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Sheppard is ready to cloak the jumper, go into evasive maneuvers, or start shooting if there are Wraith, but coming through an orbital gate tends to be less hassle than any of their missions on foot. That's why he volunteered his team to take on part of this survey of gates not opening into atmosphere -- the last few missions have involved either getting shot at by disgruntled natives or ending up as field hands in Teyla's trade negotiations and that's just not what he joined the Air Force for. He wants some flight time, damn it.

He's tired of hearing McKay complain about his sore feet, too.

McKay hunches over the controls, muttering to himself as the jumper exits the gate.

Sheppard checks his own display, frowns, then checks the viewport.

Nothing but stars.

"Uh, McKay?" he says.

"Busy here."

"McKay? There's no planet."

McKay's head jerks up, and he stares out the viewport, clearly poised to spot an entire planet that Sheppard has missed. Then he blinks and blinks again, his mouth dropping open a little. With a frown he bends back over his instruments.

"No, no, there has to be a planet. The database says there's a planet here."

Sheppard waves at the vacuum in front of the jumper. "Not so much." He glances back at the other two.

Teyla raises an eyebrow. Ronon studies the viewport and then looks over McKay's shoulder at his read-outs.

"That," he says.

"What, that?" McKay snaps. "There is no that."

"There was."

" - wait, yes, there's gravity." Rodney points triumphantly at something on his laptop's screen. "A gravity well, actually. Pay attention; the jumper is compensating for something."

Sheppard checks a couple of sensor suites himself, the HUD displaying the results in response to his thoughts. He suppresses the impulse to pat the jumper's front console and murmur, "Good girl," if only because he knows McKay would mock him.

McKay is right, of course. The inertial dampeners and artificial internal gravity keep Sheppard from feeling it the way he would have in an F-302.

Not that he isn't going to needle McKay a little anyway. "Compensating, Dr. McKay?"

McKay rolls his eyes. "Grow up, Colonel." With a smug little grin, he adds, "I'm not the one who runs around with a phallic symbol strapped to his thigh all the time, not just for missions."

Touché.

"Compensating?" Teyla asks.

Sheppard knows she waits for these opportunities. He does. He knows it. "Never mind." He's figured out the best way to not embarrass himself is to not explain.

He stares at the displays.

"Definitely worth checking out," he drawls.

"Of course it is," McKay says. "Yes, look, see, here?" Another HUD materializes before them, pulled up by McKay and his artificial gene as smoothly as Sheppard pilots the jumper. He points at the lines looping around the primary. "These planets are all in orbit. You might notice this very apparent gap between the orbit of the fourth planet and the fifth."

"About where Earth has its asteroid belt," Sheppard comments.

McKay snaps his fingers and points at Sheppard. "Exactly. Except no asteroids, no debris, just an empty space where a planet should be orbiting according to the dynamics of this system."

"So it was destroyed?" Ronon says.

"Ah-ah-ah-ah," McKay replies with a smug grin. "No debris. And —"

Sheppard raises his eyebrow again.

"An analysis of the orbits of the other planets clearly displays the perturbation caused by the presence of a gravity well in orbit between the fourth and the fifth planet."

Ronon leans forward, seems vaguely interested for the first time. Teyla has a pensive look on her face; for a second, it seems as if she wants to open her mouth to say something but — nothing.

Sheppard shrugs. "So, okay. Invisible planet."

McKay groans and covers his face with one hand. Ronon lifts an eyebrow.

Sheppard says, "We're not going to run into it, are we? Because I don't think our insurance covers rear-ending a planet."

"Does the Air Force pay extra for wisecracks, Colonel?" Rodney's attention is drawn back to his laptop, though. "Oh, oh, no, you don't. I am smarter than that, whoever you are." His fingers fly over the tiny keys. "I see through you - well, actually, I don't, but - hah! - I can see around you!"

"McKay?" Sheppard drawls.

A hand wave is all he gets this time.

"Not yet, not yet, I'm close, I'm very, very close, I've got — " He stops and frowns. "Huh. Okay, but there's something. I really, really hate to admit it, but it is an invisible planet."

Sheppard grins.

"Don't smirk," McKay says without looking up.

"I'm not smirking."

"You are so, so smirking, Colonel. Waves and waves of smirk radiation are coming off you at this very instant."

"Smirk...radiation?" Sheppard echoes.

"You know what I mean."

Teyla smiles, and a quick glance at Ronon confirms that he looks at least thirty-three percent less stoic.

McKay looks wide-eyed at the apparently empty space in front of the jumper, excitement morphing into amazement. He looks positively radiant, Sheppard thinks to himself. He concentrates on what McKay is saying: "Even the Ancients didn't have anything that could make a planet disappear. I mean, with the ZPM, we can shield the city for a few hours at most. The kind of power source that would let us do that...."

"Okay, point made." Sheppard frowns, trying to figure out how you land on an invisible planet.

"More powerful than a Zero Point Module?" Teyla asks, looking perhaps a little wide-eyed herself.

Sheppard flashes on the last time they ran into something 'better' than a ZPM... "Uh, McKay?"

"Yes?"

"We're not talking about blowing up a solar system again, are we?"

"What!? No!"

"Just checking."

"Though I suppose anything that powerful could be weaponized...."

"And used on the Wraith," Sheppard finishes with a grin, despite himself. He adds, "So, you want to tell me how we get down to the planet, wherever it is, so we can find out why it's invisible?"

"Just, um, okay, let me think."

"You do that."

A blip on his own piloting sensors makes Sheppard blink. The jumper is receiving a radio transmission, in the clear apparently. He switches on the speakers.

*Unidentified Gateship, respond.*

Sheppard turns and looks at McKay, whose mouth has fallen open.

*Unidentified Gateship, this is Hermea Orbital Control, please respond.*

Sheppard activates the jumper's radio, still looking at McKay. "Hermea Orbital Control, this is Jumper One, Lt. Colonel Sheppard in command. We're peaceful traders looking for new partners. Who am I addressing?"

Suddenly, McKay snaps his fingers. "Hah!" he hisses. "Gateship, gateship, gateship."
Sheppard narrows his eyes at him.

*Jumper One, this is Gean.*

"Nice talking to you, Gean."

McKay rolls his eyes, his chin lifting in a patented McKay 'You are too stupid to live, but no one will let me put you out of my misery' posture.

"Say, you wouldn't want to let us in on how you're, you know, not there according to most of our sensors and our eyes, would you?"

He's sure he sees Teyla roll her eyes in the viewport reflection.

*Yet you have deduced our presence.*

"Well, yeah."

*We would consider discussing our technology in exchange for learning of yours, Lt. Col. Sheppard.*

"Yes, absolutely," McKay interrupts.

"That would be our chief scientist, Dr. McKay, speaking, Gean."

*We will provide you with a series of coordinates that will allow your gateship to transit from the stargate orbit to our planet.*

"That'd be swell, Gean." Sheppard switches off the radio and turns to look at Ronon and Teyla. "Okay, they sound friendly enough." Ronon just shrugs. Teyla purses her lips, looking a little surprised. But she says nothing, just inclines her head slightly.

"Why are you asking them?" McKay demands. "You're not even possibly considering not going down to the planet, are you, Colonel? Because this is incredibly, amazingly important. This could be our chance — "

"Yeah, yeah, I get that, McKay. Nobel Prize, save Atlantis, Col. Carter throws herself at your feet in abject adoration."

"Look, just take us down there, Colonel."

"Down where?" Sheppard gestures at the blank sensor read-outs. "I'm waiting for the coordinates."

Just like they were waiting to be remembered, the radio blats and a stream of numbers arrives.

*Lt. Col. Sheppard, this is Gean. Have you received the coordinates?*

"Got them, Gean. Thank you."

*Will your gateship be able to follow the necessary flight path?*

"Oh, yeah, no problem, Gean."

"Gateship," McKay mutters again. "Did you hear that? They call it a gateship. These people may know the Ancients. They could even be Ancients."

"Or they could just lack imagination," Sheppard tells him.

McKay looks indignant and crosses his arms over his chest. "Hmph."

*For your safety, please do not stray from the indicated flight path.*

"Or what?" Ronon rumbles.

McKay replies, "Or they shoot us down with their immensely superior technology."

Ronon leans forward and says, "Fly straight." Teyla gives McKay a little look.

Sheppard ignores all three of them and radios Gean, "Gotcha. Don't want to wander into a no-fly zone."

*You may start your approach at any time, Lt. Col. Sheppard.*

"Beginning suborbital approach now, Gean. See you on the ground," Sheppard tells him. He flips off the radio and adds, "No backseat driving, boys and girls."

Teyla sits up a fraction of an inch straighter. With a smile, Sheppard begins their descent.

It feels weird, yet at the same time like flying by instrument at night or in heavy fog, taking the jumper to set points that don't seem any different than any other part of space — but suddenly they're burning through atmosphere, the jumper's shield interacting with whatever the Hermeans have in a coruscating rainbow halfway between being smack dab in the middle of the aurora borealis and a Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza.

Sheppard ups his speed, taking the jumper through the maneuvers fast just because he can, and because McKay is squeaking beside him.

"Some of us don't have a death-wish, you know, Colonel," McKay manages to say after they drop a few thousand feet more. Suddenly the planet they know is there appears, vast and green, with the sort of blue sky and clear air that never seems to survive industrialization.

Apparently, it impresses McKay, too. "Wow," he says. "It's perfect. Like Paradise."

"You're going to jinx us."

"Look, Colonel, something has to go right sometime. We're due. It's statistically impossible for all of our missions to go wrong."

"It does look serene and peaceful," Teyla comments.

"Most worlds do, from above," Ronon adds.

"Jinx, jinx, jinx," Sheppard sing-songs, then shudders because he knows he picked that up from McKay.

"I'm just saying, this could be very important, so no seducing the high priest-king's nubile but virginal daughter or his lonely wife," McKay says.

"Why are you looking at me?"

"Because statistically, Colonel — "

"I can't believe you are using statistics in an argument, McKay," he interrupts. "As if you were ever a believer in probabilities. You beat probabilities all the time."

Sheppard concentrates on staying exactly on the approach path the Hermeans transmitted. He begins searching for a landing strip or pad. After spotting an open meadow set not far from a small group of buildings, he declares, "Looks like a landing pad to me." The buildings are all airy, with spindly white spires that sparkle in the sun.

"I agree," Teyla says, leaning forward to look over his and McKay's shoulders.

McKay peers out the viewport at the towers. "Mmm. Advanced materials. Composites, probably, maybe reinforced ceramics."

A vehicle that doesn't touch the grass or even disturb it is approaching the meadow. Three people are in it.

"You can ask about it in a minute," Sheppard says.

"Don't think I won't."

Sheppard stands up and begins checking his weapons out of habit. Ronon is doing the same thing. He catches a glimpse of steel disappearing into a dreadlock. As usual, Ronon looks ready for anything. "So do we just wait for someone to show up or get out and take a stroll?"

Ronon points to the approaching vehicle. "Looks like a welcoming committee to me."

"You know," Sheppard remarks, dragging McKay out of his seat and away from the laptop he's using to run scans on their surroundings, all the while making these little, nearly orgasmic noises that distract and annoy Sheppard, "It occurs to me that people with advanced technology never want to share it with us."

"Huh," McKay mutters. "Did you ever notice we never want to give any of our technology away to any of the Neanderthal societies we run into regularly?"

"McKay's right," Ronon states. "Everyone wants to keep their edge."

Teyla nods. "The Wraith destroy anyone who progresses too far for just that reason."

"Well, let's hope these people don't think like the Wraith."

"And what are the odds of that?" McKay says under his voice.

"Smile," Sheppard tells him as the jumper's hatch lowers and they stroll out to meet the three Hermeans waiting outside. McKay bares his teeth. It could, possibly, be interpreted as a smile. If you didn't know him. Sheppard lifts his hand and waves. "Best behavior, kids."

"What?" McKay demands. "Why's everyone looking at me?" There is a fleeting expression of doubt in his eyes.

Teyla looks away quickly, but smiles as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. Sheppard pats McKay on the shoulder. Ronon just snorts.

One of the Hermeans waves back. Sheppard decides that's a very good sign — in his experience, fascistic military fanatics just generally don't wave. It messes with their whole domineering personae. "So, which approach, McKay?" he murmurs. "The classic 'Take us to your leader' or the — always a hit with the natives — 'We come in peace'?"

"You're asking me?"

Sheppard shrugs, watches the congregation's approach. A man and two women, it seems, all three wearing clothes of a soft-looking fabric in all shades of brown and beige.

"Great, they're wearing oatmeal-colored clothing. Kill me now."

Okay, this is going to be another weird one. "Shh", he hisses at Rodney, "Hey," he says, louder, to the closest Hermean. "Lt. Colonel John Sheppard."

Blue eyes meet his, and a light tenor answers him: "Hello, Lt. Col. Sheppard. I am Gean."

"Good to meet you," Sheppard answers, shaking Gean's hand — a gentle but firm hand; none of that brief, tentative sliding of fingers they've experienced on P9X-241, where a solid handshake turned out to be akin to a marriage proposal.

Gean doesn't look like he takes offense, or a fancy to John, thank God. Still, there's something about him, not the clothing but the man himself. Maybe it's the curious tilt of his head, or the lack of the usual posturing: No wide-legged stance with the hint of a hunch, no hands hovering over weapons, not a single, solitary piece of vaguely phallic insignia. He's just...at ease.

After a quick glance around, Sheppard can see that while their welcome committee consists of both genders, it's no wonder that, from a distance, he isn't able to keep them apart — garments and hairstyles are pretty generic, but he's a California boy, at least at heart, and has seen just about everything, even before he stepped through the stargate. No, it's the tempered grace of the man, the quiet confidence of the women that makes it truly hard.

"Welcome to Hermea, then." A subtle but questioning gaze up and down his figure, over to his team. Sheppard has the distinct feeling that the Hermeans, lined up in a loose formation behind Gean, are regarding them with something other than pure curiosity; despite not even knowing the reason, the sensation that washes over him is far too close to embarrassment.

And that before McKay has even opened his mouth. Speaking of...

"Gean, these are Teyla Emmagan, Ronon Dex, and Dr. Rodney McKay."

The woman next to Gean inclines her head to each of them, but brightens visibly when Sheppard introduces McKay by his title. She's tall and robust and not what Sheppard would call pretty, but there's something undeniably compelling about her. She steps forward and shakes his hand, too, but her eyes — animated brown eyes — only flicker over his; her attention is drawn elsewhere. Without the viewport reflection, Sheppard can't tell without turning and looking, but he hopes Rodney isn't picking his nose or busy digging it into the display of his precious energy sensors.

"My name's Jari, and I'm pleased to meet you. Dr. McKay, you're the chief scientist of your expedition?"

"Why, yes." He can hear the thrilled smile in Rodney's voice, sees it out of the corner of his eye when he and Jari exchange greetings. "You already have me wishing I could spend months here, discussing just the technology and buildings I've seen so far." An all-encompassing hand-wave from Rodney.

Jari gives him a look that's roughly two thirds polite caution, one third benign amusement. "You say you'd love to learn about our technology, but can we assume you're first and foremost interested in how we cloak the planet?"

Sheppard turns a little at that, checking his team — Teyla's looking her usual calm and amiable self, but there's a hint of tension in the arc of her shoulders, and Ronon's eyes have narrowed a fraction. McKay, well, McKay just grins and dips his head in a gesture that would be called bashful in anyone but him.

"Oh, believe me, I am completely fascinated by everything you have to offer — which seems to be a level of scientific achievement beyond my wildest dreams in a galaxy where local developments tend to be either hopelessly backwards or destroyed beyond hope — but the rest of my team do indeed have certain priorities that include the ability to defend ourselves against the threat of the Wraith."

Bless Rodney and his technology-loving heart.

"I have to ask — is it just a cloak or a shield? Can it stop the Wraith?" Rodney goes on, sweeping everything before him with his enthusiasm. "The jumpers have a cloak that we've modified, but the energy it takes precludes generating a shield at the same time, and the Wraith know where our planet is, it's just a matter of time until they come back — "

"McKay," Sheppard interrupts quietly, not wanting to discuss the siege.

Jari nods slowly; so does Gean, whose voice has taken a grave tone.

"They are still the scourge of the galaxy, then."

Rodney's snaps his fingers, startling them all. "Of course — you haven't been in contact with the outside world for many centuries." He stops, an indignant look creeping onto his face. "Come on, guys, it's obvious: This sort of technological advancement could only happen over centuries without regular culling. Did you de-activate the stargate after creating the cloaking device?"

The third Hermean has stepped closer, exchanges glances with Jari and Gean. The newcomer is older than the other two, with dark skin and short hair turned silver by the light of the afternoon sun. It's impossible to guess her exact age, but Sheppard would estimate it at sixty, maybe seventy years. She must have been very beautiful once upon a time; he still finds himself transfixed by the perfect slant of her cheekbones, the authority of her eyes.

"No, Dr. McKay. We simply transferred it into orbit."

It's clear from the expression on Rodney's face that he doesn't think there is any 'simply' about it, and Sheppard doesn't have to turn his head to know that Teyla's expression has darkened, Ronon's grip on his holster tightened. An active stargate memorized by other people on other planets who would keep stepping through it even when it was no longer located on the planet's surface —

"You think this cruel, but it was the only way."

Not an excuse. An explanation.

"We could not and would not de-activate the stargate; the primary objective was to make sure the Wraith would not return to Hermea. I'm sure you, of all people, understand."

"We understand." Teyla's voice is soft, so soft that Sheppard braces himself. "Certainly you understand, too, that we find it hard to condone."

He suspects he knows what she sees in her mind's eye — a contingent of Athosian traders, men and women with baskets of produce on their hips and cheerful smiles on their faces, walking into the gate.

Into nothingness, the empty void of space.

Silence falls, and Sheppard is seized by a wild moment of anxiety — this is where it ends, this is where they get chucked off the planet because Teyla, ever-tolerant Teyla, has voiced scruples about a decision made hundreds of fucking years ago.

"Yes, we do." It's Gean who has spoken up again, and if the emotion in his voice isn't regret, he's the best damn actor Sheppard's ever seen. "It was — it wasn't an easy choice for our nations."

"The congregation of all nations was aware of the fact we were sacrificing the lives of some, and leaving others without valuable resources, but the Decision hinged upon complete secrecy."

Jari's light voice, weighed down by the burden of history, and the rest of the committee is wearing similar expressions. If this isn't some gigantic sham to fool the off-worlders — and he doesn't believe that — they really mean it. They really are sorry.

Ronon's breath close to his ear, perfectly pitched to be heard by no one but him. "Sheppard. If we had to? We'd've done the same."

He really doesn't need the reminder, but it's good to know he's not alone in his assessment; one glance at Rodney confirms that Rodney doesn't have any lasting hang-ups about this, either. Mostly, he looks perplexed and a little impatient.

"Fine, fine." Rodney's hand gesture is best described as magnanimous. "We certainly see how you'd come to this solution, which also happened to be decided upon many centuries ago."

Not exactly a poster child for Let the Past Lie, he is, but then there's Teyla, standing right next to Rodney with a light hand on his arm, smiling and composed again. Sheppard realizes he's probably not the only one already won over by the Hermeans' openness and their sincere expression of regret over what they considered a necessity. Teyla doesn't seem the type to forget, but he's pretty sure she can forgive.

"What Dr. McKay means to say is that now we should look forward, into the future, and ask you to consider letting our peoples enter a mutually fruitful exchange of technology and information." Teyla's voice hasn't risen, not even a bit, but it is clear she has no trouble being heard by every person in the meadow. Easy to see what makes her stand out, what made him take note the moment he saw her first in that smoke-filled tent on Athos. "We can assure you that no third party will ever learn of your existence; we ourselves have many safeguards in place — safeguards that prevent the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom of ours that would be devastating in less capable, less careful hands."

The Hermean congregation regards her — thoughtful faces, inquisitive eyes, a few doubts clouding a few expressions, but the common denominator is respect.

"Well-said."

No trace of irony in the elder woman's voice, but Sheppard has hardly found that a reliable indicator for the absence of trouble; in fact, it's often the opposite. People are just too damn serious in the Pegasus galaxy. Sheppard knows he's being unfair, but he cannot and doesn't really want to imagine living on an Earth in the constant shadow of the Wraith; evidence to the contrary, he does cherish his sanity.

"Also, I apologize for the lack of an introduction: Selh, Security Adviser to the President. I, too, find myself glad to make your acquaintance, Teyla Emmagan, Dr. McKay, Colonel Sheppard, and Ronon Dex. As you pointed out so correctly, we haven't had any visitors for a long, long time."

Her dark eyes sweep over them, but the earlier feeling — mene, mene tekel epharsim — has evaporated, and Sheppard relaxes just a little. Ronon's behind him, as always, Teyla's done a great job, and McKay never lost the glint of excitement in his eyes; he's positively beaming at Jari again, who doesn't seem to think it a crime to smile back. Sheppard feels an odd twinge in the region of his stomach — worry, that's what it is, and maybe concern — as alien women have made friendly with McKay only to betray them all and dash his hopes before, and maybe Rodney needs a little reminder, just among friends.

A soft whisper passes between Gean, Jari, and Selh, and they nod towards the team. "If you allow us to convene for a moment — we shall be back."

"Oh, of course! We'll wait. Right here!"

Rodney sounds pleased as pie, but it doesn't seem entirely out of place. Kidding aside, it's not entirely true that McKay is oblivious to his surroundings; he's noticed the shift in their favor and is now practically radiating good will to all men. A smile tugs at the corners of Sheppard's mouth and he gives in to it. Rodney's cheer is infectious, irresistible, and when he looks at the others, he can see his expression mirrored on their faces, with an additional dose of relief in Teyla's case and careful acceptance in Ronon's.

"So, what do you think, guys?"

"I think they will at least begin negotiations with us." Teyla is modest, but she knows her skills — all of them do.

"Totally won them over. They quite obviously both harbor and appreciate a thirst for science." Yeah, he wouldn't be Rodney if he weren't just a little smug at this point. Any more enthusiasm, and he'd be bouncing on his heels.

"So, destined to be best friends forever, Rodney?"

"Do I detect a hint of jealousy there, Colonel?"

Still the same light tone of banter that's become an automated response for both of them, but upon hearing that word, Sheppard feels it again — the sensation in his stomach, sinking, rising, a bit like flying, only far more terrifying. He clamps down on it, ruthlessly, and manages to smile, all white teeth and careless flyboy ease.

"Now, McKay, don't make me drag up the Kirk thing. And you know what happened the last time you had a girl all impressed with your science."

Rodney just rolls his eyes, looking decidedly unimpressed himself.

"Oh, please. Allina only changed her plans when she learned we weren't the Ancients she had been waiting for; her love for science and affection for me then had to be tragically sacrificed on the altar of patriotism." McKay doesn't look entirely serious himself, although his eyes clearly telegraph Don't You Dare Call Me on That, Okay?

Gean's waving them back over.

"Please, we would like you to join us in the city, to continue talking with each other. It has been a long time since anyone came to Hermea." He smiles. "We're out of practice."

"Believe me, you're already way ahead on points with us," Rodney tells him, earning a slightly confused look from Gean.

"Let's just say a lot of people we meet are just plain unfriendly," Sheppard explains.

Gean nods.

McKay has to stop and interrogate Jari about the car and how much weight it can bear without reverting to surface locomotion, comparing the technology to that of the jumpers use, but after that hitch, they're off to the sparkly city; Selh, Gean and Jari in the front seat and the team jammed in the back. Teyla's perched on Ronon's lap, and Sheppard, stuck between McKay and them, on eye level with Teyla's assets, wishes they'd just walked instead. He swears to himself he'll make Ronon run behind the car on the way back.

Teyla leans over and says in a low voice, "I believe the Hermeans are indeed the people of the Lost Planet."

McKay twists to face her and Ronon turns and Sheppard gets elbows in his ribs on both sides. "Ouch, watch it, guys."

"Wait, let me get this straight," McKay exclaims. "You knew about these people and, what's more important, their...planetary obfuscation device?"

Teyla shakes her head.

"Teyla?"

"I had heard the stories they tell around each campfire, hearth, or...radiator in the Pegasus galaxy, Colonel – tales of the Lost Planet, impossible to see, impossible to reach despite their Circle of the Ancestors."

Ronon nods. "Sateda had those tales. Thought they were kids' stories."

Sheppard closes his eyes for just the fraction of a heartbeat. Yeah, it'd have been nice to have heard of this when they first came to Atlantis — superior technology and especially a cloaking device might have prevented quite a bit of trouble during the last year — but even then, most likely they wouldn't have listened to it, wouldn't have sifted through Athosian lore in search for clues.

But, he thinks, maybe they should have.

"I see. So you — and all your allies — never traded with them?"

"Legend says our peoples did — a long, long time ago, many centuries by your calculations, and that the civilization they saw was benign and full of wonders. But it disappeared, and their marvelous devices were lost in the sands of time, leaving only the echo of their memory."

"Disappeared? You mean, you just couldn't step through the gates any more." McKay sounds skeptical, disbelief obvious in his voice, and Sheppard doesn't blame him, but Teyla's voice carries a note of annoyance.

"There were civilizations of the Pegasus galaxy able to travel through space, Rodney, and they did not use technology left by the Ancestors but what they had developed themselves before the Wraith came and culled them," Teyla tells him in measured tones. "It is said they manned their starcrafts and journeyed to the place where they had last regarded such riches — but all they could see was an empty void, stars behind it clearly visible, and their machines did not pick up anything. And the Wraith started raging on the planets nearby, angrier than ever, never again finding the rich bounty they'd hoped for."

It comes as a slight shock, but McKay laughs, and all heads turn towards him, even Selh and Jari in the front seat. His eyes widen, and he does the little hand-wave – nearly hitting Sheppard in the head again – he uses to deflect completely unwarranted criticism. "C'mon, guys – Sheppard, anyway: Advanced civilization, great wonders, far ahead of their time certainly, getting lost in some murky depths? It's their Atlantis!"

Sheppard leans back and laughs, while Ronon and Teyla eye both McKay and him the way they do whenever the topic of Earth customs comes up. Like they're batshit crazy, but in an amusing way. He looks back at McKay's frown and laughs harder; because, hey, they live in the Lost City of the Ancients and they're riding in a floating car, whizzing over the green grass of an invisible planet, debating whether it really is Teyla's Lost World.

Rodney's eyes have lit up like a Christmas tree on Times Square. He's talking full tilt to Jari before they're even out of the car, while Sheppard's still getting his breath back after being squeezed in the middle through the whole ride. "Look, I realize you can't just show us how your cloak works right this very instant, but you have to have something you can show me in the mean time, while we go through this whole 'getting to know you' rigmarole." He's doing the side-to-side head nod-bob of impatience as he talks and Gean already looks a little overwhelmed. Jari's smiling again, though; it looks like she's one of McKay's tribe.

"Yes, we have several facilities that are open to the public that we could begin with," Gean says. "If you and Teyla Emmagan would care to accompany Jari and myself? Selh would be happy to show your friends around the city."

"Yes, yes, I am – we would be delighted," McKay agrees before Sheppard has a chance to say anything.

"Hey, McKay," Sheppard calls after him, because he's already following Jari away. McKay half-turns, looking impatient, and still walking. "Try not to give our world away for a handful of magic beans."

Watching Teyla and Rodney being whisked away by Gean and Jari, respectively, is okay – surprisingly so. He finds he trusts the Hermeans, despite the man-woman uniformity thing they have going. Quite possibly because of it.

Sheppard isn't stupid; there's no reason to assume the three Hermeans are as unarmed as they appear to be – hell, for all he knows, there's a pin-point orbital laser directed straight at them right now – but he is confident that the Hermeans have little interest in unprovoked violence. Furthermore, an attack on what looks like sparsely armed explorers? Not likely, and not likely to succeed. Can't outrun a Runner, Ronon had – after a long jog and a short sparring session in a rare moment of aphoristic chattiness – told him, and Sheppard believed it, still believes it.

When he turns, he can see Selh's private little smile, which tells him orthodontia is flourishing on this planet.

"I assure you Teyla Emmagan and Dr. McKay are perfectly safe. It must be very reassuring to have you protect them, though, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for your profession."

Sheppard's a big fan of safe. He'd go as far as to say he vastly prefers it to sorry.

Behind him, Ronon snorts almost inaudibly, and Sheppard is tempted to do the same. He's not a stickler for the rules, or even a big fan of many manifestations of the USAF regime, but the last sentence is the kind he's only ever heard as the preface of an anti-military rant poorly disguised as academic argument.

"Yeah, thanks." He gives her a smile of his own, slow and easy, just the way he's good at, and turns his comm to Rodney and Teyla on, a gesture that could be a half-yawn but most likely isn't even noticed. At the same time, he's flashing back to a nose-dive down a mountain range, the howl of turbines, the stony expression on General Bennett's face and contrasting it with Elizabeth's pushing through his promotion, piloting jumpers and 302s instead of Blackhawks and Ospreys, people who thought he was a hero and not a fuck-up. "I'm really liking it."

Selh gives them the tour guide lecture on Hermean history as they walk. Dismantled their military in 1542, Deran Peace Convention, and Sheppard nods. Ronon asks about trouble and Selh admits there is some, usually settled in court. Sheppard's even willing to believe it. Provisionally. He lets Ronon go on quizzing her, half his attention on the buzz of McKay's voice in his earpiece, nasal, excited, and oddly reassuring.

Sparkly city is really clean and pretty up close too, with lots of flowers and trees and people wearing clothing noticeably more gaudy and revealing – but Sheppard supposes that in comparison to Gean, Selh, and Jari's Earth Mother attire, basically everything would be. A few of the passersby give Sheppard and Ronon wall-eyed looks. He feels like asking Ronon if he has 'Murderous Military Maniac' tattooed anywhere visible, but bites his tongue. Selh seems a little at a loss as to what might interest them since the Hermeans don't have any guns for them to moon over the way McKay is going into transports over their power plant.

Gardens, schools, museums, academies...Selh seems intent on improving their minds with culture. Ronon is obviously getting tired, begins to drag his feet when they pass what their Hermean guide says is a library and what Sheppard mentally categorizes as Bright White Building with Spiraling Pillars #32. His own face is getting tired of smiling. He never thought he'd miss discussing the Wraith threat, but at least it's something everyone else in Pegasus has in common. Except for Proculus, and he's not even thinking about Proculus and Chaya – McKay has some kind of sensors that alert him any time Sheppard's thoughts go there and he's unbearable for a week afterward.

Meanwhile, Selh's gently quizzing him, trying to get a handle on what they're really like, he suspects.

"And your home?" she asks.

"Is beautiful," Sheppard answers before thinking about it. Then he pauses, because he wasn't picturing Earth when he said that. Slower, he continues, "Mostly ocean, untouched, unexplored or exploited. Teyla's people resettled on the mainland. We live in the city, which is...." He stops and shrugs, picturing Atlantis' towers and comparing them to the Hermeans' spires. "It's home."

Selh pauses. "I see."

At least it sounds like McKay's making some progress. "Right, right, I got it. Seriously this time: Fortitude of character, the responsibility to handle the new, the complete openness for new developments. Oh, I can tell you we are totally down with that; our whole expedition was chosen on these merits – yes, absolutely; I've interviewed them myself and can vouch for all of them." Sheppard has to hide a smile. Rodney is so proud of his scientists, hand-picked from the best and brightest; it's true that there is little to fear and a lot to hope for once they get their hands on technology such as this. Another careless swat at a bug that doesn't exist, and he's on Teyla's frequency.

"But surely you would not want to keep us from understanding as well, from reaching the same level of enlightenment?" It sounds like Teyla is working her negotiating magic on Gean.

Sheppard expresses admiration and approval of the Advanced Studies Center – purple tower, the Planetary and Local Judiciary Complex, which includes the North and Main Rethan Houses of Representatives – blue domes that make him think of a clutch of Easter Eggs in one of those baskets of artificial green grass, the Primary Health Center – which has a pastel plaid exterior that makes him blink and look sidelong at Ronon, and then – finally – real civilization: a restaurant and then a beer garden, or at least the local equivalent.Suddenly, Ronon looks interested.

"Food?"

Sheppard shrugs at Selh. "He's still a growing boy."

Selh takes them into one of the restaurants and Sheppard restricts himself to one – excellent – beer, while Ronon devours his meal in typical enthusiastic fashion, though he's slowed down by using a knife and fork these days. The food is enough to make Sheppard want to trade with Hermeans and McKay's going to be outraged he missed it. He asks Selh to get a message to whoever is with McKay not to feed him any citrus. "Believe me, usually McKay lets everyone in hearing distance know, but if he's entranced enough with what you've got for him to see, he might forget."

Selh is looking at him almost warmly, maybe even re-evaluating her ideas of what being military means. It would be nice if they could get back to Atlantis for once with news that they made a good impression. "Food allergies are not unknown here," she mentions. "If you'll excuse me a moment, I'll comm Gean." She leaves them to finish their meal without her.

"Oh, I am not a part of the original expedition," Teyla's telling someone. "I hail from a central planet and am proud to have led my people to a safe land, into an unbreakable alliance with the Colonel and Doctor McKay's people."

Huh.

He takes advantage of the moment to ask Ronon, "What do you think?"

"Food's good."

Sheppard resists the urge to cuff the back of his head the way he would McKay. First, because it probably wouldn't look good to the Hermeans who are watching them, second because all of those dreadlocks would probably keep Ronon from even feeling it, and last, because Ronon would run him into the ground the next time they exercise.

He monitors the other team members while he eats. "They have, indeed. Ronon Dex does also not come from among them, and yet he was accepted into their ranks." Selh's coming back, threading her way through the tables. One group wants to speak with her, but he can see her put them off with a few short words. "I believe in them. No one else in many generations has been willing stand against the Wraith." Okay, from her tone, talks with Gean are still going swimmingly. Time to check on McKay again. "Oh, exactly, exactly. Progress, in the end. Couldn't agree more, yes! What's that? I didn't quite catch what you were saying – that sentence about the – ? Ah, a test? Wait, wait, wait, we're being tested? Before we can truly, er, get the cloak? Completion, what's that? No, never mind, this power coupling you're using – "

Wait a second, Sheppard thinks. What? Test? He's frowning as Selh seats herself again, saying, "When you're ready, we can visit – "

"Let's leave something for the next time we're here," Sheppard suggests. "I'd kind of like to get back with Teyla and McKay." Before McKay creates another interstellar incident . He gives his best self-deprecating grin, even dips his eyes down like he's embarrassed. "They're probably wondering what kind of trouble Ronon and I have gotten into."

"No, no, please! This is fine, just perfect, really, only – is it the painless sort or the Trial by Fire kind? Because the latter just doesn't agree with me ever since the natives on P2H-243 took that concept way too literally –" McKay's babbling. Sheppard doesn't cock his head to listen, but he pays closer attention. P2H-243 was a nightmare involving a single file bridge over a lava-filled chasm, sparks, smoke, and poisonous gases venting from yet another volcano. He really dislikes volcanoes. Not as much as bugs, but they were definitely in his top ten. "Painless, over in about an hour? And afterwards, we're definitely, definitely in for the cloak? Yes. Yes, I certainly give my permission! We – oh, of course, yes, I'll consult with Teyla and tell Sheppard and Dex, but really? No problem. Hah, we're already in there, practically."

And they are; it doesn't take long until their return. Gean, Jari, and Selh give them a moment of privacy on the way to the Med Center, strolling ahead and talking quietly among themselves, but considering that both McKay and, most importantly, Teyla have succeeded in convincing them and have already given their okay for a little round of testing, Sheppard feels no compunction to be contrary for the sake of protocol. Yeah, it stings a little – the Hermeans have little consideration, or maybe no real understanding for the military, not any more – but what's gained if he insists on going over the details again? Especially now that they are already standing in a waiting room diffused with golden light that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

"I'll go first."

Right, that's Ronon for you, who occasionally has to be told more than once. More than twice, too.

"Hey. No matter what the Hermeans think, I'm the leader; I should go and, you know, test the testing procedure first."

"Hmm." Rodney gives him a little smirk. "I'm sure they will be impressed by your manly bravery. It must be as scary as – oh, say, the utterly fearsome Atlantis health scanner with its blue glow of wrath. This clearly takes a hero like you."

Sometimes, McKay needs, desperately, to be whacked upside the head, and Sheppard happens to have a very giving nature – but Teyla steps forward, touches a finger to his upper arm.

"Ronon and I can go first; Gean told me we can go in by pairs, and he was very impressed by the fact half of our team does not even consist of Atlanteans. That we make such an effort for our newly chosen friends and extended family – I think it will be another beneficial gesture on our part. After we've gone ahead, you and Rodney can follow. It really does not seem to be dangerous; I fail to see any malice in these people."

Oh, for God's sake. "They could not be human, their machines incompatible."

"Colonel. Please. I checked when we first got out of the jumper." Rodney's grin is disturbingly satisfied. "One hundred percent human DNA, no unusual mutations. No Ancients, either, if that's what you were thinking. Just good old homo sapiens stock."

"Fine." A commander must be able to admit defeat. He nods at Ronon and Teyla, who are already turning to follow the Hermeans. "But we'll wait right outside, and you keep your comms."

Teyla smiles in return, and Ronon gives them a brief nod.

"Be right back, Sheppard."

~*~

The longer he stays on the planet, the more Rodney realizes the Hermeans might very well become his favorite kind of people: truly interested in the hard sciences and intelligent enough to use them not only for abstract advancement but practical manifestations. There's the planetary cloak, of course – just the thought sends silver streamers of excitement along his synapses – but a waiting room chair that smoothly molds itself according to the shape of your body and intuitively takes the strain off your bad back? He tends to be reluctant to use the word in conjunction with people not himself, but really, it's a work of genius.

Sheppard in the chair next to him would agree, if his lazy, blissful sprawl is any indication. It's too much effort to turn his head, so Rodney just keeps watching him – not a strain, that much is true. Rodney has found the clean, angular lines of his body, the face with its ever-expressive eyebrows, and even the hair – to which the colonel clearly devotes two-thirds of his morning routine – a pleasing distraction and the whole package actually a bit of a challenge.

Now, for example, when he looks closer, he can tell that, while Sheppard seems perfectly at ease, there's still a palpable sense of anticipation about him, maybe even a hint of worry. Rodney is actually familiar with the concept of responsibility; it's just that some people just don't understand the difficulty in walking the line between pushing subordinates to greater achievements and pushing them over the edge.

Sheppard looks up, his expression freezes, and he jack-knife twists out of the chair and to his feet before Rodney can even turn his head. Then he does. He's on his feet, gaping at the doorway, in less than a second. "Oh my fucking God. Look – look at that!!"

Next to him, Sheppard draws in a sharp breath and socks him in the arm.

"Rodney, what the f– shut up!"

Yes, like that's a natural reaction to the vision slowly stepping out of the door at the other end of the room. It's – Rodney blinks rapidly – Ronon, only...not quite.

"What do you expect me to do, Colonel? Blithely ignore the fact a member of our team has been turned into Xena, Warrior Princess?" Rodney can't stop staring; if he wasn't talking, his mouth would be hanging open. "Oh my God." Because the smirk's the same, a lopsided smile that crinkles the corners of the eyes —

"Rodney. Pick your jaw up off the floor, now."

"But — hot!" A six-foot-six, beautifully toned woman with long hair that falls down almost to the small of her back – Ronon shifts and Rodney wants to whimper at the flash of caramel skin. "Oh, would you look at that...."

"Rodney! You realize this is Ronon we're talking about, right? He can hear you." Sheppard's gone very, very still but his voice has that little crack it gets when he's really disturbed and trying to cover it, the one that makes Rodney want to duck because usually it involves someone shooting at them very soon.

"Rononne?" Rodney blinks. "He?"

"That's it, McKay." The temperature drops, just a little. "Still a member of my team who's standing there. Why don't you stay right here while I talk to Ronon?"

Yes, of course. Whatever. "Fine, fine, no need to bark."

Sheppard's slow, menacing drawl of "McKay...." is interrupted by the door opening again. Up to this moment, a small part of Rodney's brain has held onto – okay, yes, clung to – the possibility that all of this was a shared moment of madness – folie à deux, Pegasus-style — but Teyla's arrival makes it very, very apparent that the female version of Ronon hovering by the door to welcome his team-mate is anything but a freak accident.

Well, freak, maybe. Accident, no. When everything falls into place, Rodney's stomach follows, a nauseatingly rolling motion.

"Rodney?" Sheppard's voice is quiet, but the tone is fierce, fiercer than he's heard in a while. "Harmless test, my ass."

Rodney's first reaction is the realization that Sheppard must indeed be pretty angry to lose his unflappable space-cowboy ease, the second a far-too-familiar wave of guilt, and the third – he sneaks a glance over at said body part on Ronon, who has turned fully towards the door: Rodney's only human, and male to boot.

Looks like he's got new company in the latter regard. Sure, Teyla's still her graceful-looking Athosian self, but there's no mistaking the broad shape of her shoulders and upper arms, the new angle of her jaw-line, the hips even slimmer than her previous set. Not to mention the lack of boobs; Rodney feels an oddly personal pang of shock at that.

"Do not look at me like this – I did not chose this...this alteration!"

There's a decidedly agitated note in Teyla's words. Rodney doesn't know if it's just the fact that her register has dropped into baritone, but without melody to temper her usual precision, Teyla sounds forceful enough to send a sick rush of combined fear and shame through Rodney.

"Hey. Easy," Sheppard's saying, crossing the room fast; Rodney follows, "We got it. We got it, Teyla." Soft, soothing even, if you chose to ignore the undertone. Sheppard is by Ronon's and Teyla's sides – close, but not touching, hands held out in a gesture that manages to convey acceptance, surrender, and proposal at once. "Let's all step over there to regroup; I don't feel like making a spectacle for the natives right now."

Very different from all the other times, then, but Rodney doesn't even have to bite his tongue. This probably isn't the time for his brand of sarcasm, and it isn't like any of them try to turn their missions into disasters. It just happens. Frequently. Mutely, he follows Sheppard, Ronon, and Teyla back to the chairs.

"There has been a misunderstanding, and they did this to me, shaped my female body into a man's. We must go and rectify the situation immediately."

Teyla's eyes have narrowed, and there's a visible flush on her cheeks; for someone who could usually give the Mona Lisa pointers, she – he – is telegraphing a lot of emotion. None of it, absolutely none of it positive.

Sparing a glance sideways, Rodney looks at Ronon; unlike Teyla with her tense, wide stance and her hands curled into loose fists, the Satedan is leaning against the wall, one hip hitched up just so he can half-sit on the low ledge, showing off a gratuitous expanse of stomach and leg. If Rodney did that, it'd be called slouching and earn him a raised eyebrow, but Ronon-as-a-girl resembles nothing so much as a cat of prey, at once perfectly relaxed and ready to pounce.

Sheppard manages to look Teyla square in the eye, although he licks his lips nervously.

"So, you – first, are you okay, both of you? Any pain? Trouble moving?"

Ronon shakes his head, dreads – why are there still dreads? Makes no scientific sense – swaying gently, and although it shouldn't, the new pitch of his voice startles Rodney.

"I'm fine, Sheppard. No need to worry about me."

The implication is clear. They all shift, turn to Teyla. She – he – still looks amazing, like some too-pretty-to-be-real comic book character come to life; it's ridiculous.

"Teyla?"

Sheppard's still doing this thing where he's all gentle, eyes dark and intense. Rodney realizes yes, he might just be a bit of an insensitive jerk for paying more attention to the colonel than to his team-mate in the midst of a very slow-burning, very tightly controlled freak-out. He gets the freak-out. He'd be kicking and screaming loud enough to communicate with the Atlantis control room without electronic help. It's not everyday you suddenly find yourself missing body parts you're attached to, in more ways than one.

"I am –" she, he hesitates, eyes darting around the room without settling on any of them, and that alone makes Rodney feel vaguely unwell again. "I am not in pain, nor do I experience any difficulties with my movement. After waking up in that – room, I made sure to check my most essential responses."

"Good." Sheppard's look says very, very clearly that this situation is anything but. He prompts, "McKay? Teyla?"

He's crossed his arms, looks back and forth between the two of them, and for once, Rodney finds it almost impossible to read his expression. Or perhaps he doesn't really want to. Rodney gulps and stays quiet.

"No need to discuss the fact the Hermeans' 'test' went a little further than a physical exam." Sheppard's eyes do not linger on Teyla's body at all when he says that; instead, he stares at a spot equidistant between her – him – and Rodney.

"What we do need to know right now is what exactly they told you in these meandering conversations about science, religion, and philosophy." So much disdain in so few words. Seems that Rodney can still learn from the colonel. "So, yeah — I'd love to hear why half my team just had a sex change!"

Teyla speaks first, her hands unclenching slowly, if a little jerkily. Her voice is flat but dutiful; it belongs to a soldier turning in his report for a mission gone to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

"I am afraid I am partly to blame for this. When Gean talked about the prerequisite of change in order to gain enlightenment and be given control over the cloaking technology we sought so fervently, I foolishly assumed this process was a purely spiritual one, that his numerous reminders about a willingness to accept and embrace the new were entirely metaphorical."

"McKay?"

He takes a deep breath and lifts his chin. Might as well preserve that last shred of dignity. "There was a lot of talk about personal responsibility, courage, and personal growth, all of which I can assure you are nothing I haven't heard before in a million application interviews."

Sheppard's eyes darken, but not in any pleasant way.

"I do recall there was a definite mention of the procedure we'd have to undergo, though," Rodney admits. He replays what Jari said. "A test. Exam, like a physical. Something like that."

"Hardly the same as, oh, say, a genderswitch, wouldn't you agree, McKay?"

"Tell me, Colonel, did you take a look around and think, hey, it's the Planet of Sex Changes?" Rodney jerks his head toward Teyla, dropping his voice. "If Teyla didn't catch what was going on, why would you expect me to?"

Sheppard grimaces and shoots an uncomfortable look toward Gean and Jari and Selh, all watching them from the other side of the room. Great. He's clearly gearing up to shoulder the blame. And there goes the lip-lick. "Okay, you're right, I'm in command, this is – "

"Oh, for the love of little apples, you weren't even there!"

Sheppard sighs. "Any brilliant ideas about what we do now?"

Teyla glares at the Hermeans until Ronon steps between them. He – she – moves like something liquid, that loose sweater slipping off one shoulder as Ronon shrugs. "Calm down first."

"I say we get out of here right now before they decide to turn some of us into frogs or mice or trees next!" Rodney can hear his voice rising against his will.

Sheppard locks his hand on Rodney's biceps, fingers warm through his sleeve. "McKay."

"What?"

"We need to find out if it's permanent."

What? Teyla looks horrified and even Ronon appears mildly disturbed by the prospect of being, well, stuck. Deep breaths, Rodney tells himself. You are standing in the middle of a field – Oh, that's just stupid, he'd probably be having an asthma attack in the middle of a field! – You are standing in the middle of your lab in Atlantis. Much better. Sheppard's staring at him, doing the eye-thing like he expects Rodney to know exactly what he's thinking. Rodney sucks in another breath and starts thinking again. Atlantis, labs, Carson.... Oh, crap, like Carson would have the faintest idea how to fix this.

"Right, right, we can't just run away, even if I am positive Beckett could find a way to fix this." He offers a weak smile to Teyla along with the lie.

Teyla draws in a deep breath and Rodney misses her old body all over again. Teyla's deep breaths were always appreciated by the rest of the team.

"Beckett'll do everything he can, Teyla," Sheppard assures him. Him. That's never going to stop being strange. "You know that. But if we could get a little more information for him to work from...?"

"Yes," Teyla agrees grudgingly. "That would be useful."

"Okay, let's just get this...misunderstanding straightened out," Sheppard says with a false smile. "McKay, you stay with Ronon. Teyla?"

"I will accompany you, Colonel." There's a glint in Teyla's dark eyes that hasn't changed at all. Rodney's pretty glad he's not a Hermean right now.

He shares a glance with Ronon, who quirks a brow, then they both follow Sheppard and Teyla across the room in time to hear: "Problem, guys, big problem for us."

"You are disturbed by the new sexes of your friends?" Selh is asking Sheppard.

Sheppard scrubs at his hair, looking distracted and frustrated. "No offense, but this just wasn't what any of us were expecting."

"I did not agree to this," Teyla adds.

Now the Hermeans are looking disturbed and upset. "We believed you understood that this is the first step, that only through Enlightenment and Completion can you share the secrets of the Cloak."

"We thought it was a metaphor," Rodney says.

"Some kind of philosophy."

"This is...we apologize," Gean says.

"Yes, yes," Rodney dismisses that. It's irrelevant. "I'm sure you're very sorry, but Ronon and Teyla are a little more interested in whether they're going be switched the rest of their lives."

Sheppard gives him a dark look. "Maybe if you gave them time to explain?" Charming Smile Number Eight, the one with the unspoken You Will Do This Because I'm in Command, is flashed at Gean. "So, you know, explanations are good. Everybody – and I mean every body – goes back to the way they were, no hard feelings, right?"

"You can switch them back, right?" Rodney adds. There's no logical reason it would be a one-way process. The Hermeans can obviously change either sex, so reversing the process shouldn't be a problem. He's still holding his breath, though.

"The process can be reversed," Gean says. He still looks upset.

Rodney rubs his hands together. "Good. Let's get to it. Chop, chop, people."

"It is not that simple." Gean's looking even more upset, holding up his hands and giving entreating looks to Selh. That might be because Sheppard has his hand on his holstered pistol and is fingering the release strap. Rodney could tell him that Sheppard's pistol's like Sheppard's pacifier, but it probably wouldn't reassure Gean. "Please. It cannot be done for at least six months. The body is too stressed and needs time to recover."

"Stressed? Stressed how?" Rodney demands.

"It takes a great deal of energy to remake all the cells, some of which is supplied by the body itself."

Ronon cocks her head and stretches a little. "Feel kind of tired."

"You said you were okay," Sheppard snaps.

"Tired is okay. I can still fight."

Jari nods. "It's always that way for a day or two after a change."

"Ah, um," Rodney gulps and blurts out, "You do this regularly?"

"Of course," Jari says. "How can one be an adult without the knowledge of both sexes? Each of us undergoes Completion at least once after puberty." She smiles at him, looking a little dreamy. "I much prefer the female form, but I have been male at least twice, while working on projects where the extra muscle mass was useful."

"That's certainly...interesting." Sheppard looks a little curious. Here comes lip-lick number two. Rodney is just grateful he didn't mention wanting to ask Jari out. He'd never hear the end of it. Very grateful. Only he wishes he'd been paying a little more attention, because he really doesn't like that speculative, nervous glint in Sheppard's eyes.

"It has been too long since we interacted with anyone from anywhere beyond our planet," Selh says. "The misunderstanding is very embarrassing – "

Teyla lets out a little hiss, steam escaping from an overheating kettle, but Ronon touches his shoulder and he subsides. Rodney notices for the first time the Hermeans supplied Teyla and Ronon with modified versions of their clothes that fit their new forms. Which means Teyla isn't wearing a purple midi-top stretched too tight over her broader chest and shoulders. There's no explanation for the oversize of Ronon's sweater, but there never was before, either.

Sheppard waves a hand. "These things happen." His voice is at odds with the hard expression in his eyes that says he's sick of them happening to his people.

"These things happen?" Rodney repeats under his breath, wondering again about Sheppard's sanity. There's blasé and then there's lobotomized. Sheppard's faking, the bastard; no way is even he that cool.

Sheppard ignores him.

"You will need to return once, in six months, and we will restore Teyla Emmagan and Ronon Dex to their previous states," Selh finishes. "I am personally deeply sorry for this. I hoped we would be able to teach you."

"I get this feeling, there's no way we're getting the cloak technology without all of us going through this, what did you call it?"

"Completion," Selh supplies.

"Completion." Sheppard nods.

"It is impossible without undergoing the first step." That's Gean. "Without Completion there is no Enlightenment."

"Okay, let's not jump the gun," Sheppard says. "Why not just give us another minute here? This – " he gestures to Teyla and Ronon, " – was a bit of a shock. Maybe we can still work something out."

"Of course," Gean replies.

"Oh, no, no way," McKay tells him before they're even out of earshot. "No, no, and no again!"

Teyla actually interrupts to say, "Colonel, you are not really contemplating – "

Sheppard holds up his hand. "Everyone shut up for a minute." Once they're in the corner, he scrubs at his face. "I don't believe I'm saying this, but...maybe we should go through with this."

"Are you out of your mind?"

"McKay," Ronon rumbles, which sounds very strange coming from the hot girl body, but just as menacing.

"What am I saying? Of course, you're out of your mind. You always have been. But this is, this is, there are no words for the insanity. You want me to let aliens give me a sex change!?" Rodney crosses his arms and glares at Sheppard. Only Sheppard would ever consider this, but he can just forget it as far as Rodney is concerned.

"Not just you, Rodney," Sheppard points out. He looks faintly green. "And you said they were one hundred percent human."

"That was before."

"Can I just remind you – a cloak that hides an entire planet?"

"Yes, of course, I get that. I still don't believe you want to do this. Is there something you've been hiding all these years, Colonel? A secret fetish for wearing fishnet stockings you never mentioned? A passion for Rocky Horror?"

A huff of laughter escapes Sheppard. "No."

"Then what?"

"Teyla and Ronon are going to be stuck this way for six months, McKay. For nothing."

The really horrible, disgusting, disheartening thing is, Rodney can totally see Sheppard's point, and if it were anyone else but himself, he'd be pushing them to go get zapped into womanhood. Doesn't mean he's going to go along with it, though. Oh, no. No way. Fighting life-sucking evil aliens is one thing, but getting turned into a girl, that's just too much to ask of any man.

"I hate you."

Sheppard just looks at Rodney, then slides his eyes toward Teyla. Rodney grimaces. Yes, it's totally unfair that this happened to Teyla and Ronon while he's unaffected. But really... "Colonel, if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?"

"Yes."

He should have predicted that one. "I hate you so very much, like the heart of an exploding supernova."

"I get that."

Teyla is staring at Sheppard. Ronon is too, but she's grinning. Rodney's already sweating and restraining the urge to clutch his hands over his crotch.

"You would do this, Colonel?" Teyla asks. "You would suffer this...assault on yourself?"

Sheppard shrugs, but it looks forced. "I guess. It's not forever."

"As far as we know," Rodney has to point out. "They could be lying, you know. Little Rodney and I have been together forever. I'm not ready to get a divorce."

"Little Rodney?" Ronon murmurs.

"It's a nickname, not a size reference," he snaps back.

"We're doing this."

"You can't order me to become a woman!"

"Oh, yes, I can!" Sheppard stops and blinks. "Well, no, I guess I can't. Jeez, there's something wrong with a galaxy where we're even having this conversation. Just think about it, McKay. Think of it as...research?"

Rodney looks at Ronon and then Teyla, who still looks miserable and angry. Six months. Okay. He spent longer than that in Siberia, where everyone wore so many layers it didn't matter what sex they were.

"Fine," he grumbles. Never, never say he doesn't know how to sacrifice himself for others.

"I knew you'd say yes," Sheppard says with a weak approximation of his usual pleased grin. A little like he wishes Rodney had fought the whole thing harder.

"I still hate you."

Sheppard looks over to the Hermeans. He swallows hard. Rodney suddenly feels better. "Okay," Sheppard says. "Look, we're going to do this." He looks at Rodney and his eyes are wide and spooked, despite the cool act.

"If you insist."

"I insist."

"Then, after you, Colonel." That gets him a dirty look.

"All right." Sheppard doesn't move.

"Sheppard?"

"Give me a second."

"You do not have to do this," Teyla tells them both. Rodney gives him a sick smile.

"Sheppard's right," Rodney mumbles, hating to admit it.

"Okay, hell just froze over, so let's get this over with," Sheppard says. "We're doing it." His voice cracks a little and he glares at each of them, ending with Rodney. "But no one, no one says we wanted to. Understood?"

Teyla nods gravely. "No one will know."

"Who would I tell? Cadman?"

"No one. Not even Elizabeth."

"Fine. My lips are sealed."

~*~

Rodney has a lot of fantasies where he's naked with a pretty blonde.

None of them involve his dick disappearing.

He'd not sure what it's going to feel like, because Sheppard dragged him away before he could quiz Ronon, but he really hopes it won't be painful. Nothing was said about it being painful, back when he thought Jari was talking about spiritual completeness. He's sure that would have alarmed him enough to pay better attention.

Pretty sure.

This is the most uninspiring nakedness he's ever experienced, and that's including his first full body cavity search in Siberia, when he thought he was going to shiver his balls off.

The technician doesn't even bother taking his name, just tells him to strip and stand on the sensor pad.

He looks down at Little Rodney as a bar of yellow light rises over his body. Somewhere else in the clinic, Sheppard is going through this, too. He probably isn't fighting warring impulses to clutch his privates and suck his stomach in.

The technician is totally hot, he decides, watching her in an effort to distract himself. Not as hot as Sam Carter, but she's got a skin-tight, powder-blue jumpsuit and a ponytail. She's not really paying attention to him, focused on the read-outs on the console before her, so he can stare.

It hits him.

He has no idea if she's really a she or used to be a he. It's not like Hermeans that have been changed have telltale Adam's apples and five o'clock shadow. According to his quick questioning of Jari as they walked back into the clinic, completion means being the other sex down to the chromosomes. It's a pretty impressive technology, one he'd almost be interested in – Beckett would sell his dear mother, foot fungus and all – if he weren't about to experience up close and personal.

A second bar of light, this one a sparkling green, scans of his body. For variety's sake, this one moves from head to foot.

"How much longer is this going to take, anyway?" he complains.

The more he thinks about it, the more Little Rodney and the Boys want to crawl up inside him. He's sweating and possibly about to hyperventilate. He crosses his arms.

He is going to miss Little Rodney.

Really he is.

He looks down again.

"Okay, look, Miss?"

"Yes?"

"Is this going to take much longer? Is there time for me and – " he gestures at himself, " – uh, me, to take one last spin together? For old times' sake."

The technician looks blank. "Spin?"

"Forget it," he says sulkily. Though really, one last hoorah, you'd think every guy would want to – he clamps down on that line of thought before a three-D, full-color, hi-def picture of Sheppard doing just that can start playing behind his eyes. Little Rodney perks up anyway.

He closes his eyes and tries to think about ZPMs – No, something that isn't sexy! – Beckett's mother – Beckett's mother's toe fungus – and gets himself under control as he's scanned with two more disco lights.

"Dr. McKay?" the technician says.

"Yes." He cracks one eye open.

"You can get dressed now. Dr. Pren is in the next room and will explain to you."

A quick check and, yes, everything is still exactly the same.

"Explain."

The technician gives him strangely pitying look, and he immediately wonders if the Hermean scan hasn't discovered he has some kind of terminal disease – that's all there is and will be, you're dying, thanks for taking a stab at saving the galaxy; Beckett's been so busy screwing Cadman he's lost his touch and now Rodney is going to die, horribly so, in a gruesome way involving countless tubes sticking out of and leading deep into his body while Atlantis will explode and sink back into the sea within a week of his demise; he's always known this would happen eventually.

He scrambles into his clothes and hurries into the next room. Pren's an older fellow, stork-like and with a crest of white hair. His eyes widen as Rodney storms in.

"I'm dying. That's it, isn't it? God, I'm dying; what is it? Cancer, radiation, some alien virus that's going to make me revert to a lizard? Beri-beri, sleeping sickness, Hanta virus – oh, God, it's not Dengue, is it? What am I saying, you wouldn't know Dengue from dingos! The finest mind since Einstein, and I'm going die, probably writhing in incredible, insufferable pain, and that Czech weasel will steal my notes and take all the credit for everything I've discovered!"

Pren's mouth opens and closes more than once. Finally, he says, "I'm sorry, but you can't go through Completion."

"I can't?"

His voice may have squeaked.

"There is some chance that the procedure would result in an adverse outcome due to your previous gene therapy according to our exams." He blinks rapidly and adds with the same sort of pitying gentleness the technician showed, "I am very sorry."

"Oh. Oh, well. That's...yes, this won't interfere with us getting the cloak, right? I mean, I'm here, in good faith, it's not my fault Carson's shoddy gene therapy interferes with what you, uh, do."

Pren looks even more perplexed. "There are other, more difficult paths to Enlightenment. I am not an expert in those disciplines. You will have to discuss that with Gean Tamas and a personal counselor – but if you were promised to be taught, I'm sure this won't negate your prior agreement. Again, I am so very sorry: To be denied the opportunity to know Completion – it's a tragedy."

"Yes, yes, but amazingly enough, I've gone through my entire life without it and never felt deprived at all." Rodney looks around and spots the door. "Can I get out of here now?"

Pren points.

Half way down the hall, it occurs to Rodney, that maybe he is missing something. If he'd been turned into a woman, he could have tried for some girl on girl action with Samantha Carter. So maybe he is a little sorry – not that he's ever going to admit it – because that would have been so hot.

~*~

Rodney feels his jaw drop when Sheppard re-enters the waiting room. Not a good look on him or anyone else, but, really, he has an excuse. Until two hours ago, he would never have – not even after two years in the Pegasus Galaxy, two years experiencing just how weird things got around the man – expected Sheppard to...

God, and he makes an incredibly hot woman. Same height, but even leaner, he – she – is all fluid muscle, swimmer's shoulders, drawn finer and narrower, the package wrapped in pale skin, shaggy black hair and the same hazel eyes.

The thing that makes Rodney's palms sweat, though?

Sheppard's mouth is still the same, lush and curved, and right now, turned down in utter misery.

Ronon is at his side within the nanosecond, slinging his - her - arm around Sheppard's shoulder in a smooth, surprisingly gentle gesture, but it's not Ronon Sheppard is looking at, it's him.

Rodney feels Sheppard's gaze like a laser beam – surprise, shock, maybe a flicker of betrayal.

A slight tilt of her head, a short nod at Ronon, and Sheppard lets go of the other – woman, takes a few steps towards Rodney, never taking her eyes of him.

"You." The voice doesn't shake, but it's still raw and new enough to make both of them wince a little. "McKay, what the hell? Why –" Then the words just choke off as her voice cracks higher than Sheppard's ever has before.

He has the sudden, horrified idea that Sheppard's going to cry.

Rodney's torn – a small part of him wants to reach out and pat Sheppard on the back, maybe add a few of those noises women make, but the bigger part of him?

Wants to run.

"I...it was the ATA gene." He swallows hard, because there's a flash of hurt there, but Sheppard is already pulling herself together. Rodney holds his hands out, apologetic and a little panicky, waving at the door into the clinic. "They couldn't do the procedure..."

"Oh. Okay." Sheppard looks a little sick suddenly. "Wait, no. McKay? Did we go through this for nothing?"

"No! I - the process was incompatible with my grafted ATA gene. Or so the technician and the doctor said. They had...scruples. But they said we'd still get the cloak."

Sheppard looks so relieved Rodney feels a little sick himself. He should have said something immediately. He feels a short flare of irritation, too, at the fact Teyla doesn't seem to be doing anything, anything but stand and stare. Shouldn't he be the one comforting Sheppard...? But then, he's obviously in no shape to comfort anyone. Teyla's bothered by this more than Sheppard and Ronon put together.

Sheppard sets her hands on her hips – if it quacks like a duck, Rodney's calling it a duck, and Sheppard's definitely female. His attention is immediately drawn to the fact that Sheppard now has hips. Female type hips. It's lucky Sheppard's always worn his pants baggy, because now the material is stretched over the curves of her ass exactly the way Teyla's did before. He's always suspected Teyla of tailoring her BDUs to make them that tight over her ass, but apparently, no, that's just the way they look on women...and wait, why did the Hermeans not provide him with new pants? Maybe Sheppard refused because of the dozens of military gadgets and trinkets in his pockets.

His brain launches a warning that it may just break if he keeps thinking about this too much.

"Teyla?"

"Colonel," Teyla replies. "You are intact?"

Sheppard points at Teyla with a more than slightly accusatory finger. "Do not talk to me about intact."

Rodney winces and Ronon nods, while Teyla just looks away.

Sheppard isn't finished either. "Everything worked out well for you, didn't it, McKay?" She rubs the back of her neck, an old Sheppard gesture. "Don't say anything, not one 'I told you so'. I don't want to hear it!"

"Sheppard." Ronon, of course. "Easy." And Sheppard does relax just a fraction.

Teyla says woodenly, "Can we do this in the jumper? I wish to leave. Immediately."

They do, but not before stopping by Gean, Jari, and Selh to agree about the schedule -- the team returning to Hermea in two weeks' time for a first session they call "counsel"; Rodney thinks it'll be more along the lines of "check-up" and "making sure the unenlightened barbarians haven't done anything too crazy". All the way to the jumper, through the stargate, and to Atlantis, Teyla is off-balance and prone to snap at everybody; Ronon's gentle and undoubtedly reassuring presence by his side in no way alleviates his mood. Indeed, what looked, at least to Rodney, disturbingly like a playful hip swing just seems to further exasperate Teyla.

Then again, Rodney figures he wouldn't be too happy if he were that short as a guy, either. He tries to steer clear of Teyla. Hey, she could kick his ass when she was a girl, and now she has even more muscle.

They're at the gate, when Sheppard turns a little in the pilot's seat. "McKay?"

"Yes?" He's frankly eager for anything to get him out from between Teyla and Ronon. There's enough tension in the back of the jumper to charge a ZPM.

"I think you better handle the radio communications."

"What –" Oh. Oh. His is the only voice that isn't different. "Oh, yes, of course."

Sheppard's apparently concentrating on the controls and doesn't look up. "Thanks."

Rodney slumps down in the co-pilot's seat. "No – no problem."

The gate is visible now, slowly spinning like one of Sheppard's beloved Ferris wheels. Pegasus stargates are prettier than the stony appearing ones back in the Milky Way. Maybe some Ancient decided the design needed to be more aesthetically appealing, so they spent millions of whatever Ancients used for money designing a new look. He clamps down on the depressing possibility the Ancients were as inane as the rest of humanity and dials Atlantis.

"This is McKay."

*"Is everything all right, Dr. McKay? Do you have casualties?"*

"No, no. No one's hurt this time...exactly," Rodney says into the radio.

"Tell them we're going straight to the jumper bay and need to talk to Elizabeth there," Sheppard murmurs. "She needs to see us first, before the rumors start swirling."

"Right, right."

He makes the request and reassures Elizabeth again they aren't dying. Sheppard pilots the jumper through the gate and up into the jumper bay, settling the little ship into its assigned bay with a feather soft touch, then powering down, before letting her head drop back against the seat's headrest. "I guess we just wait for Elizabeth."

For some reason, that's the proverbial straw for Teyla, whose lightning-quick turn toward Ronon is underlined by a sharp burst of anger. Teyla suddenly snaps, "You. You are too calm about this!"

Ronon lounges back on the bench. Up goes an eyebrow. "You want me in hysterics?"

Teyla glares at her, possibly torn between a petty 'Yes!' and the proper 'No, certainly not' spoken in her old – and sorely missed – manner of indestructible calm.

Rodney twitches. "Please, no. Just no. The thought of you losing it – "

"Hey," Sheppard says softly, "why don't we all try to keep it cool?"

Teyla is not in the mood to listen to any voice of reason and narrows his eyes. "Why don't we admit this is a...terrible thing? A mistake, a disaster?"

"Because it isn't."

Ronon shrugs and Sheppard nods, despite looking glum and tired. All three of them look tired, Rodney notices. "It really isn't, Teyla," he says.

"This is not permanent. You've got to remember that." It sounds like Sheppard's holding on to that thought pretty hard herself. "Six months, Teyla. We can do anything for six months. Right?"

"Half a cycle!"

"That's enough, thank you."

Elizabeth's voice stops them in mid-track. Four heads swivel to the jumper hatch where she has appeared.

~*~
"Elizabeth." Sheppard waves at Ronon and Teyla. "We've run into a little...snag."

Yes, right, like that couldn't preface every single post-mission conference.

Elizabeth is just looking at them, her gaze cycling between Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon, then quickly checking Rodney, then back to the three changed members of the team. She looks dumbfounded. "Snag," she echoes, then pulls herself together visibly.

Sometimes Rodney marvels at the other team members' talent for stating the obvious; even if gossip in Atlantis didn't travel at the speed of light – which it does, Radek and Simpson ran the tests — even a blind man couldn't miss the fact that Teyla's a five-foot-something prettyboy with high cheekbones and searing eyes, Ronon looks like she could enter the Miss World and an international female wrestling competition — win them both with her hands tied behind her back, in fact – and that Sheppard, for all her undisputed charm and appealing exterior, has never been quite this lovely, all tousled hair, big eyes, and a sulky expression.

"As soon as I heard you went straight to the jumper bay and wanted to see me, I came over. What happened?" Elizabeth is frowning, shock giving way to concern. "Do any of you – I should call Carson?"

Sheppard shakes her head "Wait. We're, well, we're mostly okay. Just..." She gestures at herself, Ronon and Teyla. "This."

To her credit, Elizabeth doesn't do much more than blink this time.

Sheppard gets to her feet, even remembering to keep her hands off her hips and to straighten visibly. Military conditioning is a fantastic thing, especially now that it allows Rodney to study the clean curves of Sheppard's new profile - the straight nose, the proud chin, and always, always the lips – is it wrong that the slight hint of a pout gives Rodney a thrill of excitement? Sheppard has one of her odd moments of near-telepathy and gives Rodney a baleful glance.

Listening to Sheppard's quick, no-frills report of the events on Hermea, Rodney is almost too preoccupied to notice Ronon. Almost, but then it sort of sneaks up and hits Rodney upside the head. Ronon is looking at Sheppard, who is sitting between Rodney and her, radiating a combination of possessive and protective and speculative.

Sheppard doesn't notice, and Teyla keeps shifting in her seat, trying to get comfortable with the new equipment, while Elizabeth just listens with her hands clasped in front of her, sitting on the other side of the jumper from the four of them.

So Ronon's a lesbian now?

Rodney takes the time to look from Ronon to Sheppard to Ronon. Upon reflection, it makes as much sense as the sub-branches of science involved allow: No matter how potentially pervasive in the long run, all the shiny and new biochemistry parameters would hardly be able to instantly override the original sexual orientation and a lifetime of conditioning – God, he shudders to think of the psych-, bio-, and sociology departments' orgasmic delight when they learn of this; best avoid their staff members for the time being; not like Rodney will lose any sleep over that.

Then again – and the thought is disturbing in a way that surprises Rodney, who's Canadian, after all — Ronon doesn't act all that different. And Sheppard hasn't moved out of arm's reach of Ronon since the change, so maybe she isn't as quite oblivious as she's acting.

Then Ronon catches Rodney staring and meets his eyes. Her lips suddenly curve up. Rodney's not positive, but he thinks that might be an acknowledgment.

Of course, if he's wrong, Ronon is going to give him a sex change without benefit of Hermean technology.

Rodney's startled out of his reverie when silence falls; following Sheppard's cue, he stares at Elizabeth who is allocating perfectly courteous glances at each of them. Now, she takes a deep breath.

"I'll skip the part where I tell you that I hadn't ever imagined this, postpone the part where I ask you how you're doing – so you're healthy, if not exactly comfortable – and go straight to the question of the nature of this altered state of yours: Can you still do your jobs?"

Rodney rolls his eyes. Pfft. "Of course, I can do my job."

Ronon just shrugs, whereas Sheppard looks a little pale, worried lines marring her forehead. She lifts her chin a little and meets Elizabeth's eyes. "You can do yours, right?"

"Wait. Altered state?" Teyla's voice is flat, but there's something beneath the surface that makes Rodney think of undercurrents and small fish with sharp teeth; Teyla stands up in one fluid movement, putting his palms flat on the armrests of the jumper seat, and, really, no one this size should be so threatening.

"Dr. Weir, this is not just a harmless intoxication, this is an abomination. A woman turned into a man – I cannot tell you how utterly and completely wrong this is!"

His restrained anger couldn't be any more obvious, but for a moment, Rodney thinks he sees something a lot like fear flash in his eyes, too – but, no, this is Teyla they're talking about.

"Well," Sheppard gives a little cough, and what would have been effeminate before now goes perfectly with her new skin and turns out to be a frighteningly effective way of drawing attention away from Teyla, "I can't say I'm too happy about this, but I'm sure we can deal with it – for the moment, at least."

"I agree." Ronon leans forward, an action that, if possible, brings her even closer to Sheppard. Rodney is momentarily distracted by the new angle that allows him to watch the subtle play of muscles beneath the smooth golden skin of her shoulders. "Being a girl? Not bad. Just different."

Rodney is completely with him there – right until Ronon flips her hair with a grace that's breathtaking precisely because it's completely free of artifice, when he decides he's actually a bit ahead of Ronon: This? Is even better.

~*~
Sheppard keeps the smile pasted on all the way to the infirmary after lingering in the jumper to try and convince Elizabeth that they needed to fulfill the Hermeans' terms. The smile is a little more strained every time someone gives a double take as they pass in the halls. Elizabeth's final little, "cute ass" as he started out the hatch had first startled, then amused him, enough that he'd been able to reply, "Yeah, well, the more things change...," but he still feels skittish and shaky. Nothing has sunk in yet, and he isn't looking forward to the major league meltdown when it does.

He's alternately irritated and grateful that McKay hasn't been changed, too; there could've been a question of whether they were even who they claimed to be, but it's grating to be the one to go through this -- well, not alone, really; that'd be unfair, and untrue besides. Still, to not have Rodney next to him, in the same predicament, bugs the hell out of him in a way he can't quite put his finger on. Or maybe it's true what they say, and misery does love company.

Meanwhile, he has to keep up a good front.

And to get used to thinking of himself as a woman. Which is just too damn weird.

He catches up with the three at the South intersection. Beckett is waiting for them when the team walks into the cramped infirmary.

"Carson – " McKay says.

"Colonel, Rodney," Beckett replies without looking up, "I gather no one's bleeding out or otherwise in mortal distress, so if you'll just both take a seat on an exam table, I'll see to you in a minute. Teyla, lass, Dr. Biro will see to you and Ronon."

"Uh, Carson?"

"Rodney...." Beckett still hasn't looked up. "I'm a wee bit busy."

A couple of the nurses are staring, however. "Dr. Beckett," one of them squeaks.

Suddenly, the humor of the whole situation hits Sheppard. He's gone to another galaxy and gotten a sex change. He catches Ronon's eye and raises an eyebrow. They may as well have some fucking fun with it. Otherwise, he, for one, might start actually thinking about it.

"Carson, you really need to – "

"Doc," Sheppard drawls in a low, seductive voice, trying for that thing Cadman did when she talked to Beckett – breathy and sort of...presenting her front. "We'd really appreciate it if you could get our exams over with in a timely fashion." Rodney sucks in a fast breath and Beckett's head shoots up. The tablet computer drops out of his fingers. His pale eyes dart from Sheppard to Ronon to Teyla to Rodney. A look of profound relief crosses his face when he sees Rodney, either because Rodney's familiar or because he really never wanted to know what kind of woman Rodney would make.

"Rodney," Beckett says carefully, "where is the Colonel?"

Rodney crosses his arms over his chest. "Oh, don't tell me you're that dense. You're looking right at her."

"Her?" Beckett echoes on a high note. Higher than anything Sheppard's hitting today, even sans...everything. She hides a wince, then another wince at realizing she just thought of herself as she.

Rodney nods at Sheppard.

"Still here, Doc," Sheppard adds helpfully. She smiles, all teeth.

"Oh, Lord," Beckett exclaims. "Get over here. What's happened to you?"

Sheppard heads for one of the exam tables, trying to quell a sudden bout of shyness. For the first time, she's acutely aware of the layout of the infirmary, the lack of anything that would establish a measure of privacy. "Just another patented mission to a weird planet where they think everyone civilized switches back-and-forth," she explains. She hops onto the table. "Teyla and Rodney thought they were talking about philosophy or...something. Not so much. The Hermeans were dead serious."

She adds, with an extra dose of brightness, "It does beat getting turned into a bug."

"Marginally," Rodney mutters.

Carson stares at him.

"And Rodney? Why didn't they...?"

"The gene therapy," Rodney interrupts. "They were worried it would interfere. Have I mentioned my vast gratitude for your ethically challenged penchant for experimenting on human beings – meaning me – in this case?"

"Shut up, Rodney," Sheppard says. "And get out."

"What?"

Sheppard nods to the privacy curtains rigged to pull around the exam table. "I'm not putting a show on for you or the rest of the damn city," she snaps. She'd gotten over body shyness – what there had been of it – at the Academy, but suddenly he was she and she didn't feel like flashing her brand-new tits for every googly-eyed lookie-loo in Atlantis. Hell, she hadn't even had a chance to get acquainted with them herself.

No time to really look at the new body back on Hermea.

"Go on with you, Rodney," Carson says, backing her up. Sheppard flashes him a grateful smile. Gets another dazed eye-blink in response.

"Oh, oh, very well," Rodney gripes. "Though it isn't like I haven't seen a naked woman before or you naked before, in, granted, very different circumstances – "

"I should hope so," Beckett mutters.

Rodney steamrollers on with a dark look for the Scot. " – and I may be in a position to answer any questions has about the process – "

"That you didn't even go through!" Sheppard snaps.

"I was examined!"

"In private!"

"Well, welcome to Dr. Beckett's Primate Zoo, Colonel. You'll notice none of us get any privacy in here," Rodney snaps back.

"Enough!" Beckett yells, making them both look at him, startled. Beckett's practice has never seemed suspect – well, not in that regard – before, but now, his vague befuddlement at Sheppard's unwillingness to share with everybody within reach seems a little cavalier. "Rodney, pull the curtains and wait at the next table, I will get to you later. Colonel, I'll get you a gown." He shakes his head. "This is going to take a while."

"I'd really rather have scrubs," Sheppard tells him. She stops and thinks about it. "Well, that, something to eat and a long nap." Her stomach does a little grind that's either the belated freak-out that's been looming since Ronon showed up with breasts or a determined reminder it's been empty since lunch on Hermea almost – she checks her watch, watching it slide over her narrow wrist with another wince – fourteen hours ago.

"See, that's exactly what I'm talking about!" Rodney says. "Dr. Pren and Jari explained that the procedure uses up most of the body's stored energy. Carson, you need to feed them before they all pass out. And me, too. I can't believe I haven't collapsed already."

"Way to go, McKay, make it all about you."

"It's not my fault you've got a vagina. You – "

Sheppard glares. "McKay, remember what we agreed!"

McKay gulps and looks guilty, then nods rapidly. "Sorry, sorry. But it could have been me, too," he whispers self-righteously. "Besides, you know I'm hypoglycemic. Carson, tell him. Her."

Sheppard kicks her boots off without unlacing them; they're too big. It's stupid, but this really bothers her – it's such a concrete sign of how she's changed. Besides, she just got those boots broken in to perfection. She'll have requisition another pair, in another size, and start all over. She hates blisters. She finds herself staring down at her sock-clad feet in a daze.

"Colonel?"

"Sheppard?"

She looks up and Beckett is looking concerned. Behind him, one hand clutched on the curtain, McKay looks sympathetic.

"I'm okay," she says slowly, not really certain it's the truth. "I'm just really, really tired." Not a lie, she could lie back on the exam table and go to sleep in the middle of the infirmary, no problem. "Let's just get this over with, okay?"

"If you'll finish undressing, Colonel."

Right.

Reluctantly, pretending to a bravado she doesn't feel, Sheppard grabs her T-shirt by the back of the neck and pulls it over her head in a single move. McKay and Beckett both make strangled noises while it's going over her head. By the time she has it off, McKay has been spun around and pushed out, while Beckett is frantically pulling the curtains the rest of the way closed. Sheppard doesn't really notice. She's staring down at her chest. Her smooth, pale chest and her...breasts. Wow. She has breasts. There's not really a lot to them, but still.... She pokes at one with her index finger and there's jiggle.

Beckett makes that strangled noise again. "Colonel Sheppard...."

She looks up. "What?"

Beckett thrusts a scrub top at her. "Please."

"What? You've seen my chest before."

"Not like this, lass."

Sheppard's going to be brave. She's not going to whine and jump and generally behave the way Rodney does – even without the sex change. She resists the urge to cross her arms over her tits and stares over Beckett's shoulder as he begins. On the other side of the curtain, Rodney is complaining that he's being examined by Dr. Biro – at length. "I'm not a cadaver yet, have some respect, are you sure you're not dead, because your fingers are colder than some corpses' – Aieee!"

The high pitched yelp is amusing as always, except she's suddenly much more sympathetic.... But why the hell has Beckett set up the infirmary so there's no privacy beyond a thin length of cloth? Sheppard is starting to obsess over it, listening to Rodney complain and the buzz of Ronon and Teyla talking while they wait. Plus anyone could just walk in from outside. What's with that? It's worse than Earth hospitals. It's all something to think about while Beckett prods and palpates and shines his damn penlight in her eyes.... And, fuck, that stethoscope is cold!

Did he just cop a feel!?

"Hey!"

Beckett steps back from Sheppard's sudden frown and raised voice. "What?"

"Do you have to – you know, touch me so much?"

Okay, she knows it's stupid. It's ridiculous. It's an exam, just like every other post-mission exam, but when did Beckett get so fucking feely? She's cold and shivering, too. Can't someone turn up the heat? Does Beckett examine Teyla topless through the whole thing? Sheppard's head is starting to swim. This must be what a panic attack starts out from.

"Sorry, I've got to – "

"No, no, you really don't," Sheppard says, squirming away from Beckett's hands. This isn't good. This is jump-up-and-run-screaming-down-the-halls bad. She's about to fucking hyperventilate.

"Colonel," Beckett snaps. And screw him if he's getting irritated. In a minute she's going to deck him or throw up all over his shoes. Maybe both.

"Colonel, are you all right?" Rodney yells.

"What do you think?" she snarls back at half the volume.

"Colonel, I need you to take off your pants – "

Sheppard clamps her thighs together. "And what, lie back and think of Scotland?" She stares at the instruments Beckett has laid out on a tray. They're all shiny. And steel. And, no, no, no, not touching her with any of them. "You're not sticking that inside me!"

Rodney snickers on the other side of the curtain.

"Would you rather I got Dr. Biro to do your exam?" Carson replies in exasperation.

Sheppard nods vigorously. "Well, actually – yes." She glares at him. "You keep looking at my chest."

"Louise!"

The curtain yanks aside just enough for Biro to poke her short-cropped head through. The lights glint off her little square glasses. "What now?" Her gaze strays to Sheppard and she blinks. "What's this, then? You make a nice-looking woman, Colonel."

"The Colonel needs a full workup, Louise," Beckett tells in, sounding exasperated. "And he's – she's not comfortable with me suddenly. If you'll take over, I'll handle Rodney."

Biro shoots her eyebrows up. "Somehow, Carson, I suspect you're not that comfortable, either."

"Louise – "

"Fine, fine. It gets me out of dealing with the Mouth That Does Not Stop," she says and steps into the examination area.

"I heard that, you ghoul!" Rodney yells.

"You were supposed to."

"Thank you, Louise," Beckett mutters sincerely.

Biro nods and waits until Beckett's gone, rooting through the supply shelf mounted at the head of the exam table. She tosses a set of red scrubs at Sheppard. "Here."

Sheppard gapes at her.

"Colonel, I'm used to patients that are quiet," she says as she dons a new set of gloves, "so go right on emulating them and we'll get along fine."

Sheppard snaps her mouth shut and gets into the scrubs.

Biro is watching, which makes Sheppard blush all over, which is humiliating too. "So, is it just cosmetic or does it include functionality, Colonel?"

Sheppard tightens her fingers and the hem of the scrub top and yanks it down. "They said everything works."

"Well, we'll see."

Oh, shit, she didn't like the sound of that. That sounded like more exams and more tests and shiny, steel instruments that made her queasy to just think about.

"Don't look at me like a kitten about to be flayed," Biro sighs.

Hey. She resents that comparison. "I'm more worried about you jumping the gun on an autopsy," Sheppard says, flippant tone returning to her voice. Biro's so unfazed by the situation, it makes relaxing a little easier.

From the other side of the curtain, Rodney's strident voice pierces the infirmary. "You fraud! You incompetent, bead-rattling haggis-eater, you have the bedside manner of a walrus, stop trying to blind me and go torture Ronon!" It's so familiar Sheppard immediately feels better. There's always a chance to pull the fat out of the fire as long Rodney has breath to complain.

"You know what a breast exam is, Colonel?"

Sheppard rolls her eyes. "Not from this side. So to speak."

Biro smiles a little at that. Sheppard looks down. "So, not bad, huh?"

After a considering look, Biro nods, "I've seen better, but those'll do." When Sheppard gapes, Biro grins. "Now that you've relaxed a little, I'm going take your blood pressure." She keeps talking as she works, a patter meant to distract and calm, and Sheppard realizes it's working. "So, how long did this actually take?"

"Couple of hours."

"You were conscious?"

"Not really, not for the...," she gestures at her groin, "losing stuff part."

Biro nods, and writes into Sheppard's new chart. "I imagine that would be pretty disturbing."

Sheppard nods glumly. "Waking up like this...."

"Well, women do it every day," Biro says. "Wake, get out of bed, go pee...."

Sheppard swallows and nods, but she doesn't – not at all – think it's the same. Most women wake up as who and what they were the night and the day before and every one before that since they were born. They don't just have to suddenly figure it all out after thirty-seven years in a different body. Even the Hermeans don't do that; they get completion out of the way within a year after puberty hits.

Maybe some of that shows on her face. Biro's brow furrows. "I can help you with some of the details. You'll need clothes that fit, for one thing. And someone to talk to sometime, if you want."

"I...please." Jesus, she thinks, Biro's better at this than Kate Heightmeyer. Either that or the hormones are hitting hard, because she never felt so grateful in her life. "Teyla's too freaked out to talk to."

"Teyla?"

"You didn't see?"

"Afraid not, Colonel."

"Teyla got the opposite result. Everything Ronon and I had and now don't – she does. He does. Shit." It seemed like such a simple solution to get the damned technology back on Hermea, but Rodney's right. She must be brain-damaged.

"That's remarkable. The technology, I mean."

"Why did I know every scientist on Atlantis was going to say something like that?"

"Well, you can't blame us."

"Yes, I can," she snaps.

"You're the living embodiment of about five hundred studies."

"I really don't care." She looks down at herself again, feeling waves of frustration come and go; a fucking tide of conflicting emotions. "I did it because I thought I had to, and now I have to figure out how to get through six months like this."

"Amazingly, women manage, and you will too." She paused in writing in the chart. "Six months?"

"Until they'll change us back."

"It really is remarkable." The chart is set aside again. "All right, drop your pants, lie back and I'll – "

A moment later, Sheppard squeaks and gasps out, "Hey, wait, I don't think – "

"Stop squirming, Colonel."

"Stop — doing — doing that."

"Let me finish."

"You — that — okay, a prostate exam never felt like that. Jesus, that's cold!"

Biro finishes and steps back. "All done." She snaps off her gloves and drops them in the trash, then connects her comm mike to a tiny recorder. "Name, Sheppard, John, Colonel USAF. Patient presents as a healthy, thirty-seven year old Caucasian female, contrary to previous gender assignment. Preliminary physical exam confirms sexual characteristics present are strictly female...."

Sheppard half listens as she jerks the scrubs back over her hips.

"...three pounds under optimum weight ... blood pressure elevated, presumably due to circumstantial stress...."

Sheppard raises her eyebrow and Biro pats her arm. She's never been the touchy-feely type before, but she's grateful for Biro's touches, which are both kind and assured. Beckett always seems like he's uncomfortable out of his lab, working on real people.

"...patient appears, pending blood work, x-rays, PET scan, MRI and DNA results, to possess fully functional primary and secondary female sexual characteristics — "

"Hey, hold on a sec," Sheppard says, swallowing hard, thinking, really thinking for the first time: functional? "Like...uh, fertile?"

Biro's looking at her sympathetically.

"You mean...?"

"That's exactly what I mean, yes."

Sheppard braces her hands against the edge of the exam table and waits for the fuzzy black curtains at the edge of her vision to pull back. "Ooooh."

"Colonel."

"It's not like I slept through sex-ed," she murmurs. "Jesus. Birth control? I've got to use birth control?"

"Don't be shocked, Colonel. I suggest an implant once we've finished running tests and are sure there won't be any problems."

"I'm never having sex in this body."

"That's what they all say." Biro is actually laughing at her. "All of the original expedition's female personnel received an implant, unless there were counter-indications."

"Shit. It's six months. I can hold out — "

"I actually mean, it, Colonel. I'd strongly suggest it."

She gulps and nods. "Okay."

"Of course, you'll still need to make sure your partners use condoms."

"...condoms."

"STDs."

"Do they have nunneries in this galaxy?" Sheppard mutters.

Rodney yells, proving the bastard has been listening, "Like they'd let you in!"

"Rodney, if you don't shut up I'm going have Ivan give you an enema the next time you're brought in," Beckett says, loud enough anyone could hear. "Now, stay here. I still have to examine Ronon."

"Sadist!" Rodney hisses. "What about Teyla?"

"Dr. Biro will be with her — with Teyla — as soon as she finishes with Colonel Sheppard."

"That'll go over like a lead balloon."

"Rodney...."

"Fine, shutting up."

Biro makes this little snorting sound. "That man...." Sheppard isn't completely certain she means Rodney. She cocks her head at Sheppard after a moment and steps closer, lowering her voice. "You do realize that you're virgo intacta, don't you, Colonel?"

Sheppard feels hot, then cold, then too weirded out to describe, except possibly she may be sick in her next breath. "You can't be serious," she whispers.

"Oh, I assure you, I am. I'd also recommend you have me take care of your hymen if you rethink the celibacy option."

Sheppard just sways in place, glad she's already sitting down.

"Colonel?"

"I'm not going to faint," she murmurs. "I'm not going to faint."

Biro's peering at her. "You really should have eaten something — "

"When?" Sheppard snaps. "We came here straight out of the jumper — "

"Wait — here." She produces a piece of candy from her lab coat pocket. "We get these for the Athosian kids, their monthly exams — "

Sheppard's already snatching the nugget of sheer sugar heaven, tearing the wrapper off, ready to weep over just the scent before the taste melts onto her tongue. Maple, and there's a nut in the center. Screw chocolate and guns and even flying, Sheppard has found love. She's tempted to lick the damned wrapper.

Biro's ostentatiously counting her fingers. "Ah, still all there. I thought you might have snapped one off, Colonel."

"I'm starving."

"Interesting." Biro hands her several more candies, which Sheppard inhales gratefully, the nausea finally fading.

In the quiet lull of candy-inspired ecstasy and cowed Rodney-ness, Sheppard catches Beckett's soft brogue interspersed with Ronon's still surprisingly deep, husky tones, but pays little attention. She is suddenly exhausted, her eyelids drooping closed against her will.

Biro pats Sheppard's back. "Why don't you lie down and rest for a while, Colonel? We'll need to run some more tests before we release you to your quarters."

Sheppard just hangs her head, nodding in defeat.

"We'll get a meal sent over from the cafeteria," Biro promises.

"Please."

"Well, I have to see to Teyla."

Sheppard looks up. "Are you sure you couldn't give me something to knock me out for six months?" she appeals.

"Sorry, Colonel, I really couldn't. Besides, do you really want to be unconscious with Rodney McKay awake?"

A shudder runs through Sheppard. She flops back onto the exam table. "I now have a new worst nightmare," she mutters. She's so tired suddenly nothing makes sense. Biro urges her to scoot up and then drops a light blanket over her as she curls up and passes out.

When she wakes again — coming back to with a startled jerk that makes the unfamiliar new weight of her chest bounce — the blanket is still around her shoulders, but the privacy curtain is half pulled. She can see around most of the infirmary, including Ronon talking quietly with Beckett only a few feet away.

"So."

"You're the picture of health," Carson says.

"So?"

"Didn't I tell you, then? We're done here."

"Not completely."

There's a pause.

"I'll need something."

"Something?" Beckett echoes.

"Contraceptive — birth control?" Ronon tries. "I know you people have it. Sheppard handed me condoms the first week. I want something more reliable."

"Ronon..." Beckett's voice is strangled. Sheppard presses her eyes closed. Thank God for Biro. "Perhaps this is too soon to be thinking of things like that."

Teyla's new voice still has the same cadence and rings out, "You cannot seriously consider having sexual relations in these bodies!"

Sheppard rolls over and spots Teyla sitting on one of the other exam beds. Rodney's perched just beyond her, tapping away at his laptop, his face gone an alarming shade of red.

"Probably will," Ronon replies. "Why not?"

No answer. Then: "Colonel!" Teyla's voice. "Say something!"

"What?" Sheppard snaps, desperately wishing she'd pretended to still be asleep. "Like, Can We Please Not Have This Conversation in Public, or, ideally, Ever!?" She takes a breath and adds, marginally calmer, "That last part? That's an order. Shut up, Rodney."

"What? I didn't say anything!"

"Good."

Silence follows.

Then a whisper, "I don't want to know anything about it," from Beckett.

And Rodney, who is clearly suicidal: "Carson! Where's your sense of scientific curiosity, inquiry, exploring new bounds in genetic manipulation and socio-sexual relations — "

~*~
*thwack*

*thwack*

*thwack*

This is familiar.

Her heartbeat and breathing have quickened; the rush of blood through her body is beginning to drown out the world, allows her to listen inside, past flesh and bone. The rhythm of her hand, of her foot hitting the bag is both soothing and fortifying, a meditation of the body that allows her mind to — not rest, no, but spin in slower, ever-narrowing circles, as close to her self as she has —

"Been here a while?"

Teyla turns, quickly; perhaps not as quickly as before.

Sheppard is quietly leaning against the door frame; even if she had no knowledge of — what happened, she would always, always be able to tell who he is from the way he does not move. It is obvious his female body cannot erase the imprints of habit and training. She feels a small surge of hope.

"Teyla." He is smiling; the expression should be foreign, maybe even appalling on his new face but in actuality makes it hard not to return it. "Heard you've come here three times every day."

Belatedly, she shifts out of fighting stance and faces him fully.

"You have heard right."

"That's nine times since we returned three days ago." Eyes still the color of tai leaves, she notices absently, but why would they not be? It is simply that she has not looked at him all that closely since the previous forced change he had to undergo. Or maybe that he has not looked at her.

"The art of mathematics is known to my people."

She can see the surprise in the — softer — lines of his body; the brief flutter of lashes is far from new yet far more noticeable now.

"Well, I just came by to tell you we've got a mission."

She forgets, sometimes; forgets that there is a reason beyond the ties of loyalty and friendship that she follows Sheppard and orders that are not always wise or even well-intentioned. After almost three days of returning time and time again to the infirmary for yet another test, to be prodded by Biro and Beckett again and again, to go over the exact wording of the reports to be written down, repeatedly so. She would be grateful, if this were not too good to be true.

"A mission? But Dr. Weir said —"

"No off-world activity this soon, I know. But I figure there's a whole lot of places we've yet to explore, right next door — literally. Still plenty of Atlantis that we have to scout and map out."

Sheppard grins, and yes, it is purely him, the insolent charm that made her respond to him what now feels like so long ago.

It's shaky, she supposes, but her answering grin mirrors his.

~*~
There are numerous marvels in this greatest city of the Ancestors.

It would be lovely to actually see some of them today, Teyla thinks to herself. Thus far, all the team have unearthed were private chambers — the entrance into which still makes her uneasy, guilty, an intruder in space once as private as her own — derelict stores and storerooms — stripped of everything they might have held, which made the colonel's face fall just a little in disappointment each time — and other rooms dedicated to function instead of science or form. Teyla is suitably impressed with the level of comfort and technology to be found here, but truly, there are only so many Bathrooms of the Ancestors one can look at with wonder in one's eyes.

"Another one?"

Sometimes, she really cherishes Rodney and his penchant for unfiltered mind-to-mouth communications.

"I dunno, maybe we can power one of these up again, sometime?"

Ah, Colonel Sheppard and an attempt at optimism, ill-received as it is wont to be.

"Yes, of course we can; please, remind me again to channel power and potable water into remote areas of the city...say, the day after hell freezes over?"

Sometimes, she does not cherish it.

"McKay." A reprimand from Ronon, lower and softer but just as resounding, perhaps even more. It still strikes her how he has lost bulk but not substance; his essence still present and palpable, unperturbed as ever.

The sting of envy is surprisingly sharp. Yes, it still irks her far more than she cares to admit or discuss yet again, Ronon's acceptance of this strange body; he treats it as if it were just another garment, extensively softened leather slipped on without the slightest catch. It is not normal, at least not for those not otherwise inclined, and Ronon has never given any such indication, has shown an active if politely restrained interest in her.

But of course, she knows nothing of him except that he was a soldier first, Wraith prey for a while, and a soldier at last.

A soldier is forced to do a lot of things. She understands concepts of necessity and sacrifice and that which is seen as heroism one day and as foolishness the other.

A soldier is forced to keep the surface smooth and regular, to let parts of oneself sink deep under this surface. The military does not take kindly to those differing from the norm — a perfect receiver and executor of commands. Yes, this is not true for Sheppard, but she also knows that for all his skills and his success, his superiors do not cherish his personality, his manner, even though without, he would not be a shadow of the man he is.

"Okay, folks, let's take five."

Sheppard takes one last look around, then lowers his weapon and wipes his brow. For a moment, Teyla is captivated by how large it looks on him in this slighter, curvier body.

Next to her, McKay lets out a huff of relief; he has dropped his backpack to the ground within the fraction of a heartbeat.

"Honestly, I can't believe you're turning a little trip through unexplored parts of the city into a marathon."

"Now, that's just the most beautiful image ever, McKay — you, running, for hours on end."

"Oh, Colonel, you're one to talk." The sweetly cheerful tone of his voice is telling. She quickly glances at Sheppard for his reaction. "Why, you're even prettier than before; bet you'd have boys lining up just to see your..." he gazes meaningfully at Sheppard's chest region, which awakens the sudden urge in Teyla to slap the smirk off his face, "...running technique."

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Ronon lean forward — and hit the back of Rodney's head, open-palmed and with a loud smacking sound, exactly the way she has watched Colonel Sheppard do it to him.

Only that when Sheppard does it, it does not usually rock Rodney on his feet, does not usually make him wince. Teyla finds she approves either way.

"Ow! You big —"

"Eyes above the neckline, McKay." The colonel actually smirks a little.

Rodney continues to rub his head in a jerky, exaggerated gesture, but of course, if he were in actual pain, they would certainly know within moments of the incident and he would not be simply throwing peeved glares at Ronon.

"What? You could give me a concussion doing that."

Ronon's next head-thwap is considerably gentler, but Teyla agrees it must be done on principle.

"I'm starting to understand why Carter got him sent to Siberia." Sheppard's voice is conversational as he gives both of them a thoughtful nod.

"Oh, now that's patently unfair!"

"To Carter, maybe, but there was no place farther away, not at that point."

She knows better than to respond to each of these bits of banter, but knowledge of even the most exotic locations is one of the things she takes pride in; she also has not given up hope of seeing their famed planet at some point in the future. She has to ask: "Siberia?"

Ronon turns to Rodney, too, waiting for his answer. Doing so, he inadvertently steps closer to her. Something about his presence throws her, continues to scratch at the edge of her consciousness until she finally recognizes it: His scent has changed, too, or perhaps not changed as much as shifted, subtly and almost certainly undetectably for the noses of Sheppard and Rodney. This is only partly due to senses dulled by being indoors for most of their life; she has to acknowledge that she and Ronon are used to closer physical proximity and are therefore much more likely to notice such things.

Rodney nods. "Imagine the coldest world you've ever visited, then add the smell of boiling cabbage."

A head-tilt from Ronon. "That's the stuff that makes you — "

"Yes. In small, tightly closed up quarters, all winter!"

Rodney's voice adds far more emphasis than strictly necessary in this case. Sometimes, Teyla wonders if he might have made a good story-teller or even leader in another life; not unsuitably, there is a lot of — energy about him.

Responding to Sheppard's gaze, presumably, Rodney turns a little and makes a quick gesture.

"Hey, she asked!"

"And you're always all about doing what others ask for, we know."

Rodney just snorts, crosses his arms, and lifts his chin; he is already opening his mouth for yet another retort when Ronon, may the gods bless him, steps forward and begins to focus on more important matters.

"Did anyone bring lunch?"

She — he; oh, this is terrible, having to catch herself all the time, trying to reconcile what all her senses tell her and what she knows is right — Ronon looks from one to the other, and Rodney lets his arms drop to his sides again in a practiced motion of utter astonishment.

"You don't really mean to say you're still hungry after that breakfast?"

Ronon's little half-shrug looks different now, but the idea remains. What surprises her is the soft cough from behind, from Sheppard.

"Actually —"

"Et tu, Colonel?"

"It's a side effect." Mumbled, but Rodney has very good ears when he only tries. Unfortunately, he also has very few inhibitions.

"You're both going to be blimps."

"We can still run your ass into the ground, McKay. Even as blimps."

Ronon pauses after saying that; against her own volition, Teyla notices the tilt of his head, the way his new body has given the most ordinary movements a more graceful, gentler air — Ronon has always been surprisingly light-footed for such a tall man, but the difference is still striking. "What's a blimp?"

"It's — oh, never mind!" Teyla can see Sheppard putting his hand over her — his — eyes before continuing in a vaguely resigned tone. "Do you want to take this break now?"

Rodney hesitates for a moment, then grimaces and, after fumbling in his tac vest, pulls out a Powerbar that he holds out to Ronon. The quickness with which Ronon plucks the proffered food from Rodney's hand is utterly predictable; the little wink Ronon gives Rodney is not. Teyla is a little taken aback — but so is Rodney, who stares at Ronon with a perturbed expression and, if Teyla isn't mistaken, a blush creeping into his cheeks.

"We appear to be taking it already." Teyla realizes she would not be nearly as likely to either have watched this exchange or added her less than friendly comment if she were not quite hungry herself.

A rustle of paper diverts her attention, though — Sheppard is busy getting a brown-bagged lunch out of his pack and, with a small smile, hands first her, then Ronon, and finally Rodney a bag. Rodney opens his and peers at the contents. "You got this from the mess?"

Sheppard rolls his eyes. "Yes, and there's no citrus, Mr. Paranoid Pants."

Rodney is mollified — certainly acts like it, taking out the sandwich and biting into it with relish. Of course, having his mouth full does never discourage him from continuing to talk, or what may pass as such in his mind: "Mmh, mmh" and "Peanut butter and jelly, yes" and "Mrf, mrf, good." Teyla cannot help a slight flinch at his oddly intimate reaction to food; when she glances over at the commander, she can see Sheppard first stare at Rodney before looking away quickly, too. Ronon, who is leaning against a console, keeps watching McKay with an oddly intent expression, though.

In the meantime, Rodney has finished his sandwich; when he pulls a meera fruit out of his brown bag, he holds it in his hand for a moment, running a thoughtful thumb over the polished surface. Then, he tosses it to Ronon. No one could miss the full-on smile Ronon gives Rodney, or the way Rodney's eyes grow wider and lighter in response.

Teyla looks away, her gaze settling on Sheppard, who is quietly eating her — his — sandwich, eyes downcast, dark lashes are fanning her cheek. A little squish of jelly ends up on her lower lip, perhaps a little stained from the fruit in the preserve; Teyla certainly hadn't noticed their color and the way they are so much fuller now, soft and —

"Oh, that's practically obscene." Rodney's voice startles Teyla as she stares at Sheppard, who licks the jelly off unselfconsciously. It makes Teyla feel almost, oddly, embarrassed for herself and Sheppard, the whole thing is so — sensual.

"What?" Sheppard blinks, stares at McKay with an expression of surprise far from his usual, studied responses, and Rodney frowns a little. He seems torn between saying something and keeping his silence; when he does speak up, it's in a different tone of voice again, light-hearted and teasing without any undercurrents. "No turkey sandwich, Colonel?"

"I am almost as sick of turkey as I am of Kirk jokes, McKay." Sheppard grimaces. "I like it, but Christ, it's not my favourite food in the universe."

Ronon, who has slowly been chewing her meera, says, to no one in particular, "Could never choose a favorite."

"You've never had poutine." Rodney lifts his chin, but there is a sympathetic and vaguely wistful note to his familiar gesture.

"Poutine?"

Rodney nods absently, but he doesn't look away from Ronon. "I wonder if the cooks would make it."

"Okay, kids, time's up. The two of you can swap recipes later."

Bless Sheppard. Teyla supposes she should have known better — when she secretly wished that Ronon and Rodney would find some common ground, she had not expected them to take up so much space.

~*~

The next hour of exploration does not much help to soothe her slightly frayed nerves — Ronon keeps looking entirely too cheerful, even going as far as to keep a little smile on her — his — face. Rodney keeps what Sheppard calls "yammering" about how all these labs seem to be devoted to anthropology and archaeology and how he is wasting his valuable time looking at old rocks when he could be in his lab working on vital projects, and the colonel —

Sheppard finally turns and halts Rodney mid-sentence. "Elizabeth hasn't cleared you yet."

A scowl, and Rodney squares his shoulders a little. "I wasn't even changed!"

"Well, you know how it goes, McKay." The lazy drawl is back; for some reason, Sheppard likes to use it on Rodney, who speaks so fast and thinks even quicker. "We must all hang together, or we shall surely hang separately."

"Yes, Colonel, please tell me all about the lovely experience of sharing everything with your team, like, oh, say, de facto quarantine."

"C'mon, it's better than the time Ronon picked up those sand fleas on PX5-69H."

"Don't remind me! I'm already beginning to itch!" There is a sudden glint in Rodney's eye, and a small but wicked smile starts spreading from the down-turned corner of his mouth. "Your face — when Carson threatened to shave our heads...."

"I remember you scratching everything and everywhere. For hours. In spite of the audience."

Rodney smirks, satisfied. "Looked very closely, hmm?"

"We were stuck. In one room." A slight note of agitation colors Sheppard's voice. He looks around with an expression that's almost pleading. "Stripped naked by natives. You remember!"

Teyla does. Unfortunately. "None of us were very happy, Colonel."

Rodney opens his mouth as if he wants to say something...but catches her gaze and closes his mouth again, nodding sagely instead. Sheppard looks back at her, brows arched in contemplation. "You hit Ronon."

"He gave me fleas!" She cannot believe he is bringing this up again.

"Not on purpose." Ronon sounds neutral, but there is a conciliatory note in the way he leans forward and looks at her.

Rodney looks at her, too, but with far less kindness. "Ah, fleas. The gift that keeps on giving."

"McKay, do us a favor and shut up." Sheppard's vocal chords simply cannot manage the same level of gruffness as before, but there must be something else equally effective in his voice, for Rodney falls silent.

"Can we continue?" Teyla really wants to. The colonel nods at her with something akin to relief. "Gladly."

She pointedly, regally ignores the long and undoubtedly amused glance Ronon and McKay exchange. Much better to begin to focus on this task again — scouting missions are hardly anything new to her; while most civilizations in the Pegasus galaxy possess notably fewer artificial structures, the principle remains the same: take note of potential dangers, locate any and all resources —

"Wait." She holds up her hand, and they all come to an abrupt halt. There are confused stares at what looks, at first glance, like just another ornamental wall, but Teyla knows there is something — something more. "I believe this is an entrance. Do you see the faint lines of an archway?"

The others, too, are regarding the spot Teyla has indicated. They all look at the curved indentations, the Ancient symbols on the wall — subtle, yes, but in clear relief. Sheppard leans forward and squints at them. "If this is an entrance, there must be a way to open it. McKay?"

"Right." Rodney steps closer, eyes alight with the challenge. This is why he is on their team, she knows, because he cannot bear to leave a riddle unanswered, a problem unsolved — and because he does not, not ever. "Let me see...." He fiddles with his laptop, then lets out a triumphant sound. "Yes, of course — look, if we press this...."

The door opens without so much as a croaking sound. Sheppard's smile is full of delight, but Teyla notices her — his — hands on the machine gun do not slip even the fraction of an inch. With a two slow, measured steps, he walks into the room. There's a soft, sudden hum in the air, but the only thing that happens is that lights come on. Sheppard relaxes, waves at them. "Come in, just be careful."

Another curiously empty chamber that does look neither like a bathroom nor, to Rodney's obvious disappointment, like a laboratory. "Now that we've seen everything there is, I propose we check next door's doctor's office this waiting room here clearly belongs to."

Ronon does not pay him any mind, though, and strolls deeper into the room instead, looking around with a look of mild, feline curiosity. "Looks nice."

It does, in fact, wide and airy; even without natural light, the room is lit so gently and softly that the little glass pyramid in the middle of the room remains dull, free of any glares or reflections. Ronon flops down in one of the soft, cushioned chairs, all careless grace and fluid muscles, and stretches out her legs, the movement making them all but brush against the little pedestal the pyramid is resting upon.

"Don't touch anything!" Rodney's voice is close to a bark, but Ronon barely blinks, languidly lifting both her hands, fingers — long and shockingly smooth — outstretched. "Look, McKay, no hands."

"Oh, you — you know what I mean! Your feet!"

Any stranger would have called Ronon's slow blink and long look at Rodney dumb. "It's just a footstool, McKay."

And with a gesture that's as smooth as it is fast, Ronon props up her feet on the pedestal.

The pyramid in the middle of the room begins to glow — bright, brighter, brightest; Teyla narrows her eyes and has to fight the urge to retreat, but both Sheppard and McKay remain frozen on the spot, and the only urge Rodney seems to feel is to pull his hair. Or possibly Ronon's. "What did I tell you??"

"I'm not deaf, and you're not my teacher." Ronon's muscles have tensed up, and it's obvious — to Teyla, at least — that his flight reflex is far, far stronger than his fight reflex but that he is utterly unwilling to back off now that McKay has called him on his misstep.

"Ease off, McKay." Sheppard's voice is low but carries, and the quick lip-lick indicates he is readying himself for further commands. But then, a broad beam of light begins to emanate from the pyramid; looking up, Teyla spots the second pyramid mounted to the ceiling.

The flash of an image in the light column — filling out with every breath they take, tiny glowing particles fusing and separating and forming the outline of a human figure.

"A hologram." There's a quiet note of awe in Rodney's voice that surprises Teyla a little; they have seen others in this City of the Ancestors, if admittedly none that grow so slowly, as if pieced together with effort.

The person slowly taking shape in the hologram is young — teenaged, obviously, with bronze skin and curly dark hair in a very neat if possibly a little blunt cut. A boy, as it becomes apparent — tall but a little awkward, shoulders hunched in the manner young males uncomfortable with their quickly growing body often demonstrate. Teyla notes that he is carrying something under his arm, namely stacks of hair-thin paper wedged between many colorful binders as well as —

"Books." Sheppard steps closer, scratches his head. "Didn't the Ancients —"

"Shh," Rodney sounds fervent, "don't you dare disturb this; completely fascinating to see a glimpse at a young Ancient..."

His voice trails off, and Teyla looks closer. The head is still bent down a little, the boy's hair partly obscuring his face, but his clothing is clearly visible now — a red-brown jacket and tan pants made from the same kind of shiny fabric; the open-toed sandals he wears are of the same shade as the jacket. Although she is completely sure she has never seen it before, the whole outfit has a vaguely familiar look. Or maybe it is the person wearing it.

"Ronon." The word is out of her mouth before she knows it; for less than a heartbeat, she is afraid she gave away what was not hers to give away, but then, then the boy looks up, at an imaginary onlooker, and smiles — wide and almost unbearably sweet, with an innocence that makes something within Teyla clench painfully. No, there is no doubt whatsoever about his identity.

"Ronon?" Sheppard breathes out his name; Teyla realizes the question in his voice does not stem from doubt but incredulity.

"In a school uniform?" Rodney. Aghast.

Belatedly, it occurs to all of them that they might consult with the one so obviously depicted in the hologram, and three heads turn to Ronon — who draws back his legs with a quick jerk and crouches forward a little; the hologram winks out without a sound. Her face is hard to read, a quick succession of emotions Teyla cannot place flitting over it. "Is that you?"

Ronon looks away. "It was." He runs a hand through his hair as if expecting to find soft, carefully groomed locks.

Sheppard swallows; in any other situation, the astonishment on his face would be a source of silent amusement for Teyla. "On Sateda? During your childhood?"

A curt nod from Ronon, who shifts in her seat, the movement — the frequency of it — telling Teyla more clearly than all the words in the world that Ronon is unsettled.

"Nice shoes, Jesus Boy." Rodney, of course. The muscles in Teyla's right arm begin to itch rather temptingly, but the spark in Ronon's eyes is immediate.

"Yeah, McKay. I'm sure yours were much — cooler." He stares at Rodney, and the dare in his eyes is unmistakable. "You put your hands —" nodding at the pedestal and pointing at a set of indentations, "here, on one of the pads, and we'll see." Smug is a strangely fetching look on Ronon now, Teyla muses.

"Oh, right." Rodney's laugh sounds a little strained. "You're joking. Very funny. Ha-hah. That's really cute."

Sheppard seems to come alive again at that, blinks slowly. "Something to hide, McKay?" He smirks, and it's — well, there is that little twist to her mouth, the spark in her eyes, the all-too-innocent and questioning gaze. All of a sudden, the idea of — taking hold of...another person, the feel of her soft skin under stronger fingers, the sharing of breath haunts her, comes far too close for comfort, sending a shiver through lower portions of her body.

Teyla tears her eyes away from Sheppard — from the colonel; focuses on the first person in her line of vision. "Rodney."

Rodney looks alarmed, slowly turns toward her. "Yes? No! Teyla, you can't possibly be in on this; entirely too juvenile for you to suggest we start playing with Ancient memory holograms —"

"I suggest you do just as Ronon and Col. Sheppard say."

Frankly, she is getting tired of this; childishly as her male team members may behave, she is not their caretaker, not the friendly aunt one tent removed, duty-bound to remind and reprimand. She is Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tegan, leader of the Athosian people, and frustrated enough for three people, indeed.

Rodney hesitates. Teyla decides to play dirty; they do it all the time. "Unless you are afraid. Of course, I would not want a team member to be scared."

A snort. "Nice attempt at reverse psychology there, Teyla. Did you pick that up from Kate in one of your sessions?" But before Teyla can — sharply — remind him that he, too, sees Dr. Heightmeyer regularly, he does turn toward the pedestal and, with a resolute squaring of his shoulders, puts his hand on one of the pads responding to touch.

The beam of light appears again; this time, the glowing fragments form a complete picture within the time it takes to blink — a Rodney of perhaps fifteen years, wearing cargo pants, a washed-out shirt, and something that looks like a laboratory pump. There is a mane of shaggy hair, quite unlike the receding hairline of present days.

"Aw, Rodney, you had a mullet!" Sheppard — giggles; there is no other word for it, and Teyla feels almost appalled, not due to their commander's good cheer by itself but this altered way of showing it. It might fit this body, but does it really fit Sheppard?

"Everybody had back then — well, at least everybody in his right mind, full of teenage existential angst as it may have been." Rodney flushes but stands his ground and does not remove his hand from the pad. When she glances at Ronon, Teyla can see the shadow of a smile, and it is such a relief. Sheppard is still looking as if this is the funniest thing that happened to him in a long, long while — which Teyla knows is hardly true, for there was the mission to PL2-241 — but that expression slides from his face rather quickly when Rodney takes his hands off the panel and waves at Sheppard.

"Now you, Colonel." His grin holds a hint of menace. "Let's see Johnny-Boy."

Is that a blush creeping into her — his — cheeks? Sheppard holds Rodney's taunting gaze for a moment before slowly stepping up to the pad. Again, Teyla is taken by...surprise not as much as wonder; while upholding fairness within the group is an essential concept of team work, this does not, by definition, apply to the leader. Yet it does not seem to occur to Sheppard that he is not only free to but perhaps even bound to stop putting each of them through this machine.

"Colonel Sheppard — do you not believe we should cease this? We have established the basic function of this contraption; would it not be better to continue with our task?"

A long, slow blink. "Teyla, I appreciate your concern, but I'll be fine." Sheppard's hand hovering over the pad comes down on it, with possibly more force than would be necessary. The image flickering to life is — vaguely disappointing, which in itself disturbs Teyla on some level.

Sheppard as a boy is thin, very thin — the long limbs of his slight body show the promise of strength and agility, but at this point, such change is still in the future.

"Wow, you were a skinny kid, eh? Of course, holding a skateboard."

Sheppard rolls his eyes, uses his sing-song voice. "Stating the obvious, Rodney."

"And oh, doth mine eyes deceive me? Where is the famed Sheppard hair?"

Ronon snorts at that, a sound that is now ironic rather than rude, and the colonel lifts his hand but manages, barely, to avoid touching his head. If the boy in the hologram did so, he would hardly feel anything of substance — his hair is short, shorter even than Rodney's hair now, obviously trimmed with what must be one of these electric razors.

"Okay, so I had a buzz cut. McKay, if you want to laugh, go right ahead."

Rodney has already begun to laugh before the colonel finishes her sentence — full of mirth, with the glint in his eyes that tells of terrible things should he be able to acquire this data and the ability to redistribute it. When he stops, they all turn a little and look at her with expressions ranging from mild curiosity to avid interest. "Teyla?"

She feels choked, filled with sudden, irrational loathing; she knows why they do this, because they are men, men wanting to have a nice little look at a nubile female, ogle something pretty and inexperienced and — she takes a deep breath, controls her body's response, just as she has learned. Perfected.

"If you insist."

Only Sheppard lifts a questioning eyebrow at that — whether at the words or her tone, she does not know — but both McKay and Ronon shuffle back in anticipation, looking from her to the twin pyramids and back.

When Teyla touches the pedestal, there is no quick flash. The picture in the beam of light grows slowly, with short jerks and whole moments of inactivity, but eventually, it is finished, depicting herself in her teens.

All noise from the other three has died down, save perhaps for Rodney's hitched breath. Teyla forces herself to look at the image presented — the bony body bare any curves worth mentioning, the head that seems oversized, frightfully out of proportion. The bushy hair. The scowl on her face and the way her hands are hanging loosely by her side but are curled into fists.

Into the silence, Rodney coughs. "You know, Ronon's the only one us who was remotely attractive as a kid."

Sheppard seems to have regained his balance, or parts thereof. "Surprised, Mr. Cure?"

"Well," he eyes her carefully and obviously not seeing anything in her expression, continues, "about Teyla, yeah."

Oh, for the sake of the Ancestors — "Seeing how far we have come should only make us prouder about the journey we have completed successfully."

Ronon actually grins a little at that, and Teyla struggles to not imitate her younger self's facial expression. Rodney speaks up again, though, mindless of the unspoken conversations. "How far we've come? Really, I'd think traveling from another galaxy would be far enough." He gives them a meaningful glance. "But I still can't get a date."

"Ever tried something really groundbreaking?" Sheppard and the return of her sarcastic drawl...and oh, enough; this is not helping, just undermines her composure. No matter how proper it is — if she has to approach anew each gaze at Sheppard and Ronon, each single note of their speech, each shiver of movement these new female bodies make, she will certainly go mad. Best tolerate the things her senses tell her, in spite of the fact they are being deceived. Now. Sheppard smiles at Rodney, the light in her eyes far too cordial to be true. "Like just asking someone nicely?"

"As if that would work for me." Rodney sounds perversely proud of his prickly demeanor.

"It might." Ronon is obviously of a different opinion, but then, that may be a side-effect of her new rapport with Rodney. She looks at them, nods at Rodney. "You're okay. When you set your mind to it."

Ignoring Sheppard's doubtful expression, Rodney shuffles closer and pats Ronon's arm as if she were a kitten. "Thank you. And I mean it this time."

Ronon stretches a little in her seat, looks up at him, smirks, and — bats her eyelashes. Once. If Teyla were not feeling scandalized herself, she might just smile about the way Rodney's eyes widen and his hands begin to move at a quick pace. "Did you just...? No. You didn't." When she glances over at Sheppard, the expression flickering over her face is gone too quickly, but Teyla is reasonably certain the colonel, too, wished she had not seen what they all just saw. Rodney takes a deep breath and looks at the three of them. "Come on. It's not like any of you would ever have a hard time getting a date at this point."

The colonel gets a noticeably panicked look. "A date? Now?"

"Well, not right this very minute. But yes."

Sheppard is still blinking in what seems to be genuine disturbance. "Like this?" Teyla is suddenly, deeply grateful that she is not the only one who realizes how wrong, unsettling this is; the world turned upside-down hardly supports standing firm, let alone beginning the steps to the intricate dance of physical attraction. When she lets her gaze flick to the others, she sees that this is not a view all of them share, though: Ronon has a worrisome, speculative look in her eyes, and the truth is that Sheppard may look disturbed but not even half as disgusted as Teyla had assumed she would. And while her voice is still a little high when she answers, there is no repulsion in it. "With who? Rodney, I have to work with everyone after we get back to normal, you know."

"Speaking of getting back," Teyla manages to grit out before this conversation strays even further, "I think it is definitely the time to, how do you put it, call it a day and return. This mission was a success in the sense that we have found active technology of the Ancestors. We should leave now."

Sheppard tilts her head to look at her, then nods. "You're right. Guys, Teyla has a point. Let's go."

They file out, leaving it all behind — the chamber itself, at least.

~*~

She walks as quietly as she ever did. She listens just as carefully. Not that it takes sharp ears to overhear the voices coming around the corner from the Marines' unofficial rec room. Teyla would ignore them, but it's only natural to pay attention when a familiar name is spoken.

"Have you seen Colonel Sheppard?"

The coarse laughter in response bothers her and she stops in her tracks. There's a wolf whistle, too.

"Who would have thought?" That's a third voice, so there are at least three of them. Teyla leans against the wall and listens. She is curious. What do the Marines think of this horrible situation?

"Her and Dex are both hot."

"Damn, they could send half of Atlantis through that thing, if you ask me. We need more girls and if everyone cleans up like the colonel did — Yeah."

"Maybe they'd send you."

"Fuck, no way!"

"I cannot believe you're leching after the CO."

"I'd totally do her."

Teyla grits her teeth. She's been around the Earth military enough to recognize that phrase.

"You're so full of shit."

"Swear to God!"

"Are they really girls now?" This from someone else, quieter and doubtful.

"Hey, Lisa works in the infirmary. She says the tests are all in and the colonel and Dex and Teyla are all switched. Totally." Then, spoken with relish, "Anatomically correct."

Another Marine snorts in response. "Nothing correct about it. It's a freaking sin."

"Ah, man, if you can't handle it, Goodwin, catch a ride back on the Big D next time."

"Yeah, don't be talking about sin. I've seen the Playboys stashed under your rack."

"This shit happened all the time back at the SGC — "

"Not this shit. Sure, Dr. Jackson keeps dying and coming back, but he's never come back as a really hot babe."

"Not like the colonel asked for it, you know."

"Well, I still say it's wrong. Ain't their fault, okay.... But I don't wanna go out and start buying lipstick."

"Fuck no, man. You'd make an ugly ass woman!"

They all laugh at that. Teyla admits to herself that there are several Marines and a couple of scientists who would not handle the change with the grace Colonel Sheppard has — and would make very unattractive women.

"Ah, fuck you all," the object of their laughter responds.

"Come on, Goodwin. Let's get out of here."

"Right with you, Parky."

"Yeah, don't let the doorknob hit you in the ass on the way out, Parky!"

"Bite me, Walochski."

The sound of heavy footsteps, of two people; judging from the conversation, it is probably Goodwin and Parkhurst exititing the rec room, leaving Walochski and whoever else is there behind.

"Asswipe," someone murmurs in a less joking voice and adds, "Fucking douche bag, dissing everyone all the time. Teyla hears him? His ass will be grass."

The conversation in the rec room is drifting toward Earth sports and something called a Swimsuit Issue, so Teyla walks on, vaguely aware that she is trailing the two Marines who left the room ahead of her. Atlantis is well soundproofed, but the corridors are open and their voices carry.

"I used to be hot for that Teyla chick."

"Pussy, you still are."

"Fuck you, Parky. I don't do guys."

"C'mon, you want to do Teyla — go for it."

"That's so fucking sick. Not a fag."

"Heard other things from the shower room."

"Where you were playing find the soap with Ramirez?"

"Asshole."

"That's what you like. Not me."

"Shut up. I really liked Teyla's ass. Shit. She was fine."

Teyla is not sure whether to be complimented or disgusted by this. Both men are the type she has always enjoyed beating with sticks. Goodwin, at least, she has knocked around in the gym a few times; he is one of the latest Daedalus arrivals. He had never been quite so crude, but she understands that there are different levels of social interaction, that within the closed society of the Earth military, the men may allow themselves freedoms they never would in her presence. She is not and can never be one of them, after all.

"Used to pop a boner every time we had hand-to-hand practice with her."

"Man, I don't know how the colonel could work out with her and not be doing her."

Teyla shuts her mouth with a click.

"Aw, you know he totally was doing her."

She begins grinding her teeth. How dare they disrespect both her and Colonel Sheppard in such a fashion? Her hands close into fists. Mockery behind one's back, vicious and demeaning — oh, no, she does not take kindly to it. They might not have known about the Wraith DNA, but the other children had always turned on her for being different. These men are no different. They see an 'alien' and must denigrate her to feel bigger.

"You think they're still...?"

"Hell, yeah. Only, now it's the other way round, if you catch my drift," the one she thinks was Parkhurst says in a salacious tone. She can't place Parkhurst, and that means he, too, must have come to Atlantis later; she knows all the first wave soldiers.

"You mean the colonel's doing the catching now?"

"You bet, and loving it. Spreading her legs and taking it like pro. I always knew the Air Force were a bunch of pussies."

The second Marine laughs.

"Have you seen — when it was still a him — with McKay? Oh yeah."

Teyla feels her temper, the temper she has spent years mastering, snap like a twig. She rounds the corner in a silent rush, catching both Marines by surprise. A blow to the sternum, then a hard shove sends the bigger man slamming back against the wall. She spins, moving on old instinct that adapts even to this new, differently balanced body, and hits the second Marine with a right jab to the jaw. He tumbles back and lands on his ass on the floor.

"I do not know which makes me angrier, your disrespect for Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay, or myself." She shakes her hand out, checking the knuckles for damage. Her bigger hand delivered a very satisfying blow and for a brief instant she understands how it could be pleasant to be a man, to have the extra power of sheer muscle and breadth always on call.

The Marine on the wall lunges at her.

"I don't need to take it easy on you any more, bitch!" he snarls.

Teyla smiles. This is going to be satisfying.

He feints and she moves with it, faster than him, lighter on her feet, using his momentum against him in a throw that is accompanied by the sound of a bone breaking in his arm. He goes down to his knees, holding his broken arm to his belly. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

"Please," Teyla says, bouncing a little on her feet, feeling invigorated and hot to hit someone again. She wants to fight someone, anyone, and let herself stop thinking. "Do not go easy on me. Come on."

The second Marine she hit pushes himself up with a groan. He is at least a foot taller than her; her new body is not any taller than before. He outweighs her. She does not care. He tries a move that is so slow, she laughs, and flips him. The thud of his body hitting the floor echoes down the corridor.

"I am enjoying this," Teyla tells him.

Parkhurst grunts and clutches at his ribs.

"Fuck you!" he spits. He levers himself to his feet and sways, glaring at her.

Teyla smiles sweetly. "I do not think so, Corporal."

He lunges at her again. She gets him in a headlock this time and is cranking his jaw back to the accompaniment of groans and creaking vertebrae as Major Lorne and Lieutenant Cadman walk around the corner. Goodwin is on his feet and tries to throw himself at Teyla, despite his broken arm, but she twists and Goodwin's shoulder just impacts Parkhurst's chest, driving the last of his breath out.

"Hold it right there! Attention!" Lorne's voice resounds in the corridor, and the Marines freeze. Even Teyla finds herself stilling her arm, looking up at the major.

Cadman's mouth twists a little, as though she is suppressing some expression. She lifts her hand and taps the radio earpiece everyone wears. "Security, this is Lieutenant Cadman. Dispatch a detail to corridor B13, off transporter 36, level 9." She pauses then, adds, "ASAP."

Lorne switches his gaze from Teyla and Parkhurst to Goodwin sprawled on the floor. His eyes are narrowed. "What the hell is going on here?"

Teyla cranks Parkhurst's head back further when he opens his mouth. Lorne's reaction is instant, sharp. "Teyla. Ease up this very instant."

She grits her teeth but releases the pressure...although she doesn't release Parkhurst.

"She attacked us, sir!" Goodwin exclaims. "Went — " groan, " — straight at us."

"I heard you had a temper," Lorne comments to Teyla. His tone is not exactly understanding.

She bares her teeth at him. "Only when provoked, Major."

"Fucking bitch," Goodwin mutters.

Cadman's eyebrows rise, eyes going chilly in a way Teyla has learned to recognize among the Earth soldiers, at least the officers, temper frozen over and held in control. They pride themselves in being professionals, soldiers, not warriors. It is admirable and efficient, but seems sometimes soulless to Teyla.

Lorne nods at Parkhurst. "Corporal?"

Teyla has loosened her arm enough for him to speak, so he does.

"Crazy bastard," Parkhurst grunts. "Fucking alien."

"Nice," Cadman comments.

Lorne is looking disgusted, too. "One against two. I suppose that would be crazy. Except for the part where two trained Marines are immobilized by the crazy alien."

"Did you provoke this attack?"

Goodwin looks shifty. He licks his lips. "No, ma'am," he tells Cadman. "We were just...talking. About — stuff. Private stuff."

"Nothing like what the rest of the squad was discussing back in Rec Two, huh?"

Teyla shoves her knee into Parkhurst's back and forces him down to his knees. "They were insulting both Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay, as well as myself."

Parkhurst lets out a whine of pain.

"Teyla," Lorne snaps. "Let go of him, completely. Right now."

She does, just when Sheppard's voice interrupts, clear through the open comm channel all of their radios are tuned to while in Atlantis: "What the hell is going on? Lorne? Report."

Cadman answers. "Everything is under control, sir. Teyla and a couple of Marines just had a little scuffle."

"Teyla?"

"Yes, sir." Lorne mouths, 'Good job, Lieutenant.' Cadman shrugs.

"All of you just stay where you are."

"Yes, sir."

She lets go and shoves Parkhurst forward with a contemptuous push, stepping back and falling into something very similar to Colonel Sheppard's parade rest. It is embarrassing to have lost her temper so badly — again — after Sergeant. Bates succeeded in provoking her into violence once before. She's not in the least sorry for the damage she did, however.

"Parkhurst," Lorne prompts.

Parkhurst is rubbing his throat and glaring narrow-eyed at Teyla. Teyla gives him a Ronon-inspired baring of the teeth. Parkhurst looks away.

Lorne smiles and it is not any nicer than Teyla's expression. "Corporal?"

"Free countr...free galaxy, sir! Lieutenant Goodwin and I were just having a chat."

"I'm sure it was very interesting, too, Corporal," Lorne says silkily. "Corporal Walochski mentioned some of your interests when the Lieutenant and I stopped by Rec Two."

Goodwin, lying on the floor, whimpers.

"You want to know, Major?" Parkhurst bursts out just as the security detail rounds the corner. "Fine. Me and Goodwin were saying pretty Miss Sheppard needs a real man between her legs, not that fat-ass faggot McKay or the alien freak show he's been porking."

Every face goes blank. Teyla curls her hands into fists again. The two officers share an unreadable look. The silence stretches to a breaking point.

Sheppard, on the radio, breaks it. "Teyla, don't kill them."

"Can I?" Cadman murmurs, softly enough Teyla knows that no one is meant to hear. The others are still processing the realization that Parkhurst's words went out on the all-Atlantis' channel. Sheppard heard. Everyone with a headset heard.

"I would like to remind all personnel on Atlantis that we are operating on an open channel system," Weir's voice follows Sheppard's.

Goodwin rolls over and throws up.

"Sir, please, let me handle this," Lorne transmits finally.

"I'm afraid not, Major," Sheppard replies, voice light and even.

"In light of what's been said — "

"Just hold in place and tell me when the security detail is there."

"Yes, sir."

Lorne looks green as he stares at Parkhurst and Goodwin, and it is not because he has a sensitive stomach. The four members of the security detail place themselves around Parkhurst and Goodwin, ignoring Teyla. All but one of them are expedition veterans from the first wave.

No one says anything. They are waiting for Sheppard.

Instead they get Ronon, hand resting suggestively on the butt of that energy pulse pistol she has had since arriving on Atlantis. The one Sheppard covets. It's strapped to her thigh. No one is going to make any remarks about phallic objects to a six-six Amazon. She comes closer and closer, stares at Parkhurst and Goodwin intently. Memorizing them, Teyla realizes.

"Ronon," Lorne says, quietly.

Ronon flashes him a dark look but stops. "I'm not doing anything," she tells him huskily. Shifts her weight onto one leg, standing hipshot, and folds her arms, going back to watching the two downed Marines. "Yet."

The corridor is getting crowded, between them all. It is also starting to stink, thanks to Goodwin's vomit. The youngest of the security detail looks like its getting to him. The others look amused.

"You know, Parkhurst, Colonel Sheppard's a good CO. Some guys, if they found out what you'd said — "

"Some guys! She's not a guy any more!"

"Some officers," Lorne continues, nodding at Cadman, "would have your balls for what you just said. Now the Colonel, I'll bet, won't even stick you with a bad performance review when she ships you back to Earth on the next Daedalus run."

"What, are you fucking her, too?"

Sheppard and Weir both arrive on the heels of that accusation. Sheppard's face is set and her eyes are dark; she flashes a sardonic look Parkhurst's way. "I see you have nothing to say, Corporal." A cool raised eyebrow. "At least nothing true or valuable, so I think it's best if you shut up."

"Sir." Cadman, Lorne, and the security detail all brace to attention. Even Goodwin tries to struggle upward, only to be firmly pushed back to the floor — and into the pool of vomit — by the sergeant in charge of the security detail. He uses his boot.

"Someone want to tell me the whole story, please?"

Weir is standing back, Teyla notes, probably evaluating how well the Colonel is going to deal with this. It stirs her temper again. She clamps down on it ruthlessly. She has contributed to this situation too much as is.

"And, for God's sake, get those two off the floor," Sheppard adds, making a face at the stench decorating Goodwin's uniform.

The sergeant and the second largest Marine hoist first Goodwin, then Parkhurst up. They keep hold of Parkhurst's arms. A harsh whisper is aimed at Parkhurst's ear: "The Colonel's got more balls than you ever will, tits or not. Get your shit together, zip your fucking mouth, and maybe we won't let Dex visit you in the brig."

Parkhurst spits bloody saliva, barely missing his own boots.

"Lorne," Sheppard prompts.

Lorne begins describing the scene they walked in on. Teyla examines her knuckles again. She did not even split the skin. There might be a bit of bruising, though. Parkhurst has a hard jaw. Weir is looking very unimpressed.

"I want this straightened out," she tells them all.

Ronon takes a long step forward. "I could do that."

Sheppard shakes her head. "Get these two to the infirmary and have Beckett check them out. Ronon, back off. Teyla, did you have to break his arm?"

"Sir, I still think I should handle this."

A soft sigh is Sheppard's response. She shrugs loosely. "All right, Major. See to it."

Goodwin gulps hard. Teyla is not surprised. She does not think Lorne will be as easy on them as Sheppard would be. Sheppard bends over backwards to be a fair commander, still and perhaps always, a little stunned at even having a command.

"And someone clean up this mess," Weir adds.

"Sir, if I might suggest, Corporal Parkhurst and Private Goodwin would like to clean up their own mess, I'm sure." Cadman's face is perfectly blank.

Lorne nods as though he thinks it is an excellent idea.

Sheppard's left eyebrow goes up, though, and she surveys the two Marines in question. "Nice thought, Lieutenant, but it looks like they need to be cleaned up first."

"Get them out of here," Lorne orders, "but keep an eye on them. I'll come by the infirmary later and take their statements."

Sheppard rubs the back of her neck and rolls her shoulders after they have left. She looks at Lorne and says, "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Major."

"Those two are idiots."

"Is this indicative of the general attitude among the rest of the Marines here, Major Lorne?" Weir asks.

Sheppard pales and watches Lorne, waiting for the answer, too.

Lorne pauses, obviously thinking about it.

"No, ma'am. Colonel. Marines talk a lot of trash, you know that, but even the ones that haven't been here long are mostly okay with it."

"But some of them feel the way Corporal Parkhurst does?" Weir insists.

Cadman interrupts, "Ma'am, there's always some guys who can't handle a woman officer."

"This is a slightly different situation, Lieutenant. Major? My question. This is important."

Lorne flicks a look to Sheppard, who nods. Too bad Weir does not notice that, because it says all Teyla needs to know. Lorne is Sheppard's second in command, and he still looks to Sheppard automatically.

"Corporal Parkhurst is a bad apple, ma'am. He was before this happened. If it wasn't this, it would be something else."

Weir is not convinced, but she nods. "Very well." She turns to Teyla. "Even so, this cannot happen again, Teyla."

Teyla inclines her head.

"You just overreacted a little, there," Sheppard adds.

"I do not believe I did," she insists. "Though I was...angry."

Weir inclines her head at that. Ronon chuckles and Sheppard says, straight-faced, "No kidding?" In a more serious tone, "Teyla, didn't we have a talk about that back when you slugged Sergeant Bates?"

"I believe we did."

"Bates?" Ronon asks.

"Before your time," Sheppard tells him.

"Teyla," Weir says, more sharply than Teyla has heard in a long time, "you definitely overreacted."

"Dr. Weir, you were not here."

"Brawling in the halls is not acceptable."

Teyla clenches her fists. She knows very well fighting is not a preferred method of resolving conflicts, but Dr. Weir, she has to understand — "If you had been present, if you had heard their manner of speaking of yourself, as I heard them speak of myself, of the Colonel, and Dr. McKay, I assure you that...physical reprimands would have been your choice as well."

"Fair enough," Sheppard interrupts before Weir can speak, "but you shouldn't be the one who judges and executes. We have a system of rules, and there are punishments available for this sort of...behavior."

"Teyla, I'm concerned about your temper recently."

Ronon shifts closer to her, a warm, towering presence at her side. Teyla draws in a deep breath. "I am sorry to have behaved unprofessionally."

Weir nods slowly.

"I am not sorry for acting to stop their words."

"But they are just words, Teyla, and you broke bones," Weir says quietly.

"Sir, I think I'd better get moving on this," Lorne says. "Teyla, I'll need a statement from you, too. Maybe tomorrow."

"Of course, Major. I am at your disposal."

"Go," Sheppard agrees, easily. "You too, Lieutenant."

Major Lorne and Lieutenant Cadman file out; only Colonel Sheppard and Dr. Weir remain. The latter looks very serious. "I can sympathize, but I think you," she pauses and looks at Sheppard and Ronon, "all of you, could benefit from speaking with Dr. Heightmeyer."

"What!?" Sheppard exclaims.

"Heightmeyer?" Ronon asks. "The...therapist?" She sounds dubious.

Teyla is not as averse, but the whole idea of talking about this — this thing that has been done to them — makes her uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Weir is explaining therapy to Ronon, while Ronon looks more and more amused.

'"I understand the theory," Ronon finally says, holding up a hand to stem Weir's words. Weir looks nonplussed. Teyla's gaze flicks over, and she and Sheppard roll their eyes at each other. Weir still has the vague notion that Ronon is an unlettered barbarian, in spite of the fact that Sateda boasted one of the highest-developed civilizations in the Pegasus Galaxy. No, it was not barbarians who manufactured that pulse pistol.

"Look, Elizabeth, we're not the ones with a problem." Sheppard is still not enthusiastic.

"You're comfortable with your men discussing having sex with you?"

Sheppard's eyes widen. She is obviously surprised Weir is being so blunt.

"If you weren't before, I can't imagine you are now."

"No," Sheppard admits, "I'm not. Fine. We'll all go have a chat with Kate."

"I knew you would agree, John."

Sheppard gives Teyla the evil eye. "Thanks a lot," she mouths at her when Weir looks away. Teyla looks down at her boots. Ronon touches Teyla's shoulder, the briefest of touches, but already, the tension in the corridor seemed to dissipate.

Ronon looks over at Dr. Weir. "McKay, too?"

"Yes, of course."

Teyla turns in time to see a secret little smile on Ronon's lips.

"He's part of the team," Sheppard declares. "We suffer, he suffers."

Weir looks long-suffering. "John...."

Sheppard gives her an insolent grin. "Well, I'm just saying...therapy is not my idea of good time."

"Nor anyone's, John. It doesn't mean it isn't the right course of action. And I'm afraid we're fresh out of Ferris wheels."

Sheppard gapes at her, then grins, while Teyla chuckles. She was the one who asked Elizabeth about Ferris wheels, and re-told their earliest conversation back on Athos. "Okay, okay," Sheppard holds up her hands in surrender.

"Kate has an hour open tomorrow."

The three of them nod.

"Come on, Teyla," Sheppard says. "I don't know about you, but I'm hungry again."

Ronon's stomach grumbles a second later.

"I see some things haven't changed," Weir comments, laughing.

Teyla lets her team-mates tug her away down the hall. As they reach the corner, Sheppard turns and walks backward, giving Weir a cheeky grin, "Are you sure an hour is enough?"

"Just be there, John!"

~*~

They all arrive on time; Kate is a little surprised about that. Rodney blowing in last, clutching a stainless steel coffee cup in one hand, mouth set on complain. She's already familiar with most of Rodney's problems; it's the others who have her fascinated: Teyla and Ronon are from different planets, and Sheppard is still an enigma after almost two years in Atlantis. The only time she sees him professionally is after a mission gone bad and he never says anything beyond what it takes to get her to sign off on his return to duty.

She's been aware of the state SGA-1 returned to Atlantis in from their last mission since a few hours after their return, but she really hasn't seen the three affected individuals. It takes all her professionalism to keep her eyes from widening. Teyla, Ronon and Colonel Sheppard are remarkable. Remarkable in how different they look and yet how perfectly identifiable they are.

"I don't know why I have to be here, anyway," Rodney grumbles.

"Fifty minutes of someone listening to you talk, McKay," Sheppard replies. The drawl's the same, the voice is lighter, though still raspy.

"Yes, yes, pure heaven, sheer bliss for me," Rodney snaps back, "yadda yadda yadda."

Ronon snorts; Teyla looks torn between smiling at Rodney's words and cracking in two. The new, male body is all tensed, coiled muscle. Kate nods, but Teyla barely acknowledges her, too wound up for any easy interaction.

All four of them hover around the room briefly, then Teyla takes a seat on one of the couches, perching at the edge, shoulders hunched a little and arms crossed over her — his chest defensively. Ronon flops down on the next couch over, sprawling but naturally graceful. Kate suppresses a smile at the less than lady-like way Ronon's long legs are spread wide.

Rodney starts pacing, back and forth from the grouping of couches to the wall of windows facing out onto the ocean. Nearly every room in Atlantis has an ocean-front view. He's flicking quick glances Kate's way, frowning slightly, yet he's probably the most comfortable person in the room. Colonel Sheppard hesitates between the white couches, one fine-boned hand drifting over the back of one. Unchanged hazel eyes flick over to Kate. "So, do you want us in a circle, or...?" She's apparently relaxed, the question casual, but Kate would bet it's an act. "...sitting wherever?"

"Wherever you find comfortable, Colonel," Kate says.

Rodney lets out a little huff at that. Kate notes with interest that Sheppard darts a look at him, then walks around the couch and seats herself next to Ronon, knees and ankles together, and Kate would swear if she had a skirt, Sheppard would remember to smooth it straight before sitting. She's amused and wonders just where Sheppard got that. Some memory of a female relative or just osmosis from watching women all his life? She also notices Rodney watching Sheppard from the corner of his eye, as well as Ronon's more blatant regard and pleased grunt, and even Teyla's attention, all on Sheppard, who is completely oblivious.

What a paper this would make, if only she could publish, Kate reflects. SG team inter-dynamics are fascinating anyway, but this is incredible. Though in some ways, this isn't any different from before. Everyone has always been drawn to watch Colonel Sheppard.

Meanwhile, Sheppard is looking at her hands.

The silence keeps stretching until Kate takes mercy on them. "Colonel. There was an incident?"

"Err," Sheppard mutters to her hands. "Sort of."

"Two Marines were involved?"

Rodney mutters, "An incident, that's a cute word for it."

Kate has already heard the gory details from Elizabeth, listened to a copy of the audio file picked up off the public comms, and read through Major Lorne's report. But it's the putative reason Elizabeth ordered the team to see her, so she starts with it, anyway.

"It was not an incident — it was an insult," Teyla says and adds mulishly, "And I am not sorry."

Ronon's mouth curls into a shark's smile. "I think they know that."

Sheppard sighs. "Ronon, don't break any more of my Marines; it's an awful lot of trouble replacing them."

A look flickers between the four team members. There's very little sympathy in it, which reminds Kate that not one SGA-1 team member is a Marine; not any more. Time to redirect the conversation with another question. "Teyla, it seems you were particularly upset. Can you tell us why?"

"Excuse me?" Rodney bursts out. He looks at her like she just said the stupidest thing he's ever heard--not that he keeps a list or anything, because it would be too long. He said that to Kate once, in a session, so she knows. "Upset? Of course she's – he's – upset!" He waves his hands at the other three. "Look at them!"

Teyla's eyes have narrowed, but he finally speaks. "They insulted me — which I would have dealt with, but when they began to question the honor and capabilities of Colonel Sheppard — "

"You mean talking about screwing her," Rodney interrupts.

"Jesus, Rodney," Sheppard snaps, while Teyla takes in a deep breath and glares.

"Colonel?" Kate asks. She really wants to get Sheppard talking if possible. He — she — is in the most precarious position, trying to maintain command authority. Rodney doesn't have the same problem since he wasn't changed and the scientific contingent probably aren't as wrapped up in the concepts of masculinity as the Marines, anyway, while Teyla and Ronon are outside the normal command structure. Sheppard's the one under most external stress.

"They're Marines," she says at last, her shoulders moving in an almost shrug that ends with her squaring her shoulders and facing Kate, Afternoon light from the windows glimmers off her ruffled hair. "They're going to talk smack. I half expected it, I guess. From some of them."

"Some of them being stupid grunts," Rodney mutters.

"Jarheads, McKay," Sheppard singsongs. "Marines are jarheads. Grunts are in the Army."

"Whatever."

"Just because the colonel does not think it unusual hardly means it was acceptable for those men to — " Teyla pauses, then continues, " — slander her in that fashion. To sully any of our names."

"They're Marines, Teyla," Sheppard says.

"Idiots," Rodney adds.

"Idiots who spoke of you too, Rodney." Teyla grits the words out as if each gave her physical pain; Kate is struck by the agitation on his face, almost wanting to lean over and touch his arm in reassurance as much as to bring Teyla down and prevent what she fears will happen now.

"Me?" He looks honestly surprised, then alarmed, then curious, a procession of emotions crossing his expressive face at light speed. "I wasn't changed; were they talking about my charming self in general?"

"They talked about you, as you put it, 'screwing' the colonel!"

Rodney's circulation is very good. He blushes fast and red.

Sheppard, however — Kate has to take a closer look but must do so without staring; the colonel is undoubtedly aware of her therapist's scrutiny, which makes it even harder to garner a reaction beyond the trademark aw, shucks response. But Kate isn't fresh out of med school, hasn't been chosen for this mission on account of her pretty face. It's true that Sheppard's expression remains impassive, but there's a tell-tale line of coiled tension across her body, and the muscles of her jaw and upper arms have stiffened visibly — thank God for tight-fitting t-shirts. Sheppard looks slender enough that whoever supplied her with tops didn't go for large, so the one she's wearing now pulls against her torso and breasts, revealing not only toned arms but also the outline of a bra. Kate makes a mental note, because it's the sort of acceptance of the situation she's looking for from Sheppard. At the same time, she wonders where and from whom the colonel got the bra. Atlantis isn't exactly equipped with a Victoria's Secret outlet, though there are probably quite a few of their catalogues smuggled in.

"Colonel?"

"Do we have to talk about this?" Sheppard lifts an eyebrow, hazel eyes opaque. "Thought I'd left high school a few years back."

"It's what you're here for, Colonel."

"We're here to make Elizabeth happy," Sheppard shoots back, leaving unsaid that it isn't making her or the others happy at all. Ronon gives a slow nod, while Rodney shrugs.

"Believe me," Rodney says, "I could be in my lab, accomplishing something."

Kate lets them all settle briefly. Then she asks, "What about your happiness at present?" They all stare at her as if this were the silliest question they have ever been asked. Kate takes it in stride. "And while Dr. McKay is included, I would like to address that question to you first, Colonel Sheppard."

Sheppard widens her eyes and drawls, "Hey, we're here, we're alive. These days I figure that goes in the win column." She tips her head back slowly and examines the ceiling.

"Is that the same as happiness?" Kate keeps her voice as calm and casual as Sheppard usually is, as though this isn't important at all.

Sheppard is still staring at the ceiling. Quiet and flat, she says, "I was happy in Antarctica."

"You're not serious!?" Rodney has moved in the periphery of her vision, his mouth opening and the words spilling out.

"Dr. McKay," Kate says sharply, knowing it's already too late.

"Why was that, Colonel?" She really wants that answer. It would tell her so much about John Sheppard. She suspects what she's just said is true, but incomplete. Sheppard's a master of misdirection and deflection, of offering up tiny, meaningless revelations to distract everyone from everything else that's kept under tight lock and key. Yet even the small things Sheppard thinks it is safe to reveal say something about the rest, Kate knows.

Sheppard's face has, predictably, closed up again.

"Why?" Ronon asks simply, looking at Sheppard curiously. Teyla stirs out her funk enough to eye Sheppard, too.

Eventually the weight of all those eyes gets to Sheppard. "Okay," she says, "It's simple: no one wanted anything from me there."

Thank you, John, Kate thinks, tucking away the revelation like the key it is. "And before, they had? As well as here in Atlantis?"

Sheppard's given as much as she's going to for the moment and just mutters, "You're kidding, right?"

Kate chuckles and says, "Stupid question, I know. But I have this checklist...." That elicits a small upward curve of Sheppard's mouth. "So, Teyla. When was the last time you were happy?"

"Perhaps," Teyla replies, sounding reluctant, "when I realized my people were safe from imminent Wraith attack." The masculine features retain Teyla's expressions, the measured thoughtfulness Kate had first noticed about her. They give the almost-too-sculpted features a much needed gravitas.

"Ronon, when were you happy?"

"In school."

"School?" Rodney echoes.

"On Sateda."

"You went to school?" Kate blurts then wants, furiously, to control her own blush.

"The one with the funny uniforms?"

Ronon turns her head and glares at Rodney, while Teyla sits back a little, loosing a weary sigh. Kate wouldn't say Teyla is relaxed, but maybe not as tightly coiled.

"No. What you'd call college." Ronon says, slowly, as if Rodney needed that.

"What did you study?" Rodney demands.

Sheppard lifts her head, looking interested, either because she is or because it's a relatively neutral topic.

"Poetry." Ronon looks slightly defiant. Kate blinks, feeling pole axed. Ronon Dex, their resident alien super warrior, studied poetry? That'll teach her to make assumptions. She embarrassed to realize that not only did she judge Ronon by physical appearance, she still is: Ronon as a woman still doesn't look like the sort that reads poetry — more like the sort that plays beach volley ball and rides a Harley Davidson and maybe has a job as the bouncer at a lesbian strip-club.

"I had a job as a research assistant when I was drafted."

"You were what?" Open-mouthed, Kate reflects, is not a good look on Rodney.

"You heard me. Research assistant to the High Council of the National Library Commission."

Ronon would, once upon a time, have sounded gruff, but when she lowers her voice now, it tends to come out a little sultry without losing the slight edge of menace; it's quite sexy, really. Kate notes Sheppard shifting to peer at her, but she can't tear her eyes away from Ronon. Ronon the academic, or former academic and she's still burning with embarrassment for pigeonholing him on sight. Teyla looks only mildly surprised, which of course translates into "shell-shocked" for any other person.

"Why on Earth, Sateda, or any other stellar body capable of sustaining human life didn't you ever say something? And if you say 'Well, you didn't ask', you'll never have central heating again, no matter that we're teammates." Rodney is taking this revelation as a personal affront. He sounds furious, but no one in this room is fooled that this doesn't hide his own spark of shame. Certainly not Kate. Ronon just shrugs.

"Didn't seem important. Not like I could've helped you with anything I'd learned."

Kate cuts in, pitching her voice as low and soothing as she can, as if she's afraid to spook a skittish animal.

"What did you study, then?"

"Varean Literature from the Ninth to Eleventh Century."

There is, predictably, a long silence after that. Ronon, true to form, doesn't seem to feel the need to elaborate, so Sheppard feels obliged to contribute.

"So, you're the equivalent of an English Major?"

That gets him a snort – one that still sounds exactly like the old snort – and a sideways glance of amusement.

"Not quite. You people still speak English."

Kate's eyebrows rise, and she nods slowly. "It's an ancient language, then – one of the roots of Satedan, by any chance?"

Ronon begins to looks a little appreciative, too, her eyes brighter and warmer, although that may just be a trick of the light because she's turned her head to face Kate sitting by the window. The slats of afternoon light that lie warm over the room from the windows want to gild her dreadlocks and trace her remade features in honeyed curves. The tattoo on her throat is even more striking than before. If Kate didn't know how attractive SGA-1 was before, she'd be tempted to think the Hermeans did some cosmetic improvements while they were changing them.

"Sort of. I was often asked what its use was in the thirty-fourth century."

Another pause, and it's Teyla – ever-measured and dutiful – who speaks up.

"What was your answer?"

"None."

"You didn't tell them anything?" Kate blurts out, flabbergasted.

"I told them there was no practical use at all."

They are all staring at Ronon now, less because of her newly-discovered vocation but because of the old habit of saying just what's required … and not a syllable beyond that. Rodney has too little patience – let alone people skills – for this type of conversation, though.

"Yes, Ronon, please, please play coy because it's working exceedingly well for you now that you have not only the muscles but also the looks to wrap them all around your little finger."

A frown mars the perfect slope of her forehead, but the curve of Ronon's mouth still looks soft as silk.

"Dead dialect, Varean; most people can't even spell its name. Couldn't." The quick shadow that passes over her face has nothing to do with her old studies. "My thesis was on the correlation between romantic poetry and war epics of the Arinai period."

To everybody's surprise, Rodney nods and, in a quiet voice, says, "No one really got what you were doing, did they?"

"One word, McKay: Sestinas."

"But you were happy," Kate says gently.

"In the library, yeah."

It's probably time to give Ronon a break. Revelations are exhausting — even if they aren't exhaustive, in this case. Kate knows there must be more, so much more to Ronon Dex; one doesn't simply change from a librarian in a big city to a soldier with a knack for not saying much of anything, although seven years of a particularly humanity-defying torture might just do that to a man. But it was exciting and touching to see Rodney bond with Ronon. Sheppard looks pleased, too. Time to turn back to the colonel's problems.

"How are you adapting, all of you?" Kate looks directly at Sheppard.

"Fine," Sheppard answers immediately.

"'m fine," Ronon echoes.

Rodney's eyebrows draw together. "What?"

Teyla doesn't answer.

Kate leans forward, slightly, and prompts: "Teyla?"

Teyla has turned away to stare out at the endless ocean.

"Can you tell us why this troubles you so?

"It is...unnatural."

"In what respect?"

Teyla's hands curl into fists on her — his BDU covered knees.

"Teyla, I don't know what you're feeling or thinking. This didn't happen to me. That's why you have to tell us."

Sheppard looks ready to object, to intercede for her teammate, but Teyla responds, "I am not comfortable speaking of it."

"Of course not," Kate agrees, "but you need to."

"Why do I? This...procedure will be reversed. I shall bide my time."

"That would be acceptable," Kate says, "except that you aren't biding your time. You assaulted two Marines because they insulted your teammates."

Teyla's strained smile stays. "I would, perhaps, have been more circumspect in my reaction."

Sheppard's just watching them all, letting them talk. It's a command style that probably wouldn't work for most officers, but one that is probably the only thing that would work with such varying personalities as Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney.

"Teyla, I am not putting you on the spot, but this is important to us, too: Would you say the situation unbalances you in a way likely to affect your behavior?" Kate asks.

Teyla's face sets into a mask of cool. "Unbalanced? Does this not mean mentally unstable in your culture?"

"Do you think this would apply to you, at the moment?"

Before Teyla can respond, Sheppard and Rodney are both chorusing, "Hey!" in protest, and Sheppard is snatching at Ronon's shoulder, pulling her back down onto the couch. Teyla visibly grits his teeth and replies, "No, I do not."

Kate backpedals. "I didn't mean crazy, Teyla. I was asking if you felt your responses were changing."

"How do you mean, Kate?" Sheppard demands softly.

Kate sat back and steeples her hands. "I need you all to be clear about this: What you experienced is not a mere physical change — although you, Colonel, have some prior dealings of this sort, of course."

Sheppard goes whiter, with a tinge of green. Her hand goes to her forearm in an unconscious gesture, rubbing the smooth skin where the retrovirus' effects first developed.

Kate goes on, "Instead, you have been changed in a way that is not only likely but bound to affect not only future physical responses but psychological notions as well."

"It's just six months," Sheppard insists. "Not even that, five and three quarters now."

Kate ignores her for the moment. "As ironic as this sounds: It is perfectly normal for you to experience great changes, emotionally and otherwise. This is not about the time-frame, Colonel; the same would apply to a six-week period. Your selves would still be under enormous pressure."

"I disagree," Teyla says, "This will not change who I am."

"What I am saying is — you should be worried if you do not feel different, feel the urge to act differently."

"I do not feel that I am acting differently."

"I would not go as far as to say that your identity will change, Teyla. But it will have an effect on your personality, regardless of how hard you try. This is not a test of fortitude; it's a shift on the most elemental level of self."

Teyla stares at her stonily. "No."

Sheppard cocks her head, not necessarily dismissing Kate's words.

"Teyla," Kate tries again, nodding to her — him — holding eye contact. "Are you sure you don't want to tell us why this situation pains you so much?"

Teyla unclenches his fists and clamps his hands hard on his knees, looking down at them, maybe noticing larger knuckles, thicker wrists, a dusting of heavier, darker hair on his forearms. "I feel that something that was mine has been taken from me."

From the corner of her eye, Kate catches Rodney mouthing 'boobs!' at Sheppard.

"Yes?" Kate murmurs to Teyla, ignoring them.

Rodney leans over the back of the couch holding Sheppard and Ronon and murmurs, apparently to Sheppard and ignoring her continuing, frigid glare. "Aw, c'mon. Taken away? Hello? You and Ronon lost your — " The glare finally registers, and Rodney gulps.

Too late. Sheppard twists around and snaps at him, "Rodney? Shut up right now."

"Actually, Colonel, I'd like to address this," Kate says. She puts on a smile that she knows looks easy and utterly professional; it took quite a bit of effort and practice. Everything they discuss is intimate and potentially embarrassing to her patients, but discussing their sex life requires a special sort of detached interest. Still, she wouldn't force this if she didn't think it was necessary: SGA-1, each individual and the team as a whole, will benefit from a reminder that denying their new physiology and the new, subtly altered needs won't help at all.

Sheppard turns back to her, lower lip caught between her teeth. "Oh. Okay."

"How do you feel about your new body?"

Sheppard blushes now, and Kate finds it fascinating. She never saw him blush as a man. Is it the different hormonal balances and body that betray his control or is this the first thing to ever affect him enough to create this response?

"Ah. Right. Uh." Sheppard, she notes, is very close to stuttering. "Well. It's kind of weird." Then hopefully, " — Ronon?"

Ronon shrugs. "'s not so bad. Felt funny first, but after I — " She pauses. " — exercised, tested my reflexes, figured out how to come, it's been okay. Still my body."

Kate has to confess she didn't exactly expect that, but — right. This is going better than she thought, in more ways than one. Rodney, who has been watching Ronon, mouth slightly parted, eyes bright and intent, gulps. "You, uh, you — "

"Used my fingers," Ronon says matter-of-factly. "No dick, but pussy works."

Beside her, Sheppard is blushing harder than before, but also biting her lip, looking ready to burst out in laughter. Teyla, though, looks appalled. And Rodney — Rodney's eyes are glazed.

"So, Colonel?" Kate asks. "Have you experimented? Teyla?"

"No!" Teyla snaps. "And I do not plan to touch this body in a way...in any way that has anything to do with anything beyond maintaining its function."

Sheppard blinks and says, "But you have to — oh, you know what? Never mind." She turns toward Kate. "Do we really have to talk about this?"

"You all need to deal with this change and what it means," Kate replies.

"Yeah, but — what does it have to do with us doing our jobs?"

"It has to do with accepting your bodies."

"I accept nothing about this body," Teyla growls — really, growls, Kate thinks.

"I accept my body! It's fine. I've got bras and birth control and I pee sitting down, for Christ's sake. What else do you want?" Sheppard says angrily.

"Masturbation and experimenting is a perfectly normal activity, Colonel — may I call you John?"

"You've got birth control?" Rodney demands. Sheppard ignores him, and Ronon grins.

"You know what? Stick with Colonel." Sheppard folds her arms under her breasts and gives her a narrow-eyed, mutinous look. It's remarkably like one of Rodney's postures.

"Colonel, then," she allows and continues, "It is perfectly natural to relieve stress like that, and for you, it would have the added benefit of making you more comfortable in these bodies. I imagine you resorted to it as a man — "

Rodney makes a slight gurgling sound. "Kate — "

Sheppard aims a quick, not-quite-worried-yet glance at Rodney, then faces Kate again. "That may be true, but do we really have to discuss it?"

Rodney mutters under his breath, "Don't discuss it, just do it. Doctor's orders."

Kate holds back a smile and says, "Very well." It seems best to drop the subject for the moment. "Now. I'd like to know how you all feel about Rodney."

The flash of vague alarm that crosses Sheppard's face before the charming, smiling mask of nonchalance slips back into place intrigues Kate.

Ronon glances up at Rodney and says, "I'm good with Rodney."

"Yes," Teyla adds, "you are, of late." Her face is blank, though; Kate can't read it properly.

Sheppard waits, then tells Kate, while smiling blandly, "Got to say I wasn't exactly happy when he wasn't changed like the rest of us, but the deal's still on, and it's better, really. It's fine."

Kate smells a lie there. "Really?"

"Sure." Sheppard shrugs, everything moving fluidly under her thin black shirt and gray uniform pants. Rodney's eyes are on her chest, Kate notices and silently files that away. It isn't something she'll ever write down or dictate into a tape. They're part of a government sponsored expedition and she doesn't trust that anything will be treated as confidential that anyone else could access. Aside from her own oaths, her personal loyalty is to these people, to the members of their expedition, and she will never expose them or allow their confidences to be used as evidence against them.

The silence stretches until it's uncomfortable. Sheppard seems driven to fill it. "Hey, really, it's good McKay didn't get changed. Really. Imagine him as a girl."

"Hey! I'll have you know I would be a — "

"Yeah?" Sheppard grins up at him.

Rodney huffs. "Very...well-endowed woman. Unlike you, Twiggy."

"Hey," Sheppard fires back, "at least I don't need a hammock."

Teyla looks away from the other three, his expression clearly disgusted. Kate, on the other hand, feels amused and relieved. Their ability to mock bodes well for their continued stability. The amusement only gets deeper as Sheppard stretches again, arching her back a little, before curling up on the couch with her legs tucked under her. The difference between her apparent relaxation earlier and the real thing is remarkably clear.

"Dr. Heightmeyer," Teyla murmurs, "this — their behavior...." He sighs and shakes his head.

"It's reassuring, Teyla. You all remain very comfortable with each other. I feel reassured, personally."

"I do not feel comfortable at all." Teyla sounds forlorn, even with the deeper voice.

"Perhaps not, but your trust in each other seems solid."

She watches Teyla take a deep breath and nod. "I do trust our team, even in these bodies. We are still the same, underneath. And I know the sacrifice that Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay were both willing to make for Ronon and me. That is not something I take lightly."

Sheppard's eyes have gone wide. "Teyla!" she hisses, making shushing movements with her hands and jerking her head at Kate.

"I am sorry, John," Teyla says very formally, "but did you not tell me what we speak of with Dr. Heightmeyer is confidential?"

"Nothing you say here will be revealed by me, unless I am worried for your safety or the safety of others," Kate tries to reassure both Teyla and Sheppard. "Even then, I would do my utmost to guard your privacy."

Sheppard's gritting her teeth, though, and glaring at Teyla.

"Colonel?" Kate asks. Perhaps she let herself see what she wanted to, and they aren't as comfortable with each other as she'd thought.

Sheppard's hands are now doing an open, stop-stop motion. "No, never mind, Teyla. Do tell Dr. Heightmeyer."

Kate suspect this is what Dr. Weir referenced in their earlier talk, delicately stepping around a revelation regarding the events on Hermea. I would like for them to tell you, she had said, facial expression making it very clear that, if this did not happen, she would be the one to disclose it.

"Did I misunderstand?"

Sheppard glares at her now. "No, Teyla, you didn't misunderstand. Christ. We agreed we wouldn't say anything. To anyone!"

"Colonel!" Kate snaps.

"Shit," she murmurs. "Fine." Then, "Rodney?"

"Sure, go ahead, annihilate my masculinity right along with yours, Colonel," Rodney snipes. Sheppard takes it as the agreement it is.

"McKay and me agreed to it." Sheppard's chin rises. "Happy now?"

Kate sits back in her chair. "You...agreed," she says.

"It made sense, sort of, at the time, when we were there, you know," Rodney mutters.

"We had to." Sheppard is getting defensive, curling back into the couch. "Ronon and Teyla would have gone through it for nothing, and we need to get our hands on the Hermeans' technology."

"I see," Kate says.

"No, you don't," Rodney snaps. He looks wide-eyed at her. "You didn't see what it can do — it's a cloaking device that has the potential to save not only our planet but maybe the whole galaxy." He frowns. "As for what the colonel and I did — you weren't there; you never offered up everything on a...silver platter like that. Freud and Jung and all the other bead-rattlers never had a clue. This isn't a conversation jotted down in the big book of couch chats, Kate."

Kate smiles at him fondly. "No, it really isn't." She watches the tension virtually thrumming through Sheppard uncoil.

"What's the big deal? I don't get it," Ronon declares.

"Get what? That you're a girl now and Teyla's a really unhappy guy and Sheppard — "

"What?" Sheppard says.

"You know," Rodney coughs and mutters, making a sweeping gesture in front of his own chest.

Sheppard's eyebrow goes up. "What? Has breasts?"

Kate smiles behind her hand, and Sheppard gives her look that's probably supposed to be miffed but can't quite hide some amusement.

"Well, yes," Rodney admits. "And...hips. Hips. Yes."

Sheppard plucks at her shirt and then her pants. "Well, yeah."

Ronon pats Sheppard's hand and says earnestly, "Everything's gone well. Don't worry."

Sheppard stares at her as Rodney snorts. "Yes, thank you, Dr. Beckett."

Kate tilts her head, studying Ronon, who still looks concerned and is focused on Sheppard. "Wait. Why would there be a reason to worry, Ronon?"

"Well. Sometimes — sometimes the procedure goes wrong." She shrugs uneasily. "Things don't come out right in the end."

"What!?" Sheppard, Rodney and Teyla all chorus, in varying tones of alarm.

"When people switch." They, along with Kate, are gaping at Ronon, who looks back at them like they are slow, very slow children. "Especially guys."

Rodney's stock response is babbling. "Whatwhatwhat, wait, what, no wait — you're familiar with the Hermeans' tech?"

"No." Ronon rolls a bare shoulder. "On Sateda...." She frowns. "It was a surgical procedure."

Teyla leaves his seat and sits next to Ronon, putting a hand on her arm gently. Kate is staring again, berating herself for assuming Ronon wouldn't be familiar with the idea of gender reassignment just because the Athosians weren't. "You had such technology available on Sateda?" she asks.

"It was there — just not perfect. Not like this. There were always risks, but people did go ahead. Sometimes."

Kate sighs. "I don't think any of us realized Sateda was so...liberal."

Teyla draws away from Ronon fractionally, looking a little green. "I remember hearing about Satedan advancements, before the culling...years ago. They were respected and feared throughout our part of the galaxy."

"Liberal?" Ronon echoes, dubiously, looking at Kate and carefully not looking at Teyla. She seems to search for the right words, brows drawn together, oddly uncertain. "Wouldn't say so. It was a commitment. No going back. Not like this."

"I understand," Kate says swiftly. "It could be done once, but not a second time, and only those truly interested did, yes? On Earth, it is rare.... There was no social stigma on Sateda?"

"You had to be able. Capable. Strong in mind and body." Ronon shrugs again. "Didn't much matter which body."

"I would love to talk about this with you in greater detail some time, Ronon."

"Sure." Ronon seems shut down again, face gone blank.

Kate reflects that she must be holding onto a lot of anger, under the control.

"Maybe, you'd like to stay for a moment after this session so we can...schedule a meeting for later, just you, Ronon?" Kate suggests. Ronon's so isolated, his home planet culled, his civilization and culture destroyed, someone needs to talk to him, and more importantly, listen while he talks.

"Why?" Ronon asks.

"You seem a little depressed."

Sheppard's hand goes to Ronon's arm and rests there, fingers squeeze gently. "You're not worried, are you?"

Kate has to keep from staring at this gesture; it's surprisingly feminine.

"Not about my body," Ronon replies quietly, turning toward Sheppard like a flower to the sun. There it is again, Kate reflects, but it isn't unwarranted. They turn to Sheppard because he — now she — cares about them on a level beyond duty.

"You know it isn't like what you were talking about, right?" Sheppard says. "You're not stuck. It didn't even hurt, remember?"

"Please, Ronon, do not be worried," Teyla adds. "It did not hurt me, either."

Ronon grunts, a little impatiently. "I know. It's Calea, my home town, the libraries — everything. Fucking Wraith." Her eyes narrow and she tenses, muscles tensing in preparation to movement. Sheppard grabs Ronon's wrist, Teyla blocks her, and Rodney leans over the couch and awkwardly clasps her shoulder. Kate takes them in, the way they rein each other in, balance each other, even Rodney effortlessly part of the whole. Remarkable, remarkable people, she thinks again, and how very lucky Atlantis is to have them.

She barely hears Rodney, knows the words are meant for the team only: "If you cry, I'm going to mock you unmercifully, Ronon." Sheppard nods, smiling, adding, "He will."

"Cry?" Ronon echoes, looking disgusted at the very thought. "I will twist your arms and legs off before I cry, McKay."

"Of course you will," Rodney says grandly. "Anyone as tall as you isn't allowed to be anything but stoic and violent."

"No killing the scientist, Ronon," Sheppard says, while swatting at Rodney.

"We are always here for you, Ronon," Teyla finishes, obviously speaking for the entire team.

Rodney steps back, dusts his hands together and looks at Kate. "Enough of this touchy-feely stuff. I need to get something to eat or I'm gong to pass out. Kate, isn't our time up by now?" Before he's even finished speaking, Kate hears three stomachs growling and doesn't even try to hide her smile. Things have gone very well, considering. The team is obviously bonded tighter than ever, which is what she'll tell Elizabeth, and left to themselves, will keep each other on an even keel.

"So, Kate, can we get out of here?" Sheppard asks.

"Yes, you can. Return one week from now at the same time."

Rodney pulls a long face, while Teyla frowns. Ronon gets to her feet, obviously not caring one way or the other. Sheppard looks resigned but argues anyway, "You really think it's necessary? I mean, we will, but...."

"As a matter of fact, Colonel, I do."

Sheppard shrugs. "Fine, settled, next week. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel." She stands, too, and Rodney latches onto her elbow, tugging her toward the door.

Kate rises from her chair and says, "Colonel, Dr. McKay? Could you stay a moment?"

Rodney grimaces. "If necessary?"

Teyla and Ronon glance back and Kate nods to them, smiling, as they file out.

"What is it?" Sheppard asks.

"Colonel, do any of the Marines need to talk to me?"

"No, they're mostly okay, even the two Teyla popped."

Rodney murmurs, "Need, yes, going to, no." He barely blinks at the head swat Sheppard gives him. "My people are all ecstatic over the info I brought back. They wouldn't care if the colonel turned into a potato."

"Well, you know where I am if you ever need to talk."

Sheppard's "Sure," translates as 'when Hell freezes over'.

Rodney tugs at Sheppard's arm. "Starving here, Colonel. Let's go. Before Ronon eats everything."

Sheppard looks down at her arm, looks at Rodney through lowered lashes. "Why, Dr. McKay, you're such a charmer."

"Please, like I'd waste it on you. This isn't a date."

They start for the doorway, already so intent on each other they've forgotten Kate.

"The way you go at it," Sheppard laughs, "there won't ever be one."

Rodney freezes briefly, just inside the doorway. Kate watches, intrigued as always by their interaction, but wondering now if she should be worried about them.

"Oh fine," Rodney says, and steps back from Sheppard, who looks confused. Rodney straightens and then executes a perfect, formal bow toward Sheppard. Sheppard laughs softly. "Colonel Sheppard, would you grant me the incomparable honor of accompanying me to dinner?"

"Why, Dr. McKay, I would be delighted." Sheppard holds out her hand for Rodney to take. Rodney does after a tiny hesitation and places Sheppard's hand at the crook of his elbow. They walk out together. Kate can still hear their voices briefly, though they're out of sight.

"Where did you learn that bow?"

"You'd be surprised about the things you can learn from 40s movies, Colonel."

Sheppard's laughter is lighter and easier than Kate's heard it before. "You're kidding."

"Yes, I am. Fine: piano teacher."

More laugher from Sheppard, mixed with Rodney's own chuckle.

"If you'd just stay like this, Colonel, you'd be the perfect date for my Nobel presentation."

"Well, just hurry up being a genius, and it might happen."

Kate sits back down with a jolt, thinking, My God, they sound like lovers. Like they're in love. What happens six months from now?

~*~




Rodney's arm under her fingers is steady, strong; if she let herself concentrate, she could feel the shift of muscles beneath the thin fabric, the heat that’s pleasant but almost startling — are all guys this warm, and she, being one, just never noticed? Or is it Rodney specifically?

As they are walking toward the mess hall, people are beginning to file into the corridor. Sheppard takes her hand off Rodney's arm; she's briefly unbalanced by how much it feels like a loss.

He, in turn, stares down at his arm with a curious expression; it's gone too fast, but Sheppard has a feeling it might have been a little wistful. Rodney blinks. "What?"

"You're exothermic."

A short huff of a laugh that crinkles the corners of Rodney's eyes when he looks at her. "Did you just imply I'm hot?"

There's nothing defensive or mocking about his voice here, in fact, Sheppard's pretty sure the question was an honest one. For a moment, she's seized by fear — take it back. Take it back! — before it trickles back in, cool and gentle and a lifeline: She's a girl now, she can flirt.

"Maybe." Sheppard looks at Rodney from under lowered lashes, bats them once.

Never mind the gender of the flirtee. Rodney surprises her by neither choking nor giving her an incredulous laugh. Instead, there's a quick sideways glance, yes, but what captivates Sheppard is not so much the trace of a blush as the tiny little smile of surprise on Rodney's lips.
~*~

Caveat lector: In this part, things take a brief turn into darker subjects (aka Auburn got the bit between her teeth).

~*~

"Rodney?"

No, no, not now; he's in the middle of this equation, he's almost solved —

"Rodney." Radek's voice, more urgent, and Rodney's head snaps up, his temper close behind.

"What? Can't you see I'm doing something important?"

"More important than a ZPM?"

Well. Rodney supposes not, and damn that slightly smug expression on Zelenka's face that shows he, too, knows where Rodney's priorities lie. "Where, what, and most importantly: How do we get it?"

"We deciphered another fraction of the Ancient database." Radek's eyes soften a little. "Elizabeth — Dr. Weir — found there was a planetary outpost on P3R-987."

"…which is a sure sign of a ZPM, yes, of course." Rodney can't help the surge of excitement. So far, every planetary outpost constructed by the Ancients has been similar in design to the city of Atlantis, just on a much, much smaller scale and, most importantly, powered the same way. Granted, none of the ones unearthed — sometimes literally — during missions were functional, all of them either depleted or damaged beyond even his own efforts, but these are moments when Rodney discovers he may be an optimist at heart. He's hoped for another outpost since they began working on the dormant information encrypted in the depths of Atlantis's artificial brain, and if Elizabeth let Zelenka come for him, it means the permission to go on the first off-world mission since their little genderswitcheroo is pretty much a given.

He's already half out of the door when Radek's voice rings out once more. "Rodney?"

"Spit it out!"

"She meant not for me to tell, I think, but Elizabeth said something about candy. And babies."

"Please!" He really, truly hates these not-so-subtle reminders of M7G-677. "Who does she think I am?"

The look Radek gives him is long and only tangentially kind, so Rodney decides to leave this and all similar discussions behind; no time to waste.

~*~

It's a very unprepossessing village. Wattle and daub, six-legged dog-things, and the lizard-like avians that are the Pegasus version of chickens pecking around bare dirt lanes. Stick-and-twine fences around little gardens; the unmistakable stench of sewage fills the air. The hills beyond are dotted with cultivated fields, though; something greenish-red that's in marked contrast to the dried yellow grasses growing wild between the stargate and the village. "Don't drink the water," Sheppard mutters. "And stay away from any raw vegetables or fruit that could have been washed in it."

"Oh, as if," Rodney snaps.

The little, half-naked brats playing in the dirt are all boys. In fact, as Rodney looks up, he doesn't see any girls at all. There are women, though, every one of them in some stage of pregnancy. "Oh, my God."

Beside him Sheppard mutters, "This is just creepy."

All of the men are looking at their little group. Glaring. The women all have their eyes cast down to the ground, at their feet. Bare feet, Rodney says to himself, and out loud, "They're all barefoot and pregnant."

"We have noticed," Teyla replies.

"You don't get it," he hisses. "Sheppard?"

"It's like my grandfather's dearest dream," Sheppard says. Ronon's frowning, and Teyla's got that tight, 'I am pissed but not ready to say anything' look on his face, along with a hand on the cover that hides his P90. Sheppard looks shell-shocked.

"The US, circa 2020, if all goes according to some," Rodney mutters, to Teyla and Ronon's befuddlement, but he doesn't feel like explaining, mostly because he himself couldn't say he has a grasp of the situation yet. The female children, are they kept inside? Enslaved somewhere else? Killed at birth?

"Rodney —" Sheppard begins to say but shuts up because a group that's probably the village elders or some such is approaching, frowning at her and Ronon. The group is large, surprisingly and not a little alarmingly so, at least two dozen men with knives strapped to their sides, daggers on their belts, or staffs clutched in their hands. Don't these people have actual work to do — somewhere else?

"Who are these women?" the biggest one demands, gesturing at Sheppard and Ronon. He's tall, powerfully built, and moves in a way that's far too purposeful. His impatient hand-wave doesn't help to ease Rodney's mind; the back of his hand comes close enough to Sheppard's face that her hair shifts in the wind.

There's more than one woman in the crowd Rodney can see with the mark of where a hand didn't miss. And while Rodney's more than sure Sheppard can take care of herself — not to mention Ronon and Teyla would have something to say about Big and Nasty hitting her. Rodney's also certain if they didn't, he would. Rodney'd never admit it to Sheppard, but in that moment he misses the weight of the Beretta on his hip, the cool brush of metal against his palm. There's something to be said for Elizabeth's policy of concealing evidence of their weapons technology from the inhabitants of primitive planets, or, as she had called it, upon arrival on planets suspected to be still below the level of having developed explosives, but even if the natives don't understand firearms, they might grasp the concept of arms. He's also happy Sheppard showed him how to hide his Beretta under his tac vest back in the gear room the same way she and Ronon were carrying theirs, and to hell with whatever Elizabeth said.

Rodney gathers his courage, glares back…and grabs Sheppard's wrist to yank her closer, lifting his chin and snapping, "I am Dr. Rodney McKay, this is Tey Emmagen, my guard, and these are our wives." He can feel Sheppard go utterly still next to him. He squeezes her wrist, trying to telegraph, don't say anything! Because these people seem to have taken patriarchy to an extreme, and he doesn't want to end up running for their lives because Sheppard opened her mouth.

A soft huff of relief escapes him when Sheppard's arm stops pulling away from his grasp and she takes a step closer, even lowering her eyes deferentially. That should not be any kind of thrill, but damned if it isn't, because how often has Rodney seen Sheppard act deferential to anyone?

Big and Nasty looks over the four of them, his gaze lingering on Teyla and Ronon, probably caught in the visual dichotomy of such a tiny man and such a tall woman; Rodney suspects this because hey, first thought Rodney had when he saw them walking next to each other.

"Wives." He gives Rodney a second, suspicious look.

Sheppard's got the idea now, though, and leans in closer to Rodney.

He, in turn, stares at the guy with an expression of supreme arrogance; it's not too hard. "Yes, of course. Don't you have wives?"

The guy rubs his chin — God, could there be a more villlainesque gesture? — still staring at Ronon. "Yes, but not to take anywhere."

"Well, that's your problem, isn't?" Under his voice he mutters, "Among so many, many others."

The man doesn't seem convinced, and Rodney wishes, fervently wishes they didn't have to take this detour; without any energy readings on his sensors, there's just no other way than communicating with the natives, though.

Next to Big and Nasty, another guy — wiry and gap-toothed, clad in shirt and pants of a dark fabric that doesn't reflect the sunlight — steps closer. "Seems odd that," he says, "a puny man like this one has such a strapping wife." He points a both accusatory and envious finger at Teyla.

"Who are you to speak?" Teyla demands, stepping forward, and whoa, Rodney hadn't known he could look quite like that. "I am Tey Emmagan, son of Tegan, leader of my people, and have formed many an allegiance with the most powerful tribes in the galaxy. I repeat, who are you to speak?"

The guy's eyes widen a little at that, and before he probably even knows it, he's taken a half-step back. Rodney suspects there is a satisfied glint in Ronon's eyes right about now. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney can see Ronon now, who has stepped up to Teyla, her eyes downcast, her face set and blank.

Sheppard, too, is silent beside him, which would be hard to believe except Sheppard does like to let Teyla do the talking, anyway.

"Fine, fine." Big and Pompous lifts a conciliatory hand, this time carefully staying out of Sheppard's air space. "Never mind Heltorg here. Welcome to Heka. We're...honored to have you." He lets his gaze wander between Teyla and Rodney.

Teyla inclines his head and, very formally, says, "As we are honored to visit your planet."

Sheppard lets out a tiny little snort and — just to make a point, really — Rodney slaps her lightly on the wrist. The man in front of him nods, lips twisting approvingly, eyes cold. Rodney can feel Sheppard first twitch, then freeze under his hand; it makes his chest constrict oddly. He expected the glare Teyla levels at him even while continuing talking, smooth in a way Rodney could never manage to be.

"Dr. McKay and I come in peace and as envoys of our people, looking for trading partners."

"Trading?" Said with great interest; it would be more of a relief if the man's eyes didn't sweep over Ronon and Sheppard again, though. "I'm Twyrg Krisca, the mayor. This," another flourishing gesture, this time at Wiry and Gap-toothed, "is Heltorg Sador, my first advisor. We're very interested in...anything you have to offer. Manufactured clothes especially. We're not without a valuable commodity to trade in return, of course!" He nods. "But that can come later. Now, join us!" He doesn't bother introducing the rest of the men who draw closer, like flies, or maybe rats. Huge, disgruntled, and armed-to-the-teeth rats.

"We are ready when you are." The expression on Teyla's face could probably be mistaken for a smile. In very bad lighting conditions, for example. Or if you were fifty percent blind in both eyes.

Krisca blinks, then turns around. "You!"

For some inconceivable reason, that seems to be specific enough; out of the shadows of the nearest hut, a woman scurries. Rodney can't tell the color of her eyes, not even if she's pretty or as butt-ugly as the menfolk, because she keeps her head lowered and her eyes trained on the muddy ground.

The mayor cuffs her cheek. Not gently. Next to him, Teyla breathes in harshly, and Rodney himself can only barely hold in a gasp. When her hair shifts, he catches a glimpse of old, yellowing bruises.

"Get us food," he tells her. "All of us. Not the swill you usually serve."

She ducks her head and whispers, "Yes, Husband."

"Now!"

She runs and it hurts just to watch, because under the mousy dress, she's at least seven months pregnant. Rodney feels himself twitch, and next to him Teyla shifts forward, Ronon not just on his heel but nearly by his side — Rodney can almost, almost hear the sound their teeth grinding. He tightens his hand around Sheppard's wrist, feeling her tense, knowing how much, and how bitterly she must want to interfere. He wishes, very much, that he could turn and look into her eyes, just exchange a glance, see the familiar spark of defiance in them, but he can't, not right now.

The muttering mass of villagers has formed a loose ring around them; even if they decided to back out and return to the stargate, it would already mean fighting their way out, and Rodney hates, hates, hates that, not only because it increases the probability of himself coming to bodily harm. Krisca tilts his head, a gesture as impatient as it is supposed to be grand. "Come along, come along. We'll have a feast on the square."

They follow, entirely too many large villagers behind and to the sides of them for Rodney's comfort. The sun is almost at its zenith, cooking through their heavy uniforms and trickles of sweat run down Rodney's back. It's absolutely the heat — which has to be in the high nineties — that's making him sweat and not a rising wave of fear. That's just a bonus from his keyed-up nervous system.

They pass another row of huts, the side wall facing the street half broken down and never repaired; through the jagged edges — straw, mud, sticks; so much for advanced building materials here — Rodney can see two, no, three women, one of them writhing and twisting on the floor, and oh, oh, that's where the low, keening sound comes from.

Rodney thinks of Carson, and that there's never been a planet that needed the good doctor more. Of course, there also hasn't ever been a planet less likely to accept help. For the ones that need it.

The square, as it turns out, is neither square nor overly suited for any formal event. It's an uneven oval stretch of packed earth dominated by a building that obviously predates the rest of the village. An open well that would have Beckett gibbering about cholera and contamination is at the narrower end. The center boasts something that Rodney's brain insists is either a gallows or stocks. About then, Sheppard stumbles to a stop behind him while his mind is still processing what he's seeing. The thing is some kind of stocks and a woman is hanging from it, arms outstretched and bound above her.

"Shit," Sheppard whispers too low for anyone else to hear.

The woman is just hanging there, head down, bare to the waist, and Rodney thinks he might vomit: the black coating on her back is a moving mass of flies, feasting on flesh whipped to bloody shreds.

The well is probably the village's only source of water, and everyone that comes to it is going to get an eyeful of this awful display.

Teyla growls and starts forward...and Rodney knows this is going to be a disaster. You just don't interfere with the insane freaks that do something like this, not when you're surrounded by them and your fucking P90 is hidden in your pack because your expedition leader didn't want you to look threatening — fuck, threatening is good, and when they get back, he's going to explain how a bazooka and a couple of stinger missiles would be a good idea in addition to the P90s.

Sheppard's free hand snaps out and catches Teyla's elbow before he's taken two steps and she snaps, "Mission!" at the same time everyone stares at her, hand stretched out, risen to her full height.

That's the moment the distortion kicks in, because there's just no way Rodney could have heard, seen, felt it all, if time hadn't stretched out like an old rubber band, all tension and the threat of snapping in half what was brittle, worn, eminently breakable.

Sheppard starts to let go and Teyla stops, half turning back to them, the crowd is muttering so angrily, and the guy next to Rodney — Heltorg, Big and Nasty called him Heltorg, one part of his mind supplies — whips around and backhands her. The sound of his knuckles connecting with Sheppard's cheekbone makes Rodney's ears ring and his stomach clench. Sheppard rocks back, off-balance, but is caught by Ronon before she can fall, before Rodney can even move, and then Teyla is by his side — by Sheppard's side — strong, tan hands catch the villager's arm out of mid-air as he winds up to hit again, and twist, twisting the whole man in the process. A crunch, oddly dry — and he knows, Rodney knows this is how bone sounds when it splinters and breaks and God, he wishes he didn't. Heltorg screams, pain and shock and anger. His cry is almost drowned out by the commotion; simultaneous with Heltorg sinking back, one arm now bent at an unnatural angle, the villagers push closer around the team.

Rodney shoves his hand inside his tac vest and closes his fingers around the butt of the Beretta.

"She belongs to me. No one touches her but me!" he manages to say, putting all his fury at the situation into his words. A quick glance shows him Sheppard has one hand clamped to her face and the other wrapped around Ronon's wrist, white-knuckled; Ronon's holding her up, and that's all that's holding Ronon back.

"Heltorg!" Krisca snarls.

Heltorg hisses in response, still cradling his wrist; everybody, absolutely everybody within a hundred meters is glaring at Teyla and Sheppard and Rodney. Right, yes, time to think fast, time to come up with a reason these creatures would understand, and find compelling enough not to kill them on the spot, or anywhere else, really.

"Emmagan was merely doing his job, protecting my property. If you don't understand that concept — private property! — then there's no basis for trade between our people," he snaps, injecting as much scorn as he can muster into his voice.

Krisca gives Teyla a measuring look. "Little man."

"Not so little he couldn't break your friend's arm like a twig! I'm not stupid enough to hire a weak bodyguard!" Rodney is sweating, but it doesn't seem this is a faux pas hereabouts; the villagers aren't exactly fresh as daisies.

Krisca stares long and hard, finally nods, the vibration of violence in the air fading a little. "Let's go inside."

They proceed inside the large, older building.

It's a rectangular structure, peeling and discolored with either water stains or mold inside. They are led into what might have once been a reception hall. There are still traces of elegance in the high ceiling, but the stucco is peeling and smoke-stained. More mold creeps up the walls in fractal patterns. There is a table in the middle of the room, with a bench around and a line of dirty rugs right behind it; Rodney needs a moment to wrap his brain around the fact the rugs are undoubtedly for the women.

He hears Sheppard suck in a harsh breath behind him. He can't let himself turn and check that she's all right, not in this environment, and he hasn't felt as angry and threatened since Kolya ambushed them on Dagan.

Krisca points them toward seats at the far end of the room. They may be the nicest ones, but that's not saying much, and, of course, they also make it impossible to escape without crossing the whole room and passing the villagers. There are about a dozen of elders, none of them particularly old, but they aren't the ones that worry him primarily. The twenty or so other men slowly lining up and taking position along the walls, though — yes, right, they are a different matter, dressed in rags but armed to the teeth, just like the throng of villagers in the beginning, and looking no more friendly than them. Less so, in fact.

Rodney walks over to his designated seat slowly, Sheppard in tow. Some of the natives have women hunched over and following behind them, and really, with these merry folks, Rodney is almost surprised that they don't have the women on leashes or in chains. Except none of the women they've seen look to have enough spirit left to need chains to hold them. Rodney seats himself, but — not without surreptitiously wiping the grimy wood. Behind him, he can hear Sheppard shuffle; the mental image of her kneeling down is the kind he would have thought was hot before, but now it just makes him feel sick to his stomach.

And that's even before the food — and the high priest, Yayushdem — shows up. A couple of females, clothed in what looks tighter and sparser than what he's seen on the mayor's wife, hurry up to the table, setting down one plate in front of him and one in front of Teyla. Rodney blinks, looks around. "Wait, where's the food for the rest of us?"

Krisca stares at him, face expressionless. 'Women eat after.'"

Of course they do. Rodney swallows once and, after he's found his spoon, again. Frankly, he's not sure about the nourishment of this soup-like stew, but Yayushdem is mountainous, and his beady eyes are all over Sheppard. The man may be clothed in something brilliantly white and shimmering as if lit from the inside — looks like a cross between silk and satin, subtly patterned — but his gaze does make Rodney feel dirty inside; how much worse must it be for Sheppard? Rodney wants to lean back and touch her in reassurance or to reassure himself, but that's not a good idea: It might make Sheppard cut off his fingers the nearest chance she got, and besides, something tells him these people aren't into public displays of affection. And yes, that's a euphemism.

He narrows his eyes, taking the four acolytes lined up behind Yayushdem. They're all dressed in expensive fabrics, too. Not as elaborate as Yaya's robes, but still three or four steps above the rough fabrics the villagers are wearing, even Krisca.

As for the so-called feast, Sheppard and Ronon aren't missing anything. The food is swimming in opaque grease and contains meat he's not familiar with…which, admittedly, is par for the course in the Pegasus galaxy, but he's thinking about that open well and cholera, along with a basic lack of hygiene that makes him cringe. There is cutlery but, apparently, no etiquette. The instant a plate is set in front of someone, they begin eating, scooping the meat out of he stew before slurping the broth straight from the plate. It's really making him nauseated rather than hungry. Rodney can hear Ronon's stomach grumbling, though, even from more than a meter away. Ronon's response makes it pretty clear that the rest of the team wants to be fed. He'll fake eating until he can get rid of the plate.

"God, what I wouldn't give for some blue jello or even that Athosian Surprise the cooks served last night," Rodney mutters.

Teyla throws him a sideways glance; he looks far from thrilled, too, although it's not entirely clear whether that's due to the situation or Rodney's jibe. Probably both. Rodney thinks they must have consumed worse food at some point, although frankly, he doesn't remember.

"McKay," Sheppard murmurs behind him, earning them both glares from Krisca and Yayushdem.

Rodney twists around a little, eyes Sheppard with what he hopes is a convincingly disdainful glare.

"Yes, wife?"

The murmur rising around the table makes it pretty clear that this is not the appropriate response. Rodney thinks he sees the wicked gleam of a knife being drawn by one of the villagers at the far end of the room.

Sheppard smiles sweetly and murmurs, "Do you trust this food, oh husband?" The look in her eyes is anything but concerned, however.

The big man seated next to Krisca growls something, and Krisca doesn't even bother to clear his throat, just yells across the table, "You're letting it interrupt your meal?"

Even Rodney's lightning-fast synapses are curiously unwilling to process this particular linguistic tidbit; he swallows, hard. These people don't even consider their women human? What kind of society...how does a society reach this point, and oh, God, why?

Rodney picks a piece of unknown vegetable, tuber maybe, off the plate, turns and quickly stuffs it into Sheppard's mouth, ignoring her choked surprise and the disapproval of everyone. "Well." Rodney turns back and meets their disapproving stares. He feels hot, and the back of his neck is prickling unpleasantly as if it the skin were too tight. "She's my poison-taster."

The use of this pronoun seems to displease them, but oh, the sentiment — for a moment, there is silence around the table, and then, a few guys nod, look at each other, and crane their necks to stare at Sheppard.

The big bruiser tilts his head, has narrowed his eyes. "We're not poisoning you."

"Well, maybe you're not, but plenty of others have tried! I'm a very important man!"

To Rodney's surprise, Krisca lets a heavy hand drop on the table. "Fair enough." A nod at Rodney. "Look at him, Breeg."

Why, thank you. Rodney doesn't know whether he should be grateful or insulted but, in any case, makes a big show out of peering at the contents of the bowl in suspicion — such a relief, not having to pretend — before passing it back to Sheppard.

Sheppard's too smart to let her disgust over what's not only deplorable, but cold and greasy by now, too, show. There's the soft, softer, softest sound of Ronon's voice, pitched only for the team to hear, the sort of voice Rodney's learned to listen to and for in the field. "You take the twenty on the left, I take the twenty on the right?"

For a moment, Rodney is afraid that Ronon is serious, that she will jump up, rip out her pulse pistol, and shoot every last one of them, but no, no, Sheppard and Ronon keep kneeling and waiting, while they finish their meal, and all the old bastards linger over some kind of coffee-slash-tea substitute — Skour tea, Teyla exclaims, sounding surprised — which, hey, wait, is actually really good, bitter yet sweet and spicy in the perfect way, with clearly stimulating properties, and Rodney finds himself asking for more.

He can feel Sheppard's eyes like laser beams in his back. All through the second and then the third cup.

Teyla, too, doesn't seem happy, which is pretty much his default state at this point, but he's confined to nudging Rodney under the table with ever-sharper jabs; Rodney will no doubt have bruises. Teyla actually declines a second cup, instead drumming his fingers on the surface of the table in front of him, lightly but incessantly, obviously hoping this will be over soon; one of the elders keeps staring at him with barely-controlled anger.

"So —"

Rodney turns his head. One of the Hulk-sized cretins at the other end of the table is gesturing at him and smiling so widely that Rodney fears he can see the cavities in his molars. Another villager — one of the throng who welcomed them, if you can call it such — whispers at him, and the guy nods eagerly.

"Doc?"

Rodney only narrowly keeps himself from putting his face in his hands. Seriously, this mission can't get any worse. "Doctor Rodney McKay." He refrains from mentioning he foregoes the other two PhDs and settles for throwing the guy a glare that doesn't seem to perturb him.

"Well, I'm Fearg. Brother to the Mayor." He says it as if that's something to be exceedingly proud of. "Way I see it, you're here to trade. I'm in the mood to trade."

Trade? No, Rodney isn't interested in trading anything with these assholes. What could they even offer? Booze? Drugs? A *nap?*

First row seats at the next flogging?

"Doctor Rodney McKay, we're hospitable people." Fearg grins again. "Thing is, I have a really lovely second wife at home." He leans forward. "Just come of age. Still very, you know…."

Rodney does not and, Jesus Christ, does not want to know; this mission is a prime example of Careful What You Wish For. Teyla next to him lets out a harsh breath and doesn't bother to mask his distaste; the expression in his dark eyes makes Rodney realize Teyla is close to snapping.

Fearg doesn't seem to be good at reading people. "Of course, I'll take care of your wife in the mean time. That's why you brought it, right?"

"What?"

"To breed it, right?"

Sheppard gags audibly behind him, but Fearg doesn't hear, or care. He has a hungry look on his face. "I'll do it."

Rodney only narrowly avoids choking on a last swallow of tea, his entirely too good imagination providing images of the sort of damage someone that big could do to Sheppard — shit, could have done to Sheppard even before. No. Just no. They think Sheppard and Ronon are along to be...what, bred to the local studs? How the hell did this society not even deserving of the term reach this point?

"You can't do that! Ouch, Teyla!" Resisting the urge to rub his thigh, he puts down the cup. Doesn't need to look behind him to know Sheppard's giving him the glare of death. "I mean, right, yes, it's a very generous offer, but I must decline."

The bastard is already staring at Sheppard as if he wants to devour her. Rodney can feel his skin crawl; briefly, there's a shiver of fear; perhaps they are trying to poison him....

"Why? My second wife not good enough for the likes of you?" The sudden snarl in Fearg's voice makes Rodney focus again; Teyla next to him has probably already shifted into a position that allows him to stand up and raise his weapon in one single motion. Twenty eyes around the table are staring at them as if he just insulted their honor…which he probably did; damn societies with whacked-out laws regarding women as property. Rodney does feel ill, and —

"No, no, that's not it," Rodney knows his voice is getting a little louder with each word, "she's diseased."

The murmur around the table dies down instantly, and Rodney looks around, wide-eyed. "That's why I use her for poison-tasting. No good for anything else."

All over the room heads turn toward Sheppard with an expression of growing disgust, and Rodney decides to make sure no one touches her. "She has this condition that makes your limbs rot off, starting with your..." he makes a circular motion toward his groin, "and the next thing, your arms. And fingers!" He knows he's going overboard, but it was the first thing that popped into his head, and he's running with it.

Fearg, Heltorg, Breeg and Krisca stare; it's oddly gratifying. The latter huffs, "But you don't appear to be ill."

"I got over this sickness when I was a very young child." Rodney leans forward conspiratorially. "But see this scar?"

He hastily pushes up his sleeve. Usually, he doesn't let himself look too hard, doesn't welcome the remembrance that slithers through him, but oh, the expression on his face will only help this cause. It works; they all gape at the raised red welts on his arm, the diagonal, jagged slashes of a knife etched forever into his skin.

"That's where they had to cut out the dying tissue." Rodney nods at his captive audience, waves his arm at them for added emphasis. Everybody at the table is now looking at him with an expression of shock…and pity. No, no, wait, you got it wrong, he wants to yell, but — he shuts his mouth again because refined as these people are, they probably would want to see proof, right here, right now, and there is simply no way Rodney is dropping trou in front of this horde of lunatics. The scenario so far has the added advantage of making that bruiser stop lusting after Ronon; his bearded face is conveying pretty clearly what they all must be thinking: Good-lookin' as these foreign women are: Not worth having my dick rot off.

The priest — Yaya, Yaja, Ya something dumb — takes the silence to cough meaningfully; it sounds positively pneumonic to Rodney's ears. "Very well. You've come to trade?"

"And explore," Teyla says, mask firmly in place; so firmly it must be chafing him. "To meet new people and learn from them." He keeps his eyes focused on the priest, adds another sentence. "We seek wisdom, Guardian Yayushdem."

That's when Sheppard gets a coughing fit so that Rodney, without looking, reaches back and thumps her shoulder. She catches his hand, cradles it for a moment. What must look somewhere between needy and adoring feels very much — not so; Rodney can feel her nails.

"You will want to see the Holy Citadel, then." Krisca says, a little eager, a little proud. "As well as our crops."

Yaya glares at him, but when he looks at Teyla and Rodney, the oily smile is back. "You must understand we cannot take every foreigner to the Holy Place of the Gods: The Citadel and the Altar are reserved for the Conclave of the Immaculate Guardians."

Rodney has the sudden, hopeful notion that this means some of them do bathe. Everyone he sees looks pretty maculate. Sheppard at his back chokes just a little, but it's quiet this time, Teyla's upper lip twitches, and Ronon is probably the only one managing to look stony-faced. Rodney just tries to look blank.

Yayushdem stuffs another piece of something greasy into his mouth and adds, "We are entrusted with the Holy Citadel, to guard it until the Pure One appears and it opens to take us to a land free of the Wraith."

Everybody around the table has a glazed expression on his face, and they stare at Yaya in awe. Teyla stares, too, but Rodney thinks he can see horror with a side of pity in his face. Or maybe he's projecting.

Ronon must have lifted her head a little; she mutters, "Only place free of the Wraith is the grave." Thankfully, the guys around the table are too focused on Yaya to even listen. Rodney shudders. The only thing scarier than these people already were is finding out they are all religious fanatics. Sometimes he misses Canada — and sanity — so much he can barely believe it, considering he left his native country to work for the US government before he was legally old enough to drink in the States.

"Well, is it possible to perhaps go look at this holy citadel, maybe?" Rodney asks, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes and use air quotes. "From a properly respectful distance?"

Teyla latches onto that, gives them one of her grave nods. "We would be grateful for even a chance to catch a glimpse of your Holy Place. To escape the Wraith — that is only a dream to our people."

The smiles spreading on all their still slightly glassy-eyed faces are a little smug, Rodney thinks. These idiots actually think they're superior. That they've got a hotline to Heaven.

"We shall show you." Yayushdem nods slowly, a gesture greatly emphasized by his several chins. "After you've seen the Citadel, we shall take you to the Great Monastery. Surely you'll want to enter fruitful trade agreements with us, then."

"They're infidels. We should send them away." Heltorg, of course, back with his arm wrapped and in a sling, sending slit-eyed glares of hate at all of them.

Krisca just shrugs and shakes his head. "What does it matter? Only the pure can get truly close the Citadel."

Heltorg grunts something and makes a gesture that looks like stuffing a turkey. It's probably not meant in a friendly way. Rodney ignores the two of them, leans over to Teyla. "Listen," he says quietly. "This has got to be the outpost. It must still have live defenses. Which means, maybe, just maybe, a ZPM!" Teyla gives him a tiny nod, has obviously come to the same conclusion. And he's never come across a group he'd have less qualms about taking anything from than these people.

Rodney shows Yaya his teeth. "So, when can we go?"

Teyla, too, nods at Yaya, wearing his 'Ah, look at my overly enthusiastic companion; and forgive his haste' smile. "What we meant to say is that we would be delighted and thankful to catch a glimpse of the Place of the Gods soon."

Yayushdem squints at them, then nods. "It is nearly an hour walking. We must leave to reach the Holy Altar in front of the Citadel to have time to return before sundown. Krisca will show you the fields as we go."

~*~

Rodney wasn't able to imagine this guy walking one minute, much less one hour, but it turns out that wasn't what Yayushdem had meant: A holy man of his position has a palanquin, and eight men to carry it.

Rodney thinks of a coffin.

For the rest of them, though, it's a hot, dusty walk, mostly uphill; the only consolation is that the Citadel actually seems to be in the direction of the gate: They won't have to get close the village again one the way back, thank God and the Ancients and whoever deity close enough to listen in.

Sheppard and Ronon walk behind Rodney and Teyla the whole way, of course, eating dust from the official and respectful three feet distance; the one time they accidentally breach that rule, one of the acolytes just happens to put down his stick right in front of Sheppard's feet so that she stumbles, catching herself only due to superior reflexes. Rodney feels his knuckles go white, and the urge to open his mouth and rip the guy a new one is almost unbearably strong. He marks the sour-faced little weasel, just in case. Not that he'll be leaving Sheppard or Ronon alone with any of these people, anyway, but then again, maybe he'll arrange for Ronon to be alone with this guy. Just for a while.

They're walking on a road, rutted and dusty, that cuts between the cultivated fields they glimpsed on arrival. Rodney notices more women now, out in the fields, hand cultivating whatever the green-and-red vines are. "Any idea what that is?" he asks Teyla.

Teyla looks and nearly stumbles, taking in a hissing breath. Rodney gets another bad feeling, like Teyla is about to tell him they're walking through the Pegasus version of an opium field.

"Teyla?"

"Skour!" Teyla grits out, sounding furious and disapproving.

"Skour? The stuff they made the tea from?" Rodney asks. Oh, crap. What if it's addictive? What if it's rotting his brain cells right this minute? He's already been made a junkie once, he can't go through withdrawal again; why didn't Teyla stop him from drinking it —

"I will explain later," Teyla mutters, his pace picking up speed so that Rodney has to trot to keep up.

Finally, they top the last hill, are suddenly in clear view of the outpost. There's a forcefield, all buzzy and blue around it, so it seems impossible to get in…except, of course, that there is also a DHD-like console on a small pedestal close to what looks like the main entrance. Rodney's heart beats faster in excitement. Yayushdem's acolytes begin taking the palanquin down the path, while Rodney pauses and pants. Teyla stops beside him, and Sheppard and Ronon step close enough they can whisper to each other without being overheard.

"They're growing Skour," Teyla says, vehement and tense.

"Keep your voice down," Sheppard advises, slurring a little, because half her face is bruising spectacularly, down to her mouth, and her lips on that side are swelling. Rodney suppresses the impulse to touch her reddened, darkening cheek. Along with the one that wants him to pull out his Beretta and just shoot that Heltorg bastard.

"Keep your own voice down," Rodney snaps, hiding how upset he is behind anger. "Or do you want to get slapped again?"

"Fuck you, McKay," Sheppard says flatly, eyes like polished stone, but there's still something stunned about her. Beside her, Ronon is all coiled stillness.

"Look, we all know, this place is all wrong, but if we can get through to that outpost down there and get a ZPM — "

"Right," Sheppard agrees. "We have to concentrate on the mission." Her gaze sweeps over the fields behind them, down to the village, almost as if she can see far enough to focus on that woman in the stocks. "For now."

Ronon grunts quietly.

Krisca has started down the path while they're speaking. He turns back and calls out, "Are you coming?"

"Just catching my breath!" Rodney yells back, faking a smile. "You worthless piece of shit," he adds quietly.

Teyla turns and grabs Rodney's wrist. "You do not understand. Skour is not cultivated. To make anyone try to work in a field of it — look at those women's hands!" He jerks his head toward several women crouched between rows of vines at the end of the field that stops at the top of the hill.

Rodney looks closer and cringes. Their hands are swollen, wrapped in rags, blood stains seeping through from broken blisters. Blotchy red marks, some sort of allergic reaction, mark their faces and arms. Half of them are suffering a tell-tale tremor, some sort of nerve damage, Rodney surmises.

Teyla nods jerkily. "Skour root makes the tea you were so fond of, along with making a flour that can be used to bake almost anything, Dr. McKay, but the vines have vicious thorns and the leaves contain an oil that sinks into the skin and blisters it. It is immensely valuable when sold on the market, but no one grows Skour. If a field of it is found growing wild, the accepted method is to burn the vines off and then dig up the roots."

"Grew it on Sateda," Ronon says, very low, frowning at the fields. "Didn't let anyone touch it. Used harvesters, machines. Stuff is toxic, causes birth defects."

"Christ," Rodney mutters, rubbing the sunburnt bridge of his nose. "This place sucks more and more all the time." The Hekans have made their women into something less than human just so they can use them to work the skour. He looks down at the palanquin bearing Yayushdem. He'd bet the priests had something to do with that. It's all economics in the end.

"So let's get moving so we can get out of here," Sheppard hisses.

"We must do something about these people," Teyla insists.

"Later, okay?" Rodney tries to placate him. "Later. Let's get the damn ZPM, if it's there, first."

"So." Ronon frowns and turns toward Rodney. "How do we get in?"

Rodney pats Sheppard's arm. "We have our own skeleton key, remember?"

"Thanks a lot, McKay."

"Why, even if it does take someone pure, the Colonel is pure as the driven snow," Rodney adds, with a sneer for the Hekans.

Sheppard, after throwing a quick glance at the progress of Yayushdem's palanquin and Krisca's men, steps closer as if to nuzzle Rodney's neck — oh, oh, oddly hot — and stomps on Rodney's foot.

Rodney immediately hops back. "Ow! Ow!" Which, of course, has everyone look back at them.

Ronon lets out a suffering grunt while Sheppard looks both worried and grimly satisfied. "Keep it quiet, McKay." She can't quite muster the smirk, though. "Wouldn't want to upset these nice people and their deep belief in the great prophecy."

"There are always those who dream of a mythical hero to bring forth salvation from the Wraith." Teyla looks disgusted with everyone, including the team. "It's very tedious."

"Are you coming?" Krisca, of course, yelling again. He stares at Rodney, who, admittedly, is sweating and tired.

"Yes, yes, don't get your panties in a twist."

They stumble down the dirt path and come to a stop before the DHD-like console on its little hill. The massive blue force-field buzzes only a few meters away, but the console itself is covered in no more but a faint glow, iridescent like the sky. Yaya sniffles haughtily. "None but the Pure may touch the Altar."

Rodney looks at it. It looks like regular Ancient manufacture. Which means no one but someone with the ATA gene can approach, he imagines. Also, it's readily apparent — since the only energy readings he gets are the mere blips from this energy console — the forcefield acts as a shield not only against intruders but energy sensors as well; actually quite a marvellous variation on technology they already know.

"The Impure who attempt to sully the Holy Place are punished." Yaya lets his beady eyes linger on his own crowd of muttering acolytes, along with Krisca and his men, then makes an impatient gesture.

Heltorg sort of gulps. "You — want me to show them, oh Wise One?"

Yaya nods. With a gingerly expression, Heltorg steps forward, slowly stretches out his good hand toward the control console — and gets zapped. With a sharp cry, he draws back, ducking down into the crowd. A sizzle and scent like ozone hangs in the air afterward.

Yaya grins at Rodney and Teyla. Puffs himself up, too. Looks even bigger then. Wisely refrains from stepping of the palanquin. "You want to learn from and trade with us, foreigners?"

Teyla narrows his eyes. "We do. What are you saying?"

Rodney just needs one look at Yaya's face to get it. Fortunately, it's easy to look like a hero now; he wishes that were the case more often. "Fine." He straightens his shoulders and, with a deep breath, strides forward to the console where he puts his hand flat on the control surface. A gasp runs through the acolytes and brutes as he does what Heltorg couldn't do without being repelled.

"What?" Yaya's voice is rough, low in the way that carries. "How. How can this be?"

Rodney smiles. It's not a very nice smile, either. He begins tapping at the console. "Apparently, I'm purer than your dentally impaired buddy there."

Yaya whispers to one of the acolytes and sends him running off. Krisca and Heltorg are staring. Teyla looks serene. "Dr. McKay is a surprising man."

Ah. He really is, isn't he? "You might as well relax. This is going to take a while."

"Fine, the gods allow you to touch the Altar." Krisca scowls. "But only the Chosen One can enter the Citadel!"

"Chosen-shmozen." Rodney waves an impatient hand at them, their angry faces clouded with a befuddled sort of betrayal.

Yaya's voice is loud and petulant, and is that a quiver running through his body? Oh, yes, it is. "But the Sacred Barrier is still protecting the Holy Place. You haven't breached it!"

Rodney scowls back at him...but it turns out Jabba the Hut's not wrong, for the moment, at least. Half an hour later, Rodney's getting increasingly frustrated. The natives are clustering around the Altar; if it wasn't for their fearful and respectful distance from it, they'd be breathing down his neck. Teyla has slipped his P90 out of his pack and snapped the sling to his tac vest. At the edge of their circle, Yaya is consulting with a bunch of priests who have shown up, all wearing identical, horrified expressions. Ronon's kneeling behind Teyla, who looks on stonily, hands resting on the butt of the P90 in a posture eerily similar to Sheppard's usual stance.

Speaking of Sheppard, where —

Rodney doesn't see it, then. He hears it first, that is, doesn't hear it any more; all of a sudden, the crisp, ominous buzz of the force field is gone, and when he looks up, there's only a pretty, smiling Air Force lieutenant colonel with tousled hair who puts her hands in her pockets and strolls through the now-open entrance, into the outpost.

Just like a two dollar whore offered a hundred; every damn time. Rodney sighs. And runs in after her, past villagers fallen completely silent. Shocked and awed.

Of course, once Sheppard's inside the outpost, it comes on. Of course. "Power!" Rodney crows, because yes, this does mean a ZPM. Lights are coming on that have probably been off for more than ten thousand years. He takes a microsecond to admire the engineering that went into creating equipment that can last that long, much less still function even semi-reliably.

Sheppard, up ahead in the distance, turns her head and laughs, softly and a little breathless. "Always knew that's what you were craving, Rodney." Blue light glints off of her hair and flashes a reflection from a D-ring on her tac vest. It's emergency lighting, half-power the way Atlantis ran their first year, before the Daedalus brought their ZPM, and in profile she looks shadowed and mysterious. Unknowable.

"So what?" Rodney huffs, trying to keep up with Sheppard as she turns and jogs through half-lit corridors, pausing periodically as if to ask for directions, then continuing on her way, "I'll have you know I'd be a wise and benevolent ruler."

Sheppard's answer is a snort. "Much like Louis the fourteenth, yeah. La science, c'est moi."

"Hah, hah," Rodney snaps. "Don't think I don't know what a thrill you got from blowing those shmucks' religion to hell just now with your freakish ATA gene."

Sheppard barks out a throaty laugh that tugs at portions of Rodney's anatomy that he doesn't need to be distracted by right now.

Seems that Sheppard has reached the power room; when Rodney arrives in the doorway, he's just in time to see Sheppard brushing a console. With quiet dignity and, oh, hell, the sort of beauty that brings tears to Rodney's eyes, a ZPM rises out of its housing.

"That what you were looking for, McKay?" Sheppard says triumphantly. She's grinning at him, hands on her hips. Rodney grins back helplessly. Sheppard's incandescent at times like these, even with a darkening black eye and bruise; there's no resisting the pull. He wants to grab her, hold her, and the frightening thing is — Sheppard doesn't look like she'd mind, not that much.

*Buzz.*

The radio bud sitting in his ear comes alive with a loud huff from Teyla. "Colonel!"

"Teyla." It goes faster than Rodney can see, the shift back to soldier. "What's your status?"

"Colonel, the situation here is escalating."

"Escalating?"

Turning on his own comm, Rodney can hear rising voices in the background, snapping and sliding sounds that cannot possibly be a good sign. He fumbles his pack off and frees the P90 hidden inside, snapping the sling to the D-ring on his tac vest. That's better, and he sees Sheppard nodding at him in approval.

Ronon's low voice on her own comm, sharp edges still hidden under silk: "Knives are coming out, Sheppard. You better do the same."

"We're coming. Try to stall. Sheppard out." Her hands are already on the ZPM; long, slender fingers that look very — Rodney tears his gaze away but realizes too late that he should have paid closer attention to what they are doing: As soon as the ZPM's disconnected, the place goes out like a light, which of course means all the lights go out. They are standing in total, utter and complete darkness.

"Crap."

"Rodney?" Fabric rustles; Sheppard must be stuffing the ZPM in her pack.

"Yes?"

Movement in the black, and then there's the familiar warmth of Sheppard by his side, strong and reassuring, smelling of laundry soap, dust and sweat, and never failing to make Rodney's heart skip a beat. A second later, he sees her face again, sees the shadowed contours of their surroundings: She's whipped out a flashlight. Rodney pats down his pockets for his own; where's the damn…ah, there!

"Okay, how do we get out of here?" She's standing close, closer than Rodney anticipated.

It makes him a little antsy. "What? You're the one who waltzed in here like you had a map!"

"I had! Sort of, anyway. But the outpost is dead now, and that means I'm not getting anything from the database any more."

Before Rodney can launch into a tirade about the fickle nature of Ancient technology and the even more fickle nature of Sheppard's communion with it, the colonel is proven wrong. The recording of a cool, impersonal female voice resounds in the chambers and hallways:

*Reporting absolute energy failure. Shutting down facility. Self-destruct in three hundred—two-hundred-ninety-nine—two-hundred-ninety-eight...*

"Self-destruct?" Rodney looks wide-eyed at Sheppard. That's just perfect, isn't it?

"Colonel!" Teyla again; Rodney winces at the volume of his voice. "You need to return now. I do not wish to shoot these people...unless it is unavoidable!

The brief burst of static on the comm channel that follows could be Ronon not saying anything yet saying quite a lot. But Rodney has more pressing things to worry about. Like imminent, fiery, explosive death. He turns to Sheppard. "Right, right. Well, as long as none of the doors have gone into lockdown, which is highly unlikely in the case of evacuation procedures, we should still be able to rely on memory to find our way out; if they have, I can probably crack them by hand, that is, by laptop. If we aren't blown up before we get there!"

"Just — let's do it, Rodney."

They move fast after that, falling into the practiced routine of operating under Oh-my-God-we're-about-to-die! pressure. A rattle of gunfire over the radio has them running faster.

~*~

Out of the outpost with the countdown still echoing in Rodney's ear, Sheppard hisses sharply, her hand gripping Rodney's arm with enough force to make him wince. It's not necessary, really; Rodney hasn't missed the throng of villagers, how they have forced Teyla and Ronon back against the walls of the outpost. They really do have their knives out, and one of them is writhing on the ground, bleeding and screaming. Sheppard raises her P90 and starts laying down some cover fire — which is just a fancy way of saying she begins shooting, fast and precise, quietly issuing orders over the comm. "Ronon, Teyla, get away from the building. Now! Rendezvous back at the gate!"

Rodney fumbles to follow suit, the P90 heavy in his hands but warming to his touch. The villagers scream in surprise and confusion — some in pain, although Sheppard is clearly not aiming at their heads or torsos but feet and legs — but Ronon and Teyla respond like the warriors they are, dodging and ducking away with amazing speed and agility. And shooting. Ronon's pulse pistol is in her hand, bright red energy crawling over Hekan bodies each time she fires. Rodney suspects that thing isn't set on stun, either.

Without taking her eyes off the targets, who scream and yell and wave spears and other sharp things, Sheppard says, "McKay?"

"Yes, yes, what?" He's all sweaty, tries not the jiggle the gun too much; this takes all his concentration. Inhale, exhale, squeeze trigger, inhale, shift target, exhale... At the same time, his mind is continuing the countdown from inside the outpost. Fifty-eight, breathe, fifty-seven, fire, fifty-six seconds, Ronon and Teyla are still too close...

"Try not to shoot Ronon or Teyla."

"Oh, thanks very much for the pep talk!"

Squeeze the trigger, let go, don't empty the clip in a panic, just the way Sheppard taught him, sights moving to the next target, vaguely recognizing Breeg or his inbred twin, between Ronon and Teyla and open ground. Sheppard's firing short, collected, controlled bursts beside him and Breeg going down before Rodney can pull the trigger again.

Teyla and Ronon sprint free, running up the hill.

The priests and acolytes seem to have found their bearings enough to realize what is happening. They stare at Rodney and Sheppard, and Yaya screams, "Defilers!" The mob, those still standing, all stop either stumbling for cover and turn toward them. Not good. Not good at all. Rodney squeezes the P90's trigger, firing a burst into the dirt in front of them, but it's useless, they're too stupid to understand the threat.

Sheppard's hand clamps on to his forearm.

Rodney looks at her. "Run?" Forty seconds....

Sheppard nods fervently. "Run!" Thirty-eight seconds....

They do; Rodney and Sheppard catch up with Ronon and Teyla as they pause and provide cover fire from the top of the hill, one breath later a bone-jarring boom echoes up from the valley behind them as the self-destruct takes out the outpost, and the women in the Skour fields look up. Then a spear falls in front of Rodney and he veers without thinking, zigzagging automatically. "Cut through the fields!" Sheppard orders and they dash through the Skour, hurdling the low vines that catch viciously at Rodney's pants, stabbing right through into his legs, and there are not enough words in the English language to properly describe how much Rodney loathes this planet. Sheppard runs next to him and Ronon is ahead — graceful, taking long strides, landing on feet that barely seem to touch the ground. Runner, he thinks, disconnectedly, this is what she did for seven years; no wonder she's good at it.

Finally, they're out of the field and running flat out down the road, only leaving it to bypass the village. Around them, scraggly trees, dust, sagebrush, dry grass, dirt puffing under their boots. Little nasty prickly burrs get in Rodney's socks and Skour thorns are still lodged in his skin. His throat's parched. The late afternoon sun is throwing long shadows until finally, finally the gate looming up before them.

"You okay, there, McKay?" Sheppard asks and has the gall to not be completely out of breath.

"I have blisters," Rodney pants as they come over the last rise and start down to the DHD. He doesn't have enough air in his lungs to really, properly rant.

"Quit complaining," Sheppard replies, turning to cover their six. "So do I. Try running in new boots."

Ronon turns a little — without losing her footing, or her speed, for that matter, and snorts. "Stop talking. Save breath."

Teyla, too, just raises his eyebrow, nodding but not slowing his step. They're thudding down the last hill, feet hitting hard, the jar of each stride running up Rodney's legs, and oh, he has great sympathy for the way Jack O'Neill always complained about his knees now.

Back behind them a horde of the locals pours over the top of the hill, brandishing knives and spears and screaming about infidels. Krisca and Heltorg are in the front row, of course. And it may be embarrassing, but when one of those spears smacks down next to Rodney, shaft quivering with residual force, he picks up speed like an Olympic sprinter.

Sheppard spins and fires, into the legs of the front runners probably — there's more screaming — then turns and in three strides is even with Rodney again; her face is getting cooler, her eyes darker. "Teyla! Dial the gate!"

Teyla sprints forward, past Ronon. Sheppard glances at him, but Rodney doesn't need to be told, knows what she's telling him. He's already fumbling at his wrist, sending the signal from his GDO…which takes long, so very long, and exhaustion is not the only reason Rodney is gasping now.

Ronon turns, still running, and starts using her pulse pistol, very, very obviously not using the stun setting, and — Rodney is distracted by Sheppard catching up to him. She grabs Rodney's arm and tries to pull him into a faster run, the way she's done before, only the difference in their bodies throws her balance off this time and she stumbles, cursing under her breath. "Sonovabitch —"

Thank God, the wormhole forms and stabilizes.

"Go!" Teyla grits out; Ronon shoots a last salvo and runs through.

Sheppard motions at McKay to run through. Damn her, heroic fool that she is; he won't have any of that and grabs Sheppard's free wrist instead, dragging her with him. "Come on!"

Sheppard half-turns and stares at Rodney, eyes very green in the slanted afternoon light. Two more spears whiz past them, one clanging point-first against the gate ring, the other falling through the event horizon. They dive through after it and come to a skidding halt on the gateroom floor. Teyla stumbles in backward, still firing his P90 and the shield snaps into place; good work by Chuck, his countryman, not waiting for the inevitable order.

"Well, that sucked," Sheppard remarks, swaying on her feet. Rodney just bends over, hands braced on his knees and tries to remember how to breathe. He can hear Teyla's voice rising into a yell in response to an inquiry by Elizabeth.

Yeah, that sucked, he agrees.

Sheppard plunks her pack down in front of Rodney.

Except for the stealing the idiots' holy ZPM, he thinks gleefully, grabbing it up and grinning manically at Sheppard, who looks just as hyped as he is.

"Let's just hope it still has enough charge to be worth it," Rodney says, trying to hide his glee with doom-saying.

"What did you do this time?" Elizabeth asks from the stairs.

Rodney holds up the ZPM.

And the entire gateroom goes quiet.

~*~

Teyla's hand slaps down on the table, the sound sharp enough to make Ronon jump.

"We go back and we do something about that place!"

"Hey, hey. Teyla." Sheppard's voice lacks her usual smooth tone, though, and she doesn't sound as if she disagrees. Not at all.

The bruise on her face is spectacular: deep purple-red edged in green, her face swollen enough the skin shines. Dr. Weir can't take her eyes off it, McKay flinches every time he looks, Teyla switches between staring at Sheppard and glaring at Weir. Ronon knows the bruise probably hurts every time Sheppard speaks. Biro insisted on X-raying during the post-mission exam.

Now they're debriefing and despite the reddish-amber ZPM set in the middle of the conference table like a trophy, no one, least of all Weir, is very happy.

"We don't have the resources or the mandate to interfere with a planetary culture." Weir frowns at the ZPM. "We've already crossed the line by removing what is in essence a holy artifact."

"Oh, come on!" McKay snaps. "They weren't doing anything with it except to zap themselves periodically."

Teyla nods. "I agree with Dr. McKay." Teyla's expression hardens. "These people do not deserve to possess the technology and knowledge of the Ancestors."

Elizabeth looks down for a moment. Then, gently. "Is this for us to decide, Teyla?"

Teyla's eyes narrow. "Yes, in this case: They use whips on their women, Dr. Weir."

"It isn't so simple." Elizabeth looks weary, too; not as if she disagrees as much as if she holds up her part of an agreement Ronon does not know. Or care about.

"It is very simple when it's your back under the whip," Sheppard mutters. Ronon silently agrees.

Weir puts her hands on the table, hard enough that Ronon sees her knuckles whitening. "I understand, John. But." She looks up, at each of them, with resolve. "We can't just go in and dismantle their society and tell them to live a different way."

"Why not?" Ronon asks curiously.

"Because you just need to take one look at —" Weir breaks off abruptly, rubs at her forehead with something like regret. "Damn it. It isn't that easy to impose change from the outside, Ronon. People have to want it."

Teyla leaned forward. "You do not believe these women would not want to change their lives?" He sounds incredulous.

Weir looks at him. "I believe they do. I'm not sure they can, Teyla." She makes a vague gesture. "For God's sake, the world you describe to me? Is so deeply wrong I could hardly stand listening to your report." Her voice is loud enough to make Beckett, in the door frame, stop, hesitate. Ronon turns her head and lets her gaze sweep over him. He looks upset.

"I've got a report on that biological sample you brought back," Beckett says.

Weir nods, focuses herself visibly.

"Sample?" Sheppard's still frowning at Weir and transfers it to Beckett, who flinches. Ronon would grin at the reaction if the man didn't look so exhausted, standing there and clutching a tablet computer.

"The thorns stuck in all of us after our Olympic marathon through the skour fields," McKay snaps in the same instant Weir addresses Beckett, their voices overlapping, "Of course. Come in, Carson." Then a delicate frown creases Weir's forehead. "Thorns?"

Beckett nods nervously and sidles into the conference room, pale eyes blinking fast to adapt to the low light. Ronon's never been sure why they keep the lights down during debriefings, unless it's to keep it from feeling too much like an interrogation.

"The skour," Teyla clarifies, because Weir obviously doesn't realize what Beckett and McKay are talking about.

"Yes. They've a nasty neurotoxin in them, in fact," Beckett says, looking down at his tablet.

"Oh my God, we're going to end up like those women, aren't we?" McKay exclaims, looking alarmed. He props one foot onto the table and yanks his pants leg up, inspecting his leg intently. Sheppard rolls her eyes. Ronon rubs her ankle with the toe of her other boot, where one of the skour thorns poked through the leather and it still stings even now.

"Rodney, what have we said about feet on the table?"

McKay ignores him, switching feet, then jerks his head up. "You're slurring your words! It's already begun. Carson, you need to —"

"I've got a fat lip, Rodney," Sheppard says. Her fingers lift to her mouth, brushing over where the swelling makes it look reddened and pouty. She sighs. "Please."

McKay isn't listening. He sounds nearly triumphant. "I knew this was going to happen someday!"

"McKay."

"I'll end up like Hawking —"

"Rodney!"

"Rodney, it would take years to have much of an effect on a healthy adult," Beckett says patiently. "Though it would probably affect men sooner than the women. I wonder if that isn't part of the reason they have the women working the fields —"

Elizabeth cuts in. "Carson, what are the effects? Did you find out more?"

Beckett looks a bit startled by Weir's impatience. "What? Oh, yes. Well." He sighs and rubs at his eyes, then adds with rising enthusiasm. "They've probably got a high rate of birth defects."

Ronon nods at him, feeling impatience bubble up under her skin. "Already said that. Back on the planet." She leans forward a bit, looks at Carson, who in turn looks a little surprised but continues.

He seems to warm to his explanation. "Anyone who had chronic exposure to the toxin would develop nerve damage. Eventual loss of motor control, not unlike MS, in fact —" He nods at McKay. "The toxin is suspended within the hollow core of the thorns, quite ingenious; Bio is thrilled with the samples —"

"Carson." Weir sounds tired and rather like she usually sounds when she's cutting McKay off in mid-rant.

"Oh. The thorns and presumably from what Teyla has said, the leaves of the plant, are coated in an oil that contains a blistering agent as well. It's percutaneously active, sinks right through the skin and helps the toxin enter the blood stream."

Weir frowns. "The team isn't in immediate danger, though?"

Beckett shakes his head. "No, no."

"You're sure?" McKay demands.

"Quite sure, Rodney. Only a few thorns entered your skin and the blistering agent remained on your trousers."

Sheppard spreads her hands over the table top. "That's great for us, Beckett. But what about those women back on Heka, out in the fields every damn day?"

"Colonel," Weir says, "are you sure you aren't letting your current circumstances color your reactions?"

Sheppard goes quiet in that way Ronon's finally figured out means she's angry. Sheppard doesn't get angry the way Ronon does, or Teyla, or even McKay. Sheppard gets cold and controlled. Scary and quiet, clamped down tight and Ronon is pretty sure she never wants to see Sheppard lose it. Sheppard's eyes are narrowed and her voice is even. "It colors my reactions. Being a human being colors my reactions – I've never seen anything like it, and I've seen some...ugly situations." She pulls in a deep breath, sitting up straight. Her voice softens. "We've helped other societies. You've got to ask yourself, do we only step in when our asses are on the line?"

Everyone in the team stills. Beckett even notices, while Weir's expression hardens. Ronon can tell nothing is getting through to her. Sheppard's usually better at wheedling Weir around, but isn't bothering with that today. Maybe it's the sex thing. Ronon's noticed Sheppard use it; Sheppard flirts and charms, but Ronon hasn't seen her use her looks the same way since the change. The Earthers seem to hold their women to different standards of behavior and Sheppard's been obeying them, deliberately or unconsciously.

Sheppard goes on, "Because that's not what I thought we were about. That's not any better than the Wraith or the Genii or the Olesians."

"That was uncalled for, Colonel. I want to make one thing abundantly clear," Weir replies. "I do want to help these women, and Lord, if we can, we will. But I don't see that a military intervention would do any good!"

"It all very well to speak, Dr. Weir," Teyla adds, "but I only hear you say what you cannot or will not do." Everyone looks at him. "I cannot stand by having seen what I saw today. I will go to my people. We will act."

Weir holds up her hand in a calming gesture. "Teyla, this is unnecessary. We're on the same side. I'm only questioning whether you all may not be over-reacting —"

Sheppard points to her face. "Did you think Rodney did this?"

"Of course not." Weir looks a little angry; defensive in a way Ronon's never seen her with Sheppard.

Teyla's not sparing her, though. "The Colonel was struck for speaking. For speaking."

"Women. Do. Not. Speak. There." Sheppard says each word separately, quietly, intense. "They eat the men's leavings. They don't have fucking shoes." There's a dark glint in her eyes when she looks at Weir while saying that. Something from their culture, Ronon surmises, remembering a similar remark between McKay and Sheppard when they were on Heka.

"Every woman in the village was pregnant; the ones in the fields were older," Ronon adds. She'd been taking in as many details as she could in the Hekan village, evaluating the threat potential around them, and seen a lot.

"That would explain why they don't suffer a crippling number of birth defects in the population," Beckett mutters.

Teyla says, quietly but with enough force to make everyone turn to him, "How are they to change their lives when they cannot escape, cannot even speak?"

McKay is nodding, mouth twisted down in obvious distaste for the whole situation, and Weir nods too, then shakes her head almost instantly. "But that's just what I mean, Teyla — how can we even begin to help them?"

"So, because it is a difficult proposition, we should not attempt it at all?" Teyla looks disgusted. Ronon feels much the same, and disappointed in Weir as well.

Weir notices, looks torn. "I am saying, we should make the effort, yes, but only if we can, and have the resources. There is no obligation in impossibility." She takes a deep breath.

Teyla narrows his eyes. "I think we must undertake the impossible sometimes, or we succeed at nothing at all – which was an option you chose before, as I recall, with the Wraith. If you cannot do anything, I will go to my people."

"This is the time to move," Sheppard says. "They're in disarray after the outpost self-destructed."

"We haven't even discussed the ethics of that, Colonel!"

"Because there's nothing to discuss." Sheppard throws her hands up in frustration. "We went in, got the ZPM, the installation went boom without warning."

"Exactly!" McKay confirms. "Ethics? Please. It's a theocracy, Elizabeth. Talking about them is talking about their religion. Which is just a bunch of creepy lies; the outpost wasn't made to transport them to some land of milk and honey, with or without a ZPM." He touches the ZPM possessively. "They're better off without it, as a matter of fact."

McKay points at Weir. "And don't even mention M7G 677!"

Ronon breaks in. "Power structure's unstable now. Good opening. Won't get a better one." Weir stares at her like she's speaking some language the stargate hasn't translated, clearly nonplussed by Ronon's contribution. Sometimes, Ronon wishes the others — not Sheppard, the rest — would understand tactics a little better.

Sheppard is nodding. "Exactly. Their whole religion was based around the paradise beyond the outpost forcefield."

Ronon nods at her, grateful. "Yeah."

Sheppard pushes her hair away from her eyes. "Send some of Teyla's Athosians in to convince them they lost their only chance of escaping the Wraith because of the way they treated the women."

Weir blinks. "You're saying we should try to influence them according to their belief structure."

"Well, yeah." That's what she's been doing, yes. Ronon suppresses the urge to sigh.

Teyla comes to her aid. "I, too, believe we must act now. Approach the women. And the men unhappy with the old ruling caste."

"Some of them have to be disillusioned," Sheppard adds. "They can't all like the way they're living." She pauses. "Can they?"

Ronon suspects they can. Sheppard likes to look for the good in people. Ronon's found disappointment isn't so sharp if you look for the bad first.

Weir focuses on Sheppard. "Some can, yes. Also, there's still the challenge as for how to achieve that. Cast you as the second coming?"

"If that's what it takes." The dark tone in Sheppard's voice makes Ronon shiver. She notices Beckett twitch. "But I don't think it's necessary," Sheppard continues. "Don't think it's funny, either, Elizabeth." Ronon wonders if Weir doesn't hear the thread of anger in her voice, despite its steadiness, or if she just chooses to ignore it. Probably the latter.

Sheppard seems to relax a little, sinking down in her chair, instead of sitting ramrod straight. "Besides, if they're going to worship the Ancestors, then I'm about as close to the second coming as it gets, according to Beckett." She looks over at Beckett, who's clutching the armrest of his chair and looks as if he desperately, desperately wants to be somewhere else.

"We should use this delusion," Teyla says. "And the women — in such a life? They must be strong just to survive. Very strong. Let us draw upon that, too."

Beckett looks even more like he wants to flee. "Ah, lass, lad, these women...."

Teyla turns his attention to Beckett. "Yes?"

"These women, if they've been working these skour fields...well, I'm not thinking they'll have much strength for fighting of any sort."

Teyla frowns at that, and Ronon feels an odd rush of disappointment, too. She thinks for a moment. "Can't you give them something? They only have to seize power. We can help 'em keep it, then."

Carson stares at her. "I'm a doctor! I don't plan coup d'états for a living!"

"We would essentially become an occupation force, Ronon," Weir says tiredly.

Sheppard nods. "We don't have the manpower for that."

Ronon thinks her hears Elizabeth mumble something that sounds like "let alone the mandate" before she clears her throat and says, loud, "Even if we had, we couldn't implement any of this for them."

Frustration tugs McKay's mouth down farther than usual. "I must agree with Elizabeth. They wouldn't have the slightest idea how to rule themselves or the men. They've never known anything but hatching brats and working in the fields." Despite his words, Ronon can see the pity in McKay's expression. She frowns.

"I don't want to be the bad guy here, Ronon," Weir states. "But we have to be practical." She looks at Teyla. "And I don't believe the Athosians have the resources, either, Teyla. I'm sorry."

Teyla looks down, an angry flush still hot on his cheeks. Troops to occupy – the Athosians are no help there, it's true.

"But Dr. Weir, we cannot sit here, hands in our laps. We have to do something." Teyla looks up again, his voice softer again, but maybe even more determined than before. "Anything."

Ronon's not so sure. Anything is not a good option. Desperation moves are always bad. She can see in Weir's eyes that she agrees.

"Not that I'm a fan of military imperialism in any way, shape, or form, Elizabeth," McKay says quietly, "but wouldn't this be an opportunity to do good without endangering ourselves too much? If we don't — then we're accomplices to what's being done there."

Teyla gives McKay an approving look. McKay looks embarrassed to be the one advocating a moral stance, but Ronon isn't really surprised. McKay's the idealist on their team. Sheppard's a pragmatist first and Teyla's learned — mostly — that reality always wins.

"We keep working on it," Weir says. "We don't forget."

Sheppard nods slowly. "We could start with humanitarian aid. Elizabeth, you're the expert there, not me — medicine, food...."

"Clothes," McKay adds. "Before things went into the crapper, Krisca talked about trading for textiles. I don't think they have much infrastructure beyond growing the skour. They must use it to trade for everything else."

Weir turns to Carson, a question in her eyes. "Are there anti-toxins, maybe?"

Beckett shakes his head. "I'm afraid not, Elizabeth. The nerve damage isn't repairable by any medicine we possess."

"How about education?" Sheppard says. "To make sure their kids don't grow up thinking the same way?"

McKay laughs at that, a mirthless sound. "Yes, I'm sure the Hekans are all for a good liberal arts education."

"You've got a better idea?" Sheppard replies.

McKay's mouth turns down. "No."

Ronon does. She leans forward. "Torch the fields."

They all swivel and stare as if this was such a strange idea. It isn't; this is the sort of warfare you have to resort to when you're outnumbered, outgunned. "They'll be able to harvest the tubers afterward. Use them for trade."

McKay's mouth drops open.

Ronon sits back. "Make them plant something else."

"Torch?" Weir says. Her voice is weak and she looks pinched, white-faced. Ronon doesn't get it, but the other Earthers obviously do. Sheppard's face is impassive; too impassive for someone who's so ready to smirk, or grin, or even grimace. Beckett's eyes are darting all around, not settling anywhere. McKay alone looks marginally approving.

"That's — oh, damn, you know, that might actually work!" McKay turns toward Weir, almost excited. "We take away the foundation upon which they've built their sorry excuse for a culture, and then we have even better chances of supplanting it with something at least marginally more wholesome."

"It's not like we have supplies of napalm here, Ronon," she says flatly.

McKay doesn't seem to listen…or, more likely, just keeps ploughing ahead. "Anything would be a step up."

"Not really liking the idea of the women going up like flares, you know?" Sheppard leans forward a little.

Ronon stares at her. "You can fly at night, with no women in the fields."

Sheppard licks her lips. "I can."

McKay nods enthusiastically. "Right, right, use the jumpers, go in cloaked. No casualties!"

Weir folds her hands together. She looks down at them, her mouth pinched. "Rodney."

"What?"

"Can you manufacture napalm from the supplies we have on base?"

"Of course," McKay says scornfully. "A trained monkey could make napalm."

Beckett looks horrified. "Napalm?"

"What is napalm, please?" Teyla asks.

Weir purses her lips together. It does seem she has her own reservations about this substance.

"Jellied gasoline," Sheppard explains, looking tense. "It burns, sticks to whatever it hits. Light it up and pour it down from the air like rain. Everything burns. Everyone."

Ronon nods grimly. "Sounds gruesome." Sateda had similar weapons. Wraith burn, too. She pauses. "Sounds good for that place."

Weir chimes in, quiet, almost a little sad. "The dangers of such a mission — I can't even begin to express my misgivings."

"Yeah," Sheppard says, her voice low, "plans don't always go the way we think."

McKay hesitates, then lets his hand brush against Sheppard's. "I never thought I'd be advocating a military option, but in this case? I think this is a good idea. And we have the life sign detectors. We can be sure the fields are empty before we deploy."

Sheppard closes her eyes; just the fraction of a second, but to Ronon, it looks like an eternity. She has no doubt there are endless options, memories even, running through the colonel's head. "We need some mechanism to drop it," Sheppard says. "Something better than kicking it out the open hatch of a jumper."

McKay smiles, tentative and grim, but it's a smile. "Leave that to my people. We can manufacture a shell casing and bomb release mechanism," McKay says. "Attach it to the belly of the jumper. Modify that design you came up with to rescue me from the briny deep." He pauses. "Simpson and Zelenka would be the best to work on this. They're both proficient engineers and know how to keep their mouths shut."

Weir is shaking her head. "I haven't authorized this yet. We don't want to end up in another Vietnam."

McKay waves his hand. "Not the same thing at all, Elizabeth."

"Viet-nam? Is that slang for a fucked-up situation?" Ronon asks, hears Beckett choke.

"Yeah, you could say that, Ronon," Sheppard laughs, but it isn't a happy laugh. She looks at Weir. "No Vietnams. No Somalias, either. We can't afford to lose the people we'd risk. Which is why the whole humanitarian mission wasn't a good idea, either." A long look at Elizabeth. "Now that Ronon and McKay have brought this up – yeah, I can tell you there is no better plan." She pulls her hand away from McKay's.

Weir looks at Sheppard for a long moment, then nods. "We burn the skour fields. That forces them to look at other options. The rest of it, we leave to the Hekans." She glances at the faces of the people around the table. "I could possibly accept this plan."

Sheppard takes a deep breath. "Night missions are a bitch. Okay, we can fly in cloaked, so they never know who did it even, call it fire from the sky."

Weir nods. "McKay, put together a team on the napalm and the mechanics for the jumper. Submit it at the end of the week." McKay nods. Weir glances at Teyla. "Teyla, if you could contact your people, arrange a group to travel to Heka afterward? Reconnaissance, assistance, if they chose to accept it?"

Teyla inclines his head in assent. "I would be pleased."

Sheppard says, "I'll have a mission prospectus in your email by the end of the day."

Weir rubs her eyes tiredly, and Ronon can't fault her. "Then we're done here, ladies and gentlemen. You're scheduled to return to Hermea the day after tomorrow. The mission briefing will be at oh nine hundred tomorrow morning. We'll discuss information and technology exchange protocols. I will see you all, including you, Dr. Beckett, then. Rodney, I'd like a report from you on how much viable power this ZPM has by then as well." It's a dismissal. She rises and leaves the conference room without looking at any of them again.

Sheppard stands too. "Different galaxy, same shit," she says without inflection, before walking out.

Same shit? Ronon exchanges a glance with Teyla before jerking her head at McKay. "McKay?"

McKay doesn't look happy or interested in explaining either. He snaps his laptop closed, jerks his chair back and jumps to his feet. "Not now. I have a hundred projects to supervise, a ZPM to evaluate by nine tomorrow morning, and a chemical weapon to manufacture from scratch along with its delivery system. I'm just a little busy. Get someone else to play historical Twenty Questions with you."

"Now," Ronon insists.

"Fine. We don't have the Wraith back on Earth, so we spend a lot of time killing each other in inventive ways instead." He glares at Ronon and Teyla. "Leave Sheppard alone."

Teyla's eyes widen at that, and the expression on his face is oddly hurt. Ronon, too, feels McKay's words as if they were aimed at her stomach. "Unfair, McKay."

McKay just shakes his head. He almost, almost sneers. "Well, so's life. As you should know."

Ronon has nothing to say to that, because it's true. She spent seven years learning that lesson. Sometimes, it is too easy to think the Earthers are innocents and fools who have no clue. But they didn't make it to Atlantis without being survivors. Teyla, too, seems to realize that — Ronon heard his harsh intake of breath, saw how he opened his mouth and closed it again.

McKay gives a jerky nod and strides out of the conference room. Ronon's left meeting Teyla's gaze.

To fill the silence, she asks, "Wanna go spar?

Teyla looks almost grateful. "Yes."

They exit for the training room.

~*~

Hermea is as pretty as Sheppard remembers. Selh meets them with the float car at the same landing pad. Her gaze lands on the shiner still darkening Sheppard's cheekbone.

True, she felt uneasy after the debriefing, but that was because she knew they were about to walk eyes open in a clusterfuck with the Hekans. The problem being that she couldn't think of a better plan, much less a better answer to what to do about Heka – other than abandon it, which was just as unacceptable to her as it was to Teyla. And whenever she caught a glimpse of herself in a reflecting surface, or when the painkillers wore off, she'd think firebombing their fields was too good for those fuckers.

"You've encountered problems on the way, Colonel?" Selh asks as they pile into the car.

"What?" Sheppard touches her face. "No. This was from another mission."

"P3R-987. They didn't like women who talked back," Rodney comments, his mouth tightening into an unhappy line.

"Or at all," Ronon says. "Bastards."

Selh's eyes widen a little. "I'm very glad you have returned. We...worried, after you left."

"Took a little sweet talk, but Elizabeth – Dr. Weir, she's our leader – authorized our return," Sheppard tells her lightly. "And we're not stupid, you know. We'd have mentioned if this was going to get us in trouble back home." The trouble will be on Heka, when they begin flying jumper missions there; she really needs to stop thinking about it. This is Hermea, which could be fun. After all, they know what to expect, pretty much: medical exams, psych evals, then maybe some mutual technological exchanges and maybe another good meal, because the food had been excellent last time. Then they'd go back home.

Depending on how you defined home, of course. She knows for a fact Elizabeth is still sitting on the report instead of transmitting it to the SGC. It's not even the one on the latest crisis yet – although, really, she'll bet the brass will only have eyes for the ZPM part and skim the rest – but just the one regarding the first Hermea visit.

"A lot more people out and about today," Sheppard observes as they pass through the city toward the medical center, changing the subject.

Selh nods. "Yes, we asked our citizens, especially the vulnerable ones, to remain indoors if possible when you first visited."

They all turn at that, and stare, but of course Rodney has to let his incredulity show. "Whoa-whoa-whoa, what did you think, that we'd start eating your babies? Snatch them straight from their moms' strollers?"

"McKay." Just a little side-step and she's in front of Rodney, can unleash the force of her smile on Selh. "So, hey, you took a few precautions." Add a slow, easy hand-wave. "We totally get that."

Selh's face smoothes out again, but not until she's thrown a vaguely disgusted look at Rodney. "We had no idea about you, who you'd turn out to be, after all." She turns. "Here we are – the upper floors of the med center are devoted to psychological analysis and therapy; we've assigned each of you a personal counselor to evaluate your progress. Someone will direct you there after you've all been examined. After that, maybe you'd like to see more about our way of living?"

Sheppard tilts her head and slowly nods a couple of times. "Sounds great."

Sounded just great, other than being examined, again, and having their heads shrunk, again, by an alien shrink this time. ~*~ Farl just irritates Rodney, but that's hardly anything new. Almost everybody irritates Rodney.

"I could be talking with Jari about power consumption protocols right now," Rodney gripes.

"I'm sure there will be time for that later," Farl says.

Rodney rolls his eyes. Farl is silent. The silences stretches and stretches. "Oh, for Christ's sake," Rodney bursts out finally, "If you're not going to ask any questions, I'm going to take a nap."

Farl furrows his brow at that, the dark eyes behind his orange-rimmed glasses signaling mild professional disapproval. "I merely wanted to let you share your experiences at your own pace, Dr. McKay."

"Oh. Right. Don't hold your breath, then."

~*~
Sheppard props her hip against a counter and tunes the tech babble between Jari and McKay out. She can see Ronon and even Teyla's eyes are glazed by the explanation of Hermean power plant engineering. She lost the thread of what Jari's explaining about forty-five minutes ago, herself. But Rodney's in hog heaven, taking apart the theory Jari spouts and integrating it into his own knowledge of physics lightning swift. He's said something that made Jari go still and wide-eyed with admiration at least three times, too. The way she looks at him, Sheppard has no doubt Rodney could score with her any time he wanted. But he's completely oblivious, so focused on the data the Hermeans are offering he doesn't see it.

Which is just as well, because Sheppard really doesn't care for the idea of Jari getting her hands on McKay. She's not ready to think about why, but she does know. She wishes that they'd finish though, because it's almost embarrassing, but she's hungry again.

She comes around from the boredom plus thinking-about-food daze when she hears: "You have beautiful energy couplings." Which makes her choke. That's McKay's idea of a come on. Never mind etchings, in McKay-land, it's 'Want to come see my power plant?'

"McKay, do you mind?" she blurts out.

"What?" Rodney looks up, frowning. "This is beautiful work. There's virtually no impedance. They're not losing any stray energy in their transfers, Colonel."

Jari smiles. "Thank you, Dr. McKay."

Thank you, Dr. McKay. Sheppard wants to roll her eyes. Beautiful work, her ass. McKay's definitely making a play in his own egghead way, and Jari's eating it up. "McKay," she drawls, leaning over his shoulder to look at the laptop.

"Don't be so petty, Colonel, just because this is beyond your pea brain."

She feels a little affronted by that. She may not be in McKay or Zelenka's league, but she keeps up, and her knuckles don't drag when she walks. She debates whether or not to mention that high-flyin' engineering degree she got, and the MENSA test thing. As always, decides against the first and is reminded the latter will only get McKay pestering her to join the Atlantis chapter. Instead, she pokes her finger at something on Rodney's laptop screen. "This won't work on Atlantis. See? They're using indigenous minerals to increase the efficiency. It's manufactured into their equipment. None of our tech uses it." Sheppard smirks, pleased with herself. "We'd have to change over everything to implement this protocol."

Rodney stares at her, blinks rapidly then. "Oh. Right."

Sheppard's stomach grumbles audibly. She presses her fist against her stomach. "Excuse me."

Jari just smiles indulgently. "It's the change. Some of us eat like farm workers for weeks afterward."

"Yeah, it's a little embarrassing," Sheppard says. "Food's not that...we don't have a lot to waste in Atlantis."

Jari looks alarmed. Her gaze switches over the four of them and, yes, even McKay isn't carrying any extra weight these days, those shoulders are all muscle, and he can keep up on a five kilo run for the stargate and still have the breath to complain. Sheppard realizes that next to the Hermeans all four of them are thin and hardened. Even the civilians on the expedition toughened up fast, and she's grown used to Pegasus. Hermea's the first world since Olesia where they've encountered people as soft and...comfortable as back on Earth. It's more than their clothes that makes the team stick out like a sore thumb among them.

"No, no, no," Rodney assures her. "It's not like last year; we're not looking at starving or anything."

Sheppard musters a smile, tamping down the regret. There are changes that can't be reversed, unlike Completion. No one was the same who had survived that first year in Atlantis, when they wondered if they'd run out of rations before the Wraith took them.

"Right." Jari nods, still a little doubtful. "If you are – I'm sure we can find an arrangement."

Rodney brightens. "Really?"

Sheppard elbows him. "Rodney!"

"What? I like to eat."

Sheppard smiles at Jari. "Really, we're fine – " Her stomach rumbles again.

Jari stands up. "I think it's time we all had lunch."

Ronon looks pleased, too. Sheppard catches her eye and they both grin. Food is always a good idea as far as Ronon's concerned and lately, Sheppard's sympathized. Even Teyla looks relieved, but that may be just that she won't have to listen to Rodney and Jari making sex noises over power conduits.

"So, could we get some of those little crunchy things we had last time, the ones with the spicy blue sauce?" Rodney asks.

~*~
Zeah wants to know how she feels. She's a little startled when Sheppard suggests she just get a tape of the team's sessions with Kate and let her listen to that.

"What, you didn't think we have shrinks?" Sheppard asks, sitting back in one of the sinfully comfortable chairs spaced around the counselor's office.

"I'm not sure what a 'shrink' is," Zeah replies carefully. Sheppard can't peg her age. Somewhere between thirty and sixty. She's got brown hair cut in a short cap, laugh lines, and is wearing something that looks like a collection of tangerine and green scarves.

"Head shrinker? You know, 'tell me about your mother?'"

Blank stare from Zeah.

"Mental health professional," Sheppard says, nodding sagely.

"Ah."

Sheppard points at her. "And every single one of you says that."

Zeah looks a little abashed – no one prepped her for Comparative Interplanetary Psychiatry 101, it seems. But she, too, has good instincts, or maybe just the experience. "That may be true, but I doubt that's what's really bothering you."

Fair enough, and while Sheppard doesn't much feel like sharing, she obviously has to throw Zeah a bone here – they needn't have returned to Hermea if they weren't going to play nice with the natives. "Well. Guess I thought I'd be fine and that people wouldn't act much differently."

A head-tilt, curious and thoughtful. Zeah's eyes stray to the bruise, and for God's sake, if Sheppard had known it was the equivalent of a neon sign blinking I Was Mishandled Because I Was A Girl, Ask Me How I Liked It, Not, she would've slapped on some of the make-up Cadman had pushed at her, to conceal it. It's startling, new, and not in a good way; she's used to bruises as badges of honor, signs of a fight and not of what feels far too much like a defeat.

"Were you attacked due to your new sex, Colonel?"

"You could say that. Actually, I think you'd have to." There, she's drawled out the truth. Its aftertaste is a little bitter, but at least it allows her to talk not about herself but Planet Fuck Them. "Not on Atlantis but on a planet called Heka; they trade in – " She breaks off, seeing the polite but completely blank look on Zeah's face. No, the Hermeans would know nothing about commerce and exchange of goods through the stargates, of market prices for some goddamn tubers high enough for a people to force their women into poisonous fields. "Anyway, there's a corrupt government of priests who talk about religion; they really just want get rich and make others die trying, though. Women are totally at the top of that list. I opened my mouth, and some self-proclaimed guardian of propriety and tradition backhanded me." She smiles pleasantly.

Zeah looks unsettled but doesn't ask about Heka, not at all. "And what did you feel in that moment?"Shock. Anger. But mostly, most of all, disbelief. Which she really, truly doesn't want to be talking about with this Hermean shrink. Of course, she's not here because she wants this in the least, or even because Zeah wants this. She's here for one single reason alone, and it's one that makes this not just easier but possible to bear in the first place.

"I remember I had 'This Is Not Happening' running on a loop in my mind."

"Why?"

Too much X-Files? Sheppard wishes, desperately, for a watch to glance at, eventually settles for the window. And an answer instead of a quip Zeah wouldn't get, anyway. "Because I didn't at all expect it. I knew, rationally, there was a chance – damn, these guys obviously weren't playing around – but it was...." She breaks off, warning lights flashing in the back off her mind. It was cruel, unfair, deeply unjust. It was not what she deserved. But they thought just that. All of them. She remembers the eyes of the men at the table, the judgment in them, and the trickle of realization spreading through her veins like ice-water: To see this. Every day. All your life –

Jesus, maybe she does need a shrink. But not this one, on an alien world where they want to leave a good impression. She grimaces. "Let's just say it was pretty bad."

Zeah doesn't seem satisfied at all, and Sheppard feels a little worried. There must be something else the counselor wants to hear, something she can talk about... "Don't you need to know about, you know – my body?" she blurts out.

~*~
Okay, there's weird and there's weird and there's weird like Ronon with tits, but on the scale of strange things Rodney has experienced since arriving in the Pegasus Galaxy, nothing has quite rivaled accompanying his team mates on an alien shopping spree. For clothes.

Clothes.

It has probably something to do with what they agreed on while still in orbit. "Okay," Sheppard had reminded them, "Next mission's not gonna be half as – actually, fun is not part of the description at all. Let's make the most out of our time here on Hermea. Live a little."

Sheppard wanted boots.

Jari – who had come to the med center entrance after their counseling sessions – noticed her limping slightly, the whole new boots plus new body equals blisters thing came up, and the next thing Rodney knew, the Hermeans were talking into their radios and nodding at each other...and then the team were shushed toward an octagonal building complex frightfully similar to a mall, getting new wardrobes courtesy of the Hermean State Department, or whatever they call it here. Boots, custom-fabricated to fit Sheppard's feet.

Ronon and Teyla get new foot gear, too. The store clerk, who is actually a master cobbler, seems rather excited about the off-worlders and their oh-so-exotic feet, which Rodney finds faintly ridiculous...at least until he gets a long, good look at Sheppard, who is balancing on a little stool outfitted with blinking lights and, of course, another tiny flash scan, laughing and joking easily with the cobbler. She's rolled up her uniform pants to be measured, and Rodney's gaze wanders down the gentle slope of her calf, down to her bare ankles peeking out from underneath her uniform, slim yet strong, and there's the arch of her instep, ten perfect toes...

Rodney looks away quickly, coughs a little, which Jari seems to take as her cue. "Dr. McKay – if you'd like customized boots, too, we can definitely arrange that." Her smile is warm and inviting as always, and perhaps he should stop worrying about the whole sex switch thing and begin appreciating her; not like this has been problematic with Sheppard, although, yes, that's a whole different level of disturbing, and he better answer Jari, who is looking at him questioningly.

"No! I mean, my feet – they are fine." He conjures up a smile and hopes it looks at least a fraction as charming as Sheppard's. "If nothing else is, my boots are good."

Jari tilts her head at that, and a tiny little frown appears on her forehead. "I see. You know – I have an idea about that, about the rest of your wardrobe."

That sentence, from a woman? Never, ever means anything but a make-over.

Turns out, Rodney's right.

Of course.

~*~
Farl is still sitting there, quiet, without so much of a twitch – it's unnatural, really, to be this poised and still and getting on Rodney's nerves, although, no, wait, that comes quite naturally to far too many. Rodney would sit this out; really, he would, but he can just imagine the colonel's disappointment or, even worse, pity, the eye-roll and her slow, disapproving drawl of 'Rodney…'

"Fine, fine, I'll talk." He lifts his chin. "But only because I don't I want to be the one not honoring our agreement; I still don't see at all why you'd want to talk to me." He waves his arms to get the point across. "Still a man."

Farl nods. "Precisely."

Yes, thanks a lot, this is exactly why Rodney has felt such deep loathing for most of his therapists – vague commentaries and hazy allusions, any number of non-definite statements and questions with the only purpose of poking around in his brain, generally accepted to be his most prized possession.

"What, I'm your universal constant? Your little yardstick, your unit of measure?"

A cool gaze from these dark eyes. "Does that surprise you? Surely it has occurred to a man of your genius that we'd love your reactions to this change within your team?"

It would have, if Rodney had bothered to think about it. He wishes, desperately, for a cup of coffee; he's only had three cups before leaving in the morning. Even the Hekan stuff would come in handy right about now – he can feel the beginnings of a migraine. Heka...He deliberately shoves that thought away. Even unpleasant revelations of personal feelings to this alien Dr. Freud are preferable to the constant undertow of worry that's tugged at him since Elizabeth okayed their plans for Heka.

"They haven't actually changed – it's just their sex that's switched." Rodney stares back at Farl. "Still the same people, annoying and stubborn and braver than you could ever imagine."

"And you view them just the same?"

Rodney thinks of Ronon the librarian, Teyla with a temper, and this new Sheppard who's on his mind almost constantly, and definitely not in a platonic way…unless he radically misinterpreted Plato.

"Hrm. Mostly?"

~*~
Ronon really likes her new boots.

Soft yet firm, their color and texture reminding her of the kul hides from which Ronon manufactured the first pair of moccasins on the run – misshapen, ugly things, but basic training didn't exactly include cobbling lessons. After basic training? They were all too busy fighting for their lives. Those of their people.

Slowly, she runs her fingers over the leather, admiring the way they shape themselves around her feet, feel light but strong and sturdy. She can feel her lips curl into a small smile.

Maybe it's hormones.

Sheppard seems happy with her new foot gear, too, smiling, but Ronon's well aware Sheppard's smiles mean only as much as she wants them to mean. They're not a barometer of her mood. Ronon watches her shoulders and if she is just wearing a T-shirt, the muscles in her back. They tell the truth. When they're tense and stiff, so is Sheppard; the way she is right now, and has been since returning from Heka.

The Hekans bruised more than her face. She's relaxing a little though, now that the psych evaluations and medical exams are over. Hermea's so different from Heka it's disorienting. There's much more to the planet than they're being shown, of course, but Ronon considers the people trustworthy. Something she doesn't automatically think even the Earthers always are.

If she'd walked out of the gate to Hermea instead of that planet where Sheppard found her...she probably would have stayed with these people.

Of course, if she'd walked through the gate to Hermea's address she'd have died of explosive decompression.

Good idea to remind herself that the Hermeans have their own agendas, no matter how much she likes them. No wonder Sheppard's always tense.

~*~
Deln asks Ronon if she resents the change, considering the misunderstanding that led to it. Ronon shrugs.

"Resentment's a waste of energy." Ronon leans forward, elbows on her knees. "It's not bad, anyway. I've got a chance in this body."

Deln lifts his eyebrows. "A chance?"

Ronon nods slowly. "To start something new. No looking back."

"Look back to life as a –" A quick glance down at the screen of his computer-device, "–a Runner?" A fleeting spark of horror in Deln's eyes, but that's okay; she can deal with horror and fear and shock.

Pity would've made her stand up and leave.

"Did Teyla tell you? About Runners, and the Wraith who make them?" She tries to keep her voice even, but one look at Deln's face makes it clear it came out as too much of a growl.

"Well – she didn't tell me, precisely, but she briefly explained to Gean Tamas the story of how you came to join the Atlanteans. That the Wraith –" he hesitates, studies Ronon for a moment. "This is simply the most uncomfortable topic imaginable for you, isn't it?"

"It's okay."

It's not, not really, but Sheppard relies on her. Teyla trusts her. Even McKay didn't even spare her a second glance of doubt when they separated.

Deln waits for a moment, then nods, disbelieving but quiet, and that's a surprise. Dr. Heightmeyer's bright and friendly but rarely ever lets show the confusion and lack of understanding Ronon knows is there. "Obviously, I can't presume anything about this situation." Deln looks at her. "Completion obviously caused great confusion within your team, yet you seem to adjust remarkably, better than some of our young citizens."

Who haven't had their world shattered into ruins. Who didn't have to stare at a grainy transmission showing the ashes of thousands of their people clouding the once-bright sun. Ronon remembers almost not recognizing his home when the Atlanteans presented it to him.

"As I said. It's a chance."

~*~
Teyla taps Gean's shoulder and nods toward a young man in one of the city's many parks. His hair is past his waist. He's dancing in synch with a soft-holo light-and-music show, wearing a skintight dark blue covering. Patches of red emphasize his underarms, pectorals and crotch. Red words in Hermean Teyla can't read run in a vertical line from his throat to his groin. Teyla can't imagine wearing such clothing, whether as a man or a woman. "What does it say?"

Gean gives a dismissive shrug.

"My Dick Belongs To Me."

"Who else would it belong to?" Teyla inquires, almost amused.

Gean sighs. "There are sects that object to Completion. Presumably he's a member, or possibly just aping their mottoes."

Teyla looks at the dancer thoughtfully. Not everyone on Hermea believes in the abominable rite, apparently. This makes him feel better.

~*~
"Your body?" A long blink, and a slow nod. "Fine. You'd like to talk about how you experience the physical aspects of life as a female?"

As badly as she wants appendicitis. But hey. Sheppard puts on her Not A Care In The World smile, throws her arm over the headrest, and goes for it.

"Yeah. I mean, it was brand-new equipment, you know?" She says it lightly, raises her eyebrow meaningfully. "I just had to take it for a test run."

Turns out she has to try harder to faze a psychologist – especially one who has most likely done exactly what Sheppard just described, back when she last switched genders: Zeah just nods sagely and scribbles yet another little symbol on her handheld-ish device.

"How was that?"

"Um. Well, it was good."

Good enough to make Sheppard wonder if choosing to talk about it was such a bright idea; just the memory of the morning after – yeah.

Waking up, his first thought was Time? Schedule for today? before he remembered that Elizabeth had given them the day off and that it was possible to stay in bed for a moment longer, limbs still heavy, and whoa, wait a moment, what..?

Fuck, right; there was the reason for the downtime: Girl now. The lack of a morning erection should have been a dead giveaway, as well as the unfamiliar weight on his chest...which was bizarre. If not all unpleasant. Curiously, he began to let his fingers – new, too, more delicate, noticeably less rough – brush over the new swell of breast: Interesting...and almost cool.

Curves, and skin so soft it made his breath hitch for a second; hardly news that all this smoothness felt good to touch, but how good it felt to be touched at the same time, instant feedback he didn't have to listen for, watch for – that was new, and delicious. His fingers on larger, lush nipples that were suddenly sensitive, so sensitive, hardening under his touch; the twinge racing down his spine made him wake up a little more, try it once more. The thrill of touching these tits was faint at first, overshadowed by bewilderment, but it grew louder: Mine, mine, mine.

Again, a soft tingle, a connection hardwired into this body, and okay, yes, here it was, down between his legs where he hadn't dared to linger in the shower last night, when he was so tired she could hardly see straight. No hard cock, maybe, but the heat was curiously similar, and the promise there, right there, the destination for his hand as obvious as it was compelling.

No hair to lazily run fingers through on the way south, true, but this, this shivery joy over silken skin, it made it more than worth it. So he was a stranger in his own body: This was a good time to get acquainted – with the soft swell of belly, ticklish still, in the same place, with the dip of navel, with the folds between his legs, beneath the rough curls where – yes, right, yes; God, impossible to miss from this side, really, and impossible not to touch himself again, taking pleasure in the hot sparks spreading and spiraling outwards, into the tips of his toes, before continuing, stroking down into where he was – wow, okay, new and strange and almost unbearably exciting – wet and hot, where nerve endings were awakening, not in a rush or an explosion but slow and sweet...

…and yeah, that was how he was going to do it, just like that; easy to remember what women had liked, good to try what worked...and, right, okay, this didn't, but oh, fuck-yes, that did, instead. Hot by then, restless, biting his lip; they were so right when they said it was all about the journey; finding new spots and angles, a little – complicated, yeah, but he wasn't about to give up; he'd always liked a little challenge, especially one as...rewarding as this one, and just the thought of himself, the slim and toned but curvy body seen in the bathroom mirror, all stretched out on the bed, twisting under the covers, now spreading these legs wide, and wider – fingers sliding, wet, and God, right there, and just a little more and a little harder, and – oh. Oh. So good, good and long and lasting, like saltwater taffy on her tongue, and when he dragged his fingers up again and opened his mouth to lick them, slowly, he thought he could taste the ocean underneath the tangy musk so familiar yet foreign.

"Colonel Sheppard?"

"Yes!" She blinks, focuses on Zeah; how she hates the fact her cheeks must be red now, the tips of her ears flaming, and has she really, seriously been stupid enough to think the time of...untimely stimulation was past just because she was in a female body where others couldn't see your reaction?

She straightens, smiles blandly. "Where were we?"

~*~
Jari's new get-up is almost fluorescent...where it isn't transparent. Rodney isn't quite sure where to look, and where not to – stare in rapt fascination, really.


If Rodney had known Hermea was where tie-dye went to die, he'd never have trusted them to do anything to him. Though why he's surprised, considering some of the buildings are plaid.

Rodney – well, actually, he doesn't quite know how he feels about this yet; it's true that the bright blue-green of his shirt looks good on him, as do the shimmering silver pants and the boots in a darker blue-green – probably has some fancy name like aqua or pacific or whatever. The shirt's extremely tight, but so are some in the Atlantis clothes rack. What's definitely new is the fact that his pants stretch over his ass, outlining it in a way that would make Rodney squirm if the pretty salesgirl hadn't assured him this was the perfect fit.

Three times.

It sure doesn't hurt that he's just caught Sheppard staring at him – until Rodney caught her gaze, which was the point where the colonel licked her lips and turned around, quickly.

Now, at least, they won't stand out so bad. The expedition uniforms made them look like blackbirds among a flock of peacocks. Hermeans like color.

And skin. Never forget the skin.

When he mentions the startling difference to their earlier attire, Jari has the grace to look embarrassed. "Oh, those awful, baggy, beige-colored things? We wore them because – well. Just so we wouldn't startle you. The psych experts advised that neutral colors and conservative clothing would be less threatening for a first contact."

Teyla makes a soft sound that might be agreement or disdain or even a bark of laughter. Rodney's still having a hard time reading new Teyla's responses half the time. The other half there's no mistaking them – say, when he flattens two Marines twice his size.

Rodney is sitting in a little round room while holographs show them exactly what different fashions will look like on their bodies – courtesy of downloaded specs from their medical files. It is, Rodney supposes, the kind of technology that some fashion-conscious women would die for...or perhaps kill for; Rodney has precious few illusions about the female of the species. Of course, a good deal of the women he knows wouldn't care: Lab coats come in three sizes and are obtained by mail order.

Jari is trying to persuade Sheppard to get a dress, which has Sheppard laugh and shake her head and mumble something about "no chance to wear this" and "would be a waste", but Rodney strongly suspects the real reason isn't quite this cute, has a lot to do with Marines frowning upon their actually male CO wearing dresses; things could get very ugly very quickly if Sheppard were to bring one of these slinky little numbers back home.

If he weren't taking it home, though – well, when Jari suggests he try it on, just here, just for fun, Sheppard shrugs and says something about how he might as well take the new model for a spin. Damn him if she doesn't slap her thigh lightly while she says it.

Life is strange enough he might start testing the Atlantis drinking water for hallucinogens when they get back.

Certainly not before he has actually seen Sheppard in that dress, though.

Sheppard laughs and cajoles while Rodney watches, all flirty and easy and everyone, including the salesgirl, is half in love with who they think she is. The dork and the charmer are faces she puts on for strangers, Rodney's figured out. Well, the dork has a big element of truth in it, but the charmer is all about keeping everyone at a distance. "You know what's really frightening, Colonel?" he observes. "You're exactly the same as before."

Sheppard raises an indolent eyebrow at that. "What, did you expect me to suddenly wear pink and braid my hair?"

"You'd look good in pink." Ronon mumbles, then looks up when they all stare at her. "What? True."

Rodney thinks he sees, out of the corner of his eye, Teyla put his face in his hand, but he can't be sure; he's too busy remembering the all-too-vivid picture, scent, feel of another woman, another Air Force colonel. "No, please," he blurts out before he can stop himself. "Pink's bad."

Sheppard looks at him as if he's lost his mind; not an uncommon occurrence. "Jeez, take it easy, Rodney." She frowns a little, though, and touches the salesgirl gently by the elbow. "No pink, okay?"

The girl nods, speculative. "Red, maybe? You'd look lovely in it. I have this dark red ensemble…"

Damn if Sheppard doesn't visibly perk up. "Bring it on. In." An impish smile. "You know."

"Dark red?" Rodney says. "Elizabeth's color."

But the salesgirl comes back with a blood-red dress and this time it's Sheppard cajoled into a dressing room and then out once she's in the dress. She's looks good in it, Rodney decides, long and lean enough to carry it off, even if she is a good fifteen years past Hollywood's sell-by date. She's not fresh and unblemished as some candy-brained supermodel, but then, none of them can shoot and fly and perform even marginally complex mathematical calculations in their head. Most of them won't look this good when they're Sheppard's age, either.

Sheppard looks bemused. Rodney's stomach does a slow roll as he figures out it isn't really the body, this one or the old one, he's been lusting after. He leans over and whispers, "Just go with it, Colonel."

"And just what do you mean by that?" Sheppard mumbles.

Well. What exactly? Someone Rodney thinks should be eligible for sainthood sets down a pair of sandals in front of Sheppard, distracting her. High-heeled, strappy little things that tie on with red cords. Sheppard just snorts – rather unladylike, Rodney thinks in his daze. "Like I'd know how to walk in those." Still, her resistance seems more token than real, for when the salesgirl insists they go with the dress, absolutely have to be tried on along with it, she just sighs and nods.

Rodney can't, really can't hold back. "C'mon, Cinderella, put on your slippers."

"The ruby slippers were Dorothy, not Cinderella."

Teyla and Ronon share looks with the salesgirl and Jari. Bonding over a moment of cultural 'what the fuck'; it's almost sweet.

"So pushy, McKay." Sheppard does the eyebrow thing, and in this combination, it makes Rodney's mouth go dry. "You sure know how to sweet-talk a girl."

Teyla clears his throat really loudly; Sheppard jerks around, stares at Teyla. He is looking impatient and unhappy, his default expression lately. "This is not the right place, or the right time to play with shoes. Colonel, Dr. McKay?"

Sheppard clears her throat. "No, you're right, I guess. We'll just take…not this but all the other clothes and go." She ruffles her hair with one hand. Her gaze goes distant and Rodney knows she's thinking about Heka again. It's what he's found himself doing too often today, despite his best efforts to ignore the mission scheduled for the next day.

~*~
Beon asks Teyla what she objects to most about Completion. Teyla presses her lips together, then forces herself to speak...but only because she knows the rest of her team and Atlantis depend on her to do her part, to cooperate.

"I spent many years training my body to respond exactly as I needed it to," she explains. "I learned my own strengths, my balance, my weaknesses. I knew the days when I would have to compensate because I had cramps or was just tired. And that has been ripped from me.

"I do not know this body. It is bigger, but weaker. Dr. Beckett explained that he believes that your procedure uses muscle mass to become bone as part of the change. I do know that this body does not have the muscle definition that my body had."

"You don't consider this to be your body?" Beon asks.

Teyla narrows her eyes. "Indeed, I do not. It cannot be my body when it was not my choice." She lets the acid anger color her tone.

Beon nods. "This is a difficulty we did not anticipate. No one here undergoes Completion unknowingly. That is not our way, and we regret the misunderstanding deeply. We were reassured when your Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay were both willing to undergo it after discovering the failure to communicate."

Teyla clenches her hands. "Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay are both generous and kind men. I did not advise my people to ally with the Atlanteans without knowing that. But they are also not Athosian – they do not find this procedure as distasteful as my people would. They have even, I have learned, some similar resort on their original home planet, though one that is uncommon. I had not believed such a thing could be – or should be – done."

"I am sorry for the trauma you've obviously experienced as part of this, Teyla."

"Among my people, children are the most treasured part of our lives. They are our future. To lose a child, to lose my ability to bear a child, is...." She looks away, blinking hard. She had not meant to reveal this; it is a choice she thought she had already made when she accepted her father's responsibilities as leader – and again when she chose Atlantis. To not have children. But still, in the back of her mind, in her heart, he had still held to the knowledge that she might. If she chose.

When she chose.

"Teyla, Completion does not render you sterile," Beon says gently. "As a male, you could sire a child and when your body is once more stable and strong enough, we will return you to your female sex. You will be able to conceive, should you wish to."

Teyla shakes her head.

"No," she explains. "None of my people will have me after this."

Beon flinches. "Your people? The...Athosians?" He waits until Teyla nods jerkily.

"You would not consider conceiving with a Lantean or anyone from another world?" Beon's voice is gentle but firm.

Teyla jolts to her feet and moves restlessly to one of the windows, looking out at the manicured gardens surrounding the medical center. The Hermeans have time for such crafts, to grow things for their beauty rather than for their usefulness. It is almost foreign to her. Her people endeavor to make their lives as beautiful as they can, but always in the service of survival. She had not encountered frivolity often before following then Major Sheppard to Atlantis, and even among the Lanteans, pragmatism seems to rule most often. She admires them, likes them, but would she have chosen such to father a child? There are times they still seem like children to her.

And others, she reflects, when she must seem like a child to them, angrily railing against something that is not even a permanent effect.

She pulls in a deep breath and considers her team. A smile crosses her face. She can imagine the stuttering, red-faced response of any of the men if she asked one of them for a child.

"Teyla?" Beon prompts her.

She turns. "I would have to."

~*~
She is never, ever going to live it down, but honestly, her feet say it's worth it.

"Colonel, you are now officially a girl," McKay announces.

"What?" She frowns at him, then glances all the packages they're lugging around with them, courtesy of Jari and the Hermean Council's carte blanche credit chit. Okay, maybe it doesn't look quite like your ordinary mission any more.

"Two words: Shoe. Shopping."

She feigns ignorance. "I have no idea what you're talking about, McKay."

It's immensely satisfying, the way Rodney's eyes widen. "You're wearing new boots! That you – dare I say it; yes, I dare – cooed over!"

Sheppard just tilts her head and gives him a sweet smile, the one that's got just the right amount of indulgence and patience. "That? All part of the Hermean psychological counseling, McKay."

"What?"

"Yeah." She nods, all seriousness. "Retail therapy."

~*~
When they pass a wide, oval archway that's been painted black – crude strokes of a wide brush, unlike the careful decorations of the surrounding buildings – Ronon can hear music coming from somewhere inside: not the tinny, magnified sounds most people in Atlantis seem to like and not the deep, rolling rhythms of her youth, either. This is something else altogether. She stops and tilts her head thoughtfully. By her side, Deln comes to a halt as well. Once more, Ronon's acceptance of him grows a little because the man doesn't tug at her sleeve, doesn't hassle her to keep going, doesn't even say anything. Instead, he, too, turns toward the entranceway.

Ronon's never been too interested in music, at least not the kind you have to listen to; words were enough to fill her head, enough to make it resound like the most perfectly constructed concert hall, but this – this intrigues her.

“What is it?”

“I don't know.” Deln looks interested, too, and not just out of politeness. “But see the words above the arch?”

Ronon studies the wide-spaced, cursive letters in a language she can't read; the tug at her heart, her memory, is surprisingly strong, and painful still. “Yeah. Can't read them, though.”

Center for the Youth. We can probably take a look inside.” Deln glances at her. “How old are you, anyway?”

She smiles a little. Not because it's so funny but because Deln is older than her but not very good at interrogation. “Twenty-seven circles.”

An answering smile, one that makes his face look younger than his middle-age. “Then you probably still qualify, and the kids won't throw us right out.”

They pass through a hallway with scribbles – words, again, so many of them – on the walls, mostly black, thick strokes again. They look angry but, Ronon thinks, not artless. Not all of them.

Following the melody to its source isn't hard, and becomes easier with each step they take. When they reach the room, it is small and not sound-proofed. The ceiling's so low she has to slouch a little bit. Ronon doesn't care, but she knows these things don't make it a perfect place for music.

The children at the far end are hunched over instruments, fingers pulling strings and hitting keys, palms smacking taut, taut leather. It's hard to tell with the overhead lighting turned to dim, but the kids' garments seem to be dark but still distinctly Hermean…except for the clothes on the girl closest to them. They seem to be gray, dull, without shine…or almost without; the white scribbles on her t-shirt of the are shimmering even in the low light. Ronon looks at her, at the long hair and shapeless gray skirt, the dainty sandals on her feet that wouldn't survive a day out in the wilderness.

Deln, too, is looking at the girl, and sighs as if in recognition, so Ronon turns to him. "What does it say? The t-shirt?”

“The one the girl wears? I Am My Sex.”

Ronon lifts an eyebrow, and Deln hastens to add, "Only a few kids are actually against Completion, of course. You know how teenagers are, all about rebellion, at a certain age, you know?"

Ronon recalls a blackened metal disc, framed by stone walls, held by steel wires. The oval shadow it threw onto the schoolyard below. How, after the mallet had made contact, the vibrations resounded in their bones, calling them out to the roll call as much as the sound did. Into perfect rows of students, still and attentive, backs straight and chins held high.

"I guess", she says.

~*~
They are walking through yet another park. It's all very pretty, but…

“So, um.” Sheppard ducks her head a little, smiles. “I’ve been wondering – how often do people switch, on average?”

Zeah looks at her. “I wouldn’t use the term ‘switch’, but to answer your question: The majority does it twice or three times, a few only once. Still a large percentage more than three times.”

Interesting enough, for a start. “And…people who don’t, in the sense of not at all? What happens to them?”

“The ones who never undergo Completion? They are denied Enlightenment, unless they chose a different, much more difficult path.”

Okay, she’ll need a dentist appointment by the time she’s through with this whole spiel. “Right, and that’s it? I mean – you don’t, you know, make sure they…get enlightened?”

A curious stare. “Do we – are you asking if we’d use force on those unwilling to seek Completion in the first place?”

Yeah. But that’s a Bad Envoy, No Cookie answer.

“I was just wondering,” she gives Zeah a bright, bland smile, “because it just seems like a pretty big step, even when you’re young…especially when you’re so young and all.”

For a moment, Sheppard feels a twinge of worry; Zeah isn’t stupid. She also isn’t easy to anger, though. “Well, the choice is an individual one – there is no fixed age. But it is not done before puberty, for medical and psychological reasons.”

Where are Heightmeyer and Beckett when you need them? She’s totally not qualified for this, but then again, who else on this team is? McKay? “I was just wondering, these reasons, what would they be?”

“Hmm.” Zeah tugs at her scarf, thoughtful, a little absent. “In a layperson’s terms, Completion requires that one has already developed a certain foundation for sexual identity. Depending on personal factors, one can also wait until later, of course.”Why not wait it out? “Call me a little old-fashioned, but why would a teenager want to undergo completion? I dimly remember they weren’t the most…emotionally stable years of my life.”

So, this whole personal revelation thing? She’ll have to watch it before it becomes a habit.

Zeah looks a little surprised. "Well, all teenagers strive for maturity – don't they do that everywhere?"

"Mature? Teenagers? Doesn't always seem that way, you know?" Sheppard scratches her head. "But if you mean you want to be grown up, be your own person? Yeah, I'd say that's universal."

Zeah smiles a little. "Yes, I thought so. And I guess we take this for granted: You aren't an adult before you've undergone Completion." She looks at her, almost beseeching. "You're just not considered mature enough without the experience, the true knowledge."

Not a legal obligation, then. More like a rite of passage. Into adulthood. "Of course," Sheppard says.

~*~
Elizabeth, who's been waiting for them in the jumper bay, raises an eyebrow when the hatch opens.

There are a lot of parcels not supplies or gear, as neither of those is conventionally wrapped in pink, neon yellow, or royal blue paper and fastened with sparkly strings and ornate bows.
"Shopping trip, ladies, gentlemen?"

When Sheppard looks around, their whole team looks a little sheepish. They stare at Elizabeth…who lets the small smile she's hid appear. It's clear the trip to Hermea has gone well. That's a relief after the rising tension in the last week. Between the scheduled return to Hermea and their plan for burning off the skour fields on Heka, Atlantis' first team has been strung so tight they almost vibrated. Now, they look a little embarrassed and much more relaxed than any of them have been since the change.

"And you didn't get me anything?"

~*~
The jumper bay echoes with a loud clang and a spat of furious Czech as one of the Marines fumbles a shell from the pallet. Zelenka is on him like a rabid monkey, hands flying even faster than Rodney's own usually do, pointing and waving a finger in the much larger man's face, ending with a furious "BOOM!" The Marine goes red and then white under Zelenka's tirade, while his two team mates wrestle the shell full of napalm and High Explosive back onto the transport pallet.

Beside him, Sheppard leans against the wall, arms crossed, the picture of the casual flyboy – girl – except for her grim expression. The other pilots are waiting on her orders, none of them but the youngest, newest Air Force lieutenant, Palecki, looking excited. But Palecki's green, just came in with the last Daedalus visit, and can be forgiven. Rodney's not sure the kid's even been off-world before. He wonders if he shouldn't take the lieutenant aside and give him some sage, Rodney McKay save-your-life advice since he's an old veteran.

He decides against it. It might spook the civilians riding along. Not that any of them are pilots, but they'll be in the seats, working the lifesign detectors, ready to testify the mission was conducted with full civilian oversight from start to finish. No one is going to stick Sheppard with another black mark if he and Elizabeth have their way.

The scientists are bunched together, standing a little to the side of the pilots, all of them watching and listening to Sheppard.

"We're taking six jumpers," Sheppard says. "Everyone's simmed this to death with the water canisters on the mainland. Don't make the mistake of thinking that's the same thing as a real mission. You won't have a wingman. You'll stay cloaked at all times, in radio contact with Jumper One. We will proceed through the stargate in sequence to Heka and assume grid position before flying to the target. Everyone has a co-pilot. Your co-pilot will double-check the life sign detectors before you deploy your payload. If you register anything bigger than one of those lizard-dogs, you will abort. Is that understood?"

Lorne nods, so do Palecki, Miller, Reyes, and Crown. Simpson and the rest of the scientists bob their heads as well.

"All right," Sheppard says with a sharp nod of her own. She pushes off the wall and strides toward Zelenka. Rodney trots after her after nodding to Simpson, who will be overseeing the system she and Zelenka designed while flying with Lorne. She looks nervous, which he thinks makes a lot more sense than Palecki's bounce and grin. The others scatter to their assigned jumpers.

"Zelenka!" Sheppard shouts over the clatter and ringing of the next two pallets of shells being wheeled in.

Zelenka spins in place, his hair flying up, eyeglasses glinting. The roof of the jumper bay is open to add some natural light and a beam of it catches on him. Rodney's stomach rolls. It looks just distinct enough to evoke a culling beam.

"What? What? We are busy here, Colonel."

"Everything ready?"

"Yes, of course, everything is ready," Zelenka snaps. His attention is already back on the Marines handling the shells. "Be careful with those, you oafs!" He mutters something about their mothers and swine in Czech, giving Rodney a warm thrill of pride. Before working with Rodney, Zelenka would never have dreamed of cursing and bossing big, tough Marines.

Sheppard stares at the shells, too. Her expression is unreadable. "Then, let's get this show on the road."

"Colonel, you must remember," Zelenka mutters, still frowning at the Marines, "you will have to hover the jumper while we secure the shells in the belly harness and connect the release-and-detonation module to the jumper's instruments. You cannot land the jumper again until you have either launched the ordnance or had it removed."

"Shove it, Zelenka," Sheppard replies, unconcerned. She touches the hull of Jumper One and it responds, the rear entrance hatch lowering.

"Hah!" Zelenka snorts. He's already waving one of the Marine teams over. "Please hover the jumper in the center of the bay for loading, Colonel."

"I've done this before," Sheppard says. She glances over her shoulder. "Coming, Rodney?"

"Yes, right behind you, let's just do this," Rodney says. He follows Sheppard in and starts a systems check as soon as the jumper goes live for Sheppard. Sheppard's calling up HUDs in a dazzling fast flicker from screen to screen, running her own personal checklist on the jumper. One thing he and Sheppard always agree on is running a flight check. Not that they always have the luxury of doing so.

"Everything good to go?" she asks without looking away from the displays.

"Yes." Rodney double-checks the hybridized bomb launch controls that are spliced into the drone firing system. "We already know this works. We tested it on the mainland."

"This isn't a test." Her voice is tense enough to make him look over at her. Admittedly, she's right. If something went wrong on the mainland, they would just drop the water-filled shell mock-ups and land. Even if the shells didn't release, the jumper could come down on them with nothing more than a wrecked belly harness. The ordnance they're going to carry through the gate is a souped-up super-napalm that will burn fiercer than white phosphorus once it's lit, and a High Explosive charge shaped to detonate and spread the payload over the greatest area possible. Rodney doesn't want to find out how good the jumper's insulation is from inside a premature blast.

"Everything checks out," he says quietly.

"Good." Sheppard taps a control. "You know, you don't need to come with me."

"Yes, I do."

"I don't need a co-pilot, not that you're much of a pilot – "

"Hey!"

A quick smile softens the dig. "Good enough, I guess. Just, this is a military operation, start to finish."

"No, it isn't, Sheppard. I'm along as Elizabeth's proxy. She authorized this."

Sheppard hums under her breath. "Okay."

The jumper slips forward out of its charging berth and to the center of the bay, hovering at the optimum height for the Marines to bolt the shells into the belly harness. Rodney activates his radio. "Radek, I want you to double-check every one of the charges on those bolts. If even one of them doesn't blow properly, the payload is going to end up scattered God knows where instead of on target."

"If you had given me two more weeks, I would have given you fire-and-forget targeting system!" Zelenka snaps back. "Mated with the jumpers' drone system instead of this – this bastardization."

"No time to waste, and no materials either, Doctor," Sheppard cuts in.

Rodney's pretty sure Zelenka mutters bullshit to that, but it isn't clear enough to call him on it.

Sheppard's on the radio to Lorne. "Major. Once the gate is dialed into Heka, I'm going to drop my jumper down to the gateroom. When your payload is secure, assume a stacked position above Jumper One and clear the bay for Jumper Three to load. Miller, Crown, you follow in the same sequence. Palecki, Reyes, you'll have to wait until the rest of us have cleared the bay before you can load. Palecki, you load out and gate through immediately. Reyes, you're the last. When you come through the gate, it will shut down. We'll remain on the Atlantis command channel unless circumstances change. Back up channel is Nine. Everyone straight?"

Five confirmations. Rodney ignores them. Why haven't they included a video feed from the belly harness? The jumper's underside is a complete blind spot. The inertial dampeners mean they can't even feel the addition of the extra weight of the shells as they are bolted into place and the wiring hooked up. "Radek? Are you done?"

"I will tell you when idiots are finished – Stop!"

"What?!"

"Do not force the bolt, fool. You're cross-threading it," Zelenka snaps at someone.

Rodney covers his eyes. "We're going to blow up. All of us. In a blaze of shame."

A grim look from Sheppard. "They're ground troops, Rodney, not flight crews. They'll learn."

"Rodney. Check system."

It all comes up green, the connections between the jumper and its added-on human armament responding to his thoughts. Sheppard glances at him. Rodney nods. "It's working, Radek."

"You may move the jumper out of the way now, Colonel," Zelenka radios.

"Walk your people to the front of the jumper so I can see you're all clear," Sheppard told him. A moment later, Zelenka and four Marines pull the half-empty pallet of shells forward of the jumper's viewport. The biggest Marine gives them a wave.

"Clear."

Sheppard rotates the jumper to face the gate when they drop through the bay to the gateroom. "Control, this is Jumper One. Dial PR3-987."

"Jumper One, this is Atlantis Control. Initiating wormhole." Chuck sounds calm as always. Rodney believes Chuck would sound calm if a platoon of Wraith charged through the gate.

"Copy that, Control."

"Wormhole open, Jumper One."

"Copy."

The lower doors to the gateroom iris open, and Sheppard settles the jumper down through them. Rodney watches the bronze walls slip by in front of the viewport until they are dropping to sit in front of the shimmering circle of the stargate.

"Major. Load up," Sheppard says.

"Copy, Jumper One."

A sharp burst of static blasts them both, making Rodney flinch and Sheppard frown. "Colonel Sheppard." Elizabeth, of course. She'd looked at the mission prospectus, complete with operation title, that Sheppard handed her, along with Rodney's estimates of how long it would take to manufacture the napalm and delivery system and sighed. "This long?" Sheppard had shrugged. "The survey we flew yesterday showed a population just under a hundred thousand. All of it engaged in either growing staples or skour. Clearing it will take repeated missions, even if they don't replant. This is the plan." She'd looked at the schedule of missions and swallowed. Rodney had been stunned too, when Sheppard showed up, telling him just how much ordnance they'd need. But Weir had swallowed hard, again, and given them the go ahead.

"Copy, Control," Sheppard replies in a monotone. "What's the word? Do we have a go?"

"Go. Cleo. Repeat, Cleopatra."

"Copy, Cleopatra," Sheppard repeats. "Jumper Two, Cleo. Check in."

"Jumper Two, copy, Cleo, clearing the bay now."

"Three, copy."

"Four, copy."

"Jumper Five, I copy." Palecki's voice cracks. Reyes follows, deep and placid. "Six, good to go."

Sheppard taps off her radio. "Fucking Cleo." Then she flashes an adrenaline-fueled grin at Rodney. "Ready?"

"Like you have to ask," he says with a snort.

When Crown reports in, Sheppard clicks her radio back on. She slips on those black aviator glasses that hide all expression so well, nods – to herself it seems – sharply. "Cloak up and follow me, kids." The jumper slides into the event horizon as if on a track. They exit into the last rays of the Hekan sun dropping, swollen and red, to the horizon. A HUD displaying their jumper as a dot above the grid representing the skour fields pops up. The deep gold light flares through it, reflecting off Sheppard's sunglasses, the glare making Rodney squint. Sheppard's already taking the jumper up, assuming the flight control overview.

"Life signs?" she asks.

Below them, there's a shimmer-shiver in the event horizon. On the HUD, another dot appears: Lorne, Simpson, and Jumper Two.
Rodney ignores it, leaving the flying to Sheppard, and calls up the jumper's life sign detector display. The village where they met the Hekans for the first time is a hotspot, too many lifesigns to count visually. The jumper cooperatively offers a count in the bottom of the display. In Ancient. Rodney scans the fields. They're empty. He locates a line of dots and correlates it: workers – women – trudging along a path between the fields, coming in from a long day in the fields.

"They're leaving the fields now."

"We want the women completely clear before we do this," Sheppard says, voice tight, face set. Rodney refrains from snarking back.

Palecki and Reyes's jumpers arrive and assume position, forming on Jumper One; Palecki as the final point of a two jumper wing trailing from the right side. Jumper Two takes a tail place, like a rudder on the formation. There's no banter on the radio.

"So, is this where we play Ride of the Valkyries?" Rodney asks. "I brought my iPod."

Sheppard flips him off.

She turns the jumper to their first target, which lies in a valley sixty kilometers from the stargate: a fourth village, not as large as the one near the stargate, but surrounded on all sides by acre upon acre of skour. The last glimmer of the sun slips under the western horizon – Rodney calls it west just because it's easier to think of it that way – as they make their first fly-over.

The fields are empty. The valley is already slipping into dusk, while the jumpers are still high enough to have some light. Rodney sucks in a deep breath as Sheppard angles the jumper down. A targeting display pops up, concentric circles narrowing to a single red dot. The jumper shifts sideways, and a second blue circle overlays the first. Sheppard fires the instant she has target lock. The drone control slaved into the release charges blows the bolts holding one of the napalm shells under the jumper's belly. The jumper angles up and away before the shell detonates, raining burning chemicals down, filling the dusk with terrible light.

Each jumper follows Sheppard, laying down napalm over their targets, working a grid pattern in turns, methodically wiping out the skour. The fires burn in great veils reaching into the darkness, curtains of flame, wavering before the wind the jumpers can't feel. Rodney gulps, glad he didn't eat earlier. He imagines being in the village and the fire raging all around him, the choking smoke and heat, ash falling, sparks...All it would take is one spark, drifting on the wind, to light the thatched roofs they'd glimpsed in the first survey.

"Do you think the villagers will go down to the river?" he asks.

Sheppard's face is unreadable. "No way to know."

Unless they come back. Rodney knows now he never wants to come back and see the results of what they've done here and will do again and again.

Palecki whoops as he releases his last shell. "Like the wrath of God!" Rodney risks a glance at Sheppard, dimly lit by the HUDs, flying by instrument, and sees the muscle in her jaw twitch, the taut tendon along her neck.

"Shut up." Someone else radios. Crown, probably. Palecki is silent as they fly back to the stargate and dial Atlantis.

"Everything went all right," Rodney says.

Sheppard slips off the sunglasses that make her thoughts even more of an enigma. "Zelenka and Simpson did good work," she says finally. Nothing about the mission.

Rodney tells himself the jumpers are proof against vacuum. They're sealed.

He can't smell smoke.

~*~
"Naquadah?" Rodney looks excited.

Heavy as Teyla's own heart may be, it is a welcome expression after the one he has been wearing for the last two days. When she asked him if he was all right, he just gave her a wry smile and mumbled something about knowing ‘how Oppenheimer felt.' Teyla decided not to ask who that was just then, and also mentally ruled out asking Colonel Sheppard, whose manner for the same period had been carefully careless.

"That's what Sergeant Stackhouse and his team heard, yes." There is a measure of warmth back in Elizabeth's eyes. "His team came back from M1K-439 with a name and a gate address of the place rumored to sell the raw material."

The colonel sounds lazy and amiable, just like she looks, slouching comfortably in a chair that shouldn't allow that at all. "I'm always up for a little scavenger hunt." She looks from Elizabeth to Rodney and asks, "But do we still need to poke around the galaxy for naquadah on mere rumors after we've found a ZPM?"

"Oh, come on!" Rodney crosses his arms and stares at the colonel with an expression that casts serious doubt on the recipient's intelligence. "It's not like we won't have to continue to use naquadah for all sorts of minor, portable, and – not to cry wolf, but there you go – emergency situations. Also, the ZPM is only at thirty-three point three percent capacity; the natives on Heka must have activated the forcefield around the outpost every time they approached their stupid little altar to slobber over – "

"Rodney?" Elizabeth's tone is patient enough, but Teyla knows that just one week ago she would have been content with letting Rodney ramble for a while longer. Just over a week from now, the next planned mission to Heka looms over everyone, shortening tempers.

"Right, right, long story short: We still need naquadah. The new ZPM is assigned not only to activating further research labs but also the aeroponics systems; we may very well be able to produce a surplus for trade use, or activate one of the subsidiary energy production systems, thus alleviating our energy problems for good." Triumph colors his voice, but it's the hope and joy in it that makes Teyla smile.

"It's not an unsubstantiated rumor either, John." Elizabeth looks over at her. "We already checked the database, which lists M5M-359 as an ancient – not Ancient but age-old – marketplace, so I asked Teyla if she or her people had any knowledge about a moon called Dachan."

Heads turn and Teyla inclines hers in response. Elizabeth has studied the report on the first Hermea mission diligently and begun quizzing Teyla about Pegasus folktales, trying to correlate them with information from the database. Ten thousand years is more than long enough for facts to pass into legend.

"When I was a child, one particular Harvest Celebration saw my uncle Narto light the most marvelous torches. They were no longer than a fighting stick, yet a single one of them would burn bright as a whole bonfire, and in all the colors of the rainbow." Most of the memory has faded, but when she closes her eyes, she can still see them, lined up in a half-circle, their blaze bathing the encampment in otherworldly light. "The name of the place he brought them from was Dachan."

Brought them against the clear rule not to set foot on that moon. Teyla does not recall the details of that, either, but she remembers Charin and Gerting rebuking her uncle the next day, in the presence of the whole camp, with words sharp enough to leave a faint scar in her mind.

"I learned later that it was a place of ill repute – pleasure-seeking, money-oriented, and not without dangers. Only the fortunate are regarded with respect, and only they receive anything resembling fair treatment," she finishes.

"They are slave-holders, and that does worry me." Elizabeth sounds somber again and Teyla takes note of Colonel Sheppard's narrowed eyes along with Rodney's shocked expression. Their reaction is oddly heartening, reaffirming her decision to ally herself with these people. "But Teyla said that on this moon, rich merchants alone are ensured good trading conditions."

Ronon grunts in an affirmative manner. "The more slaves you've got, the richer you are."

Elizabeth no longer reacts with surprise to Ronon's suggestions and experiences; she just nods at her. "Yes, that's how it seems to be. Ladies, gentlemen, I'm afraid you know what that means."

"Elizabeth, you can't be suggesting we go in as slave-holders!" Rodney's voice spirals higher with each word, but Sheppard frowns and stops him with a hand gesture. Rodney's mouth works soundlessly for a second then he seems to find his voice. "Wasn't once enough? Why doesn't Lorne's team get the missions to weird-ass planets with freaky rituals and, and slaves! It's unnatural that it's always us!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's stop and rewind here. Can't we just make this a recon mission, check out the lay of the land and forget about the whole slave gig for the moment? We can always jot down the address of the naquadah source and send in a team later on." There's a sharp glint in Sheppard's eyes. "Maybe one that's, I don't know, trained for that kind of crap? Or, you know, like McKay says, not us?"

Elizabeth's shoulders sag almost imperceptibly. "I wish we could, I truly do. But according to Halling, the inhabitants of the planet won't even be willing to converse with non-traders. They're strictly interested in commerce, and the level of discrimination present seems to be severe."

"As if that weren't a given," Rodney huffs. "Did anyone miss the part where they're, oh, holding slaves?" His voice is still heated, but he seems to have calmed down enough to consider the situation. "Are they violent women-haters, too? I'm rather certain I speak for the whole team when I officially refuse any more missions to planets full of rampant misogyny."

Teyla sits a little straighter and studies the table in front of her. "According to Halling, gender is not an issue on Dachan, but all the slaves wear skirts." She glances at Elizabeth, who motions for her to continue.

"Oh, you can't be serious!" Rodney actually laughs at that, out loud and with an edge of hysteria.

Teyla clears her throat. "It is a measure to distinguish them from the citizens and slave-owners."

That seems to take the wind out of Rodney's incredulity, but Sheppard leans forward and puts her hands flat on the table. "You know how I hate to be the party pooper, but going in as a slave doesn't look like the greatest idea we ever had." She looks around. "Also, just for the record, I don't exactly love the idea of prancing around an alien planet in a hoop skirt. Next you're going to tell me they all wear high heels or something?" She holds her hands up in exasperation. "Still a guy underneath, in case you've forgotten…which is easy enough, obviously, for some."

Rodney seems a little startled at that, blinks once. "How, uh, would you know?"

Sheppard looks at Rodney. "Sergeant Graham's kept calling me 'Ma'am' since we came back, no matter how often I tell her to stick with the good old 'sir'."

"Sergeant Graham's female." Elizabeth sounds mildly surprised.

"And your point would be...?" Sheppard drawls, but before Elizabeth can respond, Teyla decides Elizabeth will certainly not object to getting back on topic.

"If I may –" She lets her voice ring out over the table, for once pleased with its timbre and depth; it resounds nicely in the conference room. "There is still plenty to decide upon, including the mission in and of itself."

"So, we take a team of marines as back-up and they can pretend to be slaves for once," Rodney suggests. "Problem solved."

"Oh, the marines would like that," Sheppard murmurs.

"Fine, some of the science team can sacrifice their dignity. Who cares?"

Ronon shrugs. "I'll wear a skirt. No big deal. Long as I can run and fight in it."

Much as she hates the very idea of a planet…. Teyla sighs. "I am also prepared to masquerade as a slave."

"Yes, yes, deeply touching, but what's two slaves on a planet where they’re the status symbol of choice?" Rodney lifts his chin. "I still see no way around a bunch of soldiers helping us out."

"I agree." Teyla hears herself say, and with a straight face, too. "We must all sacrifice for the greater good, at times. I'm sure Corporal Parkhurst would…volunteer."

Sheppard sighs. "I'm serious, five marines in skirts? Recipe for disaster, both off-world and in Atlantis."

"How about your airmen?" Ronon tilts her head, dreadlocks cascading down one bare shoulder; yes, one glance over at Rodney confirms that he is watching with avid interest. "Air Force seems more relaxed. You, Lorne, Reyes. The new boy, Palecki, too – seemed eager enough."

"You're suggesting I drag my second-in-command to an alien planet in a collar and on a leash, Ronon?" Sheppard looks scornful. "Or Palecki? He's so green he glows in the dark. As for the rest of my precious few airmen: they're part of the military contingent on Atlantis and have to work with marines day after day. I won't take any of them."

Elizabeth leans forward over the table. "I'm forced to agree. But two free persons mean two slave-owners with only one slave each, which results in low standing again, and I cannot believe I'm following their perverse logic." She closes her eyes for a moment, but when she opens them again, there is no mistaking the determination in them. "We need a third one. That leaves you, John…or you, Rodney." She gives the latter a pointed look.

"What?" Rodney gapes. "Elizabeth, no, please, I won't ever –"

Elizabeth cuts him off. "But we all know how good Rodney is at self-control and dissimulation." Her voice is cool, but she offers a small, commiserating smile to Rodney.

Sheppard slumps back in her seat. There might be a soft groan from her, but Teyla can't be sure.

The only thing she knows she hears is Rodney snickering softly before saying, "It's only proper that a man of my standing have three slaves."

"You really are pretty loathsome sometimes, McKay." Sheppard glares at him with narrowed eyes.

"What's that you're always saying, Colonel? When life hands you lemons....?"

Sheppard leans over and whispers something into Rodney's ear. Teyla doesn't catch it, but it must be creative and possibly filthy: Ronon coughs out loud, and Rodney's mouth falls open while his entire face turns red. Sheppard sits back and smiles sweetly at Elizabeth, who just shakes her head.

When she clears her throat, they turn to her like children reprimanded. Sometimes, Teyla wonders if the colonel and Dr. McKay will ever manage to express their affection for one another in way less reminiscent of the tearing of hair and pulling of skirt hems.

Speaking of. "You need not worry about the skirts, Colonel, Ronon. My people will be happy to provide you with suitable garments."

When Sheppard opens her mouth, Teyla is already nodding soothingly. "And yes, they won't specifically know who needs the garments. If you just give me your measurements, I –" she swallows, briefly, "it will be taken care of."

Ronon just nods easily, but when she glances over, Sheppard is still watching her intently.

Perhaps that's why Teyla stands up and leaves a little quicker than usual when Elizabeth closes the pre-mission conference. Colonel Sheppard is already at the door to her quarters when she reaches them, however, leaning against the wall. "Here I am."

"I can see that, Colonel."

"Okay, never mind that." She looks down, then glances at Teyla without fully lifting her head again. "What's wrong, Teyla?"

She looks to the side, waits for a long moment, but Sheppard doesn't leave, doesn't even move. "They would not speak to me."

"Who?" Then, realization on Sheppard's face, harsh lines crinkling the skin around her mouth. "Oh, damn. I'm sorry, Teyla." Sheppard runs her hand through her hair. "So that's why Elizabeth asked me to send Lorne to the mainland." The look on her face is one Teyla hasn't seen very often. She seems torn between saying something and stepping closer; Teyla hopes, fervently, that the colonel not do that, not now, not later. She doesn't want to deal with the physiological reactions of this body to the colonel's proximity in addition to its effect on how her people think of her.

It's hard enough to remember Halling's look of shock. The disgust on Toren's face. The way Gereya stepped between her and the path into the main camp and sneered, much as she had so many years ago. All of them, looking at her like she was less than them. Other.

Teyla doesn't want to remember any of that.

Somehow, Sheppard reads that from her face, and steps away from the wall with a nod and a casual, "See you later."

Teyla nods back gratefully and escapes into her quarters.

~*~
McKay clomps around the lockers about the time Sheppard's trying to figure out how to fasten her Athosian skirt. He's already in his gear – bastard – and watches her with bright eyes, obviously amused by her struggles. Sheppard glares briefly as Rodney sits down on the bench.

"So, Colonel, after Lorne was so kind as to list the different kinds of slaves – according to Halling and how does he know all about Dachan anyway? – what's it gonna be? I really liked the one with the –"

"For Christ sake, keep your little fantasies to yourself," Sheppard drawls. Is there is any – seriously, any – filter between McKay's mighty brain and that also-pretty-mighty mouth? McKay's face falls, but Sheppard gets it. Gets him. "I know what you were thinking, McKay."

"No, you don't."

"Princess Leia and Jabba the Hut."

"Damn, okay, yes, you do." Rodney sits back on the bench.

Ronon, obviously still struggling with the Athosian skirt, peeks her head around the rack of lockers separating the gear room into two halves. "Who?" Sheppard thinks it's completely unfair that Ronon gets to be so…suave about this whole skirt 'n’ slaves gig, taking it in stride like she takes everything in stride.

Behind the partition, Teyla's voice rings out. "Remember that series of movies they made us watch? Many times?"

"I liked the first three." Ronon sounds approving. "The older ones." Still peering around the lockers, she looks over at Sheppard, a small smile curling her lips. "That outfit, Sheppard? You'd get cold."

An exasperated huff from invisible Teyla. "Ronon, come back and stand still, or I won't ever be able to fasten this." Ronon disappears obediently. "Yes, thank you."

"I'm not going to get cold. Because. I. Am. Not. Dressing. As. A. Dancing. Girl." Sheppard shakes her head. "And you know why that is? Because I'm the damn commander of this place."

Why is that so hard for people to remember?

Also, why is this so hard to put on?

Below the hem of her top, the skirt is hanging around her hips so loosely she can see not only a wide expanse of belly but also her hipbones. A quick glance at McKay indicates he doesn't seem to mind – really, really doesn't – but Sheppard's damn sure she prefers showing just a little less midriff.

Frowning, she fiddles with the waistband until she's found a little…sling-hook-thing; pulling at it makes it tighten, draw the skirt up into her waist, and hello, yeah, that works better, snug but elastic enough. She quickly straps her sidearm to her thigh under the skirt; it's a familiar enough move, no matter the naked skin. She shifts her hips experimentally, tries a quick side-step, sliding down into the perfect firing position…and realizes why Teyla was always so damn good at fighting in her Athosian gear: The skirt's long but slit up to the waist, and in more than one spot, allowing maximum flexibility.

Also, maximum visibility up her legs. Which is an uncomfortable thought, if not as uncomfortable as the fact that she now wonders – should she have shaved everything?

Did she say that out loud?

When she looks up, McKay is clutching the edge of the bench and staring at her with the sort of attention usually reserved for fully-powered ZPMs, poisonous snakes, and chocolate cake. His gaze looks oddly blue in the glare of the overhead light, slowly sweeps up Sheppard's legs, the curve of her hips, her stomach….

It should be annoying at the very least and disturbing at worst, but she doesn't think that's what she feels. Not anywhere close to it. Reflexively, she looks away, looks down…and finds herself staring at the still unexpected swell of her chest, the way her bare shoulders and bare arms catch the light.

A choked sound bursts from McKay. "Right! You – you look all done, very nice, ready, all prepared; very girl scout, except completely adult and mature, and, by the latter, I mean in the best way –"

"McKay." It bothers her that her voice is a little scratchy. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Oh, of course, yes – your feet." McKay's voice is a little too high, his words a little too fast; the whole thing feels weird...but not weird enough to stop now.

Sheppard follows McKay's gaze to her also-bare feet peeking out from under the hem. She hesitates for a moment, but really, what's the harm? Behind the rack, Teyla is still trying to get a very amused Ronon into Athosian clothes – she can hear him mutter about a missing hook-thread, whatever that is. It doesn't look like they'll be finished any time soon. And really, she's itching to do this, has been ever since that moment in the dressing room on Hermea. Just to tease McKay a little. Payback for him snickering during the pre-mission conference.

"So. See my boots over there?" She flashes him a leisurely grin, satisfied by the fact he just nods mutely. They're cool boots, of course: black leather, knee-high, with something that works like a zipper up the back. "Why don't you do me a favor and hand 'em over?"

"Oh." For a moment, it seems like he'll laugh, maybe even sneer something to the effect of Dr. Rodney McKay being no one's maid. But then something around his mouth softens, and he stands up, grabs the boots, and comes to a halt right in front of her, hands curled tightly around the heels.

Good boy. Let's see how far she can string him along. Starting with his name....

"Rodney?" she drawls, instead of a sharp 'McKay.' She waits until their eyes meet, then smiles, honey-slow. Maybe even a little wicked. Sticks out her foot so the dress falls open to her hip on that side. "Why don't you help me put them on?"

Okay, she really didn't expect the way Rodney's eyes go huge, the way he fucking drops to his knees in front of her.

Jesus.

McKay – Rodney – unfastens the first boot, folding back the black leather, and holds it open at just the right angle for Sheppard to…take a deep breath and slip her foot inside. She can't see his face, bent down so intently, but Christ, she can feel his hand on her instep, the tips of his fingers hot and much softer than she – yeah. She watches him smooth the leather up over her calves, bites her lip when he touches her thigh...which, okay, might be the point where she should say something, stop him, because Rodney doesn't, doesn't stop but instead keeps running his hand up her leg. Sheppard is suddenly, painfully aware of how close Rodney's hand is, how close to discovering she's not wearing any underwear – and wishes she'd remembered that the only underwear left in her gear room locker were boxers that no longer fit, and that she hadn’t decided not to go all the way back to her quarters for something that did fit. Now, if Rodney just slid his hand up four more inches....

The thought does something strange to her stomach.

McKay pauses there for the fraction of a second and lifts his head a little. His eyes are unfocused; when he opens his mouth, she thinks – fears – he'll say something, spoil this, but instead, he pushes the skirt aside and just breathes in deeply.

Breathes. Her. In.

Sheppard – fuck, she can never tell anyone – sways a little, and it's suddenly one hell of an idea to lean forward, brace her hands on Rodney's shoulders. Good shoulders, she notes, absently, while Rodney's gone still, his fingers just resting on the inside of her thigh where her skin feels hot, hot, hot. She knows her breathing has quickened. She's not alone – she can feel Rodney shiver, feel the muscles shifting under the tight shirt he's wearing, and hear his breath whistle in.

When she glances down, he's staring at her; they're looking at each other yet not really looking at each other. He's not bothering to guard his face, bad at that at all times, and Sheppard feels the low burn in her belly spread upwards, radiating, and something in her chest expands in a way that makes it harder to breathe.

Rodney wants her. Wants her badly.

From her vantage point, she has a perfect view, can see how he presses his legs together, and God, she knows this, has done it, too, in the past. He must be thankful for the heavy uniform pants, but still so fucking desperate, desperate to – lean in, maybe; because if he leaned in just a little further, his nose would touch the slope of her stomach, where he could push her shirt up, press his cheek against her skin, blow into her navel, and slip his hand further up her thigh to where she's warm and getting damp –

Rodney sits back, pulls his hands down and away. He snags the other boot and, quickly, deftly, places her foot into it, pulls it up and fastens it. All business. All done. Her feet are encased in perfectly fitting boots.

He jerks to his feet, not meeting her eyes. "Uh, I'm going to the washroom before we go through –" He waves his hand toward the gateroom. He doesn't look at her when leaving – quickly, though not quickly enough to block her furtive glance down at the front of his pants:

Badly. Shouldn't that make her freak?

Sheppard leans against the lockers and closes her eyes. Just a second. Her legs still feel a little wobbly, and she doesn't need to glance down at herself to know her nipples are hard under the top. What the hell; what kind of game was she just playing? That was more than banter or even flirting. Yeah, there was the way his arm felt under hers in the hallway after the first visit to Kate, but that had been almost sweet, a mere pang. This? This damn sure affected her just as much as Rodney.

Doesn't she have enough problems already?

She's got a mission to do. Whatever just happened, it has nothing to do with the mission. It doesn't matter.

For now.

~*~
Ronon is always ready for anything when she goes through the gate. Well, almost anything.

She blinks. Half-naked boys and girls, lights that dazzle her eyes, noise from loudspeakers and far too many throats. Music and the clangor of bells competing from a dozen different booths dotting the square before the stargate. No immediate danger, though. Ronon lets her hand slide away from the butt of her pulse pistol. The place doesn't seem to be threatening. Except to their finances.

"Whoa." Sheppard next to her laughs softly. "Bells and whistles. Check it out, guys. "

"What do you think we’re doing, Colonel? Covering our eyes and peeking out from between our fingers?" Rodney scoffs, then seems distracted by a group of girls walking past them. No wonder. Ronon remembers wearing belts that were broader. "Although, uh, come to think of it, that could be quite a good idea if we want to preserve team functionality…."

"McKay." Sheppard's voice, a little rough around the edges. "Who's ogling the native girls, now?"

Teyla nods. "I, too, believe we should focus on the mission and not any of the passersby."

Fair enough. Ronon squints up instead. At the silvery outline of this moon's planet hanging in the sky above them, taking up a quarter of the indigo sky. A little lower, at massive ridges and oversize ornaments and even the walls of the houses covered in white crystals that reflect the dim sunlight, throw it back into their eyes with a thousand colorful sparks. She shadows her eyes with the back of her hand. "Not the only thing distracting, here," she says. "Everything glitters."

"Hrm." Rodney follows her line of sight. "Oh, please. Basic refraction. A high school student could explain it." He snorts. "A Canadian high school student, that is."

Sheppard glances at Rodney with an expression of mild boredom. "Change in direction of a wave due to an alteration in its velocity."

"Yes, thank you, Colonel, you just passed grade five physics. Would you like a certificate?"

"Since you're asking so nicely – yeah, Rodney, I would." Sheppard's drawl sounds lazy and amused. Ronon knows that's not all there is to it. There's a strained, almost nervous undertone to the usual Sheppard and McKay banter. She'd bet it has to do with the little exchange she and Teyla overheard in the gear room.

She looks down the strip. "Looks a bit like the Street of Joy back in Calea."

Rodney turns around and looks at her. "You had a place like this? Really?"

"Went there with my squadron." Ronon nods. "To blow off steam. You understand."

Rodney looks intrigued while Teyla frowns, obviously understanding all too well. Sheppard, though, grins, eyes going a little unfocused. "Sounds like Amsterdam."

"Yes, of course, you would have gone to Amsterdam, wouldn't you, Colonel? Why not Bangkok, too? You'd fit right in there, with the drugs and the sex and the rock 'n’ roll."

"Rodney, I'm wounded!" Sheppard turns, smiles at Rodney's slightly dour expression. "You should know there was absolutely no rock 'n’ roll involved. None."

"Amsterdam? Bangkok?" Five minutes on the planet and Teyla sounds annoyed already. It might be a new record.

"Just a couple of cities back on Earth.".

"Where you go to get laid." Rodney has pitched his voice lower, looks around as if sharing great and terrible secrets. "Cities offering Live. Adult. Entertainment."

"There's dead adult entertainment, too?" Ronon asks. And thinks there is no reason to stare at her like this. It wouldn't be the weirdest custom she's heard of from the Earthers.

She looks over to Teyla, and yes, Teyla just nods and raises an eyebrow of his own.

Rodney rolls his eyes and glances from Sheppard to her and back. "Right, fine, if the two of you are done sharing fascinating tales of gratuitous hedonism and displaying the lack of anything resembling sexual morals, can we maybe get to the mission? And oh, you, as my slaves – shouldn't you show a little more subservience?"

At that, Sheppard sticks an elbow in Rodney's ribs. Of course, the tac vest keeps it from doing much except make him grunt. There's movement at the edge of her vision and Ronon turns her head quickly. Looks at some huckster hurrying over to them – sandy hair, an oily grin. He's short and thin, though. Ronon knows she could handle him even if she were blind, bound, and drunk.

That's the main reason she doesn't hit him when the guy yells "Visitors from the ring of chance!" and grabs her own and Sheppard's hand, against surprised protests from Rodney and Teyla. Ronon hears Sheppard's sharp intake of breath. She doesn't fight him, though. Ronon follows suit. Might just be a custom here, that this man drags all female visitors forward, onto this podium.

"Hey!" Sheppard mutters, jerks her hand away. "I'm not that kind of girl."

Ronon determinedly frees her own hand, too. Gives the peddler a glare. He just grins at her, however, and turns toward the crowd with a flourishing gesture of his hand. "Who will pay for the chance to dial and walk through to where these beauties came from! Just twenty reans to play!"

"Stargate roulette?" Rodney's gasp is audible; he must have followed them instantly. "What could entice anyone to do risk their life like that?"

"Ronon and Colonel Sheppard, if I am not mistaken." Teyla's voice is dry as they both step closer, onto the platform. Probably just in time to witness the hustler lean forward to stare at her and Sheppard speculatively. "So, listen," says the hustler, "there's this bar a street from here, I know the bartender, he can –"

"Hey! Hands off the merchandise!" Rodney. Of course.

"You the owner?" The guy gives Rodney a measuring look.

"Yes!" Rodney looks a little angry. And a little proud. "They're mine!"

"I see." The peddler glances back at the two of them. Ronon bares her teeth, just for him. He quickly looks back to Rodney. "I can get you a really good price for both of them, all three of them, down at Letty's Love Shack."

"Excuse me?" Rodney sounds dumbfounded.

"For a cut of the price, mind you. I could –"

"I will not be sold," Teyla barks. Ronon nods at that. Good point to make. Even for a slave.

Especially for a slave.

Sheppard leans forward. She speaks into Rodney's ear, but Ronon is always listening to Sheppard. "If you sell me into prostitution, Elizabeth will have your balls."

"…not even for a really good price?"

"Not even for a ZPM."

"You have absolutely no sense of self-sacrifice, Colonel."

"Both of you have no sense of the proper time and place," Teyla says, low and deep, close to a growl.

Sheppard and McKay look a little sheepish. Stepping down, they all ignore the huckster's continuing offers. Each is more colorful than the last. Ronon is sure even Solen would not know all the activities proposed. She feels an odd pang at the thought of Solen. Maybe she'll return to Berkan after this whole thing is over. Go and find the three hundred, too. While she's at it.

"Okay, guys, we're doing it like this." Once they're out of sight of the stargate, Sheppard turns, nods at each of them. Ronon can't help but notice that the Athosian skirt outlines her slender frame to its best effect, showing off the muscle tone of her arms and legs. She stands straight, too, feet firmly on the ground. Her head is unbowed. Only a fool would believe she's a slave.

No matter the skirt.

"We check out the place, ask around for naquadah but keep a low profile. Not gonna start a rev– anything here, got it?"

They all nod quickly. Even Rodney. Who then frowns and looks up and down the strip. "So how do we find the marketplace?"

"Follow the crowd," Ronon suggests. Judging by the position of the sun, even if it is dim and small by normal standards – Rodney said something about Dachan circling a gas giant orbiting farther from its sun than most human-habitable planets – it's still before noon. Most people will approach a place of trading in the morning, not leave it.

"And follow our ears, too." Teyla inclines her head in the direction of a junction. This Street of Joy intersects with another large avenue there.

Sheppard nods. "Sounds good, both of you. Rodney? You walk in front of us – but listen to what I tell you, okay?"

"Sure, sure." Rodney's mouth dips down in one corner. Ronon guesses he had imagined there was more to being a slave master.

They pass what looks like a running track and pause as the crowd around it screams and shouts, urging on the leggy, long-eared gray creatures racing around in pursuit of a lure. They're fast. Ronon wouldn't want to be chased by a pack of them. They yelp as they run and the sound blends with the high voices of the crowd. Bets are being laid all the way up to the finish of the race.

Past the track, they linger before a guessing game. Sheppard stands hipshot, arms folded, and answers each of the mathematical questions without effort, ruining the game for everyone else until the gamemaster gives them such an evil eye that Ronon and Teyla both tug at her arms to move on. Rodney rolls his eyes and mutters, "Show off," but his voice cracks and he's flushed. Sheppard's pouting too much to notice.

"We should concentrate on reaching the marketplace," Teyla snaps.

"Hey, who's master here?" Rodney asks. Unwisely, if the thunderous expression on Teyla's face is any indication. Ronon glances around, hoping to distract them all before Teyla gets any more irritated.

"Look."

They all stop, turn toward the booth Ronon is pointing at. Sheppard runs her fingers through her hair. "Just another dexterity game, Ronon."

She keeps looking at her. Sheppard's eyes widen. "Wait, you really wanna play this?"

"Come and do play!" The huckster has paid attention. Of course. "Sir, you, sir! Come and play, first game free, you or your slave, or, of course, all of them – have them play against each other for a little prize, or just favorable standing in their master's eyes!"

Sheppard remains calm but twists her mouth at that. Teyla's face hardens. Only Rodney looks almost charmed. Ronon bites down on the grin. Instead she turns to him, making sure the gesture is slow, exaggerated. "May I, master? To please you?"

It's interesting, the way Rodney's throat works when he swallows excitedly. "I, uh. Please. Yes. Um. Go!"

The huckster chuckles. "Come here, then, pretty thing." He points at the targets, silhouettes of Wraith, with open gaping mouths and stretched out hands sketched on the wooden surface. "You gotta hit this. Red areas get you 96 points, yellow 58, green 3."

He shoves a basket over the counter at Ronon. Picks up one of the objects in it to show her. It's a small ball wrapped in leather. The remarkable thing about it is the blades sticking out of it; sharp, gleaming in the sunlight. There are grooves between the blades, meant for fingers, a bare area to accommodate a palm. Ronon carefully chooses a ball that fits her hand and weighs it thoughtfully. There's a weight in the center, but it feels balanced so the game isn't fixed.

It feels warm in her hand; alive. For a heartbeat she looks at the four blades, at their curvature.

Ronon glances back at the target again, until red is all she sees in her mind's eye. Then, and only then, she throws it. The rest follow in rapid succession. Thwap, thwap, thwap. Thwap. Thwap. Each of the balls has pierced a red area, and three are dead center of the target.

Into the wide-eyed face of the huckster, Ronon says, "Hand over the prize money."

She holds out her hand…and receives a cascade of copper coins. The huckster is already calling to everyone watching, "Look at that, it's easy, folks! Come one, come all, try your hand and win! Win big!"

The team strolls away. Ronon ducks her head to peer at them. "Thought we could use some local coin."

"Well, sure." Sheppard's voice is satisfyingly stunned. "Just, why didn't you mention you'd played this before?"

"Because I hadn't." Ronon shrugs.

Rodney stares at her with something like awe. "Wow. You really are something."

Ronon quirks an eyebrow at him. "Just noticing that now, McKay?" Which makes Rodney swallow hard again and look away. Ronon can't stop herself from adding, "Remember, we're not for sale."

"That wasn't my fault!"

Time to take pity on him. Ronon gives Rodney a nod and says, "I'm hungry. Food?"

They buy skewers of meat and vegetables roasted over a brazier and drizzled with a peppery-sweet sauce from a street stall as they reach the marketplace, then tall paper cones of iced rapa juice to drink with it as they wander among the stalls filling the vast square. They find rugs and meat animals, textiles, fresh fruit and vegetables, sack upon sack of seed grain and tava beans, stalls with flowers, candles, shoes, knives, pots, glassware, casks of something Rodney calls black powder and backs away from, barrels of petroleum oil, dried medicinal plants – Ronon remembers some of them from Sateda; there are even ingots of various ores, lead, iron, copper, trinium – vats of dried clays, even trinkets and bits of higher technology. Ronon spots a charge converter for a pulse pistol like hers among bowl of jewelry, but no sign of the pistol it once powered.

No naquadah, no material with an energy signature, and no one with a clue as to what they're talking about when they ask around – even when they let McKay ask around. Doesn't matter whether he's polite or pompous, open or secretive, as secretive as he gets: Nothing.

McKay is visibly disappointed and annoyed as they start back toward the stargate late in the afternoon. The gas giant overhead is obscuring half the sky, silver and blue and green, but nothing like the blues and greens of a livable planet. Sheppard stops once to stare up at it, at two white circles moving across its face, passing over an oblate green area. Rodney stops too, following her gaze to the sky. His mouth opens on a soundless exclamation.

"Wow," Sheppard murmurs, "now that's a storm."

Teyla looks up. "Like the storm that nearly destroyed Atlantis?"

Rodney shakes his head. "More like one that could destroy an entire planet. Those are moons moving in front of it." All the annoyance has leached from his voice, replaced by awe.

"Hey, outta the way, yokels," someone says, pushing past them and Rodney's stomach growls, reminding them where they are. The sun is under the horizon and street lights are being lit.

"Well, that was a successful day of getting nothing at all done." Sheppard rubs her forehead for a moment. "Still early enough that we don't have to gate to Atlantis just yet, right?"

Teyla nods, then shakes his head. "This is true, Colonel, but are you sure we should not head back as soon as possible?"

"Just a little longer." Ronon looks at Teyla, who rolls his eyes but doesn't say anything. Really, slaves or no slaves, this planet is amusing.

They haven't had enough of that lately.

~*~
The city is alight, glittering as much as it did during the day, maybe more. The large avenues are lined with rainbow-colored street lights, the smaller alleys and roads lit by torches – green, red, gold, silver. Ronon remarks how nice they are, only to get a snort and a hand-wave from Rodney. Simple effect, with just the right chemical additive, she learns in way too much detail.

"I agree with Ronon, though." McKay lifts his chin and looks around, eyes sparkling like the big blue crystals in one of the market stalls earlier. "Why go home just yet? This place may be a little – okay, very – tawdry and severely lacking in taste, but I haven't seen any sign of violence or abuse so far. Everybody seems happy and well-fed." He pats his belly. "Except me."

Sheppard rolls her shoulders. "So, we've seen the outdoor part of this funfair. How about we take a look inside, feed McKay before he collapses from manly starvation?" She jerks her thumb at the nearest building, huge letters above it flashing in colors brighter than bright even in competition with the street lights. Ronon can't read this language, though, which bothers her. Again.

After strolling inside, the team stops on the thick, gold-shimmering carpet of the entrance hall. Its threads are long enough they would tickle Ronon's ankles, if she weren't wearing boots. The rest of the interior is all red silk and crystal bead curtains. Incense smoke dances on invisible air currents. Half-naked servers hurry forth and back, carrying golden trays with high cups. The cups are made of sparkling crystal. Of course. Everything here sparkles or glows or is mirrored.

"You all know the drill: what happens on pleasure planets stays on pleasure planets."

"How many times have you been run out of Vegas for counting cards, Colonel?" Rodney huffs.

Sheppard grins.

Her expression grows more serious with each half-naked serving girl who passes by, though. Closer and closer. To Teyla: Winking at him. Smiling. More than one of them brushing him.

"Teyla?" Sheppard asks.

"Yes, I am...fine," he says, but he sounds strained.

"You sure?"

Teyla pushes another girl away, his hand slipping on the silky, semi-transparent fabric of her skirt. Slipping and lingering, if Ronon isn't mistaken. Then Teyla snatches his hand away, looking at it in horror.

Ronon knows it's not polite, but a quick check below the belt proves it. Teyla does have hormones, and they're working fine. As is the new equipment.

Ronon tilts her head, steps a foot or so closer to Teyla. The next girl sidles up, eyes big and adoring and…right. Just as she thought: drugged to the gills. Ronon hisses at her – a low, reverberating sound that resounds nicely in the foyer. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Rodney jump and a few servers turn and stare. Still, it works wonders on the girl who had her eyes set on Teyla.

"Hey," Rodney says, without feeling, to her retreating backside. "She was hot."

"Teyla?" Ronon asks. "You're –"

"Yes," he hisses in an undertone, clearly not wanting to talk about it, then frowns and adds helplessly, "This is very uncomfortable."

"Yeah, we get that," Sheppard says sympathetically.

"Very funny," Rodney mutters. "Not all of us think with our –"

"Don't. Say. It."

Ronon's attention is drawn elsewhere. For variation, the scantily-clad person in a skirt approaching them is a guy. He's tall and slender, with gold-tinted skin and long, dark hair in one single braid down his back. He bows and nods briefly to Rodney. "Welcome to the Palace of Leisure, sir!" He's got a tray of drinks and, after a quick head-bob from Rodney, offers them around. "Compliments of the house." Ronon takes note of how the guy lets his eyes wander up and down Sheppard's figure. How he stands a little closer to her than to the rest of the team. How he lets his fingers brush against hers when he hands her a glass. Smitten.

Ronon understands.

Sheppard blinks, clearly nonplussed. When she catches Ronon's gaze, Ronon gives her a meaningful eyebrow. Sheppard's flickers after the serving guy, and her eyes widen in realization. Her cheeks color a little, and she gulps down the drink.

Both Ronon and Rodney start at that. "Wait,” Rodney exclaims, "don't drink that!" Too late.

Sheppard licks her lips, wide-eyed. There's a tiny droplet of liquid in the corner of her mouth, and a defensive note to her voice. "What, you think they'd poison paying customers?"

"We're not paying yet," Rodney says darkly.

And Teyla nods grimly. "In this place? Yes."

"Not about to pay for that." Ronon wrinkles her nose at the sweet, bubbling stuff in the glass. "I'd have a beer, though."

Ouch. Teyla's elbows are larger now, but just as sharp somehow. "Colonel, how are you feeling?"

Sheppard frowns, then clenches and unclenches her hands experimentally. "Fine. Sorta refreshed, actually. Relaxed; I mean, this is clearly alcoholic."

They all stare at the empty glass in her hands. Sheppard glances around, then just puts it down on the edge of a potted plant before hooking her thumbs in the waistband of the dress. "Oh, come on, guys, don't look at me like I just downed a cup of hemlock! Just, make sure I don't start singing. Already had to confiscate one tape." She tilts her head. "So, what do you say we belly up to the bar?"

Ronon raises an eyebrow. Relaxed is one way to put it; Sheppard isn't usually this careless. After some murmurs, especially from Teyla and Rodney, they do head for the bar. She resolves not to touch whatever is in those free drinks. Ronon glances at the coins in her hand. She’s already calculated how much they spent for food; the rest should be enough for drinks and another meal. "Four beers. Please."

The barkeep stares at her for a moment, then his gaze flickers to the side. To Rodney, who is rolling his eyes when he says, "Yes, yes, she has my most noble permission to buy us drinks" and, under his breath, "God, I never thought this would so be tedious."

Sheppard ends up on the barstool to Ronon's left, with Rodney and then Teyla after that. The team hasn't sat down for more than three heartbeats when they draw closer: Girls, boys, skirted but otherwise half-naked, and hairless, as far as Ronon can see, which is pretty much everything. Like this whole place, they are glittering. Their skin is covered in something that shimmers even in the blue haze. A boy with near-white hair and eyes like teca sidles up to Ronon. His pupils are huge, distorted, oddly empty. In a flash of memory, Ronon thinks of a popular play on Sateda, one based on an old myth of the Wraith-possessed, beautiful but deadly, sucking the life out of you during sex. Ronon fights down a shiver and looks away from the boy.

Even though he is two seats away, she can hear Rodney mumble something about goddamn come-hither eyes and pouting lips. He does sound a little choked, though, when the girl does something with her hand that Ronon can't see. Not that she's paying attention to Rodney; he's just in her line of vision. It's Sheppard she's watching. Sheppard, who is fending off another boy, the second one since they sat down.

"Christ." Sheppard whispers, to no one in particular, and props her head onto her hands, elbows on the bar. "This must be what a piece of sugar on an anthill feels like."

Rodney's reaction is immediate, gleeful. "So you're telling us this isn't a completely normal experience for you, Colonel?"

"Fuck you, McKay." It’s said with a smile, and the slightest trace of a slur. Sheppard grabs the glass, tips her head back, and empties its contents into her mouth. Ronon is vaguely alarmed, but Sheppard is already leaning away from her, her shoulders almost bumping McKay's. "Not gonna get me to put muffins on my head, McKay."

"You mean buns."

Sometimes, Ronon doesn't even want to know their cultural references. She leans back as far as the stool allows, balancing it on two legs with ease. Ready for yet another commiserative look sharing bemusement about the Earthers, she glances over at Teyla.

And freezes.

Teyla has turned on his chair, back to the bar, ramrod straight and stiff as a board. He is hissing, shaking his head at a brunette girl. Who is just dropping to her knees, pushing up Teyla's skirt, and bending her head forward. Her mouth is open, her lips look wet.

Then, there is a flurry of movement, a scream. Teyla must have given the girl a shove, pushed her back far too hard: The girl is sliding across the polished stone floor from the force of Teyla's thrust.

Startled, the girl begins to cry in earnest. It draws two big, bigger than Ronon used to be, bouncers over. The anger bleeds out of Teyla's face, leaving only regret and shock. He steps forward, bends down to the girl, stretches out a hand to help her up, but she screams again, higher than before, and scrambles backward on the floor. The right-hand bouncer opens his mouth. "Hands off her, slave!" His warning roar blends with the fading cry of the girl. It's a harmony – disharmony – Ronon hasn't heard in a long time. She feels her muscles tense all over.

Teyla retreats one step, but not further. He draws himself up to his full height, barely reaching up to the bouncer’s sternum. "I merely wanted to help!"

"Help?" The second bouncer laughs. It's an unpleasant sound. Almost as unpleasant as his hand on the old-fashioned gun on his belt. It is well-oiled. "After you hurt her, yeah. That's gonna cost you, boy."

Ronon must have moved, though she didn't think about it. Because suddenly, she’s staring at the bouncer's face right in front of her own. "Leave him alone."

The slick sound of a firing pin drawing back somewhere to the side, where the other bouncer stands. It makes Ronon's fingers twitch. Her pulse pistol is concealed. She thinks she won't be able to keep it that way. At the far end of the room, more men in the same skirted uniform come out from behind heavy curtains. The one in front of her narrows his eyes. "Another uppity slave. What's your problem?"

Ronon jerks her head toward the girl, who has stood up and is bracing herself against a golden column. "She needs to learn to take no for an answer."

"Who asked you?" A sneer, resentment underneath.

The second bouncer approaches, circling them. And yes, his hand on the butt of his weapon. "Your owner not keeping you reined in?"

"Oh, for Christ's sake – stop, stop!" Rodney's voice, fast and loud and annoyed; there is very little fear in it, Ronon notes. Feels her respect grow yet again.

The bouncers – these two, and three more – turn toward Rodney and take their hands off the weapons immediately. Instead, they hold them loosely in front of their bodies, fingers spread, palms outward.

"Yes, sir." The belligerence is fading from their faces. Or maybe not fading as much as retreating. Into hiding.

Rodney glowers at the men, then points at Teyla. "He is on duty."

Then, he points at Ronon. "She? She is, too. Warriors...warriors turned body-guards, I mean, of course; they're here only to protect me and make sure nothing happens out there in the streets where God-knows-what might happen to a wealthy, upstanding, well-traveled businessman such as myself! Do you really think they need any of your, uhm, girls?" He folds his arms and looks superior.

"Sir, if I may," one of the newcomers steps forward, "You came for your pleasure, of course – but surely a well-pleased slave is a good slave, and well worth the mite."

Ronon realizes she's made a mistake. This man is not a bouncer, even though the colors he wears imitate the ones on the uniform. He holds himself with a different kind of poise. Not a fighter but a hawker, like the ones outside. If one clothed in far more expensive fabrics.

"The Palace of Pleasure prides itself on a wide array of services rendered. I am sure we can come to an arrangement that finds your satisfaction as well as that of your body-guard slaves. They seem, how shall I put this, rather in need of some loving care, sir."

Rodney lifts his chin. "Yes, of course, that's very nice of you, and don't think for a second I don't appreciate the offer; only we aren't here for...uh, that. We're just stopping by for a drink, a little refreshment."

The man's smile deepens. Ronon doesn't like it. "Beg your pardon, sir. It just seems such a curious coincidence, then, that you have made your way here, and not into the tavern to our right or the inn to our left."

On the bouncers' faces, Ronon can see the faint shadows of smiles. Disdainful ones. She can't even blame them.

Rodney's face reddens a little, but he stands his ground. "Oh, no, wait – you're not seriously trying to tell me you know what I think and want better than I do myself." This arrogance, Ronon thinks, must be something Rodney has honed to a fine point during his years of studies. Or possibly during his dealings with the military. One needs a strong ego for either.

"Never would I dare suggest a thing like that, sir." The man touches his left knee to the ground, briefly. His eyes don't leave Rodney's, though. "What I would suggest, though, sir, is a new offer, for both you and yours here."

"Offer?" Rodney's eyes narrow. Suspicious. Good.

"Why, yes." The man nods at Teyla. "We noticed this slave was uncomfortable with the attention of our lovely ladies."

Rodney blinks. "Yes, well, how astonishingly perceptive of you. Could you perhaps phrase your offer a little more clearly?"

"Of course, sir." Smoother than karan oil on a hot slate roof, this man. "May I offer a pretty boy in their stead? We have them in all ages, colors and," his lip quirks, "sizes."

"Uh." Rodney's eyes widen, flicker over to Teyla. Whose face has darkened again; he holds still, though. For now. "No, no, no, Teyla wouldn't...like one of your boys either. Neither girls nor boys."

"I understand." Polite affirmation. "Surely you know you're absolutely secure here, sir? We can promise you our full discretion. And remind you of our wider selection of services."

"What, whips and chains and leather?" Rodney snaps. "All I want right now is a gag. And no! Not for me!"

A cough, and a nod that looks a little regretful. "Fair enough. I was still talking about your slave here, though, who seems regrettably tense." The man leans forward, drops his voice. "We have a stable. With, I assure you, very clean boxes."

"I – you know, I find that just a little dehumanizing." Rodney swallows. "I'm sure your culture makes a whole lot of sense to all of you, but me, frankly –"

"Goats." The man tilts his head. Notices Rodney's less than favorable reaction. "Sheep, then?"

"Oh my God, what sort of place is this, except maybe some sort of heaven for Carson?" Rodney's voice has gotten louder and louder. "Please, go away!" Rodney waves his hands. "Go! Aren't there other jo– customers here for you?"

The man's expression isn't friendly any more. For a moment, Ronon wonders if she will have to use her pulse pistol after all. She knows that next to her Teyla is thinking the same, has dropped into fighting stance. And where's Sheppard? But then, the man draws back, and the bouncers with him. "Very well. Suit yourself."

Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney exhale only after the men have scattered again.

That's when Ronon hears it – laughter. Soft, pleased female laughter. She couldn't ever mistake the timbre, the melody of this voice.

"Sheppard," Rodney whispers, the color draining from his face.

All three of them turn as one. Turn and look over to the bar, where Sheppard is still sitting, if not alone. And not really sitting. Draped, Ronon thinks, over a man. Not one of the hairless, glistening boys with their empty eyes. A man, tall and fair-haired, with broad shoulders. He's not wearing the skirt of a slave. Talking, smirking at Sheppard. And she – she is staring into his eyes, a soft smile around her lips. Her face is very close to his, tilted up, just so.

Ronon feels something fierce uncoil in her belly.

"Oh God." Rodney sounds choked. "She really, really needs a leash." Then he shivers. Ronon stores that information away for later.

Teyla's voice is quiet but hard. "I believe you should refrain from speaking in such a way about the colonel, Rodney. Much as this is distasteful, he is his own person, and does seem to be enjoying it."

Sheppard looks pleased enough, it's true. Ducking her head at something the man says to her while he's touching her hand, stroking long fingers along the inside of her wrist. Sheppard is leaning into his touch.

Sheppard didn't back them up during the confrontation. Sheppard's the only one to down one of the free drinks. Ronon may not understand how the stargates work, but she can add. "Something's wrong."

"I agree!" Rodney sounds aghast. "Ascended women, royal daughters, sure, but some blond, buff, built guy in ridiculously tight pants? She must be drunker than we thought. Or, or drugged!"

"It does seem out of character, I must agree." Teyla's lips are an unhappy line. "But if all he seems to do is amuse her with his wit, and buy her a drink –"

"Oh, for Christ's sake! Getting another drink inside her, oozing fake charm, feeling her up a little, that's just the first stage! I know the sort; clearly, he's already got some, some room rented upstairs, with golden pillows and reeking of cheap perfume," Rodney stutters out, flailing his hands and becoming progressively louder, until Ronon wonders if she needs to slap her hand over his mouth to keep from drawing the bouncers back, "and then he's going to take Sheppard there, and do – do unspeakable things to her."

The blond's hand is on Sheppard's knee. He smiles and says something, causing Sheppard to laugh. When she does, his hand slips under the split skirt and onto the bare skin of her thigh – luckily not the thigh sporting a holster and pistol. Or maybe unluckily. Sheppard looks down at the hand on her thigh, seems about to object, then gives a dazed sigh when the man strokes his hand higher.

Ronon's control snaps. "No, he won't." She starts forward, but then feels sharp fingers dig into the tender spot halfway down the inside of her elbow. The flicker of pain is surprisingly sharp. Ronon looks down into Teyla's dark eyes.

"Don't, Ronon." He shakes his head slowly. "Rodney, too – let us not cause another scene. Already, we have not made friends here. They are watching us. I fear more commotion will be dangerous."

"Right, right, you're right." There is a fine sheen of moisture on Rodney's face. "So, we'll use our brains instead of brute strength; fine, I should probably admit that suits me better. Teyla, you stand guard. Ronon? You go distract the guy while I try to get Sheppard out of there."

"You want me to distract him?"

"Yes, hello; only girl left here, remember?" Rodney gestures wildly. "Or do you want the colonel sleeping with him? Because that's where this is going."

Ronon turns, listens as hard she can. Looks at Sheppard's lips, trying to read them. Good thing she learned their English. The mind-translations of the Ring of the Ancestors are of no help.

What is Sheppard saying – slurred, but still audible? "Hey...I like you, I really like you. But...I'm with my people, y'know?"

"Oh, don't worry about it." The guy, louder. Ronon catches his words. "Didn't look like anyone was with you."

Sheppard laughs, slowly, throatily. Ronon swallows. "They're here. Just…busy."

"They're fools." Softer, but the determination in the man's voice carries. "I'm happy to spend time with you."

Ronon sees how he smiles, lifts his hand from her leg to gently touch her hand again. How he strokes his fingers up her arm, slow and measured. Seductive. And Sheppard – Sheppard almost seems to purr. Ronon flashes on something. How many people touch Sheppard? Except in the gym, training with Teyla, does anyone touch him? The Earthers are all that way, never stepping within each other's personal space unless it's an emergency and then apologizing afterward. Even on Sateda, even in the barracks after she was drafted, people touched and found comfort.

"Ronon!" Rodney's voice in her ear, agitated beyond belief. "He's touching her! Do something!"

Ronon bites her lip, hard. The outside pain is meaningless; it's the inside that matters. Rodney's words on the heels of her thought would be amusing, if she wasn't feeling something too much like hurt, watching Sheppard let a stranger touch her. "I'll go and talk to him."

"Yes, yes, do that." Rodney puts an impatient hand on her arm – hot fingers, slightly damp. "Do it now."

Ronon makes her way over to the bar again. Almost without thinking, she relaxes the muscles of her lower back, her belly, lets her hips move gently with each step she takes. She's done this once, trying out this way she's seen women walk, on the way back to the jumper on Hermea. She's also teased Rodney. So easy, and so satisfying, too. No sense in lying to herself: She likes the way Rodney looks at her when she does it.

Maybe. Just maybe, this won't be too hard.

"Hey."

The guy startles, turns to her. Up close, his eyes are pale, like washed-out fabric. Not at all like Rodney's eyes – their color reminds her of the Ring of the Ancestors. Same deep, vibrant blue.

"Yes?" He blinks, confused. "Can I help you?"

"I think so." Ronon leans forward. She is careful not to break eye contact.

"Uh." The man's eyes widen. But he doesn't look away. "Right. Have we met? Here?"

Behind him, Sheppard looks baffled and a little hurt.

Ronon hasn't spent all this time watching her for nothing.

Her eyes still on the man, she licks her lips – touches the tip of her tongue to her bottom lip, quickly, before closing her mouth again. Lets her eyes flutter closed. Dips her chin down.

Smiles.

When she looks up again, lazily, from under raised eyebrows, the guy is staring at her, open-mouthed. Good. The next move is not from Sheppard. The next move is from experience.

Ronon leans forward, slowly. Crosses her arms below her chest. Pushes a little. Maybe there's even a little wiggle.

Behind the man, Rodney has snuck closer, bends forward to whisper in Sheppard's ear. His head disappears behind Sheppard's cheek, so Ronon can't read his lips, can only hear fragments: "…he's no good."

At the sound of another man's voice, the guy seems to want to turn. Ronon acts. She stretches out her hand and traces one long finger up his bare arm. It draws a small gasp from him, and he turns fully toward her. There's something in his eyes that Ronon finds…almost intriguing. When he bends toward her, she captures the back of his neck with a slow, gentle hand. Ronon leans close, lets her lips almost, almost brush the outer shell of his ear. "Listen. I leave, my team leaves. And if you make as much as one move before we're out?" She waits a moment, lets it to sink in. "Then you'll be the first one to die."

When she eases off the stool in one fluid movement, she doesn't need to look at him to know he's frozen on the spot and that he will be as long as necessary.

Rodney, on the other side of the bar, grabs Sheppard’s arm and tries to pull her away. "Come on, come on!"

"We…were…jus' talking." Sheppard's voice is blurred, a soft, confused whine. "Wait." She blinks up at Rodney, seems to struggle with keeping her eyes open. "Whoa...wow. Rodney?"

Rodney jumps forward when she sways, stumbles forward. He has broad hands, Ronon notes, and while the muscles in his shoulders strain, he still catches Sheppard, steadies her with a gentleness that's new. New and foreign from a man who has in him so little patience for others. Sheppard slumps against Rodney gratefully, then starts petting his arm. "Nice."

Rodney, who is stabilizing her with a hand on her hip, holding her up by the arm, looks – stunned. With a frown, he takes hold of her jaw and lifts it, checking out her eyes. Even in the low light, it's clear: They're dilated, wide like the eyes of the girls and boys they saw earlier.

Sheppard is scarily pliant in Rodney's hands. She smiles at Rodney in an unfocused way. It's still a radiant smile.

Rodney gasps, "Oh, my God, you are so drugged!"

"Aw, Rooodney." Sheppard giggles. "Am not." She plasters herself against him; full-body contact. It's unsettling to watch Sheppard without any of the normal reserve.

Rodney seems to think the same. He swallows rapidly, and half-heartedly tries to keep her from nuzzling his neck. "We have to get back through the gate."

Ronon tilts her head. "Need help?"

She doesn't really wait for an answer, just steps forward and lifts Sheppard into her arms, against her small sound of dismay. Sheppard first frowns, then blinks up at her...and cuddles herself against Ronon's body.

Somewhere to the side, Rodney groans audibly. He catches himself, though. "Okay, okay, that's – just, let's go. Out of here!"

They make their way out of the complex; across the carpet, out, just out. Rodney is by her side; angry, worried, impatient. And always close by.

Not that she can bring herself to care. Because Sheppard is winding her arms around Ronon's neck. Rubbing her nose against the tattoo on her neck. Ronon shivers, feels sharp heat race through her body.

Then Sheppard licks the tattoo. Lets the tip of her tongue trace its outline. Even that isn't what undoes Ronon.

That happens when Sheppard mumbles into her neck: "Y'know, I've wondered what it tastes like."

Ronon almost stumbles. Catches herself only at the last minute, keeps walking. It doesn't help that Sheppard – Sheppard is trying to wiggle a hand up under Ronon's top. And she can't do much about it, not when she’s carrying Sheppard with both hands. So if Sheppard gets a handful – yeah. Sheppard's hands, restless fingers on Ronon's breast that make her heart race fast and faster. Ronon's almost frightened by her body's reaction. Seven years on the run without many urges at all, just taking care of things. But Sheppard's hands and tongue are so much better than her own fingers. And having another person she respects and cherishes and – Ronon's head swims a little when she thinks how good they might be when Sheppard is sober and focused.

~*~
"Oh, no, this is a nightmare." Rodney groans. They are standing in front of the stargate. Or, as they are told by yet another yelling huckster, The Magnificent Ring of Chance.

Where they have to pay to dial their way back home to Atlantis.

Teyla looks annoyed yet unshaken. "My people's prohibition makes more and more sense."

"What do you mean?" Rodney whips his head around, his eyes narrow. Stormy.

"There are those who demand tribute for using the stargate." Teyla looks at Rodney. "The people on Kertan, for example, or the Cleos' Alliance."

Rodney grinds his teeth. "Yes, all very evil and extortionate, but can we get back to Atlantis before the colonel starts stripping? Pay, if we have to!"

Ronon looks down and sees Sheppard twist her mouth. A secret little smile. Ronon swallows and tells Rodney, "Money's in my vest pocket."

"So?" Rodney's eyes widen, then. "You mean, I? Oh. Okay." Gingerly, he steps closer to fish it out and inadvertently bumps against Sheppard, who lets out a soft little gasp. Rodney – it's not a coincidence, how he brushes his fingers over Sheppard's. She smiles at that, sweet and sleepy, and tangles her fingers with his. Looking down, Ronon cannot miss the way Sheppard looks at McKay. Really looks at him. Her mutter is silent-soft, almost inaudible. "Sometimes, I just watch your hands…."

No one could miss it. Rodney is bewildered. Pleased. Frightfully excited. Still, Rodney's not head scientist because he's easily distracted. "Atlantis. We've got to get back to Atlantis."

He gets help from Teyla. "Yes, by all means, let us not linger here." Taking the money from his hands, Teyla tightens his mouth, walks over, pays, and dials the gate.

Sheppard has her eyes closed, is mumbling nonsense. But below the shirt Ronon's wearing, her hand is tracing glyphs on Ronon's breast, along the sensitive underside. Ronon feels each letter as if it were burned into her skin. She's been familiar with the gate glyphs all her life, after all. It's the Atlantis address.

When the event horizon flares up, smooth like water, beckoning like the sea, when Sheppard whispers softly into her neck, "Let's go home," Ronon doesn't think of Sateda.

~*~
Rodney would like to know why – why – all their missions go wrong one way or the other. He's heard Sheppard mutter about no plan surviving the battle, but isn't this getting to be statistically ridiculous? He'd like to address this with Elizabeth, perhaps. Or hack into her files and see if she isn't loading the dice, sending them on all the missions guaranteed to explode in their faces. Maybe it's paranoia…or maybe she secretly has it in for them.

Rodney doesn't wait for Ronon to move. He grabs Ronon's free arm and drags her and Sheppard through the event horizon, while Teyla follows behind. One step through, into the gateroom, and before Elizabeth has even had a chance to speak, Rodney starts yelling. Ronon lets Sheppard down until she's tottering on her own feet again, but keeps one arm around her.

"Where's Carson? We need a medical team down here right now! Is it possible to get one of our highly trained medical personnel in the gateroom sometime before hell freezes over?"

"Rodney, what's wrong with – " Elizabeth is coming down the stairs and takes in the team, "Colonel Sheppard?"

"Drugged," Ronon tells her laconically.

Rodney nods and steps into place to help support Sheppard, who is sliding bonelessly out of Ronon's hold. Her hands latch onto Rodney's arms and she blinks at him from eyes dilated black. God, how much of whatever drug they were spiking the drinks with did she get? It could be an atypical reaction. Sheppard sometimes has odd drug reactions – Rodney hacked Carson's files and knows – something to do with the ATA gene. What if whatever drug it is works like GHB? Rodney's worries start to increase at a logarithmic rate. Sheppard is – Sheppard is entirely too important him.

"Carson!" he shouts and Sheppard shakes and leans into him. Ronon still has an arm around her and that ends up pressed against Rodney too. He can see the worry in Ronon's eyes, too. Ronon's got the whole military-warrior thing going with Sheppard, not that it's hero worship, and the friendship thing, but what Rodney sees isn't that – it's the same emotions he feels: worry and...love.

"Drugged?" Elizabeth echoes Ronon.

"Courtesy of the Date Rape Planet," Rodney snaps.

"What –?"

"Nothing happened, Dr. Weir," Teyla assures her.

"Well, it could have," Rodney insists.

Carson arrives about the time Sheppard slurs, "Wow, my fingers are numb." He reaches for Sheppard's arm and Ronon steps between them.

"Out of the way, lass," Carson says and Rodney is about to add his two cents, when Ronon speaks. "Biro."

"What?"

"Sheppard would want Biro," Ronon insists and Rodney gets it. Biro's been doing all of Sheppard's post-mission exams since Hermea. Ronon remembered.

Carson looks at Sheppard. "Drugged, you say?"

"Yes," Rodney replies.

"Well, you've got her this far, may as well wait until we're in the infirmary to do anything," Carson says philosophically. "Colonel? How are you feeling?"

Sheppard shakes her head, obviously trying to clear it, and nearly falls. "Woozy. Was good before. Sort of sick now."

"Let's get you on a gurney and we'll get some blood samples," Carson says. The rest of the medical team is waiting. "You'll all need exams anyway. None of the rest of you ingested the drug?"

"Probably not," Ronon answers.

"Come along then."

Sheppard clutches Rodney's hand even after they have her on the gurney. Rodney doesn't try to pull free. Ronon walks right behind him, while Teyla squeezes in on the other side of the gurney. Carson doesn't even bother telling them to stay out of the way.

~*~
Sheppard has a headache and the vague recall of a mortifying trip back to the stargate in...Ronon's arms? She's lying in the infirmary; it's probably not a good sign that she knows every spot on the close-to-pristine ceiling. There's an IV in her arm, leading up to a mostly empty bag. She knows the whole thing well enough to identify it as primarily fluids and nothing esoteric, which is a relief.

Turning her head to the other side, she can see Rodney in the chair next to her bed – asleep, and in a posture that will have him complaining about a crick in his neck later, no doubt. He has his laptop clutched against him with one hand, the hard drive still whirring softly, but his other hand is on her bed, curled into a fold of the blanket covering her.

I told him I watched his hands. Sheppard swallows. That wasn't good, that wasn't something you said to a teammate. She has a sinking feeling she said other things, too. A knot forms in her stomach. Between that and the scene in the gear room? Rodney knows now. A little more filters back. What was that guy's name? Lasparn? Sheppard squeezes her eyes shut for a second. Not going to think about the fact Lasparn was a guy, not going to think about almost letting him.... Not thinking about that. Rodney's different, in good and bad ways. She blinks her eyes open again and looks at him. Long eyelashes and a wide mouth, softened in sleep, broad shoulders and nice forearms and yes, right, hands. Nice hands. He'd be strong, she thinks, and damn if that doesn't send a sliver of awareness through her.

Looking up, she sees Ronon leaning against the wall without any care for her surroundings. She doesn't talk, but her eyes are on Sheppard, soft, relieved. Watchful.

Sheppard wants to say something – anything – but then stops herself, allows herself to lean back into the pillows. When Ronon meets her gaze, she has to look away from her eyes. Ronon's right leg is slightly bent, balancing, her shoulders and head back against the wall. Her throat is a long line of golden-brown skin, and she's still wearing the Athosian skirt and top, her midriff bare; Sheppard can see the soft curve of her stomach, easily imagine the play of muscles beneath. The shirt isn't one of the shapeless things Ronon so often seemed to end up in but one of the Athosian lace-up tops. Sheppard has a sudden flash of working her hand up under that top. Under the tight lacing.... She snaps her head back and blinks at the ceiling. Jesus. What the hell was in that drink? What else did she do?

The rest of it comes back in a humiliating rush. She licked Ronon.

When she forces her gaze away from the ceiling, Ronon's still watching. The expression in her eyes is reassuring, not disgusted, not angry, and some of Sheppard's apprehension slips away.

She can't help staring when Ronon twists her body a little, switches legs, and the neck tattoo flashes. Ronon gives her a look that would light a match without touching. Touching is definitely what Sheppard wants to do with her.

Christ, she's a slut. Rodney is right, after all.

Sheppard sighs, sorely tempted to just take this whole bundle of revelations and lock it away tightly; possibly throw away the key. The only problem is that this method, tried and tested, doesn't seem to be working any longer.

It's always been an iron-clad rule: teammates are strictly off-limits. There'd been a little buzz with Teyla once, but she'd ruthlessly locked it away, along with any other impulses. It wasn't working anymore. She'd been too close to these people, this team, for too long, and she couldn't detach herself the way she always had before. But before, she was – he was – the commander of this expedition, this place, and as much as he felt the weight of Atlantis, it also settled him down. Grounded him. Since Hermea, though, she hasn't been able to find her footing. To be thrown into this body – no, okay, to choose it for her team's sake – that had been the first step. Since then, she's been off-balance, too busy figuring out who she was now to spend the energy to hide anything from herself.

Maybe that's what Completion is? Not really about fancy technology, not even about walking a mile in somebody else's high-heeled shoes, but about you, about who you really are? What you want?

Not that she's going to do anything about that.

"Oh, God, you're awake." Rodney stirs next to her, blinking rapidly, his mouth awake before the rest has moved further than an inch. "We were worried sick; how could you be so stupid as to drink that – that concotion, which could have been anything, any sort of deadly poison, not just one that makes you jump the nearest...person in the vicinity, and –"

"Rodney." Sheppard tilts her head at him, licks her lower lip, shuddering suddenly at the memory of Lasparn's hand on her thigh. She tries to sound nonchalant. "I'm glad we made it out, too."

From the wall, Ronon snorts.

"Um, well." Rodney closes his laptop, steps away from the bed. "Biro said she'd examine you again once you came around, but the blood tests came back for something a lot like GHB; you can go once you come up clean."

That makes Sheppard a little nauseous. GHB? "That's the date rape drug?" she croaks.

Rodney points at her. "Exactly."

"Oh crap."

"Anyway, I can't believe you were letting that gigolo chat you up and, I might add, feel you up –"

Sheppard prays for Biro to show up soon. She doesn't want to talk about this, think about this, or relive it. Underneath everything else, the memory of being drugged and out of control scares the hell out of her.

"– which we didn't really mention during the little preliminary debriefing with Elizabeth, although you'll be the one to type the mission report and deal with this, shall we say, tit-bit of information –"

Tit-bit? Sheppard narrows her eyes. Could Rodney maybe be a little more crass if he tried?

"Frankly, I'm looking forward to you explaining why you had that drink in the first place."

Sheppard isn't. She's going to have to write up an After Action Report that doesn't make her look criminally stupid. Maybe, if she's lucky, Biro will humanely put her out of her misery.

She doesn't, though; when Biro bustles in, she warns Rodney off with barely a glare and begins to check Sheppard's vitals. Her frown grows smaller and smaller with every read-out. Eventually, she pats Sheppard on the shoulder and says, "You had a close call, but you're fine."

"Well, I had these guys along to protect my virtue," she tries to joke, but it's a little too close to the truth, and it comes out half-hearted.

Biro barks out a laugh. "I'd imagine. Now, do you remember much after you were drugged?"

Sheppard winces a little. "Enough."

"Interesting." Biro peers at the charts again, jots down a note. "Most central nervous system depressants interfere with memory."

"I should be so lucky," Sheppard mutters, mostly to herself, because, well, she liked denial. Really, much more comforting than self-awareness.

Biro looks up at that. "Why's that, Colonel?"

Sheppard chews her lower lip for a moment. Here goes all or nothing "I was saying stuff...." She breaks off, can't quite bring herself to look at Rodney and Ronon, who have both gone still, attentive. Easier to look at Biro, whose pencil is hovering over her notebook. "It was a little like truth serum." Saying that, knowing both Rodney and Ronon are listening, feels like going into freefall.

Biro's eyes behind the glasses are keen. "I'd love to have a sample to analyze. But from what your team said when they brought you in, that place is not safe, despite its amusement value."

Got it in one.

"Well, Colonel, you may return to your quarters now. Get some rest, drink some fluids."

Rodney pipes up. "So, is she all right?"

"Yes, yes, get out of here before you catch something from someone who is genuinely sick."

"No after-effects?" Ronon's voice, questioning.

Biro gives both of them a long look. "The blood tests are clear."

Sheppard rolls her shoulders. "So, I'm out of here?"

"Yes, what did I just say? Go." Biro's tone is chiding; it reminds Sheppard of his favorite middle school teacher. "Out. Take them with you."

So maybe she's just had a little run-in with a roofie; her hearing isn't impaired in the least. Rodney's murmuring, "Come on, come on, I can feel the bacteria trying to colonize me...." Sheppard scoots out of the bed, pulling the damn skirt around her legs. "Shut up, Rodney, let's go. Carson never lets me out this fast."

Ronon pushes herself away from the wall in one graceful movement and stands close enough to catch her if necessary, but right now that's not much of a comfort to Sheppard.

Sheppard scowls at her.

Rodney's right at her other side. She glares at him too.

When she turns back for a second, Biro jerks her head at Rodney and Ronon. "One of you, stick around, make sure she doesn't keel over. Get her some food."

"What?" Rodney narrows his eyes. "You think we couldn't figure that out on our own?"

God, Biro rolls her eyes in reaction. "Both of you – you're going to dog the colonel anyway, so you may as well do something useful."

When Sheppard turns around, Ronon is smiling a little. "Okay."

"We'll take good care of her," Rodney promises. His hand brushes her arm. Sheppard stares at it and shivers. Oh, shit, those hands.... The knot in her stomach is back.

And if Rodney and Ronon stick around, Sheppard's not quite sure what will happen – if it'll tie itself tighter and tighter, or if she'll just let go, can the bullshit.

And admit it.

~*~