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Pads, Paws and Claws

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"I can't give it up," Rodney said.

Jennifer leaned her head against his, close and private in the dark.

"There are a lot of things I'm willing to try to change," he said. "Less arrogance... okay. Acknowledging other people, I'm working on that. Though I feel I should note that in reports and documentation, where it counts, I'm always scrupulous about giving proper credit."

"I know that. It's not that I think anything's wrong with you, Rodney," she said. "I love you. I just think you'd be happier if you got along with people a little better."

She felt him nod. "I know. And honestly, it's-- I mean, my parents never bothered because they didn't give a damn, so it, ah, it means something. To me. You know."

"I know." Jennifer took a deep breath. "Do you have sex with him?"

Rodney said reluctantly, "Yes? But it's..." he exhaled frustration. "We've had sex a few times. Not while I've been seeing you. Before. It was good, great, but it's not important. Not like this."

She was trying, she really was. "It's that important," she said, "but it's not something you want to do with me."

"It is something I want to do with you, that's what I'm saying."

"I mean you don't want to do this with just me."

"Oh. Maybe? If you want? I'd-- yeah," Rodney said. "But I can't give this up-- I can't give him up. I tried, when I was seeing Katie. Obviously we weren't having sex then, and we cut way down on the other stuff too. And then I was going to propose, and there was that quarantine scare and I was sure we were all going to die. After it was all over, all I wanted to do was come back to my quarters and curl up with my girlfriend and my cat, and I couldn't do that with Katie."

"So you told her you needed time," Jennifer remembered.

"Yes! Exactly! Time to figure out how to explain it to her."

"And she thought it was a breakup and left."

"I took too long," Rodney said. "It's hard. It's not just me. If I took too long to tell you, then, then... I'm sorry."

"It's not too late," she said. "I'm glad you told me."

He kissed her. With words, he was stilted a lot, uncertain, but when he touched her he was expressive and sure. She believed that he loved her when she felt the slow care of his hands on her.

She knew she should feel loved, too, that he trusted her enough to share this with her.

Maybe it would feel that way later.

*

All the senior staff's housing assignments had changed while Atlantis was on Earth. The requirements were tough: they needed to be close to the central column that housed the jumper bay, gateroom, and infirmary, in case the transporters went down, but far enough away to be defensible if a disaster started from the gate.

Most of the rooms that fit the criteria were small. "Bunks for on-call technicians, originally," Rodney had explained to her. "Long-term, people lived further down, or out on the arms."

There were larger suites close to the gateroom too, once meant for visiting dignitaries, but the area had been damaged for as long as the expedition had been in the city, and fixing it had been a low priority when everyone could just use the little rooms.

On Earth, though, there had been plenty of resources and time. Rodney had ordered the new engineers to repair the suites as a trial to see who could handle Ancient tech well enough to come to Pegasus.

Most of the expedition had suites now. On blueprints, it looked as though all the senior staff shared a hallway, but in reality, Jennifer, Rodney, Colonel Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon were around a bend from Mr. Woolsey and Major Lorne and the new operations director, the new psychiatrist, and the rest of the senior staff.

There was a wall decoration at that curve in the hallway, and together with the bend, it made it hard to see the doors of the suites beyond. Jennifer's smaller quarters used to be around a bend like that from AR-1's quarters and she'd never seen their doors unless she walked down there.

She'd always wondered if that was deliberate. She supposed now she knew.

*

"You can't laugh," said Rodney.

Jennifer fidgeted. "Is there a costume?"

"No, no no no," Rodney shook his head, "no, er, just pajamas, or regular clothes."

She tried to picture it, drawing a blank. "I won't laugh."

"If you feel like you might, just duck into the washroom, okay?" he asked. "Please. It's taking a lot just to get him to agree to this. When I bring it up, he just shrugs and says we'll stop. But we need this. I do. And I know he needs it too, from when we stopped before. He gets... depressed, or something... he acts like no one cares about him."

"I won't laugh," she promised.

*

Jennifer felt nervous and silly as Rodney led her to his rooms. Maybe she would laugh. God, what if she laughed? The thought made her queasy.

But it was the idea of Colonel Sheppard behind that door that affected her. That was what made it surreal: the military commander, the hero, acting like a pet.

She just had to think of him as John. He'd been her patient, she'd seen him unconscious on her operating table, and he hadn't intimidated her then. She'd felt nothing but compassion for him, and a determination to do right by him, help him. She tried to draw on those feelings now.

Rodney didn't remind her again before they went inside, even though she could see his anxiety. He turned to her and suddenly gave her a fast kiss and squeezed her hand, and then they went inside.

John lay on the bed, his body a long dark curve. Rodney's old bed had been a full, but on Earth he'd bought an enormous custom bed with its own special linens. Jennifer had wondered then if something like this might be coming, though Rodney just made a lot of noise about the tragic state of his back.

"Hey, fella," Rodney said, in a tone Jennifer didn't recognize at all. He sounded fond and indulgent-- Rodney, indulgent.

John opened his eyes, looked at them without expression, and closed them again. There wasn't anything particularly catlike about his position, Jennifer thought, but as she got closer she realized his arms were sort of folded under him a bit like a cat. He was wearing a black shirt and black pants, she'd expected that. The fabric looked soft, like velvet or velour.

Rodney kicked off his shoes, started up a playlist of soft classical music, and snagged his tablet. He handed Jennifer her laptop and climbed onto the bed. "Move, lump," he said, prodding John with his foot. John made a grumbling noise and rolled onto his side, making room.

Jennifer sat on the bed next to Rodney, both of them propped against the padded headboard. They'd chosen it together on Earth, talking about how they could spend evenings like this, resting in bed and doing their paperwork side by side.

She hadn't imagined John dozing at the foot of the bed when she pictured it, but it didn't feel as strange as she expected. Not even when Rodney patted his knee and crooned, "C'mere, you. Come on," and John got up on hands and knees, stretching, and curled up against Rodney's leg.

John's black shirt was long-sleeved, Jennifer noticed. It surprised her a little. She saw him so often with his sleeves rolled up.

Then again, she didn't normally see him snuggling up against Rodney's leg, or yawning enormously without covering his mouth, unselfconscious.

Rodney set up his tablet, its case holding it up in his lap, and began flying through reports, adding his digital signature to the bottom of each one. Jennifer opened her laptop and pulled up the latest research on the Hoffan plague.

Somehow, work did what it always did: she got absorbed in reading and making notes, and almost forgot about John. Jennifer glanced up eventually, feeling thirsty, and looked over. Rodney was petting John's hair, a slow, absent motion. After a minute or two, John lifted his head and rubbed his cheek against Rodney's knee. Rodney ran his fingers behind John's ear and stroked his hair again.

"I'm getting a glass of water, do you want one?" she asked.

"Yes, not too cold," Rodney said without looking up. She was used to that.

She got two glasses of water and returned, putting Rodney's on the table on his side to be ignored, bringing her own to the table on her side.

John had moved while she was gone. He lay across Rodney's leg now, in Jennifer's reach.

Rodney looked up as Jennifer sidled up to him on the bed again, glancing from her to John and back again. "He likes petting on top of his head, not too hard," he explained. "And rubbing behind his ears, but not scratching. He doesn't really like petting on his face or his chin... sometimes lightly along his cheekbones, but only if he starts it. He likes having his throat stroked, but he'll probably have to know you better before he'll let you do that."

Jennifer watched John. She knew from the infirmary that he was uncomfortable hearing people talk about him-- she'd seen the galled look he wore when the nurses and doctors discussed his care with each other in his earshot. Here and now, though, John didn't react at all, his eyes peacefully closed.

She wondered if that was part of the appeal for him, the freedom of pretending he didn't understand what anyone was saying.

It had gone pretty well up to now, and she didn't want to screw it up by pushing it, but they were here to try this, and she couldn't try it without making a move.

And anyway, it was kind of hard to resist. John looked strangely touchable. Outside this room, he had about a yard and a half of personal space. Sometimes he tensed up when she touched him in the infirmary even when he was barely conscious.

Now she carefully ran her hand over his head. He opened his eyes, flicked a look up to her, and closed them. She petted him again and he didn't react.

After a few more strokes, he lifted his head a little, pushing up into her touch. Jennifer found herself smiling, bizarrely pleased. She kept it up, keeping her touch light. Eventually she could go back to reading, paging down with one hand while she gently stroked his hair with the other.

She pressed close to Rodney, warm at her side. Eventually he finished signing reports and switched to reading, and he put his arm around her. She'd liked that from the beginning, how cuddly he was. Maybe he learned to like that from doing this with John.

It wasn't like she'd expected. John didn't make any cat noises, didn't try to sound like he was purring. The noises he did make were normal wordless vocalizations, just little huffs and hums. He moved on his hands and knees on the bed, but most people would do that ordinarily anyway.

Eventually she needed to type some notes and lifted her hand away from John, and when she was free again, she found he'd moved. He stretched his arms out in front of him while he pushed up with his knees and arched his back. It was the most overtly catlike thing she'd seen him do yet, and she couldn't look away as he padded up the bed, ducked his head under Rodney's arm and got right up in his face.

"Oh, am I done?" Rodney asked in that tone again, amused and fond.

John butted Rodney's shoulder with the top of his head. Rodney put the tablet aside, with a wry smile at Jennifer. "I guess I'm finished for the night," he said. "Unless I can read through this thicket," and he stroked through John's hair, smoothing it down. It just popped right back up again.

John hummed and turned on his side, most of him still curled between Rodney's legs. Jennifer had to check; Rodney didn't look as if he had an erection. They'd had sex earlier in her quarters, though, so she couldn't be sure if this usually turned him on or not. John might be partly erect. She knew his flaccid penis could account for that bulge, though, so the distention at his groin might just mean he wasn't wearing underwear with the soft pajamas, which seemed likely, now that she thought of it.

Rodney ran the backs of his fingers softly along John's throat, and John arched to expose his neck, letting Rodney run his palm up and down, from the notch of his clavicle up to his chin and down again.

Jennifer had never really thought of herself as a voyeur; she didn't get much of anything out of visual porn. But it was different to see this in person. It wasn't sex, but it was intimate. She felt a little thrill of excitement, watching Rodney touch John tenderly.

John ducked his head down and nuzzled against Rodney's wrist. Rodney petted his hair a few more times, rubbing his neck when John pushed up seeming to ask for it.

John sighed, and sat back, up on his knees. He half-smiled at Jennifer-- oh. Roleplay over, then; she smiled back. He swung his legs off the bed and stood, stretching again, a completely human stretch, fingers laced together, bouncing a little on his toes. He walked out of the bedroom. Rodney didn't seem to be paying attention, finally drinking his water.

She heard a drawer open and shut in the next room, and a few minutes later, John appeared in the doorway: black t-shirt, BDU pants, loosely laced boots, his watch back on.

"You two have fun," he smirked.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Good night."

"G'night."

Jennifer listened to the doors shut behind him. Rodney looked at her, and whatever was in her face made him beam and kiss her.

"Yeah," she said, "it's good. I think I like it."

*

She had more questions, though, and the next night, lying in their huge bed with Rodney's arms around her, she asked.

"I think he just has a low sex drive," Rodney said cautiously. "I mean, with my track record, I'll say that and then it'll turn out he's been screwing his way through the support staff..."

She poked him. "Rodney."

"Well, we both know I'm not exactly good at reading people." He sighed. "Okay, it's... John gets this blank look sometimes. I think usually it means he's hiding something and he hasn't come up with a distraction yet. So... whenever we're around guys bitching about how long it's been since they got laid, John gets that blank look. I think it's because he's covering that he doesn't see what the big deal is with going three or four months without sex. But that's a lot of suppositions chained together to get that conclusion."

"It sounds pretty plausible though," she said. "I know the look you're talking about."

"I thought maybe he was repressed, or traumatized? But... I don't think so. I've seen him repressing things and I've seen him deal with trauma and it's not like that. And maybe every trauma's different, but... I don't know. He seemed to like it when we slept together, I mean obviously, or I would've stopped, but it's only been a few times. He just doesn't seem to get excited that often."

Doctor-patient confidentiality was strained on Atlantis, the dangers were such that by necessity, they'd all signed waivers that made confetti out of HIPAA. But Jennifer tried to preserve privacy where she could, so she ignored the hint of a question in Rodney's voice. If John had a low sex drive, it wasn't caused by any physical condition that they'd detected, but if Rodney wanted to know that, he'd have to hear it from John.

"There was this time," Rodney resumed, "were you around then? I don't think so. Uh, he got stuck in a time dilation field. Six months. And when he got back, he told me he'd slept with a woman there-- her first time. I said, just her first time? And I got that look. Like of course he only slept with one woman once in six months." Rodney shrugged. "In five, six years now, it's been... I don't know, three people? And that's counting non-corporeal glowy sharing with an Ascended Ancient. 'Glowy sharing' is a direct quote from him, by the way."

Jennifer couldn't help grinning at his irritated tone. "So, three people. And you, you're people," she said. How weird was that, to be teasing her boyfriend about sleeping with someone else-- she thought she should feel weird about it, anyway, but she just had the awareness and not the feeling itself.

"Yeah. I thought there were more people for a long time, but one time we were drinking and I said so, and he acted surprised. And I thought he just wasn't that, you know... into me? But he started it the first time, and it was one of those post-near-death things and there was no way I was going to say no. It's confusing, because he seemed really into it. He doesn't come off like he has issues with sex, he just doesn't seem to want it that often."

She hesitated. "If he did," she said finally, "would you still want to be with me?"

"Yes," he said automatically, the right answer, of course, and then she heard him make a stymied noise. "I think so," he added more honestly, "but I can't know, and-- does it matter? This is the way things are. I love you. I want to build a life with you."

"And him."

"If we can."

"I care about him too." She cared about all her patients, and John had been her patient more often than anyone; and she cared transitively, because Rodney did, and she loved Rodney. "But it makes things more complicated."

"I know." Rodney's fingers skated delicately down her temple, her cheek, her lips. She loved how he touched her mouth, the pad of his thumb against sensitive skin, sweet and a turn-on at once.

And she liked it when he wrapped his arms around her, too, like he did now, making her feel warm and safe and surrounded.

Rodney shifted, moving his arm up a little and resettling her with her neck on the swell of his bicep. "Aaah, pins and needles..."

"Do you want me off you?"

"No," his other arm tightened around her waist, "there's no point when it already hurts. I might as well get the benefit since I'm already suffering."

"You can't see it in the dark, but just so you know, I'm rolling my eyes right now."

"What? I know it's not a grievous injury but it does hurt."

"I know, but I'm off the clock. I don't have to take you seriously til my shift starts."

"I should've known, even dating you doesn't get me a house call."

"Next time I need to borrow a cup of astrophysics, I'll give you an IOU for a house call."

"How about next time I save the city?"

"Okay," she agreed. "Whenever you save the city, I'll give you an IOU. But no putting the city in danger just so you can save it."

"There's always a catch." He kissed her. "I'm, ah... I'm glad we can talk like this."

"Which this?"

"All the thises," Rodney said. "I like joking with you and I like being able to tell you about everything now. The stuff with Sheppard, I've never been able to talk about it."

"What about the team?"

Rodney squeezed her. "I trust them with anything, but... I'm pretty sure Ronon didn't have sex for seven years while he was running, so his take on this might be a little skewed. And Teyla thinks John is normal."

Jennifer couldn't help snorting at that. Not because of the cat roleplay. Actually that struck her as one of the least strange things about John Sheppard.

"I know," Rodney said, "can you imagine all these planets we visit, getting their whole idea of what Earth is like based on me and John Sheppard?"

"I really can't," she giggled. "I can't imagine it at all, and I think I'm glad!"

"Great. I'm a laughingstock in my own bed," he said, and then corrected himself, "Our own bed."

She wasn't laughing anymore after that, too busy kissing him silly.

*

They tried it a second time. It was amazing how easy it could be to fall into a routine.

It already felt ordinary. Jennifer and Rodney rested shoulder-to-shoulder against the headboard, legs angled out to make room. John stretched out between Rodney's right leg and Jennifer's left, leaning against whichever of them had a hand free for him.

After an hour or so, he responded to her hand as easily as he did to Rodney's. She wasn't brave enough to touch his throat yet, but she stroked his head and neck and the line of his spine, the velvety shirt soft and warm under her palm. When she got distracted and her hand went still, he rubbed his cheek against her fingers for a while. It felt nice.

Like before, eventually he demanded Rodney's full attention. John rolled up onto hands and knees, yawning widely with animal abandon. He moved on all fours across Rodney's lap. Rodney's mouth was already twitching up, but he kept his eyes on his tablet. John leaned with his whole body against Rodney's chest.

"Just a minute, beast," Rodney said, with a couple of desultory pats.

John did it again.

"Settle down," Rodney said, rubbing behind John's ear. John gathered himself up and lay across Rodney's lap, arms out, his face looking a little sulky even though he maintained the lack of expression he kept up while he was a cat. She kept expecting his ear to flip in an irked little twitch.

Rodney saved what he was doing and put the tablet away. "Fine, you big baby," he said, hand smoothing a long line from the crown of John's head to the small of his back.

"Did you see that email about the budget?" Jennifer asked him quietly.

"Contingent on deliverables, my ass," said Rodney. "My deliverable is their conspicuous lack of annihilation."

"I kind of doubt Woolsey will sign off on that answer..."

She let him blow through some ranting until they got into a real conversation about it, working up some ways to push back on the IOA's demands. At this time of night Rodney was fairly subdued, for him, one hand waving around while the other kept a steady rhythm on John. He must've gotten rougher or something, though, because as he was winding down another round of complaints, John turned his head and bit Rodney's hand.

It was light, his teeth barely pressing the skin, she could see that immediately, and she placed the gesture right away... a cat who wanted to stay in a comfy spot but got tired of being petted would give a little warning chomp to signal the petting should stop.

"Hey," Rodney said, without heat, "none of that." He scruffed John and gave him a couple of gentle shakes. "No biting." He turned to Jennifer. "Actually I don't mind when he does it to me, but I don't want to let him get into a bad habit and do it to other people."

"I'm not worried about it," she said, and boldly petted John. After a few touches, he bit her fingers too. It was so light it hardly felt like anything. "See, it's fine," she said, "It feels kind of nice, really."

"Still a bad habit," Rodney groused, but he didn't scruff John again. He stroked just John's shoulders, which seemed okay judging by how John twisted to get more of it. "Treacherous creature," Rodney said, "going around biting people who're nice to you. You're lucky I don't have a spray bottle of water handy." Rodney hadn't mentioned anything like that, so she assumed he was joking.

Of course John ignored his words anyway, bending his back up as Rodney scratched his shoulder blades, then collapsing bonelessly across Rodney's lap. Jennifer scooted a little closer til John's head rested on her leg. She had a feeling if he did purr, he'd be doing it now; his body language was loose and content.

She dared to flutter her fingers over his throat. John didn't respond for a long moment. He lolled his head to the side. She smoothed her hand lightly over the dark grit of stubble down to the bare warmth of his neck.

"He's so pretty," she said without thinking, because he was, like this. John just breathed, letting her touch him.

*

"I want to try it," Jennifer said, feeling feverish. She was pretty comfortable with it now, enough that last time, she and John both fell asleep, his head on her thigh, her hand on his shoulder.

But it was different to admit she wanted to play at it herself.

"Okay," Rodney said with every appearance of eagerness.

"I'm not trying to replace him," she said.

"Oh." That hadn't even occurred to Rodney, she saw. He had so much faith in her. "Well, no, of course not."

She didn't know where to begin. "How did it start, with you and him?"

"That first year, when we were cut off... it was a whole smorgasbord of coping mechanisms around here," said Rodney, "and since everyone was basically scared out of their wits, no one was judging. I'm told I complained supposedly 'a lot' about how they wouldn't let me bring my cat with us. And it started to seem like every time we watched a movie or sat around a campfire at an Athosian party, John would doze off and end up with his head on my leg, and I'd end up playing with his hair, and he let me, even though he usually acts like he'd gnaw an arm off to escape from a hug. So it just got more and more... clear."

"You never talked about it?"

"I don't know why you sound surprised, you know him. Anyway, isn't that part of it? Never having to say anything?"

"Maybe," she said slowly. "I guess I'm not sure yet why I want to try it. I just want to see how it feels."

"Whenever you want," said Rodney.

She nodded, and nudged his legs apart.

"Ah, right then, okay," Rodney made room for her.

Jennifer got up on all fours. She had no idea how John did this without any appearance of self-consciousness; she felt so awkward. How was she supposed to emulate feline grace when her legs were twice as long as they ought to be, dragging ungainly behind her?

But then she moved, her knees sliding easily across the high thread-count sheets, and she had John's example to remind her that she didn't have to fake it. She didn't have to do anything that made her feel silly; she didn't need to meow, or mime as if she had paws.

She could just move to where she wanted to be and curl up there, and let Rodney stroke her hair and say, "Hi there, beautiful," fond and indulgent.

*

She loved it.

Jennifer and Rodney were both verbal people, and she liked that about being with him; she liked talking with him, having conversations that weren't dumbed down at all for a change, sharing a rapport with someone who understood her in a lot of fundamental ways, but differed from her too, enough that they could learn from each other.

She liked how he tried to listen to her even when she could see on his face that he was thinking that it all sounded like squishy soft science to him. She liked explaining it to him, getting him to admit that he knew it wasn't just butchery and statistical analysis. She liked hearing his stories, and telling him hers.

But it also felt so good and so freeing to let go of all that, to pretend it was someone else who was in charge of the medical department, someone else with surgery scheduled for eleven the next morning, someone else going out on two goodwill missions to unguarded planets next week.

She curled up wordlessly, half on Rodney's lap, luxuriating. Right now Jennifer could just be her most basic, animal self: all she had to do was stay warm and seek out a little attention. For an hour or two, the rest was somebody else's problem.

No wonder John needed this. Jennifer could lose herself in sex to escape from her own head for a while when she needed an outlet, needed to be close to someone who cared.

But she loved this, too. And if John wasn't usually interested in sex... she definitely understood why he needed another way to slip out of Colonel Sheppard's skin for a while and just be adored as Rodney's cat.

Rodney found a spot she liked and lingered there, scratching gently. She wished she could purr. She hummed her approval.

*

John was gracious, the first time she tried it with both of them. Rodney put on Die Hard while they plowed through mission reports. Apparently they both had the movie mostly memorized, because now and then they spoke a line of dialogue along with the actors.

They joked and kidded in that funny half-antagonistic way they had with each other. Jennifer relaxed in Rodney's lap while Rodney rubbed just at the base of her skull, which somehow never failed to make her feel soft and drowsy.

Sometime after Rodney and John both recited along with fists with your toes, John asked, "What does she like?"

"The back of her neck, and right here, up under her hairline, she likes that," Rodney said. "Petting's always good but be careful with her hair, or it can get tangled, since it's long. She usually likes scratching along her back and shoulders. And if she shows her face sometimes she likes a little attention there, her jaw and chin, if you keep it light."

It gave her a simmer of heat hearing Rodney explain, showing how closely he'd been paying attention, guiding John to take care with her.

She felt a different touch glide softly over her hair, different from Rodney's: John's long hand. He combed out the ends of her hair gently, without pulling.

"Maybe we need a pet brush," Rodney said. "Or a curry comb, didn't you grow up with horses?"

"That's getting into a whole other thing," John answered with amusement.

"Er. Yes." Rodney trailed his fingernails up and down Jennifer's back, scratching lightly. "Though uh, speaking of... if there was something more, or something else..."

"I'm good," said John easily.

"Okay. But if there was-- no! shut up! listen. I'm trying to say that we-- we all have complementary predilections, so, lucky us. But if we weren't lucky, if things didn't match up, we'd still want you with us. We'd figure something out."

Jennifer held in a smile, hearing her own words in Rodney's voice. They'd been talking about this; he'd been listening.

"We?" said John skeptically.

Jennifer pushed up and kneed her way over to him, and butted her head against his chest.

He petted her. "Huh," he said. "Okay, then."

"Good," said Rodney. "Okay."

*

When the Daedalus came, Jennifer found that Rodney had bought her a couple of pairs of velour pajamas. Matching top and pants in tan, and an ivory one-piece.

"I ordered a one-piece for John too, but they're harder to find in men's sizes, it was backordered," Rodney said. "Maybe it'll come on the next supply run. Anyway, I got this one in white so we can have it dyed if you want a different color. Though of course your sleep clothes are fine and it doesn't matter what you wear, and I know you don't necessarily want the same things John wants... but if you want these you should have them, so here they are."

The tan pajamas sort of went with her hair, and when she handled them, they were well-made, soft inside as well as out.

"I like them," she said. "Thank you."

His smile broke wide and relieved. "Good."

That night she wore them, not to play but just to see how they felt.

"Is this okay?" it occurred to her to ask. "Just wearing them?"

"Yes, of course-- of course it is." Rodney's hands moved with his words, more than just in agreement, like he wanted to say something else. As much as Rodney talked, she was learning that his hands said even more.

"What's up?" she asked.

"It's, well, uh..." more gesturing. "Um. Look, I'm almost certainly going to say this all wrong, it won't come out like I want."

"Okay, so we'll talk about it until you do say it how you want."

He looked at her with relief. "Right. Um. It's... with John, it just seems like this is how he's comfortable being close to people. And I like it, obviously. With both of you. It's..." more gesturing, "it's not hot, exactly, but it's..."

"Sensual," she said.

"I hate that word," Rodney said. "Once I was doing a job for a defense contractor and they booked me a 'sensual massage,' and I was younger then, I took it at face value, my back's always been a mess-- this is probably not a story I should be telling my girlfriend."

She said, "You can tell me anything."

"You can extrapolate," Rodney grimaced. "It was kind of creepy but admittedly hot while it was happening and then very, extremely miserable afterward. My liaison at the company kept hinting around about it the next day like they'd done me a big favor."

Jennifer slid half over him and kissed him. "They were assholes."

"...It's still funny to hear you curse."

She was tempted to keep going, kiss him, touch him til he was hard and maybe ride him... she felt like all the banked heat that built in her while they roleplayed was flaring up now, coming alive. She squeezed his leg between her thighs, teasing herself.

Rodney was catching on, turning to kiss her and cup her breast; she put her hand over his, stilling him.

"You were saying something that wasn't going to come out right," she said. "I don't think it started out to be a confession about a happy ending."

"Oh? Oh. It's just, that's what John likes, and I like it, and I like it with you, it's--" she could see him rejecting 'sensual'-- "it's sexy, it's warm, I just like it. But... I love my cats, but I also want to spend time with my girlfriend."

She kissed him. "That's okay. I want that too. I like being your cat, but it's like going to the spa. I don't want to do it all the time. I like that it's special."

"Good, then. Good."

"How could that have come out wrong?" she asked. "That's sweet." He curled his lip, and she squeezed his leg between hers again. "Don't tell me you have a problem with sweet."

"Word on the street is that 'sweet' and 'cute' are code for 'I'm never going to fuck you.'"

Jennifer laughed and got up on her knees, straddling him. "Oh, I'm definitely going to fuck you."

*

It had been a long day: Jennifer started in meetings, went on a goodwill mission to help find out what was causing a cholera-like disease on Kulshe, brought back samples for analysis, spent another two hours in meetings, went back to the lab and finished the analysis-- the disease seemed to be transmitted by a species of tiny lizard-like creatures that occasionally bit people, who then spread the disease through contact.

She still didn't know where the lizards were picking it up though, which meant sending a team back to Kulshe, probably a cross-disciplinary team with a doctor and a xenobiologist, but she wasn't sure when she could get the xenobiologist allocated to it and she couldn't really spare a doctor either. Maybe after the next Daedalus run, but she was pretty sure she was going to be losing as many people as she gained this time, a doctor and a nurse opting to return to Earth and Dr. Biro heading back for a vacation.

Still, new people would do orientation and then she'd have a short window before their schedules filled up, so maybe she could transfer some of Dr. Wauman's assignments to the new doctor, and give Wauman some of Dr. Lacchelo's labwork to free up the epidemiologist.

Jennifer's head buzzed as she went into Rodney's quarters. There was nothing she could do about any of it now, anything could happen in the next five weeks to throw all the schedules out of whack.

She'd left enough antibiotics with the Kulshri to stop the symptoms, and she'd check back and keep them stocked; fortunately one of the local antibiotics they got from one of their trading partners did the trick, so she didn't even have to deplete her inventory and report it to the IOA. She still had a report to write to refute their recommendation to withdraw medical assistance from the Genii to force treaty concessions. Even John, who was never anything but wary toward the Genii, thought that was a bad idea.

She hesitated in the living room/dining room/office-- Rodney wasn't much for boundaries-- and thought about taking her laptop to bed and working on the report, but if she tried to write it now she had a feeling she'd just fill the page with This is dumb and you should feel dumb for saying it in 72-point type.

Jennifer put down her computer and stripped out of her uniform, and walked into their bedroom naked. John lay stretched on the bed; he opened his eyes and closed them, unconcerned.

"Hey, you." She paused by the foot of the bed to stroke his back. He stretched and turned over, belly up, and she petted his throat the way he liked. "I could stand to lie down for a while too, sound okay?"

John just pushed up against her hand a little more, but she knew by now to read that as a yes.

"Good. That's good. Okay... maybe a little more... I really have to shower, I'll be back."

The shower did a lot to relax her, and pulling on her tan pajamas did the rest. She was allowed to have time to herself; she needed it, to be ready for the next crisis. Smoothing the velour down her arms, she let go of the day and came out.

It still made her happy how easy this was; she pawed across the bed to him and John stretched his neck to greet her, his cheek rough and welcome against hers. When she curled up next to him, he rearranged his limbs to curve around her.

Jennifer was dozing in no time; it might have been half an hour later when Rodney came home. He stopped by the bed and his hand moved warm down her back, and she felt John move a little as Rodney gave him a few pets too. John nuzzled the back of her neck. She sighed, relaxed, content and loved.

"They say it's good to have two," she could hear Rodney's smile, "so they can keep each other company," and he joined them in their bed.