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Only Grumpier and With Darker Hair

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The little moments of a mission gone wrong always stuck in John's memory. Today, it was the sky, how clear it was, high and bright, a Crayola shade somewhere between cornflower and indigo, in stark contrast to Rodney's pallor, which had turned decidedly gray. He sat huddled on an upturned rock, muttering to himself, "but I wasn't even rude," his voice small and bewildered, oddly lacking in fury. Nothing was the way it was supposed to be.

John squatted down in front of him. "Teyla's talking to her. We'll figure it out."

This world hadn't seemed the least bit threatening, and John was busy now second-guessing himself whether that alone should have set off some alarms. But the women had been so welcoming—only women here, at least that they'd seen so far—a fact that had quickly launched Rodney into eye rolling and Kirk jokes, so disarmingly ordinary.

When John had stepped forward to explain that they were peaceful explorers, the head scientist Anoria had answered warmly, "We honor all those who seek knowledge."

Off to a good start, not their usual track record with advanced societies, and when Anoria offered a tour of their research facilities, Rodney quickly agreed for all of them. She led them from one neat, white-walled lab to the next, giving a running narrative of their work, experiments on alternate fuel sources and issues in theoretical physics and something about polymers. John's attention faded in and out, mostly out, unless something sounded like it might be useful against the Wraith. Rodney hung on every word, both fascinated and uncharacteristically respectful, overflowing with questions.

"Your thirst for knowledge is most admirable," Anoria had complimented him more than once.

"I was hoping we might be able to exchange information," Rodney said quickly. "A meeting of the minds between our people, so to speak."

Anoria smiled. "We will happily assist you on your path of discovery."

It had all been going so well. And then Anoria took Rodney off alone.

The air hung heavily, the day warm and humid, but Rodney wrapped his arms tightly around himself, shivering. His hair fell in his face, long and honey brown, sweat-dark around his face. His pants dragged in the dirt, but his T-shirt fit tighter across his chest than it had when they'd started out. John tried not to pay too much attention to that, not entirely successfully, and finally he shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over Rodney's shoulders, as much for his own comfort as Rodney's. It occurred to him a little belatedly that this particular gesture might not be very welcome, a man offering his coat to… But Rodney curled into it, hands fisted in the fabric, too shell-shocked apparently to take offense.

A snap of twigs, and Teyla headed back down the path from the lab building. John got to his feet. "Is she going to fix it?"

"I am afraid it is not that simple."

"What does she want? Guns? C-4? Intel?" At this point, he was open to extortion.

Teyla shook her head. "She does not want anything. She does not perceive that she has done anything to harm Dr. McKay. She considers such a transformation to be…a gift."

Rodney's head snapped up. "Oh, sure. Because having a dick is such an imposition."

"She has promised to come and speak with you about it," Teyla said reassuringly.

But when Anoria arrived, she seemed almost as confused as Rodney. "I am deeply sorry for your distress, but I thought you wished the chance to gather new knowledge."

"In our culture," John told her with an aggressive absence of inflection, "changing someone's gender without asking permission is considered impolite."

Anoria's forehead creased. "I humbly apologize for the misunderstanding." She knelt down next to Rodney, her tone kind, "Do not worry. The change will be reversed when you have completed your journey."

"How long?" John asked.

Anoria shook her head. "I cannot say. It depends on the individual." She laid a hand on Rodney's arm. "Even though this is not a path you have sought, I hope you will discover much from walking it."

There seemed nothing more to do or say after that. John ordered the team to return to the stargate. Rodney trudged along in a daze, and John started to put a hand on his back, only to jerk it away again, not sure if this was patronizing or if that was even an issue when Rodney had been in a female body all of twenty minutes. Of course if Rodney had been hurt, John wouldn't have hesitated. This was sort of like that, only not, and finally he just did it, offered Rodney the little bit of comfort he could. Rodney kept his head down, but he didn't pull away, and John made his touch less tentative, more steadying.

Teyla dialed Atlantis, and John radioed ahead that they had a medical situation. "No one in the gate room," Rodney mumbled, and John added that request. When they came through on the other side, only Elizabeth was waiting.

She frowned. "I wasn't expecting any visitors—" Then her eyes went wide. "Rodney?"

"We need Beckett." John didn't break his stride, and Elizabeth fell in alongside them.

In the infirmary, John turned Rodney over to the waiting medical team, and Carson did his best to be comforting. "We'll just have a look and see what's…I'm sure we'll have you right as rain in no time." He guided Rodney around behind the curtain for privacy, but there was no missing Rodney's shriek, "If I so much as see a speculum, someone will pay dearly!"

They emerged some fifteen minutes later, Rodney looking unhappy, but not homicidal.

Carson gave Elizabeth the report, "He's perfectly healthy. And it would appear…perfectly female." He hurried to add, "From a physiological standpoint, that is."

Rodney stared at him in utter dismay. "Does that mean I'm going to get a period?"

"Well, in theory, there'd be no reason why not—" Carson looked as if he wished he'd never left his genetics lab back on Earth.

"How do we turn him back?" Elizabeth jumped in, her eyebrows pinched together in concern.

Carson shook his head. "I'm afraid I haven't a clue. I've never seen anything like this."

"Oh, that is just it!" Rodney turned to John and demanded, "Colonel, pack up the bazookas. We're going back to the planet, and we're making that woman fix me."

Ronon nodded. "I like that plan."

"Not helping," John said under his breath.

"Anoria has told us that she cannot reverse the transformation," Teyla reminded Rodney rather apologetically. "It must simply run its course. I did not detect any deception from her."

Rodney put his hands on his hips, his favorite pose of outraged disgust, only now it had rather a different effect. "That's just great. What am I supposed to do in the meantime? And if anyone mentions anything about getting in touch with my feminine side, I will hurt you."

Elizabeth assured him, "You're still you, Rodney. Although…in a different form. Just do what you'd normally do, go to work and go on missions and live your life. We'll explain what happened and that everyone is to treat you just the same as always."

"Well," Rodney said reluctantly. "I suppose so."

Elizabeth smiled. "You'll see. It'll all be over before you know it."

There were times, rare though they might be, when Rodney's obliviousness to people's reactions was actually useful. This was just such an instance, and he managed to go three entire days before realizing that no one, at least no men, were treating him even remotely the same as usual.

"Have you seen the way these perverts are staring at me?" he demanded indignantly at lunch on the fourth day, thumping his tray down onto the table, taking the seat next to John.


John debated the merits of clueing Rodney in about the dearth of available women on Atlantis and the directly proportional relationship between mortal danger and horniness in the life of the average military man, and finally settled on taking a big bite of his sandwich. The Pegasus galaxy was practically a shrine to freakishness, and the freaky discovery of the week was that Rodney McKay made a surprisingly attractive woman, a little reminiscent of Marilyn, only grumpier and with darker hair.

Rodney jabbed his fork into a sausage link in a disturbingly symbolic way. "The men on the science team are naturally too terrified of what I might do to their careers to be all that obnoxious about it, but those lugheads who work for you— And do you know where specifically they stare?"

John shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

"At my boobs!"

"Uh…really?" John's fake surprise sounded…well, fake.

As a man, Rodney had been broad through the chest, and that had translated into a different kind of generousness in his female guise. Rodney refused to wear a bra, which didn't help matters any, and his old T-shirts fit him all wrong, baggy everywhere but where it most counted, his nipples plainly outlined against the cotton. John had noticed the staring of course, long before Rodney had, and for the most part, he thought it was harmless, although understandably annoying to Rodney. There were a few men, though—men he'd had his eye on before—more recent recruits who hadn't had time to develop any particular loyalties, the kind who took to the uglier aspects of soldiering a little too naturally. The way they looked at Rodney did give him pause.

"If that moron Saunders doesn't stop finding ridiculous excuses to brush up against me—" Rodney muttered in between forkfuls of mashed potatoes.

John went still. "He touched you?"

"Apparently he's forgotten all the many ways I can make his life miserable. Trust me, he won't be enjoying the privilege of heat or hot water in his quarters anytime soon."

"He actually put his hands on you?" John couldn't seem to get past that.

Rodney just rolled his eyes.

John found it hard to believe that any of his men would be stupid enough to harass a civilian, even the loose canons among them, but still, he stepped up his vigilance, stopping by the lab more often than usual. Any military personnel he found lurking around the place were immediately reassigned to sanitation system cleaning detail, and everyone soon got the message, even the numbskulls like Saunders. John felt confident there would be no more inappropriate touching.

The staring, though, not much he could do about that. It was hardly against regulations to look, and if he put every guy guilty of it on shit detail, there'd be no one left to protect Atlantis. Rodney was his usual self about the whole thing, and John figured he'd solve the problem in his own inimitable way, with brutal mockery, reminding anyone who dared to leer that beneath the Marilyn façade he was still one hundred percent Rodney McKay.

Of course, the error in John's calculations was forgetting how utterly stupid a nice set of boobs tended to make most men. The staring persisted, and Rodney grew steadily more irate, and finally lost it altogether one morning in line for breakfast when the pimply faced young private doing the serving managed to spill eggs all over him because he couldn't take his eyes off Rodney's chest long enough to pay attention to what he was doing.

Rodney shouted at him, "What? Have you never seen a pair before?" He threw down his tray and yanked up his shirt. "There. Happy now?" The private's eyes bugged out, and Rodney wheeled around, giving everyone a show. "Are you all happy now?"

Most everyone was startled, to say the least, but there were a few, Saunders included, with hard, calculating expressions on their faces, and John was up like a shot. He caught Rodney around the waist and pulled down his shirt and hustled him out the door. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded, jaw clenched.

"Get your hands off me." Rodney tried to jerk out of his grasp.

"Not until we're someplace where we can talk."

The armory was nearby and conveniently empty. John used his command code to seal the door behind them.

"I want them to stop staring at me like I didn't have a dick only days ago!" Rodney yelled.

"Well, that stunt you pulled isn't helping!"

Rodney's face was already red, and it turned a shade darker. "Are you blaming me?"

"No! I'm just saying—"

"Because I didn't start this."

"Well, you're sure as hell continuing it!"

Rodney stomped his foot. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"You just flashed an entire roomful of people!"

"They're all so fascinated by—" He waved his hand at his chest. "So now they've seen them. They can lay off."

John stared at him incredulously. Rodney was a guy. He couldn't possibly believe that's how this thing was going to play out. "Don't do anything else to egg them on, and you seriously might consider finding a bra someplace."

"You're an ass, you know that?" Rodney pushed past John and started furiously entering commands into the control panel.

"You can't override—"

The doors slid open, and Rodney practically glowed with smugness. "I think you've forgotten who you're dealing with." He started out the door, but not before reminding John, "I never asked for this, you know."

John let out a heavy sigh, once, twice, and then tapped his radio. "All military personnel report to the armory immediately."

It didn't take long for them to assemble. What happened in the mess was no doubt all over Atlantis by now, and morbid curiosity trumped a sense of duty any day for getting men to obey orders in a snappy fashion.

"So you know what this is about," John told them matter-of-factly. "I realize the change to Dr. McKay is pretty startling, more so for him than for any of us, so give him a break, okay? He doesn't need you jokers staring. And of course it goes without saying that no one even thinks about laying a hand on him. Understood?"

The men kept their eyes on the floor, nervously nodding. Those who hadn't actually been around when John had closed the iris on the Genii battalion had certainly heard the story, and there was just enough doubt among them whether John was a hero or a psychopath to be useful in a situation like this. He dismissed them, secure in the belief that he'd gotten his point across, and went back to work.

By the end of the day, though, he still didn't feel any easier about how he'd left things with Rodney, because…well, maybe he had been a bit of an ass. He went to check the lab, and Zelenka told him that Rodney had knocked off for the day. John headed over to his quarters and rang the bell. No answer, and John shouted through the door, "I know you're in there!"

Being Atlantis' chosen one had occasional advantages, and he thought the door open. He caught the sound of water running in the bathroom and called out, "Rodney?"

The tap turned off abruptly. "I don't remember inviting you in."

Typical Rodney snideness, and John relaxed a little. "We need to talk."

"Yes, well," Rodney said dryly. "You may feel the need, but I'm in no mood to continue that particular conversation."

"I talked to my men, told them to leave you alone. Now if you could just do your part and not provoke them—"

Rodney came storming out of the bathroom. "By doing what exactly? Existing with breasts? Is that the provocation you're talking about, Colonel?"

"You know it's not," John shot back impatiently.

Rodney started in about stupid chauvinists and know-it-all military commanders and how he was keeping a list and waiting until they all least expected it to deliver payback. John found it hard to pay attention when Rodney was still damp from his shower, his hair hanging loose and wild to his shoulders, wearing nothing but a tank top and a pair of panties, his nipples hard in the slight chill of the room, standing out clearly against the fabric.

"Are you even listening?" Rodney asked irritably, and then his eyes went wide. "Oh, my God. You're just as bad as they are!"

John desperately sorted through various brands of denial and discarded them all, because Rodney was still Rodney, and he knew John's bullshit too well. "I'm sorry, okay? Men are pigs. You know that. And you're—"

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "What?"

"Well. Pretty." He braced for the inevitable explosion.

Rodney studied him, never short on surprises. "You want to touch them, don't you?"

John shook his head, lying for all he was worth. "I don't! I really—"

Rodney pulled the tank top up over his head.

"You've got to stop doing that."

"Oh, shut up. You're not the only who's curious about this body, you know, and if there's any pig I can trust, it's you." He took John's hands and put them on his breasts and warned, "Just this, though. No heading south."

John knew he should say something—cool and distancing or maybe buddy-buddy and joking—anything that would derail this fast-moving train to stupidsville. Sadly, though, reason wasn't much of a match for how Rodney's breasts felt in his hands, warm and heavy, skin still a little damp. It was an instinct to stroke his fingers along the curves, to skim his thumbs over the nipples. The flesh hardened at his touch, Rodney's chest rising and falling sharply. John's hands shook as he explored, like he was the one who was new to this.

Rodney was typically vocal and commanding, "Do that some more. No, that! Yes, yes, like that." And then he shyly admitted, "I tried touching them myself, but it wasn't…this is better."

If John hadn't already been hard, that would have taken care of it. He cupped Rodney's breasts and could feel Rodney's breath against his cheek, Rodney's heart beating beneath his fingers. So damned good, and clearly he wasn't the only one who thought so. Rodney's hand splayed across his belly, fingers clenching and unclenching. John traced a finger around first one nipple and then the other, and Rodney whimpered and tangled his fingers in the waistband of his panties, like he really, really wanted to go south.

John knew he shouldn't say it, shouldn't, but, "You can, if you want, touch—" He swallowed hard, the heat and soap-clean scent of Rodney's body rising between them, making him stupid and reckless. "Touch your—"

A challenging spark lit in Rodney's eyes. "My pussy?"

John kissed his neck. "Or not." He brushed his lips in a meandering path down to Rodney's breasts and licked at a nipple.

Rodney gasped, "God!"

He was shaking now, his fingers tangling more tightly in his panties, and at last he slipped his hand inside, fumbling at first, and then touching himself with more certainty. John could smell Rodney's pussy, a realization that should have freaked him out if anything in the universe could, but it just made him hard, harder. He kissed and licked and sucked Rodney's breasts, certain he deserved an award for restraint for not rubbing off against Rodney, for not moving those panties out of the way and fucking him.

Rodney whimpered, biting his lip, and John was too far gone for any kind of sense. "Let me see," he whispered. "Let me. Please, Rodney."

Rodney took a shaky breath and pushed his panties down to his knees. The hair down there was blonder, vulnerable looking, and John stared as Rodney's fingers worked urgently between his legs. He could feel the tension coiling in Rodney's back, and then Rodney was shuddering, coming. John pressed the heel of his hand hard against his crotch, and that was all it took. His eyes flew shut, and warmth spread across the front of his pants.

The high of getting off lasted maybe two seconds, and then Rodney was scrambling around for a towel, clutching it in front of him, his eyes a little wild. John knew that feeling well.

"Could you—" Rodney nodded toward the door.

"Uh, yeah. I'll just—" John yanked his shirt down to cover the wet spot on his pants. "Yeah."

He was too freaked out to think much of anything on the way back to his room, but once he was safely shut up inside, he paced around, resolving to obey his own damned orders next time. He tried his best to fend off memories of how Rodney sounded while John was touching him, the way he looked when he came, but good soldier or not, John was definitely only human.

Avoidance was one of John's closest friends—they practically exchanged Christmas cards—and he spent the first half of the next day wherever he knew Rodney wouldn't be. Then he began to wonder if maybe Rodney was avoiding him too, and once he'd considered that possibility he couldn't stop, and so he had to go to the lab and check.

He hovered in the doorway. "Uh… how's it going?"

Rodney didn't glance up from his computer. "Busily, as I'm sure you can see."

John took a step inside. "Good busy?"

"Yes, yes, very good."

"Working on something cool?"

"It's not a bomb or a gun or anything that flies, so I doubt you'd be interested. Is there something you wanted?"

"No, no. Just— Are we—"

"Yes, yes."

John raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Really?"

"Unless you keep interrupting my very important work, at which point we will cease to be okay."

"Oh." It felt as if he'd gotten away with something, and John tried very hard never to argue with that kind of luck. "Okay. Well—"

Rodney gave him a peremptory wave, and John let out his breath, glad that was settled.

The last thing he expected was for Rodney to show up at his room later that evening. He stared and frowned and was afraid to ask what was wrong, and finally Rodney demanded, "Can I come in?"

"Oh, yeah. Yeah." He took a step back. "So, what's up?"

Rodney fidgeted, picking up John's model airplane and putting it back down. "Do you think this is punishment? For the times I was a chauvinist jerk?"

"I'm pretty sure there are other guys who'd deserve that lesson more than you, Rodney."

"Which just goes to show that you haven't spent much time around me and Sam Carter. I always play the 'I have a penis and you don't' card with her."

"Because you honestly think her ovaries make her less smart? Or because you'll say any stupid thing when you're all threatened and competitive?"

Rodney regarded him testily. "I have a working theory about how to speed up my return trip to Y-chromosome land. Do want to hear it or not?"

John nodded, and Rodney held out his hands.

"Nail polish?"

"Cadman did it for me. Anoria said this is a journey, right? So what if that means I need to have the total woman experience before I get my dick back?"

"Well, I suppose maybe—"

"Maybe?" Rodney scowled at him. "It's a brilliant hypothesis! I started making a list. Being sexual harassed. Check. Peeing sitting down. Check. I tried on high heels with Cadman after we finished the nails. Sore feet, aching back. Check and check."

"So, what do you want me to do? I don't think I'm going to be much help braiding hair and picking out lipstick."

"Yeah. About that. I figure I'm also going to need a fuller range of sexual experience. That's where you come in."

He yanked his top up over his head and dropped it to the floor.

"We've talked about that!"

"Oh, please." Rodney pulled John's shirt off too and guided John's hands to his waist. "You know you like them."

John wanted to say no, no he didn't, but Rodney's breasts were right there, and John's mouth was actually watering. He was just the worst kind of cliché. "That's not the point," he insisted nonetheless. "You can't just go around—"

Rodney kissed him, clearly indicating shut up, and who knew that was such a turn on? Or maybe it was just the feel of bare breasts against his bare chest, a long time since that had happened. Whatever the reason, John's fingers were suddenly sliding over Rodney's skin, his plan to avoid doing stupid things they'd both regret utterly forgotten. He pressed close to kiss Rodney's neck and his wide, soft mouth. He pulled the clip from Rodney's hair, combing it out with his fingers. Who was he to block the path of personal discovery?

He kissed under Rodney's chin and in the delicate space above his collarbone and in a flurry across his breasts.

Rodney twisted in his arms. "No. Stop, stop, stop. Stop it now."

John lifted his head, really hoping he'd heard that wrong. "What?"

"Beard burn, ow, ow, and ow!"

John rolled his eyes. "Drama queen." But he did go shave, and when he returned, Rodney was stretched out on his bed, naked and eager looking

John stopped in his tracks. "You don't know anything about playing hard to get, do you?"

Rodney made "get over here" hands. "Time you waste talking is time I could be racking up watershed female experiences that will help me turn back into a man."

"That's quite a come on," John drawled, not that this stopped him from going and lying down and rubbing his newly smooth cheeks all over Rodney's gorgeous breasts.

Rodney pulled him up by the hair. "Just one ground rule. Your dick gets nowhere near my—"

"Yeah, yeah. Okay."

Given that Rodney was perfectly female in the physiological sense, that seemed like too much responsibility anyway, and there were other things John liked, really, a lot. He kissed random patterns over Rodney's belly and nudged Rodney's legs apart and rested his cheek against his thigh, taking his time, just looking.

Rodney pushed up onto his elbow and complained, "Are you just going to sit there and—"

"No." John lightly traced his finger along one inner lip. "Now be quiet."

John had never thought pussy looked like anything but, not delicate shells or flower petals or any of the other ridiculous descriptions people used, and he liked it that way, pussy, pure and simple. He got to know Rodney's with his fingers and then went back to gather more in-depth information with his tongue and lips. Rodney tangled his fingers in John's hair, pulling too hard, and John liked that, too. He'd always had a thing for going down, and Rodney vocalized ever last nuance of his response, and John could do this forever, he was pretty sure.

Afterwards, Rodney lay sprawled, huffing breathlessly, eyes unfocused. "Multiple orgasm," his voice floated away from him dreamily. "Check."

John smiled weakly, his cock pressed painfully against his zipper.

Rodney looked up at him, all soft eyes and swollen lips. "Jerk off. I want to watch you."

"Kinky," John said, not nearly as cool as he would have liked to sound.

John unzipped his pants, and Rodney demanded to see more skin. "Equal opportunity nakedness," he claimed. John happily shucked everything. Usually he liked to start slow, rub his chest, play with his nipples, but Rodney lying next to him, all female and sated, was hardly usual. He went right to it, hard curled around his cock, thumb circling the head. Rodney's teeth worried his bottom lip, a look of profound concentration as he watched.

"God. That's really—" Then he was kissing frantically, his tongue doing eager, dirty things to John's mouth.

John touched Rodney's breasts and touched himself, and Rodney whimpered and pulled away, scooting down the bed.

"You don't have to," he said, even as he cupped the back of Rodney's head, stroking his fingers through his hair.

It quickly became clear that Rodney wasn't new to this, all enthusiasm and finesse, although there was a time or two when his smaller female mouth seemed to frustrate him. John held onto Rodney's shoulders and closed his eyes and rode Rodney's throat. It was more than convenient that Rodney knew what he was doing—it was damned hot—and John didn't feel a bit bad when he came in Rodney's mouth.

He needed a minute for the buzz of orgasm to quiet down inside his head, and by then, Rodney was flopped onto his stomach, yawning.

"Um, do you really think we should—"

"You can stay if you want," Rodney mumbled. "But turn off the light."

John looked up at the ceiling. "This is my room, Rodney."

"Oh," he said into the pillow, and then he was snoring.

John reached for the lamp, and then he didn't know what to do, never did, even when the person in his bed wasn't his gender-fucked friend. He shifted around, trying to get comfortable, and if in the end he settled along Rodney's back, nose pressed into his hair, well, it wasn't like it was a very big bed.

When John woke the next morning, Rodney was already gone, and John really wasn't sure how to take that. He became even more puzzled over breakfast when Rodney sat down and dug into his eggs and made fun of John's cowlick, which was even more annoying than usual since Rodney was at least partially to blame for its extra wildness today. The mockery was quickly followed by a self-congratulatory ramble about the sheer genius of his most recent breakthrough, Rodney pausing only long enough to yell at Zelenka over the radio, as if this were any other morning and John hadn't spent a good part of the night before with his face between Rodney's legs. John tried to recall if Rodney had ever been this confusing as a man, and he was pretty sure he'd never even come close.

Rodney threw back the last of his fourth cup of coffee and got up and finally there was a slight faltering in his expression. "So, Colonel, I was wondering if you might have some time this evening to help me with that...project I've been working on." He shifted his weight uneasily, and John took just a moment longer than was strictly necessary to agree, because Rodney had kept him guessing, and fair was only fair. Rodney's knuckles had actually started to turn white by the time John finally cracked a grin. "Always happy to help."

It became a regular thing. John would go to his room once they'd finished dinner and shave and then head over to Rodney's, or sometimes if Rodney got too impatient waiting, he'd come to John's room and make fun of his Johnny Cash poster while John finished up in the bathroom. The important thing was: at no point had John intended to give Rodney lingerie. It just sort of happened.

Master Sergeant Nicholls, in charge of supplies, handed off the ownerless package. "I wasn't sure what else to do with it."

The box was addressed to Dr. Borden, one of the geologists, who had gone home through the stargate to deal with a family emergency, missing her Victoria's Secret order that had only now arrived aboard the Daedalus.

John had had just one dealing with Dr. Borden, a tall woman with a pretty, heart-shaped face and a manly grip when she shook hands. The mission had been to a volcanic planet that the geologists insisted merited further study. When John started to help her set up the equipment, she'd waved him off. "Nothing personal, but you'll just mess it up." She took over and in about two seconds had everything assembled. John had found that strangely arousing.

He stuck the package on a shelf in his quarters for safekeeping. If Dr. Borden didn't return, he could always send it to her on some future run of the Daedelus.

Then he began to think about what might be inside that box...

And that Rodney seemed to be about the same size as Dr. Borden...

And that it wasn't really stealing so much as salvaging abandoned merchandise.

John opened the package and found pretty much what he'd been hoping for, and that just left the question of how to give it to Rodney. All wrapped up with a bow might freak him out, and John felt like an idiot even considering it. Then again, just shoving lingerie in Rodney's face seemed crude and kind of presumptuous. John settled at last on stuffing it into a knapsack, along with a handful of condoms, not that he was expecting Rodney to change his mind about the ground rules or anything. He just liked to be prepared.

When he got to Rodney's, knapsack awkwardly in hand, he barely made it through the door before Rodney was all over him. John dropped the pack and put his hands on Rodney. He was just beginning to think that maybe even skimpy lingerie wasn't worth upsetting the very hot status quo when Rodney asked, "So, are you going to tell me what's in that bag you're trying so hard to ignore?"

John mumbled something that didn't sound terribly like English, and Rodney sighed and reached for the pack himself. "Oh" was all he said when he saw what was inside. He pulled out the lacy red bra and panties and let them dangle from his fingers, eyebrow raised at John.

"I thought it was one more thing you could check off your list," John said weakly.

"You got me underwear." Rodney couldn't seem to stop staring at it.

"You know. Or not." John added a careless shrug, trying to make indifference more plausible.

Rodney took a breath, and his expression shifted slightly, a little less surprise and a little more like he was mulling over the possibilities. "No one else ever knows about this."

John gave him an are you crazy look. "I'm not exactly planning on broadcasting the stuff we've been doing."

It took Rodney a moment or two longer to decide, but finally he went off to change. A loud banging and some cursing drifted out of the bathroom, giving John the impression that Rodney's first experience with a bra wasn't going entirely smoothly.

Finally, Rodney stomped out. "For the record? Underwires are the work of the devil. And if you even think about laughing at me—"

John didn't have presence of mind enough even to close his mouth. Okay, so he was a pig and painfully obvious and the worst kind of cliche. He couldn't help it when Rodney was...

"Really?" Rodney's blue eyes were wide and startled.

"Oh, yeah." And then John was kissing him urgently, hands sliding across Rodney's back, stroking over delicate lace.

"I thought I saw condoms in that bag, too," Rodney said as John kissed his neck.

He shook his head. "Absolutely not."

"Too bad." Rodney lazily rubbed his thumbs in circles over John's shoulders, occasionally pressing in. "Because if there were, we could check something else off the list."

John made a mad grab for the pack. "Condoms. Right here."

Rodney smirked knowingly.

Taking the frilly underwear off Rodney was, perhaps, even more fun than seeing him in it. John didn't rush, kissing and stroking and teasing Rodney out of the bra and panties, leaving him bright red in the cheeks and trembling and muttering some rather uncomplimentary things about John's mother. John laughed and went down on him. It was possible he enjoyed making Rodney crazy just a little too much. After his second orgasm, Rodney started to flail at John's shoulders, demanding, "Just fuck me, damn it!"

John grabbed a condom and tore open the package and...froze. Rodney's chest was heaving and flushed, sweat beaded along his upper lip, and his legs were flung open, his pussy wet and dark, ready. Perfectly female, with all that went along with it, and John freaked out so hard, so fast it left him light-headed.

"Just be careful," Rodney told him calmly. "You've managed to have sex all these years without knocking anyone up, unless there's something I don't know about. So stop panicking." A pause and then he added in a soft, sucker-punch of a voice, "I trust you."

The condom tore in John's suddenly too-clumsy hands, and Rodney rolled his eyes. "Or perhaps I spoke too soon."

John threw the condom down impatiently and opened another and managed to get this one on without incident. Rodney bit his lip and spread his legs encouragingly, and John didn't miss the nervousness beneath the bright, hard lust in Rodney's eyes. John stretched out over him and kissed and murmured, "I've got you."

He felt Rodney's breath catch as he entered him, and Rodney's expression shifted in rapid succession, the first shock of penetration giving way to a kind of bewildered vulnerability to something else that John couldn't name.

He stilled. "Okay?"

Rodney made an impatient noise and raked his fingernails up John's arms, and John figured that meant, yes, now shut up and fuck me.

Not a bad plan really, and he started to move, watching Rodney's face, as everything he did, every thrust, every touch, registered there. So damned hot, and it was hotter still when Rodney pulled him down into a kiss and wrapped his legs around John's waist. John rocked his hips harder, and Rodney was gasping and sweating beneath him, and that was when it really hit him, how big this was, Rodney trusting him.

He called out Rodney's name, and Rodney's body jerked, and then he went still, biting his lip. That was all John needed. He squeezed his eyes shut, and everything went after-image bright for a split second before dark.

He was so mincingly careful with the condom afterwards that he expected Rodney to make fun of him. But Rodney just murmured sleepily and commandeered John's chest as his own personal pillow. John could feel Rodney's eyelashes flutter against his skin as he tried to fight off sleep and lost. He pressed a kiss to the top of Rodney's head. "Goodnight."

They had sex again in the morning, and a quickie in the supply room that afternoon, stupid and risky and hot as hell, and still they didn't quite make it to the bed that evening. John hustled Rodney through the door, already kissing, and Rodney kept making it into some kind of challenge, "Come on! Just do it already." So John fucked him on the floor, and Rodney didn't even think to complain about the irreversible damage to his spinal alignment until the next day, about the same time it became apparent that embracing womanhood wasn't going to turn him back into a man.

"Huh," Rodney said. "So I guess your dick's no more magic than eyeliner."

John made a face at him. "Thanks a lot."

"That's not to say it isn't more fun."

They kept sleeping together, even after Rodney had abandoned his not-so-brilliant hypothesis. John spent most of his free time at Rodney's place, and some evenings when they were tired or had worked late or Rodney's tender parts were too tender, they skipped the sex and just sprawled on the couch, watching DVDs together like they used to do before. Only now Rodney curved against John's side, his head on John's shoulder, and John noticed every time how perfectly Rodney fit in the circle of his arm.

One day while John was putting together the munitions inventory, it struck him that Rodney was pretty much the first steady girlfriend he'd ever really had. He did his freaked-out best to bury that little revelation under an avalanche of details about 9mm clips and flamethrowers. But that was always the problem with self-knowledge; it was annoyingly hard to get rid of once you'd acquired it.

John entertained some vague notions about saying something to Rodney, but he couldn't honestly imagine that conversation, and then a mission came up, and that was pretty much that. PCX-392 reminded him of postcards he'd seen of Ireland, vivid green rolling hills and the occasional rocky outcropping. They detected a human settlement some distance away through a grove of trees, and the Ancients must have been there at some point. They'd left behind remnants of their technology, much of it overgrown and ruined, but Rodney had picked up some readings that seemed to indicate a functioning ZPM in a building not far from the stargate. He led the way excitedly, scanner in hand, the color rising in his cheeks. When they reached the facility, they found it locked from the inside, and the life signs detector showed one glowing dot.

"Blow the door, blow the door now!" Rodney insisted.

John made a face at him and knocked. "Hi, there. I'm Lt. Colonel John Sheppard. Here with Rodney and Teyla and Ronon. Friendly explorers come to visit. So how about you come on out and introduce yourself?"

"That's never going to work!" Rodney complained loudly.

The door creaked open, a pair of eyes peeking out, and John indulged in a moment of gloating before getting back to business. "Good to meet you—" He tilted his head questioningly.

The man stepped out, still seeming rather reluctant. "I am Juran, known among my people as The Keeper, because I look after the great machine of the Ancestors." He kept craning his neck, darting nervous glances over their heads at the horizon.

"Machine?" Rodney demanded.

Juran turned toward Rodney, and fireworks practically went off in his eyes. He pulled himself up taller, puffed out his chest. "The machine that keeps the Wraith away."

Rodney's expression sharpened. "You mean a shield?"

"So it could be called, I suppose. I would be most happy to demonstrate it for you." Juran sighed heavily. "But something happened, and it's not working just at the moment."

Rodney's mouth turned down at the corners. "That tends to happen when someone woefully ignorant is left in charge of sophisticated technology. Fortunately I'm here, and, hey, I actually know what I'm doing."

Juran leered at him appreciatively. "I'm sure you do."

Rodney sighed. "Yes. Well. I'd better get started fixing whatever it is that you've screwed up."

"I'm at your service should you—"

John caught Juran by the arm before he could follow Rodney into the building, plastering on an insincere smile. "Nice planet you got here. Why don't you show us around? Introduce us to some of your pals."

"That would be my pleasure, of course." Juran darted a longing glance at the doorway. "But I'd hate to leave a woman to do all the work by herself."

"McKay's fine." Ronon slung an arm around Juran's shoulders. "So, got anything to eat around here?"

Juran reluctantly gave in and walked with them to the settlement. At first, he kept trying to edge closer to Teyla, but Teyla gave him one of those warning looks, not to be argued with, and Juran shuffled his feet sheepishly and fell back. John made a mental note: Get Teyla to teach that to Rodney. In town, there were neat rows of stone houses, paved sidewalks, and what looked to be gas streetlamps. The planet's population had reached a beginning stage of industrial development, about the equivalent of early nineteenth century Earth, if John had to guess. The town square buzzed with activity, vendors selling food and kids playing tag and couples strolling on the grass, all of which ceased when the townspeople caught sight of them. By some unspoken agreement, they began gathering into what John had to call a mob, advancing to meet them.

John tightened his grip on his P-90 and put on a friendly voice, "We're peaceful explorers, just here to have a look around. There's no need to start waving pitchforks."

"Yes, yes," Juran quickly chimed in. "In fact, I have wonderful news, my friends. These visitors have knowledge of the great machine of the Ancestors. Even as we speak, one of them is working on repairs, so that it may soon protect us again."

Oddly enough, this reprieve from possible culling did nothing to brighten anyone's expression, although the mob did at least disband. The hard, suspicious looks, however, persisted. John exchanged glances with Teyla and Ronon. They seemed just as puzzled.

The Keeper clapped his hands together, smiling brightly, as if he noticed none of this. "We must thank our guests for their invaluable assistance. Who will offer them hospitality?"

Silence hit like a rockslide, and John was just about to get wry, "oh, no, never mind us," when a man stepped forward. "I am Darvis. My wife Miilla, our daughter Sarene, and I were just about to sit down to lunch. You are most welcome to join us."

"Hey, thanks," John managed to sound only a little sarcastic. "We'd be delighted."

"Of course, we mustn't forget the angel of mercy at work fixing the great machine," Juran said. "If you'll fix some food, Miilla, I'll take it to her."

"Oh, you must not trouble yourself, Keeper," Miilla said quickly. "Sarene can deliver it."

"It's no trouble at all." Juran glared at her.

"It'd be great if Sarene could take Rodney some lunch," John said, stressing the Sarene part. "Rodney has this thing about low blood sugar and…complaining. And, hey," he clapped Juran soundly on the back, making him wince, "I'm sure there's all kinds of…cultural exchange stuff we should probably talk about. Right, Teyla?"

To her credit, Teyla barely missed a beat. "Yes, of course, Colonel. As you know, great importance is placed upon such matters among my people."

John nodded. "And, Ronon, I'm sure you…"

Ronon raised an eyebrow.

"Okay," John breezed on. "That still leaves a lot of culture to exchange. So let's go sit down and have at it."

Juran sighed heavily. "Well, I suppose if it's your custom to discuss such things— First, though, there's a matter I must settle. The duties of The Keeper. I'm sure you understand." He smiled about as convincingly as a used car salesman.

"Sure. No problem. We'll wait right here for you." John planted his feet and rested his gun on his hip and returned Juran's fraudulent smile.

"Fine," Juran sighed at last. "It'll take just a moment." He walked awkwardly over to one of the young women, said something into her ear and rejoined them. "All right then. Let us go partake of this cultural exchange of yours."

Darvis led them into his house, and John hung back just a moment, tapping his radio. "How's it coming, Rodney? Everything okay there?"

"No, Colonel, everything is not okay. That moron who's supposedly been taking care of this equipment knows just enough about it to be dangerous."

"But…you're making progress, right?"

Rodney sighed heavily. "There's no reason to insult me."

Miilla invited them to sit down and began bringing platters of food to the table. When Sarene returned, they ate. John was just about to start describing the wonders of football and Ferris wheels when the young woman Juran had spoken with before appeared with an urgent request, "I am very sorry to disturb you, Keeper, but you must come at once."

"Forgive me," Juran said, with an apologetic smile. "My work is never done."

He hurried away, and they went back to their meal, the conversation significantly quieter now. Darvis kept casting nervous glances toward the door.

Finally, John put down his fork. "Look, it's pretty obvious that something's going on around here. You want to clue us in?"

Darvis avoided his gaze. "Forgive us. We don't get many visitors. Perhaps our manners are a bit rusty."

Teyla pressed him politely, "I do not believe that explains the odd reaction of your people to the news that they would once again be safe from the Wraith."

"We will be grateful to have the machine of the Ancestors working again, of course," Darvis answered stiffly.

"But...?" John prompted.

Miilla shot her husband a sharp, shushing look.

John leaned in. "We're not here to cause trouble. Maybe we can even help."

"We fear culling, naturally," Darvis said with a heavy air of resignation, "but the alternative is not much kinder. At least when the machine wasn't working, there was no decision to make. We didn't have to choose one form of sacrifice over another."

The hair prickled on the back of John's neck. "What kind of sacrifice?"

Darvis looked John in the eye at last. "The Keeper is the only one who can make the great machine function, and he demands…company."

Miilla got up abruptly and left the room. Sarene stared down at her plate, her cheeks turning red. It took only a second for those dots to connect, and then John was up and out the door. He spotted the girl who'd come to the get The Keeper, and she looked away guiltily. John ran, trying to raise Rodney on the radio, but there was no answer. He clamored through the door of the shield generator building, and there was Rodney at the control panel, Juran next to him, not nearly enough daylight between them. Somehow he'd gotten Rodney's radio, and John heard Rodney say, "Yes, keepaway is always such fun, but that's not a toy, you imbecile."

Then Juran put a hand on Rodney, and John went a little crazy. The man's head made such a satisfying sound when he pounded it into the ground.

"Colonel!" Rodney grappled at his arm. "Stop it! Stop it now!"

It took Ronon to finally drag John off. Teyla stared at him like he'd lost his mind. Rodney wouldn't look at him all, which didn't stop John from hustling him out of the building. "Come on. We're getting the hell out of here."

"I'm not finished," Rodney snapped.

"You are now!" John shouted at him.

Back in the gate room, Elizabeth was waiting, her expression arranged in a familiar mix of curiosity and dread. "What happened?"

"We—ran into something of a situation," John said vaguely.

Rodney snorted. "You mean, you created one."

Elizabeth looked from him back to John. "Care to elaborate?"

"They've got a shield, but only one man with the gene who can operate it, and he uses that power to exploit the women. We need to send Becket through to give these people the gene therapy and even up the playing field."

"He can also treat any skull fractures we might have left behind while he's there," Rodney said dryly.

Elizabeth's eyes widened at John. "What did you do?"

John answered stonily, "Nothing that wasn't justified, trust me. We also need to send a science team. The shield's still down, and the population's vulnerable."

"Why can't Rodney go?" Elizabeth asked, puzzled.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "Yes, Colonel, I'm interested. Tell us why."

"I just think it would be better if—" John floundered. "I'm sure there are more important things Rodney needs to do around here."

Rodney pressed his mouth into a thin line, no less disapproving an expression on female lips, and he stomped off without another word.

Elizabeth gave John an uncomfortably knowing look. "You can take Zelenka. This time. But whatever is going on with you and Rodney? Fix it."

Unfortunately, this proved more difficult than John was envisioning. He returned to the planet with the rest of the team, and they explained about the gene therapy, and Zelenka fixed the shield generator, and by the time they were ready to leave, the people finally seemed glad to have them around. "We are in your debt," Darvis said, with a hearty shake of John's hand just before they headed back to the stargate. Once in Atlantis again, they debriefed with Elizabeth, and then John went off to deal with Rodney. When Rodney refused to answer his calls on the radio, he headed to his room. But Rodney wouldn't let him in either, and when John tried to think the door open, it remained stubbornly uncooperative. Apparently, Rodney had installed a few extra security measures.

If anyone had ever asked John about Rodney's skills of stealth, John would have said, "What stealth?" But apparently, Rodney had just never been intent on ditching him before. A few days on the receiving end of avoidance was enough to drive John slightly crazy, and when he arrived at the lab for what had to be the fiftieth or sixtieth time to find no Rodney, he crowded Zelenka into a corner, figuring Rodney must have collaborators if he was managing to be this elusive. "Okay. Where is he?"

Zelenka's eyes got big. "He just left to go offworld. I thought you'd be with him."

John frowned. "Offworld where?"

"Back to the planet where...he said he's had enough. He's going to get his penis back and all the male privilege that comes with it." Zelenka shrugged.

John double-timed it to the locker room and caught Rodney just as he was heading out. He herded him back inside. "I need to talk to you."

Rodney glared. "I'm busy."

"Going back to the planet. I heard," John said with not that you bothered to tell me yourself in parentheses. "Can we please just get things straight between us first?"

"No, Colonel. We can't. Things have been far too straight between us for far too long already." He pushed past John.

John caught his arm and whirled him back around. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? Look, I know you're pissed off at me. I know I insulted your professional dignity or whatever, but that dickhead back on PCX-392 had his hands on you. He was a rapist, and he had his hands on you. What did you expect me to do?"

Rodney's expression grew more annoyed. "Is that all you think this is about?"

"Well—isn't it?" John felt suddenly stupid.

Rodney shook his head like he was disgusted and tried once again to get around John.

John blocked the way more insistently. "Come on! Cut me a break."

"Fine," Rodney said in a tone of high persecution. "You wanted to protect me. I get that. And, hey, thanks. Not really big on being manhandled by sex offenders. Even your patronizing little powerplay of not letting me go back to the planet—I could forgive that because you were obviously not in your right mind, which brings us to the problem. Why weren't you in your right mind?"

"I think we've established that I was a little angry," John said defensively.

Rodney's eyes widened. "Oh, please. You were a fucking nutcase. I thought you were going to commit homicide right in front of me."

"I didn't want him to touch you! Or hurt you. Or fucking look at you. Okay?"

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "Why?"

"What the hell kind of question is that?"

"Why?" Rodney demanded.

"Because you're a member of my team, and a friend, and I wouldn't let that happen to anyone, especially not someone I lo—" He lurched to a stop.

Rodney looked as if John had just punched him in the gut. Really hard. "I never thought you could… but God, there it was, written all over your face when you were trying to break that pervert's head open. And now we are both just completely fucked."

"Calm down," John said, managing to sound far more levelheaded than he actually felt. "It's not that bad. You don't have to freak out."

"I do! I have to freak out!" Rodney's voice rose, a little hysterically. "I thought this would be okay. This—us. You like women, and I like men, and for once that actually worked in my favor. Who was it going to hurt? That's what I kept telling myself. Only now you've fallen for—" He waved his hand at his boobs. "And I fell for—" He gestured at all of John. "Pretty much the moment I met you." Rodney's tone grew accusing, "Why couldn't you just be oversexed and opportunistic like most men?"

John threw up his hands in exasperation. "Oh, okay. I'm sorry! Sorry you aren't just some convenient piece of ass to me."

"Well, you should be!" Rodney shouted. "Now, get out of my way. They're waiting for me in the gate room."

John let him pass, with one caveat. "I'm coming with you."

"Oh, no, you're not."

"Civilians are required to have a military escort offworld. It's regulations."

Rodney made a face at him. "Because you're all about the rules." They reached the gate room, and Lorne was there, geared up, P-90 in hand. "As you can see, I asked the Major to go with me. So you can just run along now."

"Major Lorne takes order from me, not you."

Lorne's inquisitive look faded at the tone in John's voice. Without a word, he handed over his gun and wasted no time getting out of there.

"Fine," Rodney huffed. "Come along. Remind me at every turn how humiliating and hopeless this is, if you really must."

"Oh, come on. It's not like that."

Rodney put his hands on his hips. "Really? Then how is it?"

"I don't know! Just—not like that."

"Um, Colonel Sheppard?" Chuck's voice came tentatively from the control room. "Are you and Dr. McKay ready?"

John waved his hand, and Chuck dialed the gate, and as they walked up to the event horizon, John insisted, "It's really not like that, Rodney."

When they came through on the other side, they received as warm a welcome as they had before. John hurried through the pleasantries and asked if they could speak with Anoria.

The women exchanged glances and finally one said, "I'm sorry. That is not possible. There is no Anoria."

Rodney had already been tense, and this sent him right over the edge. "What do you mean? Of course, there is. I should know. I have her to thank for these." He grabbed his breasts. "Now take us to her. Do it now. Or I can't possibly be responsible for my actions."

The woman held up her hands, trying to calm him. "I am sorry. I did not mean to upset you. Anore has gone back to his people, but perhaps you would like to speak with the new head scientist?"

"His people?" John asked.

The woman looked confused by the question. "Yes. He completed his journey."

"So...are all the women here—" John shook his head. "You know what? Never mind."

"Head scientist," Rodney muttered impatiently.

"Please," John added, slightly desperately.

She was named Valina and seemed to be expecting them. "Welcome, Dr. McKay. So, have you completed your journey?"

Rodney got irate, "I think you can see I haven't!"

Valina was perplexed for a moment. "Oh. You refer to your physical state? Of course, we will need to return to the lab for that. A journey ends where it began, does it not?"

Rodney just stared at her. "This has to be the stupidest galaxy in the entire universe."

John stepped between them before Rodney could lambaste his way out of ever being a man again. "I think what Dr. McKay means is, which way to the lab?"

Valina showed them. "Just walk through that door, and you will be returned to your former state."

Rodney reached for the handle, and John reached for his hand. "Wait." Rodney's expression turned dark—well, darker—and John said in a rush, "No, I don't mean...just—" He cupped Rodney's cheek, thumb stroking soft skin, and kissed him. "Goodbye."

It didn't quite fit, but then the right word for such a moment hadn't been invented yet, and Rodney seemed to get that. He nodded and said, "It's been interesting. I'll say that for it."

He stepped through the door, and a moment later returned, his old self. "Come on," he said curtly, leaving John to offer hasty thanks to Valina and run after him.

"Can you wait a minute?"

"No." Rodney went out the exit and marched back toward the stargate, gravel crunching stridently beneath his feet.

"Yes," John insisted, pulling him off the path. "Will you just—" Listen wasn't going to do him any good, so he took Rodney's face in his hands. Rodney tensed, and John kissed him anyway, and after a moment or two, the stubborn line of Rodney's mouth softened.

"What I was trying to say is, welcome back."

"Thank you," Rodney said dryly. "And we're still completely fucked, just so you know."

John raised an eyebrow. "Aren't scientists supposed to hang back and see what happens and not jump to conclusions?"

Rodney sighed. "You can't just turn off to pussy, and turn on to cock, John. It doesn't work that way."

John rested his hand on the back of Rodney's neck, guiding him back to the path. "I can't just turn off to you either, Rodney. So give me a chance to figure this out, huh?"

Rodney threw up his hands. "Okay. Fine. Have it your way. Try. Even if it is completely impossible."

John broke into a grin. "You always say that, and when has it ever actually been impossible?"

He crooked his elbow around Rodney's shoulders. In all honesty, he didn't know what was going to happen next, but there was no part of him that didn't want to find out. The important thing was: Rodney still fit, like no one else ever had, in the circle of his arm.