank you, I hadn't noticed that, Colonel. Your powers of observation thrill and amaze. Go away now, I'm busy." McKay pressed the button on the base of the lamp-generator and it went dark again. He flipped the visor up and bent nearly double again to re-open the base of the lamp.

There was an instant of disorientation, the perception of motion that he knew wasn't physical (but wasn't anywhere near the kind of vertigo-inducing slide that it had been every other time it had happened unexpectedly), and he was looking at Rodney from another angle entirely, one hip propped against the table that Rodney was bending over, looking at the mess of wires connecting the Kurnei lamp to his data pad. Rodney gave him a nervous, sideways glance and licked his lips, then looked down again, hands waving in a way that encompassed the lamp, the wires, and the data pad. "By, ah, killing all the data pad's other functions, and also siphoning residual power off of a lamp -- they aren't using these things to anywhere near their potential, by the way, just one of them could easily power enough lights of this size to light most of the village with the right conduits in place -- well, I managed to boost the sensors about thirty-eight percent." Rodney's cheeks were still dully flushed, and his eyes skittered restlessly, gaze settling on nothing for more than a second or two, not settling on John at all. Rodney's hands were the same, fluttering rather than the more customary flailingly-broad gestures, and yeah, now that he had the chance to really watch and pay attention, they were pretty recognizable signs of Rodney in distress. And it wasn't that he hadn't known that at the time, either; it was more that he hadn't known what to do about it, not while he was still dealing with his own fairly large helping of distress.

At the same time, he could see Rodney kneeling on the floor, fingertips briskly sorting through a jumble of crystals that he was only looking at in quick, precise glances, most of his attention still focused on the open base of the lamp. He made a small sound of satisfaction as he apparently found what he was looking for, and then one hand went sliding through the mess of wires in the same way until he located one of the familiar short lengths of wires with clamps on either end, which Rodney used in repair work and to marry Ancient tech to Earth tech. He clamped one end to the crystal without looking at it, and then brought the other end to the base of the lamp, moving aside a dozen or so wires with the screwdriver. He attached the clamp to something inside the lamp, and then thumbed the button on with one hand while flipping down his visor again with the hand still holding the screwdriver. John squinted against the glow, tilting his face to the side when that wasn't enough to keep his eyes from watering against the light, which was now bright enough to white out everything in the room, heat pressing against the side of his face.

The memory was unsettling, what with the weird double-exposure thing, but it wasn't debilitating, and there was no confusion about what was real.

Good enough, then.

A moment later the lamp went dark again, and John blinked against the more normal Atlantis lighting, which now looked dim in comparison. McKay flipped his visor up and rubbed at his face, which was now a little red, probably from the heat, though John could only see his face in profile so he couldn't be sure. "Shielding, shielding," McKay muttered, and reached for the blowtorch again.

John crossed the room in three steps and hunkered down, putting a hand over Rodney's to stop him from turning on the blowtorch. "Have you slept?" he asked, and braced himself for the inevitable explosion the question would provoke.

Rodney just looked at John's hand on his and blinked for a couple of seconds. Then he tugged his hand away, though instead of thumbing the blowtorch on and going back to what he was doing, he set it carefully aside. "Please don't touch me," he said, voice lacking any kind of inflection whatsoever. John frowned and pulled back a little, angling his body and ducking his head so he could see Rodney's face.

Rodney pulled back in response, and waved a hand at John, eyes fixed somewhere to the left of where John was crouched. "Just. Just." He rubbed at his face with one hand and pulled the welding mask off his head with the other, setting it down just as carefully. Rodney's hair stood up in an improbably comic fashion. "Look, you're not helping, Colonel. I know you're... concerned, and your hero-complex is urging you to fix this, to save me or whatever--" he waved his hand again, this time wildly enough that John had to lean away to avoid getting poked in the eye, but Rodney didn't notice, as his other hand was covering his eyes, thumb and middle finger pressed into either temple firmly enough that the skin around them was pale and bloodless, "--but you're really not helping."

"Then tell me what to do to help, Rodney," John grated out, still pissed off, yeah, but sincere. "To really help, I mean, not just leave you alone to wallow in this like it's... some kind of fucked-up penance." Which startled Rodney enough that he dropped his hand away from his face, staring at John with wide eyes. John scowled at the expression, and resisted the urge to shake Rodney like he'd done yesterday, for the pure, visceral satisfaction of it. Even without being eilisi-assisted, the memory of his fingertips sunk into Rodney's shoulders, the look on Rodney's face, was very clear in John's mind. "Have you called me stupid so often that you believe your own bullshit, McKay?" he growled. "I was there, I know you're trying to figure out how to deal with what happened, and I have to tell you that from this direction, I'm not the one who's not helping."

"You, you," Rodney said, face open and shocked for two seconds before it shifted into more familiar lines of irritation, though it was heavily laced with frustration. "The fact that you were present doesn't mean you know what I'm dealing with, Colonel," and there went the hand-waving. "The fact is, we have two very different perspectives on, on." He blinked, mouth softening into a crooked line for a moment, and John recognized the look on his face.

"Damnit, McKay," he sighed, and stiffened two fingers and jabbed them (fairly gently) into Rodney's throat right below his Adam's apple. Rodney's made a choked, alarmed noise, but his eyes lost the thousand-yard-stare. He coughed, one hand going up to cradle his throat, and gave John a look that said quite clearly: I hate you, you utter Neanderthal. John's lips curled in helpless response to such a familiar expression on Rodney's face, and Rodney scowled and wheezed at him.

"Oh yes," Rodney spat, voice still a little choked. "Assault me, that's very mature; why would I not be simply ecstatic that you're here to help!" The tone was right, but there was no hand-waving at all, and Rodney's shoulders were hunched, his eyes once again obviously avoiding John's face.

John sighed again and shifted himself on one hand and the balls of his feet until he was sitting beside Rodney instead of crouching in front of him, so Rodney didn't have to work so hard at not looking at him. His bruised ass throbbed dully in protest, and John ignored it. Neither of them said anything for a maybe a minute. John could feel the heat of Rodney's shoulder an inch or two away from his own shoulder, and fought the urge to put more space between them. He glanced sideways at Rodney, and saw that he'd picked up one of the Ancient crystals and was turning it over and over in his hands, his gaze fixed on it. He was swaying a little where he sat, and even in profile John could see how drawn and pale his face was, and the way his eyelids looked almost bruised purple with exhaustion. "You're driving me bugshit, here," John said conversationally.

Rodney snorted, the side of his mouth hooking upward for a moment. "Yeah, you have no idea what you're talking about. You don't even know bugshit." He looked sideways at John, still not meeting his gaze, but at least looking in his general direction. "I'm not exaggerating the different perspective thing, you know, Colonel." He blinked, and directed his gaze downward at John's shoulder, and John only realized after he'd looked away that he'd been staring at John's mouth. Something tightened and curled in John's belly, and yeah. He really did get the different perspective thing, not that Rodney was likely to believe him. "Jesus, I'm exhausted," Rodney said, and John's lips twitched because he sounded surprised, and that was just so Rodney. Then Rodney's shoulder was pressed against his, and John had an instant to try and decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing before Rodney added wistfully, "And couldn't you have showered before you showed up for the daily intervention?"

He turned to look at Rodney, something sarcastic and normal skating lightly along his tongue, already anticipating the relief of hearing Rodney snort and jibe back in kind, but Rodney's face was tipped toward John, Rodney's cheek a half-inch from resting on his shoulder, so close that the tip of his nose was almost touching the sleeve of John's t-shirt. Just breathing, soft and relaxed, and John had been seeing the lines of tired tension in Rodney's face, yeah, but he hadn't really registered how deeply they'd etched themselves.

John breathed out once, slowly, keeping his body still while his mind raced, and opened his mouth to say something ("Hanging in there, McKay?" and "If you'll just sleep, I'll give you my Jell-O for a month," and "Carson says your brain processes better than mine," all tangling up in this throat). He was too aware of the way Rodney smelled, sweat and lack of sleep and the underlying scent of fear, which was becoming almost familiar, but was muted now, like Rodney couldn't put the same kind of effort into anxiety that he'd been able to exert just yesterday.

"God, you smell..." Rodney said thickly, and not even a Herculean effort at denial was enough to let John think Rodney was insulting him.

John's mouth snapped shut and he jerked away from Rodney, startling at the feel of fingertips skating along the bare skin of his forearm as he pulled away. He was as surprised as Rodney appeared to be when his fingers curled around Rodney's wrist, palm against the too-hot skin of the underside.

"Don't touch me," Rodney said, but he didn't actually pull away.

"Rodney?" he asked hoarsely, and Rodney's eyes, focused on John's hand, slid closed for a long moment. When he opened again, he met John's gaze with a look that was simultaneously desperate and uncertain. He twisted his wrist out of John's hand and curled both hands together in his lap.

"Listen, Colonel," he said, his voice a little raspy, but still clipped and precise. "In this one instance, I'll stipulate your lack of abject stupidity, if you'd be kind enough to stipulate the same in regards to me. Just... believe me when I tell you that your presence is not helpful. I can't, I can't even think, you, you're... everywhere, and it's too much to... process when it's so--" He shook his head, mouth straight and grim, no crooked little downturn or upturn, circling one hand broadly in a typical Rodney gesture of formless frustration. "Just."

"Yeah, I get it," John snapped, temper flaring hot, and he didn't even bother trying to rein it in this time. He stood up so quickly that both knees popped and rolled both shoulders in a way that he knew didn't look remotely like his usual careless shrug. "Get out, don't help, forget how shitty you look, don't bother being fucking concerned, ignore that I'm the only person in Atlantis that's dealing with the same shit; I get it, McKay. I'm leaving." Which he immediately turned to do, because it was a lot less satisfying than he'd expected to see Rodney looking up at him, shocked and strained, eyes like burned holes in his face. He paused at the door without looking back, and added quietly, "But I hope you've thought about what we're going to do if we need you, and you're still like this. If you aren't going to deal, we can go back to Kurn any time you're ready and get rid of at least part of the problem."

"Sheppard," Rodney said, quiet and laden with weariness, but John was too pissed off to let it move him beyond a brief tightening at the corners of his mouth, no matter how uncharacteristically meek it had sounded.

The door closed soundlessly behind him, and John headed away, out, as far away from other people as he could get and still remain in the city.

**

John still hadn't showered or eaten. He ran instead, since he needed to do something to clear his head, and he was already dressed for it.

What he really wanted to do was take a Puddle Jumper and just go, just fly, graze the blue-purple line of the atmosphere, slip seamlessly into space and be really and truly alone for a while. But that was obviously out of the question, so he ran.

Sometime after he'd been running a while, Ronon fell into step beside him, apparently alerted to John's unscheduled exercise by the ever-efficient Atlantis grapevine. He'd been running long enough not to have the wind for anything but a grunt of greeting, but he gave that much without much hesitation. Ronon's presence was hardly ever intrusive, even when John wanted to be alone. Ronon was one of those people who could be alone in other people's company, and the reverse was equally true.

John had been succeeding fairly well at running and nothing else, no thinking or brooding, no remembering, clearing his head, which was just what he'd been wanting, but something about Ronon's counter-point strides -- both longer and louder than John's, what with his mass -- somehow stimulated John's brain in unwanted ways, which was just par for the goddamned course, this week, and somehow he was thinking about Rodney. Again, because, damnit, he had tried, he did try, to keep the whole fucking mess at arm's length in his mind, but he'd never really stopped thinking about it since it had happened. It was just there, lurking in the shadowy corners, waiting for John to trip over it inconveniently, and he couldn't even blame that on the eilisi.

Because this wasn't the inexorable drag of chemically enhanced super-memories; this was just his fucking brain, circling Rodney's face, then, yeah, but also that night in John's quarters, the scent of fear and the hunched misery (and, God, could he have been any more of an asshole, fucking bulldozing over Rodney when he'd come to apologize for what was clearly, at least in retrospect, a big problem for Rodney), the day after in Rodney's quarters, the wary way Rodney had watched him until John had distracted him with math and Ancient gizmos.

An hour ago, pale and pinched and manic with lack of sleep (a blowtorch, Christ help them), what amounted to pleading with John (in that unique Rodney way) to leave him alone...

When it's sowhat? John wondered, and then there was the fleeting, tickling warmth of Rodney's fingertips skating along the sensitive skin of his inner arm, what the hell was that, anyway, and John was apparently paying too much attention to what was going on in his head and not enough to what his feet were doing, because he stumbled hard, arms windmilling crazily for two long seconds, and probably would have fallen -- and the catwalk was a very unforgiving surface to fall on -- if Ronon didn't have near-superhuman reflexes. John would probably have bruises on his arm right above his elbow, but Ronon managed to keep him upright by the simple expedient of dragging John forward with him until his equilibrium reestablished itself. They staggered to a stop in tandem, both of them breathing hard.

"Thanks," he panted, and wow, he was spectacularly out of breath, and had no idea how he hadn't realized it before. He bent forward and braced both hands on the railing, abruptly aware of the burn of his thighs, calves, and lower back, and the sharp-cool prickle of sweat drying on his skin for the second time today (third, if you counted panic-sweat in McKay's quarters). His skin felt sticky, as though coated with a thin layer of icing, like donut glaze. Gross.

Ronon tipped his head in acceptance, and watched John with a blatant interest that John suspected he'd never get used to. He wasn't sure if it was a part of Satedan culture, this complete unselfconscious watching thing that Ronon did, or if seven years as a runner was just long enough to make anyone forget about awkwardness, and shed certain niceties as unneeded, like a snake shedding dead skin. Then Ronon said, "Too much, too soon," neither a statement nor a question, and John recognized it as Ronon letting him save face, just in case such face-saving was necessary.

"Maybe," John said, accepting the excuse provisionally, since he wasn't sure if he needed it or not at the moment. He wasn't sure what the hell he needed right now, frankly.

Ronon accepted that, too. McKay would laugh if he ever found out that John thought of Ronon as a gentle man, but John had known soldiers all his adult life, and he understood all the ways in which career soldiers often couldn't allow themselves or others to be merely human. The few that John had known that had any idea of how their own minds worked had been a lot like Ronon: solemn, but not without humor; solid, but not overbearing; private, but not exactly distant. He didn't know – couldn't know, now – what it had meant to be a soldier on Sateda, but he hoped they had mostly been like Ronon. Being a career soldier himself, he was intimately familiar with all the ways it could fuck you up (he knew, God, he knew it had fucked him up), and Ronon was a little bit like a revelation. That he could be what he was now, that he could be real and present and human after seven years of hell attested to what he had been before pretty strongly. That Ronon had been career military was obvious, and John liked to think about the possibility of a military structure that could put together a man like Ronon, who was more than just a survivor. All military structures everywhere taught you how to be that, but few of them, in John's experience, taught you how to be all the things that Ronon was.

McKay would laugh, yeah, but most of the soldiers John knew wouldn't ever have accepted Rodney in the field the way both Ronon and Teyla had, and John was just as happy that Rodney didn't know that.

"How's McKay?" Ronon asked, tactfully changing the subject. He was standing still and loose next to John, close enough that John could feel him there, but far enough away not to crowd him.

John let out a short bark of almost-laughter and shook his head.

"I have no fucking idea," he admitted. "He's... well, he's McKay." Which was the best John could do right now. Ronon nodded, which struck him funny for some reason, and he laughed again. "Thanks for that, by the way. Yesterday." By which he meant more what Ronon had done for Rodney, yeah, but also for not asking difficult questions when John had been in no shape to answer them, for trusting John's judgment, for being solid.

"Sure," was all Ronon said by way of a reply, and, "You ready?"

**

John showered forever, urging the Ancient shower 'hotter' and 'harder' until it balked, and then just stood under the spray until he felt some of the knots at the base of his neck and on either side of his spine begin to untangle. His ass still ached dimly, but it wasn't bad. If he bothered to look in the mirror, the bruises would be green and purple, on their way to healing.

He didn't look. God knew he didn't need any more reminders, physical or otherwise. When he came out of the shower, absently toweling his hair dry with one hand and scratching his belly with the other, the first thing he saw was the Ancient scanner Rodney had showed him on his laptop. It was smaller than he'd expected it to be. It was sitting on the end of his bed, and John couldn't remember if it'd been there when he'd come in or not.

There was a post-it note stuck to the top of it.

He could feel himself grinning a little even before he was close enough to read what it said, recognizing Rodney's blocky, precise, all-capital printing from halfway across the room. He didn't even bother to pretend it wasn't relief he was feeling, or that he was unaware that it was Rodney, once again, who'd made an effort to repair what it had taken both of them to fuck up. If Rodney was leaving Ancient gadgets in his quarters, they were okay; John had no problem recognizing a peace offering when he saw one.

Sheppard, the note said. I've configured your little toy. If you have time, I recommend you test it out on one of the Mark IIs. Think fractals.

John's grin widened until he could feel his cheeks straining, and he tossed the towel aside in favor of tearing his quarters apart in search of clean pants.

**

John spent more than an hour with the closest naquadah generator.

Fractals didn't begin to really describe what naquadah mid-fusion looked like, and John was feeling decidedly warm and fuzzy toward McKay right at the moment. Rodney always gave John the absolute best toys. John might've stayed a hell of a lot longer if Elizabeth hadn't interrupted.

"Colonel Sheppard, can you report to--" John could hear someone in the background giving a location, and Elizabeth repeated it. "--level six, subsection eight?" John knew her well enough to hear in her voice that they weren't currently under the threat of impending death, and that she was excited about something. John still found himself taken by surprise at finding himself under the command of someone like Elizabeth, someone who was so free with what she felt about whatever was going on, the exact opposite of pretty much every other C.O. John had ever had.

Regretfully, John thought the scanner off and tapped his headset. "I'm on my way," he said. "What have we got?"

But it was Zelenka who answered that, not Elizabeth. "There are no words," Zelenka enthused, and John could hear the beaming smile in his voice. "Bring your beautiful, beautiful gene with you!"

Elizabeth laughed. Over the open comm.

Even for Elizabeth, that was weird.

Stockpile of drones? John wondered. Ancient ferris wheel?

"I'll meet you there," she said, and John could hear the smile in her voice as well. She sounded so pleased and full of just-under-the-surface laughter -- the kind of thing that was pretty rare these days -- that John made a command decision not to call her on it. He'd find out soon enough, anyway, though he did pick up the pace a little. Apparently whatever had got into Elizabeth and Radek was highly communicable via radio waves, because John was grinning with anticipation.

"Why don't you use McKay's beautiful, beautiful gene?" John asked, because anything that had Zelenka crooning over John's DNA with giddy delight was absolutely something Rodney had to be involved in, and John couldn't resist tweaking him a little (which he was allowed to do now that things were okay again, under the unspoken rules of Ancient-gizmo-peace-offerings).

He expected something caustic and witty from Rodney in response, but there was only a second or two of dead air, and then Zelenka insisting that only John's gene would do, but doing so without any sly, dry insults that would make Rodney squawk with indignation, which John took to mean that Rodney wasn't with him. Which was weird, but might have meant that McKay was finally getting some sleep, so John only allowed himself to be a little disappointed. New and exciting discoveries weren't as much fun without McKay, but he really needed the sleep.

John knew where he was going – they'd gridded Atlantis within days of arriving, and John had memorized the grid so he could find his way quickly anywhere, even if he'd never been there – but it still took a while to get there. Level six was actually only one floor below water level, and thus not one of the floors affected by flooding, but subsection eight was entirely unexplored, a gray area on the grid. Early on – sometime in the first year, though John couldn't remember exactly when – McKay had compiled all the data from the explored subsections and crammed it into an algorithm meant to predict what they would find in any given subsection based on location, room size and configuration, and, of all things, plumbing. By John's calculations based on data gathered after the compilation of the original formula, the algorithm was about sixty-six percent likely to correctly determine what unexplored subsections were likely to yield useful discoveries. And, of course, every newly explored subsection increased the accuracy by a little less than point nine percent, as new data was added. Rodney bitched about it pretty much incessantly, but John actually thought the accuracy was pretty damned good when one factored in the mathematical probability-approaching-certainty that the Ancients were fucking batshit-insane.

Rooms were oddly shaped and/or arranged, living quarters were neatly divided into little subdivisions in some places, and liberally sprinkled at random in others, labs were the size of airplane hangars, and also tiny cubbies equipped with built-in toilets. Sixty-six percent was pretty good, with the insanity factor taken into account.

However, as Rodney liked to point out, sixty-six percent was barely average statistically speaking, and even grading on a generous curve, was probably only going to get you a C minus at best.

So John really shouldn't have been surprised when he skidded past a couple of marines and at least five people in science uniforms, halting outside the doorway of a tiny, wedge-shaped room that had the feel of a glorified closet and saw a control chair sitting incongruously between a plain, almost empty table and a dead tree in a pot. Zelenka and Elizabeth grinned identical grins at him – John really hoped they were enjoying the open-mouthed surprise, since that was clearly what they'd been going for – for about 7/10ths of a second before their grins were turned back to the chair.

John blinked at it and closed his mouth.

The table caught his eye, and for a second he couldn't figure out what he was even looking at, why he was staring at the table instead of the powerful Ancient technology, and then he realized that there was an empty glass sitting on the edge of the table within arm's length of the control chair that he couldn't quite look away from. It was the first time he'd seen anything like it here, a sign that the people had left in a fair amount of hurry. Because they hadn't left in a hurry, not really, or not relatively speaking, anyway. Not with three fully charged ZPMs and shields at full strength. They'd had plenty of time to close up shop, to take everything they had wanted or needed along with them. They'd closed Atlantis down like a seasonal resort, everything they were leaving behind tucked carefully away in its place, furniture --or consoles, anyway -- sheet-draped and put to sleep, lights turned down low.

In more than two and a half years, John hadn't come across a single thing that had been left out like this, like someone had just got themselves a drink and neglected to tidy up afterward. Like... like it was something somebody did every day, and they'd just left it, thinking they'd get it tomorrow. It wasn't that it was a sign of hurried departure that made it bug him; it was that it was a sign that someone had lived here at all.

It was weird, and weirdly significant. It weirded John out so much that he didn't even mention it when he forced himself to look away, even though Zelenka and Elizabeth had both just watched him stare at it for half-a-minute. Instead, he said, "Why would they need a second chair?" even though he himself could think of two good reasons right off the top of his head, and half a dozen more if he was willing to stretch plausibility to varying degrees.

"We don't know," Elizabeth said, sounding a lot like she didn't really care, either. She was still grinning.

"Redundancy, perhaps," Zelenka said, naming the first of John's two good reasons, spreading his hands in a gentle, fanning 'who knows' gesture that was pretty much the diametric opposite of what Rodney's gestures would have been in the same situation.

John took a good, long look at the chair and came to two conclusions: 1) this control chair looked a little different than the others John had come into contact with so far; and 2) Rodney was going to be pissed as hell when he found out what they'd found without him.

The room lit up the moment John took a step inside, and the whole wall directly in front of the chair was suddenly a viewscreen, like the ones in the 'gate room, except huge. There was nothing on the display, not even a blinking cursor, but John gave himself a minute to look at it anyway, working fairly hard to shove aside thoughts of making McKay hook it up to a laptop so he could watch movies on it, and concentrate instead on why this chair had a viewscreen when none of the others had. Why would you need a viewscreen when the chair could project holographic feeds of whatever you wanted to see?

Zelenka said, "Colonel, if you would?" gesturing toward the chair, and John saw that he already had the panel off the back of it and wires running between it and his laptop. "It hasn't been initialized," Zelenka told him, following the line of John's gaze. "I can get nothing from it until it's on," and John could hear the wealth of impatience and eagerness in that last word.

Still, he hesitated. "Rodney's going to be pissed," he heard himself say. Zelenka made a dismissive gesture, but didn't deny it, and Elizabeth shook her head.

"Rodney is... off radio for a few hours. And there's really no reason to call him down until we've got some idea of why it's here at all. If it's just another control chair, a backup system, then there isn't much he can do with it that he couldn't do with the chair we've already got."

It was all true and completely reasonable, but John still balked a little. Elizabeth wasn't wrong, but Rodney would still be pissed. John knew it.

"Yeah, okay," he said, however, because Elizabeth wasn't wrong, and Rodney would get over it. "Who found it, anyway?"

Elizabeth and Zelenka exchanged an amused look, and Elizabeth said, “Actually, it was Botany. They were tracking down a reference in the Ancient database on how to regulate the temperature in the greenhouse off the hydroponics lab.” John frowned
at that, and Elizabeth arched a brow at him, smirking. “I know: Rodney will be pissed."

"No, actually. I mean, yes, he will, but I was actually wondering why a control chair has anything to do with greenhouses. So far the chairs have all been mainly defensive and tactical interfaces aside from flying the city, and even that could be considered a defensive capability. All of them, even the one in the Antarctica." He circled the chair thoughtfully.

Zelenka's mouth popped open, eyes widening behind his glasses as if to refute the observation, but then he said, "Actually, that is a very good question."

John rolled his eyes at Zelenka's surprise and wished again that Rodney was here.

"This whole set-up is pretty weird, actually," John added. He gestured to the viewscreen. "What is that for? None of the others have had their own home theater system." John walked over to the chair itself, still frowning. "And it's a little smaller than the other one, looks a little different. Look at the arms; they're curved weird. Like half-pipes. And the, the... gel-plate-thingies are usually smaller; these go all the way up the arms. When you rest your arms there, pretty much your whole arm will be in it from the elbow down." The words were barely out of John's mouth before Zelenka was bent nearly double over one arm of the chair, nose nearly touching the gel-plate-thingy in question.

Elizabeth was looking at him oddly, head cocked and mouth pursed.

"What?" he demanded, and she smiled.

"It's just. Well, two years ago you'd have been sitting down with one leg flopped over the armrest before anyone could blink, John." John stared at her for a minute, thinking, huh, because she was right. She was absolutely right, and apparently McKay's paranoia was rubbing off on him. He grinned a little and shrugged one shoulder, feeling a little self-conscious, but not like she was making fun of him. "It's okay, John. We can take this as slow as you want, if you get a... a..."

"A vibe?" John supplied with a smirk. "No, it's not that, really. It just strikes me as weird, is all."

"We could take some time before you initialize," Zekenka offered. "There must be something in the database, though I cannot think where it could be located, as we have searched exhaustively for anything having to do with control chair." But John could see Zelenka gazing longingly at the chair, and Elizabeth's perusal of it was only different in degree, which was really pretty funny, since Elizabeth was usually the number one proponent for caution above all else.

John shrugged again. "It's fine. I wasn't objecting to turning it on. I was just making an observation." And he turned and sat down before he could think of any further reasons not to.

The chair responded instantly to his touch just like every other command chair John has ever encountered, though there were some immediate differences. This one didn't recline as far as the others, leaving the viewscreen in easy line of sight. Also, as soon as John's forearms hit the gel-substance, there was a whir-chuck noise, and the odd-looking half-pipe arms of the chair rotated around his arms from underneath, leaving his hands free on the round gel-plates while encapsulating his forearms and wrists entirely. John blinked, aware of the feel of the gel surrounding his forearms, the tingling feel of which (Rodney said it was a low-grade neural interface) was different, the prickle deeper, almost an itch under the skin of John's palms and bare forearms, though that might just be because so much more of his skin was in contact with the stuff than in the other chair. The glow, too, was different; it was still blue, but it was a deeper blue, and not as bright. And there was something, some kind of low, rhythmic hum throbbing beneath his thighs and against the soles of his feet through his boots.

"I can fly the city from here, too," he heard himself say, the sound of his own voice distant and unimportant as he cautiously prodded at the interface, which didn't feel like the other chair at all, aside from the basic similarities of the mind-control factor.

"Can you tell us what else it does, Colonel?" Zelenka asked, and John could hear him tapping at his laptop.

"Just wait," John breathed, and he was struggling with the interface, was having to figure it out, because it wasn't the same, it was sharp and almost Byzantine, not the flawless, intuitive flow of the other chair, the... oh. Oh shit, the defense cathedra.

The viewscreen in front of him blazed to life suddenly, and there were specifications for the control chair, the other chair, and John couldn't read the Ancient writing, exactly, but he knew what it said, that it was all the technical detail for the defense cathedra, detail they hadn't been able to coax out of the database no matter how hard they had tried, and this was why.

"They called them cathedrae," he heard himself say. "Holy shit."

Zelenka was crowing something exultant in Czech while Elizabeth asked question after question that nobody answered.

"Colonel!" Zelenka moaned in rapture.

"I know," John agreed, and, "There are seven of them," as more schematics flashed rapidly across the viewscreen, which now made perfect sense to John, because this chair had no need for holographic displays -- though it could create them, if necessary -- because it was designed for a very specific function; it was a tool, and more practical than the defense cathedra in many ways, its purpose narrower and more refined. "Jesus, I know. This one is the city systems cathedra," and he knew why the neural interfaces surrounded his forearms all the way up to his elbow, now; delicate repair work required fine motor control, and, "There's a medical..." He brought it up on the viewscreen as fast as he could, which wasn't fast enough, fighting the interface which didn't seem to like him much, but grudgingly coughed up locations and capabilities. "We need Carson to... they're meant to work in tandem, all of them at once if necessary, they're all networked through the neural interfaces," but there was so goddamned much, and John was smart but he wasn't Rodney; this thing needed Rodney, and he knew without question that the interface, unwieldy and somehow too-angular for John's brain, would work perfectly for Rodney, would be as simple and perfect as the defense cathedra had been for John, and, oh, oh God, there was... "There's a flight cathedra, Elizabeth, a flight cathedra," and all he could think about even as he pushed more information toward the narrow bridge of cable linking the cathedra to Zelenka's laptop was that Rodney was going to love this, he was going to... he needed to... God. "I need Rodney in this chair."

"Rodney is..." Elizabeth began, but John didn't need her to finish the sentence.

Nearly as soon as he'd made deliberate mental-motions toward calling Rodney, getting him here now now now, the viewscreen brought up a blueprint of the area most of the Atlantis personnel were currently occupying, and Rodney's room was a big red block in a sea of blue-green. "Quarantined?" John heard himself ask, distantly puzzled, and then the image of Rodney's quarters zoomed in and rotated, lines of scrolling vertical text superimposed over the image, and John could see Rodney's fingerprints all over the code, metaphorically speaking; they even felt like Rodney in John's brain, brusque and precise and frenetic. "He quarantined himself?"

Even as he thought it, he could feel his brain disengaging from the cathedra, and the chair dimmed, arms rotating back underneath as it drew itself upright, taking John with it. The viewscreen flickered, but didn't power down; John guessed it was designed to hold images until directed in the event that whoever was operating the cathedra needed to show it to someone else. Or like a bookmark, maybe, something to keep tabs on the last thing the operator had been working on. Because they'd done it in shifts, hadn't they?

Yeah. Not all of them, but the city systems and the medical cathedrae, at least, had been designed to operate full time, always working, keeping up with the day-to-day maintenance and care of their respective areas of responsibility.

He turned his head and looked at Elizabeth. She looked back steadily, but the skin around her eyes went just a little bit tight.

"He quarantined himself," he repeated, and she gave him a single slow nod. Zelenka had his face buried in his laptop which wasn't uncharacteristic in the slightest, but the way he wasn't muttering was, too intent on not paying attention to really be oblivious to what was going on. John leaned forward and propped his elbows on his bent knees; the chair hummed beneath him, muted, at rest now, but on in a way that it hadn't been before. He was breathing heavily, and hyper-aware of every inch of his skin, the way he always was after he used the control chair. Defense cathedra. Whatever.

He didn't ask, but Elizabeth said, "He said he needed some time to work on overcoming the effects of the eilisi-assisted memories. Uninterrupted time." There was no disapproval in her voice, not exactly, but her tone made it clear that she knew who had been 'interrupting' Rodney.

He had the almost overwhelming urge to explain, to tell her about the thin, bruised skin under Rodney's eyes and the smell of his exhaustion, about the goddamned blowtorch.

On the screen, the red block of Rodney's quarters blinked at him. There was no question of whether he could use the cathedra to break the quarantine. Now that he understood how they worked, he could probably even use the defense cathedra to do it, though his access wouldn't be as comprehensive. There was no way McKay could have factored the cathedrae into his calculations while he'd been plotting how to avoid John.

But he wouldn't. McKay had gone to quite a bit of trouble to make sure he was left alone; more specifically, to make sure John left him alone, because a medical quarantine was maybe the only truly effective barricade against him on Atlantis, and Rodney had added his own code on top of the standard security measures of a medical quarantine. Without the cathedrae, John didn't think he would've been able to get around it. He might as well have put up a sign: Sheppard, Keep Out.

The scanner sitting on the end of his bed now seemed less like a peace offering and more like a preemptive strike, a tactical exercise in misdirection.

"I can have a preliminary report on the capabilities of the various cathedrae ready in two hours," John said. "Not heavy on the details, but the information I siphoned into Zelenka's laptop should fill in most of those." He stood up and grabbed the scanner. "One of them is underwater, but I think we can drain that section. If not, they're movable, though it won't be easy." Elizabeth looked like she was thinking of saying something that John was fairly sure he wasn't interested in hearing, so he offered, "Oh, and there's one in the 'gate room. The big one, actually, the command cathedra. The Ancients locked it down before they left; it'll do anything any of the others can do, and a few other things. It'll be in the report."

"John," Elizabeth said, and John looked at her. Her frown deepened, but she didn't say anything else.

"I'll send the report to all the command staff," John said, "but you should really get McKay in this chair as soon as you can."

"Even if Rodney can use the chair, it's unlikely he'll be as effective," Zelenka said, apologetic but determined. "His gene is simply not as strong as yours, Colonel. We will need you for further tests."

"You really won't," he said, smiling but not at all amused. "This thing isn't for me. McKay will know exactly what to do with it."

He was halfway down the corridor – and incidentally out of earshot of the lingering marines and scientists – when Elizabeth caught up with him, announcing her presence with a hand on John's elbow. He'd been expecting it, or at least considering it a possibility, so he didn't jump even though he hadn't heard her coming. She'd had that tone.

He stopped -- because really, what else could he do? -- and turned around. He put on his most attentive listening expression, and anted up with eyebrows of concern and confusion.

She responded with her best stern expression, seeing his eyebrows and raising him narrowed eyes. "Is everything all right, John?" He frowned and went with generally clueless; she countered with exasperated and worried. "I know that what happened on Kurn must have been... incredibly awkward for both of you."

"You think?" John snorted, lips quirking because the alternative was to growl, and he wasn't quite far enough gone to take his fury out on Elizabeth. "Look, it's fine. I'm fine. McKay will be fine. It'll be fine."

"I know, John," she sighed, less worried but just as exasperated, and it would be a lot easier to blow her off, John knew, if it weren't so obvious that her concern was completely genuine. "I'm not implying that it's not. But clearly Rodney needs some... time to figure this out. We shouldn't hold that against him."

"I'm not holding anything against anyone," John replied flatly, and tugged his elbow carefully out of her hand. He forced his posture into a casual slouch and gave a practiced shrug, doing his best to pretend he couldn't feel his heartbeat in his temples, and made himself drawl, "McKay's welcome to take whatever time he needs doing whatever it is he needs to do." He gestured back toward the room and the chair and gave her a bland look. "It's not like it's going anywhere." Her frown deepened, and it looked like she was thinking about pushing, so John ducked his head toward his watch for a second and added, "Hey, I've got to go. I haven't eaten today." And that was enough, as he'd known it would be.

**

The report only took a little more than half of his two hours to write, and John still hadn't eaten. He pounded it out non-stop, which he hated doing, but forced himself to do anyway just to get it done. By the time he'd finished, the sharp edge of his anger had been blunted enough for him to tell himself that he didn't give a shit if Rodney wanted to lock himself in his room and hold his breath until he turned blue, and pretty much believe it. He forwarded the report to the command staff, and only wondered briefly how long it would take McKay to find it in his inbox, and if his head would explode from a combination of vicious jealousy that he hadn't been the one to find it, and fury at John's very general explanations of what the cathedrae were and what they could do.

John was almost disappointed that he wouldn't get to see it.

Assuming that things went well on his vision quest, or whatever the hell he was calling it, John was betting on less than twenty-four hours before McKay found a way to get his ass in that chair. Which was good, a good thing, because where John had been able to fumble through the interface and get maybe most of what he was looking for, Rodney was going to make it scream like an SR-71, and Atlantis needed that. They all needed that. Nothing worked like fun new technology to motivate McKay, and John wasn't petty enough to take that personally.

Still, it was John's responsibility to make worst-case-scenario plans, so he spent a couple of hours reviewing mission schedules and swapping things around to make room for a return visit to the Kurnei, both for his team and for a team of geologists and technicians, for day after tomorrow. McKay would either be ready for off-world travel by then, or it would be time for him to stop trying to 'figure it out.' He took care to ensure that the mission could be bumped up or moved back a day in either direction without serious scheduling conflicts with any of the other off-world teams or pending missions, just in case it became urgent that Rodney get rid of the effects of the eilisi as quickly as possible. He emailed Elizabeth and Radek about getting the second team selected and ready, and indicated his desire to do the briefing personally.

He finally got to the mess long after all the hot, freshly prepared food had already been cleared away, and was stuck eating a pre-packaged sandwich and stale crackers by himself until one of the botanists showed up and joined him, full-to-bursting with bubbly excitement over the cathedrae. John looked at her and tried to remember if she'd been one of the people in science uniforms standing in the hall, or if news really traveled that fast. He couldn't tell; her face wasn't unfamiliar, but the days of knowing everyone by name on sight had passed with the first shipment of new personnel from the Daedalus. John knew his marines by sight, could give names and details and even missions they'd been on, but that was a matter of survival rather than convenience. He just didn't have time these days to keep up with the science staff.

Since he couldn't remember and was unwilling to give out any details until they'd at least had a senior staff meeting about what was going to be public knowledge and what was classified, John mostly listened and nodded and made interested noises in the right places.

He excused himself as soon as he could, and called down to have Cheema send a team to the city systems cathedra even though Zelenka was almost surely still there working on it.

She didn't sound like she'd been sleeping, in spite of the time, and she didn't seem surprised by his call, though it was kind of hard to tell with Cheema. She also didn't ask any questions. It was impossible to tell if she knew what was going on by her tone -- it was nearly always impossible to tell anything from her tone -- but John thought it was likely. Cheema always knew what was going on.

He had her secure all the cathedrae, and she asked all the right questions: namely, whether or not that included the cathedra formerly known as the control chair (which they'd never actually bothered to secure too carefully, since there were only a handful of people who had ever really been able to get it to do anything, and even then only John and Lorne were any good at it), whether senior staff should be permitted to come and go at will, and whether he wanted marines with the ATA gene kept off the roster.

John answered yes to all of them, and left it up to her to handle the details, but he made sure to pull up the report once he got back to his quarters and forwarded it along to her. The cathedrae were clearly going to fall into her purview.

Only five of the seven needed guarding currently, but even only five of them would strain Cheema's resources if the need for security went on for any length of time, and John made a mental note to meet with her and discuss whether she'd need more people.

He hated the idea of having to secure sensitive equipment from his own people, but he liked to think of himself as a fairly practical guy, and even with the limited knowledge he'd managed to glean from city systems, it was clear that someone with the gene in one of those chairs could have virtually unlimited access to everything Atlantis had.

They hadn't had to think too much about securing most of the tech. Rodney kept anything both mobile and dangerous in a locked lab, and Atlantis had failsafes. Granted, they weren't always the best failsafes in the galaxy, but they were there. And there were protocols in place to "keep the morons from initializing weapons of mass destruction." Rodney's turn of phrase, obviously. But mostly, it had been because almost everything passed through Rodney's hands before it went anywhere else, and Rodney's raging paranoia was enough to make it certain that it would be secured if necessary.

This was going to be something else entirely, however. A control chair that responded better to the aptitudes of another specific gene carrier than to John's stronger gene -- a fact that John was completely certain of even if Zelenka didn't get it yet -- meant that it was possible, even likely, that the other cathedrae would, too.

John didn't want any other gene carriers anywhere near any of cathedrae until he had a chance to figure out what each of them could do. It was as much about being unwilling to risk someone doing something stupid without having the slightest idea of the dangers as it was about someone without Atlantis's best interests at heart gaining control of one of them.

For the first time ever, he thought about what kind of research the Ancients might have done into human genetics. Maybe getting Carson into the medical cathedra was nearly as important as getting Rodney into the other one. It suddenly seemed dangerously unfortunate that only half the command staff had the ATA gene.

Zelenka was still with the cathedra when John showed up with his laptop under his arm. The two marines at the door gave John bored-looking salutes. Zelenka barely looked up when John came in, so caught up in whatever he was doing that he apparently couldn't be bothered to wonder about John transferring all of the location specifications and security protocols they'd downloaded from the cathedra directly to John's laptop at two in the morning.

It took John just under three hours of combing through the information to track down how to lock the cathedrae, linking them to specific individuals rather than to just any gene carrier. In the process of doing that, he figured out how to unlock the command cathedra, which had to be done from either city systems or communications. He emailed the file to Mckay, and then fell into bed with his clothes still on. He fell asleep thinking that Rodney could have figured out how to do it much faster, even without the information from the cathedra.

**

John's radio beeped, dragging him blurrily out of a dream in which Rodney was flying the city; it wasn't even dawn yet, so John shoved the headset under his pillow and struggled out of his boots.

It was probably McKay calling to berate him for the report on the cathedra anyway. Inexplicably lacking in anything remotely resembling actual information. Ineffectual and poorly phrased if the intended purpose was to communicate anything. Only better than the blurb on the back of a romance novel because it didn't actually provoke bleeding from the eyeballs. More useless than DVD player clock instructions. And punctuation matters, Sheppard; without it, all you have is a string of unrelated and meaningless nonsense characters.

He'd heard it all before.

If they really needed him, they'd page him on the citywide comm.

**

He woke at least four hours later, grainy-eyed and aching the kind of ache that meant he hadn't relaxed even while he'd been asleep, which totally sucked. He blinked at the wall for a few seconds, seriously considering just closing his eyes and pulling the covers up over his head, and then his radio gave a muffled chirp from under his pillow, which was probably what had woke him up. He groped under his pillow blindly for several seconds before tossing it off the side of the bed to get it out of his way. He wrestled the radio over his ear -- the damned thing was way too small to screw with on this little sleep, and he was thinking a nice hand-held for his quarters would be a totally justified requisition -- and tapped it to life, and finally managed to grate out, "Sheppard," before flopping back onto the bed, spent.

"Good morning, Colonel," Elizabeth said sweetly and without a trace of disapproval, which almost certainly meant she knew he was still in bed and was about to fuck with him mercilessly. John groaned almost silently and waited for it, because more than two years and innumerable confrontations had taught him the simple truth that he could not outmaneuver Elizabeth Weir. "I just thought I'd let you know that I'm postponing the staff meeting scheduled for this morning," she continued pleasantly.

Unspoken, but plainly audible to John, was: "Which you are late for." He scrabbled at the top of the bedside table for his watch; yep, he was late. Shit.

"Uh, okay," he said.

"Are you free in twenty minutes or so?"

Translation: "Get up, get coffee, be here or else."

"Sure, yeah, of course," John agreed, as though he had a choice.

"Good, I'll see you then." "Where I will smirk at you from across the table throughout the proceedings, and then hold you after to ask carefully casual questions about the state of your emotional well-being because I know it makes you intensely uncomfortable, which is a more or less innocent substitute for what I'd really like to do, since I can't let the rest of the expedition see me kicking you repeatedly in the shins." "Weir out."

"Shit," John muttered, and rolled over on his back to stare at the ceiling for a minute. "Fuuuuuuuck," he groaned, and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

In his defense, he decided as he dug around for clean BDUs and got dressed as quickly as was humanly possible, being medically off-duty had really messed with his schedule. And also, debilitating flashbacks should be considered as mitigating circumstances. He'd remember that in case anyone said anything to him.

He managed to make his way to the mess, still only half-awake, and was midway through wolfing down something with the consistency of paste that bore a passing resemblance to oatmeal when he realized that his ass was only softly protesting the hard plastic chair he was sitting in. He paused with his spoon stuck in a hillock of fauxt-meal to shift around experimentally, and yeah. Very minor discomfort, only barely enough to register as pain, which was probably mostly due to the fact that John's tolerance had been ramped seriously upward in the last few years. Still, enough discomfort to trigger a memory, and John noted interestedly that he knew what it felt like when it was coming, that weird almost-motion feeling, but it didn't bring about the same vertigo or even disorientation any more. He knew exactly what was happening.

He didn't jump at the first blow, not even reliving that moment of surprised amazement at how much it hurt. It was weird, immediate and somehow not at the same time; the hurt was still real, though, a visceral shock that stilled his breath in his throat, and it would never be just another memory. He got it now, maybe because it finally wasn't making him fall over, maybe because he finally could both relive it and poke at the fauxt-meal in his bowl with his spoon at the same time, but he finally got it. It would always be like this, not something that would physically hurt him, but that he would always be able to feel nevertheless. His hands slid, abruptly sweat-slick around the smooth wood, and it creaked at the force of his grip as he barked out surprised profanity, feeling the word in his throat even though his mouth was closed, feeling the smooth, cool metal of his spoon clutched in his sweaty palm at the same time.

It was bearable now, less overwhelming, even almost interesting to be able to look around him and see the familiarity of the mess with its bright, steady lighting, and also see the firelight casting shadows in the corners, turning the unpainted walls golden. To smell both woodsmoke and sweat and sausage. The sound of the blows and the white noise of people in conversation all around him. It was weird, and there was some adjustment necessary to the oddity of simultaneous feedback, but that would probably get easier, too, with time. When he started eating again it felt almost effortless, nearly normal, so he ate his breakfast and let the memory play out somewhere in his temporal cortex, because if there was one thing John had come to understand about himself since coming to Pegasus, it was that he could handle weird.

He was watching Rodney hook his data pad up to the naquadah lamp and scraping the last bit of fauxt-meal out of his bowl when he saw McKay enter the mess, making a beeline for the giant coffee pot while clutching a similarly sized travel mug. The sight of him sparked an instant of dissonance, and things shuffled around in John's head a little too abruptly, the hallucinogenic equivalent of dragging the needle across a vinyl LP. It only lasted an instant before it settled into the memory of Rodney's blunt, abrupt fingertips stabbing at the buttons of John's BDU shirt. He could smell Rodney's sweat, could see it dotting his temples and upper lip.

Across the mess, Rodney practically body-checked someone in front of the coffee pot, and John felt the side of his thumb glance lightly across the side of John's neck as his hands closed around the collar of John's shirt. Smirking over his shoulder, Rodney proceeded to transfer the contents of the pot into his travel mug, keeping his body carefully in between the pot and the chemist behind him, who was scowling and looking like he was thinking about braining Rodney with his empty regular-sized coffee cup. Rodney paused to drink his coffee down a little before topping it off with the last of the pot, and also shoved John's shirt off of his shoulders, breathing hot and quick against the side of John's neck for a moment when he leaned close.

Slow, pleasant heat curled at the base of John's spine; he couldn't honestly say which of the things he could see had caused it, and he didn't really care. It lasted about three seconds. Then John thought about Rodney, exhausted and desperate, writing sloppy, frantic code to keep John away from him, and the feeling twisted and inverted, becoming something else entirely.

Rodney turned back toward the door, smirking smugly as the outmaneuvered chemist squawked indignantly when he noticed that the coffee pot was empty. Rodney's hands busily secured the lid of his coffee cup, and his hands were fast and competent on the fly of John's BDU pants. He only took one step before he turned his head and saw John sitting there, and abruptly stopped walking.

Rodney had showered and shaved, was neatly dressed and his hair was fluffy. He was jerking John's pants down his legs, wincing and shifting uncomfortably mid-crouch as his own BDUs tightened in delicate places. It was too far to tell if Rodney had actually slept, but John guessed he had from his body language, the lessening of tension in his shoulders just since the day before. He looked so dismayed as his eyes skittered from the shirt hanging off of John's wrists by the still-buttoned cuffs, to the pants bunched on top of John's boots -- pausing in between as though surprised to see John's boxers sitting low on his hips, then jerking his eyes back up to John's face -- that John smirked just to reassure him.

John gave him a perfectly blank look.

Rodney turned, coffee cup gripped between both hands, and hurried away.

John blinked the rest of the memory away and realized he was holding his spoon halfway to his mouth, though the fauxt-meal had fallen off and plopped back into the bowl at some point.

He decided that last spoonful just wasn't worth the effort, and dumped his bowl and spoon on his way out of the mess.

**

He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the last person to arrive for the briefing. He considered mentioning that it wasn't his fault, since someone had cleaned the mess out of coffee and he'd had to wait until they brewed more to fill his modestly-sized coffee cup, but he couldn't quite bring himself to fire the opening sally in the usual round of bickering this morning. He took a seat and concentrated on his coffee and on not playing with any of the tech that he now knew was sleeping behind the walls of the briefing room. He was aware of Elizabeth throwing significant looks in his direction, but ignored it for the moment. She'd corner him later no matter how much work he put into appearing to be fine, so fuck it. He was too tired to bother.

McKay had his laptop already open, and was going to town. Zelenka, seated beside him, was half-slumped unselfconsciously against Rodney's shoulder, murmuring excitedly at whatever was on the screen. He was rumpled and wild-haired, but looked better rested than Rodney, who was still sporting purplish, bruised-looking half-crescents beneath his eyes. Still, he looked so much better than he had the last time John had seen him that he had to assume Rodney had got at least some rest, however. His hands, John noticed, weren't entirely steady on his keyboard; he wasn't sure if he'd have noticed that a week ago.

It was just John, Elizabeth, Lorne, Carson, Rodney, and Zelenka, which was smallish for a meeting about something this big. John pondered the necessity of Cheema's presence, given the security issues involved. And yes, okay, because Cheema drove McKay crazy. He considered it an 'intergalactic travesty' that someone with her mathematical skills was not only military, but a member of a military body that boasted fewer than a thousand women within its million-strong ranks.

It was fun to watch Rodney berate her for her unbelievably poor judgment, but the real fun was watching as her complete lack of reaction sent him into meltdown territory, complete with flailing arms and red face and that weird, high-pitched tone that was practically two octaves higher than his speaking voice and only came out when he was terrified or beside himself with fury.

Then again, provoking a meltdown was likely to extend what already promised to be a lengthy meeting into the territory of interminable.

John could brief her on it later, if she wasn't already monitoring it.

McKay, undoubtedly impatiently awaiting his chance at the cathedra, started the meeting off with an abrupt and acerbic, "You all received the Colonel's admirably succinct email; why don't we just go ahead and start with questions and get the abject stupidity out of the way early."

John summoned a smirk he didn't feel and added an eyebrow for good measure, but didn't say a word. He could've skipped it for all the effect it had on McKay, who didn't even look in his direction.

It went downhill from there.

Sometime between Carson wanting details on the medical cathedra that none of them actually possessed yet -- though in his defense, he looked more intrigued than terrified, most likely to everyone's relief -- and Elizabeth's inquiries about a time-frame on getting all of the currently-accessible cathedrae initialized. John realized that Rodney was quite deliberately not looking at him. John watched him throughout Rodney's response to Elizabeth, which was more or less a long, bitchy monologue that boiled down to "I don't know, but soon," just to be sure he wasn't being paranoid, and concluded that he wasn't.

John clenched his back teeth and didn't throw his pen at Rodney in a fit of pique.

Eventually it was Lorne who brought up security, addressing the question to the room in general; it was nearly an hour into the meeting, and was the first time John had been called on to speak.

He was seething again, but he schooled his voice into a slow drawl, because there was no point in advertising his fury, and because drawling drove Rodney crazy, and since Rodney had been driving John steadily out of his goddamned mind for the last three days now, it seemed only fair.

"I covered initial security with Cheema last night; there are marines at every entrance to the five cathedrae that could be reasonably accessed by the population, including the defense cathedra. The others are either unreachable or already locked down, and we can deal with them later. I also sent lock-down protocols to Doctor McKay that will allow him to key the cathedrae to certain personnel rather than leaving them open to all gene-carriers in general, if we decide to go that route. I don't have to tell anyone here that it would have a definite downside."

"Rodney?" Elizabeth asked, arching a brow at him.

"I'll be able to tell you more about the adequacy of the Colonel's protocols once I've had a chance to get down to city systems," McKay said flatly, and that was it.

"All right," Elizabeth said slowly, but she gave Rodney a long look that made John think he wasn't going to be the only one Elizabeth cornered after the meeting. If he could get out of there fast enough, John might be able to avoid Elizabeth entirely. He didn't have a single compunction about throwing Rodney to the diplomatic lions at this point. Then Elizabeth turned her level gaze on John, and he had to pretend he hadn't just been hatching an escape plan.

"The only control chairs -- cathedrae -- we've come across before yesterday were basically identical in purpose to the one we've been using here on Atlantis for the last two years." She paused, and John raised his brows at her, partly because it was what she expected, but also at least a little bit because he wasn't sure why she was pointing the question at him rather than at the dynamic duo, who were once again huddled together behind Rodney's laptop. "Why?" she finished simply.

John frowned, and it was on the tip of his tongue to tell her to ask the genius when he caught Rodney sneaking a look at him from the corner of his eye. He paused, pressing his lips together to keep from snarling, and actually turned his attention to the question.

"Because," he said slowly, the reason snapping into his brain easily, so effortlessly that he knew he must've been thinking about it on some level ever since they found the second cathedra. "Atlantis is a city, not just a ship or an outpost. A city needs more than just the ability to mount an offensive or protect itself from attack in order to function successfully. Ships and outposts have specific and limited functions. Research. Defense. Offense. Experimentation. Whatever. Atlantis' function is to cater to the needs of people. People need: communications, life support, plumbing, protection, transportation, information, healing, food, power, entertainment, a hundred other things. And they need those things all the time, way too much time for one cathedra to handle the workload in a city the size of Atlantis, with the kind of population Atlantis probably supported when it was built. And sometimes people need more than one or two or three of those things at a time, sometimes they need all of them at once." Elizabeth just blinked at him, so he went on. "The Replicators probably have multiple cathedrae, and the Atlantis-clone on MP4-447 probably did before we drained all the power out of their city, but I'm betting any other cathedrae we come across will be the same."

"If there are six more than the one we've been using, how is it even possible that we haven't found one before now?" Elizabeth wanted to know, which was an easy enough question that John was answering it before he had time to think about it.

"Location." He leaned forward, nudging at the room a little with his mind, and a viewscreen whirred down from the ceiling, smaller than the one in the city systems cathedra, but bigger than any of the ones in the control room. Zelenka murmured appreciatively. John called up a schematic of the city and inserted big red dots indicating the cathedrae.

"From the information the Colonel was able to transfer to Radek's laptop," Rodney said, scowling at the viewscreen while simultaneously picking up the explanation smoothly, "it looks like the cathedrae were all intended to back one another up. Atlantis is a hexagon consisting of a central mass surrounded by six additional protruding areas of mass."

"Looks like a snowflake," Carson said, and Rodney gave him a look that was clearly designed to melt the skin off his face; Carson merely smiled beatifically.

"Hmph. Anyway, the cathedrae are located in protected areas, one under the central area of the city, and one under each of the spokes. They're designed to back each other up in the event of the destruction of one or more cathedrae, so spreading them out makes tactical sense; all of them integrate elements of the primary functions of each of the other cathedrae. The one located under the central mass is the defense cathedra; its primary function is to control the city's battle systems, but as you all know, it can do a lot more than that. It is, incidentally, also the cathedra that can be left behind when the city engages the stardrive, leaving outposts like the one in Antarctica. Chances are fairly good that any time we find an outpost like the Antarctic one, it's someplace Atlantis has actually landed and stayed for a while."

Rodney looked so excited by that prospect that John feared he might flee the conference room immediately to start looking for outposts. Elizabeth was giving Rodney a fond look; John rolled his eyes, but nobody noticed.

"And we've never found any others because we've never looked! I mean, why would we? We can do everything we've needed to do from that one. We don't have the kind of manpower necessary to explore just to--" he waved a hand dismissively, "--explore! Well, I mean, obviously we have been exploring, but that is neither quick nor especially easy to do, seeing as city schematics and the information from the database both seem to be less than optimally helpful in determining what we're going to find. I think things got moved around," he added, and Zelenka nodded, giving Rodney a sympathetically frustrated grimace.

John made a face; nobody noticed.

At this rate, he was going to develop a fucking complex.

"I've been trying to figure out why it's so hard to track down things we can use, and aside from the fact that apparently big chunks of the database are inaccessible to us due to the prohibitions put in place when the Ancients locked down the command cathedra, which of course we didn't know at the time, it's the only explanation that makes sense. We know they were trying to Ascend, and they were mostly succeeding. And they were at war at the same time. It makes sense that their population would be steadily decreasing, probably fairly rapidly. I think they were moving certain things closer to their population center, moving other things further away, and apparently didn't see the necessity of keeping track of what they were moving where." He looked scandalized at the short-sightedness of the Ancients.

"If we can do everything from the chair we've got, why initialize the other chairs?" Lorne asked.

"Because we can't do everything," Rodney said slowly, as though he was speaking to a not-terribly-bright child. "The cathedrae can each access all the main functions of each of the others, but not all of them. Not even close." For a moment his eyes were dreamy and far away, his mouth curling upward at one corner. "The information alone, Major. Sheppard spent three minutes in the city systems cathedra yesterday, and provided us with more hard data than we've managed to compile over the last month. There are chunks of the database we can't access from any of the consoles, and the database itself is so enormous that we didn't even notice."

Lorne nodded easily, but still said, "What about the command cathedra, then? Didn't Colonel Sheppard's report say that you could do anything with that one that you could do with any of the others?"

It could do more than that, actually, but John figured it was best not to cloud the issue right now.

"The chair on MP4-447 was located in what would have been the control room here in Atlantis, wasn't it?" Rodney asked, apparently forgetting that he was ignoring John.

"Yeah," John drawled, and slouched lower in his chair. Rodney's eyes narrowed, but he still wasn't looking at John, so John waited until he'd opened his mouth to say something else before continuing, because he was a dick, and Rodney was asking for it. "I wondered how they had moved it, at the time. It's all so clear now. Thanks, Rodney." Rodney rolled his eyes at John's facetious tone, and opened his mouth again. John added, "If the Ancients hadn't locked it down, it would've been the first thing we found when we got here."

Rodney threw him a death-glare so brief it barely singed John, and snapped, "At which point you'd have initialized it within ten seconds, thereby draining the remaining power from the ZPM in about three minutes flat, and we'd have all drowned when the shields failed."

John decided not to mention time-traveling Elizabeth and the fail-safes, mostly because he wasn't sure time-traveling Elizabeth would have had time to reach the Delorian of Puddle Jumpers in order to actually time-travel and cause the fail-safes to come into existence if he had, in fact, found a control chair waiting for him in the control room.

Also, actual Elizabeth was giving him a reproving look. John gave her a look of wide-eyed innocence.

He didn't actually have time to mention it anyway, because Lorne immediately asked, "So the Ancients locked it down when they left; it makes sense, if you can access basically everything in the city from it. Do you know where it is?"

"It's under the floor," John told him. "McKay will be able to unlock it from the city systems cathedra, but for the time being it might be best just to leave it where it is. Securing the other five is enough trouble right now." Zelenka made a small sound of distress, and Rodney absently patted him on the arm. John kind of wanted to hit him just a little bit.

Lorne gave him a look that meant that he forgave John for sometimes being a little bit slow. "Actually, I was thinking we could initialize only that one. It's not like we've got a lot of people that can use the chairs anyway, right? If we only turn that one on, we've only got one to guard."

"And we also only have one to use," John pointed out, grinning, at the same time that Rodney, completely predictably, squawked,

"I hardly think the inconvenience to the marines outweighs the potentially unlimited possibilities for scientific advancement, Major!"

"And you know McKay would totally bogart the chair," John added.

"Oh, forgive me, Colonel," Rodney sneered, looking directly at John for the first time, if by looking you meant leaning forward over the edge of the table and glaring, "if I'm the only person in this galaxy with the technical experience and understanding to even begin to grasp the potential..."

"Oh for fuck's sake, learn to recognize when someone is on your side,, McKay," John interrupted furiously, and it was suddenly very quiet in the conference room, making the weird aural echoes of John's shout seem even weirder. He was aware of everyone in the room staring at him, but he was too busy glaring at Rodney to give a shit.

Rodney was staring at him as well, eyes wide and mouth slightly open, which made him look bizarrely defenseless until he cocked his chin and cut his eyes away, lips twisting in a way that made John's head start to throb, and that was just it.

John stood up, his chair scraping across the floor, and forced himself to look away from McKay. "Elizabeth," he said, a request for dismissal that neither of them even pretended was a question. She opened her mouth, and John just looked at her, flat and icy, and she pressed her lips together and gave a fractional nod.

He was almost to the door when Zelenka tentatively murmured, "Colonel, we were planning to, that is, we may need your help with the city systems..."

"I keep telling you, you won't," John said without stopping.

**

John headed toward the security office, and only realized as he was passing the infirmary that his head was killing him. He ducked inside for some aspirin or something, and the nurse on duty assumed he was there for another brain scan. She had him on the table before John even thought about protesting, and it took him forever to convince her that he was only there for some goddamned aspirin.

By the time she forked over some ibuprofen, John could have got his brain scanned twice, and was feeling uncharacteristically pissy toward her, even though she was young and cute and just doing her goddamned job. He managed to mutter something vaguely reassuring when she asked him if the meeting was almost over, as she was off duty whenever Carson returned, and got the hell out of there before he lost control of his mouth and said something Rodney-ish.

Cheema was in the security office, standing where she was always standing; she did not, John noted, look surprised to see him. He gave her a quick synopsis of the meeting -- assuming she hadn't been watching the whole thing, which was a bet John wouldn't take, though he couldn't tell at all from her face -- and double-checked that the security measures he'd requested had been put in place.

They had been, of course, because Cheema was almost scarily competent. The long look she gave him when he asked was just as neutral as her expression always was, but still somehow managed to make John feel bad for even asking. She didn't comment other than to answer John's questions and offer suggestions about how to rotate the detail, considering that half of the security team had the gene since it behooved security to be able to get around in the city.

They were discussing the likelihood of drafting a dozen or so marines from other areas and giving them a crash-course in security procedures when McKay called Doctor Kusanagi on the radio, requesting that she have the equipment he'd prepared transported to level 6, subsection 8.

Just hearing McKay's voice over the radio was enough to make John's jaw clench.

Cheema gave him a look he couldn't interpret; John responded with as much blank affability as he could muster, considering how he'd spent the last couple of hours. Judging from the way Cheema's eyebrows rose infinitesimally, it wasn't his best attempt ever. He turned back to the console she was standing in front of and asked, "Don't you have a fairly strong expression of the ATA gene, Havildar?"

There was a brief, but noticeable pause before she answered, something odd enough that John turned back to look at her. "Yes. It is the reason I was allowed to join the expedition, though it is not as strong as your own."

John nodded, but it was an empty gesture designed to buy himself a few seconds to think about the phrase 'allowed to join the expedition.'

She gave him a sideways glance that looked almost sly as she reached for one of the security consoles, deftly flicking a switch and tapping something else to bring an image up on one of the screens. The security office was a weird conglomeration of Ancient tech and Earth tech, some of it married to work together and some of it not; it had come to be in its current location by the simple expedient of already being the place to which all the security cameras naturally dumped data. Since it was central to the control room and big enough to hold the equipment, they'd never bothered to change it.

Cheema had her own office adjacent, but John had never seen her in it. In fact, since she'd become head of security, he most often saw her right where she was standing, dusky face bathed in the blue-white light of the security feed displays. The feed she had brought up showed Rodney's lab, and Kusanagi checking a pile of equipment off against a tablet she was holding. Cheema threw another glance in his direction, narrow-eyed.

"You know, sometimes you're just a little bit creepy, Havildar," John told her sincerely.

Her eyes narrowed the slightest bit further, but her lips actually quirked into an unprecedented near-smile right before she killed the feed. "Yes, sir," she said, apparently unruffled. Her slim, long-fingered hands breezed across the console, bringing up the mess, the control room, the city systems cathedra room.

She paused there, undoubtedly by design, and John obligingly indicated the cathedra on the feed, and said, "Can you get feed on the other ones?"

"I can get feed on almost anything, but those I already have in queue." Seven seconds later there was a cathedra on every screen, including the underwater one, though it was only a dim outline.

"Huh," John said. "I didn't know the cameras were waterproof."

"Some of them," Cheema said. "Many of those below the waterline have been rendered inoperable."

John nodded. "So." He looked at them, trying to figure out which was which; after a minute or so, Cheema tapped out something else and a city schematic appeared on one of the Ancient viewscreens. She didn't say a word. "That one," John said, pointing to the northeast section of the city, and she tapped the panel beside one of the images, which sent it to the bigger Ancient viewscreen.

It looked pretty much like all the other chairs, though John knew that it had a neural interface at the back of the neck as well as the hands, and retractable neural connectors that rested against the temples of the operator.

John considered the screen for a few seconds, but he'd already decided. Maybe he'd decided before he'd even headed here to talk to her.

Maybe he'd decided months ago, when his request for her promotion had been summarily dismissed by the Indian government, or maybe it had been when even Elizabeth had failed to get it pushed through, though he couldn't have known exactly what he was deciding then. Just that she deserved better, that it was somehow his responsibility to make sure she got it.

John knew what it was to be the black sheep; he'd been that for most of his life. He didn't understand her, barely knew her, really -- she wasn't exactly someone who invited camaraderie -- but he got some of why she was who she was.

He turned to give her a deliberate look.

He was aware that most of the marines -- maybe even most of the expedition -- thought that Cheema had been a compromise choice that John and Elizabeth had worked out after Bates had shipped back to Earth never to be seen again, and John hadn't done anything to quash the rumors. They worked in her favor, as Cheema herself had pointed out. He'd never asked Cheema herself what she thought.

The truth was, John had been looking for something better for Cheema for a while before Elizabeth called him into her office to talk about security, and he'd found himself making the suggestion and lining up all the reasons it made sense without even having to think about it. The fact that Cheema was a woman and not an American had been big selling points for Elizabeth, since she was the one who had to justify to the IOA the fact that the command staff was, with the exception of the unofficial alien members, made up entirely of citizens of western nations. She hadn't really known enough about what a Chief of Security did to grasp the unlikely light in which most C.O.s would have viewed the suggestion, which had been a bonus. John suspected, but would never mention, that the fact that Cheema hadn't been one of John's marines had probably been a bonus from Elizabeth's perspective.

Cheema's lack of experience or specialized training hadn't even come up, and it hadn't been a concern for John.

The first time he'd met her, back when she was still a supply officer, Lorne had been laid up in the infirmary and John'd taken his own pretty decisively botched stab at the requisitions form down to her. She'd scanned it, handed it back to him (he'd only taken it out of surprise), and then asked without preamble, "Do you think in numbers or in spaces, Lieutenant-Colonel?"

"Numbers," he'd told her, with a blink.

"Major Lorne thinks in spaces; I had to write him a program. This will be much faster." Then she'd tugged the form out of his his unresisting hands, flipped it over, and scrawled out a long sprawling equation. After a few seconds' hard squinting, he'd realized it accounted for every factor determining what could be fit into his allotment of the Daedalus' freight capacity. When he'd left the office, it was with the suspicion that her abilities significantly outstripped her current position.

The second time he'd gone to her, Rodney's Jumper had been stuck at the bottom of the ocean. It had taken her seventeen minutes to do all the calculations he needed for the precise physics of hauling it safely out via jumper-mounted magnetic grapple. Just like that, with no request for an explanation, and his suspicion became conviction. The fact that they hadn't used the grapple in the end didn't weaken his conviction in the slightest.

He'd put her where she was based on the strength of two encounters and a hunch, and he'd been right.

And he was right now.

John knew it would work the same way he knew that the city systems cathedra was for Rodney, that Lorne would be assigned to defense. If he could pick anyone in two galaxies to put into that chair, it would be Havildar Maitreyi Kaur Cheema, and if she wanted it, he would give it to her.

"I'm going to need someone for that cathedra, Havildar," he said quietly. Cheema blinked at him, appearing genuinely surprised, and swung her gaze back toward the screen in question, eyes narrowing in thought. "Our contingent of gene-holders with the level of skill and clearance needed won't be enough to use all of these things to their potential no matter what we do; you know that."

She stared at the cathedra for several more seconds, then turned that inscrutable look on John. "Is that an order, sir?"

John shook his head. "Do you miss being a supply officer?" he asked.

"Never," she answered at once, baring her teeth a little in what John was pretty sure was an unconscious gesture. After a few seconds, she asked, "Why that one?"

John shrugged. "The Ancients called it communications, but if I'd been naming it, I'd have gone with intelligence."

She looked at him, eyes still a little narrowed, and then nodded once, tightly. "I will consider it."

She was still looking at him when her gaze went abruptly unfocused and she reached up to tap her earpiece. "Cheema," she said, and was silent for several seconds, listening. She must have been on the security band, since John's own radio was quiet. "Five minutes." She focused on John again. "If you will excuse me, Lieutenant-Colonel?"

"That'll be all, Havildar," he agreed, consciously choosing to do her the courtesy of not asking what was going on, since she clearly didn't think it was anything he needed to be involved with.

"Yes, sir," she said, and snapped a salute at him, fingertips to her hairline, full palm showing in the exact way John had been trained never to salute, which made him grin. Different strokes, after all.

He was turning to follow her out the door when he saw movement on one of the security feeds of the various cathedrae, and it was McKay, of course, along with his team and Carson. John paused, watching them bustle around and set things up on the small screen. John frowned at the screen; Rodney was waving one hand animatedly, the other arm curled protectively around two laptops. He looked nothing like he'd looked yesterday, holed up in his quarters with that goddamned blowtorch.

He looked perfectly normal.

John should go, of course. He had things to do... okay, well, there was nothing pressing to do as far as he knew, but still. He should go.

He tapped the corner of the screen, and the image obligingly transferred itself to the big viewscreen, giving John a might-as-well-be-there quality view of the room. There was no sound, everyone doing their thing, Zelenka hooking up his laptop to the cathedra, Rodney waving both arms, now, Carson poking at the neural gel on the arms of the cathedra, all in utter, eerie silence. John cast a thoughtful look at the console, but nothing was marked volume, so he touched the viewscreen instead and thought volume, and was treated to Rodney's voice demanding: "...need someone in the power distribution center monitoring power drain on the ZPM, Radek; there isn't anything you can do here that I can't do just as well."

"Anyone can monitor power usage, Rodney," Zelenka said placidly. "We don't know yet how you will react to the cathedra, and you will be essentially shackled to the device while interfacing with it. It's quite possible you will need me here to pass on data or run tests on the device itself."

"You aren't fooling anyone, you know," Rodney sniped. "You just want to play with the cool Ancient tech."

Zelenka rolled his eyes, and muttered, "Of course, unlike anyone else present," and continued running wires between the control panel of the cathedra and three laptops, a tablet, and, John saw with amusement, a naquadah generator. "It is safer if I stay, Rodney. There could be complications."

"Oh, please," Rodney scoffed. "Sheppard used it yesterday, and he's fine."

John thought the door to the security office closed and resigned himself to spying on the test.

"Considering the strength of the Colonel's ATA gene, I'm afraid that isn't really a useful comparison, Rodney," Carson said apologetically.

"Were you not listening at the staff meeting?" Rodney sneered huffily, hands twitching as he leaned over Zelenka's shoulder and watched him hooking things up, clearly resisting the urge to shove Zelenka away and do it himself. "The Colonel says it's fine."

Zelenka and Carson exchanged a look that Rodney was oblivious to, even though it was happening right under his nose. Zelenka arched both eyebrows. Carson pursed his lips and shrugged one shoulder. For three or four seconds, it looked like neither of them were going to call him on it, but Zelenka finally said, "The Colonel is not qualified to make such judgments, Rodney; he is very smart, but he is not a scientist."

Rodney snorted. "Radek, nobody in this galaxy is qualified to make that kind of judgment. Well--" Rodney sniffed. "Nobody human, anyway."

"And yet you will still bet your safety on Colonel Sheppard's opinion," Zelenka pointed out, but he looked more puzzled than worried.

Rodney rolled his eyes, but his voice was almost mild when he answered. "We've all been betting our safety on Sheppard's opinion about once a week for the last two and a half years, Radek." He patted Zelenka awkwardly on the shoulder. "Stop worrying. Sheppard wouldn't in a million years let me sit in this thing if he wasn't sure." He transferred his patting from Zelenka's shoulder to the back of the cathedra instead, giving it a smug, possessive little smile.

Zelenka grumbled something that John didn't catch; he was too busy watching Rodney and thinking: Of course I wouldn't.

And it wasn't that he hadn't known that; or even that he hadn't known that Rodney knew that. It was more the way he'd said it, almost casually, like it was so elementary it didn't bear mentioning.

"Ah, Elizabeth!" Rodney said happily. "You're here, excellent. Let's do this."

"Rodney--" Carson began, but Rodney waved a dismissive hand at him, stepping over the wires and the generator to get to the front of the cathedra. Carson moved in front of him, expression going mulish, and Rodney stopped long enough to let Carson stick a couple of round white sensors to his temples, probably because it was faster than actually arguing about it, though acceding with good grace wasn't in Rodney's nature, so there was much rolling of eyes and gratuitous, long-suffering sighs.

"We've been through this; it's fine," he said, finally batting Carson hands away, and sat down.

John found himself leaning forward, one hand braced on the console in front of him instinctively, feeling the thrum of the city distantly and the buzz of the security systems more presently. The image on the viewscreen obligingly changed angle and zoomed in, cutting Zelenka and Carson entirely out of the image, leaving Rodney in the center of the frame and Elizabeth slightly visible behind him.

Rodney hadn't spent much time actually interfacing with the defense cathedra even after the gene therapy; he'd done enough time in it to be competent as backup in the event that there wasn't anyone else, but John knew he'd been disappointed by it. For John, the defense cathedra had been a perfect fit; everything about it had come as naturally as breathing. He'd once heard Rodney tell Zelenka that the chair made him feel like he was in a barely controlled fall.

He understood it a lot better now that he'd been in city systems, had been entangled and confined within its interface, like whatever it took to use it the way it was meant to be used was just not there. In light of that, he was probably far more prepared for it than Rodney was, but he still jerked a little in surprise when Rodney settled into the cathedra.

The chair tipped back and blazed with blue light, brighter even than the defense cathedra with John in it (which made him long desperately for the flight cathedra, because that was his the way city systems was Rodney's, flight would blaze like that for him). Elizabeth made a startled sound and averted her face from the glow, and John heard Zelenka and Carson echoing her surprise. It only lasted a handful of seconds before it dimmed slightly, bright but no longer dazzling, and Rodney said, "Oh, oh yes," low and breathy and so unexpectedly familiar that John shivered a little.

"Rodney?" Zelenka asked, voice tinged with worry, and John knew why. Rodney's eyes were closed, his head tipped back, and he was flushed and breathing heavily. There was no way to explain that feeling to anyone who hadn't used one of the cathedrae, but it was unmistakable. It was one of the best rushes John had ever experienced, ranking after only flying and sex, and then only if the sex was really good.

"Wow," Rodney said, lips quirking into a goofy little smile, and opened his eyes. He turned his head a little, presumably looking at Zelenka. "Sheppard's right; it can't hurt me. It can't hurt anyone; none of them can. They monitor all vitals, and disengage automatically in the event of any unsafe readings." His goofy smile widened a little.

"He was right when he said we wouldn't need him for this one, too, wasn't he? You do know exactly what to do with it," Elizabeth said, smile in her voice and on her face, though her brows were still a little furrowed as she looked at Rodney.

"Of course I do," Rodney said, tone a little indignant, but rendered totally ineffective by the way his flushed cheeks turned a little pinker in pleasure. John couldn't stop the smile, still pissed as hell at Rodney, but smiling at the transparent pleasure on Rodney's face anyway. Damn it all, he wished Kurn had never happened, naquadah aside, because he was no good at complicated, had never let things get complicated like this before, and didn't really have the slightest clue about what to do about it now.

Probably the best thing to do, the easiest thing, would be to just let the whole thing go; walk out of the security office now and make a conscious effort to go on just as he had before. Drink the eilisum when it was offered to him, and put all the weirdness behind him. Rodney would let him; Rodney had been trying to do exactly that from the very beginning.

But he didn't walk out, and he had no real plans to have a steaming cup of forget-all-about-it back on Kurn, either. Half-wishing it hadn't happened wasn't actually the same thing as wanting to forget it. And he didn't drink the tea.

He never drank the tea.

On the screen, Rodney's gaze fixed on something in front of him, and his face stilled. "What is--" he said, and then stopped. The view zoomed out a little, apparently obeying John's wishes even if he wasn't specifically aware of making them, and then he could see what Rodney was looking at.

The viewscreen in the cathedra room was still showing the blueprint of the personnel quarters, Rodney's room highlighted, though no longer showing as a big red block; the lines of code John had accessed were still blinking on the screen.

Shit, John thought. He could see everyone in the cathedra room, now, all of them looking at the viewscreen. Elizabeth's frown had deepened again, and the look on her face said she was consciously not saying anything even though she really wanted to.

It was Zelenka who said, "He wanted you here," in a soft, careful voice that, in John's experience, people rarely directed at Rodney. "Almost the moment he sat down, he insisted you should be here. There was no time to explain before..." He waved one hand at the viewscreen. "We did not know it could do that, obviously."

"Obviously," Rodney echoed, but his mouth slanted unhappily. After a beat of silence, he said, "He saw the code?"

Zelenka pressed his lips into a line and nodded, while Carson and Elizabeth exchanged a look that was puzzled and a little worried. Zelenka was probably the only one in the room who got that the code was what made it obvious that the quarantine had been self-initiated, and fairly specifically aimed at John. And that, sitting in the initialized cathedra, John couldn't help but know it.

"Well," Rodney said, one side of his mouth tugging further downward as he swallowed visibly. "Well. I've got work to do."

He closed his eyes and the cathedra brightened around him, the viewscreen going dark for an instant before it began to shuttle through images so quickly that it was nearly impossible to get a look at anything before it moved on to the next image, everything moving at least three or four times faster than it had with John in the cathedra. John had time to feel a little smug about being so categorically right about the whole thing. Rodney's eyes were moving rapidly behind his closed lids, but his body was completely still, which was just weird. "Hmm," Rodney murmured, and Zelenka, eyes glued to the viewscreen, said,

"Oh! Yes, yes, you..."

The lights went out, both in the security office and in the cathedra room, though that was still well-lit with the glow from the chair. The cameras didn't cut out, however, the screens didn't flicker, and John could still hear the soft hiss of the air purification system, so he wasn't worried.

"Doctor Weir!" someone squawked over the headset, shrill with alarm, and Rodney answered without keying his radio, his voice coming from the citywide comm, which John guessed was something the cathedra was responsible for.

"Everything is under control," Rodney said, low and mellow, but with a jubilant edge that John didn't miss. "All main systems will retain their integrity; no active systems have been circumvented. Will the botanists in the main hydroponics lab please either vacate the premises for approximately six minutes or suffer a painful and grisly death?"

John snorted, and Elizabeth hid a smile behind her hand. Zelenka was typing furiously at first one laptop and then swiveling to pound at the keyboard of another, and the naquadah generator was chugging gamely along. "Twenty percent, Rodney," Zelenka said.

"Mmm, I know," Rodney agreed, and John could see Rodney's biceps flexing, muscle twitching incrementally as he did something none of the rest of them could see, but that Atlantis would undoubtedly respond to. Fixing something in the hydroponics lab, probably. With his brain.

John leaned into the console in front of him with both hands and let his awareness of the city slide to the forefront of his mind, something he didn't do very often since the first few weeks after their arrival when he'd realized that he was losing minutes, sometimes more, every time he did. He could feel the difference, the city more active, more alive with Rodney interfaced with the cathedra, creating a low-grade buzz of kinetic intent. He was putting things in motion, though John couldn't tell what; it was all just feeling, no real information, though he was pretty sure he could take a seat in any of the other cathedrae whenever he wanted and get the details.

"How's he doing?" Elizabeth asked Carson softly, leaning forward a little to peer at the medical scanner Carson was frowning at.

"Good, he's good," Carson muttered absently, but he was still frowning. "Better than good, actually." He threw a puzzled look at Rodney. "His heart rate and blood pressure are both down, his red blood cells are more oxygenated than his baseline readings indicate as normal, and his brain activity is up seventeen percent." He sounded a bit sulky about it, actually.

"He can hear you, you know," Rodney said without opening his eyes, but he was smirking. "And he clearly recalls telling you all that he didn't need on-site medical care. Zelenka, do you see that?" he demanded, and something flashed on the screen, the same image repeating several times before moving on, proving that Rodney was well aware that he was moving more quickly than anyone not interfaced with the cathedra could keep up with. "Shunt that directly to Miko, have her drag Leonard off whatever crackpot theory he's currently working on and get down to, there, level 4, subsection 14; it's gray on the grid, get them some marines for the sake of protocol, but it feels safe from here." He let out a short, surprised little bark of laughter that made the hair on the back of John's neck stand up; he'd never heard anything like it from Rodney. "Jesus, if they can just. I want that in my lab in twenty minutes, I want that fixed, do you know--"

"I know, Rodney," Zelenka insisted, but he was grinning so wide he looked half-crazed, and Carson and Elizabeth were exchanging an indulgent look. "You're at fifty-four percent," Zelenka told him, and then, almost as an afterthought, "And all three of these hard drives are now full."

Rodney made a low, growling noise of frustration and it jolted through John's his palms braced on the console, buzzing against his skin; he snatched them back quickly, and rubbed them against his pants. It didn't actually help. He could feel the buzzing tingle all the way to his bones.

"It will take us weeks, months even, to get through just what we have here, Rodney," Zelenka pointed out pragmatically. "Sixty-one percent."

"Fine," Rodney huffed, fingertips flexing slightly against the gel. "Two more minutes."

John smirked at Zelenka's eyeroll, but noticed that he didn't try to talk Rodney out of it.

Thirty seconds later the lights came on, and Rodney crooned, "Good, yes," fingertips flexing in the neural gel.

John had to look away for a second, and he caught Elizabeth looking at Rodney, wide-eyed and with a faint blush fanned across her cheekbones. So, John mused, at least it wasn't just him. It was absurd enough to make him chuckle, which he thought really should have made everything seem a little more normal, but the chuckle came out hoarse and unsteady, and instead just made him feel like he was losing his goddamned mind.

About ten seconds after that, a voice in his ear inquired, "Colonel Sheppard?" with a soft, gentle Japanese accent, and John muted the security feed with a thought and tapped his earpiece.

"Sheppard."

"Colonel, I need a marine escort to, mmm, level 4, subsection 14, please," Miko asked, and John shook his head and smiled tiredly because they'd set up a rotation for this kind of thing over a year ago, but no one ever remembered that.

"What have you got, Doctor?" John made himself ask, because it would be out of character if he didn't, and it wouldn't do to let anyone know he'd been spying.

"Something Doctor McKay found from the cathedra," Miko told him. "He said he didn't think it was dangerous, but it's a gray area, and protocol..."

"Yeah, okay," John agreed. On the viewscreen, Rodney was saying something to Zelenka while the chair dimmed and returned to an upright position. "Do you want them to meet you in the big lab?"

"There's a transporter on level 4 in subsection 6; that would be closest."

"They'll be there in ten minutes," John told her. "Sheppard out."

He called down to the ready room and told the marine that answered to gear up and where to meet Miko's team, passing on the intel that it probably wasn't dangerous, but reminding them to treat it as a live exercise anyway. The marine patiently accepted the reminder, his tone conveying that he didn't need it, and John turned back to the viewscreen in time to see Rodney peeling the little white medical sensors off his temples. He unmuted the feed, and Zelenka was saying, "... depleted the generator in just under eleven minutes, and switched to ZPM power for approximately one. I will want to recheck the data dependent on what you were actually doing at the time, Rodney, but if we add to it the data from Colonel Sheppard's few minutes in the chair, it seems that this one draws considerably less power from the ZPM than the defense cathedra."

Rodney nodded, stepping over a tangle of wires to bend over one of the laptops and tap at the keyboard. "Hmm, well, yes, that makes sense, doesn't it? Weapons and shields are always more of an energy drain than day-to-day systems, and this cathedra was designed to be in constant use, unlike defense. Probably a low-level but constant drain on the ZPM accompanied by spikes of power usage when the operator handles anything outside the realm of mundane maintenance. Get me the readings from the generator, too, Radek. I want to see what the energy usage for fixing botany's little problem looks like."

John rubbed at his face with one hand and slouched one hip against the console. He couldn't work out whether it was a relief to watch Rodney act so Rodney-like after the last couple of days, or if it was just aggravating.

"So, is that what this cathedra is meant to do?" Elizabeth asked. "Day-to-day maintenance?"

"Mm-hmm," Rodney answered without looking up from the laptop he was working on. "Well, more or less. This one ties in to all of Atlantis' systems, of course, but it's a..." he paused to make a twirling gesture with one hand, "a monitoring thing, for the most part, and a repair and adjustment thing, and has more to do with the code that keeps Atlantis running than with the mechanical aspects of maintenance. The technical cathedra would be the one responsible for any physical repair work necessary, if something, some part or machine, actually stopped working. Tech is like defense, which is to say it isn't meant to be in use except when specifically needed. City systems is designed to keep it from being needed more than occasionally, to monitor and repair small problems before they become big problems. If we ever decide to implement entirely new programs, they'll have to be initiated here. It's, ha, mission control, so to speak." He looked away from the laptop to gaze with obvious longing at the chair, hands splayed and hovering over the keyboard. "Even so," he said, clearly hating every word, "we can't afford to use it the way it was meant to be used. We just don't have that kind of power. Even at a fraction of the drain of the defense cathedra, we just don't have it."

"We will figure something out, Rodney," Zelenka said, resting a hand on Rodney's shoulder for a moment. "Perhaps there is something in the data..." He gestured at the laptops, giving the cathedra his own wistful look. "We will figure something out."

Rodney nodded, but he looked tired again. "Given enough time, I can streamline our use of key systems in a way that will ultimately yield maximum usability with minimum power drain, but spending that kind of time in the cathedra right now would probably drain almost as much power as I could save us." He straightened up from his hunch over the laptop and rubbed absently at his lower back. "For it to be really effective, we either need another ZPM or an alternate power source, something other than a Mark II, which just won't power one of these things for long enough to make a difference. I could drain every naquadah generator we have and get no more than a couple of hours in the cathedra. Even with the naquadah we're going to be getting from Kurn, making it a semi-renewable resource, it just isn't going to be enough."

"In that case, should we even initialize the other cathedrae?" Elizabeth asked, her brow furrowed in thought. "Aren't they likely to be comparable in power usage?"

"Probably, yes, but I still think it's worth it to get them online," Rodney said, losing a little of his weariness in excitement again. "Especially tech. If we're going to find an alternate power source already here on Atlantis, tech is where we'll find it, or find plans for it. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of schematics in the database, and I only got a chance to look at a few of them. And if we end up needing them, having them ready to go will be worth the power it takes to get them initialized." He smiled faintly, crooked-mouthed and humorless, and waved a hand at Elizabeth. "'Life or death situations trump normal projections for acceptable power usage,' isn't that what you keep saying about Carson's energy-sucking scanner? Besides, I need to be prepared for the next time saving the galaxy depends entirely on what I know."

It should have been funny, but Rodney didn't look amused. John wasn't all that amused, himself.

"Of course," Elizabeth agreed, but she was still frowning. "How soon can we get them online?"

"As soon as we can get Sheppard to make the rounds," Rodney said with a little shrug. "He's still our strongest ATA gene, and while I might have been able to initialize this one, we don't know that for sure."

"Rodney is right," Zelenka agreed. "It's impossible to truly theorize with only one data point, of course, but with this cathedra the Colonel seemed to intuit immediately that he was not the best one to operate it. If that holds true of the others, and the Colonel is able to offer suggestions as to who would be best suited, it could save time."

"The interface for this one doesn't feel anything like the interface for the defense cathedra," Rodney said, his tone one of agreement, but his brows drawn into a frown. "It's possible that the interfaces themselves were designed to be best used by those with the skills necessary to make the most effective use of the cathedrae. If that's the case, Sheppard should have very little trouble with defense and flight, I would probably handle city systems and technical, and maybe even communications equally well. Carson would be the obvious choice for the medical cathedra. As much as it pains me to say it, Sheppard is probably our only real option for the command cathedra. Hmm. Aside from power, our ridiculous lack of qualified gene-carriers will undoubtedly end up being our biggest problem. Carson, get me a list of our people with the ATA gene. I can cross-reference that with their skill-sets and see what I can come up with."

"Aye, I can do that," Carson agreed.

"Good, good," Rodney said briskly, rubbing his hands together, for a moment before crouching to pluck cables out of the control panel of the cathedra, absently winding them into loose coils with brisk, competent motions of his broad hands. "If we're done here, I need to get to the lab before Miko and Leonard start poking at the broken tech."

"I'll want to see you before you go off-world tomorrow, Rodney," Carson said almost absently, and Rodney's eyebrows shot upward toward his hairline.

He straightened and looked at Elizabeth. "You scheduled a mission tomorrow?" he demanded, looking betrayed. "Do you know how much I have to do..."

"Rodney," Elizabeth interrupted, amused and impatient at once. "Colonel Sheppard scheduled the return trip to Kurn for tomorrow; it's my understanding that you have a limited window on an antidote for the memory tea."

"Oh," Rodney said blankly, his face going slowly but deeply flushed. "Oh. Right. Of course." His hands twisted at the coil of cable he was holding, and John looked away.

There was another headache building at the base of his neck, and he could see Rodney's face in the instant in which he'd realized that John was looking at him, Rodney's head jerking around, eyes locking with John's, huge, dark eyes widening further with realization and mortification, the way his mouth had snapped closed, a tight, flat line, the way the hectic flush on his face had faded in seconds, leaving him pale and wan, confused and utterly utterly miserable. The way he'd closed his eyes, like it was the only kind of retreat he was capable of. The way his upraised palm had looked, pale and broad and unsteady.

"Rodney," Elizabeth said, and John started a little, but he hadn't gone away exactly, not all the way away, and he didn't have to look back toward the screen to know what her face looked like; he'd seen that look directed at him enough times.

"What, no," Rodney said tightly. "It's fine, I just. I'd forgotten."

"Yeah, right," John muttered aloud, and decided the whole spying thing had gone on long enough. He tapped at the screen, and it obligingly transferred the image of the cathedra room back to the small screen, leaving the big Ancient viewscreen dark.

Carson said, "Are you certain you're feeling all right, Rodney?" and John thought the volume "off" before he could hear the answer to that; it wasn't any of his business. Rodney had made it perfectly clear that none of this was any of John's business, and he'd be pissed as hell if he found out that John had been spying on the cathedra test.

Not that John couldn't justify it perfectly well, of course. It was clearly a matter of security, and he was monitoring from the security office, and it was all part of his job, really.

He sighed and rubbed at his face and wished he knew what the hell he was doing.

He thought the door open and was completely unsurprised to see Cheema standing outside waiting, her face a patient mask. Jeez, John thought, because he really hadn't meant to lock her out; he just hadn't wanted any random person walking by to see him. Which indicated pretty strongly that he'd known damned well that was he was doing had nothing to do with his job, of course.

He considered an apology for three seconds or so, but in the end he merely nodded as he passed her on his way out the door. She nodded back and repositioned herself behind her console as John turned in the direction of the mess.