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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.

~*~




Chapter Text

After a brief, but satisfying detour to the mess hall, Rodney finds himself heading for Sheppard's quarters with her and Ronon.

Sheppard looks none too cheerful at being hounded by two of her team members, if Rodney interprets the evil eye she keeps giving them correctly, but it isn't like she says anything, or does anything about it other than shoot them dirty looks. Fine, okay, maybe the truth is that Rodney isn't quite ready to let her go now. He likes the more open Sheppard that has been showing since Hermea. If he and Ronon leave her alone, by morning they'll have the old Sheppard back: full of cool smiles and easy slouches and everything real locked up behind the mask again.

Rodney was inordinately fond of the glimpses of her new self.

"I never got my beer," Ronon complains as they leave the mess hall.

"Pause while we all weep for you," Rodney says sourly. "You're probably lucky you didn't, considering what happened to the colonel."

"Thanks, McKay," Sheppard comments.

Ronon comes to a standstill in the corridor and gives herself a little shake, like a dog throwing off water, like maybe that possibility just hit her and she needs to erase the implications from her mind. "I need a drink," she adds, as Rodney and Sheppard both pause and turn back toward her.

"Sorry, I haven't got anything in my quarters." Sheppard looks relieved. "You'll have to get it somewhere else."

"I've got gera."

"Where did you get that?" Rodney can't help demanding. The stuff is already immensely valuable on the internal Atlantis blackmarket. No one's quite sure how Cadman managed to smuggle six bottles of the blue liquor back from P6X-669, but there are rumors some people have even traded coffee for it. Sure, it turns your tongue purple and makes your skin tingle and even sometimes causes a rash but it never seems to give you more than a happy, relaxed little buzz. No matter how much you drink, there won't be a headache, memory loss, or any outrageous behaviour –well, maybe some outrageous behavior, depending on the person, since it's a disinhibitor. Maybe because he didn't manage to try his fair share of intoxicants on the mission, maybe because he's only wheedled one shot of it out of Carson before, Rodney decides he wants a drink, too. "Never mind, we can stop and get it."

"Hey – !"

Rodney and Ronon ignore Sheppard's protest, sweeping her along with them to Ronon's spartan room and on to her own quarters.

"Do I at least get a shot?" Sheppard complains once they're inside and Ronon is pouring for herself and Rodney.

"No, you idiot, you were just drugged, remember?" Rodney tells her.

The gera is just as good as he'd remembers and muscles he didn't even know were tense begin relaxing. He wouldn't mind having a bottle of it in his own quarters.

"What did you have to pay for it?" he asks Ronon.

Ronon's mouth curls up. "Barter, McKay."

Rodney glares while Ronon strolls over to Sheppard's bed and then drops onto it in a limp sprawl. "All right, what did you have to barter for it? Remember, I've had that witch in my head. I know how she operates."

"Not telling."

"Not telling? What is this, grade three?"

Ronon raises an inquistive eyebrow, prompting Sheppard to chuckle and Rodney to wave his hands in frustration. Half his best sarcasm slides right off Ronon because she doesn't get the cultural references. It's as frustrating as Zelenka's little asides in Czech. He might go on insisting Ronon tell how Cadman gave up the bottle of gera, but notices Sheppard slumping down onto her bed. Sheppard leans, but she seldom slumps and Rodney decides it was more important to get her to relax, too.

Rodney wishes, fleetingly, they'd had gera and only that on Dachan – it wouldn't have prevented Sheppard from being approached by some pretty-faced native, but then again, nothing ever has or will; at least then, Sheppard wouldn't have reacted with more than a big smile and a coy little head-dip.

At least Rodney is pretty sure she wouldn't have followed through on anything.

Rodney fetches Sheppard a glass of water, remembering Biro's injunction to keep up her fluids, then sits down at Sheppard's desk chair, and they all drink in the suddenly uncomfortable silence.

Ronon's sprawled on her stomach, feet in the air, chin supported on her crossed arms, in a position that only needs a phone glued to one ear and a copy of Tiger Beat before her to be perfect. It's frankly very disturbing for Rodney, since he can remember his sister Jeannie in just that pose.

Or, well, it would be disturbing, if he wasn't currently fascinated by Sheppard's feet -Sheppard's long, narrow, bare feet – currently freed of the boots that still make Rodney swallow hard every time he thinks of putting them on her – and the glimpses of leg offered by the split skirt.

The split skirt she still hasn't replaced with pants.

His fingers tingle, which might be the gera, or might be the memory of touching those legs.

Sheppard's sitting cross-legged on the bed next to Ronon, and when she stretches to pick up the glass of water from the night stand, her nipples press against the fabric of her Athosian shirt.

"This mission blew," she comments morosely. Morosely, but then, she isn't touching the liquor and therefore doesn't get to experience the mildly euphoric effects Carson's testing had proclaimed were perfectly safe for general consumption.

"Could've been worse," Ronon observes, rolling onto her back and pointing her breasts at the ceiling. "We got you before anything happened."

Sheppard sends another quick, narrow-eyed glare her way, and Rodney wonders whether or not this is the point where he has to stop avoiding the evidence and start considering that Sheppard wasn't quite so averse to seeing some action of the bow-chicka-bow-wow variety.

Also, he has to consider that the others are way ahead of him. When Sheppard takes a gulp of water like a shot of whiskey, Rodney watches her throat work, but he certainly isn't the only one. Ronon is watching too and calmly proceeds to run one hand up Sheppard's calf to her knee, light enough not to make her shift, hard enough to bunch up the fabric of the skirt.

Way ahead.

Sheppard looks down at Ronon's hand, at her own bare leg – shockingly delicate yet lined with muscles Rodney suspects he doesn't even have – and her eyes go wide. When she turns her head slowly to stare at the other woman, her mouth opening just a little, it's already too late for Rodney to even pretend not to be affected by this, not to be affected far too much. Ronon stares back and leaves her hand in place.

He jumps out of his chair, almost stumbling over his feet. "You know, maybe I better go back to my quarters," he manages to choke out.

"Wait." Sheppard's head jerks up, and she catches Rodney's eyes. There's a command in there, but it's mostly a question. Rodney has the sinking feeling if he does wait, he's going to end up answering the question, and he's still not certain Sheppard really wants the answer.

"Come on, Sheppard. Let's have some fun with it," Ronon says, but her voice is soft and oddly young.

Sheppard looks down for a moment, long lashes shadowing her eyes, teeth worrying her lower lip; even if her expression wasn't partially obscured by strands of feathery hair that Rodney just knows would be unbearably soft under his fingers, he'd know she was freaking out and ready to throw them both out of her quarters, maybe even sock Ronon -

"Okay."

Oh. Right, maybe he wouldn't have known. Ronon, however, smiles at that, feline and with a satisfied glint in her eyes.

"But only if Rodney…joins the fun."

What?

Rodney can't believe his ears, mostly because it's a really cheesy line, but also because – Ronon. And him. And Sheppard. He gapes.

Sheppard.

"Relax, McKay." A slow, soft drawl, each syllable sending shivers down Rodney's spine, and that's just – please, as if Sheppard were even half as relaxed as she acts right now. Whereas Rodney isn't relaxed, hasn't been relaxed since Dachan; and okay, maybe he was for about five minutes, but not anymore. Right this instant, he's harder than tempered steel. It's no secret, either, the state he's in, but judging from the way Sheppard's eyes have dropped from his face, past his chest, past his stomach, it's entirely welcome, and really, that thought alone –

A quick glance at Ronon garners no objections. She's eyeing him speculatively under the curves of those - now finely-drawn - eyebrows, that little smirk playing at the corners of her lips again.

Back to Sheppard, who is shivering lightly under Ronon's less-than-shy touches but still hasn't taken her eyes off him, who is making Rodney feel hot and cold and everything in between. Before he fully realizes it, he's approaching the bed again, hesitating only when he's close enough to touch…either of them.

Of course Sheppard has to make a flip remark. "You have done this with a woman before, right?"

"So funny," Rodney huffs, inexplicably short of breath, "especially as what comes to mind is whether you've done this with a man?"

A smile, lazy and dirty as anything and oh, God. "Rodney. I'm just asking."

Ronon smiles at that and shifts a little on the narrow bed, top riding up even further, showing a toned but gently rounded stomach. Doesn't move that hand from Sheppard's knee, though; in fact, the hand slips a bit further up her thigh – long, beautiful fingers on smooth skin that looks even paler by contrast.

I touched that, too, Rodney thinks, feeling perhaps a little dizzy. And she let me.

Sheppard's eyes have darkened, or maybe it's the fact that Ronon has extinguished the overhead light by leaning over and…stroking over the not-quite-switch in a gesture that makes Rodney's head spin and blood rush downwards.

He's not just imagining the spark – the heat in Sheppard's gaze, beneath the playfulness – and neither is he imagining the arm she's holding out to him slowly, so slowly.

Rodney takes a deep breath. Lets his hands brush against Sheppard's, feels a shock of pleasure, as if touched by a live wire. Sheppard's fingers tremble, too, before she locks eyes with Rodney again, before her fingers snap closed around his wrist, and he finds himself jerked toward the bed in a sharp, hungry motion that makes him stumble, then half-land on Sheppard; it's only due to his presence of mind that he manages to catch his fall but he ends up half-draped over a slim, supple body.

His face is very close to Sheppard's; she smiles up at him with heavy-lidded eyes. Rodney stares at the gentle sweep of her lashes for a moment before being terribly, irrevocably distracted by her lips, lips that open just a little and curve into a smile he's never seen before.

"Hey there."

Soft voice, the drawl like warm honey, and Rodney can't resist, can't wait another second, needs to know. He's on his hands and knees, awkward on a bed not meant for two, let alone three people, but when he lowers his head and brushes his mouth against Sheppard's cheek, the world shifts out of focus until all he can feel is soft skin. His eyes fall shut because sight doesn't matter; he knows these features, has memorized every inch of them.

Rodney's memory is flawless.

He follows the angles and planes of her face without fail, starts at the point close to her temple where the twin spots of blush appear when she's excited, then traces the exquisite slope of her cheek, finally reaches the slight dip at the lower corner of her mouth, right where that irritating smirk lives. Rodney hovers for a heartbeat, then touches his tongue to the spot, relishes the gasp, loud and thrilling in his ears. When he closes the distance, Sheppard's lips open under his, instantly and so eagerly that Rodney has to hold his own breath, so turned on he's afraid this will be over before it's even begun.

For a moment, there's nothing but the cloyed sticky-sweetness of the gera he's been drinking on Rodney's tongue, but then, underneath, he can make out Sheppard, the taste that Rodney has only dared to catalogue at the edge of his subconscious, darker and more heady than any liquor. What gets Rodney – gets him even harder and already a little frantic – is Sheppard's hitched breath, the rolling wave of realization that she's trying to stifle the sounds she wants to make.

Their tongues meet, slow, wet, with the flicker of a teasing touch. It figures that Sheppard kisses lazily, with no apparent hurry on the surface but the low hum of tension beneath, breathless and a little giddy, or maybe that's just him. Rodney draws back just a little, lets the tip of his tongue dance over that lush lower lip, eliciting another soft moan, the brush of warm fingers scrabbling for purchase on his upper arm; it's shocking how hot this small gesture is – Rodney can feel Sheppard's hand settling on his biceps, curling half-around it as if it were stroking him far, far lower.

Reflexively, he opens his eyes, stares down at Sheppard whose eyes are squeezed shut, lashes fluttering irregularly. She's breathing hard, and now that she is touching him, gripping him with surprising, exciting strength, he can feel the galvanic little shivers that run through her body. The slowly spreading flush on her face makes his heart stutter, then race, but he finds he doesn't care about minor cardiovascular occurrences when she finally blinks – once, twice – and meets his eyes. She stares at him with something that's both terrifying and terrific, needy in a way that makes his breath catch and he has to concentrate to not lose it right there. Yes, yes, only physical, the mere response of a female body waking up and making its demands, but Rodney thinks this is deeper than that, means more, is more than two bodies because it is Sheppard and him and that? That is powerful, all-encompassing and such a fucking rush.

Sheppard draws back…and there might be a little panic hidden behind the bravado, Rodney realizes. She's breathing faster, her eyes wider than wide; it hits Rodney that not all of it necessarily stems from arousal. Sheppard may have decided to do this, but even Rodney feels off-balance, untethered, and he's been thinking about this for a while now. God, wait, what if she's still affected by the drug – just because Biro gave Sheppard the all-clear hardly means she's completely free of mind-altering substances; Biro and Carson and their bone-rattler colleagues can't possibly know everything there is about psychotropic substances circulating in another galaxy, for Christ's sake.

When he hesitates, Sheppard takes the lead again. She kisses him, fast, a harsh press of her lips to his, then lets her mouth slide down his jawline: just the tiniest hint of teeth scraping against stubbled skin, against his earlobe. Rodney shivers, feels his cock twitch in response. "It's okay," Sheppard breathes into his ear, "I just didn't realize it was going to be this fucking intense."

It's a first, but Rodney doesn't even think, just reacts; lowers himself and presses his full length against Sheppard's body, fitting so perfectly between her legs it draws a gasp from both of them, then adding a little twist with his hips. Sheppard groans from the back of her throat, arches into him so that they're touching everywhere, arms and legs and bellies, uniform-clad cock against the soft heat between Sheppard's legs, and Jesus, he really has to get rid of his pants.

"Rodney…."

He's never loved the sound of his own name more than in this moment. Lifting himself up on his arms again – wow, these push-ups they peer-pressured him into doing are really coming in handy now – there's a movement in the corner of his eyes, and, perhaps a bit belatedly, he realizes that oh, right, they aren't alone. Body still thrumming, the lower half of it still deliciously tight against Sheppard's, he turns his head to blink, probably rather stupidly, at Ronon…who has scooted up on the bed, staring at not just Sheppard, but both of them, with quiet intensity and something Rodney cannot properly catalogue.

When their eyes meet, the look fades away; Ronon shrugs in a rolling movement that highlights her bare shoulders and, casually, says, "You two are busy. I'm hungry. I'll be back later."

Rodney hears the soft rustle of the sheets when she slides off the bed, and – a moment later – the gentle whoosh of the door closing. He would stop and think about this, really, he would, but, God, he has to look back at Sheppard, gorgeous and near-glowing beneath him. For a moment, her gaze flickers to the door, and there's a pensive expression in her eyes, but then she turns back to him, and oh, there it is again, the half-smirk he likes despite himself.

"Rodney?" Sheppard runs her palms up and down Rodney's arms, hot through the fabric and down, hotter on bare skin, skating over his forearms, seeming to map the muscles beneath his skin, stirring and smoothing the hairs there, so that a full body shudder runs through him. Her hands come back up and find the zipper at his throat, opening it without hesitation. "Lose the shirt."

Bossy, but he knew that, appreciates it very much, even; also, the pleased shock of Sheppard wants to see me naked is enough to drown out anything else. There's a bit of an awkward shuffle on the bed – Rodney is so going to construct something larger, although this is probably a one-time drunken thing. Except, Sheppard's had nothing to drink, he remembers. He shouldn't start thinking about bed schematics yet, that's the point, but he eventually manages to kneel, and Sheppard slides backward and props herself up against the headboard.

Then, there's a flurry of movement and Sheppard's half-laugh in his ears as, in the hurry to tear the shirt off, his head gets almost-stuck, but then it's gone, and the crooked smile on her face is prize enough – or that's what he thinks until she touches him again, these hands slowly sliding over his skin, one hand twisting around his upper arm again, the other gripping his shoulder with enough pressure to make him shiver a little in delight.

"Can I – " Rodney makes a vague motion towards her shirt, wonders if he is now allowed to stop trying to tear his eyes away from the hard outline of her nipples.

"God. Yes." There's a somewhat shaky quality to her voice, and Rodney finds it's emboldening enough for him to sit back on her legs – careful not to let all of his weight settle on her; she's strong enough that it wouldn't be a problem if he did, but it's just not the polite thing to do – and maybe push a tiny bit against her, which earns him another gasp and a momentarily unfocused look. His fingers start on the buttons, and though he's feeling feverish, his fingers are sure, steady. After a questioning look and the definite nod from Sheppard, he keeps popping them, down, down, down –

Sheppard's watching his hands, her smile widening steadily, her breath catching and this time Rodney gets that she's impatient. The tension he can feel in her is from holding back when she's used to taking the lead and instead letting Rodney guide what they're doing. "Faster," she breathes and he gets with the program, popping another button open, revealing the hollow of her neck, pale skin and, yes, there they are, softly rounded and the colour of cream, with brown nipples that beg for attention. Rodney's occasionally good about giving just that, and before he even has the shirt unbuttoned all the way down, he's leaned forward and licked the right one, a broad sweep of his tongue over the tip.

"Oh, fuck." Sheppard rocks forward, an instant, unconscious motion; and Rodney only has to hold out his hand to cup her other breast. "That's – do it again."

No reason, absolutely no reason to resist, so Rodney slides down and closes his mouth around her nipple again, lips capturing it just so, tongue lightly scraping the underside, which makes it perk up even further.While his right hand has managed to open all the remaining buttons and fumbles with getting the shirt off Sheppard, his left hand isn't idle; it slips inside and gives the soft curve beneath a gentle squeeze, thumb rubbing over the nipple, in a small but perfect circle.

Sheppard moans, louder now, her hands digging into his skin, sliding down his arms, stroking and touching, which feels hungry and utterly fantastic, running down his sides, over his chest. And when her fingers reach around and follow the line of his spine, making him shiver, he can't help it; he lets his hand slide around her slim hips, too, settle in the small of her back, and sharply draw her up against him so they are flush, chest-to-chest, belly to belly.

It's – he's panting, he realizes, because this is incredibly good, so much skin, Sheppard's warmth and scent against him, and her little gasps, the way her arms tighten around him are enough of an answer, even before she drops her head to his shoulder and fucking bites him – lightly, yes, just the teasing scrape of teeth on sweat-slicked skin, but oh, God, it's making him want to push her down this very instant, and push himself into her. He can't, off the top of his head, remember if he's ever been so hard before.

Sheppard's – he's not sure if she's trying to buck him off her or just stronger and more enthusiastic than any partner he's had before – she's moving under him, biting him again, harder this time, rocking and twisting against him, pushing him faster than he'd anticipated this going. Not that he's objecting, not in the least, though he would never have guessed that a contest to see who could stay in the lead would make his heart pound harder.

His helpless groan sounds loud even to his own ears, but Sheppard doesn't mind – Rodney can feel her smile against his collarbone, and yes, of course, it would be like this between them. He draws back a little, not without staring at her, drinking in her features, the picture she makes, sleek muscles and gentle curves and a face that even transformed is still as familiar as his own reflection – more so. Beautiful to him, flushed and dark-eyed, urging him on.

Rodney scoots down, quick, breathless, his fingers finding the hem of her skirt and shoving it up, up to fully expose her legs; he can feel his mouth go dry when he catches the glimpse of more and more skin, almost at the juncture of her legs –

"Rodney – "

Rodney forces himself to let his hand still, come to rest on the smooth slope of her thigh, panting as he drags his gaze upwards again. Stopping – stopping is nearly impossible when he's this aroused, but he's still sane enough to realize she could really hurt him if he doesn't. And Sheppard's gone still and tense in a way that isn't answering arousal. There's something almost invisible but still – tight in Sheppard's face, the lines around her eyes suddenly more prominent.

"Just for your information, I'm –" At that, Sheppard ducks her head a little, looking to the side, at the wall. "It's just that in this body – c'mon, don't make me say it."

"What?"

Rodney knows he sounds befuddled, which he hates, but he doesn't have an inkling of what Sheppard means, exactly; the list of responses new and foreign to her must be long, near-endless – the feeling of being wet, not hard, aroused in a completely different way and in different places, aching not to fill but to be filled, and there are probably hormones that do other, emotional things to her, stuff he cannot begin to fathom – and, God, he's too hard to think or empathize or anything but want. His entire body feels like it's quivering, aching, so ready he's starting to hurt –

"Geez. Virgin here, Rodney."

And that, that's just too much; the image of being Sheppard's first, too overwhelming. He's been teetering at the edge too long and that idea – that pushes him over.

His orgasm is a white-hot blast, flooding his body right down to his toes, the tip of his fingers, compelling and merciless and rushing him along, the jerks and spurts of his cock against the inside seam of his jeans and the sharp, brittle frisson of no-no-no only adding to the sensation, sensation that sweeps him away, into mindless relief.

Coming back to himself, his first thought isn't eloquent or intelligent but entirely understandable considering the circumstances.

Fuck.

He's almost afraid to open his eyes. Right, yes, way to make a fool of himself, to make sure this won't ever happen again between them because Sheppard –

Sheppard is looking at him with an expression strangely similar to awe, wonder and, still, lust. "Did you just..?"

Rodney bites his lip, but he has too little energy right now to start debating, or even explaining; the dark spot in the front of his pants speaks for itself.

"Yeah."

"Whoa."

It's – humbling, and that's not a concept Rodney is intimately familiar with, but Sheppard's eyes, the way they shine, are enough to dispel the looming clouds of fear and loathing. Even the spark of amusement doesn't hurt because it's devoid of mockery and full of something that makes Rodney's chest feel constricted.

"Never had that happen before. That's – kind of flattering. Kinky and possessive, but flattering." Sheppard raises her eyebrow and, with an unmistakable touch of merriment in her voice, adds: "Might make a girl suspicious."

Rodney feels a hot blush begin to spread on his face, but Sheppard lifts her hand, touches it to his cheek, in a shockingly gentle gesture.

"Just, it's a one time thing."

"It is?" Rodney knows he sounds disappointed, even though he told himself it might be just this night, just Sheppard deciding to experiment.

Sheppard's eyes narrow and she slaps him playfully. "The virgin thing, genius."

Rodney couldn't voice his emotions right then, with this burst of feelings inside that have little to do with having just climaxed. He's a scientist though, he remembers the results of earlier experiments, so he simply leans forward and captures Sheppard's mouth with his own.

She responds without hesitation – with a smile if he knows her – and tilts her head just right, her tongue soft and hot and tangling with his, and he can feel her hand settling in the nape of his neck, fingers splayed as if to anchor him right there. Her breath is coming faster again; he still tingles at every small, almost-quiet sound she breathes into his mouth when they're kissing.

With more than just a touch of impatience, Sheppard's slim fingers take hold of his hand and guide it back to her chest again. Oh, please, as if he needed further incentives to do that; cupping and stroking and letting the rough pad of his thumb drag hard over the nipple so the response is a sharp exhalation, all of it is rapidly becoming one of his favourite activities ever.

Of course, Rodney is not about endless repetition but new discoveries. When Sheppard draws back only to lick a slow line down the side of his neck, he shivers only briefly; his free hand is already wandering down her body, stealthily…if not stealthily enough; Sheppard's upper thigh jerks under his hand, and for a moment, Rodney is seized with anxiety – what, okay, too fast, not welcome, should he wait, slow down? – before he realizes that Sheppard hasn't moved away but has in fact let her legs fall open.

He's paying closer attention to Sheppard now and begins reading some of the subtler cues. She wants him, but underneath the smooth skin and the easy way she's going at this, she's tense.

Rodney slides his hand up her thigh, further, until there's crisp hair under his fingers, and then – hot, soft wetness, like liquid silk under his fingertips. Sheppard's eyes open wide, beautiful and a little glazed, and Rodney lets his fingers drift downwards – lightly but with intent, which tears a short, rough gasp from Sheppard; for a nanosecond, Rodney is the one having trouble breathing.

"Keep going." Her voice is hoarse and uneven.

He's an accommodating guy in this situation – no man in two galaxies who wouldn't be, he thinks – and continues to let his fingers glide over the softest of skin, drenching them; to not just hear but feel so acutely how much, how very much Sheppard likes this…yes. Drag down, back up, circle slowly and widely at first, then spiral closer, apply light pressure – watch as a warm blush spreads over her chest, her eyes dilate and one hand locks on the coverlet under them, white knuckled. It's breathtaking, watching arousal ripple through her entire body, the way she's responding to his touches, and he feels like he could do this forever.

"Jesus."

Rodney grins in pure delight, which gets him a soft, breathless laugh in response. "You – you're such a smug bastard."

"But you do like it." Without waiting for an answer, Rodney stretches his fingers, lets the middle finger dip down and Sheppard moans, blinks at him with an expression that's maybe even a little wild, and nods, with an edge of grudgingly that's eroded by every stroke of his quick fingers.

Rodney keeps going, swallows hard at the feel of tightness around his finger, the delicious promise of strong muscles; it's easy to just drink in the sight of Sheppard, her responses to each moment – the involuntary squirm when he twists his hand, the flutter of lashes when he lets the outermost edge of his nail flick over her clit, the smooth growl of outrage when he lets his little finger brush far, far back.

"Rodney. I'm…." Sheppard is starting to tremble in more regular intervals now, tiny drops of sweat on her skin catching the light; it takes Rodney a moment to realise that the overhead light is flickering slowly in the same rhythm that he's using to stroke her, the rhythm her hips are taking up.

In this place, everything with Sheppard is a threesome.

He speeds up his strokes and dips, lets them grow in intensity, and when Sheppard gulps and clutches at his arms, pulls him closer with the kind of force that makes the base of Rodney's spine tingle agreeably, he is only too happy to kiss her again, sloppier and wetter this time because she's making whimpering sounds now, pushing herself onto his fingers, and oh, God, her tongue is mimicking the motion of his fingers, which are close to cramping but not about to stop, not if the world were ending, because he will keep going and –

She bites his lip, groans loudly, so thrillingly that Rodney forgets all about the discomfort. All he can feel is the new rush of wetness at his fingers, the quake of Sheppard's interior walls around his finger; it's shocking how this, in turn, goes straight to his dick, a golden burst of pleasure that makes it impossible to not tighten his arm around her, hold her through the shudders, every last one of them.

Lying on the bed, both of them catching their respective breath, legs half-tangled and his hand squished awkwardly under her, Rodney finds himself curiously unwilling to extricate himself. Much preferable to let his fingers trace the figure infinity up and down her side, to keep staring at Sheppard's face so close to his own, unguarded in a way that – would frighten him if he had enough brain capacity left to investigate the less positive emotions. He hasn't, though, and therefore just looks at her lips, cherry-red and wet from kissing, at the shadowed slant of her cheekbones, at her languid green eyes.

"This is weird."

"What?" So much for the afterglow; it's entirely possible that Sheppard post-sex is just as annoyingly prone to make flippant comments as Sheppard pre- or sans sex.

"You not talking." She breaks off, eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly, and drops her gaze.

Following her line of sight presents him with her breasts again, beautiful and – he knows now – fitting perfectly into his hands, but as much as he wants to touch them, he'd rather have Sheppard look at him again with that unfocused, almost-awed expression. Rodney's had to learn not to finish other people's sentences for them – mostly because they were entirely too true for the rest of the people in the room – but it just figures that he has to re-learn it now.

"Oh, you'd thought I'd talk during sex? Or after?"

Sheppard's cheeks color a little – it's Rodney's little secret that this thrills him more than the sight of her naked boobs, awesome but not as special – but when she looks up, the flygirl twinkle in her eyes is back.

"Well. Both?"

Rodney huffs at that, would cross his arms if only he could. "Can we adhere to the principles of proper research, please? It's not as if you can make an empiric statement about the second part."

Sheppard just arches her eyebrows in a gesture that Rodney interpretes as both a question and a challenge. At Sheppard's soft huff of surprised laughter, he quickly rids her off of the skirt.

"Wait, wait, wait, it occurs to me now – you went commando?"

"Rodney, the Athosians don't have underwear yet."

Rodney rolls his eyes and drops his head, then lets his teeth play with her left nipple. Like she couldn't have used her own.

"Mmh – ah!"

Tug. Another sigh and he smiles smugly to himself. Again and a third sigh. Licks down from her breast to her navel. Sheppard stretches under him, all lithe muscle gone wonderfully pliant. He kisses one hipbone and she cranes her head to look.

"That's not a straight line."

"And you're not a puddlejumper, so hush."

All of this interspersed with touching, stroking, Sheppard's hands tousling his hair, slim fingers kneading his shoulders while he slides lower and lower yet. When he circles her navel with his tongue, she shivers, when he dips it inside, she exhales suddenly and sharply; the sound and the scent of her, closer than ever, go straight to his cock, still uncomfortably encased in –

"Pants. Off."

Rodney breathes a sigh of relief and realizes that Sheppard has underlined her strained order with a hand tugging at a wisp of his hair, dragging him upwards until she can kiss him again, can impatiently tilt his head with one hand and tear at his fly with her other – sweat-slicked fingers are touching, twisting with his in a race to undo the button, pull the zipper down; and, then, he's free, and it's bliss, sheer bliss, even before Sheppard tugs hard at the waistbands and pulls his boxers down too. Rodney groans and nips at her lower lip, then releases her and lifts himself up again.

"Whoa, where are you going?" Sheppard. Panting.

Rodney wants to say something along the lines of You don't want me to insult your intelligence by even answering that, but that's not what comes out.

"…down?"

She catches his movement, though, fingers curling around the nape of his neck and his arm. "Rodney." Her eyes are as unruly as her hair. "Foreplay is great, but I'm ready. C'mere."

Yes, fine, he can do that, he's very – not prepared for Sheppard's lightning-quick shift, for her legs wrapping around his waist so that he can't help but slide forward, hard against her, hot and so incredibly wet and oh, God, his hips jerk and repeat the motion before he can even tell them to. She lets out a drawn-out moan of her own and pushes her hand down between them, eyes widening at the first touch of his cock – slick, from both of them – and he feels out of breath again, filled with the stupid urge to kiss away the surprise on her face.

Rodney leans in and does just that right when her fingers take hold of him, align him and, really, it's impossible not to shudder against her, into her; he wants to hold back, push harder, and ends up hovering pretty close to what might not be heaven but feels a damn lot like it – and Sheppard tears her lips away from his. "Some time –" her eyes are a little feral, "this year?"

He doesn't shake his head, just, after drawing back one last time, pushes forward, against the resistance he encounters, squeezes his eyes shut and pushes forward – through – into silken heat and wetness and oh, Jesus, it's tighttighttight. Rodney bites his lip; dimly, he hears Sheppard's jagged intake of breath, but when he opens his eyes again, the expression on her face shows no pain. He wants to move, feels like he has to, but something in Sheppard's face holds him back. There's an edge of calm, of perfect battle-readiness, there and Rodney has only ever seen it when she was bracing herself, preparing; keeping everything under control.

Rodney doesn't want her in control.

So he waits, revelling in the luscious warmth around his cock, still panting lightly, eyes locked with hers; the muscles in his arms are starting to prickle a little.

"Here, let's – yes." He lowers them onto their sides, making his cock jerk, making Sheppard twitch a little and draw a deep breath. "Shh." That has her frowning, brows drawing together and her hand coming up. He bats it out of the way, pushes his own hand between their bodies, to the spot where they're joined. Dips down until his fingers are slick, begins to circle again, apply pressure, and the way she opens her mouth is its own reward.

"That's – oh."

Much better.

Her sudden gasp makes him smile against her lips, makes him move his fingers a little faster, and it feels amazing, cock-deep inside her with his fingers teasing her, and now, now she's beginning to squirm, breathing impatient again. "Rodney – quit trying to – " He pulls back just a centimeter, and pushes back in, enjoying the butterfly flutter of Sheppard's lashes. "Okay, okay, you win. Fuck me."

Rodney's brain short-circuits, because he's moving before he knows it, withdrawing and slamming inside her again, and again and again; he feels Sheppard's ankles locked around his ass, pulling him closer, feels the clash of their teeth as they kiss, fierce and frantic and oh-so-good, and yes, he's fucking her hard, and she's making whimpering noises, rocking back and forth and against him, and his thumb flicks at her almost harshly, and she groans into his ear, and then she's coming, shuddering, squeezing and clenching around his cock in waves and waves and waves so that he has no way but to follow her, exploding in a burst hot and bright like the heart of a supernova.

~*~
In the pastel light of dawn, most catwalks high above the city are deserted.

Atlantis is never completely quiet, not even at night. Ronon has heard it often enough, the Earthers' bitching about the twenty-eight hour day on this planet, but she believes their odd sleeping patterns have as much to do with the scientists' inherent obsessiveness and poor sense of their physical selves as with the shift in cycles. Still, the time just before sunrise is the time most likely to find the city as at-rest as it gets, and Ronon quickly began to get up early, earlier than anybody else. It didn't surprise her to run into Sheppard one of these mornings shortly after she came to Atlantis, either. The colonel plays it well and plays it cool with the others, but Ronon knows Sheppard, too, loves and needs this period of silence.

Ronon isn't sure it even makes sense that she came up here, to their usual meeting point for their morning run. She doesn't mind waiting and she doesn't mind missing one joint exercise session, but she minds what Sheppard's absence implies.

The tell-tale clang of footsteps on metal now, lighter and faster than what Ronon is used to. She turns, slowly, and looks at Sheppard. The colonel nods at her, face perfectly blank; it's something Sheppard hardly resorts to anymore. Doesn't take a genius to know what she wants to talk about. Or, doesn't want to talk about but feels she has to. Sheppard looks around before speaking, which seems a bit silly to Ronon. "Listen, about last night —"

"It's okay."

Sheppard doesn't give away a lot if she doesn't want to, but only a fool would miss the flicker of relief in her eyes. "You mean it."

"Wouldn't say it otherwise." There are moments it's still – again – a little tiring to be with people.

Sheppard's face tenses, then gets that Oh, To Hell With It expression. "I didn't want you to feel left out – and Christ, can I sound any more like a girl?"

Ronon does the only right thing here, and laughs softly at Sheppard's expression of disgusted amusement. "You are, though." She'd like to add that last night, Sheppard really didn't mind her female body, and a certain someone treating it as such, but there's honesty and then there's stupidity.

"Yeah. Hard to forget that." Sheppard turns to stare out at the ocean, draws a hand through her hair, and Ronon can't help drinking in the sight of her; doesn't want to. The posture is slightly too straight, the hair more mussed than ever, and the shadow-smudges tell Ronon she didn't sleep much last night, but she looks good, her eyes still bearing traces of awe and wonder, if you only know how and where to spot it. Ronon can't fight the envy, of course. But she doesn't begrudge her the experience; sex is easy to come by when you look like her or Sheppard, whether as a woman or as a man, but the other thing isn't. Never is.

Come to think of, she probably needs to tell her that, explicitly. "Sheppard, I'm fine. With you and McKay."

A muscle twitches in her jaw, and she lifts her chin in a gesture that's more defiant than she probably realizes. "I just didn't think this would ever happen."

"I did."

The way Sheppard jerks around to stare at her – narrow-eyed and with a flare of anger – seems a little excessive to Ronon. She shrugs, lightly. "There was always something between you."

"But that something wasn't –" Sheppard takes a deep breath but continues to glare at Ronon. Who can't tell her but thinks she looks beautiful, flushed and fierce for no reason but her own unwillingness. "We were guys, Ronon. It was different."

The Sheppard & McKay Show has been one and the same ever since Ronon met them, but Ronon has precious little interest in pointing out the obvious to someone who doesn't care to see what's right in front of her eyes. She also doesn't have any interest in alienating Sheppard, but as much as she's inclined to just let this drop, she can't. Not if she, too, wants her. And as much as the thought of fighting for Sheppard – with McKay, no less! – is vaguely amusing to Ronon, she has to give it a try. "New bodies don't change that much, Sheppard. They –" She hesitates, ponders it for a moment. "They make stuff possible that you hadn't thought about, maybe, but deep down? The feeling's the same."

A ragged breath from Sheppard, and the anger in her gaze flickers, dies down. She leans against the railing a little, one hip against the metal. Her gaze on Ronon is even now, and its intensity starts to make her feel a little uneasy. "Wait. You...you're saying you...felt the same before?" She gestures at herself and then Ronon. "Uh, before this?"

What's there to say? Ronon remembers a too-bright planet and the man who gave his word, his promise, and kept it. Freed Ronon from the tracker that had made his life hell, and then brought him back into something that was worth fighting for. Who led with his heart and not just his brain; admittedly, not always his brain. "Sure. No harm in it."

"Dammit, Ronon." The sound of Sheppard's hand slapping onto the railing is sudden, sharp, and Ronon feels her muscles twitch, fingers inching towards her gun. Sheppard's face is open now, almost pleading, more than a little frustrated. "We've gone over the issues with the armed forces before." A beat. "I couldn't."

Maybe she's a bitch with a bone, but Ronon isn't about to let go, now. Now that Sheppard has told her – not some doctor, not just herself – that she does feel the low thrum of energy between the two of them, the buzz of a connection that has been there from the start. "But you've wanted to."

Strong, slender hands gripping the railing; soft lips that have tightened into a harsh line. "This is pretty damn new to me, Ronon. But even if I wanted to – I also want to keep my job. Having –" She clearly wants to continue, but she doesn't get the words out until after swallowing, once. "Having sex with a guy has always been out of the question."

"And yet you did it last night."

Sheppard closes her eyes, shoulders slumping just a little. "Yeah, I know, but I'm a woman now, it's even on paper – I won't get discharged for it. Technically, it was perfectly heterosexual sex."

As if that were the real reason. Ronon feels a little defeated, herself.

"And McKay, he's not, strictly speaking, under my command. You – you are."

"That's why you should think about it, Sheppard." Yes, okay, probably a little too demanding – she can see the note of surprise in Sheppard's eyes – but really, there's only so much and so long you can hold back.

"You're serious — you believe it's perfectly cool to sleep with your superior officer."

"Wasn't so much thinking about sleeping." At Sheppard's narrowing eyes, Ronon inclines her head and sighs. There goes nothing. "On Sateda? We weren't crushed because sometimes, men fucked men and women fucked women."

She stares at him, frowning, then nods quietly. "The Wraith – yeah. I know."

"Many of us were drafted when the War began, and each was assigned to a special commanding officer. The taskmaster." She lets the words sink in, sees the slow dawn of realization on Sheppard's face. There's shock, yes, but she's oddly reassured by the fact that there's no disgust or horror – with Earthers, this wasn't entirely impossible; she knows why she hasn't told any marine or even Dr. Weir. "The taskmaster continues to educate the young soldier – teach him or her. Protect him. Take care of him in every way possible." Ronon looks to the ground when she echoes the words she once spoke to Teyla:

"There is no closer bond."

Kel was a bastard and a traitor, but up to then he had kept true to Satedan rules. Kept Ronon. When she looks up, slowly searches for Sheppard's eyes, it's hard not to keep going – to pre-emptively defend this, defend her home world, the one she'd known and cherished above and beyond all others.

"That – yeah, cliché, but that explains a lot." It sounds like one of her glib replies, but Ronon remembers Sheppard was a little baffled at first; could read it in the colonel's eyes: That someone so formidable as Ronon would not only promptly submit to another's command but, what's more, demand to be led. Sheppard's eyes are softer now, and there is a light blush on her cheeks.

Ronon lets out the breath she didn't know she was holding. "Your military – don't mean to be insulting, because well, you're pretty good otherwise – has it all wrong. Thinks of it as weak when it's just the opposite, making you stronger and braver and healthier than you could ever be without."

Sheppard frowns, then looks at Ronon again. "I'm not saying you're wrong – but you're hardly unbiased."

It's not clear whether she means Ronon is simply going from what she's used to – just like Sheppard with her own military – or if she's just stating that Ronon wants her, not anybody else, because it's blindingly obvious to both of them that they wouldn't have this conversation otherwise, that Ronon could just stroll out into the city and pretty much take her pick among the available singles. Doesn't matter, though. Sheppard knows, now, and as much as she'd like to, Ronon can't make her do anything. "Never said I was." She feels both relieved and naked, exposed; she can't remember having had a conversation like this for the longest time, possibly years.

She was just fine with that.

Sheppard's gaze flickers, and when she shifts her weight, Ronon thinks she sees acceptance in her eyes. Not just tolerance. "Fair enough." Sheppard's obviously far from comfortable, but she hasn't declined Ronon's offer outright, which was always a possibility, something Ronon half-expected after last night's events, in fact. A part of her wants to bide her time, but the rest?

Wants to know if she has an actual chance, after all. "So. Where's McKay?"

That gets her a sharp, military turn. Sheppard bites her lip and narrows her eyes, obviously contemplating her answer. Whether to answer. "Gone by now, I hope." Ronon lifts an eyebrow at that, and Sheppard seems to realize how that sounded when spoken out loud, because she hastens to add, "It was okay that he stayed, don't get me wrong. Just, a girl likes a little space when she wakes up?"

Sheppard spoils the joking tone by wincing a little, but Ronon nods in understanding, and relief. If Sheppard fled the scene as soon as she woke up – that she did is clear to Ronon – it's pretty likely she doesn't view the relationship with Rodney as the perfect culmination of everything she ever wanted. Ronon feels more than reluctant to hurt Sheppard and doesn't want to take anything from McKay, but if there's still some distance between them, an opening? Doesn't mean there will be less Sheppard and McKay, just that there might be more.

More involving Ronon, too, that is.

Sheppard is studying her, weighing her, and it occurs to Ronon that she, too, is wondering. "Ronon. Where do we go from here?"

The shrug comes easy now. "To the North Tower. Then to the East Tower. Our usual route."

For a moment, it looks as if Sheppard wants to say something, know something, but then her shoulders relax, and she rolls with it just as Ronon has known her to roll with her team's cues. "Race you?"

A slow smile curls her lips. "You just try that, Sheppard."

And they run.

~*~
She runs with Ronon until sweat soaks the front and back of her T-shirt and her legs feel like overcooked noodles. Ronon's barely broken a sweat, of course, and says something about the gym and sparring before they part. It reminds Sheppard she's at least a decade older than Ronon, because just the mention of it makes her joints ache.

Assuming Rodney will already be gone, she enters her quarters, her head down, mostly just thinking Shower, shower, water, hot, please. He's still sprawled across her bed though, white sheet drawn to his waist, his gaze uncharacteristically languid as she looks up. He needs a shower and a shave – his chin is dark with stubble; she doesn't get how he can mock her hair when his sticks out in every direction. But his mouth curves into a delighted smile as soon as he sees her, giving her a surprising thrill.

She's still figuring out how to tell him last night had been a bad, bad idea when Rodney crawls out of her bed, crosses the room stark naked, and kisses her.

"Rodney — hey, I'm all sweaty," she said when he comes up for air. "Quit."

"I don't mind."

She wants to check and see if there is a pod under the bed. There is always something Rodney objects to, and sweat has always been in his top ten. She's already opening her mouth to say something snide when Rodney slides his hand inside the front of her sweat pants and cups her, a grin spreading slowly on his face, wicked like she's never even dreamed Rodney could look...and her body, damn traitor, shivers with bright sensation.

Exhaustion — what else? — makes her legs go wobbly; she stumbles back against the closed door. She can't come up for any excuse for pushing her hips forward, though, or leaning her head back to let Rodney lick his way down her neck. There is something…dirty and arousing about standing there, dressed, while Rodney is utterly naked. She's still trying to process that thought when Rodney leans down and sucks at her nipple right through her t-shirt and bra. The hot damp feeling mixes with the rush of pleasure between her legs, where Rodney is stroking her.

She's moaning before she knows it; Rodney keeps sucking at her nipple, and all she can do is grab his shoulders as she bucks against his hand. He's insanely good at this, the competitive bastard, and, oh, God, yes — that, like that, he's twisting his fingers just right.

"Rodney...." She grabs at his arm again, her palm against his warm, bare skin, forgetting for a second if she's trying to hold onto him or push him away. "Rodney, I don't...." He keeps sucking at her nipple, pushing at the wet cotton with his tongue, and the way that it rasps over too sensitive flesh feels better than it has any right to.

She manages to add, "...don't," about the time he straightens and kisses her again, wide mouth covering hers, tongue teasing inside her mouth, vaguely morning-stale and still tasting of the gera's licorice flavor. She kisses him back, then, while he keeps one hand in her pants and the other on her breast. She rocks herself into his hand, feels it again, that disconcerting, amazing dampness, and whines into his mouth when he starts rubbing her clit, hard and fast, sending her right over the edge, sparks of sharp pleasure shooting through her entire body. It leaves her flushed and hot, the wall shockingly cold against her shoulder blades when she slumps, trembling and breathless, against it. Without Rodney pinning her there, she'd end up on the floor.

She's still dazed as Rodney tugs her toward the bed and doesn't protest as he strips the T-shirt over her head. The sports bra sticks to her though and Rodney has to peel it up, the cotton hem rolling, making Rodney mutter, "And I thought fasteners were frustrating." A little quivering aftershock makes her moan when he stops to kiss her nipple again, with the bra trapped just over her breasts, licking and licking until she doesn't know whether to twist away or pull his mouth closer. She figures it out about the time she starts arching her back to push her breast harder against his mouth. "Fuck," she pants, "fuck, what are you doing to me?"

"Cause and effect, Colonel," Rodney murmurs against her breast, his breath hot then cold against her saliva-wet skin. It makes her nipples tighten with an ache for more. "Scientist, remember?" He pushes at the bra again and Sheppard lifts her arms to help him get it off. The damp cotton is tossed in the direction of the bathroom, landing on the floor with a slap. She barely notices, because this is already out of control, and if it didn't feel so fantastic, she'd be freaking out over that, over Rodney just taking over like this, but she can't think beyond more, more.

Sheppard's not sure she can remember her first name, but she kicks off her running shoes and socks and lifts her hips to help Rodney pull off her sweatpants, lying back as Rodney repeats a litany of, "You're so beautiful, so hot, so sleek and gorgeous; fuck, I want to touch every centimeter of you, I want to make you feel the way I do, like you can't breathe if I'm not inside you," and her whole body clenches, as if every word is a tiny pinprick of pleasure — just hearing how much Rodney wants her. She blinks at the ceiling as he runs his hands up her legs, a hand on each ankle lifting them until her feet are flat on the bed. She's still floating on the sweet wash of her orgasm, but Rodney's voice is like a current running through her, like electricity grounding in a spray of hot sparks wherever his hands graze over her skin.

He strokes his palms over her body in broad sweeps, thighs and hips and ribcage, and flat over her stomach, wetting his finger to draw concentric circles around her navel, making her gasp again. The sensation is everywhere, everything intensified so much she has to clutch a wrinkled fold of sheet in her hands or fly apart, fly off the bed, and dissolve into her component atoms.

"God, I think I've wanted you forever," Rodney says, and it's like his hands, deft and gentle and shattering. He's panting between the words, between breaths, and radiating so much heat Sheppard can feel him even with her eyes closed, even where he isn't touching her yet.

He strokes his fingers up the inside of her thighs and urges her to open them wider, the way he wants, the way she wants, because yes, she does: It feels sinful and sweet at once to just spread herself open before him. There is no one else she'd trust this much, no one. Rodney stops and just looks into her eyes. His thumb sweeps back and forth over the tender skin, absent and deeply sensual at the same time. His face is flushed, and he's hard; she wants to hold him in her hand, even taste him.

That thought stuns her.

Rodney takes advantage of her distraction to duck down and lick a stripe up her thigh. She jerks, and he laughs, a warm sound full of joy, before beginning to tease her with his tongue again. Sheppard shivers and cranes her head to look, but all she can see is Rodney's head moving between her legs, which is...she can't really believe how arousing it is, seeing him do that to her. The instinct to buck into his mouth is almost too much, her muscles quiver with it, and she lets out a soft, "oh —" that doesn't go anywhere before she's fighting for a breath through the heat flooding her. It doesn't matter because Rodney isn't going to stop, isn't going to pay any attention to anything but her body and not the sounds coming from her now, the low, needy, shallow gasps and, yes, moans, she's barely aware she's making.

She can't stop either, because it's so very good. Rodney's tongue is firm and slick and wet and hot, so hot, just rough enough against skin so sensitive. His stubble scrapes against tender places and that, that feels so good too, harsh and sharp in contrast to the honey-soft feel of his mouth, the way he presses his lips to her. So good, so good, she's going to melt into pieces, Rodney is going to sweat every drop of pleasure out of her, like nitroglycerin from dynamite, until she explodes. Little shock waves are already running through her, gathering momentum, building and shaking her until she can't hold still, it's nearly too much. She can't stop looking at Rodney, thinking of what he's doing to her — to her — his mouth on her body, tongue licking into her over and over, doing that — God, using his wide, wonderful mouth, actually sucking on her, until it feels like he'll pull an orgasm out of her that way.

Sheppard has never had a clue how intimate this is for a woman; it's insane, how spine-meltingly fantastic it feels. She's shaking and twisting and only vaguely aware Rodney has his hands tight on her hips, holding her down. "Rodney...it's..." She grabs at his head, but he bats her hand away. She shivers, torn between telling him to stop and never, ever to stop, and then he finds her clit — sucking, then licking — and pushes two fingers inside her.

Rodney is incredibly fast with his tongue, and his fingers play her with the same precision he would use for the most delicate Ancient artifact, tuning her to a pitch that makes her want to scream. She can't believe he's working her like this, like, this, like this — she's whining, with her head thrown back, words slipping out, words like "harder, harder, God, please, fuck, please," because she needs just that little bit more and she'll come, if she doesn't she's going to come apart.

Rodney lets out a little sound that might be a moan, or a gasp. Somehow, she has her hand on his shoulder, almost where she'd put it earlier in the gear room, a lifetime before, and his muscles are quivering, tense under skin as hot as she is. She doesn't know how he can stand it, she can't, only, he's crawling up her body again, leaving her aching, the sonovabitch, and she needs his mouth back on her, because she is so close — she hates him for one instant, hates him until he kisses her, forgets hating him in favor of trying to get that hard, perfect cock inside her, just where it was last night, and kissing him back. Oh, God, he tastes like her, like herself, and that sends another spike of pleasure through her. Rodney twists away, though, and returns to sliding his fingers in and out of her, all the while holding her down with his other hand.

There's a spike of panic somewhere inside, because he's holding her down. Last night wasn't like this, she was still in control, Rodney would have backed off, listened to her, but not now. The adrenaline flood makes her heart beat harder and faster and somehow feeds what she's feeling, wrenching away all control.

All she can hear is her blood rushing, all she can see is the inside of her eyelids; she bites down on her lip and everything clenches; she thinks her entire body must be bowing up off the bed, tremors running through her spine. God, even her toes are curling; she's going to tear holes in the sheets. That keening noise is her, too, until she has no more air to make it.

The noise makes Rodney look up. His eyes are wild, and full of wonder. "Fuck, you should see yourself," he whispers. "I can't believe the sounds you make, how hot they are, how hot you are; God, Sheppard...."

Damn him; he doesn't apply even the tiniest bit more pressure or speed up, and God, he's killing her, watching her. She is sure she is going to die any second now, going to pass out because she can't breathe through all the sensation rolling through her. There is a sheen of new sweat covering her, and her jerky movements are twisting the cover sheet off the mattress entirely — not that she gives a damn about that; all she cares about are Rodney's blunt, clever hands on her, in her, and his quick, wonderful tongue...dipping down, swiping across her again.

"Rodney — c'mon, please, Rodney —"

Every stroke of that tongue is ratcheting her higher and higher.

"Please..." Almost a whimper; hell, who cares, it is a whimper.

She manages to coordinate herself enough to reach down, but Rodney gently pushes her hand away this time, too. His palm is hot and damp, clamped around her wrist. She wonders if he is stronger than her now; fuck, what if, what would he do to her..? She strains but can't pull away from him. Can't, or maybe doesn't really want to pull away as he licks his way down and up and circles his tongue right where every nerve in her body is hotwired together. She sinks her fingers in his hair and clutches desperately.

One delicate, teasing lap of his tongue on an already overloaded system — and everything just implodes, her vision almost whiting out, leaving her gasping, floating and shivering in the aftermath. Something incoherent and approving spills from her mouth, and she flops her hand against Rodney's head, trying to pet him.

The last bright sparks are still chasing their way through her as Rodney presses her thighs even wider, wide enough that they ache, and pushes deep into with her with one movement. It is — oh, God. There is no pain, just the feeling of being filled, hot and deep in a way that makes Sheppard draw in a quick breath and push back; she can't really...but this is still good, powerful and satisfying, with Rodney's mouth on hers again, sucking on her lower lip.

She pushes back when Rodney sinks deeper, because it is so easy, the rhythm there; she can move with him, match him, and it's right. She runs her hands down his back, loving how he feels, muscle moving in that broad back, in his arms, as he braces himself over her. She has one hand on the back of his neck when Rodney growls into her mouth, "Mine."

Sheppard wants to hit him for that, and she would, but, God, he's just made her come twice, and she can't — she feels it building again. Rodney rocks his hips forward and all she can do is rise to meet him, taking him even deeper inside her.

Rodney groans as she tightens muscles inside that she doesn't even know to name and wraps her legs around his waist. She feels stretched, soft, slick and yeah, thrust and counter-thrust and...there it is again; how can she be this close all over again? But it isn't quite enough, she's tired, losing the edge, something missing. A spark, one last...yes. Running one hand over down Rodney's shoulder, she lets her other hand drift down his chest, down to her stomach and lower, until she encounters damp curls and heat.

Motion below her fingers, slick swollen flesh, and she brushes against his cock plunging in and out of her — a shock of pleasure, answered by Rodney's groan. That isn't what she is — yeah. Just two fingers, sliding through her own lubrication, circling, then pressing her clit. God, yes, just right there, harder than before is what she needs, everything wet and sensitized to the edge of pain; she knows how to slide her fingers over herself perfectly; she's done this, she knows….

"God, are you — ? You're touching yourself," Rodney pants.

"Yeah," Sheppard gasps, licking her lips because the combined sensation —

"Jesus, you...fuck, you do that, alone?" Rodney hips snap harder, faster, making her moan; his gaze is locked on her face.

"I...." Sheppard shivers, temporarily knocked out of balance, out of rhythm — but the speed is good, the rapid pace of Rodney's thrust new, bright like a solar flare, sending sharp bursts of sensation through her. "I do. Do...it. God, Rodney!" She shakes, then, one wave flashing through her like the tell-tale tremors before an earthquake. "Again — I'll do it — "

"Let me watch," Rodney growls into her throat.

That is it, his breath against her throat so urgent, the picture in her head — herself, her body spread wide and performing for him — sending her over the edge. She shakes apart while Rodney shudders and slams into her hard enough to bruise, it feels like; his rhythm shattering too, as he groans and comes inside her, jerky movements, a hot rush.

He slumps down when he's finished, his weight coming down on her chest, his face in the crook of her neck while Sheppard uncurls her legs from around him. She feels him soften and slip out of her, a strange feeling, echoed by a soreness she's going to feel with every step through the day. Not quite pain, but a deep, pulling ache inside that is going to remind her of this over and over.

She decides she doesn't mind. She's just had what might have been the most amazing sex of her life; she wants to remember it. Then her stomach rumbles insistently and she realizes she's starving.

She wriggles out from under Rodney, despite his sleepy attempt to hold onto her. "Shower," she says. "Breakfast." Her stomach gurgles in agreement.

"Do you ever stop eating?" Rodney asks grumpily. Then he's sitting up and looking panicky. "Oh my God, we didn't use a condom. Shit. Tell me you're on birth control."

She turns around and stares at him. "How stupid do you think I am?" Then holds up her hands and shakes her head. "Wait, don't answer that. Christ. Yes, I am. I told you and Kate and the rest of the damn team in therapy, remember?"

"Oh. Oh." Rodney takes a deep breath. "That's – that's very good."

"Yes, it is, because you sure didn't think about it last night," Sheppard tells him.

"Well, neither did you!"

"Because I knew I didn't have to." Her stomach grumbles again. "Can we not have this conversation? I'm starving."

"Fine, fine."

~*~
The Atlantis mess is always open, because between the scientists who work until they drop and come wandering in, dazed and staggering at all hours, and the teams coming back from missions on planets with radically different schedules, there's always someone in need of something between the traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. And that doesn't even take into account the emergencies, when people need to grab something when they have two minutes free to bolt something down. So the mess is always open and there's always something — maybe not an appetizing something, but it'll be edible — in a warming pan or a refrigeration unit.

Despite that, the mess is at its most crowded in the morning and the evening, because even in Atlantis people still like to socialize over food. At one point or another, all of the command staff will show up. The recent events haven't changed that and it's no surprise to see McKay come in and load up a tray of food or Colonel Sheppard to arrive sometime later and join him. After over three weeks, it isn't even that big a surprise that Colonel Sheppard's suddenly no longer a guy.

Captain Liam Harper figures four years in the SGC before following old Colonel Everett through the gate to Atlantis prepared him for most of the weirdness he's faced, but he's still amazed by the way his CO looks as a woman. She still looks like Sheppard, but also female enough to have every guy around pull up and look twice with a mental, Hey, wow, she's fine. Which leads to headaches, once the forebrain catches up with the hindbrain and reminds him, she's really a he, or was, and his commanding officer too. But he's got his pride too, his team had the questionable honor of having done more manual dial-outs than any other except SG-1 before he was assigned to Atlantis, so when the new guys get too freaked out, he just leans back and says, "Oh, you think the colonel being turned into a girl is weird? Let me tell you about the time...." Shuts them up because otherwise they sound like newbies and no one wants sound like he or she can't hack it.

He's been working hard to remember Sheppard's not the woman he looks like. Reminds himself to keep thinking of Sheppard as 'he,' too. Concentrates on the little things that are exactly the same, like the way Sheppard kind of drapes himself over a chair. Only that's not the greatest thing to focus on with the way Sheppard looks doing that now, T-shirt stretched tight and Harper's always had a thing for women in really good shape. At least Sheppard still talks the same, even if his voice is a little lighter, even still has that cocky Air Force attitude. It's just, she — he, damn it, he reminds himself again — is really his type.

Still, it doesn't hurt to look when they're not working, right?

So he's looking when Sheppard strolls into the mess and sits down next to McKay and knows in a heartbeat something has changed. Oh yes. Sheppard didn't move quite that fluidly yesterday. Didn't look at McKay quite that...softly. It's the little things. Harper's good at noticing them, probably better than most people in Atlantis, and if Sheppard wasn't his CO, he'd describe that look as 'well-fucked' with maybe a little bit of starry-eyed thrown into the mix. Not that Sheppard's obvious. Harper wouldn't see it if he wasn't looking, but he is looking, because McKay? McKay never heard of subtle. McKay scoots his chair over to give Sheppard room to sit beside him, stands up, and pulls the other chair out for Sheppard, and that's not normal McKay behavior, no sirree. And he's got that look, that guy look, the one Harper's seen in his own mirror a few mornings, smug as the cat with the canary, tired in the very best way, every muscle relaxed.

McKay's a man who just got laid last night.

Damn, is all Harper can think. Damn.

He's sitting with his own breakfast going cold, watching the CSO pop up and rush over to the chow line and get a tray of food — and coffee for himself after shoving his cup over to her — for Sheppard. That's just freaky. Even Sheppard seems to think so, giving McKay a narrow-eyed look and making a sharp remark. McKay must volley it back, because all too soon they're at it, snapping at each other and suppressing the grins that would betray how much of it is a game between them. But just when Harper thinks he was imagining things, that everything is normal, they'll just stop and exchange looks, forgetting to eat their food. McKay keeps reaching toward Sheppard and stopping himself and Sheppard keeps jumping and looking around the mess when he does it.

Harper likes Sheppard, he's been a more than decent CO, but all the first wave – the people that came to Atlantis without any ticket back, and that includes Sheppard – are squirrelly about certain things and food is at the top of the list. They all eat like every meal could be their last. Watching two of them forget their food verges on creepy.

Or no, not creepy, Harper decides, it's like a wake up call. He's been telling himself Sheppard's still a guy, stuck inside a girl — okay, woman's — body, telling himself to ignore the outsides. It's time to re-evaluate.

Sheppard really is female.

He sets the fork in his hand down and tries a sip of cold coffee. Gah, that's bad. Harper drinks it anyway, because you just don't dump coffee in front of people in Atlantis. Even the cooks are squirrelly here. Maybe he's squirrelly too, because he's confused. He's been figuring Sheppard is the same, just in a different package, but maybe.... Sheppard's not the same, this is really a female version of Sheppard, someone who can kick ass and make breathy sorts of noises when going over the big ordnance the Daedalus brought in last time — because, yeah, guns are always cool and the other thing everyone in Atlantis gets dreamy-eyed over are weapons and ammo — and is really pretty damn hot as well.

He pinches the bridge of his nose.

Pretty damn hot and sleeping with McKay.

McKay.

All he can think is damn and why? Why McKay?

Another surreptitious look at the table where McKay and Sheppard are eating. Teyla and Dex have joined them. The gang's all there. The team tended to hang out together even before the whole sex-change thing and now they're tighter than before, if Harper is any judge.

So maybe it's just opportunity. McKay got the jump on everyone else because he figured it out first. He's a scientist, he works with Sheppard all the time, and Harper's man enough to admit it, McKay is smarter than most Marines. If you listen to him, McKay's smarter than most anyone.

Sheppard's lips look a little redder than they have before and she keeps licking them when she looks at McKay. Sonovabitch. Harper thinks if she looked at him like that, he'd be getting hard right at the breakfast table.

McKay is really smart to have got some of that, but another look at Sheppard and Harper is damn sure she could do better than McKay.

For example, himself.

Harper leans back and considers it. Sheppard and him, they're both career military, they get along great, they've got stuff in common. McKay's just an opportunist. He's seen the chance to get Sheppard in bed — team mates trust each other after all — and who could blame him? It isn't like there are many celibates in Atlantis. Most everyone that isn't permanently paired up has slept with anyone who's conscious, moving, and the right sex to trip their trigger after a few months here. There are couple of married scientist couples, but Harper has heard they're sleeping around too. Now that he's looking past the whole 'was a guy' thing, Harper doesn't see much in the way of reasons not to take a run at her.

The rank thing is a risk, but they are different services, plus he's an officer, not a sergeant. Not like anyone's going to file sexual harassment charges or think either of them was coerced. They don't go on offworld missions together and frat regs are pretty relaxed here. Atlantis is just too small a population to adhere to the sort of proper distances the military code demands. And Sheppard's never been a real stickler about rank, Harper figures, even back on Earth.

Okay, that's crap, it's a rationalization, but Jesus...McKay?

He's going to be in so much trouble if he really does this. Christ, more maybe if Sheppard says yes than if he's shot down, but he's still really, really tempted. Maybe he can sort of feel things out, figure out if Sheppard would be receptive....

Sheppard pushes her chair back and stands, all long curves in the same BDUs and black shirts as ever, but looking totally different in them. She's chuckling at something McKay said, a throaty sound that makes Harper want to rearrange himself.

McKay may have got there first, but it's definitely worth taking a shot at that.

Maybe there is something about being in a different galaxy that makes you take crazy chances after a while. He never was even tempted to hit on Lt. Colonel Carter back at the SGC and she was every bit as attractive as Sheppard — and a real woman. But, Harper acknowledges to himself, maybe that's part of Sheppard's appeal.

Harper finishes his cereal in three bites and gets up. If he times this right, he can leave the mess at the same time as Sheppard and make the first move before half the men in Atlantis wake up and try it themselves. He's psyched, he's going to do it, even if he is a Marine.

He's lost his mind.

~*~
Harper mentions the Colt Peacemaker he acquired just before leaving Earth while they're inventorying spare uniforms, genuinely thinking Sheppard might be interested, since she would have been before. Sheppard grins, says, "You've got an in with the Asgard or what? How'd you get it on the Daedalus?" and goes back to comparing how many olive drab, extra-large T-shirts they've gone through in the last month — a disturbingly large number, but not as high as the number of BDUs, since those were often a total loss after a mission — with how many they are supposed to have left.

Sheppard doesn't put out any signals, interested, not interested or in-between. He might as well have been asking any guy up to see his collection — which, he has to admit, is part of the idea. It seems like it would be a lot simpler with someone who has been a guy and understands his take on things.

But Sheppard, well, Sheppard doesn't make it easy. Sitting next to the colonel while they go over patrol schedules for security in the city, reaching over his – her, her! – shoulder to point out that the latest group of replacements need extra training — not so much as a quiver.

Harper figures it was the professional setting.

Dinner is staked out by McKay, but Harper strikes up a conversation with the colonel, takes her tray easily — "Oh, thanks" — and then leads Sheppard to the broken transporter, feeling the hot prickle of McKay's glare on the back of his neck. He really hopes he won't need any special help from the scientists any time soon. There are others eyes on them too, but he's too stubborn to back out now.

"I think that one's still broken," Sheppard points out. When Harper turns he is staring directly into her eyes, which is a change. He isn't a basketball player but he is usually taller than most women.

Harper touches the panel just in case it isn't. "So it is. It's a nice night." He motions with his jaw to the outside corridor. "Scenic route?"

He triggers the door for Sheppard as warm-gold light washes over her face and her wind-ruffled hair. Harper has never noticed how sometimes Sheppard's eyes can look completely clear, but with the light from the lowering sun playing over her face, they are. Any other woman — except maybe Lieutenant Cadman — he'd say something, compliment her, but with Sheppard it seems like she'll think he's weird. Of course, McKay is weird, so maybe that works with her, but Harper's always gone with his strengths in picking up women: he's big and buff and always courteous and does genuinely like them.

The sea breeze is a little brisker than he likes, but Sheppard takes it in stride, chin lifted to the wind. Harper never met a pilot who didn't like the wind, the more the better. He says as much, adding, "Even Marine pilots. Except the helo guys."

"I flew fixed wings first, but don't knock helos, it's just different." Sheppard snorted. "We all start out wanting to be a kite."

Harper is so charmed with that image he just grins at Sheppard. They walk along the upper decks in silence.

"You wanted to talk to me?" Sheppard prompts, looking distractedly into the distance. There are clouds on the horizon; enough to make the sunset spectacular, a thousand shades of gold and orange and rose, and the sea molten-bright. A black speck resolves itself into a jumper returning from the mainland. Sheppard tracks it with her eyes, squinting, lips pursed a little.

"You know what? I can't remember what about." They both laugh.

Sheppard shades her eyes with one hand and watches as the jumper jerk from side to side before it sank down, disappearing into the jumper bay. "Palecki," she remarks. "He over-controls, doesn't trust the inertial dampeners, then doesn't trust the sensors."

It is nice. But there is no opening for anything more and once they hit the back way into the residential tower Harper is at a loss. He blurts out the first thing that comes to mind, which is the damned gun collection. He cringes even as it comes out of his mouth, because that can't be more obvious.

"Sure, hey, that sounds cool," Sheppard says brightly, swinging her arms as they walk.

All systems are a go. Surprise, surprise. "Tomorrow night?" he says, wincing when he sees Sergeant Reyes look up from farther down the corridor. He frowns at the guy as Reyes' eyes flicker from him to Sheppard. Reyes frowns back. Damn it.

Sheppard's hand snaps to her earpiece suddenly. "On my way," she says, and, "Later, Captain," before loping off in the direction of a working transporter and the central gateroom tower.

~*~
The whole day has been like this: she starts to get a grip on things, then something will remind her of Rodney, and she's floundering again. Somewhere, the theme music to The Twilight Zone is playing. Consider John Sheppard, Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force, military commander of the Atlantis Expedition, Rod Serling is intoning, Consider John Sheppard, who once was a man, but now finds himself living in the body of woman. Consider John Sheppard, who was spectacularly stupid enough to sleep with her best friend and now doesn't have the faintest idea what's going on.

Sheppard is sitting on the edge of her desk, in her office, getting chewed out by Rodney for talking to one of her officers.

"Do you think Rod Serling's name was really Rodney too?" she asks, trying to throw Rodney off and divert his inexplicable snit.

"What? No. How would I know? Why would I care?"

Sheppard shrugs.

"Stop trying to distract me."

"I just wondered."

Rodney's face has gone pink and shiny and his hands are sawing through the air, up and down and side to side, as he rants. The fingers will get into it soon, pointing and poking at Sheppard's arms or chest. Well, maybe not her chest, though with Rodney, you never know. All day he's been acting like her chest is his personal property, glaring furiously at anyone whose gaze drops below Sheppard's neck.

It isn't cute at all.

"What do you mean by 'Captain Harper offered to show you the choice pieces of his Old West handgun collection'?"

"What do I mean?" she says reasonably. "That the captain offered to show me the choice pieces of his gun collection, Rodney. Want me to repeat it a third time?"

"No, and oh my God, I can't believe it!" Rodney snaps. "Neither that he has the nerve nor that you're," punctuated with the finger point, "not getting this, Colonel Oblivious!"

Sheppard goes for calm. She's calm. She's not grinding her teeth. Rodney must be the single most profitable thing to happen to dentistry and the sale of legal — and illegal — tranquilizers since finals. Back and forth he goes, wearing a track around her tiny little office. Lucky the Ancients made tough floors. Marble would have a groove by now. Also, Colonel Oblivious? Isn't that a little harsh? She likes to think she'd notice if someone was interested in her.... Okay, leaving aside Ronon, who she didn't let herself think about that way, because, hey, on the same team. Mara didn't count, she'd been after his genes. Teer had been a virgin and had the whole detached from the physical world thing going on, plus he'd been sort of distracted and depressed by figuring he'd been abandoned. There was the time Harry Leiberman almost got a black eye, when he surprised Sheppard by groping him in the men's room of that titty bar, but honestly, he hadn't known Harry swung that way and who hits on a guy at a titty bar?

"Colonel!" Rodney's getting shrill and that yanks her attention back from the list of times he's been surprised. "Don't you get it?"

"Get what?"

"What he's doing, or trying to do in any case, and might succeed with, if he has half a brain to go with the brawn," Rodney blurted out, eyes narrowing in a way that made Sheppard worry that Harper's quarters might explode in an unfortunate 'accident' before she had a chance to even examine the captain's mint-condition Colt Peacemaker. Rodney spun on his heel and moved in about two steps closer than Sheppard liked people to get. "Because you don't seem to require any finesse or, as a soldier would probably say, stealthy moves!"

Giggling really wouldn't do much for her image as military commander of Atlantis, but Sheppard can't keep from at least smirking at that. "Okay, hold it right there. Stealthy moves?"

"On you, that's where he's putting them!" Rodney's doing the big-eyed, blinking wetly bit now, all sincerity and, yes, really, wringing his hands as well. "Sheppard, please, don't tell me you fell for the old Let Me Show You My Collection of Whatever trick?"

"You mean —" He really thinks Harper is trying to make a move on her. That's so ridiculous. For one thing, Harper knows Sheppard is — was — will be a guy, for another, he's Sheppard's subordinate. The guy's being friendly. As many times as they've done armory inventory together, he has to know Sheppard likes guns, and there's only so many times you can watch Lethal Weapon. Showing off the gun collection is just something to do. "C'mon, Rodney, that's impossible."

Harper's the kind of quiet guy who never gave out much more than a "Sir, yes, sir," for his first six months in Atlantis, and when he did finally speak up with a suggestion, Lorne had laughed and kidded him, saying, "Harper, when did you develop independent thought?" before adding, "Good idea." And it had been.

"Weren't you the one who told me on M4X-312 that nothing is impossible in the Pegasus galaxy?"

Sheppard found herself holding up her hands. Maybe sweet reason would get through to Rodney. "Yes, but only to piss you off. You were taking too long to get that door open. I wasn't talking about dating in the armed forces!"

"Well, I am! And — worse — he is!"

"That's ridiculous." She says it flatly, because it is. And if it weren't, Rodney still wouldn't have a right to come in and rant at her because Harper is interested. Which he isn't. Rodney's the most paranoid person in Atlantis, with the exception of Lucero in chemistry, who built a Faraday cage that fits over his bed so the voices won't wake him up when he's napping, and Sheppard should have realized he'd be a possessive prick, too. She really should have.

"Why?" Rodney demands. He stops pacing at least. Instead, he plants himself in front of her and his arms are crossed over his chest. Sheppard has a flash of clutching at his biceps the morning before when he pushed her down on the bed and hopes he won't notice the way her whole body just flushed with heat. Rodney has really very nice arms and shoulders. It's hard to ignore now. Even harder to ignore the annoying way he's tapping one foot, though, which lets her get back on track.

"Because — because I'm a guy! The military CO of this expedition!"

"Yes, well," Rodney gestures at her, "the former isn't readily apparent right now, the latter doesn't deter certain people, and you've forgotten the most important thing."

She doesn't have a fast temper, but Rodney is on his way to lighting it up, and she folds her arms in front her, hoping she won't end up throwing a punch. She's never socked Rodney and doesn't want to start, as though she could get away with it because she's a girl now. "Spit it out, Rodney."

"You are with me! Or, I'm with you; I don't care about irrelevant details. You can't go and accept date offers from random Fabios under your command!"

Date? What date? She's going to look at guns. Maybe even take them down to the firing range and expend some ammo, if Harper managed to smuggle that through in a personal items shipment on the Daedalus. It's not a date. "It's not a date." She rolled her eyes. "Jesus, Rodney, the guy's probably lonely here."

Rodney snaps his fingers then points at her. "Exactly!"

"No, not 'exactly'. I'm his superior officer. Marines take chain of command seriously."

"You can't go. Just tell him. You're involved with me, you can't go dating other people, other Marines, with the muscles and thick, blond hair — Oh, God, don't tell me you have a thing for blondes —"

"No, Rodney, that would be you," Sheppard snaps.

"Well, whatever," Rodney dismisses the comment. "You just have tell him you're taken."

Sheppard blinks at him, then stands up. She takes a long, deep breath. Elizabeth would be angry if she decked him. Teyla would look disappointed. Ronon would look disappointed too, but probably only because she's wanted to do it herself a few times. And it would demonstrate poor impulse control. Deep breaths.

"I don't have to do a damn thing you tell me to," she says through gritted teeth. "It's not a date. And I am going."

"Fine, fine, don't blame me when you end up on your back with your legs spread," Rodney yells. He spins, slaps the door sensor, and storms out.

Possessive, yeah, and it isn't all that funny anymore.

~*~
The joke about gossip moving faster than light in Atlantis doesn't seem too much like a joke to Harper right now.

By noon, he's taken a ribbing from Crown and a kind of white-around-the-eyes stutter from Palecki that was completely incomprehensible and decided to get in a little time, alone with the weights, in the gym. He's always preferred working out in privacy. It's a kind of non-thinking time.

Only he isn't alone for long.

First it's Dex strolling in, hips rolling in a distracting way, so that he almost loses his grip on the weights. She spots him just before the bar comes down on his chest, then stays leaning over him, providing a hell of view of a lot of warm, caramel skin and curves. When he gets his gaze above her collarbones though, she's got a very white, very feral smile going on. He's never wanted to be on his back and with a woman less.

"Don't fuck with Sheppard," Dex tells him.

"What?"

Dex just looks at him again. "You heard me." Then she strolls out.

He hasn't got five minutes back into his reps when Teyla shows up. Dex was scary in an amazingly hot way, but Teyla is even more frightening. She's still small, for a guy, but he heard about Parkhurst and Goodwin. He grimaces. They were lipping about the colonel and McKay. He can guess why Teyla's here, too.

Teyla doesn't even say anything, just spins those sticks and looks.

And then it's Major Lorne coming through the doors, giving Teyla a nod and coming to a stop where he can look down at Harper.

"Captain."

"Sir." Harper starts to get up and come to attention but Lorne waves him off. Harper sits up anyway, feeling wary. Somehow, he doesn't think the major is here to shoot the shit.

"I thought I'd remind you of a few things," Lorne says. "I never pegged you for the sort to brag, but even if you aren't, this still doesn't fly. In case you haven't figured it out, everyone is watching to see what the hell happens." His arms are hanging loose by his sides and he flexes his fingers. "Frankly, I don't care if you crash and burn. But if you take the colonel down with you, that I'd care about."

"Sir —"

Lorne holds his hand up. "There are bets being placed, because you seem to think Colonel Sheppard is going to ditch his career, or even her career, if she ends up stuck this way, for a casual hook up with you. Even if it never got out, which is impossible, this would mess up morale. Even if I didn't like the colonel, I still respect her, and looking out for my CO is part of my job. So I'm telling you — you're shut down."

"Sir, may I venture to express that Colonel Sheppard can make her own decisions —"

"No, you may not, because you aren't going to ask that question," Lorne says. "Understand? That is an order. If you can't obey it, I'll make sure you're out of Atlantis and the SGC, too."

"Sir, I can't just cancel."

"Think of something, Captain." Lorne stares at him until Harper swallows. Lorne wasn't even first wave, but he is as protective of Sheppard suddenly as a big brother. It really...well, it sort of took the starch out of a guy. Sheppard might not have a daddy with a shotgun, but Harper gets the feeling he'd have better luck if she did.

"Yes, sir."

He should have...well, he wasn't really sure. Thought twice? Considered that it wasn't just about Sheppard, but the entire team, and really all of Atlantis, because while Harper is just a cog, Sheppard is part of the command staff and if he gets relieved of his post and recalled, nothing will be the same.

Harper runs a hand over his face. To say that didn't go well.... Okay, he is going to have to figure out how to pretend he had never been after Sheppard. With any luck, the Colonel will let it go or better yet not even realize what he'd been trying on. It's worth a shot.

Damn it. He has a feeling that no matter what he does, he'll be on the Daedalus the next time Colonel Caldwell ships out for Earth.

~*~
Harper figures he can get away with talking with Sheppard a little, chalking up the invitation to curiosity, since he and Sheppard have really never talked about anything but work. Nothing for any of her 'protectors' to get bent out of shape about. Maybe he can get him — her, her! — to talk about the whole male/female thing, break the ice. Besides, he is curious.

Maybe Sheppard can offer some pointers Harper can use with some other woman.

Sheppard shows up looking very skittish. Not woman-on-a-date dressed up, either; she's in the exact same BDUs and long-sleeved shirt she's had on since the morning briefing with the rest of the Marine officers. She's definitely distracted, not as enthusiastic about the weapons as Harper had expected, though she can't hide a genuine interest as she hefts the Colt Peacemaker in one hand. Her eyes light up actually, which is nice to see. "Heavy," she comments, turning it and examining the horn grips. "I think I'll stick with my nine-millimeter. I'm still working on Ronon about that pulse pistol."

"I wouldn't mind adding one of those to my collection," he says.

She sets the Peacemaker back in its velvet-lined case, turns and leans back against the edge of a table.

"Are you...? You're not…. Look, I'm just here for the guns, right?" Sheppard begins, laughing a little nervously. "I'm sorry. You know I'm probably misreading you. Right?"

Harper nods, having no clue how to get out of this without lying.

"It's just that," there's another splutter of nervous laughter and a gesture around Harper's quarters, "this could be construed as you, well, hitting on me."

Oh, shit. Trapped. Harper tries to play innocent for about a second, because Lorne told him to not present Sheppard with the proposition, but he's always been a straight-up kind of guy. Sheppard reads it in the silence.

"I...." She blinks, then gestures with her thumb behind her, a strange uncomfortable expression crossing her face as she says, "I'm going to leave. Now." A shake of her head, her voice firmer, decisive. "Jesus."

She pushes off the table with both hands, motion not as graceful as it was earlier, and that means she's uncomfortable, pretty much killing all of Harper's hopes of getting out of this unscathed. Whatever happens, Sheppard is going to want him gone. He may as well start packing.

"Sheppard…." Harper says desperately.

"Colonel."

Sheppard — damn, better think of her as the Colonel — stops, giving Harper a look.

"Colonel Sheppard. I'm not the only one. Just so you know."

He isn't exactly sure what he meant by that, except that Sheppard had better prepared if she — he! – doesn't know people besides McKay are interested.

Sheppard straightens and considers him. "Captain, you're lucky you tried this with me and not one of the women officers or, God help you, any of the enlisted women."

Harper swallows.

"I don't know and don't want to know why you thought I would – even if I was interested – go along with it. There is literally no reason you could offer that would not make me angry."

"Colonel, I —"

Sheppard waits, eyebrow going up and there isn't even a hint of good humor in her face. Christ. Harper really hasn't had a clue, because he really thought Sheppard was as easy-going as she acts most of the time.

"I — it's just — I saw McKay with you and figured you deserved something better," he blurts out and realizes immediately that he really couldn't have said anything that would tick her off faster.

"McKay," Sheppard repeats. Her face is completely blank. "Thank you, Captain. I'll keep that in mind." She walks to the door, still expressionless, and opens it. "I'll consider this an aberration, Captain, due to the confusion of recent events, but it will not happen again," she adds, already out in the corridor.

Harper knows he should be more worried about his job than stung, but he's oddly confident she won't mess up his career or even his tour in Atlantis over this. Guy or girl, Sheppard's a fair CO. But he'll be gone once his deployment is up, no second time around here for him.

He shuts his eyes and with an inward sigh recognizes he's screwed the pooch this time. Damn. Resignedly, he starts counting up the days till Sheppard is a guy again and wonders exactly what misery duty Major Lorne is going saddle him with as punishment. Because he isn't going to take any problems to Sheppard, not after this little fiasco. Fair or not, Sheppard isn't going to overrule anything Lorne orders, because right now Harper is probably her least favorite person in Atlantis.

~*~
He finally finds Sheppard in the main lab, of all places, leaning against the makeshift ZPM box and chatting with Radek as if she didn't have a care in the world. Rodney swallows the furious rush of words on his tongue and settles for stepping up, glaring, and crossing his arms. Waiting.

If Rodney believed in God – something he'd given up on in grade four after the incident involving Rex – he'd assume that He was probing Rodney's faith and fortitude by testing him time after time, a modern-day Job of genius level intellect, but since Rodney most definitely doesn't, he's come to the conclusion he's simply stuck in a vaguely malicious universe: Sheppard takes her own sweet time, finishing her sentence with Radek before turning to Rodney and lifting an eyebrow – as if she were just mildly curious, as if she had no idea what was going on.

Which, really, takes the cake, and the ice-cream and the chocolate too. "Would you mind terribly telling me what exactly you were thinking?"

He's standing close enough to see Sheppard stiffen, square her shoulders, close enough to watch that small smile shift into one of a different quality. "Hi, Rodney. Nice to see you, too."

"Don't try to distract me; as if that worked on anyone older than kindergarten age!" Seriously, does Sheppard think she can just get away with this sort of stuff?

"Distract you from what, exactly?" There's a new undertone to her voice, beneath the patience and slow amusement that are her trademarks, and Rodney finds himself getting angrier and angrier. Sheppard hides in plain sight, and Rodney understands that – it's a military thing, and he hasn't worked with them for ages without learning a thing or thousand – but he also hates it.

"The thing we were talking about yesterday, where you have now turned out to be terribly, grossly, hideously wrong and where I was perfectly right!" Her eyes widen a little, and while Rodney has to grumpily confess not that not only is this a fantastic look on Sheppard but also that her surprise seems genuine enough, he's still feeling his earlier ire. He was hoping for but by no means counting on, Sheppard overcoming her occasional moments of extreme density: diamond in the rough, indeed. "I mean –" He waves his hands, willing Sheppard to get it without having to spell it out in front of Radek, "The situation with the captain, of course! God, I can't believe you went through with it!"

Sheppard pushes herself away from the table; she smiles at a confused-looking Zelenka, bright and easy and everything Rodney could never pull off, and never wants to. "Excuse us. Rodney and I've got to have a little professional discussion. A little pre-mission briefing meeting, you know? You'll have those cameras mounted on the jumpers for the next mission to Heka?" She draws out the word "professional" as if it were chewing gum, and then her hands are there, digging into his lower arm, hard enough to make him yelp and rip it away with a glance that promises pain … or would if it weren't Sheppard, who has never been impressed by either Rodney's bulk or his sharp tongue.

Zelenka nods. "Yes, it is a simple installation, Colonel. Two days is plenty of time."

Sheppard smiles at him. "Thanks, Radek." Then she turns back to Rodney and the smile is gone completely. "Your quarters. Now," Sheppard says, and yes, fine, okay, Rodney finds this a pretty appealing thought, especially with her voice that low and her eyes that hooded. He's far from forgetting that he's angry with her because this is too important, too essential for the future to just forget in the face of her physicality, but it's true that a bit of privacy won't hurt.

When they've reached his quarters – a foot of space between them, no words exchanged – and the door shuts behind them, Sheppard swivels around and puts her hands on her hips. Her eyes are dark, and for once, Rodney doesn't like the line of her lips, tight and sharp. "Okay, McKay, what the fuck?"

Oh, please. "What, you mean Radek just now? Who cares! He certainly doesn't! Unlike the rest of the rumor mill of Atlantis!"

Sheppard doesn't take her hands off her hips; she widens her stance, eyes suddenly alert. "What about the rumor mill?"

"It's spinning and spinning and spinning with the lovely tale of how you came running out of Captain Harper's quarters, all disheveled and agitated!" It's not that Rodney believes the ones who say that Harper' room saw some action of the non-military kind – he's seen Harper since then, and no, that wasn't the look of someone who had gotten some, least of all who'd gotten Sheppard; plus, he does know Sheppard wouldn't really do that to him, not like this – but he loathes that Sheppard didn't believe him, that she went to another man's place even after he had made it quite clear that he wouldn't stand for this kind of thing, not again. Not again.

"That –" Sheppard's mouth opens and closes again without any sound coming out in between, and it looks pretty but a bit dumb as well, dumber than he knows she really is. "Rodney, cut the crap."

"I also distinctly remember telling you that he wanted into your BDUs and that –" he steps forward, close to yelling now, "you couldn't go there under these circumstances; just look at what all of Atlantis is thinking right now!"

Sheppard bites her lip and narrows her eyes at that, rolls her shoulders – producing a creaking sound probably stemming from the second and third neck vertebrae; he wouldn't at all be surprised if Sheppard, too, needs a chiropractor before this whole thing is over – and says, still with her quiet, burning intensity, "Bullshit. Since when does it bother you what anyone thinks?" Her eyes narrow and anger begins bleeding into her expression. "Also, you can take your 'telling me' anything and shove it straight up your ass!"

“Since never, and you must be aware that I am just using this fact to get the issue at hand through your thick skull – it bothers me that despite you and me having a...well, despite you and me! That you would even consider taking up some strapping Aryan grunt’s offer of a less than thinly-veiled date!”

The sound Sheppard makes is odd; a little choked. "Fuck. There was no damn date, no matter what Harper or you or anyone else thinks.” She lifts her chin and looks him square in the eye. “Do you even want to keep having sex? Because, believe me, Rodney, getting all bizarro possessive is a guarantee it isn't going to happen again. And Harper hit on me because he noticed the way you've been acting!"

Something in Rodney’s chest sags a little. "How I have been–oh, fine, fine, I'm sorry about blaming you for Harper, though really he's the one who–and of course I want to have sex, I just want you to understand you're not supposed to have it with anyone else! How is that bizarre? I just want you to be faithful."

At that, Sheppard rocks back on her heels, going for and managing an almost-sneer. "Right, like you'll be faithful the first time some big-breasted blonde crooks her finger, like I'd expect that from you. You're acting like you've got some claim on me."

Rodney wants to respond, wants to shout his indignation at Sheppard because hello, commitment is not a four-letter-word in Rodney McKay’s world, but Sheppard goes perfectly still all of a sudden, features shifting from fierce to collected, one-hundred-percent focused on something she hears over her comm-link; with a grimace, she turns away, stopping only to let the door open.

That’s – "Hey! Where are you going?"

Sheppard glances over her shoulder at Rodney, already stepping outside. “Gateroom – Lorne's team is coming in hot, under fire from unknown hostiles.”

And Rodney has always had a vivid imagination; it readily supplies the Technicolor picture of Sheppard storming in, gun drawn and intent, only to be felled by a shot, blood bubbling past those lips he's just getting to know, or pouring from a chest wound as she crumbles to the gateroom floor. “Wait! You could get hurt!”

Sheppard halts, now, turning fully and with frightening speed. "It's my job!"

"But you're – you – like this –"

"Rodney!" Ice-cold fury in her voice now, and Rodney realizes what he just said and how she's interpreting it....

But, God, she’s being beaten or drugged on every planet they’ve visited so far, and even on Atlantis – at home! – just two Marines jolted them all awake at how different things were, now. “Fine, I'm coming with you. Someone has to look out for lambs and colonels."

That gets him a steely glare and a jerky movement away from him. "Stay here; that’s a fucking order!"

And out she storms, leaving Rodney to lean against the door frame and wonder what just happened.

~*~
Elizabeth knows Sheppard doesn't like the habit she's developed of greeting everyone in the jumper bay when they return. Sheppard likes a few minutes to decompress whereas Elizabeth likes to see everyone is all right. Sheppard worries about contagions and intruders and a dozen other scenarios dating back to the Genii incursion. Elizabeth worries about her people and is human enough to take advantage of knowing Sheppard might not like it, but won't actually object.

So, she's just inside the doors of the jumper bay, after the seventh mission to Heka, when Jumper Five, following the others, wobbles into its dock and drops its hatch immediately. The jumper bay is open to the blue afternoon sky and the sharp salt scent of Atlantis' ocean is present, as always. She has a clear view of Lieutenant Palecki bolting down the ramp, falling to his knees on the deck, and vomiting. Dr. Yang follows him out, face blank and movements stiff.

Her first impulse is to rush over, but nothing was said about casualties or wounded on the radio. Sheppard hadn't asked for a medical team to wait in the jumper bay. And Palecki is a young man whose pride may be taking a beating already, without having a superior and a woman see him lose his cool and his lunch.

She stays back instead and is startled by the sound of a shift of fabric, looking to her side and finding Radek Zelenka hovering beside her. Zelenka doesn't always show at the jumper bay, but it isn't unusual. The jumpers are his babies.

When Sergeant Reyes exits Jumper Six, moves quickly over to Palecki and keeps him from pitching over onto his face, Elizabeth feels a little better. Reyes is six-three, with a face off an Incan coin though he was born in East LA, and has three daughters back on Earth. He arrived with the third wave, the Marines assigned by the SGC after they returned on the Daedalus, and his tour on Atlantis is up the next time Caldwell heads back to Earth port. He has a sort of comfortable certainty, as well as the natural ATA gene, that will be a loss. He's also a natural with the jumpers, despite never having flown anything before. Atlantis likes him.

Elizabeth's relief lasts only as long as it takes to spot Rodney and Sheppard exiting Jumper One and meeting with Major Lorne and Nancy Simpson. Simpson is pasty pale, with her arm held protectively over her stomach. Lorne is in military blank face, while Sheppard keeps shrugging off Rodney's hand on her arm.

"Not good," Zelenka comments.

It doesn't look that way.

Sheppard stalks away from Rodney and her XO and toward Elizabeth and Zelenka. She comes to a stop and actually comes to attention. "Ma'am. Dr. Zelenka."

Elizabeth closes her eyes briefly. She's not sure she's ever seen Sheppard come to attention. It's more alarming than if she'd come back spattered in blood. When Sheppard resorts to formality, something bad has happened.

"What happened?" she asks next. Past Sheppard's shoulder, she notes Lorne speaking with Reyes and helping Palecki to his feet. Crown and Miller have exited their jumpers and joined them. The scientists aren't quite with them, but aren't separate, either. She can hope that means no one has done anything unforgivable on either side. She hopes not; they've all already done enough unforgivable things. When she came to the Pegasus Galaxy, she knew human beings could do unspeakable things to each other. When she leaves, if she ever does, she'll go with the knowledge that she is one of them and even villains don't see themselves as such.

Rodney says something to Simpson, nods, and starts across the jumper bay to their own knot of people. His shoulders slump briefly, but he's straight and radiating that belligerent confidence that is his trademark in the next stride.

"Palecki thought he'd burned someone up," Sheppard states.

Zelenka makes a choked sound.

"What!?"

"The new cameras on the undercarriages worked. Palecki saw a burned body. Already dead, but he didn't know that at first." Sheppard's not at attention anymore, but still far from her normal posture, too stiff and tense. Her eyes are locked onto something beyond Elizabeth's shoulders.

"How?" Elizabeth makes herself ask. "How did...?"

Sheppard glances at Zelenka, winces, then says, "Rodney burned the feed from them to disc. You can watch for yourself. The thermal imaging is pretty much useless, but the regular video catches enough light from the flames to see what's there." She clearly doesn't want to go into detail here.

Rodney comes to stop at Sheppard's side, closer than he used to stand and that was close. Sheppard takes a step aside. Rodney holds out a disc toward her. "It really, it isn't pretty," he says.

"What?"

"I double-check the lifesign detectors every time myself, Elizabeth," Rodney adds. He's willing her to believe him, as earnest as she's ever seen him, but without the sort of discomfort she'd associate with a lie.

"Civilian casualties?" Elizabeth knew it was a possibility when she authorized the plan Sheppard drew up. There was a note in it, pointing out the possibility was something less than remote. But she'd still hoped they could wipe out the skour and change Hekan society without killing any of them — any more of them.

"Depends on your definition," Sheppard answers. She's toneless and professional. "The Hekans are leaving dead bodies in the fields now."

"Dead bodies?"

"Dead bodies don't show up on the scanners," Rodney says. "They don't even show in thermal, unless they're really fresh."

"Why?" she asks in sheer bewilderment.

"They're sadistic cretins who think they can placate the Ancestors by conducting human sacrifices?" Rodney offers. His mouth turns down. "I mean, for all we know, this isn't even new. Maybe that's what they do with bodies. Maybe they're living some sick Soylant Green-goes-back-to-nature scenario and using them for fertilizer —"

Sheppard's face is set. "Shut up, McKay."

"What? You're not blaming us for what they're doing? I refuse to take responsibility — it's a choice! We do something and they react, but how they react is their damn choice!" Rodney yells. "This is why I hate psychology."

"Rodney," Elizabeth murmurs.

He shuts up and glares at Sheppard.

"Write up your reports." She hesitates, then decides this is as good time as any. "Your team has an appointment with Dr. Heightmeyer tomorrow. Don't miss it."

"Oh, joy, that's just fantastic, I can waste more time while Kate asks 'but how do you feel?' over and over again," Rodney snaps in disgust. He turns toward Sheppard. "I'm going to my lab."

Sheppard ignores him. Rodney gives her a hurt look, then points at Zelenka. "You. What are you doing wasting time here? You're supposed to be analyzing the new equipment in the lab we opened last week." He bypasses Elizabeth and palms open the transporter door. "I'd like just once to come back and have everyone in the science department doing what they're scheduled to be doing. Maybe I should just pencil in a window for the daily emergency.... Well, what are you waiting for, Radek? Get in here." Zelenka flickers a smile Elizabeth's way and follows.

Sheppard half turns and watches her pilots talking together. "Palecki thought he'd burned someone alive. He's pretty shaken up. I don't know if I can send him out again."

"Who would fly instead?"

Sheppard looks angry and unhappy. "Dr. Hooperman. I'd put Sergeant Leitz in with him."

"Ari Hooperman is a civilian."

Sheppard nods. "He's a better pilot than any of the other Marines. He's been flying co-pilot, real co-pilot, with Reyes since we started this. I'd trust him to stay on target."

Elizabeth looks at Palecki, who is still pale and gagging periodically. "I'll think about it."

That earns her a shrug. "I know I can't order him...."

"While I can?"

Sheppard shrugs again. "I'll have my After Action report in your email by nine."

"Thank you, Colonel."

Sheppard nods to Elizabeth and strides back to the other pilots. Elizabeth watches another moment, watching how they all look to Sheppard, then returns to her office and to play the disc Rodney gave her.

~*~
Kate wishes she had been able to get the team in after the mission to Heka. Or the mission to Hermea. Or the mission back to Heka. But life in Atlantis doesn't cater to anyone's wishes and schedules; appointments get thrown out the window as regularly as something goes wrong in a 'we're all going to die horribly' way. She's learned to roll with it, just like every other expedition member who is still alive and still around. The ones who don't learn, they go home. Alive on the Daedalus, if they're lucky, or, if they're not, in its morgue in a body bag. A few never make it back as far as Atlantis, and all that goes back is a letter of condolence from Dr. Weir or Colonel Sheppard.

There are values of lucky.

The day SGA-1 returned through the stargate from Heka, Kate was trying to convince Dr. Calotti he was one of the lucky ones. He was alive and going home. All of him except his left hand, which had been cleanly snapped off by an offended creature Calotti had mistakenly classified as a herbivore on PX8-093. Only the quick thinking of Sergeant Grazer and Dr. Pao had kept Calotti from bleeding to death before they got him back to Atlantis.

Elizabeth talked to her after SGA-1 debriefed, after the grapevine had already told the story of the planet of women-haters growing drugs, a ZPM snatched away, and the team diving through the gate ahead of a hail of spears. They shared a shot of Scotch from a bottle Kate kept around just for those moments when a sedative wasn't the right prescription, while Elizabeth gave her a better idea of what had really happened, along with the consequences and all of Elizabeth's doubts.

Two days later, SGA-1 gated out to Hermea. By the time they returned, Kate was embroiled in the marital meltdown of Dr. Pierson and Professor Peirson-White. Dr. Pierson wanted a divorce. Professor Pierson-White wanted to kill Dr. Pierson and had attempted to fulfill her wish with a fork in the middle of the mess hall. Bets had been exchanged over who would have more punctures by the time security wrestled the two screaming scientists apart.

The only thing she's heard about the Hermea mission is a passing mention by Elizabeth, a giggle and the word 'shopping,' coupled with a handwave. Apparently, nothing went wrong, which is rare enough someone should have commented. Figuring out how to keep both or at least one Pierson or Pierson-White, when both wanted the other gone, has preoccupied her, however.

The solution appears to be a provisional divorce to be filed by SGC lawyers back on Earth and assigning them different quarters, different shifts in the labs - and the mess hall.

She did hear Angela Maleni won six candy bars, a bag of Doritos, and part of Dr. Anderson's DVD porn collection with her prediction of thirty-nine punctures total.

In the meantime, the first bombing mission to Heka has come and passed without apparent incident, while she spent her time talking to Private Michaelson, a tow-headed Hoosier who has extended not eating anything alien to not eating anything. Private Michaelson is being force-fed in the infirmary three times a day until the Daedalus can take him back to Earth and out of the SGC. Kate's recommendation is that further therapy be part of the terms of his good conduct discharge.

Kate is the one who canceled the appointment to see Colonel Sheppard's team last week when Reyes's team returned from their third mission in a row to a culled world. This time the inhabitants had been trade partners; allies. She has had them all in her office for the last week, trying to help them deal with the events while they were fresh, rather than suffer bouts of PTSD years later.

She used to wish for more hours in the day, when she was in medical school, but now she has them – four to be exact – and all she's got to show for it is more work and a bunch of patients with sleep disorders.

And SGA-1 in her office, every single one of them sitting on a separate, white couch, pretending everything is fine. Kate's bullshit detector is pinging like a Geiger counter in Chernobyl.

"How was Dachan?" she asks, hoping to open with a neutral subject. The grapevine hasn't offered anything since a short furor over the way three of the team had to dress in skirts, which isn't all that exciting. Gate teams have worn stranger things. Lorne's team came back from one mission with symbiotic flowers growing in their hair, wearing nothing but feather dusters.

"Bright," Sheppard says.

"Shiny," Rodney adds.

"I did not like it," Teyla offers.

"That's because everyone saw your hairy knees," Rodney says.

"Got in a bar fight," Ronon finishes.

"Ronon can really throw a blade-ball," Sheppard adds. She's elaborately casual. "Kick-ass. She won enough to buy us all drinks."

Kate waits and they all stare at her. None of them looks at each other and none of them adds anything else. She picks out the only interesting thing mentioned. "A bar fight?"

Ronon shrugs.

"Sheppard got drunk." That from Rodney, along with a glare aimed at the Colonel. Sheppard glares back.

"I wasn't drunk."

"Oh, right, excuse me, you were drugged."

Kate raises an eyebrow at Sheppard. "Drugged?"

"Same old, same old," Sheppard replies, still casual, adding a smile meant to distract. "Contrary to its advertising, Dachan doesn't have something for everyone. No naquadah, no naquadria, and no Ancient doohickies to be seen. It's all sex and gambling. Nothing happened, and we came home."

"Right, that's why you were letting Gigolo Ken feel you up," Rodney interrupts. "You always do that. Wait, you do always do that, except it's usually Ascended Space Barbie." He sits back with his arms folded, communicating clearly that he thinks he has won an argument. "You've got to be more careful now. Good thing Ronon and I were there to rescue you."

Sheppard turns to stare at him, her brows drawing together in a real frown.

"Lasparn wasn't that bad," Ronon says.

"If you wanted to be sold into prostitution."

Sheppard just shrugs again and smiles at Rodney, but the glint in her eyes isn't especially amiable. "All's well that ends well, right? Nothing happened to me on Dachan."

Rodney rolls his eyes, then catches Sheppard's gaze. He swallows and flushes. "You – yeah, you're right. Nothing happened. On Dachan."

Ronon looks away. Teyla cocks his head, as though he, like Kate, hears something that he doesn't quite get.

"And Heka? We haven't had an opportunity to talk about your experiences on Heka," Kate says.

Sheppard shuts down fast, so fast Kate worries. The last of the bruising on her face has faded. Kate isn't sure if she can still see or only imagines there's still a darker tinge to Sheppard's cheek.

"Do we have to talk about that?" Rodney asks.

"You must have found it very disturbing." Kate found the reports disturbing as hell, and she wasn't even there.

Sheppard is blank-faced and her voice toneless. "You could say that."

"And the fire missions?"

"They're –"

"She doesn't want to talk about it," Rodney interrupts.

Rodney stands and then seats himself next to Sheppard. A gesture of solidarity, Kate thinks. She sees him touch Sheppard's shoulder next – and the reaction startles her. Sheppard jerks away and glares furiously at Rodney. "Cut it out!"

Rodney gapes at Sheppard. "What?"

"Stop with the touching all the damn time, stop talking for me! This isn't Heka or Dachan," Sheppard hisses at him. Moving with a jerkiness at odds with her normal grace, she stands and takes two steps away. Kate isn't sure Sheppard's even thinking about anyone else in the room. "You want to tell me who I can talk to! You act like I can't do my job, and people are going to start to believe it!"

Kate isn't sure if she should interrupt or not. This is the first time she's seen Sheppard this furious; at least some of it probably isn't really directed at Rodney, but he's taking the brunt of an explosion that's been brewing for some time, probably weeks. At the same time, she's sure something has happened to trigger it now, because Sheppard's tight but effortless-looking control is gone.

"I was trying to be –"

"Well, don't!" Sheppard shouts.

Rodney's mouth twists into a sneer. "Don't be such a girl."

"Don't act like I'm your helpless fucktoy!" Sheppard freezes the instant her words are out, then sucks in a harsh breath, while Rodney's face drains of all color. Kate ventures a quick look at the other two members of the team. Teyla is displaying a mixture of shock, anger, and pained longing. Ronon is staring at the floor, tracing the patterns on a soft, Athosian-woven rug with the toe of her boot.

Sheppard's head comes up, every hint of emotion bled away, expression empty. Kate has seldom seen such complete, controlled withdrawal. Sheppard isn't shaking, isn't displaying any embarrassment at the outburst or at revealing a sexual relationship that was obviously a secret before, she's just quietly not-there. She stares at Kate, steadily. "I'm leaving."

"Colonel," Kate murmurs, wondering if she should object or not. Holding Sheppard here under the circumstances isn't - well, it isn't possible, and it wouldn't do any good, anyway.

"Not here, not now," Sheppard says, which is an acknowledgment that Kate can't just ignore this. They will have to talk. Kate will probably be forced to ask Elizabeth to make it an order again, but they will have to address this. Sheppard nods at her, formal and proper, and heads for the door. Without looking at any of the team.

Ronon makes an abortive move to rise, maybe to follow, but then sits back. Rodney just slumps down over his knees, staring at his hands, head hanging.

"We'll talk later, Colonel," Kate says.

Sheppard stops, but doesn't turn. Her shoulders are set, stiff and straight. She nods. The door opens for her and she strides out.

Kate studies the other three.

Rodney's shoulders are hunched, the picture of giving up, but he bolts to his feet as the door closes behind Sheppard. Kate guesses he means to go after Sheppard; something she can predict is not a good idea now. For either of them. "Rodney," she snaps. He stares at her, wide-eyed. "Stay."

"What? No," Rodney blurts out. "I should – should talk to –"

Teyla interrupts him. "You took advantage of the situation, did you not?" The low, accusatory tone holds more anger than shock. "The Colonel was drugged."

"No! Not when we – It wasn't like that," Rodney protests. "It isn't like that."

"Of course it is not," Teyla says, "when it is something that benefits you. It is never like other cases, then."

"Teyla." Ronon's voice is rough but loud enough to snap Teyla's attention to her. "It wasn't."

Teyla turns slowly and looks at his other teammate. Kate keeps her own expression as neutral as possible. She isn't in control of this session. She should have anticipated problems - if not this one. They seemed too well-adjusted in the previous session, but of course, all the stress has only compounded with each new mission, each week of being changed. Reality is sinking in. Everything was bound to get harder for them, not easier. Not for a while yet.

"How would you know?" Teyla asks Ronon. His eyes are narrowed. His tone unusually sarcastic, he adds, "Were you there?" Then his eyes widen in realization. "You were there."

"Not for the sex," Ronon replies.

"Yet you would have stayed otherwise?" Kate's never heard Teyla so snide. It doesn't help when Ronon twitches, causing Teyla's frown to darken. "And do not make a joke of this, Ronon Dex. It is no laughing matter."

"Ronon left," Rodney says.

"When was this, Rodney?" Kate asks. He's still standing, looking lost.

"After Carson released us all from the infirmary. After Dachan."

"The three of you...retreated to one of your rooms?"

"Sheppard's quarters," Ronon supplies. "I brought a bottle of the blue stuff. Gera."

Rodney bobs his head along with Ronon's words. "We asked you, Teyla. Remember?" He's trying to convince her of his innocence or at least lack of ill intentions. His voice quivers and rises at the end more than a mere question calls for.

"I remember," Teyla admits. The anger is still there, but Kate can see it dissipating with each slow breath he takes. It's rare, to not suppress negative emotion but to face it, integrate it, deal with it the instant it occurs. Without asking – perhaps later in a private session – Kate can't be sure whether it's an innate trait or something Teyla has spent long perfecting, although she suspects it's the latter.

Ronon leans forward, pitching her voice low. "We were just relaxing. Talking."

"No one was drunk and Carson swore whatever Lasparn gave Sheppard was gone." He looks at Kate, clearly willing her to believe him. "Okay?"

She nods.

Teyla nods too and asks in a quieter voice, facing Kate, "Should we speak of this without the Colonel here?" He's uncomfortable and reluctant to continue the subject, Kate thinks, still half angry, but willing to accept Rodney and Ronon's explanation until Sheppard contradicts it.

"Well, she's the one who left in a huff," Rodney snaps. Then the anger melts out of him so that he seems smaller. "It was so easy. I should have realized nothing's ever that easy, something always goes wrong. Now everything is screwed up. Plus, there's Harper, that sonovabitch tried to put the moves on Sheppard. Sheppard didn't believe me, when I told her what he was trying." He holds up his hands and waves them aimlessly. Opens his mouth and then shuts it with a snap, while Ronon looks at him with an expression somewhere between sympathy and pity.

Kate decides she needs to snap Rodney out of his potential funk. "Have you considered how difficult the Colonel must find this whole situation?"

"Of course!" Rodney gave her an indignant glare that gradually dissolved as she met it. "Well. I mean – sort of."

He turns, paces toward the window and stops. Kate doubts he is that interested in the ocean, no matter how blue and beautiful an Atlantis morning can be. "Maybe," he says. "Maybe I hadn't considered every angle. Yet." Even in the window's reflection, Kate can see the mulish pout. "But Sheppard's the one acting weird, and…aggressive. All I've done is pay attention and talk to her and be nice to her."

Kate chokes back laughter. No doubt Colonel Sheppard is acting weird; under the circumstances it's inevitable. Sheppard's probably worried she's fallen into the Twilight Zone.

"Perhaps you should just act normally with her," she suggests when she can speak without betraying her amusement.

"What?" Rodney spins around and throws up his hands. "There's nothing normal about this situation! I mean, other than me, I'm normal, I'm the very dictionary definition of normal, other than in that I do possess a superior intelligence to anyone else here. I pride myself on my mental stability. But even a genius can't be expected to fathom Sheppard's moods, even if I am sleeping with her."

"So what?" Ronon asks.

"What what?" Rodney frowns, perplexed and annoyed. "This is – this is important, you mutant Playboy bunny. Sheppard's – I don't even know what Sheppard's thinking, if she is thinking."

"She's thinking," Ronon replies. "You're undermining her."

"I am not!"

A resounding silence greets this.

Rodney snaps his mouth shut and glares at Teyla and Ronon. "Oh, shut up."

"I did not say anything," Teyla says.

Rodney huffs. "You were thinking."

"Other people do that, too." Ronon accompanies her words with a sardonic lift of an eyebrow.

"Oh, fine. Fine. Mock me. But...I was just trying to make sure everything works."

"We are not talking about a piece of machinery," Kate says mildly, already wondering what exactly Rodney told Sheppard in order to ensure what he considered important, essential. She flashes back on past sessions, on him telling her about girlfriends: ugly scenes, even uglier behaviour from them, sometimes understandable if not anything she condoned. She focuses on Rodney again, who is frowning.

"I made a real effort to act the way I'm supposed to," he says. The last part is a little forlorn. He isn't good with people who don't know and understand him, who aren't willing to overlook the faux pas and the sometimes brutal, impatient honesty that goes along with the super-sized ego. "I don't know what I did wrong."

Teyla sighs and Ronon shrugs.

"How different is this from normal, Rodney?" Kate asks. "What do you consider normal?"

"How should I know? Very different from not sleeping with my team leader, of course. Now there's this relationship, and...." Excitement and fear in the way he pronounces relationship. Kate's notes it and notes the flash of pain on Ronon's face, quickly hidden, unlike Teyla's obvious discomfort with the idea. She realizes she has no idea how the Athosians view same-sex pairings, which is how Teyla must consider Rodney and Sheppard, despite everything. Rodney goes on, "...and I, I have to say, it's rather new, at least in this context. I have, of course, had relationships before. With women! And...and I'm really bad at relationships."

He looks at Kate and his mouth falls into the down-turned, false smile he uses to cover when he's uneasy. "Well, you'd know," he finishes. "I've talked about them enough with you."

Kate hurts for him then. He's never gotten past either ignoring his girlfriends or fawning over them until they start despising him. "But you already have a relationship with Colonel Sheppard, don't you? You're friends."

"Of course we are." He adds, gloomily, "Well, we were."

"Have you been acting like a friend?"

Rodney looks blank. Then those blue eyes sharpen as he re-evaluates his actions. One pleasant aspect of treating Rodney is his honesty. Lead him to the truth and he won't pretend it isn't there. He might never see it without some prompting, but Rodney isn't usually one for denial. "Well, I, uh. Come to reconsider it, I may have worried, upon occasion, and been a little overbearing as a result. When I wasn't – " his eyes widen, "when I wasn't being nice."

"Imagine you're Colonel Sheppard for a moment," Kate explains.

"Difficult, but not beyond my intellect."

She waits until he nods.

"You trusted your friend only to suddenly be treated not as a friend but as something else."

"I didn't – oh."

"From Colonel Sheppard's standpoint, Rodney."

"Oh." Rodney appears to examine this concept in his head, frowning. "But I thought, I mean – If we're together, you know, together...?" He makes a vague hand motion that means all and nothing.

Ronon sits forward. "When you weren't worried – which you must stop, anyway – you wanted to treat Sheppard nice. Like you'd treat a girl?"

Rodney stares. "Um. Yes?"

"Sheppard wants you to treat her like always."

Kate smiles at Ronon, amazed and pleased by her willingness to act as intermediary between Sheppard and Rodney.

"Oh."

"Sheppard's still Sheppard," Ronon declares.

"So I should just act like we're not having sex?" Rodney asks her.

"Are those mutually exclusive, Rodney?" Kate asks, before Ronon can answer, if Ronon even meant to answer.

"Huh," Rodney grunts. He drops down on the couch next to Ronon and looks thoughtful.

Kate switches her attention to Teyla. "Teyla? Do you have anything to say about Dachan? I understand from the reports that Major Lorne spoke with Halling and some of your people about the planet before you went there. Have you had problems because of the change?"

Teyla lifts his chin. "I am cast out."

Ronon and Rodney both turn toward Teyla immediately. "What? No! But, I always thought...." Rodney saws his hands through the air, looking slightly betrayed. Ronon looks angry. Very angry.

Kate leans forward. This is not a good development, not for the team, not for Atlantis, and most especially not for Teyla. "Teyla?"

Teyla turns his face away from them all in a mannerism that reminds Kate of Sheppard. His expression is carefully blank, yet the pain is still clear to anyone looking closely.

"What happened?" Ronon asks. Her voice is almost as deep as it used to be, and Kate finds she's happy not to be an Athosian at the moment. She wouldn't want Ronon to direct this kind of silent but threatening anger at her. Sheppard will be furious too, once she hears.

"I am an abomination, unnatural, and there are none among my – among Halling's people – who would consent to bear or sire a child with me," Teyla explains, his voice gone flat and dull.

"Is having children that important to the Athosians?" Kate asks. She thought...well, she thought, much as Rodney probably had, that the Athosians were a tolerant, even liberal society. They adapted to interaction with the Earth expedition so easily, were traders and nomads, and Teyla had always seemed amused by the vagaries and taboos they'd observed among other cultures.

"I was considered strange and selfish to have waited so long, as it was," Teyla admits.

Selfish is the last word Kate would use to describe Teyla, but of course, he's applying the standards of his community, a community Atlantis never really knew, it turns out. Kate hasn't treated any Athosians except for Teyla; the fact she never wondered let alone inquired why suddenly looks like an oversight.

With regular cullings, every successful, sane society in Pegasus focuses by necessity on fertility and maintaining the population. Some missions have brought them into contact with groups that had failed and were dying off, or even a few that seemed to have turned deliberately self-destructive. Witness the Hekans.

"I don't get it," Rodney admits.

"Women with women or men with men, that is not how we are supposed to live," Teyla states quietly, looking down at his hands.

"So?" Ronon looks puzzled as well as angry now. "Be with a woman."

"I am a woman," Teyla snaps. "That is how I am known to my people! They have not forgotten this truth the way you and Colonel Sheppard have. And they will not forget this," she gestures at herself, "afterward. They won't have me."

"Then they're fools."

Fools or not, Teyla needs to be accepted by them and now isn't. Kate sighs.

"So the whole serene, Earth Mother shebang you've got going, that's all a ruse and you're really homophobic?" Rodney blurts out. He looks at Teyla uncertainly, as if he's suddenly a stranger to him.

Teyla clenches his fists on his knees.

"We do not judge others' ways. It is not our way," he says in a low voice. "Even those who turn away from what is proper are not condemned, if they also fulfil their duty to our people. But I cannot do that now, so I cannot be –" He shakes his head. "And if they were to learn of my ties to the Wraith...."

Kate nods. Even though Teyla's people don't know of the Wraith DNA, Teyla must feel it as a great gulf between them. Hatred and fear of the Wraith are so ingrained among the peoples of Pegasus that he would likely be shunned or even attacked if that were to become known outside Atlantis.

"Halling is – was – fond of me, but I think he would not forgive this as he forgave me my choice to stay in the city when everyone else moved to the mainland."

"Teyla...." Rodney says, giving Kate a helpless, fix-it look.

"He may pity me for this and regret that my father's line will be lost, along with the Wraith-sense, but he will do nothing for me," Teyla finishes wearily.

"You can find someone here in Atlantis," Ronon tells her, voice soft under the gruff note.

"You, well, you belong with us now, Teyla," Rodney blurts out, turning pink. "You know, sort of, ah, family. Sheppard turned into a big blue bug and it was okay. Eventually. This will be, too."

Kate squeezes her eyes shut. Nothing in her training has taught her how to minister to a woman literally turned into a man against her will, nor one from a completely alien culture, while in the midst of what is in fact a war for species survival. She hasn't a clue to how much of this is Teyla's subjective experience of the situation and how much of it is in fact the way the Athosians feel. She really needs to consult with the cultural anthropologists and sociologists who have been interviewing the Athosians. Maybe she can garner some background to help her work with Teyla.

And helping Teyla is something she'll have to start as soon as possible. "I understood that you had confided the matter of your Wraith heritage to Charin," she says.

"But only Charin," Teyla replies.

Kate nods carefully. It doesn't take a psychologist to see the grief in his eyes at the mention of his grandmother, and again, Kate realises how much weight Teyla is carrying with her, has been carrying all along. If he seems to overreact now – that's not what's surprising; it's surprising how long he held it together before.

"Charin cared when no one else understood, when I first began to sense the Wraith...." Teyla sighs. "I had no one else." He smiles, a little ruefully. "She was there when I had my first cycle."

Rodney grimaces, but Ronon just looks curious. "Cycle?" she asks.

Kate ignores her and smiles gently at Teyla. "And your mother?"

"Was culled when I was very young."

Kate lets her face show nothing but sympathy, but it's hard not to cringe. Teyla's whole family, save for Charin, was killed by the Wraith, but the knowledge has always been abstract, a tidbit of information, not...this raw sorrow. Yet Teyla has made the pain into strength rather than breaking under it, which Kate admires.

She gathers her thoughts and asks, "There's no one else among your people that you're as close to as Charin? No else you would trust to talk to about this?"

"No." Not hostile, just matter-of-fact.

"You can talk to us," Ronon declares.

Teyla tips his head. "I am, am I not?"

Ronon looks at him, a frank but gentle assessment. "You're answering her. Not the same."

Teyla starts to speak, then falls silent, and bows his head. "No, it is not the same. But nothing remains unchanged in life, Ronon."

Kate glances over at Rodney, who's nodding quickly. "You really should –" he breaks off, blinks slowly, then starts again. "We'd like to help you but can't if you don't let us, and can I just add I'm terrible at all the touchy-feely stuff already? I mean, honestly, even if you were more emotionally open, I could absolutely almost guarantee I wouldn't be able to do anything productive about it, but...." He hesitates, drums his fingers on the armrest in a quick rhythm. "I'd hate it, but I'd try. You're obviously even more uncomfortable with this situation than even Sheppard. I would try to help you sort it out. So would Sheppard, you know."

"So would I." Ronon looks at her, one of the sideways glances they so often seem to exchange when Kate sees them in the mess hall, before a mission. "You know that. Just have to remember." She looks down for a moment. "We've got your back."

~*~
Kate is poking through her desk, looking for the little tin of tinted lip balm she got from Lieutenant Taylor in exchange for half a bag of the hard candy that her sister sent her. Make-up isn't something she thought about until reaching the Pegasus Galaxy, when she realized that what she had might be all she would ever have and that it was a vanity, but a necessary part of her as well. Her make-up is part of her professional mask and she wears it the way Elizabeth wears her eyeliner, the way Sheppard straps on a thigh holster, the way Carson dons his lab coat.

The sound of the door opening and a softly exhaled breath startle her. She looks up. Kate blinks, feeling surprised.

Colonel Sheppard is standing in the doorway. One hand rests on the doorframe, keeping it from closing. Her hair looks like she's been clutching at it and her lips like she's been biting them – or Rodney has. Kate immediately scolds herself for that thought. She really thought she would have to hunt Sheppard down. Of course, Sheppard's expression is too purposefully bored, and every line of her body is screaming her reluctance. But she's here, even if she had to force herself. Kate is impressed.

Sheppard clears her throat. "Got some time?" Very casual, very at ease, as if she just happened to stop at Kate's door and her knuckles weren't white where they are clutching at Ancient architecture. She's tense as a bowstring under the facade.

Kate quietly says good-bye to her plans of taking a leisurely lunch break and enjoying the fruit desserts the cooks have been making the last week. "Always," she replies. "Why don't you come all the way in?"

Sheppard nods briskly but doesn't move, and Kate wonders if she might need help prying her fingers loose. But Sheppard seems to give herself a mental shove: Another quick lip-lick, and she steps inside. The door closes almost impatiently. "So, about before…."

Kate leans casually against the edge of her desk. "Yes?" Lunch really isn't important. Colonel Sheppard, voluntarily in her office, looking for help, is. She gestures to the couches. "Why don't we both sit down first and then talk?"

Sheppard follows her motion and nods. "Yeah, sure." She walks very slowly, though, and sits down the same way, all perfect military posture, knees and ankles together, back straight as a ruler, with her hands folded in her lap.

Kate misses the easy slouch, then focuses on the woman at hand and tries to ease the tension a little. "I didn't know you could actually sit at attention."

Sheppard almost flinches and sits even straighter. Kate sits down opposite her, resisting the instinct to sit just as tensely. It's an utterly closed posture and she wants to communicate ease and openness. She needs Sheppard to relax a little, at least, and not feel the need to be protect herself so diligently.

"It's something you learn when your CO isn't too enamored of you," Sheppard offers with a tentative smile, but at the same time she's still radiating Don't Come Too Close vibes. Exactly the same ones Sheppard gave off as a man. Sheppard doesn't invite anyone close, except on occasion, members of the team. Kate wonders if the invisible walls came down when she had sex with Rodney or if they were still there, because she doesn't know if Rodney would recognize them or not. The whole problem may lie in Rodney not realizing sex wasn't an invitation to make free with Sheppard's personal space.

"I shouldn't have walked out on my team," Sheppard says.

Right to the point. This is what brought Sheppard back to her door. Sheppard thinks she failed her team. She's – become? – professional and responsible enough to accept whatever it takes to prevent future problems within.

Even when this means talking about herself.

"You weren't under fire, Colonel," Kate tells her gently. "They were in no danger here. Everyone, including you, is allowed to be human in this room." She's read Sheppard's personnel file more than once. General Bennett's scrawled cocky and the repeated write-ups for insubordination. But she's never met an officer with more loyalty to his subordinates than Sheppard.

"That's all very nice, but I'm still in command," Sheppard declares. Her jaw is set, strong; this is not the first time she's thinking about this issue.

"And commanders aren't allowed to be human, to have doubts or vulnerabilities?"

Sheppard eyes her, then smiles flatly. "Not where I come from."

Kate's smile is encouraging. "Allowed or not, we still have flaws, all of us. What happens when you show them?"

"People begin to doubt."

"Doubt what?"

"Whether you know what the hell you're doing." Sheppard stirs restlessly. "Even if you don't, you have to act like you do. That's what they teach officers." She shrugs and adds thoughtfully, "You start thinking your commander can be wrong, is wrong...then you'd disobey orders, wouldn't you?"

Kate reflects on that. "And that threatens the system."

Sheppard's mouth turns down. "And that gets some people dead and others reassigned to Antarctica. Because it turns out that the commander was right, even if you didn't believe it."

Afghanistan. It's there, between the two of them. Sheppard knows Kate's read her file. She doesn't know what to say. 'You had good intentions' would be an insult.

Sheppard lifts an eybrow. "I am capable of learning, contrary to what General Bennett thought." She's lost a little of the stiff posture now, purses her lips before looking at Kate eye to eye and drawling, "Guess that's why I'm here."

Kate doesn't smile, but if she wasn't bound to hold back value judgments she would confirm that and applaud Sheppard. It must be infinitely hard to come to Kate like this. Painful. Sheppard's reticence is as ingrained and part of her as the dark hair. Defense mechanisms are the hardest to set aside, especially if they exist for a reason and succeed. But Sheppard's sense of duty to her people, her team, is enough to propel her back to Kate. Because she does care, despite the careful distance.

Sheppard is here. So it's for her team and Atlantis, not herself. That doesn't mean Kate can't help her. Maybe it will help even when Sheppard returns to being a man.

"Do you want to talk about why you walked out of the session first or maybe some of the things the rest of the team mentioned after you left?" she asks.

Sheppard is startled. "I – letting me off easy, are you?"

"Just lulling you into a false sense of safety."

"You know, I believe that."

Kate settles back into the couch and across from her Sheppard unconsciously mimics her. Some of the tension eases away.

"How do you feel about flying what are essentially military missions again?"

"Ask the easy questions first, right," Sheppard drawls. "I'm doing it."

"But what do you think about it?"

"We decided to do something about Heka and I'm behind that, but that doesn't mean I like this option very much."

Kate hadn't expected that. She'd expected something harsher, something in the eye for an eye, teach them a lesson vein. Sheppard rubs at the callouses in the palm of one hand with a thumb, then separates her hands carefully and places one over the other. "It's going to go badly."

"Badly, Colonel?"

Sheppard's gaze moves past her to the windows. The light has moved. It glitters off the other towers now, casting bright reflections that are all angles and lines through Kate's office. Sheppard isn't looking at the towers or the reflections, though. "The Hekans aren't going to act the way we want them to act. They're going to find some way to blame their women for whatever happens. If it's a mistake to think you understand how another culture thinks on Earth, then how the hell do we think we can do it in another galaxy?"

"What you say is possible. The worst case scenario is always possible. But you must believe the Hekans can change for the better."

She sighs. "Some days, I hate making the scientists part of this."

"How would you define 'this,' Colonel?"

Sheppard doesn't look away, but her face twists with disdain. She presses her lips together into a thin line. "Flying fire missions with us. Being part of a military intervention, a quote unquote peacekeeping mission, pacification effort, pick your euphemism. Helping kill people."

"You're not killing people. You're burning fields."

"It's a matter of time."

"You think it will come to that?"

"You don't?"

"My opinion isn't relevant."

"You're the shrink, you know people, right? You know the Hekans aren't going to suddenly see the light and start playing nice." Sheppard stares at her with the knowledge of Bosnia and Afghanistan in her eyes, the human history of just Earth proof of all the horror that people can visit on each other. Kate can offer no argument. But the Hekans aren't her problem: Sheppard is.

"But you'll continue flying these missions?"

"Why not?" Sheppard doesn't sound troubled by that. "I put together the plan."

"You must have realized that you might potentially have to take lives when you joined the Air Force, Colonel."

"I knew."

"Does it trouble you now?"

"It's my job," she replies calmly. "It's not the scientists' job, you know?"

"I see." Sometimes Sheppard's ruthlessness is frightening. Kate suppresses her own disturbed reaction to that side of her. Even a hint of censure from her and Sheppard will be gone. "You don't think it's Rodney's job?"

Sheppard blinks. "That's – it's different. He's pretty good, these days."

"Right." Kate nods, filing it away. To Sheppard, Rodney isn't one of the scientists. He's team. "Do you worry about him sometimes?"

"I'm in command." Sheppard shrugs, deliberately casual. "I worry about everyone."

"Certainly. But Colonel, you've never once come to me because you were worried about your responsibilities as military commander of this base. And you didn't walk out of the session earlier because of them. You mentioned Rodney specifically. He's your teammate. A friend, as well as everything else."

Sheppard shifts nervously, then rubs the back of her neck before pulling in a deep breath. "About that...."

Oh, John. Kate takes her own deep breath and steps into the minefield. "Yes."

"Do we have to talk about this?"

Kate looks at her. "What do you think? You had sex with Rodney."

"Everything comes back to sex with you shrinks." Sheppard grimaces.

"You think so?"

"Isn't that what Freud thought?"

"I'm not a Freudian." Kate waits, then she prompts again. "Do you feel like that was a mistake?"

"Uh...." Sheppard's face twists into a frown, then smooths out again. "Well, fraternization, and –"

Sheppard glances down at herself, not entirely a conscious movement, and Kate nods. "Your new body?"

"The body itself is fine. I've already said that." A hint of reticence.

"I see." Kate wants, badly to ask what it felt like for Sheppard, experiencing sex in another gender and why she chose to do it. She's afraid to push. "You were unsettled by what happened during your sexual encounter?"

"I'm not saying it was bad," Sheppard replies, glib again. "Just...McKay's acting like I'm his girlfriend. Or something. It's getting creepy."

That jibes with what Rodney said. She leans forward a little and keeps her voice soft. "Which bothers you most? Rodney taking the traditional male role with you, or that he's no longer interacting with you according to your previous paradigm?"

"Yeah. Look, getting McKay to pay attention to an order, even in the field, can be hard enough, but now he's acting like he's giving the orders – in public, and in private, too. It's screwing with my head, and it's going to mess up my ability to command anyone else that sees it." Sheppard pauses, then shrugs like that is all there is to it.

"Why did you sleep with Rodney?"

"Well, it seemed like it might be fun," Sheppard drawls. Her hand plucks at the seam of her pants, betraying an agitation she's kept out of her voice or face.

"You just wanted sex?"

"Hey, wouldn't you experiment?"

Kate ventures another glance down. Sheppard's knuckles are shining white through the skin where she's digging her fingers into her leg. Her pulse is a visible, fast flutter at her throat, and her pupils are dilated.

"Why Rodney?"

"Why not?"

"And this...experiment? How did it go?"

"Nice. Good." Another shrug, a rueful smile that doesn't quite reach her eyes.

"Colonel," Kate says gently, "What do you think will happen when this is over?"

"Why should anything happen? It'll be over."

"Are you so sure it'll all be over?"

Sheppard glances at Kate and her eyebrow goes up. "Unless you know something about McKay I don't."

Kate smiles gently and stays silent.

"Patient confidentiality?" Sheppard asks.

"It's the most basic premise of therapy." She looks at Sheppard seriously. "Nothing you say to me will be shared." She's implying, if not outright saying, that her official reports will be far thinner than they might be. She made this decision long ago. Her first responsibility is to her patients, not the SGC or any military regulations. In that, she and Sheppard see eye to eye.

Sheppard nods. "Beckett...?"

"Carson doesn't have access to my case files."

That startles Sheppard, she sees, but Sheppard's nodding. "Beckett's a great doc and all, but...."

"Carson sometimes forgets he's discussing patients rather than petri dishes."

Sheppard cracks a small smile, a real one this time.

"Is that why you asked to have Louise do your exams?"

"That and because he was just - he was a guy and suddenly I wasn't anymore." Sheppard shrugs. "I don't care how much anatomy he knows, he doesn't know it from the inside." Another pause. "I guess that's what the Hermeans want us to learn."

"How was the second visit to Hermea?" She can't help being fascinated by the glimpses of this culture she's read in the reports. The anthropologists and sociologists are enraptured. Every one of them would go to Hermea if Elizabeth okayed it.

Sheppard grins. "Cool."

Instinctively, automatically, Kate smiles back, caught by Sheppard's charm despite herself. Except it's genuine this time. Sheppard relaxes back into the couch, almost boneless, much to Kate's fascination.

"They sent us all to shrinks, too." The grin is almost her trademark smirk now. "You did read the report, right?"

Busted. Kate nods. "Of course. You were a virtual fountain of verbosity: Physical exams, mental exams, all 'okay'. I quote."

Sheppard shrugs and says easily, "I leave the rest of it to Rodney."

Interesting choice as a spokesperson. "You let him talk for you?" Kate says it lightly, to keep the sting out of the words. Sheppard still looks bewildered briefly, then frowns, before nodding slowly. "I guess. People expect Rodney to get loud and panic and complain. No one freaks out when he does it."

But they would if Sheppard did, Kate knows. They look to Sheppard to be the calm, laid-back leader, and Sheppard knows it. In some ways, Sheppard's been letting Rodney act as his emotional vent almost since they met. Small wonder a change in the dynamic is so disorienting.

"Hermea's not the problem, nothing happened there, or before on Heka, that the team couldn't handle. It's Dachan." Sheppard sighs. "Which is funny, because nothing really happened there. Someone slipped me a micky, I got a little loopy, let some guy feel me up, Ronon packed me back to the gate. Spent a couple hours in the infirmary until it wore off. Same old, same old. And then. Then, uh...."

"Then you chose to sleep with Rodney."

"Yeah, that." Quiet voice, a certain amount of bewilderment mixed in with defiance. Sheppard's body is tensing again.

"Do you regret it?"

"No." Sheppard says slowly. "No, and that's –" She breaks off, looks at her hands again, twists the sweat band around one wrist.

Kate waits, but Sheppard doesn't seem to be willing to continue. "That was what, Colonel?"

Sheppard shrugs and doesn't look at her. "It was different. New. Wasn't that what you were saying earlier, shiny new bodies, shiny new feelings? Just a little weird." Another fake smile is tossed Kate's way.

"Weird?" Kate repeats. "Do you feel guilty?"

Sheppard's eyes meet hers again, a little too bright. "Why? Should I feel guilty? You said it yourself, it's perfectly normal, in another body."

Kate looks at her for a long moment. In some ways, it's seeing her for the first time as something she is as much as the laid-back commander of this base: A Colonel who never thought he could be just that. Thirty-six years old. Air Force. Having the body of a woman was one thing. Dealing with its responses wasn't something John Sheppard had considered, not even when he made the decision willingly.

Kate can't help it, she has to ask: "So is it the same?"

"I can't tell you. You'd have to take a little trip to Hermea."

Kate allows herself a soft chuckle. "If I went to Hermea, I'd need to see a therapist, and the SGC forgot to send a back-up for my position."

Sheppard's chuckle merges with hers. It's strained, though. Keeping up that facade has to be exhausting. "That wasn't too smart."

"Are you saying I need a therapist?" Kate responds.

"Am I allowed to say that?" Sheppard says, cocking her head, amusement faint but audible in her voice and expression. "Is there an evaluation form somewhere that I'll have to fill out?"

"I'm afraid the SGC forgot to send the forms, too."

"Well, I think you're probably a little nuts, because you're still here, but we all are."

"I prefer the terms adventurous and adaptable, Colonel."

"Right, they put that in my file, too."

Kate lets Sheppard sit quietly after that. She actually rises and goes back to her desk, finding the tin of lip balm this time. She tucks it into her jacket pocket and catches Sheppard watching her. Kate studies her back. By a perfectly objective standard, Sheppard probably isn't beautiful, but the disparate features fit together in a way that fools the brain. She moves with the same loose-limbed ease she possessed before and it's just as beguiling. If Kate were attracted to women, she'd probably be attracted to Sheppard right now. If she weren't Sheppard's therapist, that is, which puts Sheppard, male or female, off-limits anyway.

"This isn't easy. Any of it," Sheppard says.

"No, it definitely isn't, but I appreciate that you took the first step and came here." She perches on the corner of her desk. "I'd lay a bet of my own with anyone that you didn't want to."

"Do I get points for just for showing up?"

"Yes. Trying counts."

Sheppard seems to mull that over for a second or two. "You think I should try talking to Rodney?"

"You could draw some lines between private and public interaction," Kate suggested. "Talking to him probably won't hurt, you know."

Sheppard lifts an eyebrow. "If I can get him to talk, instead of telling me what to do." She smirks. "I'll probably have to smack him."

Kate leans forward. "Would you like to discuss how you might approach such a conversation?"

"No. I'll find a way." Sheppard shrugs. Something is still bothering her, though. "Speaking of ways..."

Kate sits a little straighter. Sheppard is asking for something, only she doesn't quite know what yet.

"The thing is...." Sheppard tilts her head slowly, peering at Kate from under lowered lashes. "I'm not trying to breach all these neat little professional boundaries here, okay? But, from woman to woman – what's it usually like?"

Kate chokes. Is she being asked about sex? Presumably whether Sheppard should have enjoyed it more...or less. Kate feels a headache coming on. She would bet it's less, if she bet at all, which she doesn't.

Because Sheppard wouldn't be disturbed if she hadn't enjoyed it. Discomfort would have been a reinforcement of Sheppard's essential heterosexuality. But to enjoy sex in a female body – penetration, possibly a less dominant position.... It's enough to disturb anyone's sense of self, but especially someone who values control as highly as Sheppard does. Kate feels sorry for her. For Sheppard before. Living in fear of losing control...she wonders just how much he ever let himself enjoy sex.

"It varies, of course," Kate says evasively. She's not comfortable encouraging Sheppard to re-establish any of the walls this has forced her to let down, but she's aware some of those walls let Sheppard function. Addressing Sheppard's control issues would take months, even years, anyway.

"That's therapist-speak." Sheppard's eyes narrow, spoiling the image of ease.

It's amazing, how uncomfortable this is – she's been there, done it, of course; a psychology student has to train in therapy sessions with only herself as the subject. And still, to answer a personal question such as this makes her want to retreat even further behind the mask of her profession. It's not what Sheppard is asking for, though. And perhaps, after all her mental nods, a straight answer is what Sheppard deserves.

If only she had asked a straight question. Kate thinks she knows what Sheppard really wants, but she's also learned that her assessment and the patient's self-assessment can still be leagues apart. "Colonel – I promise to answer you, but I need to know: What are you really asking me?"

Sheppard almost twitches, then gets to her feet and paces over to a window, finally muttering, "Don't tell me it's supposed to feel good for women, too; I knew that, even before. But –" she shifts, half-leaning against the window, to glance at Kate. "What's normal for a woman?"

Kate quells the spark of embarrassment. It's still not much of a clarification, but she doubts Sheppard will or can elaborate on how confused she was. Bringing it back to Kate is as far as she'll go.

"Normal doesn't mean much," she answers cautiously. She tries looking at Sheppard without staring at her. "But I guess it's always true that physical pleasure depends greatly on my partner." Sheppard bites her lip at that; Kate can't quite gauge her expression. She doesn't want to lie, but at the same time, this isn't for her, isn't an honest heart-to-heart, all pillow-fights and braided hair. "Looking back at the partners I had – the ones I felt most for also scared me the most, I think."

That gets Sheppard's attention, if she hasn't had it all along.

"It wasn't even the sex itself, great as it was, or maybe because it was great sex; I was overwhelmed by everything – what I felt for them, what it meant, or might mean. What if –" Oh, okay, that's Kate, not the therapy construct, "the connection was so strong I'd lose a part of myself?"

Sheppard's staring at her and utterly still. Something she's said has struck a nerve.

Kate exhales slowly. She feels oddly exhausted, and a little guilty, too. It's her job, but she doesn't like to think she can be as ruthless as Sheppard in her own way. She's about to elaborate when her radio chirps.

Her hand immediately flies to the microphone button to activate it, because no one radios her during office hours outside of an emergency. "Heightmeyer here."

"Dr. Heightmeyer, we need you at the East Pier Tower. Dr. Scotti is threatening to jump."

Oh, damn. They've already had three jumper suicides. Kate doesn't want it to be four. There is something about Atlantis' lovely towers and balconies that makes jumping the suicide of choice among the science staff. The military contingent still prefers handguns, but they have easier access to the armory.

"I'm on my way," she transmits. "Does anyone know if he's been depressed or angry lately?"

"Dr. Parrish reports he recieved a face full of pollen from one of the plants they brought back from PX3254."

"Wonderful," Kate mutters, without keying the radio.

Sheppard's head is tipped just a little. She's obviously listening to a transmission on the command channel. "Okay, okay. I'm on my way there. Is he armed? Damn."

"Colonel?" Kate asks.

Sheppard heads for the door. "We're stopping by the armory. You'll need Kevlar. Sergeant Gomez lost his pistol to Scotti earlier." Kate follows, struck by how energized Sheppard is, despite the unpleasant news. She is much more comfortable doing than talking. Then Sheppard is chivvying her down the hall faster, talking on the radio, directing a squad of Marines to the East Pier and ordering a jumper in the air.

~*~
Sheppard palms the sensor on the doors to her quarters. She'd spent a long, long afternoon dealing with forms in her office, beginning three hours after she'd hustled Kate into a bulletproof vest before letting her loose on Scotti. The botanist is still strapped down in the infirmary. By now, they know what had happened: the pollen Scotti had inhaled turned out to have a remarkable similarity to PCP. Scotti was flying before he ever broke Gomez's arm and headed for the nearest high point.

Scotti will be all right eventually, Gomez's arm will heal, and no one has been shot or thrown themselves off of a tower. There wasn't even any equipment damage; the crisis of the day is over. Sheppard is exhausted. Kate did do well, but Scotti was much too paranoid to talk down. They were forced to throw an Athosian hunting net over him and drag him off his balcony perch.

The lights come on slowly, blue-tinged and easy on her tired eyes. She heads past the bed, wanting a shower, only to stop and stare. It's neatly made; she did that this morning on automatic. But she can picture it the way it looked the morning after they came back from Dachan.

The morning she woke up with Rodney wrapped around her, snoring wetly into the nape of her neck. The bottle of gera had still been on the nightstand, half full, bright blue.

Even the mental image is mocking her: No euphoria right now, not even a giddy feeling. Staring at the bed, she knows why trauma victims don't like to revisit the site where it happened: One look, one whiff – yeah, the air's purified by Atlantis by now, but tell that to her sense memory – and it begins, the not-so-little film strip in her mind, high-res and technicolor. Her nipples are trying to poke their way through her bra, and that low, dark ache, the restless feeling she now knows is arousal, is back again. She would even go to Rodney right now...if it was just sex, if he'd let it be just sex.

That would be fine. It would be – no. It wouldn't be fine. This whole thing they seem to have? It's located a galaxy away from fine. How the hell did she ever think that turning into a woman would be somewhat uncomfortable but easy enough? Hey, John Sheppard would still be a guy, he'd always been one, right?

Looking at the bed doesn't help one bit. She turns away, into the bathroom. A glance into the mirror – it's not shocking any more, although that by itself throws her a little. She studies her face – the nose she's always thought was a little funny-looking, not that John had minded; the arched brows, the curve of her lips.

She feels distinctly that she should go and reflect, ask the hard questions – Who am I?, and definitely What the fuck was I doing with Rodney?, but God, she hates soul-searching. Brooding is something for artists and writers, not soldiers; if she knows one thing very well, it's that she chose her profession for a reason.

Sex was easy. Or it always had been. You had it when you could and didn't think about it much the rest of the time, but now – now she thinks about it; not always, not constantly. But often enough. She tells herself that's because of the novelty factor. She's not really a woman; deep down, she should feel strange.

But no. It was - God, it'd felt so good.

Maybe it's this body. She's just underestimated how women can feel; Kate implied as much. Issues of dubious consent aside, maybe it'd have been just as good with Lasparn. Maybe it would be good with anyone who does it right.

She could be with a woman, too. She's obviously not going to sleep with any of her soldiers or the female science department, but – in theory. It's something she knows. She can do it.

What she can't do is the whole Rodney thing – all the possessive, patronizing bullshit, even the touching and the guiding hand at the small of her back; she can't handle that, not even for spectacular sex. Only barking an order at him got through, barely – gritting her teeth and saying, "McKay, do you mind?" doesn't.

He just gets this vaguely confused look that Sheppard wants to slap off his face. Yelling and shoving him away are out too: it would be ultimately embarrassing. Shooting him is a pipedream more than one other member of the expedition has, but she'd miss him.

Eventually.

Wearily, she slumps down onto the bed. Her neat, cool, empty bed where she's going to sleep alone. It was just sex. One night together, including the morning after. There hasn't been time to get used to it enough to miss it, she tells herself. She's not going to sleep with Rodney again until she figures out how to make him stop treating her like someone who needs to be told what to do and not to do. Like something to be guarded and rescued. Christ.

She needs that like she needs dinner and a movie with a Wraith.

~*~

"We need you to secure this particular trading agreement," Halling says, earnestly and with the dignified grace Elizabeth has come to associate with him. "The Xa only speak with leaders of their potential trade partners. Agreement must be binding from the first meeting. But I cannot speak for my people on Xa."

Elizabeth does the right thing and smiles, but she still isn't quite sure why Halling came to her with this plea. The fact that the Athosians found salt peter on the mainland, which these Xa obviously desire – well, more barter power to them. "As much as I'm willing – and quite happy – to help the Athosians, I don't think I'd be able to succeed where you, who know and honor all Pegasus customs, expect to be unwelcome."

In the last few months, it's become apparent that even without direct access to a stargate, the Athosians have been more than able to maintain their trade-based culture in addition to establishing subsistance agriculture on the mainland. At first, she wondered whether the military contingent would begin to resent the frequent jumper runs to the mainland and back, but that's hyper-technological spaceships and young soldiers with a fresh ATA boost for you: The shuttle lists for the pilots are always filled up to the last line. Elizabeth muses that the friendly manner of the single women among the Athosians probably doesn't hurt.

"I will be unwelcome as a trading partner not because they do not accept my status but because I am a man. The Xa only trade with the goddess blessed. And the only ones who can enter their temple and be blessed are women." Halling's eyes are calm and accepting, without resentment; it's hard to believe this is the same man who told Lorne that Teyla would be dead to his people for the duration of her change.

Elizabeth takes a deep breath. Never a dull day in this galaxy. "You're saying you can't send a female member of your people?"

"I'm saying a leader is required. She may take an entourage, of course." Halling's voice is patient, quiet. "And we won't cheat, won't lie to a prospective trading partner; the most succulent deera and the finest grade of urak isn't worth that."

Elizabeth is not about to run roughshod over their customs, not when there's no need. "I understand, Halling."

He looks at her. "We offer you a fair share, of course."

The fruits are delicious, and it can never hurt to stock up on the Pegasus equivalent of rice. The hydroponics labs are getting there but aren't, well, there yet. "Okay, I agree. Atlantis will secure this trade agreement for you and with you. I do, however," she leans forward to Halling and doesn't break eye contact, "reserve the right to send Colonel Sheppard and her team. At the moment, that seems the best course of action, especially keeping in mind that Teyla can stay in the background but offer his knowledge when necessary."

She doesn't need to turn sideways to know Sheppard is raising her eyebrow at that.

"Fair enough." Halling looks a little sorrowful, but then, he often does. "Colonel Sheppard is a leader and will be accepted as such by the Xa."

Elizabeth nods and only then looks over at Sheppard, who is sitting in the usual chair, all boredom wiped from her face. It's even more expressive these days, she's sure of that, although it's probably silly to speculate that Sheppard can't quite control of her subtly altered facial muscles yet; more likely, her emotional state isn't the most stable or predictable one in Atlantis right now...which is definitely something to get used to for everyone, including Sheppard herself. "Well, Colonel, it sounds like you have a mission to plan for."

"A supply run?" Sheppard asks, and the faint edge of petulance keeps Elizabeth's attention focused on her.

Sheppard's looking a little rough around the edges, too. Still the commander in her uniform, still walking and breathing charisma, but the strain this particular experiment is taking on her is visible. Elizabeth smiles at her. "I'd prefer to call it a trade agreement negotiation process."

Sheppard sits back and shrugs. "Either way, just wait until Rodney hears this one. He's not going to be happy leaving the labs again, after he already had to give up the Hekan ZPM to Zelenka twice."

She's not envying Sheppard the job of prying Rodney out of the lab and allows herself a small smile.

"Anyway." Sheppard shoves her chair back and rises. "We'll need two hours to brief and gear up, Elizabeth. I'll have McKay with us. Don't worry."

"You don't have to," Halling interjects, still not looking at Sheppard but keeping his gaze fixed on Elizabeth. "The Xa are a little…particular but non-violent. Never have my people encountered any problems on the planet."

Sheppard gives her a short, military nod. "Let's hope Halling's experience isn't a fluke." She gives Halling a nod too. Halling returns it very uncomfortably.

Once Sheppard is gone, Halling turns to Elizabeth again. "If one of your doctors could come back to our settlement, Grella Danaren is in need of help having her child."

"Of course. I believe Dr. Biro is on call. I'm sure Colonel Sheppard will be happy to assign a pilot to take you both back to the mainland."

 

 

Chapter Text

"Are those teeth?"

When Ronon begins shifting forward, into a crouch, Rodney's voice pipes up behind her, again, louder than before, "By which I definitely meant, 'Please go examine the nasty creatures from up close, you strapping warrior princess, you!'"

"Hey." Sheppard's voice, mildly disapproving. In her peripheral vision, Ronon sees her turn away from Rodney and toward her. "I agree with Rodney on this one, though. Better to step back a little, you know, from the pool with the oversize frogs."

"I agree." Teyla doesn't sound as if he recognizes the ochre-colored, dark-speckled animals. There's a measure of doubt in his voice. "Let us assess the situation before our next move. I mean the latter quite literally, Ronon."

She straightens again. Ronon's pretty sure that if they haven't already, the animals aren't likely to attack now. Still, they are pretty big, and she hasn't encountered them on any of the visited worlds, either, and so can't predict their nature.

Not that this is about nature at all. It's a little suspicious that there's such a large number of these creatures, dog-sized and vicious-looking, in a fairly small body of water. Swamp, really. It's a lot suspicious that it seems to surround the stargate on all sides. Save for one pathway, of course, about three meters wide. At the end of which she can see what looks like a guardhouse.

Beyond the guardhouse, the swamp disappears and a road zigzags its way up rolling green hills dotted with trees. Not the ubiquitous 'pines' McKay complains about on most worlds. Hardwoods, Ronon thinks, broad-trunked with spreading shade and five-lobed leaves. The hills are terraced near the road and either undeveloped or given over to pastures farther out. The long grass there ripples in the wind, like the fur on some sleeping beast's back. Ronon glimpses whitewashed stone cottages and thatched roofs farther up the hills. Most distant of all, faded, blue-hazed mountains worn by ages outline the horizon. It's a pretty world, she thinks.

Developed, though, just not industrialized: the hills are terraced, with winding dikes hemming water-flooded fields of delicate green urak. Cobble-stoned roads parallel canals that wind down from terrace to terrace. There are gates and sluices in place to form locks in the canals. Ronon spots a long barge in one, waiting for the water level to raise it to the next level. A team of four large animals with single nose-horns wait patiently on the roadway, ready to begin pulling the barge again.

Ronon looks back at the guardhouse, the path. "This is some sort of test."

"No shit, Sherlock," Rodney says, high-pitched but without heat, and also without taking his eyes off the creatures. Which have teeth, indeed. Ronon can see them quite clearly when the one closest to them yawns. Small, almost translucent triangular teeth that catch the last rays of the afternoon sun. Seven years running from the Wraith through gate after gate, and Ronon wonders if she will ever lose the feeling of brief, sharp dissonance each time she steps onto a strange world, going from pitch-black night into the bright light of day, from sun to snow, poverty to riches, stone knives to pulse pistols. All in one step.

"Doesn't that make you Watson?" Sheppard, of course. When Ronon glances at her, she's trying to suppress a smirk. Not very successfully. "I never figured you for the genius's assistant, Rodney."

The answer is a snort. "And what made you figure I'd find it desirable to be a bi-polar crack and morphine addict?"

On the surface, this probably looks like all of their banter, but Ronon doesn't like the undercurrent. Sheppard sounds a little too...cool, all practiced ease and slow smiles. Rodney – and oddly enough this is harder to spot because it's Rodney – is nervous underneath his bluster and the fierce focus. It doesn't take the genius they mentioned to realize that they haven't talked. Not really, not the way they need to.

Maybe Ronon should do something – anything – but this isn't a session with Kate Heightmeyer where all of them are being pulled, tugged, and prodded out of their shells with neutrality and caution. Outside that kind of haven, under a strange sun, it's too obvious that she hasn't learned this, doesn't know how to intervene gracefully in situations that don't require either ancient verse or modern weaponry.

"Not to interrupt you," Teyla's tone is lofty yet stripped of all arrogance, making clear that's just what he's intending, "but we should decide on a course of action very soon, before darkness falls. Proceed across the path through the swamp? Call for aid? There seems to be someone inside the guardhouse. Perhaps we might contact them?" A touch of exasperation colors his voice with the final question.

Sheppard licks her lips and shifts her gun from one arm to another. "Okay," she drawls. "Just taking a minute to get the lay of the land."

"And have you not, by now?"

Sheppard shrugs. The motion makes Ronon's gaze drop into forbidden territory, down to her chest, before she remembers and blinks. Face. Looking at that doesn't help, though. The setting sun's a great ball of fire behind the naquadah ring of the stargate. It bathes all of them in reddish-golden light but is especially kind to Sheppard, softening the shadows and lines on her face, bringing out the amber in her eyes. Ronon forces herself to look away, across the swamp, at the green countryside. No visible fortification structures. No larger settlements, either, so the Xa probably hide when the Wraith come, rather than fight.

"Look, if Ronon's right and this is some kind of test of courage, they won't harm us. Probably not. We might as well yell and see if this is just...." Sheppard glances around and hesitates.

"What, an accidental moa?" Rodney rolls his eyes, but it seems more amiable again. Which makes sense. When he isn't biting back, Rodney doesn't often try to make Sheppard look dumb. That's just a by-product.

Sheppard seems to pick up on the gentler tone. Her wry grin is genuine. "Who knows? And, who cares." She clears her throat before yelling, with remarkable volume, "Hey guys! Care to tell us how this thing's supposed to work?"

Resounding silence, except for a hasty splash or two from the swamp. No one, not even Teyla, looks surprised.

"Okay." Sheppard glances back at them. "Let's go. In a careful line, middle of the road. Keep your guns steady but aimed at Kermit and friends."

She doesn't elaborate on the order. Doesn't need to. They all fall into step behind Sheppard – first Teyla, then Rodney. Ronon takes their six. Rodney breathes a little too fast, and his fingers keep sliding over the trigger of his P90. Ronon feels the muscles of her back tense. The Xa's ugly little guardians open their mouths wide when the team pass, each uttering a clicking, growling sound. But they stay put.

She's pretty sure that underneath the loose dirt the path is stone. It's suspiciously even and there are no wet patches, no mud puddles, no determined weeds sprouting up. The width is too even as well. Anyone on it is in clear view of the guardhouse. It's designed to stretch out and slow down any large group coming through the stargate. Even the Wraith wouldn't care to slog through the swamp, with its sucking mud, tangled water weeds and bubbles of stinking methane. Clever. Ronon admires clever.

Not to mention the big, hungry amphibians. The Wraith wouldn't care much for them, either. One plops into the water and swims up to the edge of the path, eyeing Rodney, who gives a little hop of his own and mutters, “Shoo, shoo, no one here wants to kiss you.”

At the end of the winding path through the swamp, back on solid ground, everybody's relieved. Rodney exhales loudly and lets his right shoulder sag against the rough stone of the guardhouse. Because his mutterings about the correlation of extreme stress and heart attacks distract Ronon, she isn't paying her usual amount of attention to possible threats and the appearance of two heavily armed sentries surprises her. Two tall, heavily armed sentries.

Ronon resents them a little. Both members of their military welcoming committee incorporate not only height but strength as well. They are wearing bleached leather and old-fashioned but well-polished revolvers in their belts. Her eyes glide over the dark cross-shapes behind one broad shoulder each, over the bright glint of metal almost down behind their knees: scimitars in back holsters. And that's just the weapons Ronon can see.

"Oh," Rodney says, voice faint, "Who dialed the wormhole to Xena's version of Ancient Greece?"

"Rodney." Sheppard's drawl isn't free from shock, either. "How about Teyla and I talk to the nice Amazons? Maybe they're interested in joining the women's NBA."

A quick glance at Teyla makes sure that no, he has no idea either if that's a description likely to get them into trouble. Or killed. Of course, Teyla would prevent that. He's good at that and has plenty of practice.

"Good evening to you." Teyla inclines his head formally, and his voice is gentle but firm. "We come in peace. This is Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, our esteemed leader. These are Ronon Dex and Dr. Rodney McKay. My name is Teyla Emmagen."

The left warrior performs an almost-perfect imitation of Teyla's head-tilt. "Welcome to Xa."

The right one follows suit. "State your purpose, and we'll show you the way." They're eerily alike in looks, so much so that Ronon can see Rodney's gaze switching between them as a frown pleats his forehead.

They are both shifting their stances, looking at Sheppard expectantly, with an additional, assessing glance at Ronon. Huh. The Xa do think business is...women's business. On Sateda, the rules never prepared Ronon for this. Or for Heka.

"We, uh, we've come to trade with the Xa." Sheppard straightens, just a little, and gives them a smile far too sunny for the time of day. "We'd love to talk shop with – actually, with whoever will have us."

The result is a slightly perplexed look from the Xa, an apologetic one from Teyla, and an impatient one from Rodney, who looks like he wants to go ahead, finish the deal, and be home in time for lunch.

"You'll want to speak to one of the elder priestesses." The one on the right nods. "If you wait for just a moment, we'll have you escorted to your destination."

"Cool. We'll be –" Sheppard makes a vague hand motion, "standing right here, I guess."

When the Xa have disappeared back into the guardhouse, Teyla leans forward and says in a low voice. "Not to call ill fortune upon us, but this is going reasonably well."

A bell rings out from inside to a distinct rhythm. Message, Ronon realizes. After a moment, she catches the distant sound of another bell echoing the cadence. The bell in the guardhouse stills.

"You know, I'd positively love to embrace that kind of optimism, but I'm not so sure." Rodney has turned back toward the stargate, squinting against the light. "The gate is about to activate; don't you hear the sound of the circuitry?"

Ronon hasn't. She's been listening for voices and movement that would signal an ambush or some kind of trap. While the dialing process, the chevrons locking, and the actual opening of a wormhole is hard if not impossible to miss, only Rodney would be attuned to the muted buzz of a stargate coming to life. Ronon's appreciation of him goes up a notch. "Duck into the shadow of the guardhouse, now."

"You heard Ronon – go!" Sheppard's voice comes hard on the heels of her own command.

Teyla's hand locks around Rodney's wrist, pulling him around the corner from the stargate and under a thatched eave. Sheppard and Ronon join them, crouching with their weapons aimed toward the swamp they just traversed. Teyla has his back to the wall and keeps an eye out for any threats from the other direction as well.

From their covered position, they can see the flare of the event horizon across the swamp. One person steps through – one person only, if one in full armor and gear. Ronon lets go of the breath she's been holding. Just another warrior, broad-shouldered, with bright red hair. Maybe he belongs here, maybe he doesn't. Either way, he doesn't seem afraid of the frog-creatures, lifting his bearded chin and beginning to make his way down the path.

He doesn't get very far.

When he's come barely within reach, the nearest animal lets out a high-pitched hoot of alarm and retreats with a splash, powerful hind legs treading water and mud, propelling the body backwards. The hoots become howls and whoops, a regular cacophony of alarm echoing from everywhere in the swamp. The man hesitates and glances at the other creatures, all of them moving restlessly away from him. But he squares his jaw and keeps moving toward the guardhouse. Ronon glances at Sheppard, who frowns. She's opening her mouth, but already, the door of the guard-house flies open, and four Xa – including the two who welcomed them – storm out. They run past the team and stop the man before he's halfway across the swamp.

The scuffle is brief and unsuccessful. No matter how much he resists, screams and curses, the Xa have both the numbers, the arms and the strength. He's pushed back and back and held until the DHD is dialed, then through the stargate as soon as the wormhole is fully formed, leaving only four grimly satisfied Xa.

The women walk slowly, one by one, up the path, stopping to extend their hands to the big amphibians that are slowly swimming back up to the path. One of the tall ones throws something that looks like dried fish to the very biggest of them. It snaps it out of the air with a long, flicker-fast tongue and emits a satisfied sounding burp.

"So."

Ronon swivels around, as does the team, straightening up and at the same time lowering their weapons. A new Xa is standing in front of them. Like the guards, she's wearing gear and various weapons; unlike the others, she's also wearing a smile. "I'm Chei, your liaison Xa. You are traders and wish to be led to the Temple of the Goddess?"

The returning guards pass them with approving grins. One even pats Ronon's arm.

"Sure." Sheppard has found her footing again. "That'd be swell."

"Follow me, then."

Sheppard jerks her head toward the stargate.

"You toss a lot of visitors back like that guy?"

Chei raises an eyebrow. "He wasn't welcome here, as he should have known. The guth don't harm those whose gifts are welcome."

Behind, Rodney mumbles something about witches and water, but Ronon stops paying attention to him and starts watching their surroundings as they walk toward the rolling hills.

Whatever Sheppard expects, this isn't it.

"It's the Breast Temple," McKay mutters, earning a sharp elbow from Teyla and ending in, "Oof, watch it!" He snickers. "Careful when you go in there, Colonel. It might be booby-trapped!"

Sheppard groans. "Rodney, next time please leave your sense of humor in Atlantis."

The Temple of the Goddess isn't some airy, Grecian-marble creation.

It's not even really visible, because it's dug deep into a cavern system beneath two suggestively shaped hills topped by little cupolas. Sheppard has to admit McKay has a point about them. A path winds down from the town located a few miles from the stargate, through terraced urak paddies. Wide-leafed plants float upon the water, dark and glossy green. The path is white gravel and raked into an almost Japanese neatness. A small pavilion with benches and a well sits at the bottom, and beyond it is a still, crystal-clear pool that extends into a carved cave entrance. Sheppard can't tell how deep the water is, but there is just a head's worth of clearance between it and the top of the carved entrance arch.

It looks like if they want the Blessing, they're going to have to get wet. Sheppard almost laughs, because this is a new one, at least. Most of the funky religions they run across stuck their temples on top of hills, even mountains, or in the middle of a city. Not under a hill with a big pool in front. It's kind of cool.

"What? Oh, I can't believe this," Rodney is muttering, staring at the water. "Have I mentioned claustrophobic, here?"

"Don't worry about it, Rodney," Sheppard tells him. "You get to stay out here." She turns to the priestess who welcomed the team a minute ago. "Right?"

"We come from the Goddess unclad and so we return to her." The priestess nods. She's in her forties, graying hair in two plaits, dressed in simple wool trousers and a sleeveless white tunic that falls to her knees. The only thing that marks her as something different from any of the other women they've seen is a serpentine armlet around her upper arm and the tattoo of a lip imprint on her cheekbone.

Sheppard blinks at her words.

"If you would enjoy Her blessing then you must enter the Temple," the priestess explains.

"And then we'll be, uh, blessed?" Sheppard asks, thinking that this is just the sort of thing that got them in trouble on Hermea.

"Then you may be blessed, if you choose share your gift with Her. There is no harm in choosing to refrain, and no reason you cannot return another time to offer your gift. We would treat with you then. The priestess's smile deepens, her gray eyes caught in a net of crow’s feet, tanned cheek creasing easily. It's obvious she smiles often. She nods toward Teyla and Rodney. "Your companions will have to wait. Chei will take care of them."

"Oh, great, just great. Drag me to another planet so I can sit around in an alien waiting room," McKay gripes, but he's already dropping his pack on one bench and hunching over a little to rest his back.

"Not here." Chei steps closer to McKay and Teyla. She's remained in the background during the welcome but steps up to them again now. It seems her job isn't done yet.

"Okay, when you say you're taking care of them – you mean you're taking good care of them, right?" Sheppard gives Chei a broad smile. Hopefully getting across that she'd hate seeing her team in chains or manacles. Or any discomfort, really.

A flicker of amusement on Chei's face. "I doubt there will be complaints, Colonel Sheppard." The woman grows serious pretty much instantly again. "We obviously cannot guarantee safety from attempts at culling, but I can promise no Xa will harm your males."

Well, that sounded honest enough. Sheppard glances at Teyla, who, too, nods. Of course, not having her team hurt is one thing; not running into trouble all by themselves is another. The incident at the gate has shown her the Xa don't mess around with those not welcome anymore. "Teyla, keep an eye on McKay."

Teyla nods without taking any insult.

Not so Rodney. "Yes, thank you, Colonel! Make sure all the natives think I'm an imbecile to be guarded lest he break something!"

Both Xa look pretty unimpressed by that. The priestess – Sheppard's never even learned her name – kneels and begins unlacing her boots. After her boots and socks, she shimmies out of her trousers, paying absolutely no attention to McKay and Teyla. All of it goes into a wicker basket, taken from a stack of them that stands on the near side of the pool, on a small ledge just beside a small bush covered in a myriad of bright-violet petals.

Sheppard looks from the baskets to the water and gets it. Damn. Well, it could be worse, the water is crystal clear, displaying a marked lack of piranha-like fish or man-eating giant crocodiles. Or any of those funky frog things from the stargate. "I guess we're going to get wet," she says, glancing Ronon's way.

"And naked," Ronon agrees.

The priestess is drawing her tunic over her head by now, which means Sheppard is either going to have go through with this or chicken out and, oh, Christ, Ronon's stripping, too. Teyla is turning to the side, polite as ever, looking away from her and Ronon, at the dark zig-zag of the mountainscape in the distance. With a headshake, Sheppard starts with her thigh holster.

"You're actually going through with this?" Rodney asks from behind her. His voice squeaks.

"Yeah," Sheppard tells him, and hands him her holster and pistol. Looks at her hands and the weaponry – safety, protocol, it's just that. It's not that she doesn't want to look him in the eye. "Watch this for me."

Ronon's already down to bare, caramel skin – acres of it – as Sheppard's pushing her trousers down. Of course, Ronon didn't have as much to take off. By now everyone on the team knows she goes commando. Unlike Sheppard, who is down to the skimpy black bra and panties the Hermeans modeled off the set Cadman provided that first day back in Atlantis.

She can feel Rodney staring, and when she looks over her shoulder, sure enough, his eyes are a little glazed and settled right on her ass. It's – huh, okay, it's not as annoying as she thought it would be. Mostly because he's still glued to the spot a few feet away, and not looking for a needle to tattoo his name on her ass. Still annoying enough, though.

"McKay."

Total zone out.

"McKay!" A little louder.

"What? What? Where, what is it, what?" McKay snaps, looking around wildly for some danger.

"Look, I know you're going to stare at my ass –"

"Would I do that?"

"McKay...."

McKay looks mulish and embarrassed at the same time. "Of course, I'm going to watch your ass, Colonel," he says. "It's part of watching your back."

Well. Guess it is, actually. Sheppard knows his concern for her is genuine, and sharp in moments when the team has to separate. So she doesn't roll her eyes at him. "I know there's a camera in your pack; I'm just telling you to leave it alone."

"Oh, that's unkind, Colonel. Unkind and uncalled for."

"Tell me you didn't think of it."

"I –"

"Right. If naked pictures of me show up on the Atlantis intranet, I will beat you to death with your own laptop." She means that as a joke, of course. Mostly. At least fifty-five percent. And the other forty-five percent aren't based on her fear that Rodney would share – he wouldn't do that to her – but on her suspicions regarding the IT department. Dr. Jäger and Dr. Naidu make the storing of images or videos on inter-connected computers something of a risk; it's something she's wanted to hint at in the Atlantis Handbook for a while.

Rodney looks horrified by the threat to his electronics, and a little disheartened.

"Do not worry, Colonel," Teyla adds. "Nothing of the sort will happen. Here or in Atlantis." He doesn't turn around when he says it, still studies the horizon. Sheppard thinks he's being courteous, but it's Teyla; maybe he's studying bird flight patterns that show if there are Wraith around, estimating the population based on the curvature of the planet, or doing one of a hundred other things. Teyla knows and sees more than he shares with the class.

Sheppard flashes him a smile. "Thanks. There are things the Marines just don't need to know about their commander."

Off comes the bra, and then she steps out of the panties, dropping them on top of the rest of her gear in another of the baskets, leaving it beside Ronon's. The air in the pavilion is just crisp enough to make her break out in goose bumps, but the flagstones leading from the steps to the edge of the pool are still warm under her bare feet despite the fact the sun has dipped down and disappeared.

Ronon and the priestess are waiting for her at the edge of the water. Sheppard forces herself to stroll, like she walks around in the nude every other day with the evening breeze of another planet cooling her back and shoulders.

"You are ready?" the priestess asks.

"As I'll ever be."

She walks into the water without further ceremony, down a shallow incline until it's waist deep, and then sets out for the cave entrance. And yeah, she uses a breast stroke. Her subconscious can bite her.

Ronon shrugs and follows in tandem with her.

The water is sun-warm and slides over Sheppard's limbs as she swims lazily after the priestess, and it crosses her mind that no one ever swims in Atlantis. Surrounded by water, they all do their utmost to stay dry. "You can swim, can't you?" she calls, glancing Ronon's way.

Ronon flips over, sleek as a porpoise, and begins doing something that looks suspiciously like the backstroke, answering her question. All that skin is sort of distracting, too; it's very obvious she's not a guy anymore. It's also better not to stare too hard because she'll probably be unable to look away once she starts...and yeah, there you go, Ronon has already swum past her. Sheppard blinks water out of her eyes and kicks harder to keep up.

The swim through the temple entrance isn't long. The pool ends in a series of steps once they're inside the cave entrance, and they emerge from the water into humid warmth, hundreds of candles, and the scent of incense. Terraced levels lead upward to the temple's altar, dais after dais strewn in richly colored fabrics and furs, curtained in transparent gauze that provides a spurious privacy to the occupants. Everything's rounded and curved and unmistakably female, deep red, dark and fecund with the promise of sensuality.

Sheppard swallows hard. It's probably good Rodney didn't come inside with them. This might have given him the heart attack he bitched about earlier.

She tries to avert her eyes from the tangles of long limbs and bare skin, but she can't close her ears. Sighs and soft cries are echoing through the temple and down from the high arched ceiling; there are women everywhere.

The incense burning in braziers along the sides of the temple winds through her senses, making her light-headed. She catches a glimpse of crystals below the flames. Black crystals, but the smoke is bright-white, wafting through the air in gentle spirals and loops before fading into nothingness.

"Are you ready?" Sheppard almost jumps at the voice in her ear, but of course there's a body belonging to it, that of the priestess. Right. The priestess.

"Yeah...about that blessing." She shows the priestess some teeth. "What, uh, do we do now?" She tries to focus on the woman's eyes and not the water droplets quivering on her breasts. There isn't a safe place to stare, the walls are carved in sinuous patterns that seem to mimic the lines of the bodies writhing together everywhere, and even the floor is covered in a mosaic; a masterwork of art, colorfully depicting every possible combination and contortion of two or more women.

Soft murmurs fill the air, punctuated by bells.

The priestess smiles again and touches Sheppard's arm, sliding her palm down it softly, invitingly, and Sheppard jolts back in surprise, stumbling up against Ronon. The priestess's smile fades a little, and she lets her hand fall away.

"We pray to the Goddess with our bodies and give her the gift of our pleasure," she explains quietly. "To share pleasure is the greater gift, but it is allowed to ring the bell in solitude as well."

"Ring the bell?" Ronon echoes. Her hands are still on Sheppard's hips, the heat of her body a constant sensory distraction. A distraction of the good – no, best kind.

Another bell rings somewhere in the temple, the sound cascading over a shout of pleasure. A series of low cries from the four women tangled on the main altar is followed by another bell, this one louder, and Sheppard jerks her head toward the sound, spotting a massive bronze bell beyond the altar. Another girl, a priestess by the glint of gold on her arm, stands beside it, holding a striker nearly as tall as she is. The sound of it shivers through Sheppard's bones, clear and pitch-perfect.

"Climax," the priestess says.

"Oh." Sheppard's a little embarrassed by how small her voice is.

"Everything you may need is available," they're told, "and there are many who would pray with you." The invitation is clear in the priestess's voice, if Sheppard hadn't got it already.

"Um, yeah," she replies fast, taking another step back that has her plastered against Ronon's front, and she jumps, but Ronon's hands steady her again, "I think maybe we'll just 'pray' together."

"C'mon," Ronon breathes in her ear and she's letting herself be led to one of the empty platforms, passing several that are already occupied. At least one couple beckons them to join them, but the smiles stay indulgent as Ronon steers them past.

Up close, the platforms are round, with a half-circle headboard filled with cubbyholes, topped by more candles. Three poles of polished wood, carved and stained, dark and shining, reach up from the frame to support the drapes; gilt threads running through the almost transparent hangings, swathes of them drawn back from the pillow-strewn mattress. The sweet smelling smoke of the candles tickles at her nose, mingling with the heavy scent of the incense filling the room. It's probably drugged. Everything in this galaxy that isn't actually poisonous is drugged.

That'd explain why she's feeling so relaxed despite the pretty exciting situation.

Sheppard's eyes widen as she takes in some of the items tucked in the cubbyholes in the headboard: dildos, strap-ons, and lengths of silken cord, paddles, things she doesn't have even a clue to what they're for, bottles and jars.... Oh cripes, it's like a Pegasus sex toy shop. "Whoa."

Ronon chuckles.

"You know, we can fake this," Sheppard whispers. And sure, they can pull the drapes and pretend, but damn, even the thought of moaning in tandem with Ronon is making the tips of her ears heat up. Just imagining Ronon's rumble turning honey-soft, then louder and louder....

"No." Ronon's hand smooths over Sheppard's hip, stroking in toward her waist, then away with a last, light pat; Sheppard kind of misses it when it's gone. "We can do this."

"I just don't want you to think you have to." Maybe that sounded a little whiny, but really, she doesn't.

Ronon's voice is almost as deep as it used to be, full of amusement and what sounds distinctly like arousal. "Sheppard."

She can do this. It's not like she planned this or anything. So she isn't objecting – well, Ronon is sex-on-a-stick, but she's managed to keep her libido under control so far. Acting on her attraction would be dumb, because sleeping with team-mates is dumb, except she already broke that rule with Rodney, and...well. That hadn't been planned either. Bottom line is, Elizabeth wants the trade treaty and Ronon wants this – wants her; it's a thrill, all right.

Her eyes fall on the toys again. "But, Ronon – let's do this the natural way, okay?" The strap-on would only...confuse things.

Ronon peers over her shoulder then turns her head, while raising an eyebrow. "Looks like all natural materials to me. Wood, stone; carved, and polished. Oil, too."

Sheppard sighs and resists the urge to stamp her foot. She'd just look stupid and probably end up stubbing her toe. "You know what I mean, damn it."

Another bell rings and it makes her feel sort of squirmy, knowing what it means now. Everything inside feels tight and her skin is breaking out in a light sweat. Ronon grins at her with a knowing arch of her eyebrow and nods toward the altar. Another woman has joined the four already there. Sheppard can't quite figure who's doing what, but it looks like they're all enjoying it a lot. She knows her eyes are wide, but honestly, in thirty-seven years back on Earth she never once attended much less participated in a lesbian religious orgy. Even fantasy never got that wild.

She looks away with a little difficulty and finds herself looking at two more women nearby, one of them with her face between the other's legs. Sheppard pulls in a sharp breath, imagining what it must feel like despite herself.

"I could do that to you," Ronon whispers, her breath hot on Sheppard's ear.

Sheppard can feel the blush heat her entire body as she swallows hard at the thought. She can't to hide how much Ronon's words affect her, not when her damn nipples just tightened so much it almost hurts; she knows Ronon notices. This is something she's done – well, something that someone did to her just recently, and God, that was – she lets her eyes fall shut for a second. A shudder runs through her as Ronon strokes light fingers down her neck, then Ronon lifts her hand away to point at another couple. "Or that." Sheppard's breath hitches helplessly. "Or both," Ronon finishes.

Oh, Jesus. "Both?" The moan that slips from her lips is completely out of her control.

Ronon wraps both arms around her from behind, pressing close again, thighs, hips, and breasts against Sheppard, every point of contact ratcheting the tension in her higher, reminding her that they're both completely naked and all of that smooth, sleek toffee skin is touching her, glistening in the candlelight. She's let her eyes fall half-closed, but they snap open and she stares down as Ronon slides one big hand up her belly to her breast and cups it.

Oh. Oh. She lets her head fall back against Ronon's shoulder, her cheek rubbing against wet dreadlocks, and pants. This wasn't – this wasn't on the agenda but oh, that touch; just Ronon's thumb, rubbing around her nipple, is making her whole breast feel so incredibly tight, everything focusing on the tip, just the tip of her nipple where she wants – she wants Ronon to touch, if only she'll touch her there.... Ronon's hand makes her own skin look so pale, just tinted with pale gold, like ivory in the light; the contrast makes all the sensations more intense in her mind. She's bending back, pushing her breast into Ronon's teasing hand, and she can't imagine why she even hesitated to do this, because it's awesome. And Ronon, she's not likely to make it more complicated than that, either – Ronon takes orders in the field but shows off with the cheerful pride and grace of all the superheroes Sheppard's ever read or watched. Ronon's strong and sure and will be fine. Sheppard will be fine with her.

A full body shiver hits as Ronon starts using her finger and thumb, catching Sheppard's nipple between them, sharp sensation hitching her breath and making her clench her thighs together against the sweet lick of heat there. Hot, moist lips skim over the lobe of her ear and then tease the sensitive skin behind it. It's just...Sheppard's mouth is open, she needs to breathe, but all she can do is moan, and to hell with circumspection.

Her whole body is fevered, tensed and quivering against Ronon, and now she can only blink dazedly, trying to focus, but halos of light are shivering around the candle flames that dance and move in rhythm with her pulse, and all she can think is why Ronon's stopping. "No...."

She twists and looks into Ronon's eyes, at the little bronze glints in the irises, translucent and reflecting the candle flames. "Sheppard," she says. "You sure you don't want me to do this with someone else?" She tips her head, in a gesture that encompasses the temple. "Plenty of women willing. I'll do it."

Sheppard stares at her. Like she'd ever, ever ask one of her team to prostitute themselves for a trade agreement. And the thought of someone else's hands on Ronon, someone else making her eyes go dark with the want filling them now is not acceptable.

"If it's a problem for you or McKay," Ronon finishes.

Rodney – she's not thinking about Rodney because he's most decidedly not her boyfriend, not entitled to everything, anything; besides, this is Ronon whom Rodney's been ogling since the first day on Hermea and with whom he agreed to have what, come to think of it, would've been a threesome. Hell, he'll probably just be sorry he didn't get to watch. "Not a problem," she promises.

"Really. Don't have to show you. Other...worshippers here." Sheppard spots the glint in Ronon's eyes, the soft curve of her lips; it's a challenge if she's ever seen one. "Can still make this place resound with the loudest clangs."

Sheppard narrows her eyes. So Ronon thinks she's God's gift to women in the Pegasus galaxy? That's just – seriously. What about her? She really can't step back now. Too late to change course. "Who says you're the only one who can...can do this?" She frowns a little. "I know my way around, and I'm the leader."

Ronon snorts, and that really shouldn't be as sexy as it is. "So you're okay with this?" When Sheppard licks her lips and nods, determined, Ronon tips her head toward the bell on the altar, smirking. "I bet you'll be louder than the bell."

Sheppard has little time to think further because Ronon leans forward again, presses a kiss to the cap of her shoulder, begins drawing patterns on down her arms. She settles back into Ronon's arms and lets herself fall into a sensual haze. She really has to stop visiting folks who are into drugs. After this is done and over. "What's that?" she slurs, swaying into the contact, trying to make sense of the shapes through the weave of hot and soft, strong and careful touches.

"Satedan."

"Mmm. What?"

But Ronon doesn't answer and Sheppard doesn't care, because Ronon reaches around and cups her breasts, lifting and squeezing just enough to make her ache and want more. She exhales harshly, feeling Ronon's nipples against her back, rubbing in slow, hypnotic circles against her shoulder blades, and the picture of the two of them in her mind sends more heat flickering through her. It's all different than with Rodney; Ronon doesn't feel the same, smell the same, is folding around her, enveloping her instead of driving into her, and it's easy to let go and stop thinking.

"Hey, Ronon," she whispers and then swallows, "how's that bed looking to you just about now?"

A chuckle vibrates from Ronon into her.

Ronon's rolling Shepperd's nipples between her thumbs and fingers and Sheppard has to press her thighs together, she can't help it, it feels too good and she needs more. Her whole body is swelling with sensation, humming with it, and Ronon's right hand is gone and then back, brushing down her side, over her ribs, shaping her waist then cupping the soft curve of Sheppard's stomach. Sheppard whimpers as Ronon splays her fingers and she can't help moving, twisting into Ronon's body, into her hands, staring down and wanting that hand to move lower.

Ronon holds still, though, and Sheppard knows it's deliberate. Ronon wants her to say it. Ronon wants her to ask for it, and something clenches inside her – hard – at the knowledge that she's going to do it. Fuck. Oh, please. Just lower, damn it, lower, I need.... "Lower," she says it out loud, squirming a little now, feeling the dampness between her legs growing, like saying it was a turn-on itself. She watches avidly as Ronon drifts her hand down, resting her palm over her pussy and her breath stutters in and out unevenly. "Jesus, Ronon, any damn time now!", she groans. "Quit teasing."

One long finger plays with her delicately, and Sheppard feels another gush of wetness in response. She can't believe how fast this is going even as she stretches and tries to grind her hips forward, to soothe the ache centering inside her.

Ronon's still playing with her nipple with her other hand, the feeling going straight between her legs when Ronon tugs with the exact mixture of harshness and control; she overloads Sheppard's senses by closing her lips around one earlobe and sucking.

Her knees buckle, but Ronon catches her, holds her up, arm around her, sure and still startlingly strong. It makes Sheppard shiver, the same way Rodney's weight did, and isn't that something Kate would have a field day with? She doesn't want to be overpowered, not really, but the possibility is a turn-on. And that it's wrapped in soft, feminine hands, delicate fingers, gives it a zing Sheppard can't even figure out. It would all freak her out if she weren't so hot she can't think.

Especially when Ronon is sliding that hand down, stroking her with a feather-light pressure, slipping through her wetness, exploring the slick folds and tender flesh while Sheppard just shakes and tries to close her legs. Ronon kicks them wider though, one thigh pressed between hers from behind.

"Ronon, please," she hears herself moaning, "please." She can't even hold her head up now, can't keep her eyelids from fluttering closed as the unbearable tension coils tighter and tighter inside her, while Ronon, damn her, just keeps teasing and teasing, never giving her quite enough stimulation, never touching her clit, no matter how Sheppard twists and rocks against her hand, the one that's not flicking her nipple into bright sensation. The insides of her thighs are slick and the muscles are quivering and every part of her is over-sensitized, so that the slightest brush – even Ronon's dreadlocks tickling over her shoulders and breasts as she kisses her neck, biting at her collarbone – makes her gasp and buck. She's going to go crazy, she's going to fucking scream; the feeling is building up and up and up in a way she hadn't known it could, more diffuse, involving her entire body but just as intense, just as good. She can feel Ronon's mouth shape into a smile and then there's a wet tongue licking along the tendon in her neck – that was always a hot spot, even before – she gasps and someone makes a high, desperate noise that's animal and wild, but she's gone, gone, she needs....

"Ronon!"

Ronon's fingers draw a final, delicate circle along her inner thigh and dip inside, hard and fast, while she catches Sheppard's nipple almost too roughly, so much sensation sizzling through her she sobs and writhes down onto Ronon's hand, that keening noise rising from her throat again. Those fingers swirl inside her, pressing deeper and deeper so that she's barely aware of Ronon's other hand leaving her breast before it catches her face and twists it to meet Ronon's kiss, tilting her jaw to the perfect angle.

Sheppard whimpers into Ronon's mouth and sucks desperately on her tongue as Ronon's thumb finally, Oh God, yes, there, please, now, finds her clit and presses against it.

She comes apart.

It's like a hot tidal wave rushing through her whole body, and she screams with it, shattering, ringing, the bell echoing through the entire temple so that its vibrations merge with the aftershocks still singing through her.

She's slumped back against Ronon, both of them sunk down to the floor, soaked in sweat and still shuddering, when she picks out the sound of someone clapping enthusiastically.

She barely has the strength to climb up on the platform and sprawl there, face down on what feels like silk, reduced to a buttery, satiated puddle. Ronon joins her a moment later, grinning so smugly that Sheppard feels a lot like the proverbial canary, and the cat thing fits because God, Ronon is all hot and silky, skin and muscle, hands already wandering over Sheppard's back.

"Oh, God," Sheppard mumbles, but she rolls over and kisses Ronon hungrily, letting her hands explore, arousal already building again. It has to be something in the smoke, she thinks, tangling her legs with Ronon's, smoothing her palms over Ronon's back, lingering over the scar left when Beckett removed the Wraith tracer. Ronon purrs in what's got to be approval, and the sound she makes when Sheppard props herself up and scoots back to lick a delicate circle around Ronon's navel is sweet. The taste of her skin is headier than wine. Sheppard's not much of a wine drinker, though, and it's definitely not what she wants on her tongue right now, wants with a fierce rush of clarity. She slides down Ronon's belly, lower and lower, pressing open-mouthed kisses into the soft skin over hard, hard muscle. This, she knows how to do. Better yet, she likes it. Only one girl involved, then, but the mechanics are exactly the same, and yeah, so maybe she's missed it. Most definitely, she's hell-bent now on making Ronon like it, too. Like it a whole damn lot.

She's not about to just lie back and let Ronon do all the work this time. She can make that damn bell ring, too.

Hours, days, she doesn't know how much later, there's no way to judge inside the temple beyond the candles burned down to waxy puddles, Sheppard lies back and blinks at the shadowed ceiling. Ronon's head is lying on her stomach. The red sheets are rucked and trailing half off the bed, a wrinkle is caught under her shoulder, and there's a dark, wet stain where Ronon spilled a bottle of some sort of massage oil that smelled of cinnamon and sandalwood – the scent's still all over them.

When she catches her breath, she murmurs, "It occurs to me...."

"Mmm?"

Sheppard strokes sweaty dreadlocks away from Ronon's face and smiles almost drunkenly at the still-slick, almost-swollen mouth that's pouting at her.

"...lack of refractory period is really fucking sweet."

Ronon smiles a little, wicked smile that makes Sheppard shiver all over again. "Mmm." One hand slips up to Sheppard's breast.

Sheppard lets her head drop back onto the bed and mindlessly lifts herself into that touch, gasping, "I can't think when you do that."

"Yeah?" Ronon teases her other breast, then presses a scorching kiss to Sheppard's navel, tickling and licking with her tongue, then breathing onto the wet skin. Sheppard moans and clutches at Ronon's head, holding her there.

"Again," she demands. Ronon pulls away and slides down between Sheppard's legs, licking long lines up her inner thighs, then pushes two fingers into her while licking her again. Sheppard just whimpers through this climax, shivering, muscles twitching, barely able to breathe.

Before the damned bell is through ringing, Ronon's driving her over the top again.

Sheppard stops thinking and goes with it.

~*~

Chei. The Xa woman is muscular, wearing leather bleached so much as to almost shine – in the places not left completely bare. An ample amount of skin the color of tea, Earth-style, with a generous dollop of milk is on display. More than Athosian women show off. Very different from the comfortable, homespun clothes they have seen on most of the Xa, including the priestesses, on their way to the temple. Teyla focuses on the long, curved blade strapped to Chei's back, concluding the woman does not look much like a diplomat. But then, even before military training and running, Ronon might not have looked much like a librarian if one just considered his build.

"This," Chei is telling Rodney and her with a sweeping gesture back at the subterranean complex, "is obviously not the right place; we've already made the proper arrangements for you."

Teyla tips her head, smiles an acknowledgment, and follows Chei – not without a warning glare at Rodney, who would clearly rather stay right there as long as necessary. Still, even beyond leaving the colonel and Ronon alone, she feels a sharp pang of loss. She herself has never partaken in the Xa ritual of establishing bonds of trust, but both Charin and Charin's mother have, once upon a time, and brought back bountiful harvests in exchange for an herbal fungicide the Athosians grew in abundance. While they kept their silence about the ritual, having given such a vow to the Xa, Teyla has always known it would be anything but torturous from the secret smile tugging at the corner of Charin's mouth whenever she mentioned the Xa. Her father, of course, never even undertook the journey, so the connection between their peoples has faded slightly over the last decades. For the sake of the Athosians as much as the Atlanteans, she would have wished to – but it is not her place to wish for such things right now.

Rodney trots after them even while he's protesting, as Teyla knew he would.

"Just so we manage to avoid bloodshed later on, for once, I'd like to state that I hate to leave the temple. What if, through some freakish coincidence, Sheppard and Ronon come out early and miss us? I don't plan to have the colonel despair over some perceived abandonment again. God knows she has enough issues already, and I'm the one dealing with them first and fore– ouch!" He yelps as Teyla's foot comes down on his toes without even losing a step, a trick learned from Colonel Sheppard. "I wasn't, I just meant, because I'm her team-mate! The scientist and most vital member of this team, in fact! Always there to, you know, help with...well, helping."

Chei barely glances at him as she leads them away from the temple and up a hillside dotted with trees. Tiny yellow flowers grow wild along the edges of the path they're on. The top of a building gleams against the sunset sky beyond the tree tops. It's the first one over two stories Teyla's seen on Xa. The roof is some polished material. A glimpse of wall shines as though wet. Again different from the thatch covering most of the stone cottages.

Rodney's voice trails off, mercifully. When Teyla turns her head, she catches Chei watching Rodney intently, approvingly. Teyla has occasionally seen women look at Rodney like that, but usually they had already witnessed some grand display of his engineering or electronic skills. Chei just nods. "Don't worry, Rodney McKay. You won't lose track of them, either; from the Tower, you'll be able to see the entrance to the Temple at all times. If you wish to."

This is not an unusual arrangement, then; Teyla has already suspected that the Xa are familiar with groups of mixed sexes, allowing only the females to enter their sanctuary but hosting the men as well. The path leads between two huge, near-spherical boulders; they pass and reach the top of the hill.

The tower is, by any definition, a tower and therefore, apart from the dome on top, very much unlike the temple. It's tall and airy, made from sturdy wood and painted a light red color. Teyla narrows her eyes and is about to take a closer look, but Chei is waving them along with a touch of impatience. "Come inside," she says, so Teyla doesn't have a lot of time to examine the surface of the tower. Still, even just in passing, she realizes that the coat of paint is not fresh, as she had previously assumed. The gloss must be an inherent quality. The tower has to shine like a beacon in the green countryside. It makes her shiver involuntarily.

"Pardon the question, Chei..." She waits until their guide has turned and arched a surprisingly elegant eyebrow. "I wonder, wouldn't the Wraith instantly home in on such a visible structure? I recall most of your people live in complex cave systems beneath the mountains, but surely the ones outside are likely to get culled this way?"

"We do monitor Wraith activity," the Xa woman says briskly, "but you're not wrong; the Tower's been a target in the past. Still, everybody is aware of the danger. They continue to come."

"Thrilled beyond all measure, no doubt," Rodney mutters unhappily, "because really, who hasn't always wanted a shot at trying out how an hors d'oeuvre feels on its silver platter?" Catching Teyla's look, presumably, he huffs out an affronted breath. "Oh please, Teyla, do I have to remind you that offering the unsuspecting or unwilling in some perverse parody of an all-you-can-eat buffet seems to be an accepted practice in this galaxy?"

"Rodney...."

"Olesia? I'm just saying."

"Not here, though," Teyla says, sounding perhaps not as convinced as she should have. She does believe her people's recollection and even Chei, but she also remembers the Genii. Still, she finds himself smiling in a reconciliatory manner at Chei; what choice do they have? Dusk has fallen, and while she and even Rodney, now, would not mind sleeping on the ground in front of the temple entrance, the Xa quite obviously do.

Chei simply waits through their discussion, a half-smile on her face, eyebrows raising. "This galaxy?" she repeats.

"Never mind," Rodney mutters, flapping his hand in dismissal. "Lead on. Mustn't be late to dinner. Or to be dinner."

"Rodney," Teyla hisses at him.

Chei laughs.

She leads them through the entrance hall where a few men are gathered around square tables, talking in low voices or playing some board game she thinks might be kire. Chei does not slow her step, does not meet the men's eyes at all, but nonetheless, they all turn and stare at her. No one moves, though; Teyla doesn't know if that is due to the observation of a Xa custom or the formidable weapon strapped to her back. None of the men are carrying anything resembling weaponry, in fact, and it quickly becomes clear why: Chei leads them to an alcove at the far wall, guarded by four heavily-armed Xa who regard them with obviously trained eyes, scanning for weaponry. Even Ronon might not succeed in smuggling in her knives here, Teyla thinks.

"Your weapons." It is not a question, and Chei does not sweeten the demand with a smile.

Rodney's eyes widen, his fingers clamp around his weapon protectively. It is quite amazing, the change he's undergone; the awkwardness and fumbling reluctance has lessened over the last months. If he took compliments with just a little more graciousness, Teyla would have told him so on the spot.

"No, no, no, wait, that's not part of the deal; you can't just go and disarm us and then send us God-knows-where!" He hunches forward and doesn't flinch when two of the Xa guards step closer and put their hands on what looks like the butts of pistols.

"We can, and we will." Now, finally, Chei smiles, softens her voice in understanding. "It's the custom of this place. I'm sorry, but I thought you knew – you gave indication that you knew the rules."

Teyla nods. She, too, is anything but happy about parting with her weapon, but again, the setup shows that this is part and parcel of the deal. There was clearly a reason why Charin and his mother before her went with fellow female Athosians only; Teyla just had not realized how strictly regulated a trip to Xa was. "My grandmother traded with the Xa but did not share the details of her visits. Excuse our reluctance."

"Certainly. As long as you comply in the end." There's an ironic note in Chei's voice; that and the glint in her dark eyes make something in Teyla twist – with anger or grudging amusement, she does not know.

She hands over the gun with a formal incline of her head. Rodney reluctantly follows suit.

~*~

Teyla walks directly to the window of the room they've been given. Chei hasn't lied; it provides a clear view of the temple entrance. Behind her, Rodney tosses down his pack and the colonel's on one of the two wide beds.

"Oh, super, we've ended up in the luxury version of a holding cell," Rodney snaps. "Kill me now. Although, come to think of it, that won't be necessary, since one of these armed-to-the-teeth warrior princesses will certainly storm in here in the middle of the night to show us – up close and personal – how cutting-edge their weaponry is, Nazgûl-in-Bree style!"

"Rodney." There is no particular note of warning in Teyla's voice; she is simply attempting to halt the steady stream of words. For once, thanks to movie night, Teyla even understands the cultural reference.

"Hrm," he says, but before he can launch another tirade, the door swings open, and two Xa enter. Neither of these women are as outlandishly tall as Chei and the twin guards – guard twins? – at the stargate. One is a curvy redhead with a multitude of freckles and the other is a slight brunette, perhaps a shade darker in skin tone than Teyla.

Teyla is still lifting one curious eyebrow when the freckled one's gaze lights on her, and her face breaks into a wide, impossibly delighted smile. Teyla is not sure why she takes one instinctive step back.

"Look, mine really is pretty! Here I thought Daiae was exaggerating."

"She did last time," her companion agrees with a grin, and begins to size up Rodney. Who does not step back but gets a little flustered, color rising in his cheeks when he notices which part of his body the Xa is staring at. "So you're the smart one?"

Rodney's nod is lightning-fast and confident; Teyla is almost relieved, back on solid ground, able to focus on the rich display of emotion from Rodney rather than her own growing sense of discomfort. "You could say so. Actually, you have to say so – Dr. Rodney McKay, pleased to meet you but, uh, unable to go anywhere with you to fix whatever little mechanical problem you have; I've have to stay here – and, hey, what am I, chopped liver? I may not be a pretty boy like Teyla, but I like to think I possess a certain manly, ruggedly attractive look."

While Teyla has been gaping at both women, the brunette has crossed the room and put a hand on Rodney's arm – decisive, demanding. "Stay here is what we'll do." She tilts her head and smiles. "It's the whole point, in fact. Lie down now."

At that, the woman hooks her foot around Rodney's ankle and dumps him onto the bed.

~*~

Rodney's sour look threatens to screw with Sheppard's relaxed, happy feeling on the way back to the gate. He keeps peering at her neck and shooting venomous glances at Ronon. Teyla strides ahead of them, his face set.

"You know we were forced into some – some sort of reverse brothel last night while you were doing whatever you were doing in there," Rodney mentions. For the fifth – or is it fiftieth? – time.

"Yes, Rodney," Sheppard says, with a roll of her eyes.

There's dew on the grass along the path, but the morning sun is warming the valley gently, the sky is a blue deeper and wider than any Earth vista she remembers, and she feels good. One of the elder priestesses brought them out of the temple after giving Ronon and her the Blessing. A kiss, that's all it was; a kiss from the Goddess, and the imprint of her lips left on Sheppard's cheek in an ink that would fade in a few days. The priestess promised it would not matter. The Xa would remember them.

Sheppard's pretty sure everyone in the temple last night will remember them.

"The beds were so lumpy that my back is in agony right now; I'm probably going to be crippled. And do you realize why I was unable to close my eyes for more than ten minutes?" He doesn't wait for Sheppard's answer, again, "Because there were scores of women throwing themselves at me – very attractive women; beautiful, even! Tall ones, petite ones, redheads and brunettes and oh, God, busty blondes, yet I sent them all away; do you even know why? Why do I even ask? You don't have the slightest idea, do you? I did it because of you!" Rodney takes a step closer and narrows his eyes, looking at Sheppard's neck again.

Skittish, because she doesn't want to think too much about the night before, she hitches her T-shirt neck higher. "Quit trying to look down my shirt, McKay." Keep it light, keep it all a joke, she thinks. That's her best bet. What was in that smoke anyway? Not that she has anything to apologize for, damn it, but this is not the time to explain that to Rodney. Especially when she's starting to feel like maybe she does.

"I'm not trying to look down your shirt, Colonel," Rodney hisses back. "Is that a hickey?"

"What?" Sheppard tries unsuccessfully to look at her own neck.

Rodney's quick with his hands, always has been. He grasps the edge of her T-shirt neck and peels it back. "It is!"

Sheppard slaps Rodney's hand away. "Quit," she snaps. It's the damn touching thing again, but she's never got around to telling Rodney how much it's bothering her, so she shuts down the stab of temper she feels. It's particularly disturbing this morning; she still feels...sensitized. The brush of his fingers against her neck made her shiver.

Ahead of them, Teyla and Ronon are paused, waiting, looking back with interest. A blush heats Sheppard's cheeks as she looks at Ronon, and she damns this new body for that. She hates the million and one ways it gives her away. She used to know how to keep up a front, but being a woman keeps ambushing her, surprising her, and she has to scramble to just keep up with her own responses. She's perpetually behind the curve now; it drives her crazy.

Meanwhile, Rodney's looking even sourer. "Exactly what did you do in there last night, Colonel?"

Sheppard tries for cool and drawling, despite knowing even her ears are flushed red. "Prayed."

"And that – that's what? Stigmata?" Rodney's voice is climbing higher and higher as he's stabbing a finger at the hickey.

Sheppard grabs his wrist. "Stop it."

She's seen McKay with some pretty nasty injuries, but his expression never matched the one on his face now. It isn't anger or agitation. It's betrayal. Shit. Her sharp tone seems to get to him, too, or maybe it's the harsh grip she has on him; his eyes widen, flicker down to where her fingers are digging into his skin. His mouth snaps closed and something like resignation fills his eyes.

Sheppard curses silently, pissed at herself and Rodney and the Xa, just because they happen to still be on their planet.

"Look, Rodney, we'll talk about it after we get back to Atlantis. We've got the Blessing, the Xa are going to trade with us, no one got shot. Everything else is just details, okay?"

Rodney shakes her off. "Not okay. Not okay, at all, Colonel. And you can shove your details." Before Sheppard can respond, he stalks away.

So much for the blue sky good mood. Fuck. Ronon's still watching her. She shrugs helplessly, rubs her face with one hand, and starts walking again. Ahead, Rodney is moving in that jerky, shoulders-tense way he has when he's upset. He isn't speaking, either, not even with Teyla.

Sheppard yanks her T-shirt back into place viciously. "Shit." This is why you don't fuck team mates.

It sure is why you don't fuck more than one teammate.

~*~

"Well," Elizabeth says, leaning forward a little, frowning a little. "I'd say congratulations."

Sheppard slumps a little lower in her chair, not feeling the good, successful mission glee.

Rodney's got his arms folded over his chest and is glaring at her. Except when he's looking bewildered and hurt, which makes Sheppard look away, which leads to realizing Ronon is watching her like a big, unblinking cat. The result is that she quickly avoids her gaze and focuses on Teyla, whose face is so strained that staring at him is painful. Then she has to look anywhere else, before she ends up thinking about last night, so she switches back to Rodney. Who is glaring again like he knows what she was thinking about.

"Colonel?"

She jumps and looks guiltily at Elizabeth, having no idea what she just said. "Yeah?"

"I know you'll include everything in your report." Gentle reminder to gloss over anything that would raise eyebrows back at the SGC or reprimand for not getting her paperwork done on time? She never knows with Elizabeth. "But I'd appreciate a quick overview. What was involved with receiving the Xa's Blessing?"

Sheppard looks at her hands on the table and at the words in her report. The Xa invited Specialist Dex and Colonel Sheppard to participate in their devotions. The remainder of our team (Teyla Emmagan and Dr. Rodney McKay) were encouraged to wait in a nearby guest house. After entering the Xa temple, we expressed our respect for their beliefs by taking part in a ritual form of prayer. The Xa were pleased with our efforts and agreed to enter into trade negotiations. Recommend assigning Lieutenant Cadman or other female officer and negotiators to return to PX0-069. Hey, too much detail would just be boring.

"We went into the temple –"

"They stripped naked first," Rodney interrupts.

"Purification ceremony," Sheppard continues, not taking her gaze away from Elizabeth, while praying for Rodney to just stay quiet for once. "You have to swim through a pool to get into the temple. One of the priestesses explained that we could pray with them or not, and if we did, then we would be blessed and they'd be happy to trade with us."

Elizabeth's eyes narrow. "You didn't feel that you would be deceiving the Xa, or that they would take offense if they doubted your sincerity?"

"Didn't need to fake anything," Ronon says.

"Of course not," Rodney snaps.

Sheppard glares at him. He wasn't in the temple with them. If he would just shut up so they could get through this faster, she might have time to get a shower before tackling the inbox full of reports she knows is waiting for her, not to mention writing this mission up.

"Colonel? Exactly what did the prayer ritual involve?" Elizabeth prompts.

She bites the inside of her lip for an instant, then offers, "We had to ring the bell." More than once, she reflects. She's never going to hear a bell again without being reminded.

"It's a mystery reserved for initiates," Ronon adds. "Can't say any more."

"Oh, is that what you're calling it now?" Rodney says snidely.

"What the hell is your problem, McKay?"

"You! You, with your space slut girlfriends and hickeys, and Ronon and you were both out of radio contact all night while Teyla and I got a steady stream of propositions for stud duty!" Rodney's voice just keeps going up; he's pointing and waving his hands until Teyla grabs one.

"Dr. McKay," Teyla says at the same time Elizabeth snaps, "Rodney!" and he shuts up, even averts his eyes, looking miserable.

"Wait, you got what?" Sheppard blurts out. It only sinks in now, that thing Rodney has been complaining about so vocally: The women he mentioned didn't ogle him while he was passing through; they came to him because they wanted his little wigglers? She feels almost a little affronted – why Rodney's, why didn't the Xa…oh. Yeah. Right.

"Perhaps it would be better if I were to explain," Teyla says. He looks stressed, almost gray around the mouth, and exhausted. Or maybe that's haunted. Sheppard feels suddenly worried. Christ, if something really did happen to Teyla or Rodney....

"I wish someone would," is Elizabeth's response.

"The Xa adopt girl children from numerous worlds where they are not...prized," Teyla begins. "They trade fine goods and fresh produce in exchange, but mostly take the unwanted. The few men allowed to live on Xa aren't enough to maintain a viable population. So when they can, when they consider someone worthy, they choose partners to sire a child."

Sheppard's mouth is dry, but she makes herself ask anyway. She's suddenly afraid that that beautiful world, with its friendly, hands-on women, is hiding some terrible secret. "And if the baby's a boy?"

Teyla gives her a slight but reassuring smile. "Then the Xa give the baby to the father or, if he has no wish for a child, they send the boy to Yan. The Yan seldom have boy children and value them highly. Telem, the first woman who came and asked for my...contribution...explained. In the end." His gaze shifts a little to the side, over Sheppard's shoulder, and the weariness becomes apparent again, along with distraction.

Sheppard flicks a look toward Rodney. The nagging feeling in her stomach is back and brought reinforcements. He doesn't look like he's gotten laid the night before. But what does she know? Maybe the whole hissy fit is just a way of distracting her?

Not likely that Teyla would have accepted, either. Except...what if Teyla thought that the Xa were his only chance at having a kid now? Suddenly Sheppard isn't as sure of anything as she had been. What a shitty, shitty deal for Teyla.

"We declined, of course."

Of course. She'd pay more attention to Teyla's stiff delivery, but she's kind of busy staring at Rodney's downturned mouth. Closed or – usually, normally, most often – open, it never lies. No, Rodney didn't sleep with any of the women. And yeah, he's blaming her for that.

And yeah, she feels bad. Not as bad as Teyla, though. The calm exterior is an act. Underneath, he's hurting, bound to be, and it isn't just the baby thing, it's the Xa. Just like the Genii, they've turned out to be different than Teyla thought.

"That's – certainly an unusual custom." Elizabeth manages to say, her tone just off enough to make Sheppard's attention snap back to her. "I don't know of anything comparable on Earth. Has this been in practice for a long period of time?"

"As far as I know, the Xa record is unbroken for generations." Teyla rolls his shoulders forward; it's too graceful to be called a shrug. The play of muscles under the tan skin of his arm doesn't hurt, and crap, she absolutely didn't just notice that. It was one thing to...admire Teyla's form from minimum safe distance before, but this, now? Sheppard squeezes her eyes shut, and when she opens them again, it's all right; she can focus on his words again. What was in that temple incense? "...merely a continuation of more common customs, if one taken to extremes. Many of the Pegasus peoples are rather small in numbers. In addition to that, the Wraith cull indiscriminately, which often results in an uneven ratio of males and females."

Sheppard blinks. Okay. Sex tourism is even more widespread than they always said on TV.

Elizabeth nods at Teyla. "I understand; the influx of new DNA is a matter of necessity."

"Sounds like necessity is the mother of more than invention in Pegasus." Rodney sounds unhappy, but he's stilll got his touch for saying exactly the right thing in exactly the wrong way. Ronon lets out a snort of near laughter, then looks at him speculatively, as though Rodney's upset has suddenly become interesting.

"Either way, it's fascinating." Elizabeth looks like she means it, but she also looks like she'd rather discuss the Pegasus genetic stock exchange in a less open forum. Which is fine by Sheppard because right now, it's hard to decide which are making her more uneasy, Rodney's accusatory stares or Ronon's searing glances.

She coughs discreetly. "So, now that we've paved the way, you're free to discuss the details with Halling. The high priestess promised me personally that trade negotiations could begin promptly."

"Good." Elizabeth knows Sheppard entirely too well, because there's more than a trace of amusement in her smile. "Let's wrap this up, then. Colonel, do you have anything to add?"

"No, we're good."

She really wishes that were true.

On her way out, something occurs to her, and she stops, almost at the door. "So, hey, what happened with Grella?"

Elizabeth smiles. "Triplets. Dr. Biro is staying with her until tonight. Grella had a very hard labor."

So that's why Beckett did the post-mission exams. And wasn't that fun – not. "Oh, wow." Oh, ow, Sheppard thinks. "How is she? The babies are all okay?"

"All three babies are fine, and so is Grella," Elizabeth says, still smiling and looking a little dreamy.

"Three?" Rodney squeaks.

"Twins are good luck on Sateda," Ronon says. A flash of sweet surprise lights her face, and she smiles. "Triplets are better."

Teyla, on the other hand, looks sad. "If they live," he comments. Sheppard winces. Sateda must have had better health care and medicine than Athos did.

"But why don't you – oh." Rodney's mouth works, then he snaps it closed. He looks rebellious and more than a little angry. Sheppard feels the same way. Halling and the rest of the Athosians turning on Teyla shocked her, she still hasn't got around it in her mind. Teyla can't even visit a friend that's just had her babies. "That's – can I just say that your people are crazy?" Rodney tells Teyla. "Keeping you from, uh, your friends? This isn't your fault."

"Thank you, Rodney." Teyla just sounds exhausted, as though he doesn't have any energy left to feel more. Numb. Sheppard's been there.

She stops and presses her hand down on Teyla's shoulder for a second. It's a little easier somehow, because Teyla's still seated and Sheppard's behind him. She still feels awkward, though. But it's easier now than it used to be.

She adds a pat and then retreats out of the briefing room as fast as she can. Behind her, she hears Rodney blurt something to Elizabeth, then his heavy, hurrying footsteps.

~*~

Of course she can outrun Rodney. Even without resorting to running, which would look too weird for the commander of Atlantis to be doing, anyway.

The door to her room shuts behind her, its click soft and comforting. In moments like these, she can never quite gauge how attuned Atlantis is being and how much is just her skewed perspective. Two years, and while she's gotten used to them, she still hasn't precisely gotten comfortable with the automatic sensors. They react to her like an organ player at a church wedding to the bride.

She has a sudden and rather unwelcome image of herself – no, damn, himself, his male body, befuddled expression and all – in a frilly white dress. His arm's linked with Rodney's, like after that session; Rodney's all stiff posture and squared jaw. And wait, wouldn't that make Rodney her father? That'd be too weird, even for her subconscious. Sheppard shakes her head and focuses on her relief at being back. Home. And alone.

Sprawling out on the bed, she realises how tired she is, not to mention a little achy in places she'd rather not think about right now. She took a hot shower before the post-mission briefing, but after spending a decent part of an Atlantis day off-world, that's not refreshing enough. Maybe a nap? It's still noon, but naps are good. She likes to think she's earned one. Trade treaty for Atlantis under her belt, hey, that's something, right?

Sheppard lets her eyes drift shut. Just for a bit.

~*~

When she opens her eyes again and glances at the custom clock Rodney shoved into her hands at some point during their first year on Atlantis, it's past midnight. Sheppard blinks, then rolls her shoulders experimentally. Okay, she's rested. Or rather, her body's rested. Definitely not able to sleep any more. She feels distinctly that there are things to take care of.

Hmm.

A few back exercises would probably be good, get those back muscles loosened up again.

Maybe read a few more pages? War and Peace is still lying on her beside table where she left it...quite a while ago. Funny how she hasn't really gotten to it since Hermea. Then again, not exactly chick lit.

There's always the shower. The adjustable water jets are quite...yeah. They are. But no, she's not in the mood.

Playing the guitar always relaxes her. Mind and body and whatever else might need it. She stands up to fetch it. At least one joint's creaking – so not a good sign, but she'll be damned if she starts worrying about her age now. She curls herself around the body of the guitar, lets her fingers pluck the strings. She hums under her breath. We got married in a fever, hotter than pepper sprout….

She's about to go on to the next line, but… okay. Slowly, she puts the guitar down again and drops back on the bed. For a few moments, she just stares at the ceiling, hands behind her head. Maybe she shouldn't have left, but stayed and explained to Rodney. Not apologized, but made him see – well, her point of view. Which was a bit limited, granted, but Rodney knows what they say about hindsight. Although he hates it. It being people's stupidity.

Sheppard rolls off the bed in one fluid movement and heads for the door. Time to go find Rodney and hash this out. He'll understand. She'll make him understand.

Instinct and experience take her straight to the labs without even trying Rodney's quarters. That this was the right decision is confirmed when she passes a sleepy-eyed Radek in the hallway. He gives her a look that's not exactly cheerful. "Colonel. Please remove Rodney from the lab."

Yeah, okay, that makes sense. She rubs the back of her neck. "He's been there for a while?"

Zelenka bobs his head slowly. "Long enough to drive everybody else away. Soon he will have no staff left."

"That bad?"

He takes off his glasses and rubs at his face. "Worse, Colonel. Very much worse tonight. He berates Bryce, mocks Kavanagh – yes, yes, we all do, but not so loudly – tore Simpson's work apart, and makes me wish for zat to knock him out."

Sheppard's not going to ask what he means by that. "Uh, right. I'll go talk to him. Don't mind the sound of gunfire, okay?"

Zelenka peers at her. "Ah, good. Still a sense of humor, Colonel. Hang onto that." One last knowing look and he's gone.

Sheppard takes what's definitely not a deep breath. Only after the transporter doors close does she walk the rest of the way to the lab.
Rodney's there, bent over a laptop, murmuring to himself. She walks over and peers over his shoulder.

"Excuse me, Colonel, I'm working."

"Kind of looks like Minesweeper to me."

Rodney snaps the laptop closed. "What if it is?"

Sheppard takes a step back. "Okay."

Rodney looks at her, and she wants to squirm. She expected a bad temper, but the truth is she's seen him much worse. He doesn't sound particularly angry, or even snippy. Just – his voice is flat, decided. This isn't going to be as easy as she thought. Though putting Rodney and easy in the same frame is probably a sign of brain damage, anyway. "Look, Rodney, I just wanted to say...."

"I'm sure you have a lot to say," Rodney states. Too much time in the lab, too many hours spent fending off Xa women, and he looks gray and tired. "Unfortunately, I'm not in the mood to listen."

"Jesus, McKay, it was Ronon, not some random woman, okay?" she blurts out. Fuck. She didn't think he'd react like – like she ran over his dog and gave his Nobel to a chimp. No, like she actually...hurt him. Crap. This is the kind of shit she's always tried to steer clear of. This is why one night stands are good.

Rodney's mouth twists a little at the corner. "I'm supposed to cheer you on? Sorry. Couldn't bring the pompoms. Only one item, remember?"

Sheppard licks her lips. "That's not what I meant. You know that."

"Yes, well, cheating on me with a friend isn't much better, now, is it?" Rodney snaps. His arms are folded over his chest and his chin is tucked down. He looks stubborn and miserable and Sheppard feels like the lowest of the low.

"I'm...." The words just won't come.

Rodney looks at her. "Don't strain yourself, Colonel."

"Damn it, Rodney." She feels slow anger uncoil in her belly – he knows, he has to know that it wasn't like that. He's the fucking genius. "You have to understand it wasn't like that. We – we had to do it, okay? The Xa needed our…cooperation, and Ronon –" She realizes she's mirroring Rodney's posture, her arms folded over her chest. She wanted to make him see her point; now she mostly wants to shake some sense into him. "Ronon offered, said she'd go and have sex so I wouldn't have to. But I told her no, I'd do it."

"I've said it before, your tendency toward self-sacrifice is remarkable." Rodney is still staring at her, still folded up and tightly defensive.

"Look, I couldn't order Ronon do that for me, okay?" Why is Rodney making this so difficult? She realizes she's biting her lip again. "Do you think I'd have left you and Teyla if I'd known what was going to happen?" She waves at Rodney. "The whole sperm donation thing?"

Rodney frowns, and something in the rigid set of his shoulders changes. "So you didn't know until it was too late. What a surprise." He doesn't look at Sheppard when he continues, quieter. "It's still a shitty way to find out you've been replaced."

"Jeez, no one's replacing anyone," Sheppard snaps. What's his problem? Ronon and he aren't in a competition.
"No?" Rodney says.

"No." And, God help her, she means it. Doesn't mean to stop this thing with Rodney, whatever it is.

"Oh." Slowly, the worry on his face fades, and what she sees there – it looks more like the Rodney she knows. The one she's hung out with, liked to hang out with. Her friend. "Right. So. If I –" Rodney stops talking and, gently, gently, takes hold of Sheppard's wrist, pulling her closer with the slightest of tugs. She goes with it, feeling a thrill run through her. "If I did this, you'd be okay with it? Still?"

Her throat feels a little dry. This is a little more than being friendly, but she's actually okay with that. Sheppard nods. It's stupid, but there's no one in the lab – she gives in and leans into Rodney. He smells like coffee, like the fine ionized dust of Ancient machinery, like himself. He smells good.

When Rodney's fingers touch her jawbone, she shivers. Slowly, with great care, he cups her cheek with one hand, and yeah, okay, she's missed his hands. It feels natural to let herself fall, forward, just a bit, and tilt her head just so. His lips brush hers, a little chapped, and it strikes her that maybe he's been biting at them, too. He shouldn't have. Really shouldn't have. She opens her mouth, then, and he lets out a sigh against it, the sound reverberating through her and traveling straight to the tips of her toes.

Rodney staggers back two steps, ending up propped against the lab counter. Sheppard follows, iron to a magnet, closing one hand on the front of Rodney's jacket. This is what she's wanted all evening. Not talking, not apologizing, just Rodney's mouth and his hands. She grinds herself against him. Kissing him is hot in a way she'd never thought to connect to Rodney, except she totally should have, because it's all about dedication and enthusiasm coupled with skill. His tongue strokes along her lower lip, tangles with hers, and now she's gasping into his mouth because Jesus, she can feel him everywhere. Hot wet kiss, hand locked hard around her wrist, chest warm and solid against the press of her breasts, thigh between hers, body humming. All she can do is suck on his tongue and hang on, trying to push herself even closer.

When she has to catch a breath, she remembers. "Wait, wait, not here, anyone could come in."

Rodney still has his grip on her wrist. He blinks down as if he just remembers that, and brightens visibly. He begins to pull her across the lab. "Closet," he tells her.

What? That's – she just stares at him.

"You – oh, don't be dense, c'mere, yes –"

Rodney's broad hands in the small of her back, guiding her, and the touch itself burns through the layers of her uniform. His grip on her arm isn't particularly gentle anymore, and maybe there's even a little too much force involved now, something from before seeping through, and Jesus, should that really make her so hot she's abruptly catching her breath? When they stumble – when Rodney shoves her – into a closet, she can feel that she's wet already, slippery between her thighs, and the realization alone makes her exhale a little raggedly. And now Rodney's backing her up against a supply cabinet, almost making her trip, and oh, fuck, this would be disturbing if it weren't such a frightening turn-on right now, and she doesn't want to think about it, just feel; if she reached down now, she knows her fingers would come away wet, glistening, and she'd find herself hot and swollen, ready to –

Oh, God. Fierce kisses. Rodney's mouth slanting over hers, and his urgency is the best fucking thing ever; she's always been fascinated by Rodney's relentless focus, but she wouldn't have thought being on the receiving end of his frantic attempts would be like this – he's panting into her ears, hot, sharp sounds that go straight to her pussy, and God, she'd never known, never –

"Please, please, let me...." Fingers on her hips, not holding but positioning, "…please, I promise, it'll be good, I want – turn around."

Oh. She can't suppress the shudder that races through her, and Rodney takes that as his cue to yank at the buttons of her pants, without his usual finesse; there's a low litany of "God," and "yes," interspersed with him nipping at her earlobe, which makes her clutch at him and feel another rush of wetness pool. It's shameful in a way sex hasn't been before, how she responds to Rodney in control, Rodney who tells and shows her what to do, but it's good, so good that she lets herself go loose and pliant, lazily biting at his lower lip, and Rodney moans "Oh, fuck, you – yes, okay, thank you, thank you –" and drags her pants down, the cool air startling on her uncovered legs. She wants to get rid of the BDUs pooling around her ankles, but Rodney's gripping her wrists, stopping her motion, with a litany of "No, no – wait," and "It's fine," and "It'll work," and taking hold of her hips – sure, efficient motions, angles and directional forces – and she's suddenly facing the shelves, with Rodney behind her, breathing hard.

He kisses the back of her neck, and fuck, that sends shivers down her spine, down, down to where she's wet and aching already and okay, this is really happening, the sound of Rodney's zipper loud in her ears and, "Bend over, bend over, now," even louder, but she does, bracing herself on a shelf at waist-height, and then Rodney's already pushing against her, cock slick, with a quick jerk forward, brushing along her length and hitting her clit in a way that makes her tremble. And then there's a hand on her hip and one in the small of her back again, and his cock is pushing inside her, rougher than ever before, with enough force to make her knees hit the lowest shelves, and it's good enough to make her see bright sparks behind her eyelids and gasp out, "Jesus, Rodney!" He stops, like that, breath harsh, and says, "I'm sorry, should I stop, did I hurt you, I'm sorry," and she says "Watch the knees, Rodney," and "No, no, don't stop," and then Rodney's teeth are marking the slope of her neck, and he's fucking into her again, and again, and when his fingers reach around and press against her hard, she comes, suddenly and with a moan that sounds strangled and wild in her own ears.

~*~

Back to earth – Atlantis – and she didn't like the touchdown. Crash, burn. She's burning, all right, and not in a good way. She just screwed Rodney in a fucking supply closet. Let Rodney screw her in there. Anyone could have walked in and seen them in the lab, or heard them – heard her – moaning like a fucking porn star. She can't go on letting him take control. This has to stop. It's a terrible idea, it isn't her, she's not really like this – doesn't want to be like this. Sheppard sure as hell doesn't want be hung up on Rodney.

She fumbles and jerks her pants up.

"Sheppard?" Rodney says. There's a note of confusion in his voice, and just for that, she hates him just a little bit.

"Not again. We're not doing this again."

"What?"

He acts like this is – normal, when really, it's not. Getting turned on by him holding her down, bending her over, no, no. No. Not okay.

"Leave me alone." She jerks her hand away. "I'm not doing this again. Not with you, not with Ronon. Just, back off, Rodney." She really hates the way her voice is shaking now.

"But –" Rodney stares at her, and the sheer disbelief on his face makes her almost want to hit him. "But you wanted it – you liked it!"

She pauses with her hands on the hem of her T-shirt. "I'm saying...just, not again."

"Did I hurt you?" Now Rodney looks horrified. "Do you need to see Biro or Carson –"

"You didn't hurt me." She cuts him off, repeats it, louder. "You didn't hurt me, Rodney. I just...I'm done."

"But you can handle Ronon," he says tonelessly.

"No!" It's too close to a shout. "Jesus, would you forget about Ronon! This isn't about Ronon!"

She kicks a box of electrical components across the floor. "We're in a fucking closet, Rodney." She points at him. "Your dick's still hanging out of your pants, and we're in a fucking closet, and this is a ticket back to Earth for me if someone catches us."

With a sigh, she slumps back against the shelves. Another box of parts wobbles, then falls to the floor with a crash. Neither of them pays any attention. "I can't do this." She thunks her head back against the shelf and adds, "I don't know how to do this."

Rodney blinks at her, oddly deflated, so out of his depth it isn't even remotely funny. "But – we can figure it out. I'm – I'm good at figuring out things, you know me, Sheppard. Trust me, I'll find some way, and...."

Sheppard shakes her head. "No. I'm sorry."

And she is. She is damned sorry, and not just because the sex itself was spectacular. She needs Rodney as a friend and this...this has probably wrecked that forever. But it's – the panic is still there, a heavy ball in her guts, and just thinking about what will happen when people learn about this is enough to make her ill, no matter the cast-iron stomach.

"This ends here, Rodney. Don't –" She stares at him, forces him to look at her. Hell, forces herself to look at him. "Don't make this harder on both of us. I'm leaving now. Wait a little before you go to your quarters." With a look down, in a softer tone of voice, "And, seriously, Rodney – put it back in your pants and button up."

He flushes at that, and hastens to do so. He's hasn't taken his eyes off her, but his face twists a little, and he looks bereft again. "Okay."

"Really?"

"No, but...." Finally, he looks away from her. "What else can I say?"

She wants to respond, but really, there's nothing left, Rodney's right. So she just nods. Yanks the hem of her shirt down, then opens the door and steps out, head high, like there's no reason she shouldn't be leaving a supply closet in the middle of the night.

The lab is still empty. Thank God for small – the smallest – of favors.

~*~

Sheppard usually wakes before her alarm. Not this morning; it's blaring before she blinks awake. All she can think is how much she just wants to go back to sleep. Her entire body feels like lead, as if moving out of bed took far more energy than she has. The temptation to smack the alarm and pull her pillow over her head is almost overwhelming until it percolates through her brain that it's light: the sun is up and pouring through her windows. Normally, she'd be up and meeting Ronon on the East Pier before now.

With a groan, she rolls out of bed and pulls on her running gear. She's already out the door when she realizes she must've pulled her sports bra on inside out; it feels tighter and more irritating than usual. Just the thought of trying to keep up with Ronon, who has probably circled the entire city by now, makes her tired this morning.

Maybe she can beg off. She checks her watch. She has – Ronon too, she remembers – that check-up scheduled with Biro that Beckett mumblingly reminded them of yesterday. In addition, she has about a week's worth of paperwork to finish before the Daedalus gets back, a staff meeting with Elizabeth, security team rosters to go over with Lorne, a flight to the mainland with Palecki, and an interview with Private Michaelson. There is no doubt the kid is going home on the Daedalus, but as his commanding officer, she can't just send him away without saying anything. Too bad her social skills aren't a little bit sharper, but as it is, she'll stick to the truth: some people just aren't meant for offworld duty. Michaelson is one of those people.

She passes Sergeant Reyes in the corridor. He gives her a nod, since she's not in uniform. "Running late, ma'am?" he asks.

Sheppard gives him a half-hearted glare.

"Nothing's going to be left in the mess except oatmeal and that stuff that tastes like salted cottage cheese," Reyes adds cheerily.

The way she feels, she'll just skip breakfast anyway. There's an added benefit to that plan: no Rodney. "You like living dangerously, don't you, Sergeant?" she says and keeps moving. Reyes just laughs.

She reaches the overlook where she usually meets Ronon and looks around, squinting against the entirely too bright sunshine flashing off the water. Okay. Looks like Ronon took off without her. Just as well. She's got a weird, tight ache going on in her gut that would probably get worse if she went racing after her freakishly fit, mutant running machine team mate.

With a sigh of near relief, Sheppard leans against the railing with her back to the sun and taps on her radio, tuning it to Ronon's assigned channel. The Atlantis radios are better than cellphones since Zelenka interfaced them with the city's comm system. Every radio set has an individual channel as well as public ones, so conversations are as private as anyone wants them to be. Of course, mistakes happen. Sheppard pushes the memory of Goodwin and Parkhurst aside.

"Ronon, this is Sheppard," she says. "You take off without me?"

No answer. She isn't alarmed, Ronon doesn't like the radios much. Getting her to wear one regularly, especially on missions, has been a pain. Ronon still takes her time answering, so she tries again. "Hey, Ronon. Come on. Where are you?"

Nothing. Now, Sheppard frowns. She's draggy and achy, and Ronon's not answering the radio. Not good signs. What if Beckett missed something during the post-mission exam? She pushes off the railing and heads for the nearest transporter at a trot.

The cramp twists through her abdomen when she steps into the corridor leading to Ronon's quarters. It makes her suck in her breath, but she doesn't miss her stride, though she does press her hand over her belly for a moment. For about a second, she's thinking alien illness, until she remembers Biro's gleeful 'fully functional female'.

"Aw, crap," she mutters as she triggers Ronon's door. That's just perfect. Biro or someone couldn't have mentioned this sooner?

"Go away," Ronon growls from inside the room.

Sheppard takes her life in her hands and steps inside anyway. "Hey, Ronon," she says. "You didn't answer your radio."

"Go. Away."

The windows are shaded against the morning sun, but Sheppard finds Ronon by voice. She's on the bed, curled in a near-fetal position. It makes Sheppard blink, until Ronon groans softly. Then she's got it figured out. She walks over to the bed and switches on a light. Sure enough, Ronon's sweaty and clearly miserable. She glares at Sheppard weakly and mutters something only half audible about bleeding.

It would almost be funny, if Sheppard wasn't suddenly noticing a creeping stickiness – not in conjunction with bleeding, anyway. She supposes it's a good thing this didn't start the day before on Xa, or when she and Rodney screwed like minks in the supply closet, because she can just imagine his reaction to finding blood on his dick. It wouldn't be pretty. But it's still one facet of being female she could have done without experiencing, oh, forever. It's not like she's planning on having a kid this way. She's seen Ronon with an arrow in the leg, even going into withdrawal, but never this obviously miserable. It would be funny if it wasn't happening to her too.

Really, she should ask and find out what. Only, she just doesn't want to know. Not right now.

"Cramps?" she says to Ronon.

"Unh."

One of her own does something that feels like her internal organs are being torqued. Something in her face must give her away because Ronon gives her a feral sort of snarl-smile. "You too?"

Sheppard gingerly sits down on the edge of Ronon's bed and bends over a little. It doesn't really help. She pats Ronon's hip. "Yeah." There's almost a rhythm to it, the cramps cresting and then easing back. She waits until the latest one is slacking off and says, "Come on. You've got to get up. We've got an appointment with Biro, remember?"

"Don't need a doctor," Ronon insists through gritted teeth.

"We're both going."

"No."

"Yes."

"I'll be fine."

"Don't be such a big – stoic," Sheppard says. She grimaces, suddenly imagining anyone hearing about this or, Christ, the wetness she can now feel seeping into her underwear. "Besides, we both need...supplies." This won't be over for days, she realizes, remembering something else from a brief cohabitation with one girlfriend.

Ronon bats her hand away. "Plenty of toilet paper in here."

Sheppard winces. That is just wrong. "Seriously, Ronon, we can do better than that." A breath. "I hear. I mean, I know the expedition brought...stuff for the women. The Daedalus brought resupplies, too." Ow. Another cramp. "And painkillers."

Ronon rolls onto her back and looks at the ceiling. "Painkillers?"

"C'mon."

"Thought you had a high pain threshold?" Ronon comments, finally moving to get out of bed.

She's jaybird naked under the sheet, and Sheppard quickly stares out of the windows, wondering if everything they did in the Xa temple makes them lesbians. Kate would know. Right. Like she's going to talk about this with Kate. Talking about Rodney was agony enough; she's not laying out any more of her emotions for Kate to dissect.

She turns to check if Ronon's dressed yet and gets an eyeful of two bare, barely jiggling breasts as Ronon buttons up her pants. Of course, at the moment, Sheppard feels so cruddy they aren't even a turn on. Being a woman sucks.

Ronon's completely dressed when Sheppard snaps back to reality.

"Teyla actually spars when she feels like this," Ronon says. Her hand is over her abdomen.

Sheppard rises from the bed. "Well, yeah, but we both know she's tougher than either of us," she tells Ronon.

Ronon looks thoughtful, then nods.

~*~
"You'll both be glad to hear that everything appears to working the way it's supposed to," Biro says after examining them both. They're in her little office, which is smaller even than Carson's and probably doubles as a supply closet. The shelves behind her desk are filled with sheets, blankets, scrubs, and towels. There are things on her desk. "Carson was supposed to mention this to you earlier."

"Well, he didn't," Sheppard says. "He just mumbled something."

Now that the latest ordeal is over, Sheppard notices Biro looks a little rumpled and a lot tired. Not that there isn't a lot of that going around Atlantis, but Biro usually comes across as disturbingly enthusiastic, a mixture of black humor and energy keeping her going when others are drooping. Helping Grella have those triplets must have exhausted her.

Biro makes a sound that sounds suspiciously like a snort, then goes on, "The fascinating thing is that all the women in Atlantis have synched to a twenty-eight day cycle. I would have expected you and Ronon to take up to a couple of months to match it, but apparently your bodies' adaptation to Atlantis carried over. You're both a couple of days late, but right on schedule with the rest of us."

Sheppard gulps. "I didn't want to know that," she says, a little faintly. She's never going to be able to scrub any of this from her brain. Even when she's a guy again, she's going to look at the date and know that Teyla and Miko and Cadman are all.... She frowns and calculates, trying to draw a correlation between the dates of some sterner lectures.

Biro looks interested. "Colonel?"

She shakes her head. "Never mind."

"So, are we done?" Ronon demands. Sheppard took a chair, but Ronon is leaning against the closed door. Her arms are wrapped around herself; she's obviously still in pain.

"Almost," Biro tells her with a sympathetic smile. She points at the blue and white boxes sitting on her desk. "Pads or tampons?"

Ronon perks up, looking interested for the first time. Sheppard just cringes. "Tampons?" Ronon asks.

Biro grins at Sheppard, so obviously amused by the embarrassed blush that's coloring her cheeks – again! – that Sheppard hams it up. She slaps her hands over her cheeks and gives Biro a mock wide-eyed look. "What?"

A maniac's grin lights Biro's face. "Tampons!" she says to Ronon and holds one up. "Shall I demonstrate how to use one?"

Please, God, not on yourself, Sheppard thinks. Or me.

Ronon's staring at the tampon with suspicion. "How does it work?"

"It's a cylindrically-shaped piece of absorbent tissue with a gently rounded tip in a plastic wrapper." Biro looks at her as if she were a teacher and Ronon a not-particularly-apt pupil. "Just out of curiosity, how do you suppose it works, Ronon Dex?"

Ronon is usually so hard to goad that even the Marines have caught on and stopped flattening themselves against Atlantis's delightedly-blinking walls when she passes, but today, she jumps for the bait like a kitten for a mouse on a string. Well. Like a lioness for a goat on a tether.

"Unwrap and insert it?" Ronon isn't Californian, not even American, but Sheppard can hear the 'duh' in these two words. Impatiently, Ronon leans forward and stretches out her hand in order to take the thing from Biro's fingers.

Only to have Biro pull back just as quickly, "Oh no, I really don't advise you take it and run with it, no pun intended." It should be illegal for doctors to display such amusement. Sheppard briefly considers prodding Elizabeth for the necessary an amendment to the Good Behavior clause.

"Why not?" Ronon's voice is slowly but surely approaching a growl. Sheppard begins to marvel at Biro's sang froid; this is the point where grown men tend to start groveling in the dust.

"Because," Biro nods gravely, "it's not quite as easy as it sounds. Many young girls have troubles at first, and experience great discomfort."

No, there are no words in the English language worse than what she just said. The only question is, shoot Biro or shoot herself? Sheppard isn't sure, and would have to kill Ronon, too; she's a witness to this undying shame, after all. All three of them, then.

She must've made a sound of distress, as Biro turns and peers at her. "There, there, Colonel Sheppard. Rest assured that it's not hard, either – if you observe the basic rules."

"Basic. Rules." The look of bewilderment on Ronon's face is oddly comforting. Misery doesn't just love company; it wants to fucking marry her, as far as Sheppard is concerned.

"Oh yes. First, you wash your hands, but I assume that one is a given; I don't suspect you're fond of infections? It's rare that they spread to your uterus, true, but trust me that you don't want cystitis."

Not her imagination: Ronon is looking a little pale around the eyes. Sheppard finds herself curling a protective hand over her aching belly.

"Then, you crouch down, or at least lift one leg onto a ledge or chair, and relax your vaginal muscles." When Ronon's frown deepens, Biro quickly continues, "Yes, you have them, and you will find out how to do it. You've probably practiced them already, if not as the primary target."

Great. What this conversation needed, really needed, was an allusion to masturbation. She resists the urge to cover her eyes.

Obviously pleased with the attention, Biro smiles at both of them. "Tug at the string, just to make sure. And finally, when pushing the tampon inside, make sure you insert it as far as you can reach, past the initial ring of muscle. It's only deep enough inside when you can't feel it any more."

That's...more than Sheppard ever wanted to know, and was afraid to ask as well. But Biro's not finished yet: "And, very important warning, don't leave it in more than six to eight hours – toxic shock syndrome is no laughing matter." She seems to ponder this for a moment. "Not that the term wouldn't be quite telling already. So, remember to change regularly, and don't leave the last one in after you've stopped bleeding."

Now – now! – she holds out her arm with the tampon again. "So?" There's a twinkle in her eyes, and hey, so nice to provide the day's entertainment, while the inner lining of a major goddamn organ sluffs out of her body, making a sticky, bloody mess between her legs.

"No, no thanks," Sheppard says. Ronon's shaking her head no, too. "Really, we'll stick with the pads." Another glance at the tampon Biro's still holding. "Just – no way."

Biro gives her a very pointed eyebrow, and Sheppard bites her lip and looks away because that eyebrow says, I did just examine you, Colonel – what's the big deal? The fact that Biro or, hell, anyone outside the team or Kate knows about...about what happened between her and Rodney makes her wish to die now. A Wraith could show up, and she'd throw herself at it. Or she could spontaneously discorporate. Ascend. Right now.

"It's your call," Biro goes on. "I'll get you a supply of pads to take with you. You too, Ronon. And something for the cramps."

"Thanks," Sheppard croaks.

Biro schools her face into something approaching seriousness. She pulls a blue-and-white box off a lower shelf. "Here."

Sheppard takes it, twitching at just the thought of strolling down the corridors and being seen with it. Biro hands another one to Ronon.

As she heads out the door – finally – Biro calls out cheerfully enough that a passing nurse hears and looks up, "Well, if you change your mind, come by the morgue. I'll keep these here for you, just in case."

Of course, the nurse spots the damned box in Sheppard's hands.

Of course.

~*~

Tap.

"Rodney."

Tap, tap.

He lifts one hand and flaps it, signaling shut up, genius working here. A slightly off-the-wall search through the Ancient database has uncovered some new files that seem to be about ZPM research. Either that or some branch of science Rodney has never conceived of yet. He squints at the screen, awkwardly translating Ancient to English. It's fascinating and frustrating and does a very satisfactory job of distracting him from Sheppard, him and Sheppard, and Sheppard and Ronon.

Tap, tap.

"Rodney."

Tap, tap, tap.

"What?" Rodney barks out without looking up for even a second.

Could they possibly have charged the ZPMs with a – his thoughts stray again. To Sheppard and – No, no, no. He'll think about anything else. The planetary invisibility cloak, that's fascinating enough to hold his attention. How does that work? The Hermeans need to start showing them some of their vaunted technology. He's going to insist, the very next time the team visits.

Tap, tap, tap. Tap.

Rodney frowns and taps the stylus in his hand against the lab bench again. The next time they go to Hermea...that's their next mission. Sheppard will probably find someone to sleep with this time, too, maybe a hermaphrodite since she's suddenly into 'experimenting.' Meanwhile, he, Rodney McKay, will be enduring some cockamamie lesson in Enlightenment, since he hasn't had all his equipment switched. Like changing sexes will provide the secrets of the universe. It certainly hasn't given Sheppard, Teyla, or Ronon the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. In fact, it's just made Teyla fucking miserable. If he sees Halling, he may have to sock him. Of course, Halling's built like a tree, so Rodney would have to get him to bend over first, but if he does...well, then Ronon will probably give the big jerk a boot to the ass. He really hopes this Path to Enlightenment isn't painful. He doesn't deal with pain very well. He had explained that to the Hermeans, hadn't he? He taps the stylus again. Yes, yes, he did. And they weren't sadists, just, well, peculiar, so it probably wouldn't be some terrible ordeal. Of course, if it were, Sheppard would rescue him. He taps faster and faster. Only, if Sheppard has to rescue him, that will no doubt annoy the Hermeans and then Sheppard, Ronon and Teyla may be in trouble, because they need the Hermeans to put them back to the way they were.

Taptaptaptaptaptap.

"Rodney! The flux capacitor is about to explode!"

Rodney shoots to his feet, his stool spinning away on its rollers and hitting Miko in the hip, startling a bleat from her.

"What!?" He stares wildly around the lab. Nothing more or less dangerous than usual catches his eye. "Flux capacitor?" he demands of Zelenka, who looks too satisfied to be a man in a lab with anything more potentially explosive than Rodney's temper. Rodney narrows his eyes. "You little weasel."

"Rodney, if you do not stop tapping, someone will put that stylus up your – "

"What tapping?"

Zelenka rolls his eyes. He points at the stylus in Rodney's hand. "Do not take that to the staff meeting, Rodney. You will give Dr. Weir a headache."

Rodney looks at the stylus blankly, then tosses it at the laptop. "Staff meeting?" The idea of facing Sheppard again is about as appealing as praising Kavanagh for his good attitude.

Zelenka consults his watch. "Yes, McKay. You are supposed to be there in twenty minutes."

"Oh. Well, that gives me plenty of time to go over this data a second time," Rodney says. He pulls the stool back over. "Miko!"

"Yes, Dr. McKay?"

He snaps his fingers. "Coffee."

Really, they couldn't have charged the ZPM using –

"Miko is not your personal, what do you call it, gopher," Zelenka observes.

Rodney squints at another equation. No, that just can't be right, can it? It contradicts...everything most of the Earth-based physicists have thought for the last ten years. Hmm. Maybe it is right. After all, he knows they're all idiots back on Earth. Excepting Sam Carter and Larry Fleinmann.

He grabs up the stylus and bounces the tip off the lab bench.

Somewhere behind him, Zelenka makes an exasperated sound.


"Why don't you go do something," Rodney says. "Like, oh, say, let me go out on a limb here, your work?"

Tap.

"Do not blame me when you forget the meeting and Dr. Weir sends very large Marines to carry you out of the lab, Rodney."

Tap. Tap. Tap.

"Whatever."

Tap.

"And do not forget to tell Colonel Sheppard the modifications on the jumpers are not fully tested. Several of the pilots have mentioned problems with the modified drone-firing interface."

"Fine. Fix it," Rodney tells him.

"Fix it, he says," Zelenka tells the rest of the lab. "Between analyzing ZPM, city maintenance, myresearch, and overseeing others when the Mighty McKay goes offworld. Not to mention all the jumpers are in rotation."

"Ground them."

"Rodney – "

"Busy."

"Do not blame me when jumpers fall from the sky like bricks," Zelenka mutters.

Rodney taps the stylus again. He really doesn't want to be the one to ground Sheppard's jumpers. She'll think it's a petty revenge thing. He checks the proportions of the Hekan ZPM again. That doesn't make sense. To be exact, it doesn't fit. He's still frowning over the problem, the jumpers forgotten, when his radio earpiece pops and Chuck in the gateroom reminds him, "Staff meeting in five minutes, Dr. McKay."

~*~

Halfway back to their quarters, Ronon stops and swings around.

"What?" Sheppard calls.

"We forgot the painkillers."

"Deal with it, Ronon," she snaps. Okay, fine, she's cranky, and Ronon is not a happy camper judging from the way her spread-out fingers are clenching over her belly, but Sheppard is not marching back and asking Biro for drugs because she has cramps. Women have gone through this every month – she cringes – since the dawn of time. Most of them didn't have access to high-class pharmaceuticals.

Ronon gives her a look, one that she either picked up from Teyla or Elizabeth: It's very disapproving. There's quite a bit of resentment due to pain, too. Sheppard ignores it – she has practice – and tugs Ronon back into motion. "C'mon."

Luck is with her for the moment. They don't run into anyone else in the halls. She takes them to her quarters; she really needs a shower and change of clothes now. The clothes go with her into the bathroom because she's not ready to get naked with Ronon again under any circumstances – seriously, no.

Fast shower, give the hair a rough toweling, dress, situate the damn pads – and doesn't that feel entirely to much like a fucking diaper – and she's out, hair still dripping on the shoulders of her T-shirt. She's grateful that second set of BDUs she got out of supply aren't tight; a loose fit is definitely preferable today. She's about to find some socks and pull on her new boots when she notices Ronon.

Ronon is standing in front of the window, plucking at the leather vest she's using as a shirt, tugging it up only to stare at her exposed stomach. At first, Sheppard thinks it's the cramps, but then Ronon bites her lip and tries to grab a fold of skin; she manages, with some effort, to find a little roll. She also leans down and pokes her upper thigh, hard and critically and, it seems, with grim satisfaction.


Sheppard just stands and stares as Ronon executes a perfect half-turn and ass-check while looking over her bare shoulder. It's not hot. It's deeply, deeply disturbing. Sheppard's last girlfriend did that, back when he let her drag him into Nordstrom's dressing rooms.

Ronon tugs at the waist of the pants, then pokes at her waist. She looks glum. Despite herself, knowing she's going to regret it, Sheppard asks. "What is it?"

"Am I fat?"

It's a nightmare. It has to be. Sheppard's team mate, the big, lethal alien warrior who tosses Marines around like confetti, did not just utter those words. But Sheppard remembers the proper response anyway. "Of course not!"

"I look fat."

"No, you don't," Sheppard hastily reassures her. "You really don't."

"You're lying." Ronon's voice is flat. She pokes at the bare skin just under her navel again. "I'm getting soft." She looks up and blinks, waiting for an answer. "Sheppard?"

I'm in hell, Sheppard realizes. Hell.

"I do." Ronon grunts. She lets herself fall onto Sheppard's bed, scowling fiercely at the ceiling.


Sheppard instinctively checks the ceiling, then looks back at Ronon and remembers to close her mouth. "Christ, Ronon –"

"I couldn't outrun McKay right now," Ronon mumbles. She half-turns toward the wall. It doesn't help how disturbed Sheppard feels, seeing Ronon on her bed. Again, like that first night. "I feel like a bloated kubrum."

"No, damn it, wait, you're not –" Sheppard squeezes her eyes shut. Says it. "You're not fat. You're – pretty. Strong." She hopes no one ever, ever hears this. Aside from the embarrassment factor, in a week Ronon will be back to normal and won't appreciate the memory of this little encounter. At all.

"You lie."

"Would I ever –" Okay, Ronon does know her better than that. "I'm not. Really. Ronon."

"Bloated and weak and slow."

Oh, for Christ's sake. Her temper snaps. "Get a grip!"

Ronon glares at her. Sheppard glares back and adds a firm nod. "Really. You look fine! Ask one of the Marines."

"Marines would hump a guth, too." Ronon lays one forearm over her eyes.

"Buck up, Ronon! Don't make me get Heightmeyer for this nonsense." A glance at her watch shows she has exactly fourteen minutes to get to the staff meeting. Which she doesn't dare miss. Not if she wants to be sure the city receives enough munitions on the next Daedalus run, rather than letting Rodney's requests run rampant.

Ronon moves her arm up and looks at Sheppard. "Fine. Where does McKay keep his stash?"

"Of what? Porn?"

"Chocolate," Ronon growls.

Sheppard grins. Slowly and deviously. Seems she's instantly feeling better at the thought of chocolate."Bottom drawer of his dresser, under the porn, which is under his boxers." At Ronon's raised eyebrows, she adds defensively, "What? I knew that before! Security reports to me."

"Figured you had inside info."

Sheppard huffs out an outraged breath. "Look, I have a staff meeting. Can you – uh - just do whatever it is you want for a while?"

Ronon comes off the bed. "Get me into McKay's quarters."

If it will make Ronon feel better and get her away from Sheppard before Ronon does something too utterly horrifying – like burst into girlish tears or start talking about her feelings...yeah, Rodney's chocolate and privacy will just have to be casualties in the fight to retain her own sanity.

"Let's go."

~*~

Carson doesn't usually hate senior staff meetings, but this one has been a pain. He keeps his gaze on his open tablet, while Elizabeth looks from Rodney to Colonel Sheppard to him. "Well, gentlemen, and – ah, Colonel – shall we continue?"

Rodney nods. Colonel Sheppard just slouches a little lower in her chair.

"Colonel, I'd like to be able to report some progress with the Heka situation when the Daedalus arrives. Colonel Caldwell will want to include a report of his own in the regular databurst to the SGC." Elizabeth is leaning forward just a little, looking earnest and calm – diplomat's face.

"Funny thing, that," Sheppard replies. Her voice is a little raspier than normal – the new normal. She looks annoyed and tired. "I can't tell you if we're making any progress, because we haven't got any ground intel. The UAV's we send through ahead of each mission only give us visuals." She shrugs. "We need humint."

"I thought that the Athosians had agreed to send through several men to contact the Hekans?" Elizabeth checks something on her computer. "Gate Activation A.06.P3R-987.5?"

Sheppard nods. "I've got Lorne's report here. He and his team accompanied Fillad and Terim Beshan, a couple of the Athosian's professional traders, through to Heka. They found the nearest village, the one we approached before, completely abandoned, and the skour fields around it growing wild." She stops for a second, her mouth going tight, before drawing in a slow, deep breath. "Fillad and Terim thought they could establish contact by moving on to the next village – Lorne supplied them with some maps we generated from the UAV overheads and jumper cameras."

"Was that wise?" Elizabeth asks.

Another shrug. "Look, the Athosians aren't under our command. They're doing us a favor. Lorne couldn't force them to come back with him. They've got locater beacons and radios. If they're still on Heka when we fly the next mission, we can find them and make a covert pickup."

"Fillad and Terim are experienced traders?" Elizabeth asks.

"That's what Lorne says. He's pretty confident in them. Maybe Teyla will know some more."

Elizabeth makes a note.

"Well, I would have liked to know more, but I suppose we'll just have to settle on 'no news is good news' until we have something from the Athosians." She taps a finger against the table top. "Are they equipped with GDOs and IDCs?"

"No, they'll need to dial the Alpha site."

"Why can't they just dial Atlantis and use a radio?" Carson asks. It seems petty to make the Athosians go the long way round to him.

Weir raises an eyebrow but doesn't comment. Rodney makes a little sound, like a muffled snort. Sheppard's eyes narrow. "If the Athosians are in a hurry, they aren't going to want to take the time to get cleared through Atlantis' shield. The Alpha site doesn't have a shield, but I've got a good security team stationed at there; they can handle almost any trouble. Also, no one peering over their shoulders catches sight of any Atlantean or Earth tech to identify them with us, if they dial the Alpha site." Her jaw clenches. She looks at Elizabeth, while ignoring Carson. "We're not trying to screw them over."

"I'm sure no one meant to imply you were," Elizabeth says.

Sheppard relaxes a little.

"Next on the agenda?" She glances at her own laptop. "Support services?"

"Captain Leitmann is holding services on Saturday in that big room with the glass roof off Corridor G, Fourth Level, West Pier, the Clamshell building," Sheppard says.

"Waste of time," Rodney mutters.

"Rodney, many people find comfort in their faith," Elizabeth reproves.

"Yes, well, many people are idiots. You'd think after working in the SGC and finding out about the Goa'uld, not to mention the apparently dodgy ethics of the Ascended – anyone besides me remember Athar? – people would realize it's all a con game."

"Rodney!" Carson exclaims, feeling scandalized. "There's more than one person here that has leaned on the strength of their faith. You should not make light of that." He's willing to take a verbal hit from Rodney just to keep him from starting in about Chaya Sar again. Colonel Sheppard isn't rolling her eyes in fond exasperation this time. Her left hand is locked on the edge of the tabletop and Carson can see every tendon outlined under the skin. One more comment and she'll lose her white-knuckled grip on her temper.

"Oh, and what do you worship besides the almighty double helix, Carson? Oh, that's right, it's beads and bones and rattles in your little voodoo end of the scientific spectrum," Rodney volleys back. He's always nastier when he hasn't slept well and Carson can see the gray shadows of exhaustion under his eyes. His blood sugar is probably low, too.

"Testy," he remarks, trying to defuse the tension coming off Rodney and the colonel.

"I suppose I'll have to prevail upon Father Sanchez to continue holding services for the Catholics among us," Elizabeth offers, looking unenthusiastic.

Sheppard crosses her arms just under her breasts. "Well, the SGC couldn't send a Catholic chaplain. It was Leitmann or Captain Sung, who's a Buddhist. So, yeah, if you can pry Sanchez out of the language labs, Leitmann will have a chapel set up, complete with confessional." She hesitates, then adds, "If push came to shove, even though Leitmann's Jewish, he'd give last rites, he'd be there for anyone who needed him, but since Sanchez is a priest...."

Carson shudders. He isn't sure, but he thinks some of the expedition veterans are holding out to go to confession after they return to Earth rather than face the temperamental Jesuit linguist.

Elizabeth rubs her forehead. Poor thing. She's the one who will have to prevail on Alessandro Diego Sanchez to take time from his research on the direct links between Latin and Ancient to act as a priest instead.

"Sometimes I can't believe Dr. Jackson actually recommended Father Sanchez."

"Well, it wasn't in his guise as man of faith," Carson offers.

"He is a gifted linguist."

Rodney let out one of his little, disbelieving snorts, while nodding in agreement with Elizabeth at the same time. "Not exactly a jolly fat man, though, is he?" he observes.

Not exactly, Carson has to silently agree. He's heard about Sanchez's answer to any confession or request for counsel from one of his nurses. Fifty Our Fathers, fifteen Credos, and five Hail Marys. And if you're truly contrite, don't bother me any more! Sanchez is bad tempered, sarcastic, impatient, obsessive and a workaholic. Rather like an older, overweight, Spanish Rodney in a dog collar, Carson reflects with a small giggle he manages to swallow. Of course, Sanchez isn't the only one. More than half the scientists share personality traits with Rodney: it had taken a certain sort of person to leave Earth, and that sort weren't the happily well-adjusted, with close family ties and friends to miss and be missed by. The science staff are all compulsive, social misfits to some degree. The Marines, in contrast, are relatively well-adjusted. Comparatively speaking.

"He's all right if you stay on his good side," Elizabeth says.

"He has a good side?" Rodney shakes his head.

Elizabeth smiles, then turns her attention back to the agenda before her. "Colonel, any suggestions on who we should send to Xa?"

Rodney immediately sits up straighter. He also glares balefully at Colonel Sheppard, who does not return the look but stares straight ahead. Her hair must be past regulation length, because Carson can't see if the tips of her ears have gone pink or not. He notes the way she's breathing in slow, careful breaths, though, and leans over to whisper, "Are you all right, lass?"

Sheppard hisses back, "I have cramps, you sonovabitch – and don't call me lass."

Carson sits back abruptly. Dear Lord, he nearly stuck his hand in a meat grinder. Now he knows why Louise was chuckling earlier. Elizabeth heard, of course, and is looking at Sheppard sympathetically. Rodney looks horrified. Sheppard stares straight ahead of her, ignoring them all in favor of sticking to business.

"I'll put Lieutenant Cadman in charge of a picked Marine escort: Kipfer, Chen, Jefferson and Robinet," she tells Elizabeth. "I've got no security concerns if you want to negotiate the agreement on Xa yourself, as long as you have them with you. Otherwise, unless you have a female scientist to send, Cadman's competent."

"I don't think this is the time for me to go off world," Elizabeth murmurs, rueful and amused. They all know she wants to go on more off world missions. "I'm hoping to have all my paperwork finished when the Daedalus arrives. That means I need you all to submit everything by 1200 the day after tomorrow." She slants a look at Colonel Sheppard.

"You'll have everything, Elizabeth. On my oath as an officer."

Elizabeth laughs. "I suppose that will have to do. We can schedule the next mission in for the day after tomorrow then?"

"Right. I'll let Cadman know and go over everything we have with her." Sheppard pauses. "Mission brief in the afternoon."

"I have a clear window after lunch," Elizabeth says.

"Seventeen hundred then?"

"Good. – Rodney, have you made any progress on the Hekan ZPM?"

Carson can tell the answer is no before Rodney speaks. "No. The details are in Zelenka's report, but if you want the layman's version...?"

"I think we would all appreciate that, Rodney," Elizabeth replies.

The glum expression on Rodney's face matches the frustration in his tone. "It's an older, obsolete model. We can't use it to power Atlantis without reconfiguring the power interfaces. That would leave us without any shield or cloak until we finished and we would need to tear out the changes once the Hekan ZPM became depleted."

"Great, all that trouble and it's the wrong size battery," Sheppard mutters.

"You're saying the cost-benefit ratio is too high to utilize this ZPM?" Elizabeth asks.

"Isn't that what I just explained?"

"Rodney – "

"Yes, yes, it might be different if it were fully charged, but as it is, no, it isn't worth it to rebuild half the power room." Rodney brightens a little. "We can still study it. Comparison with the ZPM we do have and the depleted ones that were here when we arrived may show us how they manufactured them."

"I'm glad it's not a total loss."

"No, and there's always the possibility we'll run across something useful that requires a ZPM in this older style."

"File the reports under 'nice to have if we ever need it'," Sheppard suggests to Elizabeth. Normally, she would be saying that or something sardonic to Rodney, but as far as Carson can tell, they aren't speaking. Neither of them has directly addressed the other once since arriving in the conference room.

Rodney holds up a finger. "One more thing."

"Yes?"

"Zelenka says the jumpers need to be brought in for maintenance. He's got a bug up his butt about some kind of glitch in the mechanism he cobbled together to drop the napalm shells. One of Sheppard's pilots must have complained to him."

"Is this critical?" Elizabeth asks.

"There's nothing wrong with the jumpers," Sheppard snaps at the same time.

"Look, the jumpers themselves are probably fine, but the modifications we've made need a lot more maintenance. They're under a lot of stress and we never had a chance to test to destruction, so I'd say Radek's probably right," Rodney says. "We should go over them soon."

Sheppard turns and looks at Rodney, seeming to assess his sincerity, then nods, temper disappearing. "Okay. It's a good idea and I should have thought of it, too. All aircraft needs regular maintenance."

Elizabeth is already turning her gaze to him and Carson sits up a trifle. His mother would have taken a switch to him if he ever slouched the way Colonel Sheppard does.

"Carson?"

"I need more time to spend in the labs," he forces himself to state. He hates making demands. "I also need more supplies – which I've outlined and listed in my reports, which are in your inbox."

"Yes, I've gone over them. I'm not sure what some of this equipment even does, Carson. But I'm afraid it may be beyond the SGC's budget for the medical section," Elizabeth says.

"It isn't for the medical department, it's for the genetics department. I feel like a I'm juggling knives without the proper safety equipment, Elizabeth. Look what happened to the Colonel when I got careless!"

"I'm afraid we really can't requisition all of this equipment." Elizabeth pats his arm. "You've done marvelously with what you have. But you'll have to scale this equipment list back to what the infirmary needs."

Carson shares a glance with Rodney. Did she think they could conjure breakthroughs from thin air, he wonders. Brilliance only goes so far. Theories have to be turned into experiments, they have to be proved before they are truly useful. Rodney's mouth twists to the side, a wordless moment of sympathy passing between them.

"Was there anything else?" Elizabeth is already about to move on to the next thing, dismissing Carson.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, there is," he insists.

Colonel Sheppard and Elizabeth both look at him in surprise.

"Yes, Carson?"

"We need to institute quarantine and decontamination procedures in the gateroom." There, he's said it. He can see it isn't going over well, either. Even Rodney's frowning at him and Rodney is the city's chief hypochondriac. He should be all for stricter protocols and enhanced safety.

"The city has sensors for contamination and infection," Elizabeth says.

"Those sensors are keyed to known threats. It only responds to what it's been programmed to recognize as a dangerous organism. Plus, it's ten thousand years out of date," Carson explains. He aims an apologetic look at Sheppard. "It didn't recognize any threat when the Colonel was infected with the retrovirus. We've had several colds run through the expedition thanks to renewed contact with Earth and the spotted throat outbreak that the Athosians transmitted to us. Atlantis didn't respond in any of those cases."

Sheppard's hand goes to her arm. Carson's sorry to have reminded her of the episode, because he knows it came from his own carelessness as much as from Ellia. The memory can't endear him to the Colonel, and he would like to have her on his side.

"Colds and spotted throat aren't terribly dangerous," Elizabeth says.

"No, but they could just as easily have been more serious illnesses. Influenza still kills people. What if the retrovirus had been an airborne contagion? I'm proposing a seal around the entire gate complex and a direct connection to a decontamination room that leads to the infirmary. Returning teams need to stay in quarantine at least until we get preliminary blood tests back."

"Great, more time spent – wasted – while you play Dracula," Rodney snaps.

"Carson...."

Sheppard lets her face telegraph that she thinks Carson is exaggerating. "Hey, if we were going to have an outbreak of something, it would have already happened."

Elizabeth's eyebrows have gone up. Almost like she knows she should disagree with Sheppard's incredibly casual attitude toward a genuine concern, except she doesn't want to admit Carson is right. Instead, she laces her hands together and cocks her head to the side. "Is this really practical?"

"I thought Rodney could figure out something to make it work."

"Oh, yes, because I don't have anything better to do with my time." Rodney saws a hand through the air to emphasize his disgust. "I'd have to establish an entirely separate ventilation system so that the gate and control room could be cut off from the rest of the building and the city. The only option to convert for decontamination purposes would be the guardroom the Marines on gate duty are using now. There are four different major power conduits that would need to be completely rerouted. It's a nightmare." He sticks his chin out. "Not that I couldn't do it, in time, but –"

"We've gotten along fine without tearing up the city, Carson," Sheppard says. "The Ancients did, too. Aren't you being, I don't know, a little paranoid over some germs?"

"So far," Carson repeats.

"Gentlemen, Colonel, I agree that taking more care against infection is a good plan, but on our current list of priorities...I'm afraid it ranks rather low."

He can't stop himself from snapping this time. "Maybe your priorities will change when we're all dyin' of the Pegasus version of Marburg or Ebola."

Sheppard shrugs. "We'll just have to take that chance."

That has Rodney gulping and looking alarmed, however. "Ebola?" he squeaks. He'll probably be in the infirmary wanting sterile gloves and an air mask after the meeting is over. Sometimes, Carson wonders how he can function on a gate team given his raging hypochondria.

He can see he's surprised Elizabeth again. She isn't used to him getting snippy. He doesn't act out every frustration and bout of bad temper he has, like some people he's sitting at the table with.

"Colonel Sheppard is right," Elizabeth says."The likeliness of a Wraith attack is far higher. I'd rather strengthen our efforts to find at least one more ZPM." She takes a breath. "With another ZPM, of course, we'd have more energy and protection and could devote ourselves to protection against not external but internal threats such as the one you mention, a biological contamination."

"At this rate, the bloody Wraith won't need to kill us." It's just so irritating to have his justified concerns swept to the side. "One of them –" Carson points at Sheppard and Rodney, "– will bring back something that does us all in well before the Wraith find us again."

"Yeah, because bringing back something has been such a problem, as opposed to doctors not realizing what a nanovirus – that was already here, may I add, – was," Rodney mutters, cutting his gaze toward Sheppard, then adding, "Or taking their own hell brews out of the lab to other worlds."

It's no use trying to convince them now. Sheppard and Rodney are both bristling and defensive.

"Carson. Rodney. Colonel. Please," Elizabeth cuts in. "Can we maintain a civilized discourse here? Have you made any progress in your search for a way to remove the Wraith's Iratus characteristics?"

"Not enough," he admits. "I'm not even sure we should be contemplating this. The Iratus portion of the Wraith's DNA seems to reassert itself within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of any introduced change. I'm going to need to administer it to a living Wraith, rather than working with tissue samples, eventually."

"I'm sure the Wraith will be lining up to be your experimental subjects, too," Rodney grumbles. "You know who will have to go catch another one."

Elizabeth closes the subject. "Well, that's a matter for the future. Rodney, Colonel, are you prepared to return Hermea again?"

"Sure," Sheppard says. "McKay's going to get Enlightened."

"And then, finally, they'll start telling us something about their technology," Rodney adds. He doesn't look as thrilled by the prospect as Carson expects. He's probably imagining that Enlightenment will involve who knows what horrors. Poor Rodney. His mind can be a curse.

"How do Teyla and Ronon feel about returning to Hermea?"

"No problems," Sheppard answers. "We all pretty much like it there. I get the feeling that this visit might take a little longer than the last two. Opening up McKay's mind is going to take some time."

"We'll schedule the mission for immediately after Lieutenant Cadman's return from Xa then?"

Everyone nods.

"I think we're finished then," Elizabeth declares.

Rodney bolts out the door almost before she's finished speaking. Carson takes his time, hoping to speak with Elizabeth privately and impress on her that he needs more equipment if he's going to make the retrovirus work.

He watches Elizabeth rise and stop beside where Sheppard is still sitting. "Is everything all right, Colonel?"

"No, but when is it ever?"

Elizabeth chuckles.

"Would you care to come by my office? I have a bottle of something Steven brought from Earth."

"Thanks, but twelve hours, bottle to throttle isn't a rule I want to play fast and loose with when I'm piloting a ship that responds to my thoughts," Sheppard says. She laughs. "I really don't want to know what a drunk could do with a jumper, and I scheduled myself some flight time with Palecki later. I thought it would be a good time to talk to him, see if I need to pull him from the Heka missions."

"All right," Elizabeth tells her. "You know my door's always open if you want to talk, right?"

Sheppard gives her a strained looking smile.

"Sure."

She nods to Carson as she leaves the conference room. He nods back before facing Elizabeth. "There's only so much I can cut off that requisitions list without crippling my research...."

"Then narrow it down, Carson. I have a meeting with Teyla in five minutes."

~*~

Sheppard is just leaving the conference room as Teyla steps out of the transporter. She's walking with a sort of drawn in stiffness Teyla recognizes. "Are you okay?" Teyla asks quietly as they pause together for a moment.

"Everyone keeps asking me that today," Sheppard replies with a twisted smile.

Maybe there is a reason for that. Teyla wants to touch her arm or her shoulder, but knows Sheppard wouldn't welcome any contact. He settles for a warm smile.

"Elizabeth could use a rescue," Sheppard adds. "Carson's in there."

"Dr. Beckett does not usually bother Dr. Weir, does he?"

"Not usually, but he's managing it today," Sheppard says lightly. "I've got to stop in the infirmary and talk to Private Michaelson, then take a detour to the morgue. After that Palecki's flying over to the mainland. I'm going with... Is there anything you need me to get for you there? Say or do?" Her expression is a cross between humor and fierce protectiveness. "Kick anyone's ass?"

"No, but thank you, Colonel."

"Remember, say the word. You already stood up for me, stomping someone for you would just be fair."

"I do not think Doctor Weir would approve."

"Hey, it's an open ended offer." Sheppard sketches a little wave and palms open the transporter. "Got to go."

"Do you wish to spar later?" Teyla calls as the doors start to close.

Sheppard gives her a wry grin. "Not today."

Teyla turns away and walks into the conference room still smiling.

~*~

Elizabeth's greeting is warm and relieved. "Teyla."

"Doctor Weir."

Elizabeth sits back in her seat and rolls her shoulders.

"We could do this another time," Teyla offers.

Elizabeth shakes her head. "I enjoy our meetings, Teyla. They're so much more...restful than the rest of my day. Sit down."

Teyla takes a seat but remains serious. "I think that you will need to arrange a different liaison with my – the mainland. I can no longer speak for them."

"But you still know them, Teyla. It's your knowledge and good sense I value – we all value – more than any position you hold." She seems to mean that, though Teyla has realized Elizabeth has an excellent negotiator's face. She can project emotion and the appearance of openness, while retaining her private thoughts and feelings behind a smile. She's much sharper than she seems at first, and far stronger than her brittle delicacy suggests. All of the Earthers are like that to some extent: they seem soft and generous, even naive on the surface. Beneath, they are as ruthless as the Genii. Still, Teyla likes them for trying to live up to their own ideals, even if they fail often. She likes them for even having ideals. They think big.


"Perhaps," Teyla says. These thoughts are best kept to one's self.

"Even if Halling does suggest someone else as an envoy between our peoples," Elizabeth goes on, "you'll still be my unofficial back-up commander. None of the department heads – and I include Colonel Sheppard in this – or their seconds have any interest in leading Atlantis."

"I was surprised when you left me in command after the siege," Teyla comments. It's always been a curiosity.

"Well, what the SGC didn't know didn't hurt any of us, did it?" Elizabeth sighs. "There was no one else with both the command and life experience here that we could trust, really. We think of you as one of us."

"Do you really?" Teyla says lightly, touched, but still not quite believing.

~*~

She really doesn't like to give in, but the cramps are distracting as well as painful, and the pads are just disgusting, so Sheppard slinks back to medical, pats poor Michaelson's shoulder (he looks terrified she's going to give him a peck on the cheek) and then discreetly drops into Biro's office. Since she just 'happens' to be in the area.

Right.

Biro doesn't buy that for an instant. She doesn't outright laugh this time, at least.

"We forgot the painkillers," Sheppard says.

"I thought you'd be back," Biro replies. She hands over two prescription bottles and the box of tampons without Sheppard even mentioning them.

"Thanks," she mumbles.

"Oh, no, thank you, Colonel," Biro says, just as morbidly cheerful as always. "Every woman alive has wanted and waited for this day – the day men, or at least a man, had to live in our bodies."

Sheppard gapes at her. Kipling had it right. Women are meaner.

Biro settles her glasses straight on her nose again and asks, "You do remember what I explained earlier –"

"Yes," Sheppard blurts out fast. "Thanks, Doc, I'll just – I'll just get these," she holds up the prescription bottle, "back to Ronon now."

On that note, she beats a strategic retreat. Not a hasty one. Definitely not.

Ronon isn't still in her quarters – a relief, not a surprise. Company is not what she wants as she's trying to follow Biro's instructions, supplemented by the less than helpful information on the tampon box. She manages. The lack of an audience is a relief. Ladies aren't supposed to use some of the words she does. Neither are officers or gentlemen. Or even camel herders.

Ronon's not in her quarters, either. Sheppard uses the security override to go inside and leave both the prescription and the damn tampons inside. She wonders where Ronon is, but then decides that ignorance is bliss and she'd really rather not know.

Palecki's waiting at the jumper when she gets to the bay. Sheppard slumps down into the co-pilot seat, waves her hand loosely at the console, and asks, "Checklist?"

"Done, ma'am."

Sheppard shudders. Ma'am. She knows she should be paying closer attention to the jumper, trying to feel if anything's hinky, but it's hard when she feels like shit. She'll ask Palecki if he's noticed anything on the flight back, after the kid's relaxed.

"Then let's get out of here, lieutenant."

"Yes, ma'am," he squeaks. "Flight, this is Jumper Four. Lt. Palecki in command. I have Colonel Sheppard with me."

"Jumper Four, this is Flight. Clear to proceed to the mainland on your filed flight plan."

~*~

He needs the notes he scribbled down in the middle of the night. That and a bar of the good chocolate he has hidden in his quarters. Rodney leaves the lab with Zelenka in charge, hoping that a break and the sugar will perk him up. Everyone has been depressed since discovering the Heka ZPM isn't Atlantis compatible, but Zelenka's taking it hardest.

The sight of Ronon's ass, tight and perfect under the stretch of taut leather, bent as she is over his bottom dresser drawer, is one Rodney thinks he'll take out and drool over when he's eighty – if he lives that long.

That still doesn't explain why she's in his quarters. Going through his underwear. Or possibly his porn.

The candy bar clutched in her hand when she straightens up and turns does, though.

"Sheppard," Rodney breathes out, "is going to pay."

Ronon tears the wrapper off the candy bar and calmly takes a bite. It's just.... It's not fair. She doesn't seem bothered at all by Sheppard breaking it off – presuming Sheppard did break it off with Ronon too. Suddenly, Rodney doesn't feel like eating anything. His stomach's falling down somewhere beneath the planetary crust, heading for the molten nickel-iron core of the planet.

"Nice," he says, as snidely as he knows how. "First my girlfriend, now my candy."

Ronon has the gall to laugh.

When Rodney doesn't join her, she gets serious fast, frowning at him in bafflement. "McKay."

"What?"

"This about Xa?"

"No, it's about the death of disco. Of course, it's about Xa, and about last night and damn it, I should have kept my mouth shut for just once and not acted like a possessive jerk."

"She said it was okay," Ronon tells him. The frown's still there. "And she's not yours."

"No, she isn't," Rodney replies in a dull tone. He drops down onto his prescription mattress and stares at the blue and copper ceiling. "That's what she told me last night."

Ronon seats herself on the edge of the bed. She's still holding the candy bar. "Not mine either." She snaps a piece off and offers it to Rodney.

He must really look miserable, he thinks. He is. He waves away the chocolate. "Go ahead, eat it."

Ronon doesn't need to be told twice.

"Last night?" Ronon prompts him finally, after finishing the chocolate.

"Finished. Done. Everyone out of the water, this building is condemned, let's call the whole thing off," Rodney tells her. "You too. Sheppard's declaring a moratorium on –" he waves his hand at himself and then Ronon, "– pretty much everything."

"Huh."

"Perceptive and eloquent as ever."

"She'll change her mind."

Rodney sighs. "From your mouth to God's ears."

"Thought you didn't believe in God."

It seems like the perfect moment, so Rodney goes with it and cuffs Ronon's arm. "Shut up."

~*~

The mess hall is emptying slowly. Ronon's not surprised; it's twenty-three-thirty. There's the usual trickle of scientists, single or in small – but loud – groups, but almost no soldiers. Only Sheppard next to her to the right. She still looks a little strained, if not half as bad as Ronon still feels. Cadman, too, is sitting across from them. She pushes bits of meat in gravy around on her plate, too busy talking about her and her team's trip. "That was when she purred something about Trusted Friends like me – and Kipfer, Chen, Jefferson and Robinet – being more than welcome to join them in Temple of the Goddess to, how did she put it, 'strengthen the bonds between our peoples.' I declined, of course. Knowing that you had already...forged them."

Her eyes are bright and amused – enough so to make Ronon a little wary, not enough for her to glance to the side and look at Sheppard for pointers. Cadman always seems a little devious; it doesn't have to mean anything. Ronon keeps her face impassive. After a moment of Cadman looking from Ronon to Sheppard and obviously not finding anything worth smirking about, she shrugs and shovels in a few bites. "Anyway, we agreed on fifty short tons of urak for every half ton of saltpeter, with us providing an upfront of a quarter ton as good faith. We'll unload it from the jumper when we see the Xa have the urak ready. Major Lorne will be overseeing the transport along with someone from the Athosians and the city quartermaster."

"Okay." Sheppard bites her lip thoughtfully. "Lorne's not gonna love flying stuff back and forth to the mainland."

"Neither are Reyes, or Palecki or the other pilots." Casual tone, but Ronon knows Cadman can't fool Sheppard. "They're good guys, so they signed their names, but really, they're all itching for more than that."

"Well," Sheppard says slowly, making her chair creak by leaning back as far as possible, "if they're itching, Carson has ointment." Her fingers play a lazy drum solo on the table. "Seriously, Cadman, I know the situation isn't great for anybody involved. Relying on the puddlejumpers sucks for the Athosians, too."

Cadman lets her cutlery sink; forehead wrinkling in thought. "Maybe we all should be building ships – clippers maybe, with back-up engines?"

"If they could sail back and forth to Atlantis with cargo, that'd make all our lives a lot easier." Sheppard says, the higher notes Ronon knows are excitement sneaking into her voice. "The East Pier docking bay would be closest to the mainland; under good weather conditions, it'd be a piece of cake."

"Clippers?" Ronon asks.

Sheppard waves a hand. "Never mind. Sailing ship design from Earth." She nods at Cadman. "We can propose it to the Athosians. They'd appreciate the autonomy. Meanwhile, the jumpers can gate in and head straight for the mainland with the Athosians' share."

"Trip can pay both ways, with them bringing back the barrels of saltpeter on the return." Cadman, thoughtful. "Just, Colonel? I don't think the Athosians know anything about sailing or boats."

Sheppard frowns, then shrugs. "We'll ask Teyla."

Cadman smiles her sly smile again. "Speaking of, rumor has it Teyla has a little crush on Leitmann."

Might be: Ronon knows Teyla has spent quite some time with the guy during the last few days. But people, even Cadman, talking like that – it would mortify Teyla these days. Sheppard seems to think the same, because she just says, lightly, "Teyla? Oh, c'mon. Rumor got it wrong."

"Rumor does that a lot." Ronon adds without looking up from her tray.

Cadman's doesn't look like she believes a word they're saying but plays along. "While we're at it, rumor also has it it the Xa wanted to get into McKay's BDUs. Or was it his genes"

A choke of laughter in Ronon's right ear, and when she turns, Sheppard is giving her a sideways glance, grinning. The expression lights up her whole face, makes it younger and softer, more playful. Ronon blinks once, then smiles back slowly until Sheppard shakes her head and smiles across the table. "God, Cadman, that was awful."

Cadman and Sheppard exchange a few more words, Cadman complaining about converting everything from guldas and nekers to metric measures when she grew up using the American system, and Sheppard doing all the math in her head without pause. Ronon doesn't pay attention, is distracted by the low, slow ebb and flow in her belly.

"Okay, kids, I've got to go and prepare. Mission to Hermea tomorrow morning." Ronon looks up, watches Sheppard stand and nod at Cadman. "Lieutenant. Report in my email by tomorrow night."

"Sir." Cadman replies before turning back to her tray with a tiny sigh. Meanwhile, Sheppard ambles out before Ronon can do as much as blink. Sheppard's quick exits are one of the few overt signs that she's less fond – and less capable – of human company than they think.

And Cadman's dropping her cutlery again. "Ronon?"

"Yeah?"

"You're not looking too hot." Sympathetic glance. "With you, that's saying a lot."

Ronon flashes her some teeth in what hopefully looks like a smile. So she feels crappy. No big deal.

"You know," Cadman pitches her voice low, "maybe I can help you, give some advice, you know? I've been around this block a couple of times now."

"Block?"

"Oh, fuck that." Cadman grins, far too brightly for the churning in Ronon's lower abdomen, and leans forward.

~*~

"Sheppard."

Standing by the far wall, beside the orange-tiled windows, light weights in both hands, she turns at the sound of Ronon's voice, startled. "Sheesh," she mumbles, relaxing, "don't scare me like that. Save that melting-into-the-shadows number for missions."

"You need to pay more attention."

"Oh, really, do I?" Sheppard drawls. Crouches and puts down the weights carefully. She's wearing a sleeveless black t-shirt that spans tightly across her breasts. Her bare, tan arms are glistening with sweat. She doesn't seem to appreciate the advice; not that Ronon can blame her. But Sheppard has very simple triggers sometimes, so Ronon just leans against the wall by the door and keeps staring until Sheppard reacts, with a slight eyeroll. With exaggerated patience, she says, "Fine, what were you looking for? Want to spar?" Sheppard winces just a little at her own proposal, and Ronon feels the answering jolt through her own middle. Sheppard rolls her shoulders. "Or did you just want to loosen up whatever needs loosening up?"

Ronon nods. "Went running. It helped, but not that much. Want to turn in?"

Sheppard glances at the weights and checks her watch. "Yeah, sure." Ronon doesn't need to take a look at it to know it's almost twenty-seven; definitely time. She knows Sheppard's not usually wired before missions, sleeps like a log most times and most places, but she'd bet Hermea is a different deal.

After Sheppard's grabbed the small, hand-held weights and her towel, they walk back to the living quarters, almost in step. When they round a corner, Ronon hangs back just a little so she can watch the slight swing of Sheppard's hips. Sheppard doesn't sashay – and won't ever – but she's stopped moving like a man, against build. She moves like Cadman moves, like the female Marines do: purposeful but still relaxed in their bodies. It's a good sign.

"Okay, my stop." The door to Sheppard's room opens with a lazy hand wave. Stepping through, Sheppard half-turns toward Ronon as if to say good-night. She seems surprised when Ronon doesn't leave, but Ronon can't read the emotion in her eyes. Anticipation? "Ronon?"

Ronon leans against the door frame, slowly stretching herself. She can feel the top sliding up, baring her stomach, her hips. Drawing her shoulders back means her boobs are on perfect display.

Sure enough, Sheppard's gaze flickers down. Just for a second, though, then she stiffens visibly. "Ronon, what is this?"

Ronon stares at Sheppard from under lowered lashes; it doesn't seem to put Sheppard at ease. "Sex makes you feel better. Helps the cramps."

A beat, because Sheppard doesn't at once realize this is not a random bit of information. "You're kidding, right? Tell me you're kidding."

"Cadman told me." Ronon shrugs. "And why not?"

"Because it's –" Sheppard bites down on whatever her first response was, eyes fierce; says instead, "gross, Ronon."

Sometimes, Sheppard is weird. Ronon arches her eyebrow. "Doesn't have to be eating pussy. We could –"

"How about we could not, Ronon?" Her voice shivers down Ronon's spine, and not in a good way. No, Sheppard doesn't want this, not at all. Anger, almost but not quite hidden by the slow cadence of her words. Under the thin facade of ease, Sheppard is tense.

"Let me spell this out for you." Sheppard's mouth is tight, and the little drawl is calculated. "No sex. Not now, not later. I'm sorry if I – dunno, led you on or sent the wrong signals – whatever. You're great, but that's it. We're team. Buddies. Nothing more."

Ronon's suddenly furious with herself for spooking Sheppard, for offering far too early and in the wrong way, dashing her chances for good.

She's no smarter than McKay.

~*~

The jumper is virtually silent the next morning, all of the team's usual banter missing. It disturbs Teyla. Colonel Sheppard is straight-backed and proper, without ever quite looking directly at Ronon or Rodney. Rodney is eating a powerbar barely an hour after breakfast, always a sign he's upset, and Ronon, below the usual taciturn surface, appears almost depressed. None of them are at their best; if the mission were to any world other than Hermea, Teyla would be nervous and waiting for disaster to strike. On Hermea, Teyla feels – not physically threatened. Not any more; they have already done all the damage they could.

Sheppard runs through the pre-flight checks with Rodney, both of them all business, barely addressing each other otherwise. Then they're lowering through the jumper bay floor down to the gateroom, the address for Hermea already dialed by Chuck and the blue ripple waiting for them. Flight clears them, and the jumper slides forward with a last glimpse of Dr. Weir watching from the observation deck.

They exit in orbit over nothing once more, the Hermean cloak as startling when they know the planet is there – perhaps more so – as when they first came. Once more, Sheppard is contacted by Gean over the radio and given a flight path to follow. They descend slower than the first time, so there is time to admire the planet itself once they're past the invisibility cloak.

Teyla hides it, but flight will never cease to amaze.

On Athos they spoke of flying in remembrance, not experience – feat of age-old allies on faraway planets, yet another marvel of the Ancestors in the dawn of time. Athosians never piloted airplanes or spacecraft, even if Teyla believes the technology was not far out of reach when the Wraith first came to their homeworld. There's the memory of the cave, the deeper sections that then-Major Sheppard never saw. There were bird-view carvings and paintings of Athos: the rectangles of fields and irrigation canals, the triangle of the pyramid the stargate once stood upon, the uneven outline of the cities once clustered around it. Cities perhaps not as sophisticated yet not entirely unlike the one they are approaching from orbit now.

Looking down, at spires and glass through the puddlejumper windshield, Teyla smiles.

If it is a little rueful, well, Ronon is the only one to catch that. And she is not likely to comment.

~*~

"Teyla. It's good to see you again." Beon stands up from his desk and puts his right hand on his chest, slowly, measuredly.

She nods and mimics the gesture, noting how open yet distant it is, very unlike her own people's greeting – less tactile even than the Earthers' hand-shake. "It is indeed, Beon." She is not lying. Teyla does not look forward to this – or any other – session, but Beon, his warm voice and tempered demeanor, are welcome after her time spent in a puddlejumper with the colonel, Rodney, and Ronon. She remembers how ill she felt last time, but seeing him now, again, she thinks it was hardly his fault. He does try to grasp the difficulty of this situation. When he asks all these questions she's always considered too personal, he merely acts in accordance to his profession. Much like Kate Heightmeyer, Teyla thinks, whom she promised a private session despite her being a stranger to this galaxy. Beon is a native. Is he not her best chance to be understood?

"Would you like to sit down?" He points to the round shapes of the couches she's sat down in before.

"Of course."

When they have settled down, he doesn't instantly begin to speak but leans back and looks down at his notes, re-reading, his hands slowly rolling a silver pen between thumb and forefinger. It gives her a moment to take in her surroundings again – high ceiling, large windows letting in the light, framed abstract art a dash of color against the white walls. The latter reminds Teyla of the little blots on paper Kate Heightmeyer showed her once, and never again. It seems strange, but she finds herself more willing to talk to Beon than to Kate and her team-mates, perhaps because she won't have to face Beon daily outside this office. She almost wants to express some of the frustration and confusion that fill her presently.

"So, care to tell me what happened, Teyla?" Beon has looked up, is looking at her, and there is quiet concern on his face. "All of you seem a little unsettled."

"Yes, because we are."

"I figured as much." Wry smile. "Another mission that went not quite as planned?"

Teyla weighs her answer for a moment. "Our last mission was successful, in and of itself. The events surrounding it, less so."

"What about these events?" Beon scribbles down a note.

A good question, if one Teyla hasn't fully answered herself. A lot of the current tension within the team can be attributed to what the colonel and Rodney did before they ever set foot on Xa, and another great deal to the colonel's and Ronon's relations in the Temple, but it is not her story to tell. She rides out the spike of anger before speaking again. "We were split up upon arrival – the planet is populated almost exclusively by women; only they can enter treaty negotiations. Dr. McKay and I were instead taken to a guest house, where we then learned that we had been chosen to sire children."

When she glances at Beon, his mouth has dropped open, subtly but still visible. "You mean – these people wanted you to be intimate with you only to conceive a child?"

"It seems that is their practice, yes." Teyla holds herself very, very still. Herself. No matter the body, in her deepest thoughts, she remains female. Sometimes, she tries to think otherwise, thinking it might be easier to just adapt, but always she reverts to the truth of who she is. She isn't going to talk about that to Beon, though. They are too far apart in their experiences of life to ever agree on the subject. To Beon, gender is a fluid thing and a matter of choice, but to Teyla, it remains immutable. The way the Hermeans think is a language she cannot learn to speak. Instead she'll tell Beon about the night on Xa, strange and uncomfortable as it had been. "The first woman who – wished to be with Dr. McKay had to be persuaded to let go. Intelligence is somewhat of a rare trait among the male visitors, who tend to be warriors."

Beon nods slowly but does not let himself be distracted. "You're talking about Dr. McKay. What did you think about this, Teyla?"

"It was very disconcerting." Now she does have to look down, collect her thoughts. "The woman who approached me first understood quickly that we were neither informed nor willing. While she could not prevent others from knocking on our door throughout the night – the announcement had been made and distributed – she was rather kind. Her friend left, but she stayed and explained anew to each party."

'You know, all the other men will be booked out by now.' A shrug and a laugh, neither quite covering the concern Teyla saw in Telem's dark eyes. 'Might as well stay and help the two of you.'

"I see," Beon says, pen forgotten on the paper on his knees. "So nothing happened? You didn't participate in this custom?"

"No! How can you even think that I –"

Beon twitches, and Teyla draws in a measured breath. "Forgive me, Beon, but I told you earlier that I would not have sex in this body." Unspoken: My word is my word.

"Yes," Beon replies slowly, "but you also told me that what grieved you most was the fact you'd lost, if only temporarily, the ability to have children. So you might have viewed this as a chance of sorts."

"It is not the same, to sire a child and to bear it."

The look on Beon's face is one of mild confusion; it takes Teyla a moment to realize that Hermeans would understand the physical differences but not necessarily the mental and spiritual ones – they can chose at will. At will, and something within Teyla still balks at the thought: The act of carrying and birthing a baby, the bond between the mother and the child as a promise given to each woman upon her own conception, this inherent, essential part of who she is – a commodity, the result of what amounts to a mere game of one-two-three, I chose thee?

"Oh, I didn't mean to imply that." Two heartbeats of silence before Beon leans forward again. "You didn't want to bring forth children while male, I understand." Teyla does not think he truly can. "Now, you said none of your people would have you 'after this.' Can you tell me more?"

She forces herself to unclench her hands again, put them flat on her knees. Breathes. "My people – they asked me not to return to them as long as I was in this body. With regret, some of them."

With spite, others. Worse, with fear.

Beon takes an audible breath. "You know we have to withhold judgment, Teyla, but this seems a rather harsh measure. You still belong to them, after all, even if they have difficulty with the idea of Completion –"

"They do not care one single bit for the philosophy of Completion. They simply see what I have become, and are disgusted." It is hard to swallow, all at once. "And I, I understand them. I feel the same whenever I look in a mirror." The shock of it has lessened gradually; she does not avoid reflecting surfaces any more. The face she then looks at still isn't her own, though.

"I don't know how to tell you how sorry I am. We all are." Beon masks the stricken look in his eyes a little too late. "This – discrimination, this bias – we hadn't expected it."

No need to tell Beon she had, from the moment she woke up in the bright white room. "I am unlike them, and even when I go back to my own self, I will always remain – changed. Unnatural."

"Unnatural." Pronounced as if to test its taste. "Your people want everything – everyone to remain exactly as they are born?"

Teyla looks down at her hands, these foreign, angular hands. "We cherish creation as it is. Of course, we use it and work with it, we just –" she looks at Beon and chooses her words carefully, "While we bend it, we do not break it only to put it back together."

"But if one of your tribe breaks a leg – surely you mend the fracture?"

Not the same thing. Teyla narrows her eyes. "Only if anything was broken. We do not interfere in what was normal and healthy in the first place."

Beon is quiet for a moment, brow furrowed, faraway look in his eyes. "Teyla, 'normal' is what everybody agrees on. What if the old standard of normality wasn't enough for your tribe to survive?"

Word-play, idle speculation that mask what lies beneath. Teyla presses her lips together. "Then maybe we are not to survive. Better we perish as Athosians than mere shadows of the people we once were." Beon 's eyes are skeptical and a little sad. She knows why – every Pegasus inhabitant does. "Survival is what we have been fighting for for many centuries, yes; yes, you are right that we would do – much. But not everything. We could change ourselves and our world, but we would not change our very nature."

"Where do you draw the line between changing and changing your very nature, though?" Beon's eyes are kind, too kind, maybe. He cannot know about Charin, about the technology Teyla asked to be transplanted into her grandmother's too-frail body, but it is enough that Teyla does.

"I do not know." Teyla lets her chin drop again. "I only know this goes far beyond."

~*~

If he's correct – and who is he kidding; of course he is – the building complex lies almost dead-center in the city, boasts a dizzying number of white spires, and is high enough that Rodney has to crane his neck looking up at the statues on their pedestal above the wide, double-portal entrance: A man and a woman holding up a plaque with the now-familiar if undecipherable letters of the Hermean alphabet with one hand each, their other hands linked. Rodney knows it's impossible – physics-impossible, not people-who-aren't-him-impossible – but he still wishes the gates would translate the written word in addition to spoken language right now, because who likes entering the belly of the beast without even knowing the breed of beast?

"Rodney, what –" Jari turns around, follows his gaze. "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting you can't read our script. You're so obviously on our level, scientifically; it just slips my mind that you're not from here."

An elderly man entering the building passes Rodney and gives him a long, suspicious look, mumbling something that sounds suspiciously like "drab freak." Rodney squares his shoulders and gives Jari a half-hearted glare; she just laughs and sends an almost-fond glance after the guy. "It's your clothing, Rodney."

"Yes, well, I don't see why my tasteful uniform would get grandpa's panties in a twist."

Speaking of, Jari's lips curl into an amused smile. "Oh, you know old people and their overreactions." She winks at Rodney, and he – okay, so maybe he feels the frown slip off his face. Jari really is very attractive, and just look at how ridiculous the whole used-to-be-a-man-oh-God notion has turned out to be – he's slept with Sheppard who was a guy but is a girl and will be a guy again, so really, no reason not to expand his horizons and check out someone who's coming at this from the other side of the fence. So to speak. Or, well, maybe not. Rodney's been misunderstood by women before.

"So, you wanted to know about the inscription?"

"Of course!"

Jari squints against the sun for a moment, then nods. "We stand within each other."

"Oh," Rodney says slowly, mostly because he cannot, for the life of him, think of anything to say except that this is just the kind of pretentious, obsolete, symbolic gobbledygook he despises. His mother might have loved to decipher, would've deciphered this; her son neither can nor wants to. "Isn't there a problem with double occupancy?"

Jari laughs at that, not a carefully modulated and melodic sound but a loud bellow; Rodney instantly likes her even more for it. "Not once you are complete, Rodney."

"I feel pretty complete. Last time I looked I had all my parts, even. Unlike other members of my team."

"They're as complete as you are. Or do you find me lacking in limbs?" Jari glances down at herself; the gesture is ironic but still heats Rodney cheeks for a second or two.

"Uh, no, that – that's not the case, I assure you." He takes a deep breath and soldiers on. "Anyway, so you'll show me where your power comes from?"

Jari steps closer and takes his arm, gently. "No, I'll be showing you how it's harnessed first. Sort of." Her eyes are dancing with amusement, and he's reminded she's not Allina, isn't deceiving him for whatever nefarious purposes. Rodney might not be Captain Kirk, oozing fake charm and spouting suave lines, but he knows enough about women to be sure Jari does like him. Admittedly, he knows this mostly because there is just no way she would otherwise put up with showing him around like this, waiting and explaining and laughing and standing so close he can smell her – not perfume, but something actually pleasant – the way she has today. Still, he knows it and it's a balm to his feelings after Sheppard's abrupt – he can't call it rejection – maybe the best description is retreat.

Past other Hermeans coming in and out through the doors, Jari leads him through the resoundingly vast entrance hall – cool and tastefully decorated, as long as one discounts the colors, the plaid. Not up the wide double stairways, though, but through a smaller hallway. Down, down, down, into the basement complex with its vibrant hum of machines – blue alloy that's not quite steel, not quite naquadah, and other surfaces so polished Rodney can see his reflection as clear as in a mirror.

Energy, monitors, readings, and Rodney in the middle of it all, tugged to and fro by Jari, who smiles and explains animatedly. She's so clearly in her element, and yes, the power flow is still gorgeous, and the cloak generator is a marvel of epic proportions, but for the first time in his life, Rodney isn't enjoying a chance to learn about new technology all that much.

Jari notices and looks up from the console where she's furiously typing. "Rodney? Something wrong with our strong interaction?"

"No, no – it's not your subatomic particle shift here, it's me." He hurries to shake his head because the last thing they need is a falling out with the Hermeans, whom they need to transform three quarters of the team back, thank you very much. "Or rather, it's my worries about, you know, the fate that awaits me."

"Fate?" She looks at him blankly for a second, then smiles and pats his hand with the sort of gentle yet unassuming gesture only women seem to be able to master. "Your alternate path to enlightenment? Well, I'll bring you over to Farl after this. No need to fret now, Rodney."

"Oh, God, thank you; I don't mind telling you I was concerned enough to almost stop eating yesterday morning, although I got over it by 8am, and really, I'm relieved – so it's quick, easy, and most importantly, painless?"

"No, none of those. But what is the point of fretting beforehand?"

There are moments Rodney loathes this planet and its equanimous, so-so-sophisticated people.

~*~

"Thanks again for the invitation. It's not every day we get to have a nice dinner, you know?" The colonel grins, but Teyla sees she's fidgeting with her hands as if she doesn't quite know what to do with them, until she stuffs them in her pockets. It must be strange, not carrying a weapon. Even Teyla, who never held a firearm before the Earthers came, feels a little odd. Do Ronon and Rodney feel bereft? Rodney doesn't look as if he does, and Ronon – well, Ronon still carries weapons, if smaller and concealed.

Selh smiles, teeth bright against her skin. "You're very welcome, Colonel. We're glad of the chance to get to know you better."

"Yeah, same here." Most likely untrue, considering the source. "And hey, pretty." Sheppard jerks her head in a fashion that might indicate appreciation of the public park they are passing, the large laboratory complex behind, or possibly the whole city. Teyla knows it does not matter; as usual, the colonel is merely trying to maintain a certain level of amiable conversation. She is oddly grateful for this trait of Sheppard's, as neither Rodney nor Ronon are much help in first – or second or third – contact missions.

Teyla likes the Hermeans' architecture, far more organic than the work of the Ancestors. Atlantis is beautiful but composed of harsh angles; there is nothing of nature in the city beyond the plants that have been brought in from the mainland to replace those that died after the Ancestors sank the city. If someone were to ever ask her, she would explain that it was the sight of those dead plants that truly sparked the first doubts about the Ancestors.

Not that she or her people have been asked many questions, of course. Teyla turns back to their host. "Your city seems to combine nature and craftsmanship to its fullest degree. Is this the result of planning, or has this place grown over time?"

"Both, actually. We've outlined a certain legal framework, but within, everybody is free to do as they chose." Selh looks at her with newfound interest and a flicker of recognition in her eyes. "You're familiar with city planning?"

"Only in the most basic sense. But it is a fascinating topic." Teyla smiles demurely, and notes that Sheppard does adouble-take. Her surprise is...rather satisfying.

"Hira, my partner will be delighted to hear that. He worked as an architect before we decided to have children." Selh points her thumb in the direction they came. "He designed the new East Wing of the library – well, what was the new wing back then." Deftly arched eyebrow. "It's been a couple of decades, I'm afraid."

"Oh, I find that hard to believe." Teyla lets gentle amusement color her voice, lets Selh know she is being both polite and serious, for Selh does not look old in the sense that Charin did – the thought of Charin still a sharp pang – she merely seems to have lived a long life already.

"You're too kind." Warm tone, and yes, she has understood. Selh runs a hand through shortly-cropped silver curls. "It won't be long until we've reached my place. We just have to keep walking."

Teyla looks ahead. The Hermeans have winding streets paved in white stone, remarkably clean, perhaps because their vehicles hover over them rather than rolling on wheels. The buildings are all constructed of the same light material but are decorated in brilliant colors and patterns. She notices Sheppard wince a little and suspects she finds it all a little too bright. The Earthers seem to prefer muted colors, though not particularly natural ones.

The buildings themselves are primarily spires, so the the Hermean city resembles a giant forest in some ways, while the domes clustered elsewhere remind Teyla of the mushrooms she gathered as girl. There are trees and gardens everywhere, so much a part of the city that the buildings seem to have grown up among them.

None of it is dirty or worn, yet there is a sense of permanence to Hermea. The Wraith have not wreaked their destruction here in centuries. Teyla turns to Sheppard, using her curiosity to dispel the sorrow she can taste on the back of her tongue. "Does your original home world look like this?" She carefully does not say 'Earth.' "So...untouched?"

Sheppard smirks. "Hardly."

Teyla does not often wish to pressure the colonel, but this is very much one of these moments. She looks over to Rodney, but he's oddly quiet, blue eyes unfocused. Or rather, focused on something not present. When Teyla glances at Ronon, she seems busy staring this way and that way and back again. Ronon has never gotten out of the habit of mapping out her surroundings, and Teyla wonders if she is intimidated or at least vaguely irritated by the large number of people in the streets.

People. In the streets.

It takes Teyla a moment to realize what makes this sight different from her last visit, but then she knows: youth, distinguished by their clothing. Unlike the adult Hermeans, they are not wearing form-fitting bright reds and yellows, greens and blues, but display loose-cut garments in beige, brown, or gray. Unpractical, flashes through Teyla's mind before she can remind herself that these are city dwellers. No need for them to wear clothes that don't tangle in thorn bushes, no need even to prevent getting caught in bits of machinery, as the Lanteans must keep in mind. She turns to Selh again. "I cannot help but notice many of your young people are wearing such a different type of dress."

"Yes, it's the latest trend among them. Two days ago, my oldest granddaughter came to visit us in what looked like gray sack-cloth tied with rough string." Selh tilts her head, once. "Teenagers being teenagers."

"More than last time." Ronon does not bother to turn around, though she gives Selh a cool, assessing look over one bare shoulder.

"Well." Selh purses her lips but does not look away from Ronon. "It's true that this – fad has taken on momentum."

"Right." Sheppard sounds elaborately calm, even if her narrowed eyes tell a different tale. "And when did this 'fad' really catch on?"

There's the slightest flicker of what appears to be unease on Selh's face. "We've observed youth wearing a radically different kind of clothing for a while, mind you, but the surge of teens dressing like this? Since the newscasts showed you Lanteans, with your body-concealing, dull-colored uniforms."

No time to reply because Ronon's voice stops all of them in their tracks. "Wait. What's that?" sharp enough to make Sheppard stiffen and Teyla's own fingers fly to the pocket where she hid her Beretta. Even Rodney looks alert all of a sudden, staring around wildly.

They have gone around a bend in the road and almost walked straight into a crowd gathered at the intersection. Noise is wafting over, yells and magnified voices, and are those horns? Bypassers have stopped, are standing by the side of the street. Someone – a lot of someones, in fact – are coming, coming closer. Teyla frowns. A glance at Selh shows she seems concerned, too, flicking open a small silver device and putting it to her ear.

"Looks like a parade," Sheppard mutters.

"Well, it doesn't feel like a parade, if you don't mind me saying." Rodney's voice, tight with worry. Teyla understands, senses the same sort of unease. The crowd is buzzing, a low hum of barely-concealed agitation. Ronon has stepped closer to Sheppard and him, is fingering the space between two dreadlocks. If something happens, she will, at the slightest provocation, have a knife in her hand.

"Ronon." Warning tone; Teyla lifts her chin for added measure. There's a mulish slant to Ronon's mouth, but she lets her hand drop again and just stares fiercely at the crowd in front of them.

"Okay," Sheppard is saying to Rodney. "Demonstration."

Selh is pushing forward now, waving her hands in the first helpless gesture Teyla has seen on the woman. "I just talked to –" she breaks off, takes a deep breath. "We're not quite sure what is happening yet. It's probably better to take a detour."

"Too late." Ronon's voice, grim. "Blocked in."

Teyla turns sharply, looks behind them: a new group of youth approaches them, carrying banners on sticks, held up high. She cannot read what's written upon the bright white cloth in those black, flowing letters. "Selh. What do they say?"

The woman seems to wrestle with herself, but both Sheppard and Ronon step closer; less threatening than it might have been before, but the message is still very clear. Selh's eyes flicker over the words, and she grimaces. "What they have been saying – in interviews and in conversations if they are our children – ever since the news of your coming spread: 'Return the Stargate.' 'Freedom!' 'The Galaxy Is Ours.'

Sheppard lets out something halfway between a laugh and a groan. "Your kids are rebelling?"

"Rebel!" Selh laughs, but it is a lost sound. "They are – exerting their right to have their voices heard. It's nothing to worry about."

"And of course, that's why you sent your police here." Rodney, loud and clear; he points toward a group of men in tight, pink uniforms that look disturbingly like some of the sleep-wear Teyla has seen on Atlantis during what the other women call Sleep-Overs. "Probably ready to open fire on a couple of kids, which, I must warn you, will result in nasty red stains on your pristine streets."

"No!" Teyla thinks the shock in Selh's dark eyes is genuine. "They are – our police do not carry firearms."

One glance at the men in their pink uniforms – they are shuffling back and forth, hands not hovering over weapons but clutching radios, speaker devices, or the steering wheels of their little hover-cars. Their faces are shiny with sweat.

"Oh." Rodney frowns. "Well, they totally could have. Carried firearms, I mean. Sorry about that."

In front of them, behind them, there is chanting. Louder and louder – freedom-for-Hermea! and tear-down-this-prison-planet! and give-us-the-stargate!

"Rodney's idea wasn't so off, though." Sheppard, even closer, shoulder almost touching Selh's. They are nearly the same height, hold themselves so straight, both of them. "This isn't looking too good; what's the plan?"

Selh looks around, agitation in her eyes if not her voice. "I don't know."

"Look! There they are! The foreigners!"

And at once, the crowd shifts, turns. Toward them. And out of the weaving, waving mass, a teenage girl steps out, wild-haired and with eyes full of hope. "They've come to support us! Walk with us, friends! Scream for justice with us!"

Answering yells, hoots, the fever of the crowd spiking. Teyla feels perhaps a little hot herself.

"Not going to happen." A boy of maybe sixteen, from the other end of the street. He is holding something – a magnifier to his mouth, for although he did not raise his voice, his words are resounding, reaching all of them, each of them. "Don't you see they are with the President's Security Advisor? They're not with us, they're against us! At the very least, they've let themselves be used by this government!

The crowd lets out a roar, rising sharply.

The girl replies, fiercely, "Only because they have no choice – like we have no choice! Let us free them and protect them!"

Assent, whistles and too many nodding heads, the excited murmur of, "Free the strangers," and "Take them, save them!"

And then, the first kids are advancing upon them, tripping over their feet, hot determination in their faces, all spirit, unleashed.

"Um," Rodney says, so fast that the words blur together. "I think that's our cue to run as fast as we can?"

And they try to.

The crowd sweeps around them, packed so tightly that Teyla struggles to breathe. Her ears ache with the sound of so many raised voices. An elbow impacts her ribs. Ronon's growling. She's spun around, dragged with the moving mass, losing sight of Sheppard and Rodney, their dull Lantean uniforms lost in the sea of grays and burlap browns the Hermean children are wearing. She twists away from the young man trying to pull her forward and tries to work her way back toward the others. The crowd has escalated to flinging objects now. Some kind of bottle flies through the crowd and hits Teyla before she can duck, hemmed in as she is on every side. There's a second of white-blank pain as she's pushed down, hitting the pavement, before struggling back to her feet. Everyone here is taller than her; she can't see past their shoulders to spot even Ronon. She grits her teeth and quells the sensation in the pit of her stomach. Someone kicks her ankle, but Teyla grabs an arm and twists viciously, taking the perpetrator down to his knees. A scream makes her fight her way through the crowd harder, striking out sharply to shift the people in the way, leaving more than one of them gasping with pain.

A clear space opens in front of Teyla, revealing a much-mussed Selh with her back against a wall, Ronon in front of her – with the knife out – and Rodney standing to the side, cradling his right hand in his left as if it stings. Teyla uses the chance, joins her team again. The Hermeans have backed away in a half circle, most of them staring at one gray-clad figure on the ground, sobbing and curled in a ball of pain. Sheppard has the boy with the voice magnifier in an immobilizing hold, one Teyla taught her. One sharp twist, and the boy's neck will break.

"Enough!" Sheppard says in a low, harsh tone that nevertheless carries. "I've had enough."

There's a smear of dirt on her cheek that might actually be a bruise forming and blood dripping from her chin. Her jacket's torn along one shoulder and there's something white and strained about her expression.

The Hermeans are at least smart enough to recognize real danger when they're looking at it, Teyla thinks, because they back away from the scene, and the boy is holding himself very still.

Rodney breaks the tension, exclaiming, "Ow, ow, ow." He shakes out his hand – complete with scraped knuckles – and looks around at the signs and bits of torn clothing on the ground, the mashed flowerbeds along the wall, and is that a lost shoe? "And by demonstration, you meant 'riot?'"

"Yeah." Sheppard's voice is tight and she's watching the crowd. "Yeah, McKay. Just like Genii means Potemkin world."

"You hurt Kelb," one of the braver demonstrator says, one of the girls.

Ronon snorts. "Lucky he's not dead."

The crowd shivers collectively, many taking a step back.

"Oh, for the love of little monkeys, are you all idiots?" Rodney asks. He glares at the assembled children – and they are children, in experience as well as years – then rolls his eyes. "It's a big, bad galaxy out there. You want to go through the stargate? Get used to getting hurt. Or dead. Or wishing you were. You think we carry guns because we have a fetish for them? Not that there aren't plenty of folks out there that do, but we –"

Sheppard interrupts what threatens to become typical Rodney post-adrenaline babble with a single, "McKay."

"Right. Let them find out like we did."

Selh steps out from behind Ronon. "Please, all of you, please go home. Is this really how you want our visitors to think of Hermea? You must realize violence is not an answer, only a trigger to more violence."

Whispers and complaints run through the crowd, but many of those in the back are already drifting away. Only the ringleaders remain. But the fire has gone out of them too. The girl who spoke up is now helping Kelb to his feet. "We just want to have a choice."

The atmosphere has completely changed. Many of the demonstrators look abashed, even embarrassed, or genuinely frightened. Ronon's knife is drawing many looks, more than their guns, but that's probably because the guns aren't out and the knife is.

Sheppard relaxes and pushes the boy away from her with a small snort that isn't quite laughter, but is better than the coiled tension of a moment ago. She eyes the suddenly cowed kids watching them wide-eyed. "Go home. And, Ronon? Put that damned knife away."

Ronon's knife has disappeared into her hair again by the time another two hovercars filled with pink-suited police arrive on the scene. Selh's stopped shaking enough to handle them, and Rodney is claiming that his hand is going to be crippled, which means he's unhurt. Teyla sits down on a spot of grass next to Sheppard, who is using a bandage from their supplies to keep pressure against the cut on her chin.

"John," she says quietly.

Sheppard turns toward her. There's dust and a stray leaf in her hair. "You know, you and Elizabeth are the only ones who call me that? It sounds weird."

Teyla touches her shoulder, and Sheppard bends down a little. Teyla plucks the leaf out, frowning. "Are you all right?"

Sheppard opens her mouth and Teyla knows what's going to come out: I'm fine. But nothing comes out. Sheppard's gazing past Teyla, at Ronon and Rodney, who are standing together now. Sheppard's eyes flicker with something Teyla knows is pain, then the smiling, bland mask is back. She shrugs. "Just a little bruised." She looks away from them and back to Teyla. "I'll get over it. No problem."

~*~

"...so incredibly, incredibly sorry," Selh says. She's pacing her living room, in one of the mushroom houses Teyla has noted, a cluster of domes neatly fitted into a hillside, shaded by several old growth trees. Selh moves from the window front to the arch of the doorway, her gaze flickering over the team with worry and regret.

For the eighth time now. Teyla has been counting since Selh started apologizing – once they were in the hover car the police offered, on their way to her home. She presses the cool pack against her brow and gives the woman a reassuring smile. "It is all right." The mark on her forehead is barely a bruise. The pain is already subsiding, as is the ache in her ankle where the edge of the one boy's sandal hit her just below the joint. It helps that Teyla knows the boy is very, very sorry for his misstep.

"Yeah, don't beat yourself up over it," Sheppard nods, amiably but without taking her eyes off the small mirror she had in her kit, cleaning the cut on her chin. Her hair is even more tousled than before, and there are dirt-streaks on her cheek, collarbone, and running down the side of her body where she tripped and hit the pavement during the commotion. She's perched on the edge of a bright orange couch.

"Someone else already tried that." Rodney looks remarkably unharmed, except for his torn jacket, which is probably beyond repair. From the twisted expression on his face, one would think him mortally wounded, though. "Of all the troubles I fully well expected to be dragged into on this planet, a riot wasn't even on the short list; never mind that it's a very long short list." He's still on his feet, working off adrenaline with his hand gestures and complaints, "Really, I should've known my ordeal wouldn't be over with Farl's psychological exercises – not the ones about comprehension and basic concepts, which were ridiculous; a well-trained rhesus monkey could have done them. Of course –" a breathless little laugh, discomfort shining through, "the others were – actually, I would prefer not to talk about them, seeing as they were, um, quite personal."

And he does close his mouth again, almost flustered. Teyla knows she is staring, but it is so unusual for Rodney to shut up when it comes to scientific processes, especially any that offer power generation beyond their wildest dreams. Teyla had known the Enlightenment lessons with Farl had caused Rodney some measure of distress, as her earlier efforts to learn about them from Rodney had been unsuccessful – Rodney had merely mumbled a few words about "action potential" and "cognitive restructuring" before deliberately stepping away from Teyla – but she hadn't quite expected him to refuse to elaborate at all. Curious, and not particularly heartening.

A cough from the doorway. Selh's partner, Hira, is framed by light filtering in from the corridor. He is almost as tall as Selh but broader, with a thoughtful, deeply-lined face and a shock of white hair. A man Teyla liked immediately on sight, he possesses the typical Hermean serenity. "I'm sorry that our welcome fell a little short when you arrived – and for the attack, of course."

"Wasn't much of an attack." Ronon shrugs. "We're fine." She's barely glanced at the scratches on her arm, tolerating Selh's ointment spray but shrugging off anything beyond a couple of adhesive bits of bandage. Teyla notes with surprise that they match Ronon's skin color perfectly, something she's never seen with the band-aids the Earthers use. "You come to tell us about dinner?"

A startled laugh from Hira. "Well, yes. It was almost done when you arrived, but I assumed you'd want to rest a moment, or possibly, after this incident, leave immediately. That would be –"

"Completely unnecessary, and a waste of what I am hoping is good food." Rodney waves an impatient hand at Hira. "Our team has seen much worse, my friend. This doesn't even faze us."

Teyla feels her eyebrow rise of its own volition. Sheppard slants Rodney a Look Who's Talking glance before nodding at Hira. "What Rodney means is, we're okay, and we'd love to have dinner with you." The smile does not quite reach her eyes, though. "Didn't you say the others would be coming as well?"

Hira glances at Selh, whose fingers are tapping the comm device set into what is obviously a desk sitting by a round window. "Yes, Jari and Gean will be here in a little while; their arrival has been delayed due to the incident."

"So good to see political euphemisms are alive and well in the Pegasus galaxy as well." Rodney tugs unhappily at his jacket.

Teyla glances quickly in Selh's direction, but she does not seem angered, merely abashed. No, the Hermeans did not expect any of this to happen, and are trying to make amends.

"If I may –" Hira looks from Rodney to the rest of the group, "Even if nothing serious has happened, your clothing seems, uh, a little impaired."

Sheppard blinks and stares down at herself a little sadly, fingering the hem of her sooty jacket between thumb and forefinger. "Nah, it's nothing."

"Please." Selh, nodding to Hira. "Until Gean and Jari arrive, why don't you have a look in our closet and take whatever you need?" A frown mars her features. "Actually, after today's events, I would suggest all of you don our kind of dress: you will have to return to your ship, and while we can find a safe and effective means of transportation for you, I would vastly prefer not to smuggle you out of my house as if you were – something besides honored guests of this planet."

Not an appealing thought to Teyla either.

"Oh. Yes, yes, that's quite obvious – I mean – if you really don't mind, which is probably the case, since you offered in the first place?" Rodney babbles.

Ronon shrugs and agrees laconically. Torn up clothes are low on Ronon's list of priorities. "Wouldn't mind a look."

Sheppard's still fingering her jacket and finally nods. "Yeah, well, okay. Why not?"

Why is she not surprised? Teyla suppresses a sigh and follows Selh's and the others' lead into what is obviously a chamber designated to storing clothing. A lot of clothing. Teyla is curious. Athosians can generally keep everything they wear in a single trunk. Selh and Hira have an entire room devoted to storage – a large room. "Selh? I believe I understand why your people would keep a variety of clothing on hand, but why in so many different sizes?"

Returning home has been kind to Selh; once again, she has found her footing. "Hira and I not only have four children, we also have eleven grandchildren and two great-granddaughters by now. Kids, they outgrow clothes so fast...and they never want to clean out their old bedrooms."

When Teyla turns, Ronon is grinning, eyes soft, voice even more so. "My grandmother used to say that, too. Well, complained."

Selh smiles. "House rules are if they leave it here, we can use it too, as we please."

Selh leaves them again, after inviting them to take whatever they happen to like. Teyla does not relish the thought of wearing a stranger's clothes, and changing into Hermean garb is bound to make her feel more vulnerable. The Lantean uniform she is fine with by now, but this? They have so little of their people with them she does not like to give up even something as trivial as clothing. She moves over to Ronon and punches her lightly in the side, keeping her voice low. "You, Ronon Dex. Why did you agree to this?"

Not even a flicker of surprise; Ronon glances down at Teyla's fist as if it were an insect. "Thought we might find out more about Selh. Now that we're here, we might as well."

Rodney laughs at that, sudden enough to make Sheppard let go of the tunic she was poking. "Yes, yes, of course. Nice try, Ronon. Just go ahead and own up to the fact that you're one hundred percent girl!"

To Teyla's amazement, Ronon doesn't seem offended. She just grins like a crazy person and shoulders Rodney to the side, an action that makes Rodney grunt and mutter – Teyla suspects it is not because he's hurt but because it takes Ronon no effort at all. When Teyla glances back at Sheppard, however, the colonel's knuckles are white, the lines around her eyes more prominent. She has turned away from the coat rack, lips pressed together.

She steps closer, lays a hand on Sheppard's arm. "Colonel?"

She looks down at Teyla and nods. In the bright light of the clothes chamber, Teyla can see soft wrinkles below her eyes, wrinkles from smiling. The colonel isn't smiling now. "Yeah. Let's grab something and not –" Her voice trails off, but nothing more than a glance back is needed.

Ronon and Rodney are working their way through the racks of garments, Ronon lifting and inspecting each dress with a suspiciously amused expression and Rodney firing a steady stream of good-humored commentary masked as criticism.

"I agree." Teyla clears her throat. "Ronon? Rodney?"

"– fit for the Queen, or, well, some queen, anyway. What?"

Ronon just waits.

"Guys, we're thinking, just do it. Don't want to spend more time in a –" A brief moment of hesitation before Sheppard continues, "in here."

"Fine." Rodney huffs out a long-suffering sigh, peers at the clothes rack as if it were a particularly stubborn equation, and then grabs a pair of tight green pants and a light, bright shirt that seems to change color with every movement. "You don't mind?" He doesn't wait for their answer; just steps out of his torn uniform and squirms with a small grunt of effort into the Hermean garb, which, amazingly, seems to fit rather well. Teyla has seen – noticed, if she is honest – Rodney's blue zip-up shirts, but she thinks no pants of Rodney's at home will outline his legs, his back, and everything in between quite like this, though.

Why is she even thinking about this?

When Ronon makes a sound, Teyla turns to her, grateful at first, less grateful by the minute, for Ronon's facial expression makes pretty clear that she will not be outdone by McKay. After one long, measuring glance, Ronon reaches over Rodney's arm and snatches yet another dress – blue, frills and laces, and Ronon cannot be – no, she is serious: She's dropping her soiled shirt and pants and bending down to clumsily step into the flowing, glittery mass of fabric. Teyla cannot turn fast enough to fully avoid looking at skin, breasts – nipples – at impossibly long legs. There's a slight hitch of breath next to her proving Sheppard was not any quicker.

"Are you completely fashion-impaired?" Rodney's voice, booming, enough to make her twist her head and glance at the two of them. Rodney stops Ronon with a quick shake of his head. His fingers on Ronon's arms are almost gentle, though. An impatient Give Me That motion, and Ronon snorts but does hand him the dress. "Now, on your knees."

Ronon stares. So do Teyla and Sheppard, who has closed her mouth again, begins to mumble, "Uh, Rodney...?"

"Oh, come on. A little faith, here? She's too tall standing up!" To Ronon, who has shrugged and dropped to her knees with uncanny ease, "Now, lift your arms." Ronon does.

"No, I mean –" Sheppard's brow furrows in confusion, "why do you know about getting into dresses?" The shadow of her smirk when she drawls, "Have you been holding out on us?"

"Hah. You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Amusement in Rodney's voice, and something oddly like triumph. "My mother – well, she wasn't always around, and Jeannie loved dresses." He rolls his eyes, but the glint in his eyes is a fond one, "We're talking loved them, the frillier and pinker, the better. I refused to touch them, of course –"

"Of course," Sheppard deadpans.

"– but she wouldn't stop screaming, and I simply couldn't concentrate on my work." Work? From the story, Teyla would have thought them both still very young, but there is no irony in Rodney's voice. It would explain a lot about him, she thinks, that even as a boy he was miffed not about being interrupted in play but in something he considered a vocation. "So, in the end, I stormed into her room, figured out how these things worked, and put Jeannie in whatever...glittering abomination she wanted at the moment."

During his explanations, Rodney has, careful hands belying his tale, managed to pull the dress over Ronon's head; if he smooths it out for perhaps a little too long, Teyla cannot blame him. Ronon's smile when she glances up at Rodney is surprised but fond. After he's fastened everything, Ronon stands up, slowly.

Sheppard steps a little closer to the two of them, hands on her hips, and drawls, "Rodney, if you wanted to play dress-up, all you had to do was ask."

Rodney's hands are still on the fabric of Ronon's dress. He turns his head, and his eyes widen – almost comically, if there were anything funny about this moment. There is not.

"Put in a requisition for a Barbie Doll." Sheppard says with an insouciant shrug. "The Daedalus won't notice the extra weight of a couple of cartons."

Teyla does not understand the reference, but it isn't necessary. Rodney's face tells everything: uncertainty, a flare of hurt, then annoyance. "Ha-ha. Ha. Your wit's so sharp I've got papercuts, Colonel. And I'm very much looking forward to helping you with one of these complicated Hermean shirts...oh no, wait, I'm not!"

"Rodney," Teyla says, hoping to forestall a sniping session. The tension between the colonel and Rodney has been rising since they arrived.

Sheppard shrugs as if their exchange meant nothing; she just bends her head, glances away, and grins, nowhere near easy. "I think I can handle dressing myself, McKay."

Rodney's expression is notably tighter now. "If so, why don't you get on with it? Dinner's waiting, and I can feel my blood sugar dropping."

"Food's a good idea," Ronon mumbles, voice neutral.

"It is." Teyla smiles, as soothing as she can. "Ronon, why don't you and Rodney go ahead, since you are already dressed? Make our excuses to Selh; we'll be just a moment."

"Gladly," Rodney snaps.

Sheppard stares after Rodney even as Ronon gives her a nod before following him out of the room. Then she shrugs again and snatches the first dark outfit in her size off of one of the racks – which turns out to be something shimmery in deep blue-black. Teyla is breathing a little easier now, but that does not mean she feels like suggesting to Sheppard that she should change her selection yet again, even though Teyla suspects the pants and skin-tight top may be half transparent in the right light.

Not wanting to make the same mistake, Teyla takes a few more moments to find clothing that won't do anything unexpected. Sheppard has skinned into the new clothes while Teyla's back was turned and is smoothing the fabric over her hips. "It's kind of slick," she murmurs uncertainly.

"It is okay, Colonel," Teyla assures her and turns back to dress herself. Pants loose enough to accommodate this still strange physique, tunic, also loose enough for comfort of movement, and purple has always been a favorite color. The pattern woven into the fabric is much subtler than most Herman fashion. Of course, most anything is.

Their boots are all lined up by the door, next to Selh and Hira's footwear and that of the other guests. The floor itself is smooth and warmer than Atlantis' under her bare feet. The Hermeans apparently prefer to go barefoot in private dwellings. Teyla approves. Sometimes Atlantis is just too regimented for comfort. No one ever seems relaxed there.

Sheppard is staring at the floor, or her feet, and wiggling long toes when Teyla finishes dressing and turns back. Her arms are folded again and her lower lip is just a trifle redder than usual, like she's been biting it. "Ready?" she asks, without looking up.

"I am ready, Colonel."

"Good, let's get this over with," Sheppard says, and strides out.

~*~

Hira smiles. "I chose to make some of our most popular dishes from the various lir; of course, you're most welcome to try everything and leave what isn't to your taste." They are sitting around Selh's and Hira's dinner table, which is bending under the weight of the plates, bowls, and pots – fragrant, and appetizing, indeed.

"Oh," Sheppard says, Charm The Natives mask firmly in place, "I'm sure it's all very tasty." Wide smile that shows even teeth. "We're not picky." And they aren't, the Lanteans. As a rule, anyway; Sheppard is very obviously glancing at Rodney when she says it.

Rodney does not notice. He is busy grinning at Ronon, who keeps tugging at the ribbons of her dress with an expression of supreme amusement. Teyla watches Sheppard watching Rodney just a few moments too long, the carefully schooled friendliness slipping and showing bewilderment before she recovers and, with mumbled thanks, accepts the bowl of tiny bread balls Selh is handing to her.

Teyla suspects it's not truly the ribbons that capture Rodney's attention but the way Ronon's dark blue dress is stretched tightly across her chest. Ronon never wears what the Earthers call a bra and Teyla suddenly wishes she would, for once: Hermean fabric tends to be thin and flow like water, outlining every curve. Teyla cannot help setting eyes on the round nubs of Ronon's nipples. Teyla usually has rather definite opinions about the Earthers' tendency to wear heavy, prudish fabric, but now she would welcome it. What looks striking and exotic on Selh or Jari feels jarring when it comes to Ronon and Sheppard, something Teyla was never meant to see – private, too private to bear. Teyla looks away but manages to put on a bright expression for Selh and Hira. "I would love to try a bit of everything. You seem a very enthusiastic cook, Hira."

He laughs at that, winks at Teyla. "Hope by the end of the dinner, you'll also consider me a good one."

Teyla knows what to say, but this man, this couple makes it possible to just smile and say, "We shall see about that."

"Wise, wise." Gean nods, and there's a flash of humor in his eyes, too. It's a first; he's seemed almost as agitated as Selh had been before they made it to her home. Teyla feels a pang of sympathy for these people, remade by new contact with people from across the stars. Just like the Athosians.

Rodney is making an effort towards manners and not talking with his mouth full for once, Teyla notes. That may be because he wants to impress Jari. The scientist arrived before their group limped in, displaying the proper level of horror regarding the riot. She's been smiling and flirting with Rodney since. He seems delighted; no wonder.

Gean arrived last, wearing a orange and yellow kilt over a green skinsuit that made Teyla's eyes water. It doesn't seem to bother Ronon, though. He's sitting next on the other side of Ronon, who is talking with him animatedly. Teyla is surprised. Mostly because – Ronon is talking.

Sheppard seems less delighted. Each time Rodney smiles back at Jari or leans forward and talks past Ronon, brushing shoulders with her, Sheppard's jaw tightens a little, and takes another sip of the drink that was served with their food. Teyla suspects it's to keep herself from snapping something unwise. Teyla frowns. The amber-colored liquid tastes fresh, like fruit and honey, but Teyla has known similar beverages. It is almost certainly far more alcoholic than it seems, and unfortunately, of all their team, Colonel Sheppard deals with alcohol least well.

She knows this from the time on PX-5345, where the grateful natives arranged a ceremonial festival after the team had, very unceremoniously, killed two crashed Wraith "haunting" the village. Luckily, Teyla's father taught her to hold her drink, and as the last conscious member of the team, she took only a small part in the Great Re-Enactment of the Slaying. Teyla remembers fondly how helpful the priestesses were. Together, they managed to get the feather-and-sticks costumes off the colonel, Rodney, and Ronon again, and the three of them off the wooden stage, before they came to. Teyla isn't sure any of them even remember anything after the fourth glass of nininc. To be truthful, her own memory is blurry after the seventh glass.

Amusing as the experience was, Teyla does not actually care for a repeat performance, in more than one way. So when Sheppard reaches for her glass again, Teyla coughs. Sheppard glances at her, then at her own outstretched hand. She grimaces, but nods and doesn't touch it.

Too bad Rodney and Ronon aren't as cooperative. Rodney's giggling at something Jari said while Ronon is swaying in her chair. In fact, Ronon seems to be well into her third glass. She also seems to be well into Gean now, judging from the way she leans over when he explains something in his earnest yet excited way.

"Did I mention, Jari showed me some of the physical equipment that goes into the cloak," Rodney says excitedly. His voice is slightly louder than normal. Not that Rodney isn't loud anyway, but Teyla recognizes the effect of the wine. Rodney likes to think he can drink, but he isn't much better at handling it than Colonel Sheppard.

"There's non-physical equipment going into the cloak?" Sheppard drawls – Teyla supposes more to needle Rodney than to ask the question itself.

"Of course," Selh comments, looking surprised.

"That's the purpose of Completion and Enlightenment," Jari says. She looks so sincere Teyla puts away any suspicion.

"Preparation," Hira says from the other side of the table. He seems quite complacent.

Selh smiles at him. "Hira has done twelve rotations." She sounds deeply proud of that.

"Rotations?" mumbles Sheppard, looking around the table in growing confusion; Teyla thinks she speaks for the whole team.

"One rotation means one period of service in the Gestalt." Hira bows his head, a humble gesture. "We are chosen randomly from the able populace, for a month each, but of course there are safeguards and opt-outs."

"What he isn't saying: He volunteered." Jari smirks. "Of course, with his partner getting a comfy government salary...."

"Like Akee?" Selh asks, pointedly.

Jari shrugs and grins, obviously ceding defeat. "Fine, fine. Akee's not exactly jumping up and down when it comes to the service – but only because she's keeping a pretty crazy schedule!" She glances at Selh's husband. "Hira, seriously, I know you've gone above and beyond the call of duty."

"Oh, come on." Hira gives her a smile and stands up, busies himself with helping Teyla to a bowl of small, gold-roasted nuts that smell heavenly. "As you say, I could, so I did. Did most of it once the kids were out of the house, after all."

Teyla takes a bite – they taste as good as their scent promised – and looks up again. "Selh already told us about your children. They are well and happy, I hope?"

Both of them beam, but it's Selh who answers, "Oh yes, they are. Of course, we don't see them often enough."

Hira nods. "It was pretty, shall we say, interesting around here when they still lived at home. Of course, now that Unai and Vael have children of their own, a lot of the old lovely chaos is back." He shakes his head as if to clear it. "But let me not bore you with parenting stories. I'm afraid I'll talk about the kids at any chance I get."

"No wonder." Selh smiles fondly at him. "You've lived through pretty much every moment with them when they were still babies and toddlers and schoolkids. I'm often sad I missed so much of that."

Teyla blinks. The thought is odd enough to warrant a question. "So you left your children with your husband and returned to work after they did not need to be fed by you any more?" It is, Teyla thinks, probably quite a sensible solution, though an unusual one.

"By me?" Surprise on Selh's face, and then a dawning understanding. "Oh, no. I didn't have the kids; Hira did."

If Teyla's smile slips and she turns to stare at Hira with an expression that is not admiration, not appreciation at all – she can't help either.

"You?" Sheppard drawls, staring at Hira with wide eyes.

The immediate answer is a puzzled look, but then Hira nods in understanding. "Sure. I'm fond of this sex, but back when we decided to have children – well, it was pre-election time, and Selh was busy supervising Kael Daan's campaign pretty much around the clock."

"I never knew!" Jari cuts in, with something akin to awe, "You were Daan's campaign manager? No wonder she became President." Teyla is still trying to process – Hira was mother to Selh and his children? For once she feels as out of depth as Sheppard. Birth has always seemed to be a women's secret, but here she is face with a man who knows it – more intimately even than Teyla, who has never had a child. She stabs a vegetable and chews it, rather than say anything, while the Hermeans speak of matters that mean little to Atlantis, merely the day to day of their lives.

Selh laughs. "I never knew you cared for politics, Jari."

"I don't. But I care for politicians – the good ones, anyway." An impish smile. "The ones that help boosting the research budget."

"So that's how you won this young lady's heart," Hira teases, looking at Selh, "I'd been wondering"

"Won her mind, more like." Gean smiles his serious little smile, and turns back to the team. "Now, we have tried to ease you into this dimension of the cloak." He clears his throat. "Our historical records tell of great unrest sweeping the nation when we first introduced Completion."

"Really?" Rodney asks. After today's events, the words "great unrest" and "sweeping" do not seem to sit well with him.

Gean nods, looks at Teyla with a look of honest regret. "Some could not take it, some would not."

That – Teyla frowns. Was that meant personally?

Sheppard licks her lips, stares at Gean, far from cheerful. "We're doing the best we can, Gean."

"Of course you are," Selh says, giving Gean a quieting look.

Ronon quirks an eyebrow; she doesn't look at Gean quite so fondly any more. She reaches across the table, takes another bite from the not-exactly-fish dish with yellow sauce. "So, what's the cloak have to do with Completion?"

It's Hira who answers. "Our cloak is wholly powered by a mental component. The kind of energy necessary for the cloak cannot be generated by one mind in Gestalt, or even ten. Instead, at any given point, we have one-thousand-and-one of us who've undergone Completion, combined."

"What, like merged?" Sheppard sounds vaguely horrified. Rodney just looks fascinated. Ronon chews. All in all, Teyla feels rather more sympathetic toward the colonel. Such an invasion of privacy is distasteful at best and terrifying at worst. To let strangers in your mind? It sounds unbearable.

Jari looks thoughtful. "We don't lose our identities, if that's what you meant – but in a lot of ways, that makes the process harder."

"If only." Gean nods quietly. "The fact that we are still ourselves yet more than that – it is an enormous strain."

"Only by achieving a special state of mind can one withstand the stress involved," Selh adds. "Completion and Enlightenment prepare us for that."

"Oh, of course." Rodney snaps his fingers, cheeks reddened from excitement. "We stand within each other."

Sheppard looks at him in disbelief. "You get this?"

Rodney blinks. "Well, in a very theoretical fashion, yes." It makes Sheppard reach for her glass and take a long swallow while Rodney continues, blithely, "Jari has shown me the generator module, after all, and Farl – well, I've already mentioned my feelings of abject humiliation." His cheeks redden, and he bends over his plate with a defiant little hunch.

"Sheppard." Ronon is looking at her, eyes kind. "You become someone else – inside, outside. You learn how the other half lives."

The colonel does not look convinced, or relieved. Teyla can empathize.

"Historically, when we began using the cloak," Hira says, "many people suffered breakdowns and were even rendered catatonic by service in the Gestalt."

"But you've solved that problem," Rodney states. A little more fearfully, "You did, right?"

Gean looks almost grim. "Eventually. Many minds were fractured before that."

Jari lets out a loud huff. "Cut down on the sad stories, guys! Yes, we did!"

"I still don't like the sound of that," Sheppard mutters.

Selh slants her a glance, puts a reassuring hand on Sheppard's arm. "It's true what she says – while the strain is still intense, we have calibrated the machinery in such a way that it is virtually safe."

"To answer your question, Rodney – indeed, we did manage," Hira adds. "In time, our studies revealed some fascinating truths. Those who were most flexible in their thinking dealt best with the Gestalt."

"Flexible thinking?" Sheppard, looking a little confused. "You mean smart like Rodney?"

Hira smiles. "Not exactly, though that surely is no hindrance. Among many scientific studies of their genetics and environments, it became apparent that those who dealt best with the gestalt were those who had either found true spirituality or who were functional bisexuals."

"Functional?" Sheppard's voice sounds a little faint.

"Functional, as in accepted and happy with their bisexuality." Jari smiles at her.

Sheppard nods at that, but Teyla can see that happiness is the farthest thing from Sheppard's mind. Teyla has observed it is not usually the most prominent feeling among the Earthers when it comes to non-conventional couples.

Gean lifts his index finger. "And that is the other side: Technology needed to be perfected, but we found that it helped best to train ourselves, our minds. Our souls, if you will." He gives Rodney a careful look, which shows insight on his part.

There is the hint of a sneer in the corner of Rodney's mouth at that mention. "Voodoo," Rodney mutters quietly.

"McKay," Sheppard says.

"Fine. Fine."

This is one of the instances, Teyla thinks, when it is a lucky occurrence that Rodney and Sheppard talk in their own slang so often. None of the Hermeans seem to care about Rodney's comment. As for speaking up, Teyla wishes she could contribute more, but like Sheppard, she thinks this revelation is hardly a positive one. She feels no desire whatsoever to join minds with the Hermeans or, indeed, anyone. Of course, they are human – can it be worse than looking inside the Wraith, inside that maelstrom of hunger and twisted thinking?

"So Completion is being familiar with both sexes and Enlightenment is...?" Sheppard asks.

"Enlightenment is that harmony within one self that lets one meet another mind without fracturing," Hira explains.

Teyla's first thought is that this is singularly unhelpful. At the same time, Completion finally makes sense. Like the bantos sticks, it is something that cannot be taught with mere words. Experience is necessary to know. The revelation always lies within the learner. The teacher can only show the student to the path. Teyla does not agree this twofold understanding should come about as it does on Hermea. But duty to one's people – yes. That she agrees with. As she does regarding the quest to know oneself and know others.

Selh pats Sheppard's arm again. "I have no doubt you will all adapt magnificently to the Gestalt. And be able to generate the energy required for the cloak."

"Yeah...." Sheppard's grin is strained, but Teyla agrees with Selh: If there is anything the Earthers have proven to be, it is adaptable. When they want to be. Otherwise, they are stubborn as rocks.

She gives everyone at the table a smile. "Indeed. As someone who has lived among Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay's people, they do seem to embody one of their sayings: 'Necessity is the mother of invention.'"

Sheppard's eyebrow goes up while the Hermeans all nod. Ronon grunts. Rodney grumbles, "I thought that was 'desperation' here in Pegasus."

Ronon swats the back of his head lightly. Rodney just grins at her, unruffled.

And Sheppard gulps down more wine. Teyla wishes, irrationally and not for the first time, for a leash. Or three. Gags, too, perhaps.

Conversation drifts to other subjects after that. Ronon steals some sort of sweet, jelly-like dessert, bright blue with gold flecks, from Rodney's plate. Selh and Hira talk about their grandchildren and their worries if Hermea rejoins the galaxy. Will they go offworld? Will they be in danger if they do? It will be difficult.

It will be. Of course, this just means they have arrived back in the Pegasus galaxy, Teyla thinks. She does sympathize. The urge to cage their children to keep them safe is one the Athosians know, though they've never been able to truly safeguard anyone from the Wraith. But if they could? They might very well have made the same decisions the Hermeans made.

Now Ronon is definitely flirting with Rodney and Gean. Teyla tries to kick Ronon under the table, but she is sitting too far away – across, yet not close. And Gean is flirting back. Frankly, Teyla wishes to to kick all of them at this point.

"You will stay the night?" Selh asks over dessert.

"It is a long walk back to the city center and then your spacecraft," Gean says. He gives Ronon a sidelong look, clearly hinting that they should stay and spend more time together.

"You must," Hira adds. "We have room."

"Um," Sheppard says, eloquent as ever. Teyla feels a spike of annoyance. A more definite answer – she would have preferred that.

"What kind of beds do you have? The damage my back has suffered since we came to Atlantis is going to leave me crippled, you know."

"Our beds can be adjusted to fit any need."

Rodney beams. His face is shining, not just from the liquor consumed. "We're staying." He lifts his wine glass. "To a civilized world."

Ronon glances at him, and nods as serenely as she can still manage, considering exactly how many glasses of wine she's consumed. "I'm good," she says, grinning.

Teyla wants to counter that Ronon most definitely isn't good; Ronon is being infuriating, in Teyla's opinion.

"And there may still be pockets of...unrest," Selh finishes. She seems more genuinely concerned than Gean...and mentions a far more genuine threat. It would not be pleasant to encounter any more dissenters in the streets. Hermea is probably the friendliest world they have visited, but they are still foreigners here. An incident like the one earlier, without witnesses to testify to their innocence in the matter, could have disastrous consequences. Teyla does not want to flee this world because of a brawl or misunderstanding. She wants her old body back at the end of this period.

Jari nods, too. "Stay. I can attest to Selh's hospitality."

A glance at Sheppard shows she is nearly persuaded, though her eyes are a little glazed. But if they did go back to the jumper, they would have to sleep in it. Sheppard won't fly while under the influence unless it is a life and death emergency. While that is certainly preferable to outdoor camping or even some of the villages they've visited, it cannot compare to the comfort of a real bed. Rodney is quite right about that. There is no need to check in with Atlantis until the next day – the mission is open ended, since they had no idea how long Rodney's 'path to Enlightenment' might take.

"Come morning, we can call for a hover taxi," Selh offers, smiling at Teyla and Sheppard, whom they have obviously recognised as the reluctant ones.

"Well," Teyla says, "I assume this is the best solution, and we thank you for your kind offer." Only an obscene amount of concentration can keep the sour undertone out of her voice. But it isn't the Hermeans who have caused that but Teyla's own team mates.

All of whom are idiots. All of whom are blinking sleepily at the Hermeans, whose smiles are indulgent, and a little drunk, too. None of the Hermeans held back on the wine either. This was one of the reasons Teyla did not intercept the team's drinking.

Sheppard looks to Teyla, then the rest of the team. Her eyes aren't quite focusing. "Okay." Her gaze lands on Rodney and Ronon, then skitters away.

"Do you need separate rooms...?" Selh is trying to be delicate.

"Yes." Teyla smiles to take the sting out of the word. "Of course, only if you have them available."

"Yeah, no problem otherwise. We usually bunk two to a room offworld," Sheppard says carefully, glancing at Teyla.

Selh nods. "Ah."

Teyla has to agree as far as safety is concerned. Hermea doesn't offer much in the way of threat, but they are used to being able to hear each other breathe in the night. It is comforting on a strange world and Hermea, pleasant as it is, is still strange to them.

Hira rises. "Give me a few moments and I'll have rooms ready for all you. Jari, you and Gean too. You must stay."

Jari just grins and leans back. "Won't say no."

Gean gives his assent as well.

"You know, I think I'll stick with Ronon tonight," Rodney declares.

Teyla sees Sheppard flinch. Gean, too, turns his head at that, sends a long, vaguely disappointed look at Ronon. She closes her eyes for a moment. When did life become so complicated? Ah, yes: When they were all changed into a different sex. Or perhaps when then Major Sheppard smiled at her that first night the Earthers came to Athos, when Atlantis and the Ancestors became something more than myth.

"The rooms are ready," Hira says a moment later, from the arch at the side of the dining room.

"Thanks," Sheppard says. She stands up and sways, grabbing the back of her chair to steady herself.

"What's the matter, Colonel?" Rodney says, "Can't hold your liquor? Honestly, no one even spiked it with a roofie this time."

Sheppard freezes, face going blank.

Teyla has risen before she knows it, steadying the colonel with a hand on her elbow. "Rodney!" she snaps.

Even Ronon seems unhappy at that. Rodney has the saving grace to flush and look away. The Hermeans look taken back.

"I just meant, I – ah, forget it." Rodney glances at the floor, cheeks flushed from more than alcohol. "Please. Forget it."

"Sure," Sheppard says. Slow, quiet, but Teyla doubts Sheppard will forget it.

Rodney swallows visibly. "Sorry, I'm sorry," he mutters, dejectedly, but Teyla does not feel the usual urge to cheer him up. Far from that.

Ronon seems to sober a little, but she is still standing next to Rodney, has not moved away. She does look up, though, eyes soft. "Sheppard. Need help?"

Sheppard looks at them, then down to Teyla's hand on her arm, as light as a touch can be. Sheppard's body is warm next to Teyla's; a fact underlined when she leans forward to mumble, somewhere in the vicinity of Teyla's ear, "Thanks."

"I've got it." Teyla says, her voice a little more forceful than intended.

"Yeah, I'm fine." Sheppard nods at Ronon. "Just think maybe I need to get some rest."

Teyla stays at her side, but Sheppard walks carefully behind Hira until they reach the room they'll share. There's only one bed, but it's more than big enough for both of them. Ronon and Rodney pass the open door, heads together. Sheppard follows them with her eyes, then slumps down to sit on the bed, right next to where Hira has kindly laid out loose pants and shirts for sleeping. The urge to touch her is almost overwhelming. Teyla clenches a fist and breathes out slowly. It's just – the body. The situation. Sheppard's distress –

No.

It isn't all the body. Sheppard – John – is Teyla's friend. There is nothing wrong with wishing to provide a friend the comfort of a touch. She sits down, next to her. Carefully. Sheppard slumps against Teyla's shoulder immediately.

"Teyla," she says, quietly, somewhat muffled by the fabric of Teyla's shirt. "I keep screwing up," she whispers.

Her heart clenches, painfully. "No," she says, then louder, "No, you don't.

"Yes, I do. I shouldn't have slept with Rodney. And then, on Xa...."

"You did what you thought was right in those situations." Teyla answers. She is not sure she speaks the truth, but she knows she speaks what Sheppard needs to hear.

"Guess my decision-making sucks, then, because it's all a mess."

"John," Teyla says, oddly stricken.

"Teyla." Warm arms slip around her waist. Sheppard lifts her head, then, stares at her seriously, with intent, for a long moment.

It would be so easy to pull Sheppard just a little closer and kiss her. Teyla's mouth is dry. But Sheppard's eyes are blurry with wine and regret already. Much as Teyla would like to tell herself she doesn't want to – she does – it would be a disservice to Sheppard.

By mutual, silent accord, they both pull away. It is a choice they've made before.

"I really need some sleep, what about you?" Sheppard says, moving away entirely.

"Yes, that would be wise," Teyla answers.

"And you're always wise," Sheppard murmurs.

"No," Teyla admits, honestly. "But I try."

Sheppard smiles her crooked grin at that. "Trying's always good," she says. "That's what I'm doing too."

She gets up, without help, if with effort, and manages to change into the sleep-wear on the bed. Teyla turns away when her long fingers fumble with the closures; this is not a task where she can aid the colonel. She occupies herself doing the same and not looking. When she turns, wearing Selh and Hira's clothes yet again, Sheppard is already working the covers back. They lie on the bed, a decorous space between them.

It lasts a few moments, then Sheppard is curling into Teyla's side. "Hey. You mind?"

Teyla freezes, knows Sheppard would never do this if she weren't still mostly drunk. "No," she whispers, and it is almost true. But it feels good to Teyla, too; there has been no one to hold in her life for too long. Slowly, she lifts her arm, turns her head a little. And pulls Sheppard closer, until her head rests on Teyla's shoulder again.

Sheppard is warm, and shockingly soft. For a moment, there is the jolt of dissonance – female body, John Sheppard – but it fades as quickly as it came, and all is left is her friend.

~*~

The towers shine in the dawn, reflecting the glitter of the ocean, as the Daedalus drops smoothly through the atmosphere and onto the landing pad on Pier Three. It makes Caldwell catch his breath every time. Even with the damage it took during the siege, the city is magnificent. He always looks forward to returning to it.

But if he's honest, he looks forward to leaving too, though that's a secret he'll never confide to anyone on Atlantis. He likes going back to Earth regularly.

And he likes being on the command deck of his ship best. Atlantis can never be his the way the Daedalus is. In part it is his own feelings, but Atlantis belongs to Sheppard, McKay, and Weir foremost, and that's something he's had to accept.

It's next to impossible to predict exactly when the Daedalus will arrive during Atlantis's day and completely impossible to predict when the Atlantis command staff will all be present, since they seem to careen from one emergency to the next. They're three days early this time. He isn't surprised when Sheppard isn't around to greet him or when the control room technician radios to ask him to meet Dr. Weir in her office. After detailing his quartermaster to liaise with Sheppard's Sergeant Westerman, he starts for the nearest transporter.

He nods to the sergeant in charge of gate control – Bouchard, if he recalls corectly – as he walks through the control room. Weir is at her desk with her laptop open, but she's obviously waiting for him, her door already open.

"Steven," she greets him. Her smile is a little strained, but he isn't sure he's ever seen her when it wasn't.

"Elizabeth."

They are on first name terms, despite their frequent clashes. He takes the chair she nods at without comment. "I see the city is still in one piece," he adds lightly. "Nothing extraordinary happen while the Daedalus was in transit?"

"Well...." The little chuckle doesn't actually reassure him; it's much too stressed.

"What is it?" he asks. "Did McKay blow up another solar system?"

"Nothing quite so permanent," Elizabeth replies. "It's just difficult to to believe."

"Unbelievable?" He sits back in his chair, bracing himself for the latest Pegasus weirdness. Oh, yes, sometimes he is very happy to ship out for Earth. "There was nothing in the last databurst according to my briefing at the SGC. Is this a new development?"

She looks slightly shamefaced. "I've kept it out of the databursts. It could be argued that it is a private, medical matter. And it hasn't had any significant impact on their ability to perform their duties."

"Was someone hurt?" It's all he can think of. Perhaps Elizabeth is worried about Sheppard being yanked from command if he has been injured, but that doesn't quite track either.

"Noooo." Pretty obvious by now that Elizabeth is none to eager to report this latest situation. SNAFU has never been more appropriate than when it came to Atlantis. "Apparently, the procedure can be reversed and the Hermeans have promised to do so as soon as possible."

"What procedure? What happened?" To Sheppard's team, of course; trouble magnets, every one of them. It isn't that other Atlantis teams don't run into trouble routinely, it's just they never do it so spectacularly.

Elizabeth rubs her hands over her cheeks, then places them palm down on her desk and sighs.

"Steven, before we go any farther, I'd just like to clear the air between us."

He's a little taken aback, even if he doesn't allow himself to show it. "If you think it's necessary."

Another strained smile. "You know that the IOA will never turn command of Atlantis over to you at this point, don't you?"

He narrows his eyes. It's an unpleasant truth, but yes, he does know that. He knows it isn't a slight to his own abilities. Frankly, no one should have promised him the command, back when the SGC and IOA were making plans about Atlantis on the basis of a single, last-ditch databurst from the expedition. They hadn't considered that the people already in place would have strong opinions. They certainly hadn't anticipated Elizabeth Weir and her balls-to-the-wall campaign to keep Sheppard in charge. She'd manipulated the IOA with remarkable skill, played the internationals against the Pentagon like a chess grandmaster. Once the IOA thought the SGC wanted Sheppard out and that Caldwell's loyalties were to the American military first and foremost, the decision in favor of the status quo had been inevitable. Meanwhile, she'd convinced the Pentagon and the SGC that any American officer, even Sheppard, was better than having the IOA bring in a commander from another country. Elizabeth Weir made everyone think they were pulling something over on the other side.

Some of her arguments had real merit, of course, aside from the politicking. Sheppard was a known factor. Sheppard didhave experience in Pegasus – with the Wraith as well as the close connection with Atlantis's Athosian allies – not to mention the ATA gene. Sheppard got along with the scientists. Sheppard wasn't a bad officer, just not the sort the brass loved.

Finally, he nods. "Yes. Why bring it up now?"

"The IOA doesn't want a hardcore US military man in command here. Neither do I, nor do the rest of our people, and you are, frankly, too much a Tau'ri, not a Lantean." 'Tau'ri' and 'Lantean.' Not 'American' or 'military.' Elizabeth gives herself away too – if the IOA had been here to hear that.... But maybe they would still prefer Atlantis's leader to be loyal to it first, rather than anyone loyal to just one country on Earth. It wasn't Caldwell's call; he wouldn't be filing any back-channel reports to undermine her.

"Sheppard's still USAF."

Elizabeth shakes her head. "John's loyalty is to Atlantis, and we all know it."

"Does the Air Force know it too?" he asks dryly.

"Are you telling me you didn't?"

Hardly. It's one of the reasons he distrusts Sheppard as Atlantis's commander, and at the same time what makes Sheppard so successful. Another something he won't put into his own mission reports. It would look like sour grapes. "Some things don't belong on record."

"Exactly," Elizabeth agrees, and he sees the hint of a smile in her face. "And that brings us to the latest...development."

"Which is?" he asks.

"John has –"

The door behind Caldwell slides open, and a light step sounds. He turns. It's strange. He's never seen this woman before, though she wears the expedition's military uniform, but he recognizes her instantly. Rather, he recognizes Sheppard, despite the weird double vision effect of seeing all the differences. His mouth drops open.

"Elizabeth –"

Sheppard stops, glances at Caldwell, then Elizabeth and grimaces. She straightens and snaps off a salute. "Colonel Caldwell."

Caldwell rises to feet. He doesn't return the salute, but he nods, feeling amazed. "Colonel...Sheppard?" He doesn't have any real doubt this is Sheppard.

"Yes, sir."

"Damn, I was hoping to explain this first," Elizabeth mutters. "Colonel, couldn't you have waited?"

"Sorry," Sheppard drawls, "you usually want a fast rundown on the mission before the debriefing. I came here straight from medical."

Elizabeth nods and dismisses it. "Never mind. I assume everything went well?"

"Pretty much."

"We'll get to anything else later then," Elizabeth says.

Caldwell runs through everything Elizabeth already said in his mind, only half listening to their exchange. "This isn't permanent?"

Sheppard raises an eyebrow, gives him a little grin. "No, sir. A couple more months, and the Hermeans will put me and Ronon and Teyla back the way we were."

Caldwell shakes his head. "Congratulations. I think you found something even SG-1 hasn't done." Though not so strange that it will actually surprise anyone back at Cheyenne Mountain. It takes a lot to surprise anyone there anymore.

A head tilt is Sheppard's response. "We try."

Elizabeth groans.

Caldwell settles himself back in his chair and levels a look at her. "Dr. Weir, about that post? I'm not at all sure I'd want it at this point, if they did offer it."

Elizabeth purses her lips, but there's a glint of humor in her eyes. Sheppard must be good at reading her, because she exclaims, "Hey! Not funny," sounding faintly affronted.

Caldwell looks at her surreptitiously as Sheppard sits down on the small couch under the amazingly ugly masks decorating the office wall. Same height, same hair – too long – and no obvious awkwardness or discomfort.

"The rest of your team...." He lets that trail away delicately, unsure how to characterize what's happened.

"Got flipped too. Except Rodney, because the Hermeans were worried about messing with his genetics on top of Beckett's therapy," Sheppard answers breezily. Her gaze isn't quite so casual. "It was a misunderstanding, really. Rodney and Teyla thought it was a metaphor; turns out it's a way of life. But we're going to pick up some cool technology out it."

He raises his eyebrows. It's hard not to let his mind stray to what this transformation must look like on Miss Emmagan or on Dex. The fact it looks good on Sheppard is no reason to think it does on them as well. Sheppard's always been almost too pretty for a man. Of course, the two aliens on the first Atlantis team are attractive specimens. If Dex retained the same height and translated –

He comes back to himself and realizes he's staring at Sheppard, who has narrowed her eyes at his expression. He doesn't much care to look over at Elizabeth Weir to check her reaction.

Wiping at his face, he gives them an apologetic look. "How are you doing? You and the rest of the team?" Well, he actually is concerned. Can't imagine going through anything similar. There are things you can logically consider when joining the Air Force. Discipline. The possibility of crashing. Not alien sex changes. It takes a strong man – a strong personality – to deal with the vagaries of the universe at large. Sheppard, however, seems unflapped.

She leans back on the couch, relaxing a little. "It's okay. The body and otherwise. Really. Teyla tangled with a couple marines, but Lorne handled it well, so I stayed out of it."

That sounds like a good decision. Caldwell nods, then zeroes in on the aspect the SGC will take the most interest in. "What kind of technology?" He's all right with Elizabeth's edited reports. If it isn't affecting the command structure of Atlantis, why deal with whatever craziness the IOA would come up with in response? Elizabeth's little reminder of IOA and SGC politics makes more sense now. She was warning him off.

"Cloak. The Hermeans can and have cloaked their planet for hundreds of years. Elizabeth, that's what I wanted to talk to you about." Sheppard twists a little on the sofa and looks at Elizabeth. "Jari sent back schematics for some of the equipment. Rodney wants authorization to start building it – he's going to ask you at either the debriefing or the next senior staff meeting, and I think you should make him hold off."

"You disagree?" Elizabeth frowns and leans forward. "Why?"

"I don't think we should commit resources to building anything until we know the full extent of it. They started to explain the mental component this time, and there's the question of adapting their technology to our hybrid interfaces."

"Mental component?" Elizabeth echoes.

"Uh, yeah, there's this...thing...they do together," Sheppard replies. She looks uncomfortable. No doubt she'd say more if he weren't present. "Rodney didn't exactly explain all the details he got from Jari's briefing, but it'll be in his report. Probably with footnotes." She shrugs. "I wanted say something before he started trying to sell you on it."

Caldwell finds himself nodding along with Sheppard, agreeing, if surprised that it's Sheppard counseling caution.

Elizabeth doesn't nod, gives Sheppard a curious look instead. "Those are valid concerns, but why not bring them up at the meeting?"

Sheppard winces. "I really don't want McKay biting my head off. We've got a mission scheduled for Heka next week, remember? Being trapped in a jumper with a McKay who blames me for taking away his toys is kind of frightening."

Heka. Never mind whatever wrangling McKay and Sheppard are doing, the databursts did contain reports on Heka and no one reading them liked what they contained. Atlantis's people were the ones on the spot, of course, but some of the parallels to Earth conflicts raised red flags with everyone in the military who saw them.

~*~

Ronon's on the way back to her quarters after the medical check-up when Rodney blocks her way, stepping out of his own door. He draws himself up to his full height and crosses his arms belligerently. Ronon would be amused, if it weren't so obvious Rodney is aggravated. Wait, no, that doesn't stop her.

"Okay, so the rest of the team gave me the silent treatment on the way back to Atlantis; you're the only one with whom that isn't cruel and unusual punishment but rather force of habit." Rodney's not half as dense as people think; not always. It's true that Ronon didn't agree with Sheppard or Teyla, one of whom was sullen, one of whom was angry the whole time in the hovercar and the puddlejumper. Rodney often has terrible timing, and terrible lines at that. Last night, after Sheppard's ribbing in the closet, he shouldn't have taunted Sheppard about liquor – not after the episode with Lasparn. Ronon didn't think Rodney had meant to bring that up; he probably hadn't even thought about the drug, just taking a jibe at Sheppard's tolerance. Still, his words had obviously hit Sheppard harder than they'd been meant.

Teyla has been so out of sorts, the disapproval leveled at Rodney wasn't even a surprise, but Sheppard's odd mood and dark looks weren't normal. Normally, Sheppard would have shrugged off Rodney's sniping effortlessly. It shouldn't have bothered her and Ronon has no real insight into why it did. Sheppard's just too opaque, too alien to a straightforward Satedan sometimes. The Earthers have an arcane and intricate society that only seems simple and easy on the surface and regularly leaves Ronon floundering.

She glances along the corridor leading toward her room. "What is it, McKay?"

Rodney huffs. "For God's sake, let's not do this in the hallway!" It's a tell-tale sign of his state of mind that he leans forward and grabs her, tugs her inside. For a moment, she feels her muscles tense, but this is just Rodney. Just McKay. Who had turned out to be a surprisingly good bunkmate, even drunk and unhappy. Possibly especially then. Once through the door, he'd been quiet, barely peeking at her naked torso while Ronon slipped into the sleepwear provided. Even his commentary was restricted to a few muttered words from his side of the bed. Not too low to understand if only she'd tried. But Ronon was drunk too, and not much of a confidante even when sober. She liked McKay. She just didn't think she could help, because she just didn't see the problems that he and Sheppard seemed to see everywhere.

Rodney still seems to want to talk, though.

With a shrug, she shakes off his hand and saunters into the room. Every flat surface of space is covered in Rodney's papers and things, so she just flops onto his bed. Looks up at him mildly. "You want to talk?"

"Don't make it sound like I'm the girl here!" He glares at her. "You were there! With Sheppard being far more bitchy than usual, and Teyla not just mildly annoyed, but flagrantly disapproving of, well, basically everything I did!"

He's taking this too personally. As always. Ronon caught more than one chilly gaze directed at her, and a few glances of something close to pity sent Sheppard's way. Good thing Sheppard didn't see that; she would hate pity from Teyla more than wrath. Ronon props herself up on her ellbows to look at Rodney. "It's not all about you."

"What?" Rodney looks almost a little affronted. "Of course it isn't; they're obviously letting their own issues come to the forefront and then taking it out on the first person to open his mouth and point out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

"McKay," Ronon rumbles, and he does shut up. "Sheppard and Teyla? Not fond of me right now either." About behavior that, in Sheppard's old body, no one would've complained about. She's just trying to have some fun. Isn't there even an Earth proverb about that? Sheppard's been weird with her since Xa, and Ronon just doesn't know enough about Earth mores to guess if it's the fact they're both women at the moment, were both men before, problems because of McKay, or some taboo Ronon's not even been introduced to yet.

Rodney's mouth twists. "Is that supposed to make me feel better? Contrary to popular opinion, suffering isn't actually alleviated by further suffering."

She could try to explain empathy to Rodney, but she doesn't have all week. "They're unhappy with themselves. Makes them critical of others."

Rodney stares for a second longer, then shakes his head with a chuckle. Haltingly, wryly, but still, he's chuckling. "Who died and made you Kate Heightmeyer?"

Ronon frowns. Tries a glare, too, but Rodney rocks back on his heels and crosses his arms in front of his chest, adding, "Next you'll ask me about my feelings."

Now there's a challenge. Ronon schools her face into a mask of bland interest, and says, "Sure, okay."

Rodney's grimly amused expression slips a little. He stares a little harder at Ronon, pretty obviously trying to decipher how serious she is. He won't find a weakness, not in her face. And yes, in the end, the corner of Rodney's mouth droops, along with his mood. "Well, if you really want to know, I'm livid. At – well, possibly myself, too, but mostly Sheppard, who's all over me one second and would prefer to send me back to Siberia the next, who's being insufferable yet irrationally loathes me when I'm giving her a taste of her own medicine. Also at Teyla because, hello, since when is she Protector of All Things John Sheppard?"

Since pretty much Day One, but Ronon knows when to keep her mouth shut.

"And don't look at me like that!"

She raises an eyebrow. McKay's defensiveness is always amusing. How can someone so arrogant be so insecure? "Like what?"

"Like...like butter wouldn't melt in your mouth! You know it would!"

Right. Ronon doesn't even get that stupid Earth saying. Of course butter melts easy.

"I'm angry with you, too! You had sex with Sheppard!"

Ronon tries to shrug, but she's lying down. "Sure."

That seems to throw Rodney off-balance. For about a heartbeat. "And you're telling me the aliens made you do it? That you only did it for the good of Atlantis? For the sake of our team?

"Among other things."

Rodney's eyes are wide and very, very blue against his flushed face. "Other things like...what?"

"I wanted it. I like Sheppard."

"Oh." Rodney looks a little deflated. For a moment, he clearly debates saying something more. Ronon knows this because his mouth opens and closes, but no sound comes out.

"Any more questions, McKay?"

"No, I get it." A little petulant but mostly resigned. He steps over to his desk, stares at his laptop.

Ronon pauses. She doesn't have anything to explain to Rodney McKay. Doesn't need the man's permission.

And yet.

"You do?"

McKay turns around at that. As if he's surprised that she's still here, still in his room. He shrugs. "Whether or not I understand that you slept with Sheppard when you could? Oh, certainly. Time's winged chariot, and all that."

"All what?"

"Are you just going to keep parroting me?" There's a note of aggravation in his voice, a threat of meanness.

Ronon shakes her head slowly. "Time's winged chariot?"

McKay snorts at that, incredulous. "Just a metaphor from an old poem, ultimately meant to sweet-talk some unwilling maiden into the sack. Since then forced on more than one hapless student suffering through an English course. I can't believe the brain cells I've been forced to waste on such drivel." The words might sting, if his face didn't say something else. McKay remembers those words because they mean something.

Ronon's intrigued, she can't help it. No one has offered her even a glimpse of Earth poetry, except in the guise of song lyrics, half-heard through the blur of their bewildering music. It's been forever since she heard poetry, read or spoke it. That part of her has been asleep so long and is suddenly hungry for more. Even if it's McKay reciting it, she wants more.

"Tell me, McKay." She finds herself, again, using what's so readily available to her now: a softer look, the flutter of her lashes. Lip-licks don't work only for Sheppard. "Please?"

For a moment, it seems that McKay will simply refuse. Laugh it off. Maybe send Ronon out with a few well-placed barbs she won't feel the need to deflect. But then, he squares his shoulders and leans forward a little. His gaze holds what looks like a challenge.

~*~

"Cadman, is this channel secure?"

"Secure as anything in Atlantis, Novak," comes the cheerful reply. "Which means until McKay or Zelenka think to look for it. But, look, don't worry, they're all a little distracted by the latest hoopla. What have you got for us?"

"The whole shebang, Laura."

"Goodie."

~*~

Caldwell straightens. "Let's focus on the last Heka mission, please. I've read all your reports. The ZPM you retrieved proved incompatible with Atlantis, correct?"

"Yeah, it was a bust," Sheppard agrees tiredly. "Mostly depleted, and it doesn't fit." She rubs at her chin and Caldwell notices a neat, white bandage. Closer inspection of her face – still shocking to him – shows a slightly raw bruise on one cheekbone. It looks like, sex change or not, Sheppard can still find trouble...and get out of it, since she's back in Atlantis and clearly unbothered. He finds himself wondering what happened, oddly worried.

~*~

It's not a reaction he's had to Sheppard before. Or none so personal, anyway: He worries about everyone in Atlantis. He worries about everyone in the SGC, too. It's an abstract worry related to his own oath to serve. When he imagines someone hitting Sheppard, he's feeling the same protective instinct he would have toward Elizabeth or Lindsay Novak.

It's unnatural.

Or very natural, he acknowledges to himself with a tinge of amusement. Sheppard's triggering all his gentlemanly instincts and none of the usual ones. So far he hasn't bristled at anything she's said once. In most meetings, they'd be – metaphorically – baring their teeth at each other by now. They just can't help it.

"According to Doctors Zelenka and McKay, the Hekan ZPM appears to have been manufactured in a different era than the Atlantis ZPMs," Elizabeth explains, repeating what the databurst report had detailed.

"Incompatible," Sheppard says gloomily.

Caldwell understands the feeling. One step forward, two back. He nods. "Can you make any use of it by adapting machinery?"

"The cost-benefit ratio of retooling is prohibitive," Elizabeth replies.

"Consider sending it back with the Daedalus then," he says. "A ZPM could win you a lot of points with SGC and IOA yet wouldn't cost the city anything, under the circumstances." A small smile tugs at his mouth, because Sheppard is giving him a wide-eyed, thoughtful look. Elizabeth is better at hiding her reactions, of course, but there's surprise there, too.

"Seeing as it can't be used?" Elizabeth's eyes glint with amusement.

"They'll be convinced they can get around that," he tells her. He shifts in his seat and adds, as Sheppard chuckles, "If nothing else, the next ship out of the foundries could be modified to use it." He remembers fondly when the Daedalus had a ZPM during that first, breakneck race to Pegasus. The power, the speed, the shields...it had been exhilarating.

"I don't imagine we could get that ship for ourselves?" Sheppard smirks, undoubtedly already knowing the answer. Caldwell allows himself to grin at her, shaking his head, and finally Elizabeth's lips curl into a smile, too. Even without the Ori situation in the Milky Way, they all know exactly how unlikely that would be.

Their mirth dies away, though, and Sheppard sighs. "So, going for brownie points with the folks back on Earth?"

"Colonel Caldwell does bring up a valid point," Elizabeth states.

"You tell Rodney."

That elicits a visible wince.

Caldwell swallows his initial response. He's never found Dr. McKay particularly scary. Demanding in many ways – yes...but come to think of it, the idea of prolonged exposure makes their reaction seem less silly. "If it's just that, I can tell Dr. McKay."

"You're a brave man," Elizabeth tells him.

He only raises his eyebrows, saying, "I don't have to live here." He thinks of her frank words earlier and decides they deserve an equally frank response. "You should try playing nice with the IOA now, Elizabeth. In the future, you may not have the chance or the choice." It's just realistic. Any outpost this far away, forced to rely on its own resources, under pressures the authorities so distanced can't keep up with or grasp, is going to eventually break away. Circumstances will force it, sooner or later. The SGC has resisted any effort to call Atlantis a colony, but if it becomes self-sustaining.... The SGC and IOA will be confronted with that possibility, anyway. Any good will Atlantis can garner before that will help when it happens, or if it happens, and Atlantis needs to turn to them for help again.

"I know," Elizabeth states, just as serious. She's probably considered it all before. Hell, she probably has contingency plans for events he hasn't even imagined.

Not something to state in too much detail, here and now, though. He reverts to the subject of the Hekan ZPM. "In addition, there's the Terra Atlantica outpost, which is being powered by naquadria-enhanced generators presently. Or other outposts like the one you recovered the ZPM from. It might be useful in the event you uncover another one."

"Steven, you've been thinking about this," Elizabeth says. Surprised and pleased and smiling at him now. He almost blushes at the praise implicit in her voice. It makes him regret what he needs to say next.

"I have a great deal of time to read reports while the Daedalus is in hyperspace between galaxies. And I'm worried about that planet and the measures you've taken to deal with the Hekans. They aren't an active threat to Atlantis, are they?"

A moment of silence. "No," Elizabeth acknowledges.

"Then why waste resources? Resources that are limited, as Colonel Sheppard was just mentioning earlier."

"Aside from our own distaste for the Hekan's society," Elizabeth says slowly, after taking a deep breath, "our allies, the Athosians, also felt something had to be done. We are in a better position to do that than any other society in Pegasus."

Because we can is bad military reasoning. There has to be more; Atlantis isn't that foolish. He studies both of them. "Are they really as bad as you say?"

Sheppard shudders. It's Elizabeth who answers, however. "I've never seen Teyla so vehemently disapproving of a culture." She pauses but Sheppard doesn't speak up. "Yes. Yes, they are. I understand that the missions we've planned and executed may seem extreme, or even unwise, but we've considered every option available to us and this is the best compromise we've found. Perhaps we're making a mistake – historically this is a less than optimum course – but, frankly, none of us are able to live with doing nothing. That would make us accomplices to the Hekans."

Caldwell stares at Sheppard, letting it all click together. Female commander. Female soldier and ex-female soldier. Violently misogynistic culture. A bad mixture; he's almost afraid to ask if anything was left out of the Heka reports. If something was omitted, if there was some sort of sexual assault, he doesn't need to know. Doesn't want to know, in fact, because it would influence his own decisions in regard to Heka and the Atlanteans' actions. He doesn't think Weir would let it become about revenge, doesn't think she has, because the response has been measured: strikes against crops, not people. But it still makes him a little sick. Commanding the Daedalus is dangerous, he is responsible for the lives of all his crew, but they don't generally run the same personal risks Sheppard and the gate teams do.

Whatever else happened on Heka, he has to admit that Sheppard's team came back – with a ZPM, too. That counts as a win, even in the Milky Way, even by the standards of SG-1.

"What are your further plans for Heka?"

Sheppard sits up and turns professional. "We've cleared thirty-seven percent of the cultivated skour fields, without casualties on either side."

"These people rely on this crop for food and trade?" Caldwell asks.

Sheppard nods. "It's a tuber crop, so they'll still be able to harvest the burned fields for what's in the ground. That gives them a full growing season to plant something different. We don't want them to starve." She frowns. "That's the plan anyway. You know how those usually hold up."

"Our Athosian allies have sent agents through the gate to negotiate and offer assistance in switching crops." Elizabeth opens her laptop and opens a file. "They're even offering seed stock. Urak, what they've recently begun trading for with the Xa."

Sheppard rubs the back of her neck. "Yeah, I don't think urak is going to grow on Heka without some major irrigation and engineering projects. Too dry there."

"What other choices are there?" Caldwell asks.

"Tava beans, pleet, wigga roots, Terran barley or soybeans," Elizabeth recites. "I've had one of our agriculturists make a list. "And there's naleek, which is a fiber crop used to weave something like a light linen; it's a popular trade item here in Pegasus that could bring in barter from several other worlds where it doesn't grow well. Heka doesn't have to be a poor world."

"You mean hellhole," Sheppard mutters.

"We can help them," Elizabeth says, ignoring her.

"But will they accept help from Atlantis?" he asks.

"The Athosians are eager to act as our agents."

Sheppard leans forward, clasping her hands together. "They've got people on the ground right now, trying to set up a trade-aid relationship. We'll be picking them up on our next mission if they're ready to come back."

"It seems like a gamble," Caldwell says. "People don't like to change their ways."

"We know that," Sheppard admits. "We know this is just the first step in trying to change their society, but...sir, you weren't there. These people, this religion of theirs? It makes the Spanish Inquistion look liberal." Something in her voice makes Caldwell think she has her own doubts and is perhaps trying to convince herself as well as him.

"I read the report, Colonel." He pauses. "It's not that I don't believe you. I just don't see how this can end well."

"Everything has gone according to plan so far," Elizabeth says, quietly.

He shares a look of complete understanding with Sheppard. Something will blow up. Sheppard's a veteran who knows that in a way Elizabeth Weir doesn't. No one understands Murphy's Law like a soldier. Elizabeth sees their shared skepticism, though. She isn't oblivious, merely idealistic.

"So what would you propose, then, Steven? We're not talking about an end to this mission, just a modification."

Sheppard looks from Elizabeth to Caldwell, "I know, sir. I have the same worries. That's why I've tried to structure this mission to avoid sending in any kind of ground troops. We can't occupy a planet or create a new religion and government."

Caldwell shifts uneasily. They are already committed. "I'm not telling you one way or the other, but I'm strongly suggesting that once you've finished wiping out this skour, you pull back. Don't commit to anything beyond that. You can't be the Pegasus Police."

Elizabeth smiles at him, brightly but a little sad. "That's what I said in the initial briefing, and it remains true. But at the same time, military intervention is always just the first step – there has to be a follow-up."

"You can't afford a follow-up, Elizabeth. You're already outmanned and outgunned in conflict with one enemy. Don't start a war on another front."

"I hardly think the Hekans compare to the Wraith," Elizabeth says primly.

"A rock to the head kills you just as dead as a Wraith," Sheppard murmurs, biting her lip in a completely distracting manner.

"Just, for your own sake, take it slow, think about what you're doing. The Daedalus can't become involved; I've already received orders on that front," he tells them.

Sheppard nods.

He takes an even breath. "Colonel Sheppard, I have some personnel matters to discuss with you. Elizabeth, we'll talk again, no doubt."

"At the formal briefing," she agrees. "You'll be here a week?"

He stands up. "Two or three days, unless something comes up. My orders are to get back to the Milky Way as fast as possible this time."

Elizabeth raises her eyebrows but says nothing. Her expression promises they'll talk in private, though.

"We can go over the paperwork in my office," Sheppard says.

"Good." He wants to spend at least a little time alone with Sheppard, without Elizabeth providing support. He has to make his own evaluation of how well Sheppard's handling this change.

~*~

When McKay is finished, a little breathless, Ronon can't help staring at him. He keeps confusing her, even now. Man of science sent into the field; man of words, but not of poetry, of insults and babble. Always ready to talk, rarely saying anything interesting even when he was comprehensible. But he recited poetry, and not like a man subject to unwanted childhood lessons.

He spoke the words with an easy understanding and comfort with them. Ronon didn't expect that, expected mumbling and stutters.

McKay conveys the melancholy and beauty of the poem the way her old teachers taught the Satedan classics. She wonders if this is the only poem he knows, has memorized, or if there are others, and why? She wants to know suddenly. To know McKay and more words; she's been starved of words – lost all her own years ago, like Sateda; maybe even before Sateda fell, when she was drafted.

McKay has words in a way Sheppard doesn't, nor Teyla, or even Weir. It's a rush, slow and strange and makes it impossible not to look at him, hungry and very much aware in a new way.

"A fine and private place," she repeats a snatch of the words. "Yeah. That."

She thinks about the way McKay recited the poem. From memory, flawless, but a little awkward at first too, pulling the words out of the past. At first his rhythms were the rhythms ofwhoever had taught him, mimicked with a musician's ear, but by the finish it was McKay's rhythms, McKay's emphasis and emotion coloring the words. Who had taught him, though, so memorably that every inflection had been memorized, Ronon wonders.

Rodney's a little flushed and embarrassed, she realizes next, watching the way his hands move nervously.

Rodney laughs at her comment, soft and, Ronon thinks, almost a little stunned. "Yes. I don't even know why I made a fool of myself like this, except I do that all the time now, don't I?"

"No."

Rodney looks at her, hard.

"Not all the time."

A smile, again, tentative and almost a little wistful. "Oh, you almost had me worried for a minute there."

Ronon props herself up on her arms and takes a good, long look at Rodney again. "McKay?" She doesn't want to be reminded of what was, but oh, she hadn't thought of this: Pure remembrance without personal memory. Well, not for her, Earth poetry has no special resonance for her beyond the elegance of the words and structure itself. She thinks for a moment, thinks of the lines that echoed her own experience most. "Want to hear my favorite part?"

Rodney has stopped moving away. If Ronon has any say in this, he won't begin again any time soon. "Well. If you really feel you have to share...."

Ronon sits up and marshals her thoughts. She doesn't have it word for word, having only listened to it once, and in a tongue she knows through gate knowledge and not time and immersion. "The part about rolling all your strength and sweetness together and tearing 'our pleasures with rough strife,'" she tells him. "There's never enough time. Guess your poet knew that, too."

McKay's staring at her when she opens her eyes again, and the expression on his face is one she hasn't seen before. Not directed at her, anyway.

"You really – you really studied poetry."

"Told you."

"That's exactly it – you didn't show us." Rodney looks a little at a loss. "You never asked, or quoted any...." He reddens a little, looks away.

Ronon feels a little tired. It's she who chooses to look away now. "It's been a long time, McKay. Another life." She debates, then finally just says it. "Not the boy I once was." Waits for the snort, the laugh of Yes, Anyone Can See That.

It doesn't come. Instead, Rodney is staring at her with a stricken look on his face. "I...had no idea."

Ronon draws up her knees. "About what?"

"That you –" Rodney licks his lips nervously. "Oh, never mind. You could still snap me like a twig, which means I prefer not to bring up subjects so very obviously uncomfortable for you."

She can't muster anger, or even annoyance. It's McKay. Rodney.

"Which is funny because, hey, I clearly have no trouble talking about all sorts of things that are actually uncomfortable for me. Like the fact my mother was an alcoholic, did I ever mention that? Riveting story, really; at least all my therapists thought so, always asking for more."

Ronon doesn't say anything, she just leans forward, listening.

"It's not actually much of an afterschool special – and, right, that actually means something to you, right; even if you don't get the term, you probably get the meaning – because she was pretty functional all the while, traipsing through the house and reciting poetry to me and Jeannie…she's my sister?"

Rodney looks at her, and Ronon nods quietly. She has heard the name before, and concluded sibling already. Sometimes, she wonders what happened to – no. No, not going there. It fascinates her, fascinates her beyond the telling of it: How much of himself he gives away, and so gleefully.

"Well, my mother was a teacher at this prestigious high school two towns away, but you know what teenagers are like, frivolity over art every time, so instead she'd come home and pelt us with all of this, poems and ballads and whole epics; I think I could probably still do the Ithaca part." He looks nostalgic for a moment. From her prone position on the bed, the overhead lights are glinting off the wisps of brown hair sticking up from Rodney's head. "In dactylic hexameter, mind you."

"You're exaggerating," she says mildly.

Rodney laughs; it does something odd to her. "Of course I am."

Ronon doesn't know, really doesn't, why she's still sitting here, why this seems like a good idea when it's so obviously a bad one, except she's had to deny herself so much for so long, that she can't bring herself to say no to any offer now. But she's been listening to her instincts for eight years; she's not gonna stop now. "McKay. Sit down."

For a moment, it looks as if Rodney's going to refuse. But then, he takes a few steps back and slowly sinks down on the edge of the mattress. It's a good thing she finds his awkward moments endearing; grace and controlled smoothness he's not.

His smile falters a little. "Ronon?"

"I'm here."

"I know you are." His eyes are looking past her, for a moment, unfocused; focused not on her, anyway. "Don't deck me, please."

When he leans forward and kisses her, she opens her mouth and welcomes it.

~*~

Hic.

Hic.

Hic.

"They what?" Novak demands of Biro and Cadman, all three of them sitting in the mess and, hopefully, looking for all the world like three gals who do nothing but chat over the latest gossip.

"Got turned into women. Well, not Teyla; Teyla got turned into a really cute guy," Cadman tells her, grinning. "Wait until you see Ronon. No, wait until you see Colonel Sheppard!"

Novak presses her hand over her mouth. It doesn't stop the hiccups, but it does prevent a gasp.

Meanwhile, Biro tuts and slaps Cadman's arm. "Is that any way to talk about the Colonel, Laura?"

"Sure is." Laura says guilelessly. "She's quite gorgeous, especially for someone her age."

Hic.

Well, Novak thinks, if this doesn't have everyone distracted, nothing will. The buzz over this latest wacky Lantean adventure will make delivering the goods so much easier. She'll just have to slip the shipment past Hermiod.

"So, really," Cadman says, "you got us everything on the last list? Wagnell's hair dye? The pink rabbit for She Who Shall Not Be Named Because She'd Die Of Embarrassment? Peretti's tapes of golf? Because I've got a new wish. Several of us had to make the big sacrifice and provide the colonel with new underwear and stuff. Bras. Jesus, I never thought I'd be saying I gave my commanding officer a bra." She grins again. "Fuck, I love this place."

~*~

"So, sir, what have you got for me this time?" Sheppard asks. Despite himself, Steven smiles back. For once, there isn't that undercurrent of raised hackles between them. The ease and attitude that grated so much before seems charming on a woman. What that says about his own ingrained attitudes – he'll let himself examine that much later, on the voyage back to the Milky Way.

"New forms. Requisitions have been revamped."

Sheppard groans softly. Even if she had still been he, Steven would have sympathized. The forest of forms any commander must navigate is a nightmare, and new ones always manage to clash with older ones.

"I didn't think you'd be thanking me for that, Colonel," he says, "so I brought along something to sweeten the pill."

"Drones?" Sheppard asks, mock-hopeful. Earth is not giving up its supply of drones to Atlantis. In fact, there's much wrangling going on over trying to have the drones that have been found in Pegasus brought back to Earth. Good luck on that, Steven thinks privately. Sheppard is too good a commander and too dedicated to his – now her – city to give up any armaments. Elizabeth would argue the IOA into the ground as well.

"One Air Force captain, complete with ATA gene."

Sheppard mimes shock. "Dare I ask why this captain has been shipped to another galaxy?"

Steven smirks. Atlantis has been the recipient of more than one...square peg. The accepted wisdom at the SGC is that if Weir can make mavericks and misfits like Sheppard and McKay into successful members of a team, she can handle just about anyone. They aren't sending Atlantis duds – there are no duds in the Stargate Program – but they are sending anyone who likes to stir up trouble. It isn't a smart policy, but trying to impress upon the powers that be that they need to worry about a frontline that's a galaxy away is next to impossible. The politicos running the IOA have never even been in orbit, never gone through a stargate, and just don't comprehend the scale of the dangers Earth faces.

"Captain Douglas sometimes...pushes too hard."

Sheppard frowns. "When you say 'pushes'...?"

"She wants to fly. Combat. And she isn't shy about calling a spade a spade."

That doesn't bother Sheppard, Steven notes. He isn't surprised. Sheppard's got a talent for working with whatever she has on hand. She's done far better than anyone on Earth anticipated when Weir pushed and pulled and twisted several people's arms right off to keep her as base CO. Steven still thinks she isn't really qualified, not on paper, and maybe not by the standards of Earth military, but his time in the Stargate program has proved that the old rules aren't always applicable off Earth. The truism is that the military is always perfectly prepared to fight the last war. The corollary is that the military is prepared to fight other humans, but they're just figuring out how to fight aliens. The Wraith aren't the Goa'uld, either. The same tactics don't work against both all the time. He's starting to believe that Sheppard is in fact imminently qualified – and only qualified – for the position she holds now.

After all, Steven can't think of many men, himself included, who could handle an involuntary sex change and stay sane. She's not only sane – or as sane as she's ever been – she's still functioning as commander. As far as Steven can tell, she's still respected even by the marines.

By the end of their meeting, Caldwell almost wants to go back and ask Elizabeth if Sheppard is easier for her to get along with this way, too, or if it is just him. He's vaguely worried Elizabeth will say Sheppard hasn't changed at all, but he thinks she has, though it is subtle. Certainly the way they interact is different. He doesn't have the instinct to compete with Sheppard, to push at him underneath his civilized veneer. Everything that irritated him before, the quirky and inappropriate – to military protocol, anyway – humor, the smirk, the boneless slouch and curious touch-me/don't-touch-me air of sexuality are intriguing on a woman, rather than infuriating.

He has a lot of re-evaluating to do. Of Sheppard and of his own attitudes.

Just another Pegasus Surprise.

He'd like to meet these Hermeans, he thinks. They might be on to something. Anything that makes you think long and hard has some value. But of course, he doesn't want to meet them enough to chance visiting their planet. He doubts he'd deal as well with being turned into a woman as Sheppard is. He just isn't that flexible.

Caldwell sighs.

"Colonel?" Sheppard asks.

"Long day for both of us, I think," Caldwell offers.

"Mess is still open." Sheppard grins at him. "They might even have some fresh Earth food out already. We could catch something to eat."

"Sounds good," he admits.

"Okay," Sheppard says, bouncing to her feet.

"Tell me about the chin?" Caldwells asks as they head out of her office.

"Got caught in a demonstration," Sheppard replies with a shrug. "Teenagers are the same in every galaxy, apparently"

Caldwell smiles at that.

They use one of the transporters and walk into Atlantis's mess hall without any further words. Sheppard's company is comfortable for once.

She stops in the doorway, though, face darkening. "I'm going to have to have a talk with Leitmann, I think," she mutters.

Caldwell follows her gaze and blinks, realizing the diminutive Athosian sitting with the Air Force chaplain at one of the tables, sipping tea and head bent close with the other man, is Teyla Emmagan. Just like Sheppard, Teyla is completely changed yet completely recognizable.

He's almost looking forward to catching a look at Dex.

~*~

Novak tries to suppress another hiccup, but that's far from easy with Colonel Caldwell not five feet away on the other side of the room while she's trying to beam down the latest 'extras' for Biro and Cadman and the other women of Atlantis. It doesn't help her nervousness that Hermiod is apparently quizzing the colonel over what's happened to the Atlantis flagship team. Since the Asgard don't have reproductive organs anymore, the whole concept of changing sexes seems to have Hermiod perplexed.

Colonel Caldwell has flushed all the way up to his bald skull and looks decidedly put-upon. Within the next few minutes, she knows, he's going to wave her over and say, "Novak. You handle this," before stalking away. Hermiod frustrates him even more than Colonel Sheppard does.

So she has to get the crates with the cigarettes, chocolate, novels, vibrator batteries, boxes of Cheese-Its and Ho-Hos, lingerie, non-regulation soaps and lotions, music, movies, every variety of porn known and not really illegal, and whatever else was on the list down to the pick-up point right now and hope Cadman can get off duty to retrieve it before anyone else finds it. The thing is, she can't just beam it down to Cadman's quarters because the power usage logs will show this transport, like all the others. Anyone auditing the logs might notice the destination and begin to wonder. No, the latest shipment for the black market has to go down to the goods delivery point, just far enough away from the beam ramp that the quartermaster and the rest of the guys who sort out the regular supplies don't see it.

"I do not understand why you are not pleased by this development," Hermiod is saying. "While your species' method of propogation seems awkward and random to mine, the addition of greater choice seems beneficial."

Caldwell looks constipated now. "Beneficial is not the word I'd use," he tells Hermiod.

"Please explain, then," Hermiod demands.

Caldwell's jaw has a muscle along the side that Novak can see flexing even from across the room. She finishes the calculations for the transport, punches them in and hits activate.

"NOVAK!"

"Yes –" hic " – Sir?"

Caldwell points at Hermiod.

"Doctor, you take over here. I'll be on the command deck."

She nods, but the colonel is already out the engineering section's hatch. She can't really blame him for giving up, still a little weirded out herself by seeing Teyla come into the mess with Captain Leitmann and begin flirting with him – as a guy. She was the one who taught Teyla how to paint her nails, back with the second shipment, after Teyla had discovered Cadman trying to hide between two ammo crates. It's just weird, is what it is.

Hermiod blinks those big eyes at her and purses its lips.

"Please explain, Dr. Novak."

Hic.

~*~

Working with Rodney is jarring now, but Sheppard grits her teeth and lives with it. She has no one to blame but herself.

Rodney isn't talking to her. His not talking to you pout would be okay, really, but this silence of nothing to say beyond mission-related exchanges isn't. No more banter, no more snark, no simple conversations about meaningless stuff from Earth. No more inexplicably missed touches, either. It hadn't been so noticeable on Hermea, when Ronon and Teyla were with them to fill the empty spaces. It is now.

Alone with Rodney in Jumper Three, preparing for the next fire mission to Heka, Sheppard can't help but notice. They're awkward with each other now. The worst part, though? Rodney doesn't seem as affected as she is. He doesn't look unhappy or lonely.

They run through the pre-flight together without an extra word. Jumper Three hums for her like always, despite whatever worries Zelenka has expressed to Rodney. Not that the worries are unfounded. The Ancient equipment is actually...ancient, and the add-ons have never been subjected to the stress of repeated missions. If these were Earth aircraft, they'd be due for the hundred hours check. Sheppard pats the console without thinking about it. She freezes, waits for it...but Rodney doesn't make a sarcastic remark about naming the car.

It's a little depressing. Sheppard leaves Rodney in the co-pilot's seat, checking sensor calibration, and does an extra exterior check, nodding to Zelenka who is fussing at the marines bringing in the pallets of shells to load. The clatter and voices may echo off metal alloy walls and alien spacecraft, but Sheppard is reminded of every flight line she's ever stood on.

Minus the stink of avgas. Funny how you can miss something you didn't even like. Funny how you can miss something you didn't even like. Funny how you can miss something you didn't realize you did like, too. Someone, next to you.

~*~

They cloak immediately on exiting the stargate, taking their places in the formation. She calls up the grid coordinates for their target fields. Three different villages are on the agenda for this mission, two of them far enough away it will take up to twenty minutes to reach them, even in the jumpers. They've been bombing the fields farthest out from the stargate first, steadily working their way back toward it with each mission. The villages are usually centered in their fields and built on rivers and streams. Each jumper will fly a half circle around, adjusting for terrain as they drop their shells. "McKay, can you bring up thermal images from the cameras?"

Rodney's already tapping the commands into the laptop synced into the jumper's systems. An HUD pops up in front of him. Sheppard glances at it before accelerating the jumper toward the target. "Thanks." She keys the radio. "Everyone double-check your target zones for life signs." She has confidence in her people, but the recordings from each jumper will be audited by the SGC and the IOA. There is no room to screw up. Affirmatives from the other five jumpers follow.

The seasons must be turning on Heka. The first fire mission they flew, the sun was still up at this hour. This time it's a last bright line slipping under the horizon, despite their altitude. Sheppard squints against the afterimage, then slips off her sunglasses. Jumpers aren't affected by weather the way helos are, but she'd give her favorite Die Hard DVD and two bags of hoarded Doritos for a good met report. She has nightmares about the fires catching on a good wind and running beyond the skour fields, taking out the nearest village, burning thousands of acres out of control. The Hekans don't have any way to put down a big wildfire.

Rodney's bent over his laptop, ignoring her, taking energy readings that don't exist since they destroyed the Holy Citadel.

"Cleo Three Alpha, this is Cleo Four," Douglas reports in. Her voice is crisp and clear and a little more gung-ho than Sheppard would like. The Boston accent reminds Sheppard of when her father was stationed at Hanscom Field, working on something classified – not that he ever talked about anything with the family. "Target clear, beginning deployment approach. Over."

"Cleo Four, this is Cleo Three Alpha. Check your life sign detector, Captain. Over."

First on target. Sheppard tasked Douglas with a village closer to the stargate than the rest of them will target, but she still must have pushed the jumper to maximum speed to have arrived already. She's well ahead of her wingman. Too damn eager, just the way Caldwell warned Sheppard she would be.

"This is Cleo Four, target area is free and clear. Deploying incendiary shells now. Over."

Definitely a little too gung-ho for Sheppard's tastes. Douglas will probably settle down soon. Normally, Sheppard wouldn't be flying missions with a pilot just off the Daedalus, but she prefers to leave Lorne in Atlantis with Jumper One and Two when they deploy, just in case. In the meantime, she makes a note to talk to Alison Douglas later. At least being female will be handy this time; Douglas probably won't think Sheppard's singling her out for being a woman.

She angles Jumper Three over, the little clock in her head meshing with the thought responsive technology and telling her she's one minute away from her own target zone. Crown's on station with Douglas, ready to make his own run momentarily. On the HUD before her, the carets indicating Miller, Palecki, and Reyes are all approaching their stations. Miller and Reyes are still three minutes out. They're overflying the village now.

"See if you can find the Athosians' locators," she says.

"Yes, yes, that shouldn't be a prob–" Rodney's voice trails away then returns with a squeak. "–lem. Colonel?"

She whips her head toward him as the radio activates.

"Sir? I mean, ma'am, Colonel Sheppard?" Palecki sounds panicky.

"Cleo Six, repeat your status. Over," Sheppard says, voice tight.

"Cleo Three Alpha, this is Cleo Six. I've got readings coming from the center of the grid coordinates for my target zone."

"So do I," Rodney says. The HUDs are flickering, changing and zooming in, clusters of glowing dots appearing. The life signs flip to thermal imagery and Sheppard frowns. There's something not right about them.

"Too small," she blurts out.

Rodney looks at her then back at the HUDs. His eyes widen. "Fuck."

"What?" Sheppard demands, just knowing Rodney's about to tell her something horrible.

"Kids. It's kids," Rodney says.

Sheppard stares at the thermal images. They're getting clearer as the jumper closes in, and she can make out torsos and limbs, white centers and orange-red margins gone green at the edges. All she can think is those fucking bastards. And Douglas....

"Cleo Four abort!" she yells. "Abort, abort, abort! All jumpers abort!"

Miller, then Crown, Palecki and Reyes all reply. Douglas' voice is rough when she answers. "Cleo Three Alpha, this is Cleo Four, copy." Sheppard hears her cough. "Incendiaries already deployed. Scans for life signs were clear. Further orders? Over."

Sheppard thunks her head back against the headrest. "Cleo Six, check your thermal imagery. Over." Then she brings the jumper around and hovers over the skour field. The viewport lets her see the distant flames from Cleo Four's payload. She turns her eyes away. Rodney's face isn't much better: he looks stricken. "All of you...." She swallows. "All of you check your thermals."

"Cleo Five, all clear. Over"

"Cleo Eight, I'm not picking up anything. Over."

Reyes' measured words follow, calm even in the face of potential horror. "Cleo Seven. Sensors and thermal imagery aren't registering anything in my target zone. Over."

Sheppard looks at her own HUD. Palecki's jumper is doing circles over the next grid coordinate to hers. Douglas had the fields farthest from this village, despite being nearest the stargate.

"Cleo Six. I've got a reading of twenty-three life signs on the ground in my target zone," Palecki reports.

"Rodney?"

"Twenty-five." He's intent on his laptop, typing and reading, and Sheppard takes a second to breathe, because she can't call back the shells Douglas dropped; everything else can wait until Rodney pulls up all the information he can. "Okay, okay, this is – this isn't the worst case scenario," Rodney says finally.

Sheppard lets out a sigh.

"I've analyzed the pattern of the target zones and the two incidences of life signs and I don't think there were any people in the fields Captain Douglas targeted. She did check her life signs sensor. Grids one and two, yours and Lt. Palecki's, are the central, largest fields in the area."

Rodney stops and looks at Sheppard, who nods at him to go on.

"I may be making assumptions, in fact I know I am, but with limited information, there's no other choice – I think the Hekans must have put these people out there to try and stop the fire bombing. Naturally, they'd try to protect the best fields."

"This is Cleo Eight, I have the Athosians' transmitters on sensor," Reyes radios.

"Location?" Sheppard is hovering the jumper, trying to think out her next move. They'll need to dump the napalm some place because she doesn't want to bring the armed shells back into Atlantis.

"Right smack in the middle of the village, Colonel. Over."

"Try contacting them on the radio."

"Copy."

She directs the jumper to begin descending. "We need to take a look on the ground."

"This is a bad idea," Rodney mutters.

"Yeah, probably," Sheppard agrees.

~*~

Sheppard has the cameras on the kids. She and Rodney are staring at the feed showing them. Twenty-five children, little girls it looks like, all tied up and left on the ground, in the middle of a field of thorny, half-poisonous skour. Left out for the night; waiting, she suspects, for them. For whatever has been razing every other village's skour fields with fire. Maybe they've been out here every night. Maybe the Hekans are bright enough to figure out the schedule the missions have been following. It doesn't really matter. There's kids in the target zone.

"Cleo Three Alpha, this is Six." Reyes sounds as calm as ever.

"Go ahead, Sergeant."

"I've got radio contact with Terim and Fillad. They're locked up in the local hoosegow."

"And they've still got their radios?" Rodney mutters. "Like we didn't know these Neanderthals were all brain-damaged."

Sheppard makes a hushing gesture with her hand. "Sitrep?"

"Locals don't know a radio from a rock, but they've figured out their village is next in line for a Time of Fire." Reyes' voice is matter of fact. Sheppard feels a spike of worry, though, because it's fading in and out. "Terim says they're really freaked, think it's the wrath of the Ancestors. Folks are split whether the Ancestors are pissed because some tainted woman destroyed the Holy Citadel or because they've been following false prophets. Either way, the Ancestors destroyed the Citadel. They've got folks here from some of the other villages, refugees I guess, and things got pretty hot. They decided that the offerings the other villages made – the bodies of those women? That wasn't good enough."

"Oh fuck," Sheppard breathes.

"Yes ma'am, that about says it." Reyes' voice fades again. Sheppard really doesn't like that.

"Simpson!" Rodney snarls. "What the hell is happening with your communications?"

"Jumper's acting up a little," Reyes replies.

"Yes, obviously, which is why I'm talking to Simpson."

"Rodney," Sheppard says calmingly. It's an act. She's trying to figure out their next move and a malfunctioning jumper – Christ, Zelenka warned them – is the last thing they need. "Cleo Eight. I want you to pick up the Athosians. Rendezvous south of the village, out of sight, if possible. Can they get out?"

"Little problem with that, ma'am."

"How little?"

"The local priest slash headman has them locked up. Fillad says the keys are in the front room. They're stuck."

"Why the hell did they get locked up anyway?" A tiny part of her is reflecting that it's nice to know her team isn't the only one to get thrown in jail on missions. Apparently, even Athosians can stumble and bumble. A bigger part of her is worried about them, because they came to Heka at Atlantis' request. They're her responsibility just as much as the marines and scientists in the jumpers and back home.

All the pieces slot together. She comes to a decision without waiting for Reyes' response.

"Cleo Four, head for the gate, dial Atlantis, and pick up the marine ready platoon. Tell Captain Harper I want Lieutenant Cadman, in case we need to use explosives on the jail." She cuts the radio feed. "I'll send the ground pounders in after Fillad and Terim," she tells Rodney. "We're getting these kids."

"Oh, wonderful, kids," Rodney snaps, but doesn't protest beyond that.

"Kids love you, McKay."

Rodney snorts. "I hope you have some idea what we're going to do with them," he adds.

Sheppard shrugs. "We'll think of something. Later."

"That's your plan – of course, that's your plan. It's a Sheppard special."

She activates the radio again. "You got that, Douglas?"

"Acknowledged, Cleo Alpha Three. Cleo Four proceeding to the stargate now. Bringing back brawn. Over," Douglas replies.

"Cleo Seven, join Cleo Six, remain cloaked. Cleo Six get down to the ground and pick up those kids. Cleo Five, you're with me. Cleo Eight, remain cloaked and hold in place until we get the marines. Tell the Athosians we're preparing an extraction. Over."

"Extraction? Cadman?" Rodney mutters. "Don't you mean explosion?"

"Get over it, McKay," Sheppard says.

She brings the jumper down and, after a moment's indecision, decloaks it. Activates the radio. "Alpha going to headset channel." Drops the hatch. The smell of smoke fills the jumper immediately. She and Rodney share a glance, then they're up and heading out. She has her P90 in hand, targeting light on, and Rodney is fumbling his Beretta out of its holster. Just in case.

The kids are screaming.

The skour vines catch and tear at their BDUs as they cut through them to the cluster of sacrifices. Above them a hum tells Sheppard Crown's on station above them. She recognizes the feel of air displacement even if the jumper is invisible. As cool as they are, experience has revealed that cloaks aren't magic (excluding the Hermean's mysterious tech) and won't really conceal anything if you know it's there.

Jesus fuck, she thinks when she gets to them. They're just little girls. The wind is whipping smoke from one of the burning fields, tearing at her hair, and she curses the lack of a met report all over again, while she jerks out her combat knife and starts to cut the first kid loose. "Hey, kid, everything's going to be okay – " The girl just screams and writhes, making the job harder. "Calm down, you're going to be fine." Nothing she says helps and as soon as she's freed her, the girl is sprinting away, wailing to the heavens.

"Rodney!" she yells. "Catch her!"

"What, me?" Rodney shouts, but he bolts after the kid and catches her by tackling her into the skour. Sheppard winces. The shrieks might come from the girl. The cursing is all Rodney. "What do I do with her?" he yells as he comes up onto his knees, clutching his captive to his chest.

"Throw her in the jumper and tell her to stay!" Sheppard snaps back. She's already at the next kid. This time, she's just cutting her loose from the stake. The rest of the ties can stay on until all of the kids are on the jumper. The rest of the girls are wailing because to the west, the fire is running before the wind. It won't be long before it's in this field.

She slips and loses her knife in the dark. "Shit!"

Groping in the dirt finds the knife, but also slices her finger open. She hits the radio toggle. "Crown. Get me a spotlight. Fuck covert. Over."

"Copy, Cleo Alpha. Over."

The jumper above them appears and a circle of light illuminates the cluster of stakes and the children tied to them. It sparks wilder shrieks of terror too and Sheppard realizes they think it's a culling beam.

"Perfect," she mutters, cutting another kid loose and handing her to Rodney to ferry back to the jumper.

~*~

The jumper lurches. Jumpers aren't supposed to lurch. That's what inertial dampeners are meant to keep from happening. The only time Reyes has been in a jumper that jigged or jolted or juddered, it's been after taking a hit, one that knocked out either the shield or the dampeners. He's never been in a jumper that lurched while he was flying it.

He babies the control stick, because Eight – he calls her Nina because she's as fussy as his first daughter was – needs a lighter touch than some of the other jumpers. The jumper steadies for the moment. He sneaks a glance at the thermal images of the village they're hovering over. Typical Hekan village, winding goat tracks and mud daub shacks, every path twisting to eventually end in the central space with the temple/town hall/headman's building. Those are usually built of some kind of local brick or adobe. Reyes is always reminded a little of an octopus. This village looks a little larger and more prosperous than usual, with several substantial buildings grouped around the plaza.

"Ah, doc?" he says to Simpson.

She's bent over the laptop slaved into the jumper's systems, absently chewing on her hair as she reads something that makes no sense to him at all.

"Did you feel that?"

Eight drops for a second then recovers. Like a car not getting gas.

"Yes," she replies without looking up. She wipes the hair away from her face, then begins typing rapidly."It's a cascade failure between the – I'm working on it."

Eight hiccups again.

Reyes checks the power consumption curve. It's going to red-line any minute and they're doing nothing but hovering with the cloak. Not good, not good. He kind of wishes McKay were in the jumper with him. Simpson is better looking and a lot easier to get along with over any period in excess of three minutes, but McKay's the guy who can pull a miracle out of his ass and beat any hopeless situation into whimpering surrender with it.

"Ah, you might want to work faster," is all he says.

"You might want to shut up and let me do that," she snaps back and he grins until Eight lurches again and Simpson almost falls out of the co-pilot's seat.

"Damn."

"Cleo Eight, what's the problem? Come back." Miller sounds amused, the bastard.

"Glitch in the system, I guess, Cleo Seven," Reyes tells him. No use letting Miller know he's got a queasy feeling going. He'd hear about until the end of his tour if it turns out to be nothing. "You know how fussy Eight is. Over."

"Yeah, but she likes you."

Reyes concentrates on keeping Eight in a steady hover. Normally he doesn't need to think about flying the jumpers much. Like Miller says, they like him. Not as much as they like Colonel Sheppard – everyone knows the jumpers will all sit up and beg to have Sheppard at the controls – but more than anybody else except Major Lorne.

"I'm going to radio the Athosians again," he tells Simpson.

She's chewing on her lip and frowning. The words don't even register, he'd bet.

He switches to the Athosians' channel and doesn't bother with call signs. It just baffles them. It's not like they're in a big enough theater of operations they don't all know each other. "Fillad, this is Reyes. Everything still cool with you guys? We've got marines on the way soon and I promise we will get you guys out of there."

"We are well, Sergeant. We remain concerned for the fate of the children in the skour fields."

"Don't worry about that, man. The Colonel's picking them all up. I guess we'll be taking them back to Atlantis with us." Eight shudders again and he tightens his hand on the stick. He never had any ambitions of piloting. Flying jumpers isn't much like flying Earth aircraft; he's always felt pretty confident in them, but suddenly he's reminded why he joined the Marine Corps and not the Air Force. Every time Eight jerks and dips, his stomach is going with her. "So, hey, you never told me how you guys got locked up?"

"We became too vocal in our opposition to the Hekans intention to sacrifice their children," Fillad tells him.

"Well, tell you what, if you're going to have a record, that ain't too bad," Reyes says.

"They are a very unfortunate and misguided people."

He snorts.

Palecki's voice interrupts on the headset channel. "What am I supposed to do!?" He sounds somewhere between panicky and pissed. "It's darker than shit and every time I untie one of these kids she takes off – "

"Screw it, Lieutenant," Sheppard's voice interrupts. "Just cut 'em loose from the poles and stick 'em in the jumper still tied up. The wind's picking up and the fire will be in these fields soon. We'll sort out the rest of it back in Atlantis."

"Yes, ma'am!"

"And don't call me ma'am!"

That makes Reyes smile, for a second or so.

Something fizzles. That's the only way he could describe it, not exactly up to scientific standard, but he can feel it fizzling. The HUD flashes red. "Aw, crap."

"Sergeant, we just lost the cloak," Simpson tells him and immediately after starts yelling into the radio. "McKay! Catastophic drive failure in forty-four seconds! What the hell do I do?"

"No shit?" Reyes replies, but he's a little busy because Eight is shaking like – as his buddy Bobby from basic training would've said – a dog shitting peach seeds. Power is fluctuating from the drive pods to the the drone system. He has to think No, no, no, STOP at it to keep it from firing.

"Pull the secondary backup crystal in the fourth nexus, Simpson!" McKay's panting and Reyes knows the man is on the ground, in the dark, and still trying to parse what's going on in Eight. "You have to open the access panel in the rear overhead next to the emergency hatch release!"

Simpson scrambles out of the co-pilot's chair and heads into the back of the jumper. Reyes catches a glimpse of spaghetti-tangled connectors, then forgets what she's doing. "Cleo Eight, declaring an emergency," he says as calmly as he can. The drive pods are still losing power and in a minute the jumper's going to be a big old brick. "Cloak is off. I'm going for a controlled landing while I still can. Over."

"Simpson, did you stop to do your nails!?" McKay screams over the radio. Or maybe it's the kids. Someone is wailing near the radio mic. Probably not McKay; Reyes can hear him panting and cursing in between, "Try bridging the life support into the drive pod power grid – Bite me and I'm going to leave you here, you little monster – it should give you enough time to get out of there – bridge the third crystal between the sixth and seventh, Simpson!"

Sheppard's voice is breathless too, but smooth and calm. "Cleo Eight, get out of there if you can. Cleo Seven, keep an eye on them."

"I've almost got it," Simpson yells. "Sergeant –"

Eight decides she's had enough. Reyes is still trying to plot a least power expended course to a set down point when it becomes moot. Every light in the jumper dies, Simpson screams, and they're falling from approximately four stories up.

Reyes slams the control console with his face when they hit the ground. His nose breaks. Everything else seems in working order, until he gets out of the pilot's seat. Something's bad in his ribcage or maybe his gut, he can't quite tell through the eye-watering pain in his face. He hawks blood all over the floor, trying to clear his throat since he can't breathe through his nose, and heads for the back of the jumper.

Simpson's on the floor, hands and knees, trying to shake off the shock and make it to her feet. "You okay, Doc?" comes out as an almost indepherable gurgle and gag when Reyes asks, but she peers up at him and her mouth twitches.

It percolates through Reyes' brain that he can see Simpson, which means the jumper isn't blacker than a coffin inside, but not even an emergency light is flickering on. He blinks and looks past Simpson. The rear hatch is down. Simpson follows his gaze. "Failsafe," she mutters. "Total loss of power could trap someone inside otherwise. Eventually, you could suffocate."

Reyes braces one hand against the wall and frowns. "What about – uh, if you're –" he gestures up, meaning in space.

"Vacuum?" Simpson says.

He starts to nod, stops because his whole head hurts, and grunts an affirmative.

"Pressure detector. Lack of pressure, I mean. Not that being sealed in a dead jumper would be better than explosive decompression. Just slower," she tells him. He gives her a hand to pull herself to her feet and she pats his arm absently. "Could you aim the light on your...gun at the overheard, Sergeant? I need to finish this bridge so we can have power again."

A flicker of orange-red light catches his eye, though and he looks out of the hatch. Torches. A pretty big crowd is coming around the corner and into the square where the jumper hit. He tightens his grip on the P90. This doesn't look good.

Crackle of radio static in his earpiece. Miller on Cleo Seven.

"Cleo Eight is down. Repeat, Cleo Eight is down. Over." Then, over the personal channel: "Cleo Eight, respond. This is Cleo Seven. Cleo Eight respond on channel four. Reyes? Come on. Over."

Reyes coughs, a nasty shock of pain accompanying it from his chest. "This is Cleo Eight, over."

"Hey, Reyes, heads up. You've got company coming and they don't look happy. Over."

"I see them."

Simpson sees them too. Her voice is quiet, though. "We're in trouble, aren't we?"

He can't believe how fast his life has gone to shit. He's never getting back to L.A., never seeing his kids again, and it sucks. He knew he might die in the service, but he figured it would at least be fighting snakes or space vampires, not assholes that would fit right into the KKK. "You really need to get that hatch closed, ma'am," he says and steps forward, taking a place on the ramp, raising his P90. "Flashlight in Bin Three."

"I've got it," she tells him.

"You folks just back off," Reyes yells at the crowd. They're milling just close enough their torches are illuminating him, but not Simpson inside the jumper. A couple of them have spears and he catches a glimpse of a crossbow. The rest have rocks and clubs and their fists. What they've really got is numbers and no fear of a gun. They don't flinch when he aims the P90 toward them. This is fucking bad.

"Demon!"

Really bad.

A rock arcs up and hits the hull of the jumper with a startling clang. Reyes flinches and they see. That gives them confidence. More rocks and one – then two – hit him. That hurts and makes him tighten his finger on the trigger for a second. He fires a warning group into the dirt between the mob and the jumper. They jump at the rattattat clatter but don't even register the puffs of dirt thrown up by the bullets. The muttering and curses are getting louder, turning into a roar, and behind it he can hear wind, flushing the scent of smoke through the village, the night sky blushed with fire. They keep inching forward. The shifting torchlight turns their faces into monster masks. Someone in the crowd throws another rock and Reyes knows in a breath they'll have nerved themselves up enough to attack.

"Doc," he whispers without moving his lips much. Everytime he shifts his balance, he can feel something scraping in his ribcage. He isn't going to be doing any fast moves, that's for sure.

"I've almost got it, Sergeant," Simpson says. Her voice is strained and just as low.

The emergency lights flicker on, throwing a faint, cool glow out from the open hatch. It doesn't reach the crowd, but a harsh sound runs through them. They can see Simpson illuminated behind him now. "Her! Her! A woman! A woman! It's a woman! Unclean!" It grows into a chant, a howl of fury, "Unclean, unclean, unclean, uncleanuncleanuncleanUNCLEAN!"

"We're fucked," Reyes states. He sounds calmer than he feels. What he feels is his heart ready to pound right out of his chest, pumping adrenaline through his veins until his muscles shake. Another rock hits his shoulder, heavy enough to make him stumble back.

"Kill it! Kill the unclean! KILL THEM, KILL THEM, KILL THEM!"

He fires into the crowd this time and there are screams, but it isn't stopping them. They're coming like some tidal wave of fury. Running across the open ground to the jumper. A torch trailing flame tumbles by his head and hits inside the jumper. The flame whooshes out over the bench seats, a wave of searing heat against his back, separating him from the bulkhead hatch and safety. Simpson screams. Another torch hits, catching the tangle of crystal connectors hanging loose and tearing them. Sparks spit brilliantly above the burning benches. No way he's getting through that. Looks like he's making his last stand right here.

It seems like he has forever to say, "Doc, get behind the cockpit bulkhead and don't open it for anything. You hear me?" while firing aimed bursts, trying to take out the leaders, but the bodies go down and more scramble over them.

The first attacker hits the ramp with a clang and the vibration runs up Reyes' boot soles. He pulls the trigger, but the next man is already past the body of the first. He ducks a blow and fires again. There's a breath as the rest of them hesitate and he slaps another clip into the P90. Last one.

Sheppard's voice comes over the radio push with Miller's running over it. "Miller, give me a sitrep!" garbled together with, "Jesus, Reyes, pull back, pull back!" The bulkhead slams shut behind him. He closes his finger on the trigger, firing, screaming back at them – a hand grabs at his leg, another clutches at his elbow, clip's empty and he smashes it into a face as a club comes down across his arm and then a flaming torch arcs toward his face –

~*~

"Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me," Miller whispers. The cameras are getting it all and he can't do anything as the mob pours over Reyes.

"Sitrep! Miller, report!" Sheppard shouts.

They're dragging Reyes out into the square. He hopes to the God that he stopped believing in years ago that the sergeant's already dead, because no one deserves what they're doing to the body down there. There's nothing he can do; he's only been this helpless once before in his life, sitting in a jumper then too, only with McKay next to him, stinking of sweat and plastic from the EVA suit, watching while the Wraith took out the defense satellite, listening for Peter Grodin's last words.

"Reyes is down. He's down," he says. "He's dead. Over."

The radio is silent. There's just the barely perceptible hum of the jumper's ventilation system. Miller's more aware of it than ever before. He's looking down at proof the jumpers aren't always reliable. Of course jumpers have crashed, McKay even had to be fished out of the ocean that time, but it was in the jumper that had been fixed up after being shot down. It was an outside problem in Miller's head: not the jumper's fault. This is different. He'll never feel as safe, as oblivious, in a jumper again. Maybe this is what it's like a for a real pilot and not just someone who has the gene and can fly one of these things.

Dr. Kim hasn't said a word since this began. Miller wishes he would, but that's Kim, never one word when none will do.

Then McKay asks quietly, "Simpson?"

"I don't see her. Maybe she got into the cockpit in time." He shifts the jumper toward the center of the square, trying for a better camera angle, maybe a glimpse through the front viewport of the one on the ground. Christ, the Hekans are beating against its hull, using axes and picks and their bare hands. If she's in there, it's probably like being trapped inside a metal drum.

"Give me a status check on the Athosians," Sheppard demands, all business. "Over."

"Still locked up, Colonel," Miller tells her promptly, glad to have something to think about beyond Reyes's stripped bare body down there and the things the Hekans were doing to it. "We've got to get them and Simpson out of there, though. It's – it's really bad. I don't think we can wait for the marines."

"Miller, unless you've got a platoon of marines in your back pocket, you stay inside that jumper," Sheppard says in a tight voice. "As soon as we get these kids loaded, we are on our way. Do not, I repeat, do not exit your jumper. Over."

The Hekans are actually rocking the jumper down there. Miller grimaces.They're going to flip it over. Christ, they've still got napalm shells underneath and if they haven't gone up already, they still could at any minute.

"Cleo Seven acknowledge!" Sheppard shouts. "Maintain hover overhead. Over."

"Copy, Alpha," Miller grits out. "Over."

"Crown's on the way to join you. Just sit tight. Douglas will be back with the marines ASAP. Over."

"Yeah, great, got an ETA on that, Colonel? Over."

"I wish, Cleo Seven. Over."

Kim taps his arm and points to the camera-eye picture on the slaved laptop. "Aw, fuck."

"Cleo Seven, repeat? Over."

"Colonel, it looks like at least twenty, twenty-five people are heading for the jail where they've got the Athosians. Over."

He can't just hover here and watch Terim and Fillad get the same treatment Reyes had.

"Colonel, I've got an idea. I'm not getting out of the jumper, but I'm going to put her down between the door into the jail and the mob," he radios, matching words and intention, taking Seven down. "I'm leaving the cloak on." It should work, he thinks. He hopes it works.

"Miller. – Shit, ungrateful brat – Crown's one minute out."

"No time, Colonel."

He thinks Sheppard is about to order him to stay in the air. Seven is about a half meter above the ground and sweeping forward between the building and the approaching Hekans. The torches in their hands flare and stream in the bow wave of air displayed by Seven's invisible presence.

"You're the one on site. It's your call, but you better know what the hell you're doing. Over."

It's like using a bulldozer to topple the Hekans. An invisible bulldozer. This close to the ground, throttled so far back that the belly of the jumper scrapes the ground sometimes, it's more like driving than flying, and the only real problem is keeping the jumper slow enough that he isn't hitting people at forty or fifty kilometers per hour. Not that he gives much of a damn right this minute, but he will later. He hopes. Right now, it's hard to summon much compassion or care for the Hekans.

They're starting to scatter, running from the unseen force smacking into them and pushing relentlessly.

"Kim, can you take over hovering?"

Kim gives him a dark, unhappy look but nods.

"Good, because I'm going push the jumper right through the outside wall of the jail, back her up, drop the hatch and get Fillad and Terim out of there. I'll need you at the controls when I drop the hatch." Sheppard isn't going to be happy when she finds out he's disobeyed her orders to stay in the jumper, but the marines just aren't going to show up in time to do any good and Miller can't stand by and watch anyone else buy it. He'll worry about reprimands when they're back in Atlantis.

Kim rolls his eyes but nods, which is good enough for Miller.

"Come on, baby," he whispers to the jumper as he turns her so the hatch faces the jail. Then he begins back her up. He switches the radio back to the Athosians' channel. "Hey, guys? You may want to get under the bunks or whatever, 'cause things may get shaky."

The jumper groans and shimmies as it hits the building's wall and Miller feeds more power into the reverse thrust. Inertial dampeners or not, he can feel the push and the resistance Seven's encountering. It doesn't feel good. Seven is a flier, not a tank. But the Hekans didn't build with any idea they'd be up against anything powered and the wall gives away with an explosive crack they can hear inside the cockpit, pieces of timber and some kind of brick snapping apart in cloud of furious dust.

"All yours, Kim," Miller says, shifting control to the co-pilot's console and jumping up. "Drop the hatch!"

He's got his P90 in hand as he charges down the ramp into the dust-choked interior of the jail.

"Here!" Fillad shouts.

Right, and there's the cage. The Hekans must trade for more than a few tools and food stuffs in exchange for the skour. None of their villages have even had a smithy and the survey flights didn't show up any mines or quarries. They don't bother obtaining quality, though: the bars look like cheap iron and the lock would make Deputy Dog laugh, but there's no sign of a key.

"Okay, better step back," he yells, hoping he isn't going to send a ricochet right through his own face or something equally appalling. When Fillad and Terim are huddled as far from the cage door as the cell will allow, he shoots the lock. It makes a lot of noise, a shower of sparks, and low and behold, tears the weak metal open enough that he can kick it loose. Eat your heart out, Butch Cassidy. "Come on, come on!"

Fillad and Terim look white around the eyes, but follow him back into the jumper.

Miller drops back into the pilot's seat grinning like a maniac.

The radio is half static and kids still screaming, with Sheppard's voice laid over the top. "Miller, you sonovabitch, come in! Over."

"Right here, ma'am, and I've got Fillad and Terim with me now," Miller sings out, carefully feeding forward thrust into Seven's drivepods. There's a dangerous collection of bricks and timbers laying over the top of her, enough to make a structural integrity warning light flare amber. Then the jumper is sliding out from under the debris and into the square again.

"We're going to have a long talk when we get back to Atlantis," Sheppard says, but Miller's not too worried. Sheppard cares a lot more about results than regs and rules. The colonel is always ready to toss the rule book out the window if it stops working.

"Yes, ma'am," he says.

"Colonel," Sheppard replies repressively.

"What ever you say, Colonel."

He may be a trifle too happy, considering Reyes is still out there, but it feels so damn good to do something and not just watch. He's getting better at this super-low altitude hovering too. Good enough that he's going for the trifecta and taking Seven right up to Eight, bulldozing the people still hammering at Eight away.

"Outa the way, clear the decks, hit the bricks," he chants and he swings Seven like a broom, using the right drivepod like a pivot and powering from the left.

"Didn't know you could even do that with a jumper," Crown comments on the radio. "I've got you on camera, Cleo Eight. You want to resume position?"

"Not yet."

He taps the radio toggle and switches channels.

"Hey," he says quietly, gently, "Dr. Simpson? You on the radio? Can you hear me?"

Static.

Either she isn't on the channel or she's not answering. First option means his half-assed plan won't work. So he may as well act like it's the second.

"Dr. Simpson, come on. Just sit tight, we're going to get you out of there, okay. I know it's bad, but no one gets left behind. But I could really use a little help from you. You want to answer me, let me know you're in there?"

The rush of static might be someone breathing hard. There's a hitching sound Miller thinks might be her. He sweeps the jumper around the front of Eight, tries to see in the view port. The lights are too low and the angle's bad, so that all he can really tell is the bulkhead door between the cockpit and the rest of the jumper is still closed. He doesn't see Simpson.

She's got to be there, though, because he didn't see the Hekans drag her out. So, onward with the plan.

"Dr. Simpson? This is Miller in Cleo Seven. I'm going to back my jumper right up to yours and drop the hatch. You'll probably hear that. Then Terim and Fillad are going to come in. You'll need to open the bulkhead door and then it's just a quick couple of steps back into my jumper, before we all get out of here. How's that sound?"

Static.

All the Hekans have run from the crashed jumper, even the ones who were inside, distracted by the invisible force that just destroyed their jail house. That makes things easier.

He's maneuvering Seven around and then inching back until the proximity alarm starts blaring. Kim kills it. Miller watches him from the corner of his eye as he snuggles Seven right up to Eight. When they get back Atlantis, he's going to hear some bad jokes about that, he's sure. Kim makes a kill it gesture with his hands and he stops Seven.

"The sergeant told me not to open the door for anything."

"That's right," he says. Now he knows how a cop trying to talk to a kid who's been instructed not to talk to strangers feels. Frustrated, but kind of approving too. At least Simpson listened to Reyes. What happened wasn't for nothing, because Simpson is still alive in there and they will get her out. "But you know he didn't mean you to stay there forever. Just until it was safe."

"Is it safe?"

McKay's acerbic voice interrupts before he can answer. "Safe!? Simpson, what galaxy have you been visiting, because it obviously hasn't been Pegasus. When have we ever been safe here? Just do what the nice grunt tells you and get in that jumper. And be thankful you aren't stuck here in mine with twenty screaming, puking, kicking brats!"

Oddly enough, that works.

"Okay," Simpson radios.

He hits the hatch release and hears it hit Eight's hatch with a bone-shaking clang.

"Terim, Fillad –"

The two Athosians are already scrambling into Eight's badly ripped up rear compartment. Miller really wants to go with them, but knows leaving the pilot's seat would be taking the hotdogging way, way too far. Sheppard would have him up on charges for that, because they don't need to lose another jumper, along with Kim.

Kim has his seat turned around and is watching, while Miller monitors the cameras. The Hekans are starting to inch back toward the downed jumper, unable to see Seven hovering right in front of it, thanks to the cloak.

"We have her!" Fillad shouts and Kim gives a sharp nod. One of them has already activated the hatch closure according to the console in front of him. When it's sealed, Miller sends Seven straight up as fast as he can. There's sweat running down his sides.

"Hey, watch where you're going!" Crown squawks on the radio.

He risks a quick glance to the back of the jumper. Simpson is on the deck, curled into a fetal ball, with one hand jammed over her mouth. From where he is, Miller can't tell, but he'd bet her eyes are glazed. Watching it on camera was hell, being right there, hearing Reyes' death, had to have been worse. Fillad and Terim are flanking her, talking to her quietly, one of them wrapping his jacket around her shoulders. He switches his attention back to flying and not hitting Crown's jumper or the other two &nash; Colonel Sheppard and Lt. Palecki's – arrowing toward them at max military thrust. There isn't anything he can do for Simpson now except get her back to Atlantis as fast as possible.

"Cleo Three Alpha, this is Cleo Seven. Have retrieved Athosian personnel and Dr. Simpson from ground. Over."

There's a pause.

"Head for the gate, Cleo Seven," Sheppard says. The second jumper changes course to a more direct line back to the gate. Sheppard's stays on course for the village. "All Cleo units, withdraw to the stargate and prepare to return to base after dumping your ordnance. Copy? Over."

"Roger that, Colonel," Crown replies.

"Where do you want us to drop the shells?" Palecki asks.

"Drop them on the crater where the Ancient Outpost was," McKay says. "You can't miss it and there shouldn't be anything left there."

"Check your lifesign detectors first. Over," Sheppard adds.

Miller sets his course for the gate. Once there, the crater will be visible. It's a good target, impossible to mistake for anything else.

~*~

Rodney closes the bulkhead door and shuts out the wailing kids jammed everywhere in the rear compartment. Not even yelling shut up at the top of his lungs has worked and they pay even less attention to Sheppard. Not that Sheppard's wasting time trying to calm them down. She's barreling the jumper straight for the village of the damned – excuse him – the latest Hekan hellhole at top speed.

He's rarely seen her expression any grimmer. In the aftermath of the nanovirus thing, when he came down to the makeshift morgue to pay some kind of respects to Dumais and Wagner and the rest of the casualties, Sheppard was pulling the sheet back over Peterson's face and looked like this.

"You couldn't anticipate this," he says.

"It's my job to anticipate just this." The flat tone doesn't invite commiseration.

"Sheppard – "

"Shut up, Rodney, okay?" she snaps. "This isn't the time or the place."

"Fine."

They arc over the village and spot the jumper in the square. Reyes body is there too, splayed out, pale and limp in the dirt, abandoned. The entire square appears abandoned. Maybe the entire village. Rodney pulls up a lifesigns reading on the co-pilot's display. The dots representing the Hekans are streaming away from the village. There's no one left there.

Sheppard's hands are white on the control stick, which is rarer than the grim look. Rodney opens the bulkhead and is hit with a miasma of puke and urine and smoke that has him clamping his hand over his nose. He picks his way over the kids, most of them still tied up – and that's just as well, who knows what they'd wreck with their sticky fingers if they were loose? – and opens Bin Ten. He'd found out what Bin Ten held years ago.

The bodybags.

He lays one out of the deck, unzips it, all ready. Sheppard isn't going to want to waste any time. But they don't leave anyone behind. They don't leave their dead if they can help it.

They circle twice, just to be sure, then land next to Reyes' body.

Rodney has his nine millimeter in his hand and is out the jumper before Sheppard has it completely settled on the ground. Sheppard is behind him only a moment later, P90 swiveling, eyes sharp. The flashlight makes solid-looking beams in the smoke-laden air. The only thing moving is one of those dog-creatures. It squeals at them then runs.

They reach reach the body and Rodney holsters his pistol so that he can use both arms to lift beneath Reyes' shoulders. Sheppard gets an arm around both ankles and lifts awkwardly, keep her other hand on the P90. They heft and stumble back into the jumper. They drop Reyes once, but Rodney knows it doesn't matter now. Any marks left will be lost in the damage the Hekans did.

The kids inside go mostly silent, except for some hiccuping, snotty sobs from the littlest, when they see the body.

"I'm going to check the other jumper," he tells Sheppard as she's zipping the bodybag up, mercifully hiding Reyes's ruined head.

"No," Sheppard snaps.

"I need to evaluate it."

"You need someone to watch your back."

"Then come on, because I'm not any happier staying here than you are," he snarls back.

Sheppard glares up at him through a fringe of dark hair, but says nothing, pressing her lips together and rising instead. She gestures with the P90, a wordless let's go.

Jumper Eight is a dead loss. Crystals smashed, circuitry jerked out and strewn over the deck. Everything inside is torn to pieces or burnt. Simpson didn't close the bulkhead door behind her and the Hekans have been in the cockpit too. It smells like they pissed in there.

"McKay?" Sheppard's right there at his shoulder, looking like seeing this magnificent piece of machinery broken and vandalized hurts her as much as it does Rodney. "How bad is it?" Like she can't see how bad it is, but she's letting him say it, giving him that much control.

"It doesn't get any worse, Colonel."

She scans the cockpit and winces over the smashed and still sparking control panels. "Okay. Fixable?"

"Not even by the Ancients," Rodney admits.

"You sure? You and Zelenka – "

"The last time we tried to repair a jumper that had even a quarter of this damage I ended up under an ocean, if you'll remember. We're writing this one off."

Sheppard's mouth quirks into an almost smile for an instant. "I'd hate to be the agent who wrote the policies for Atlantis."

Rodney can't help the snort of laughter. It's inappropriate and stupid and he's helplessly reminded of the life insurance policy he made out before the expedition left Earth. He left the obscene death benefits to Jeanie , with the caveat she find and take care of his cat for the rest of its life.

"Time to go," Sheppard declares.

"Do we just leave it here?" Rodney asks as soon as they're back in their jumper.

Sheppard drops into the pilot's seat, displays flaring to life before she even touches anything.

"No. On the off chance someone could salvage something from the wreckage – which we don't want because they might figure out better ways to shoot our other jumpers down – we blow it up."

Rodney settles into his own seat.

"Oh, I should have known."

"Lorne should have drones loaded in Jumper One. When he gets here, he can do it," Sheppard adds. She lifts the jumper and sets it on course for the stargate.

As if conjured by his name, Lorne's voice comes over the radio. "Cleo Three Alpha, this is Jumper One. I have the marine reaction team onboard. Where do you want us? Over."

~*~

When the sound of a second incoming wormhole fills the gateroom, Elizabeth fears the worst.

On the heels of dispatching the marine reaction force with Lorne, she's alerted Carson to have a full emergency medical team ready in the jumper bay and the entire department on alert. The call was made as soon as Captain Douglas's clipped request for ground troops and a drone-equipped jumper had sounded through the first wormhole. It still doesn't feel like enough.

Impossible to judge yet how bad the situation on Heka may be. Elizabeth hasn't had a chance to get to know Captain Douglas yet, and she can't see through Douglas's cool, well-trained military demeanor to evaluate the true level of urgency behind her request.

"Atlantis Flight, this is Cleo Three Alpha requesting clearance to return through the gate. Over." Sheppard's voice over the radio is reassuring for half a second, until the noise behind her steady voice registers, high and uneven. It's the sound of screaming.

"John," she says loudly, "what is happening? Shall we send in further troops?" Standing behind Chuck at the DHD console, she stares at the shield-covered wormhole, its blue-bright ripple flickering over the gateroom floor, and waits for the response.

"Flight, situation is stable, withdrawing from Heka, with one casualty and numerous refugees," Sheppard replies, ignoring her more personal question. "Reinforcements not necessary."

Elizabeth's stomach clenches. Casualty. But there is no need to ask now; they will be here in – lightyears. Seconds.

John warned her when they began this mission. She knows Steven Caldwell had the same worries. But she'd held on to hope. And now she is afraid to ask whom they have lost because the truth is, it'll make a difference. One of the military, one of the scientists, one of those few she is close to? Not John, because John is on the radio, but what about Rodney? Or was it a Hekan who died because of them?

"Lower the shield," she tells Chuck.

He glances at her and just nods, fingers already flying over the console.

"Colonel Sheppard," she says, "you're cleared to return."

"Understood," she says, half of it into the harsh buzz of static.

The first jumper slides through the gate. There are smoke streaks marring its hull. It rotates and begins to rise through the open roof into the jumper bay.

Elizabeth watches as the second and third jumpers arrive through the wormhole. She's not Sheppard or Radek, can't tell them apart or guess which one belongs to John and Rodney; the angle is wrong to glimpse the pilots through the viewports.

Elizabeth turns and heads for the jumper bay, careful to keep her pace fast but controlled. She has a feeling she'll be needed there. On impulse, she taps her radio as she reaches the nearest transporter. "Captain Harper, put your marines on stand-by and send an extra security squad to the Jumper Bay, please."

"Roger that, ma'am. Over."

She switches channels. "Carson, have your people reached the jumper bay?"

"Yes, Dr.Weir, and it's a guddle here!" His accent is dense.

"Carson, speak English," she grits out.

"We've wee lassies everywhere."

For a fleeting second Elizabeth pictures collies, then – even more ridiculously – harems and John Sheppard's propensity to bring home alien women. Which isn't fair, she knows, as there's only been Chaya Sar, but somehow Rodney's constant references to John as a space Casanova have infiltrated her brain.

Sheppard's voice over-rides Carson's on the command channel. "We've got about thirty-five little girls that we rescued from human sacrifice."

She's exiting the transporter as the screaming starts again over the radio. Only now, she realizes it isn't someone in brutal pain. It's children.

"Carson! John?"

Sheppard's voice again, rough enough to sound almost male. "It's the kids; it's just the kids. Don't send in the cavalry."

The extra marines jog up as Elizabeth reaches the bay door. "Ma'am," a sergeant greets her, coming to attention. They're all wearing full gear, something she's learned to recognize. She stops them with a lifted hand, her other cycling her headset through the command channel, the control feed, and the private channels for Rodney and John. She catches, "– watch out," from Rodney, as he snaps at someone. "They bite."

"Just a moment, please," she tells the marines.

John is saying: "Get Ronon and Teyla and Captain Leitmann down here. Maybe Dr. Heightmeyer, too," while Carson sounds aghast in the background, "Lad, did you have to put a body in here with them?"

"Yes. We weren't leaving him behind."

Rodney's voice rises over Sheppard's, "Spaceship, not luxury liner with playground, Carson!"

And Carson mutters something under his breath, woefully. Time to get in there. Elizabeth opens the door. And walks into chaos.

Voices echo off the metal walls. The jumpers are grounded in an erratic line, and the entire bay smells like smoke and petroleum distillates. Her heart beats a sharp staccato rhythm until she sees Sheppard, sees Rodney, and feels relief. Immediately guilty, her eyes fly over the others. Who is missing? Sheppard and one of the marines are lifting a long, black plastic bag – body bag, her mind tells her – onto a gurney. She spots Lieutenant Palecki, Crown, and Captain Douglas. Children, screaming; a few of them are running, others are already huddled in corners, dirt-streaked, sooty. At least one is bleeding. Some of them still trail ropes from their wrists and ankles. God.

She hears Rodney's voice above the rest. "Stop squirreling around, you little pests. Isn't enough we've rescued you?" He's at the hatch of the jumper Sheppard just exited, flapping his hands at a cluster of small girls in his way, looking utterly exhausted. She would smile, if the situation weren't so dire. "Rodney," she says and he looks up and spots her, making a helpless gesture at the girls.

Elizabeth works her way through the swirling crowd of medics, marines, mechanics, scientists, and children, to Sheppard's side. "John," she says, "what happened? Whom did we lose?"

Although she isn't experienced with children, the urge to bend down, to stroke and calm, is strong. But she'll aid all of them more by keeping her head.

Rodney glares at her, then forcibly picks up one girl and shoves her at Palecki, before detouring around a second and bolting off the jumper ramp. Poor Lieutenant Palecki must be smothering, as two little ones are already wrapped around his shoulders and head. The one Rodney just abandoned begins bawling. Palecki appears to be ready to join her.

"I'm going to see how Simpson is," Rodney calls. With that he stomps toward the one jumper still closed up.

"John –" Elizabeth tries again.

"Real hand for kids, McKay," Sheppard gasps out, already trying to gently lead a particularly small child off the jumper hatch. The girl bats at her feebly and shrieks, making even Elizabeth, standing over a meter away, wince along with Sheppard. Then she darts away, out into the jumper bay, with its shadows and sharp angles and uncertain marines clutching at their weapons as though a bunch of dirty, frightened girls were scarier than the Wraith.

Sheppard looks briefly nonplussed, then just tired, her gaze following the little girl's flight until she runs right into Carson's legs.

"Here, here, lass, come with me," Carson says, swooping her up. The girl stares at Carson, brown eyes huge in her face...and shrieks, even louder.

Sheppard's gaze flicks to Elizabeth, away from Carson and the turmoil in the jumper bay. Her mouth forms a grim line. "Reyes."

"Oh. Oh, no," Elizabeth exclaims.

Sheppard nods tightly.

The pictures of his daughters. All of a sudden, Elizabeth remembers them with frightening clarity. "He was going home."

"Yeah."

"How did it –" She closes her eyes, exhales.

"Jumper Eight lost all power, dropped in the middle of the damned village where they were holding the Athosians," Sheppard says in a clipped voice. There's more, there's always more, but this will do for now, Elizabeth knows. Eventually, they will analyze and what-if the scenario until it's etched into their brains forever.

For now, they have the present situation to deal with. She says, "Right; let's clear this chaos first."

Against her earlier notion, she does bend down, reaches out her hand to one little girl crouching into the shadow of the jumper's hatch. "Hello?"

The girl shrinks away, hides her face against the green metal.

Sheppard nods. "They won't follow people they don't know."

Rodney is slamming his palm against the hatch of the last jumper. "Miller! Open this hatch right now!"

Sheppard's head whips toward the noise. "I've got to talk to Miller and Kim."

"Kim don't talk," Palecki mutters. He looks whiter than white, and Elizabeth sees that his hands around the children's waists are as tight as if they were holding him in place, not the other way around.

Sheppard ignores him. "Lieutenant, help Beckett with the kids."

Palecki blinks, responds dutifully. "Yes, sir." He heads for the transporters.

"All these children need to go to medical, Elizabeth," Carson says on her other side, distracting her.

Sheppard's already striding off and Elizabeth has to trot to keep up. She might not have the height and weight on most of the marines – never did – yet everyone moves out of Sheppard's way. Even the children, Elizabeth notices.

She glances over at Rodney as they arrive at his side. He has his datapad out and is typing furiously, peering at the unopened jumper, obviously accessing it.

Sheppard slaps her hand on the hull, frowns, and the hatch starts to open.

Rodney's head jerks up, his eyes narrow and his mouth goes slack for second before pursing into a frown. "I hate you."

Sheppard seems unamused. "No news there."

Elizabeth looks between them, sensing something, but there's no time to ask now. Rodney closes his datapad and tucks it away as Sheppard turns toward the opening hatch, yelling into the darkness, "Miller, you in there?"

"Yes, ma'am," comes a tired voice.

Sheppard relaxes a fraction, but the frown stays where it is. "Dr. Kim?"

Rodney pushes past Sheppard and into the jumper. "Simpson?"

"All here and accounted for, ma'am," Miller says.

The man looks shellshocked as he steps out of the cockpit, Elizabeth thinks.

Still, when she steps closer, she sees he has nothing on Dr. Simpson, who is half-leaning, half-lying against the wall of the jumper, next to an Athosian. Terim, she recognizes. There's another figure in the dim light – the other Athosian she's heard about but hasn't seen. Fillad, her memory supplies. Dr. Kim is lingering in the cockpit, watching silently as usual.

Terim is holding Simpson's head in his lap, talking to her in low, soft tones.

Fillad steps into the light. "I have never encountered such gretch," he spits.

Elizabeth blinks. She's never seen an Athosian not Teyla so...incensed. The message is pretty clear. The Athosians have not been successful in their approach to the Hekans either.

Fillad is pacing in the small area. "Human sacrifice," he goes on. "Worse than the Wraith!"

"Are you all okay?" she asks, knowing they're not. Then, the words filter through. The children. They were – no, she doesn't much care to think about how the teams found them. All she needs to know right now is that these kids needed saving, and that she's the one who has to make the right decisions now.

Rodney drops down before Simpson gracelessly, his hand on her shoulder. "You're okay, you're going to be okay," he says softly. "I know you don't feel like it now, but it – it gets better." To Elizabeth's surprise, Simpson turns her head, half-lifts it from Terim's leg, trying to focus on Rodney.

Elizabeth's lips move but she can't make a sound. She doesn't know what happened to Simpson, fears any questions would traumatize her further.

Sheppard glances sharply at them, then faces Miller. "I told you to stay in the jumper." The jumper's interior lamps slant a streak of light over her cheekbone and leave her half her face in shadow. Miller looks gray, facing her.

"I made a judgment call, ma'am," Miller says stiffly. He's almost at attention.

"Consider yourself lucky it wasn't the wrong one," Sheppard snaps.

"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard –" Terim says, from below, voice resounding in the jumper. "He saved us."

Sheppard's face sets. "And disobeyed orders."

"I'm prepared to face the consequences," Miller says. He lifts his chin, stares at a point over Sheppard's left shoulder.

"John –" Elizabeth says. "Under the circumstances –"

"Don't interfere with the chain of command, Dr. Weir," Sheppard interrupts, turning to glare at her.

Elizabeth bites back a comment, hurt, but she knows Sheppard does have the right; this is her call.

Rodney, however, isn't so wise, or well-meaning. "You're such a hypocrite, Colonel," he snipes. "You're just pissed you didn't get to ride to the rescue this time."

"Rodney!" Elizabeth says, honestly baffled. For God's sake, what happened between these two? She bends down to Rodney, close enough so no one save Terim and Simpson can hear. "Stop it, Rodney. Focus."

Rodney glares at her in turn. "You know, Elizabeth, when you've heaved twenty kids into a jumper, stumbling around in the dark getting ready to roast to death, while listening to someone get torn apart alive over your radio –"

"Rodney!" she says, louder.

"– then tell me to stop it!"

She firms her voice. "I'm telling you, yes. Do your job!"

"My job doesn't include any of those things," he says, voice low and intent.

"McKay!" Sheppard snaps.

"Your job does include not flinging around accusations in emergency situations," Elizabeth snaps. She'd like to say more, but this isn't the time, place, or circumstance. Rodney has some right to his anger. This – this isn't what he signed up for, not even as a member of a gate team. This is combat, not what any of them expected, though he doesn't get a free pass either. Later, she'll be willing to listen to him.

Right now? She wants him to shut up.

"Miller," Sheppard says, "don't do that again." She glances at Fillad, Terim, Kim, and Simpson, nods and addresses Miller in a quieter, less formal tone. "And don't let this go to your head, but – you did good."

The tight lines around Miller's eyes ease a little, leaving nothing but exhaustion.

To Elizabeth, they all look like they're ready to drop, though they were gone no more than two hours. She can see their bone-deep tiredness now.

But, the children. And her mind keeps replaying Rodney's words: torn apart alive. No wonder they were all pushed to their limits.

"Elizabeth." Teyla's voice. His lower register is still startling. Elizabeth half-turns, sees Captain Leitmann's wheat-blond head gleaming beyond Teyla.

"Good, there you both are," Elizabeth says briskly. "We need help handling these children."

Leitmann, bless the man, is already crouching down, nodding at the girl right beside the jumper. "Well, come here, then," he says softly, and after a moment, the girl does, but if anything she looks more terrified than ever, like she's walking to her execution.

"Where's Ronon?" Sheppard asks.

"She insisted on accompanying Major Lorne, Lieutenant Cadman and the reaction force," Elizabeth tells her.

Sheppard nods, unsurprised, and nods at Leitmann. "Captain, I'm leaving you in charge of getting them all to medical, and then we'll have to put them up somewhere?" Her gaze flickers back to Elizabeth.

Who sighs. "How about some of the old Athosian quarters? They're habitable, and close by so we can supervise the kids." The yelling, the screaming, the smell from a dozen upset and emptied stomachs has Elizabeth's head pounding. And that's in the vast and echoing jumper bay, not a small, enclosed jumper. Small wonder John and Rodney are snapping and snarling. Mentioning the old Athosian quarters reminds her of the lesson they learned within days of arriving in Atlantis: it is no place for children. "But we can't keep them here indefinitely."

"We'll think of something," Sheppard says, voice low. And, more urgent, "Just, get them out of here, into safety. Someplace quiet, with food."

Teyla appears again, one tiny child in his arm. Elizabeth feels sick. That little girl can't be more than three. The Hekans aren't fit to have children. Some things go beyond any rational being's tolerance of social and cultural differences. "I agree. Let us make sure they're all right, first," Elizabeth tells her. Above the cacophony of voices, she calls out, "Carson – can you have your team prepare the infirmary so we can have the children examined?" She waits for his affirmative, then turns back to Sheppard.

Her impulse to touch Sheppard's shoulder or arm is strong, but no matter how much the strain is showing, Sheppard just doesn't welcome comforting touches. Not from Elizabeth, anyway. She'd seen Teyla touch Sheppard before the change, though rarely since. She used to wonder if that meant they were sleeping together. She doesn't think they are – or were – and knows it isn't her business either way. Neither Teyla or John would let it make a difference. Maybe they're all too attached by any normal workplace guidelines, but they love each other because they love their duty, too. She gets that because she loves Atlantis and them – they are Atlantis, Sheppard's team and all her people. "Colonel," she says instead, "get to medical yourself. I expect a debriefing once Carson's finished giving you your post-mission exam."

Sheppard closes her eyes for a second, then seems to draw on some unseen well of energy, straightening and becoming all business again. "Right. McKay, you want to stick with Simpson?"

"Huh, what? Yes. Yes, that's okay." The fight seems to have drained from Rodney too.

"Fillad, Terim?" Miller says. "You want to come with me? I'll take you to the infirmary. I know a short cut."

"We are not in need of healing," Terim objects.

"It is a formality of the Earthers," Teyla says from the hatch opening of the jumper.

Terim glances at Teyla, then very quickly away. Fillad doesn't even acknowledge the words.

Elizabeth feels anger, sharp and sudden as Teyla takes a step back. But this isn't her fight; and she doesn't think she can help Teyla. Nor does Teyla want her help.

Before she can offer any sympathy or say anything unwise, Captain Leitmann is drawing Teyla away, saying, "I could use your help over here, Teyla."

It is too easy to see how grateful Teyla is to go with him. And that in and by itself is painful.

Sheppard isn't quite as diplomatic as Elizabeth; no surprise. She glances at Fillad and Terim and her lip curls up. "If you weren't allies, I'd dump you through the stargate right back there, for treating Teyla like that," she tells them in a hoarse voice, one Elizabeth thinks she wasn't supposed to hear.

Fillad stares at Sheppard, then his gaze skids away from her, and there's a lost expression on Terim's face.

Whatever problems Rodney and John have between them, it doesn't extend to not standing united. Rodney's on his feet and glowering at the two Athosians from next to her. "Idiots," he sneers.

"It is – it is our way," Terim murmurs.

"Well, it's a dead end," Rodney snaps. "Come on, Simpson, let's get out of here. I'm always afraid the stupid will be catching."

Simpson may not have gotten the whole conversation, lost in her own nightmare, but she gets Rodney, it seems. She stands up – lets him pull her up, and they exit the jumper, his hand on her arm, her hip, steadying her. Miller and Kim follow a moment later, trailing Fillad and Terim.

Once they're gone, Sheppard slumps down onto one of the bench and drops her head into her hands. "Jesus."

Elizabeth leans against the wall, not speaking, not saying anything. There's no pat on the back, no pep talk that would help Sheppard.

Sheppard lifts her head and meets Elizabeth's eyes. "If we hadn't had the life sign detectors...."

"But we did," she says, with emphasis, then, more quietly, "John, don't beat yourself up over what-ifs. We made our choices knowing that the mission could fail in some way."

Sheppard nods wearily. A shiver runs through her. The jumpers are climate-controlled, but this one is standing open and the bay is always metal chill, too deep within the city to catch the sun for long, even when the overhead doors are irised open. "Yeah." She straightens, giving her arms a brisk rub. "We've got to ground all the modified jumpers, though, until Zelenka can go over them."

"That sounds like a sensible decision." Elizabeth smiles gently at her.

"Too late for Sergeant Reyes," Sheppard says bitterly.

Reyes was a good man as well as a good marine, one Elizabeth will personally miss, but she knows Sheppard is closer to the marines and other sundry military forces represented in the Atlantis command than she will ever be. Sheppard trained them for Pegasus duty, gave out the assignments to fit Elizabeth's orders. It's a different but equal weight to the one Elizabeth imposes on herself. "I'm sorry."

Sheppard stands and stares out at the emptying jumper bay. "It's what we sign up for." A glance over her shoulder is all shadows. "But all I can think is, if we'd delayed this mission by a week, let Zelenka do his checks before, Reyes would still be alive."

"It was my call, John," Elizabeth tries to catch her eye. "I was in favor of a fast mission sequence. I know you're the military commander, but I make the final decisions here."

She knows – and what's more, knows it's the right thing to do – that their decisions are joint ones, except in emergencies, but John needs to realize this didn't happen due to her oversight. They are always flying blind, and now, again, they are reminded of that. They often trust their good fortune in Pegasus. The problem is: Good luck runs out.

Sheppard gives a sharp nod. "I'll meet you in the briefing room?"

"Take a shower and whatever time you need," Elizabeth tells her. "Give the situation time to settle so we can see it more clearly."

Sheppard doesn't look as if she doubts their clarity at present. But she nods, and leaves.

The incoming wormhole klaxon rings through their radios and the jumper bay. Over the command channel, Elizabeth hears Major Lorne's, "Flight, this is Jumper One, requesting clearance to return. We've blown the downed jumper in place. Over."

Sheppard's shoulders droop for an instant, exhaustion combined with relief.

Elizabeth switches her headset mic on. "This is Weir. Disengage the shield and instruct Jumper One they are cleared to return."

~*~

"No, don't touch that!"

The little girl snatches her hand back hastily, darting away only to be half-swallowed by the storage shelves for antiseptic bandages.

"Don't touch that, either!"

Teyla is moving already, taking one sticky hand and leading the girl back to the others. Carson and the nurses are...somewhat overwhelmed. The marines' faces showed they did not believe escorting a throng of children to the infirmary fell within their duties, but their presence kept the little ones quiet. Now, the children brought in for the initial check-up are harder to control. Many of the Hekan girls are scared, standing or crouching in timid clusters, but a few are running around, wild, only barely held in check by Marie and Ivan.

"You, stay here," she hears him grumbling at one particularly stubborn girl whose hair, underneath the dirt and grime, may very well be lighter than Leitmann's.

"Here," the child echoes, glances around, then says, a little louder: "Will we have to work in the fields?" It makes Carson look helplessly to Teyla and Elizabeth.

Again, Leitmann comes through. "There are no fields in Atlantis," he says, voice soft but carrying. "You will have some responsibilities, though."

Out of the corner of her eye, Teyla can see Elizabeth shaking her head at the chaplain. Teyla feels a stubborn spark of anger – there is no way they can keep these girls here, but she is glad of Leitmann's attempts to provide for some sense of stability in addition to security. She lets her gaze wander over the children, then beyond. At the far end of the infirmary, behind a half-pulled privacy curtain, Dr. Biro is giving the pilots and scientists a cursory post-mission exam. The sound of Rodney's complaints drifts, spiking higher even than the voices of the children.

Carson boosts one of the smallest onto a exam table. "Now, then, we're going to make sure you haven't been hurt or sick." He gives the girl a reassuring if slightly shaken smile before glancing over his shoulder. "Marie, we'll want to inoculate all of them. Can you start setting that up?" The nurse nods her affirmative.

Leitmann turns to the oldest, the blonde girl still standing next to him, who looks to be perhaps twelve or thirteen; hard to tell since she is so thin. "What's your name?"

She glances up at him, seemingly frightened. "Name?" she mumbles.

"Name," Leitmann repeats. "What are you called?" His handsome features are twisting into an impressive frown. Not aimed at the girl, but at the circumstances. Or rather, the Hekans.

The girl's eyes skid away. "The women call me Lera."

Teyla exchanges a horrified glance with Leitmann and leans forward. "And what do the men call you?" Leitmann strokes the lank hair away from her face.

"Nothing," Lera replies, going very still under Leitmann's careful hand. Staring at the infirmary floor. "I'm a girl."

Teyla can't hold in a soft hiss, or keep her fists from clenching. Only men have names.

Leitmann helps the next girl onto the table; she observes how careful he is with his touch – arms only now, friendly but matter-of-fact.

The kids look even more confused and doubtful by now. Teyla frowns, tries to catch Lera's eye. "Lera, what is it?"

"He let her talk to him!"

"Yes," Teyla says. "Here, Colonel Sheppard and Dr. Weir are in charge. They are both women." The words feel awkward on her tongue. Not a lie, but not completely true. Teyla has hope for Lera, who asks questions, for others who keep watching them with fearful but avid eyes, but too many of the girls are silent. She wonders if they will ever recover from the way they have been raised.

Leitmann slants a look at Teyla, both full of hope and at a loss.

"Do you know what the Ancestor's Ring is?" Teyla asks finally. "Beyond the Ancestor's Ring, there are many worlds," she adds. "Many of them where women rule because men are –" she grapples for words, searches, settles on what is silly but, perhaps, most understandable, "short-sighted."

Surprise, but then Leitmann flashes a grin at her. Teyla suppresses her own smile, knowing these girls are listening because she appears to be a man. A man telling them women can rule. A man telling them men lack foresight. It is humorous.

Leitmann grins. She's thankful for Leitmann; he's a man, and properly aghast, but he still brings calm and levity that she is grateful for.

"Will we stay here?" Lera asks.

"I do not know," Teyla answers. "Perhaps. Perhaps there will be a better place for you on another world, one safer than here."

"But for now, yes." Leitmann adds. "You're safe. You won't go back to where you came from."

At that, the children begin to look uncomfortable again; two start crying – Teyla can make out, "Mommy!" and "But my sister...." It's hardly a surprise that children as small as many of these are would be devastated by being separated from their families, no matter how abusive at least parts of them were. She wonders, should she remind them of that? But it's unlikely her words would overcome the tide of emotions these children are feeling right now. This is a moment where they can do no more than offer support through their actions.

Captain Leitmann, Teyla reflects, is wonderful with them, offering support and reassurance, quietly, without judgment even if this does seem to disturb several of the older girls. She, too, steps forward, helps to lift the girls up, put them down again. Teyla feels herself relax just a little. Maybe it will be all right in the end. Leitmann's better with them even than Beckett. Firm.

A part of the infirmary has been cleared out, and Teyla leads the ones already given the all-clear there. She entertains them with tales of other worlds, while keeping an eye on the captain and thinking how comforting it is to have someone present who exudes quiet strength, who is very much an adult, yet gentle when the need arises.

It does not hurt that he is a handsome man, too. There are attractive men on Atlantis, of course, but few of the otherwise good-looking soldiers have ever proven to be interested in the less...physical side of the world. The captain is always willing to speak of philosophy and culture with her. And Rodney is not mistaken, Captain Leitmann is very pleasant indeed to the eye.

"A veritable Adonis," Rodney had commented sourly when the captain arrived on the Daedalus.

"Adonis?" Teyla had asked, her eyes drawn to the man. "What does that mean?"

"Short," Ronon had said, after one measuring glance.

Sheppard had grinned, then, and said, "The kind of guy Rodney thinks looks way too good, distracting all the women from their lab work." Rodney gave Sheppard a speaking look while Sheppard's grin got wider and wider. "Or," she had added, with a smile directed at Teyla, "their stick-fighting, I guess."

As if he has heard her thoughts, Leitmann looks up and meets her eyes. The concentration on his face melts into a smile, and Teyla can't help smiling back. She knows he will help these children and understand their feelings of displacement. He has been a thoughtful friend, and listened to her since her own people turned her away. "That's a chaplain's job, really," he has said, but she thinks it is perhaps more.

It has been good to be with someone who did just that, she thinks – listened without thought of trying to change her mind. Kate keeps telling her to 'approach things more positively,' but Teyla does not feel one bit like doing so. Leitmann has not once fed her any of the sweet lies – that there is no difference, that this male body is as good as her woman's body, that he hardly notices. His calm and balance have been what she's craved. He's offered her companionship without the need for her to offer reassurance in turn. Her team would offer the first, but she would feel the need to reciprocate; it becomes ultimately exhausting for all of them.

None of them is very calm anymore.

After their last Hermean visit, it is both easier and harder for her to understand the Hermeans – their underlying reasons, certainly, but how this change is supposed bring forth tolerance and acceptance? No, Teyla does not quite see that those qualities have been in overabundance since that day they returned from the cloaked planet. Though perhaps the cracks and fractures have always existed – in potential – within her team mates and herself. Perhaps it is well to know yourself, to confront your failings and learn to compensate for them.

To accept them.

And if she is honest with herself – part of it is the Earthers' culture. Just as part of her problems stem from her own. She is not so tolerant and flexible as she had prided herself on being, not when it comes to herself. Other challenges – she still thinks she could face many things. But parting with the body she'd fought so hard with, and for...

She shakes off memories, taps her radio. "Elizabeth?"

A moment of static, then her voice, "Yes, Teyla?"

"Are my people's old rooms ready to receive the children?"

"Half an hour, Teyla. Before that, how about some food? I had Lorne arrange to have the mess hall serve a meal for the girls.

"Thank you, Dr. Weir. We will feed them first."

Motion next to her; it's Leitmann, who nods appreciatively. "Good thinking, Teyla. I would've just brought them into the rooms, I guess." He boosts one of the littlest onto the exam table where Teyla and two others already sit. Smiles at her. "Are you hungry, little one?"

The girl peeks at him through her fingers, then nods jerkily.

"It is okay," Teyla reassures her, remembering women eat after the men on Heka. "Everyone has all they need."

"But you haven't eaten." Lera whispers, not quite looking at but speaking in Teyla's direction.

"Yes, I have – earlier," Teyla tells her. "And it would not matter. Everyone eats together and there is as much as you need." Other than when they run out of supplies, she thinks to herself. But that hasn't happened since they re-established contact with Earth. And by now, Teyla thinks, they might actually survive well enough on their own.

Save for the Wraith, of course. They are always the of course.

Again, a murmur weaves through the huddled mass of children. "We haven't eaten anything since yesterday morning," Lera confides. "The priests said we didn't need it. Because we were going to –"

"Shh," Leitmann cuts in, "that's not gonna happen now. Just a moment."

Teyla is about to contact him again when, on her radio, Major Lorne says, "Teyla? The mess is ready in ten minutes. We've got soup and scrambled powdered eggs and toast and the Not-Tuna Surprise that was going to be lunch tomorrow. By the way, everyone in Atlantis says thank you for getting rid of that."

Teyla feels her lips curl into a smile and toggles her radio. "Thank you right back, Major. We'll be there."

She puts a gentle hand on the head of the child closest to her and looks at the others. "The food will warm all of you up, and the rooms we prepared for you are very comfortable."

"Yeah, McKay's not going to be happy. The cooks got out the brownies, too."

"Bloodshed is imminent," she mutters so only Lorne can hear it, pleased by his slight snort.

He laughs. "Maybe I'll make sure they set aside a plate for him and the Colonel."

"I suspect that would be a wise course of action, Major."

Movement in the corner of her eye: At the far end of the infirmary, Sheppard sweeps the curtain aside and stalks toward the exit, followed by Rodney. They both look terrible, Teyla notices again.

She would have paid them little mind, then, but when they have almost reached the door, Rodney opens his mouth. He keeps his voice down, yet there is an urgency in it she has heard often but has never heard directed at Sheppard. "Colonel, if you would just listen to me –"

Sheppard spins and stabs a finger into Rodney's chest. "Not now, McKay! I'm not in the mood."

"What? Oh, please, this isn't about me! This is about you blaming yourself for what those animals did to Reyes!"

The colonel's face sets, blank as the face of a doll, but harder, eyes narrowed. "Because I am responsible, Rodney!"

"Why are you doing this, Colonel? You're not God, you're not even Ascended!" They are disappearing into the hallway, but their voices aren't: Rodney's has been climbing higher and higher. It is not her place, and it is not as if it usually helps much, but his and Sheppard's agitation is painful for her...and not for the rest of Atlantis to witness.

"Excuse me for a moment," she tells Leitmann and Carson with a brief but wide smile. "I will be right back."

She is only a few steps behind them; thankfully, no one else is. She clears her throat, but the sound is drowned out by Sheppard's harsh whisper to Rodney.

"Christ, how often do I have to tell you? I'm the military commander; everything that happens, happens with me in charge." Sheppard squares her shoulders, voice flattening again. "I have to go make a report to Elizabeth."

"What, this very moment? Your adherence to military protocol in all situations when – when no one is giving you orders to defy – would be funny if it weren't so sad!" Teyla cannot quite place Rodney's tone, but she knows him well enough to know that beneath the belligerence, there is genuine concern. Worry, even.

Sheppard just shakes that off, obviously tired, and continues as though she had not heard Rodney, "Plus one for the Marine Corps, one for the SGC, and a letter to his family. I have to do it now."

"Yes, yes, all necessary, but...." Rodney falters, but before Teyla can step up to them, he speaks again. "You could, you know – if you wanted to – come by."

Oh. Teyla stops, knows. This isn't a conversation where her contribution would help. At all.

"Rodney, damn it, I can't." Sheppard slows her pace, almost imperceptibly, and Teyla can only half-see how she bites her lip. "I told you why." She swipes her hair out of her eyes, stares at Rodney, who has turned to her, is staring at her, his face shifting from hope to resignation.

"Right, you have. Fine. I get it." A muscle in Rodney's jaw twitches, and he quickens the pace and keeps walking. Away toward the private quarters, not the labs.

"McKay –" But Rodney is already around a corner, too late to hear Sheppard's quiet but explosive, "I just have to do this stuff first. Fuck."

Teyla clears her throat and Sheppard half-turns, seeing her there. A grimace, pained and embarrassed, flickers over her features and she lifts one hand.

"John," Teyla starts.

"Not now, Teyla," Sheppard says. "Please."

Teyla nods, meaning to return to the infirmary. Sheppard doesn't move, staring down at her feet, and is still standing there when the doors open again and Major Lorne, followed by Ronon and the marine reaction force troop into the infirmary.

"You need help?" Ronon asks, followed by a stiff, "Sir!" from Lorne.

Sheppard's face smooths into the mask of calm, good humor she uses when most stressed. "No," she says tersely. She jerks her head toward the far corner of the infirmary. "Get your exams. Biro's over there."

~*~

For the first time ever, Elizabeth's couch actually looks good, Sheppard thinks as she walks into her office. Those masks are still ugly, but once she's slumped down on the couch, she doesn't have to actually look at them.

Elizabeth's already at her desk. She doesn't look exactly fresh, but that's mostly responsibility and worry. Elizabeth cares about everybody, every casualty, just as much now as she did when they first arrived in Atlantis. At least she doesn't stink of smoke. Sheppard can smell the scent of burning skour wafting up from her, on clothes, caught in her hair, and the thought of a hot shower is a dream surpassing all others.

Just washing her hands would be good, if she could stop before she scrubbed them raw. She can still feel the stiff, rubbery body bag they zipped Reyes into on her fingers. Keeps rubbing them together, rubbing them against her pants, until she clasps her hands together to stop herself.

Don't think about Reyes. Not now.

"John?" Elizabeth asks, startling her about of the black thoughts. "Are you okay?"

She lifts her head and blinks at Elizabeth. "Okay?" she repeats. "I'm fine." And adds, "I'm not the one in a body bag."

She regrets the sarcasm immediately, as Elizabeth glances down, if just for a second. It isn't like Elizabeth is one of those commanders who throw away their people's lives without considering the cost. That little slip is going to cost Sheppard at least one visit with Heightmeyer.

"I meant to be kind," Elizabeth says, the lines around her eyes a touch more prominent. "Never mind, then."

"Sorry."

Elizabeth straightens, slowly, as if she's as tired as Sheppard. "Do you have any idea what we can do with these children?"

Sheppard's tenuous hold on her temper, strained since Rodney identified the children in the skour fields, snaps. "These kids?" she hisses, leaning forward. "What about all the other kids on Heka?"

"John!" Elizabeth is taken aback. "Let's worry about everybody in our care first, please."

"It's not enough!"

Elizabeth takes a tiny step back, and that startles Sheppard. She hadn't realized that this thing, intensity bleeding into intimidation, had carried over. Hadn't meant to do so anyway.

"I don't disagree."

"But you don't agree, either," Sheppard accuses. She can't help it.

"Then what do you suggest?" Elizabeth voice has grown louder as well. She's almost shouting by the time she finishes: "Protecting these children, right here, right now, has to be our priority!"

"These kids are safe, here. It's the ones back on Heka who aren't, and not just the girls. Jesus, Elizabeth, no kid should be raised by those people."

Elizabeth has crossed her arms and doesn't budge. "We need to take a step back and consider all our options before taking any action."

Sheppard scrubs at her face, then jolts to her feet, pacing out of sheer exhaustion, because if she stays down, she's going to fall over. She knew Elizabeth was going to react this way.

"John –" For a moment, Elizabeth's eyes soften with worry.

"No, this isn't working!" Sheppard says.

"Well, maybe we shouldn't be." Elizabeth puts her hands on the table, flat. "We all need to get some rest first. Write up the AAR, then we will all meet and discuss what course we should take. But sleep first, John."

"Not until we figure this out!"

"Then you had better calm down," Elizabeth snaps. "I won't put up with this sort of behavior – from Rodney or from you."

"Figure what out?" Teyla, from the doorway. Calm, controlled, instantly commanding attention.

Sheppard pulls herself up, reins in the anger shivering through her. Elizabeth's right. Yelling won't help. She turns to Teyla. "We need to figure out what to do now. With the girls, and about Heka too. Because burning the skour isn't going to fix things."

"Colonel," Teyla says, and there's a flicker of unease in his eyes, too. As if he saw a glimpse of what she's feeling right now. "They truly thought to sacrifice their children to – to save the skour?" Teyla asks.

"That's exactly what those bastards meant to do," Sheppard replies.

Teyla closes his eyes for a second. Dark lashes, still; it's strange to see his face like this, resigned and furious, probably as furious as Sheppard feels, just not as visible because it's Teyla. Hell, it's weird to see Teyla in need of a shave, but it has been a long day already, and no end in sight. Not until they've found a solution.

"John, what do you suggest we do?" Elizabeth asks.

"Take all their kids away," Sheppard says promptly, without thinking about it, completely out of instinct.

"We must think of a way to help the Hekans," Teyla says, low but urgent.

"To hell with the Hekans," Sheppard snaps. "They're too far gone. We can save the kids. That's it."

"I agree with the Colonel. The adults are beyond our reach, and beyond our responsibility, too." Teyla looks at Elizabeth, beseechingly. "But the children, we cannot leave them there."

"We cannot be the child protective service of the Pegasus galaxy!" Elizabeth turns, eyes bright. "Over and over again, we've made mistakes in this galaxy because we haven't had enough information or taken the time to analyze it properly."

Teyla squares his shoulders, though, and meets her gaze unflinchingly. "We have all the information we need. I believe that in this case, we must simply act on it."

"Teyla." There's something pleading in Elizabeth's eyes now, underneath the frustration. "I would've thought you, of all people, had more sense. There is nothing simple about this situation. Lives are being lost."

"And I would have thought you, of all people, had more kindness and justice in you!"

"Okay, let's all take a deep breath, shall we?" Sheppard cuts in, voice soft, but there's something she knows, something in the back of her mind that gives her voice a core of steel. "Elizabeth's right; we – and that includes the Athosians – can't take in all the girl children; hell, not more than a few of them." They turn to stare at her. "But maybe there's another way." She looks at Teyla.

Who nods slowly, and whose expression brightens. "You are thinking of Xa."

"Wait, would the Xa take the girls?" Elizabeth asks cautiously.

Teyla looks stunned for a moment, and then he almost-smiles. He nods. "I am positive of it."

"John?" Elizabeth asks.

Sheppard nods slowly. After all, the Xa had wanted Rodney and Teyla to to make a contribution to their population, and that was a fifty-fifty gamble they'd get boys instead. "Yeah, that'd work."

"But what about the women?" Elizabeth asks. "They're innocent in this, and if we leave them, they'll only be forced to have more children."

Teyla frowns. "I believe the Xa would be willing to take in the Hekan women as well," she states. "They would probably consider it an act of honor."

"A Goddess-blessed action." Sheppard actually manages a tiny smile, remembering the way the priestesses phrased things.

Teyla's next words wipe the smile off her lips right away: "But they would not take the boys."

"Yeah, you're right." Sheppard worries her lip until she tastes blood.

Elizabeth still seems unsure. "So, sending women and girls to Xa is a possibility, but not one we can implement without studying the problem –"

"Great, you're going to put together a Study Group that can submit a paper to the IOA that recommends 'further investigation'?" Sheppard mocks. "Heka will just go on going to hell while fat-assed bureaucrats debate how to 'help' them without 'disturbing their culture.' Great."

"I'm certainly going to consult with the SGC and the IOA before authorizing any further actions," Elizabeth replies "As well as learning what everyone else on the mission can offer."

"My word isn't good enough?" Sheppard says.

"Right now, your word sounds like brat having a temper tantrum."

Teyla tilts his head, expression blank, but somehow conveying anger too. "It is a tantrum to care what happens to these people, to care deeply, and show it?" Teyla inquires of Elizabeth. Sheppard straightens and folds her arms over her chest, feeling vindicated. Teyla is on her side.

Sheppard raises her eyebrows and faces Elizabeth. Wishes she had Rodney next to her. It's always easier to work on Elizabeth when they're together. If she hadn't pushed him away earlier, he would be here. That's something she's still regretting. If she ever gets out of here, she knows she has to find Rodney and put things right. Whatever 'right' is. She doesn't know anymore.

"No, but it is childish to act like I'm the enemy simply because I'm counselling caution," Elizabeth tells Teyla.

Teyla takes this in, obviously unhappy...but he nods, eventually.

Sheppard deflates a little, knowing she hasn't a chance if Teyla decides Elizabeth is right. And maybe Elizabeth is right, but all her instincts insist they do something now, damn it.

"There has to be something we can do for all of those kids," she insists.

"There may be, but I doubt we will figure it out here, tonight," Elizabeth says, sounding as tired as Sheppard feels. "I want all the department heads in the conference room in the morning, with the AARs and everything else we have on Heka. This has to go to the IOA before we do anything else, John."

"I see." Teyla's voice is measured; he seems too calm. "Your IOA will decide what is best for people here all the way from your planet." In another galaxy, Teyla doesn't add, but Sheppard and Elizabeth both hear it. "They will decide for us what is good for us?"

"You don't believe in our good intentions?" Elizabeth asks, sounding honestly shocked.

A harsh, barked laugh; Sheppard's almost surprised that it's hers. "I don't believe in our good intentions," she mutters. "Sometimes." She shrugs at Teyla and Elizabeth. "I don't much believe anyone is all good these days."

Teyla glares at her. "I do not believe that to be the truth."

"Well, it is. Look at even your people, the way they're acting."

A flinch from Teyla. For just a moment, he looks away.

"Sorry if I've grown a little wary of some of the 'good' people of Pegasus, Teyla," Sheppard says, even knowing how shitty it is to blame Teyla for the Genii or any of the other crazies they've run into. Pegasus is a pressure cooker that makes every culture insane in its own way. Earth isn't better per se, but, Jesus, she thought the Athosians were far above what they've turned out to be since this whole thing with the sex switching. She's bitter for Teyla and angry that Teyla has just taken it from Halling and the others, because there is basically nothing she can do. She hates being helpless. It's why she hates this whole Hekan mess; she doesn't know what to do.

Teyla doesn't nod, but neither does he counter her words.

Elizabeth frowns. "I'm not the leader of Pegasus, Teyla, but I am responsible for this expedition. We have to seek counsel regarding any further military action...but we can make a decision regarding the girls here on Atlantis. How would you propose we deal with the latter?"

Sheppard rolls her eyes. "How about, we don't?"

"John," Elizabeth reproves, and adds, "We aren't accomplishing anything here. And, John, despite your feelings, I do believe a study group might not be the worst option. You and Rodney and Teyla would, of course, be part of it if you wanted. In any case, we will meet and discuss this further in the morning."

Teyla thinks for a moment. "In the meantime, Lieutenant Cadman could go through the stargate and conduct negotiations with the Xa to relocate the girls. She brokered the trade treaty; they know her."

Elizabeth is nodding.

"Or you could go through yourself, Elizabeth," Teyla adds.

"No," Sheppard snaps without thinking. When Elizabeth and Teyla turn to stare, she shrugs. "Not Elizabeth, not with a group we haven't had much direct contact with before. Save me that security nightmare, okay?" She grimaces an apology at Elizabeth. "We skirt sane procedure every time Rodney and I head offworld on the same team as it is – if we didn't need his expertise and someone with enough rank to negotiate I'd pull both of us off the team. But even during the first year, we didn't send you out into the field until it was a last ditch effort."

"Fair enough." Elizabeth tilts her head in acceptance. "John, you agree Lieutenant Cadman is a possible choice?"

Sheppard bites her lip but nods. "Yeah, that works. Just not you, Elizabeth. Let her convince the Xa that taking in the female Hekans is necessary." She thinks. "I suppose we might have to sweeten the deal, too." She knows her voice is tightening, but well, no helping that.

Elizabeth stares at her, eyes sharp but approving. "Yes, we have to prepare for negotiations. I would also like to be able to include a report on whether relocating the children to Xa is a viable option before I send the next databurst."

"I'll notify Cadman to put together her Xa team," Sheppard says. A grumbling sound from her stomach makes her grimace.

"And maybe stop by the mess," Elizabeth suggests.

Sheppard nods, a little embarrassed. "As soon as I've got the reports done."

Elizabeth takes a deep breath and says, "So, shall we discuss the mission focus tomorrow or wrap this up by deciding on the framework now?"

"Now," Sheppard replies immediately, even knowing that means not getting away until they have every detail hammered out and agreed on.

It'll be a while.

~*~

Four hours, Sheppard thinks in exhaustion. Four hours going over every detail of the proposed mission to Xa. Teyla finally left while Sheppard and Elizabeth were still going over what they could reasonably authorize Cadman to offer as an incentive.

To Sheppard, Xa still sounds like a better solution than they have a right to hope for. Beckett's preliminary report arrived while she was in Elizabeth's office, indicating the Hekan girls are all undernourished, dehydrated, and have the sort of damage that goes with institutionalized abuse, but they haven't been sexually molested – one horror she hadn't even thought of until reading the report. All but one are prepubescent, so they haven't been exposed to the neurotoxic properties of the skour yet, beyond being staked out in it for a day, and there is no nervous system damage. They'll all recover – physically – with proper care.

Sheppard stumbles out of the conference room long after Teyla leaves, leaden with exhaustion, vaguely remembering that she meant to hash things out with McKay. A glance at her watch shows it's closer to morning than night. The empty nausea in her stomach decides for her, though, and she touches the transporter destination that will take her closest to the mess hall.

The hastily made banner taped up over the doors – Welcome! – makes her smile tiredly. Most evidence of the kids has been cleaned up. Along with most of the food, she notes; breakfast hasn't been brought out yet. Just as well, the faint scent of cooking sausage she catches makes her stomach roll.

She wanders along the serving tables, looking for something that won't come back up when dumped in on top of too much coffee and stomach acid. Nods at Corporal Mundy, who is coming in off perimeter patrol. There are a couple of scientists at one of the tables, and Captain Leitmann is sitting with Teyla in a corner. The two of them look as weary as Sheppard feels, drooping over empty plates, talking to each other quietly, and she returns the wave Leitmann gives without joining them.

The last table yields an almost magical offering: a plate with two brownies – culinary gold in Atlantis – neatly covered in plastic and topped with a jaunty little piece of folded paper bearing Lorne's unmistakable printing: Property of Lt. Col. Sheppard & Dr. McKay – don't even think about touching this! It surprises a little chuff of laughter out of her.

It's also the perfect excuse to go find McKay and make peace by offering up the brownies. Even if it doesn't work, she'd rather have McKay ranting at her than sit alone in her quarters, replaying the sounds of Reyes dying heard over the radio. Seeing his body every time she closes her eyes.

Sheppard scoops up the plate and exits the mess, heading for Rodney's quarters. It doesn't occur to her to knock, not when it's this late. If McKay's asleep, she'll just leave the brownies. Soundless doors have their good points, she thinks as Rodney's slides open, and she can be pretty quiet herself – quiet enough that she avoids waking either of the two people asleep on Rodney's bed.

If Sheppard could move or think, she might reflect on how much Ronon has changed; how she's relaxed and trusting enough that instinct hasn't snapped her awake just from the change in airflow in the room. Of course, Ronon is part of the team and can probably tell it's Sheppard and not a threat, even in her sleep. But all of that comes a distant second to the shock Sheppard's feeling.

They're sprawled together on Rodney's bed, Ronon's arm over Rodney's waist, comfortable together. Fitted together. Ronon's boots are shoved half under the bed. Ronon's coat is tossed over the back of chair; Rodney's jacket is crumpled in a smoky smelling pile on the seat.

Her first thought is objective. They look good together. Pale skin, amber skin, folded around each other and relaxed in sleep. She knows how gentle each of them can be, has experienced it, imagines them together –

It feels like being kicked in the stomach. That's the way Rodney wrapped himself around her in bed. The way his hand rested on her arm. The two in front of her share the bed with the sort of unconscious familiarity that only comes from physical intimacy.

Ronon's spread over most of the bed, the same way she did on the pallet on Xa.

Sheppard takes a long step back, lets the door slide shut. Brushes her free hand over the lock, wishing just for once Atlantis hadn't given her special privileges, hadn't opened the locked door for her. Her other hand is still holding the covered plate of brownies. She stands there for a long moment, trying to decide what to do now. She doesn't have any special rights to either of them. There's no reason they can't be together.

"None of your business," she whispers out loud. So Rodney found someone else to talk to after leaving the infirmary, while she was stuck in conference with Elizabeth. Or more than talk – but she can't hold that against him, against either of them. It isn't like anyone is cheating on anyone. She called it quits.

It still feels like a kick in the gut.

Fuck.

Any appetite she had has disappeared. May as well take the plate and contents back to the mess. Hopefully someone will help themselves to it.

Okay, maybe that's a little petty. She'll leave Lorne's note. Odds are the brownies will still be there in the morning when Rodney arrives in the mess. Ronon can have hers. Maybe she'll choke on it. She's glad the corridors are empty this late. And to hell with leaving the note. She picks it off and balls it up, firing it at the garbage as hard as she can, so hard it rebounds out of the can. She doesn't pick it up.

Damn it.

It's not so much that Rodney and Ronon are sleeping with each other – well, fine, it is – but that they did so in secret. Behind the rest of the team's back. Hell, she and Rodney never hid anything, not from Ronon and Teyla.

Does Teyla know?

She steps through the doorway of the mess. Teyla's still sitting with Leitmann, back to the room, not even aware Sheppard's there. Even from where she is, Sheppard can see how relaxed Teyla is – obviously enjoying the captain's company. Probably smiling. Leitmann's laughing.

Sheppard sets the plate down carefully and turns for the doors again. No idea where she's going. Not her quarters. She's bone tired, but sleep's the farthest thing from her mind.

She almost runs into Cadman in the corridor. Bumps the wall dodging her.

"Colonel? Hey, I've got that stuff–"

Sheppard just wants to keep moving, but she pauses and makes the effort. "Lieutenant. Later."

Cadman's frowning at her. Sheppard schools her face into a blank.

"Colonel, are you okay?"

Sheppard nods automatically. She's thinking about reaching the transporter as soon as possible. She wants to run until there's nothing but the burn of her muscles. The air shifts as if Cadman had moved, reached out toward her. She twitches aside. "Fine," she says and starts walking. Walking is acceptable, even a brisk walk. She's the colonel, she has places to be, right?

She turns the corner and leaves Cadman out of sight. Th