John only got two heightened senses when his sentinel abilities kicked in at age fifteen, but they were enough to be a pain in the ass. He was spitting blood after taking an elbow to the face in the last quarter of a football practice that was swinging his side's way, so that was probably what turned the genes on—adrenaline and team spirit, and the hormonal stew of puberty.
Turned out, super taste and smell weren’t so great when they were raw and uncontrolled and you had blood in your mouth. John threw up all over the coach then got stuck in a zone until the hospital they took him to figured out what was happening.
He came to in a pastel-toned room, with someone in a white sterile suit and facemask leaning over him. He couldn't see them properly. "Who? Where'm–"
"You’re going to be okay, John. You're safe. Your senses came online. You’re at the SRC—the Sentinel Reception Centre."
"The what?" John tried to push himself up on his elbows, but the movement sent a wave of nausea through him. He retched. His throat felt raw and scraped and his nose burned and stung. "Why'm I...?"
"You're a sentinel, John. You've got heightened taste and smell. We'll need to test for any other enhanced senses. You're going to feel rough for a while, until you learn to control it."
"I'm what?" John stared up at the shrouded figure behind its white mask. "Am I infectious?"
The figure shook its head. "No, but you'll be easily overwhelmed so we need to keep stimuli to a minimum. I'm afraid you'll be with us for a while."
Great, and the football season had just started. John rolled away and promptly threw up over the side of the bed.
There were endless tests, and paperwork, and interviews. He only had heightened taste and smell, nothing else, which was a bummer. Even with just those two senses, he still had to stay in one of their clean rooms for a few weeks while the staff, dressed up like spacemen until he was handling it better, taught him basic techniques to manage his levels and avoid zoning, which was weird and boring, even if the room did have cable. With a porn lock on it of course, because his life sucked.
Dave brought him some Sudoku books, but Dad didn’t come by at all. He was too busy buying and selling companies so he sent a junior assistant from his office to call in once a week and see if John was still projectile vomiting or whether he’d graduated to being queasy and greenish. John managed to barf on his dad’s gofer one time, which was kind of satisfying, or it would have been if everything hadn’t smelled and tasted so overwhelmingly bad. After that he got an IV and anti-emetics, and the SRC stepped up his training. John figured his father had sicced the lawyers on them.
It was generally a shitty time, bringing back memories of his Mom’s hospital room at the end, when the chemo’d stopped working and she was nauseated, thin, and on an IV. That was probably another reason Dad didn’t visit him, but John didn’t work that part out until he was much older, in college.
There was talk of maybe finding him a guide, but it felt like the Center didn’t care much about it, or try too hard. John only had two enhanced senses, after all, and they weren’t the glamorous ones in the TV shows and movies, like sentinels with super hearing and eyesight who stopped crimes or found lost kids. People with heightened taste mostly had problems eating normal food, and those with a super sense of smell had to learn fast to dial it down if they wanted to avoid being shut-in loners. John figured the Center’d only find him a guide if it was killing him, and maybe not even then. Some sentinels never did find a compatible guide. Some didn't make it.
John decided early on he was going to beat his goddamn senses. So what if, even after all the training, he could only eat rice and pasta and white meat. He liked turkey on white with sentinel-friendly mayo. He dialed it down and dialed it down, and got used to bland foods and unscented soap and shampoo. Keeping a tight rein on himself was first a skill, then a habit, then a way of life. It was fine, he had it under control.
When he was near the end of high school, John's dad started going on about "making the most of your potential". He hired a consultant who was supposed to advise about which careers were the most lucrative for sentinels with John's sensory enhancements.
John hated the consultant, an oily man in a bow tie with no obvious qualifications for his supposed role, other than a background in PR. He charged John's dad a bomb for a glossy presentation that added nothing to what John had figured out for himself, because it was his goddamn life. Predictably, the idiot recommended careers in wine-tasting, perfume-testing, or as a chef.
Patrick Sheppard kicked the consultant out, none too happy. John waited in his father's study, tensed for the inevitable showdown. His dad had been trying to groom John to join Sheppard Energy, the family business, although talk about that had been overtaken by the drama when John's senses manifested.
His father returned and shut the study door, seating himself behind his big desk. He was frowning, annoyed. "Well, that was a waste of my money," he said.
"Yes, sir," John agreed smoothly, a technique he'd later perfect on a series of harried commanding officers.
His dad glared at him. "I supposed you could be a wine expert if you insist—that's marginally respectable. Or you could train as a chef. There must be a high-end restaurant chain somewhere we could acquire. But no son of mine's going to be a pansy-assed scent-sniffer."
"No, sir," John agreed, even though he was already pretty sure he was as pansy-assed as they came. "I don't think I could handle all the smells and tastes in a kitchen, anyway. It's not like I can eat spicy food."
"So these senses of yours are completely useless, then?" his father said accusingly. It wasn't as though he wanted John to have a career dictated by his senses, but he hated the idea of John wasting his potential. It was one of his favorite themes.
"It'd not like I asked for the damn things," John muttered sullenly, looking away.
His father snorted. "Well, at least they shouldn't get in the way too much at business school, or law school. You can still go to Harvard then join the company as a VP."
"No, sir," John said stubbornly.
Patrick Sheppard's face darkened. "Why not? As long as you eat the foods the doctors approved, and use that special shampoo, you should be able to live a relatively normal life."
"I'm not going to Harvard. I'm not joining Sheppard Energy." John tried to stare his father down. "It's not the senses—they're irrelevant. I want to fly, Dad. I want to be a pilot."
For that, super-taste and smell were useless. Why in hell couldn't he have gotten super-proprioception or positional sense? Knowing where he was in space to a spooky degree would have been useful, not like the shit senses he'd been handed.
"Not this nonsense again," his father said angrily.
"It's not nonsense," John said. "I'm going to college, then I'm joining the Air Force. I'm going to fly jets."
"With your record of throwing up every time your delicate constitution's upset?" his father said nastily. "I don't think so."
They argued about it until John left for Stanford, then his dad stopped talking to him altogether, which was a relief. Dave avoided him as well, though, which hurt for a while, then John dialed it all down, like he did with his senses. He was fine.
Like most of the bigger universities, Stanford had an SRC-sponsored scholarship program, and a sentinel-safe house near the campus. Anyway, John came into his mother's legacy after he turned eighteen, so it wasn't like his dad could make him toe the line. Having sentinel senses had fucked things up with his dad, but John figured they were never going to be best buddies. Patrick Sheppard wanted to run John's life, and John had had enough of random genetic crap controlling him to let anyone tell him what to do, not even his father.
He shared the house at Stanford with Anna, a girl with super-hearing who wasn't a music major, like John initially assumed she'd be, but a physics student studying harmonics. She also got funding from the DoD so John figured she was headed for some kind of freaky weapons research. He listened to music through headphones and kept his voice low or said nothing at all, especially after being surprised into a belly-laugh one time, which left Anna rolling on the floor in pain. After that he got better at using body language and his eyebrows to communicate, which worked pretty well.
John joined ROTC and mostly kept to himself. He used his special scent-free products, ate his turkey on white, his oatmeal, lima beans and potatoes. Neither he nor Anna had guides but they looked out for each other.
Salt water was a challenge at first, the intense salinity almost zoning John out, but he soon learned to suppress it, and surfing became his main pastime. It was a solitary activity if you wanted it to be and didn't socialize on the beach or go to parties. John liked sitting way out beyond the swells on his board where everything was clean and fresh, the city's pollution swept away by the ocean breeze. Sometimes he almost felt normal.
He didn't feel so normal when he was around other guys. He was studying the subjects he'd need to be a pilot—you didn't get to be an officer without a masters degree. So he did math, and physics, and engineering—all male-heavy classes. ROTC was mostly male as well.
It wasn't that John didn't like guys; he liked them too much. That was a huge no-no in ROTC of course, and risky even away from his wannabe-military acquaintances. It got harder and harder to resist, and John figured his senses manifesting in adolescence and then the years of sickness and isolation had postponed all that teenage crap with the hair-trigger hard-ons, wet dreams and hopeless lustful crushes. Well, he was sure as hell making up for it now.
He could only jerk off when Anna was out, because, hello, roommate with super-hearing. Even if he did it in the shower she'd probably know. He didn't get the house to himself anywhere near enough, although that probably meant less wear and tear on his dick.
Finally, he went to a bar he'd heard rumors about, called simply, "Stick". He dialed everything way down before going inside, which was just as well; it was a miasma of sweaty, dancing bodies, cologne, and cigarette smoke. At least there was no chance of meeting anyone from ROTC here—this was a totally different crowd. John was overwhelmed by the throbbing music, edging through to prop himself at the end of the bar where he stared, wide-eyed, at the faces sporting both stubble and eyeliner, the gyrating male bodies. There was a lot of black clothing and leather—and okay, he'd been right to wear his black jeans and tee. His pants were a little tight, though. He adjusted himself surreptitiously, already half-hard.
"What can I get you?"
"Huh?" John turned, startled. The barman, a skinny blond with multiple piercings, raised an eyebrow. "Oh, um, a Bud. Thanks." He could usually manage to keep bland beers like Buds down.
He'd had a couple drinks and was feeling more relaxed—John never drank, usually, so he was a complete lightweight—when a guy about ten years older parked himself at the bar beside him. The guy ordered a foreign beer and drank some in a slightly showy manner with his head thrown back and his Adam's apple working. John watched him appreciatively.
He turned to John. "You’re new here. Buy you a beer?"
"Oh, I," John stammered. "Um, yeah, I've been drinking Buds."
"Sure. Another?" The guy waved the barman over and paid for the drinks. He stuck his hand out. "I'm Brian."
"John." He shook hands then picked up the bottle and drank some carefully, not daring to chug it. The guy, Brian, was tall and well-muscled, with brown hair in a mullet cut. He was wearing black leather pants and jacket over a white tee. When he turned, John could see the flash of a gold earring. His nose was kind of big but he was reasonably good-looking. John tried not to check him out too obviously, but he caught the guy eyeing him and shifted, feeling his cock swell.
Brian grinned. "First time?"
John's eyes narrowed. He wasn't a damn virgin. He'd had a girlfriend, briefly, before he graduated high school. That's how he knew he wasn't into women. Plus he'd traded handjobs with Joe Kunstner under the bleachers in his senior year a few times.
Brian held up a hand. "Hey, cool it. I meant, first time at this place. The club."
John took a breath and let his shoulders relax. "Sorry. Yeah, first time here."
They drank companionably, watching the dancers. Brian turned to face John, one elbow propped on the bar, and John tried not to glance down at his crotch. He was pretty sure Brian had a hard-on, too.
After a while Brian downed the last of his beer. "You soaked up enough atmosphere? My place is quieter, more comfortable."
Okay, that was quick... but he'd come here for this, hadn't he? Heart thumping in time with the disco beat, John nodded. "Yeah, let's go." His ears burned red as he pushed through the throng after Brian, but no one gave them a second glance.
John expected it to be awkward at Brian's apartment. He'd lost his erection on the drive over when Brian had said, casually, that he was clean, he'd been tested and he was fine, and what about John? John muttered that yeah, he was clean too. He figured he was, 'cause he kind of was a virgin with men, and you couldn't catch anything from a handjob, right?
Inside, Brian gave him no time to panic, just pushed him up against the closed front door and kissed him, then slid to his knees, looking up. John got hard again real fast when Brian unzipped his jeans and eased out John's cock, then sucked him in expertly.
He held John there against the door, one arm across John's belly, holding him still, holding him up when John's knees trembled and his eyes rolled back in his head. John heard himself moaning, little high-pitched helpless sounds he hadn't known he could make, but all he could feel was Brian's hot mouth around him, sucking and swallowing, Brian's tongue curling around his shaft, Brian's hand pumping him, then fondling his balls and sliding further back to, oh god, touch him there–
He was coming before he knew it, hips stuttering against the restraining arm, a wordless cry escaping him. Brian sucked him through it, then rocked back on his heels, grinning up at him and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. John could only pant and stare down, dazed, like a puppet with its strings cut.
Brian got to his feet, and pulled John, stumbling on legs that still didn't work right, down the hall and into a bedroom. He pushed John down to sit on the bed and went into an en suite bathroom. John heard water running, a toilet flush. His soft cock was hanging out of his jeans, and he didn't know whether he should zip himself up or just get undressed.
The light clicked off in the bathroom and Brian came in and switched on a soft beside lamp, although John'd have preferred staying in the dark as maybe that way Brian wouldn't see how inexperienced he was. Brian had partly undressed, and only had the white tee on. His cock was hard. It looked pretty big, to John.
Brian ruffled his hair and sat on the bed beside him. "I'd love to fuck you, but I don't think I'd last that long, kid," he said. "So it'll have to be blowjobs all round. Okay? Maybe we can try something else in the morning."
John cleared his throat nervously. "Uh, yeah. Sure." He gestured at the wall. "You wanna?"
Brian chuckled. "Nah. My knees've had enough of a workout for one night. C'mon, get down here and suck me." He spread his legs and pushed on John's shoulder, encouragingly.
John went down to his knees on the rug and knee-walked closer, eyeing the cock jutting up from a nest of dark brown pubic hair. He put both hands around it as though he was Mick Jagger and wet his lips, then opened his mouth as wide as he could and slid it down over the head, sucking hard.
Salt and sharp meatiness and a host of intense flavors assaulted him, and shit, he'd forgotten to dial it down after he'd come and the smells were... the tastes... he was distantly aware of someone talking, of hands on him, but time stretched out and he was just a mouth, a tongue, a nose, as he drowned in sensation. The hands on him got rougher and there was a distant cry, then his senses were flooded by bitterness so intense it snapped him out of the zone.
He fell back, choking and gagging, come running down his chin, then he was crawling on all fours toward the bathroom. He didn't make it, throwing up on the carpet while Brian yelled at him.
Later, when Brian had thrown him out and he was trudging down the street, sick and shaky and freaked out about having zoned and lost it and made a fucking mess of everything, he cursed his stupid super-senses. They were no use, just a huge goddamn hassle.
John decided Anna would have to deal. He wasn't fucking anything but his own right hand after that humiliation. Besides, he'd be in the Air Force soon, so he might as well get used to it.
The next time he hated his senses was when he got pulled out of pilot training to meet with some big-shot special forces colonel with a New Orleans drawl. The Air Force knew he was a sentinel, of course. They liked sentinels when they behaved, but sentinel instincts didn't answer to the chain of command, so it didn't always work.
Sure enough, the colonel wanted to attach John to a top secret research lab to work on a chemical weapons program. The brass figured his super smell and taste would be just the thing to detect weapons of mass destruction.
"Is this a defensive program, sir? Or weapons development?"
"That's way above your pay-grade, cadet. It goes like this: the brass say jump, y'all say 'how high'."
John held himself rigidly at attention. "I joined up so's to fly, Colonel. So thanks but no thanks. I'll stay where I am."
"That ain't how the military works, son. You don't get to pick an' choose."
John licked his lips. "Talk to the SRC, sir. You'll find there's a clause in the agreement with the armed forces. Sentinels can't be forced to use their senses outside the normal line of duty. Not in experimental projects, especially with WMDs. Not unless they agree."
That was his first black mark. Not the weapons program refusal; the SRC wouldn't have let that stand, but he got written up for insubordination.
The black mark dogged him, and his COs mistrusted what they didn't understand so he collected more negative reports. Plus, he cared a hell of a lot more about his teammates than the rules, and it showed. He'd never have made it if he hadn't been a natural, flying like he'd been born with wings.
He worked hard to dial down his reactions to the stinks of jet fuel and tarmac, the smell of old socks, sweat and semen in the barracks. The food was mostly bland enough, and there were sentinel-safe MREs to fall back on. He'd battled nausea all his life, off and on, and he had no trouble with airsickness or pulling Gs. Flying took him away from the troublesome tastes and scents of the land below. It never made him zone.
In Afghanistan he was part of a squad flying rescue helos. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and his teammates were everything. When bad intel got them shot down, no force on Earth could stop John going after them, even though they were all dead except Holland, and Holland died in his arms before they got back to John's bird.
There was a hearing after that, with an SRC defence lawyer. They offered him an honorable discharge to get rid of him, but he had nowhere to go, so he took the black mark and stayed. Antarctica was supposed to be a punishment, or a dead end, but John liked it. It was clean and harsh and sterile. It suited him. He spent some time off base when he could, hiking when the weather allowed, and otherwise kept to himself.
He figured they'd leave him there to serve out his time. There were worse places to be.
Places like the Pegasus galaxy, after you've woken the Wraith and mercy-killed your commanding officer. But, on the other hand, the city. Spaceships that slipped through the 'gate like a knife through blue jello. The whole amazing chutes 'n ladders 'gate system itself.
John knew that some sentinels couldn't handle 'gate travel. The wormhole pushed them into a zone that even their guide struggled to pull them back from. One or two without a guide hadn't come out of it at all. He knew, because the SRC advisor had given him the low-down after Elizabeth Weir invited him along. The SRC kept tabs on the whereabouts of sentinels, even unexciting ones like John, so the SGC'd had to read them into the program long since, and they briefed all recruits.
John listened to the warnings, but he couldn't see how his taste and smell could get hyped up by a wormhole. Huh—maybe it was a good thing after all that he didn't have super-positional sense? It wasn't like he'd needed it to fly anything he'd tried, so far.
He was right; going through the 'gate was briefly disorienting, but no worse for him than anyone else. Atlantis herself was practically built for sentinels, with her environmental controls and air-scrubbers, fresh ocean breezes and clean, hypoallergenic alloys. He had a stash of sentinel-friendly shampoo and soap, and a bunch of genius chemists if that ran out before they made contact with Earth again. He could handle the mild root vegetables and beans they traded for off-world and the mess served the usual bland institutional food, so that was okay.
Missions were quite another thing. The food was a crapshoot, so John ate sparingly if at all, his senses well dialed-down. The Wraith had kept a lot of worlds at a medieval level of development, which meant mud and stink and primitive, if any, plumbing. He tried to tune out the stenches, but it didn't always work.
"Sheppard! Sheppard wake up!" A distant voice, but all he knew was the filthy privy-bucket in the corner of the cell, its miasma filling his senses.
"Oh god, is it a head injury? Did they hit you on the head? Don't do this to me, Sheppard, I rely on you for the derring-do part of our rescues. I'm the brains and you're the brawn, right? Well, Ford and Teyla too, and they'd better have made it back through the 'gate or we're fucked... Damn it, Sheppard, stop gaping vacantly like that, it's freaking me out." There were faint sounds of fingers snapping. The voice was still distant, but a little closer and he felt hands touching him. "I can't feel any bumps on your head—no worse than usual, anyway—and if we're going to make a break I need you mobile, so you have to... oh wait. Is this that zoning thing you told us about? How do I get you out of it?" John wanted to say something but he was too deep in the zone. Anyway, the rapid, frightened muttering in his ear was working. "Maybe I should slap you? No, too risky. With my luck you'd wake up and punch me in the face. Damn it, I should have listened when Carson told us about zoning. Smelling salts? No, you've got smell and taste enhanced, that'd probably kill you. Sheppard? I don't know what to do! You have to come around! Sheppard? Please?"
"Rodney?" he croaked, dragging himself back to consciousness and finally getting control of his senses, locking them down hard. "H'long was I out?"
"I don't know, ten minutes? Too long, anyway! Was that a zone? Don't do that to me again, it was highly disconcerting and I nearly had a panic attack. I don't like enclosed spaces, as you very well know."
"Yeah, me neither, not when they smell like this one." John breathed shallowly to control the nausea, then risked a small swallow of water. He offered the canteen to Rodney, who drank a little and handed it back. John glanced across at Rodney, pressed against his right side, their backs to the cell wall. "Thanks, buddy. You pulled me out of it."
Rodney looked startled. "I did? Out of the zone?" He looked briefly pleased. "Well of course I did." There was a pause, then he said, "Ah, just for future reference, what did I do? In case I need to replicate the conditions—not that you're allowed to do that again, mind."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to but the stink in here... my control slipped." John smiled at him tiredly. "I think it was the talking. It was kind of like a lifeline I used to pull myself back."
"Ha, like a homing signal, yes." Rodney paused, considering. "We should practice, back in Atlantis. Run tests, see what works best, train up Teyla and Ford."
Great, more tests and training, like at the SRC. Pegasus was dangerous, though, and he couldn't afford zone-outs. "Okay, it's a deal." John lifted his head. Even without super-hearing he could hear distant yelling and bursts of P-90 fire. He scrambled to his feet and hauled Rodney up. "C'mon, Rodney, the cavalry's here."
Teyla and Ford could get John out of a zone in a pinch, but it took a lot longer. Teyla was better than Ford, which was probably because John felt weird letting a junior officer look after him like that. Teyla's voice was calming, and she was good at talking quietly for as long as it took, telling him local legends, or singing. Calming wasn't really what he needed, though, when he was zoned-out. He wasn't stressed—well, after it ended he was, and pissed with himself for letting it happen again—but at the time he didn't feel anything except lost, immersed in his senses.
John figured Rodney was the best at it precisely because he wasn't calming. He ranted and pontificated and grumbled and freaked out and was generally annoyingly Rodney-like and somehow, that worked, hooking John back out of a zone faster than anything. Maybe John was just used to Rodney's monologues, used to Rodney chivying him. It was kind of a Pavlovian response by now. Anyway, his team were there for him, and John reckoned they were better than any guide.
It took a while to get over losing Ford. Hell, John didn't know that he'd ever really accept it. Ronon settled in gradually, but he wasn't a talker. Still, after a few weeks Teyla insisted on training him up and he turned out to be as good at it as she was. John surfaced slowly from a practice zone-out in the gym, to find Ronon rumbling away at him, reciting some sort of epic ballad about chieftains and betrayal and lost love.
"The Fall of Anyas Hakken" Ronon said, when John asked. "It's pretty long. Had to learn it in second school, for a prize."
"Educational," John said, not that he'd caught much of the detail.
Ronon shrugged. "The battle stanzas are good. Lots of beheadings."
So the team settled into their new configuration, and John being a sentinel mostly didn't matter. Until one time when it did.
It was the usual welcome feast, with friendly locals who kept sheeplike animals and were keen to trade their wool for medicines like aspirin and penicillin. John had dialed his senses partway down, but he didn't like suppressing them too much off-world in case he lost the edge they gave him in sensing trouble. The scent of gun-oil from a seemingly unarmed welcome-party had saved them in the past, and Wraith worshippers had a particularly nasty odor—maybe it was the enzyme.
Rodney was interrogating one of the elders about whether there was citrus in the food, earning the usual frowning incomprehension. The woman he was badgering was looking increasingly harried and John caught Teyla's eye. Much more of this and they might lose the trade deal.
"Hey, buddy, you know we haven't encountered any citrus here so far. Maybe it's just an Earth thing?"
"Right, so I'm to risk my life based on your totally unfounded and unproven theories, Colonel!" Rodney snapped.
"C'mon, sit down and quit hassling Nonya," John said firmly, waggling his eyebrows charmingly at the offended elder in an attempt to placate her. He dragged Rodney away and plonked him down at the table. "Look, I'll be your taster, okay? Like for a Mandarin Emperor or something."
Rodney shuddered. "Don't mention mandarins."
John rolled his eyes and broke off a chunk of flatbread, scooping up some hummus-like dip. "Mmm," he said, "tasty."
It wasn't made of chickpeas, but it was some sort of bean, roasted and lightly spiced and ground, and it was good, with a complex mix of flavors. John's brain was rolling around happily in the aromas and tastes when it hit him and he lashed out, knocking the piece of paste-covered bread from Rodney's hand seconds before Rodney stuffed it in his mouth.
"The fuck?" yelped Rodney, glaring and shaking his hand where John had hit him. "What's wrong with you?"
"Lemon. There's lemon in it, or something similar," John managed, his heart pounding. The sharp taste filled his mouth now as he focused on it, committing it to memory. He'd seen Rodney go into anaphylaxis once, after the siege when they were flooded with personnel fresh from Earth and one of the new chefs hadn't got the no-citrus-in-the-stew memo. He never wanted to see Rodney fight for breath again, especially not on the wrong side of the 'gate. He'd never told Rodney, but while Rodney was still in the infirmary after that particular near-death experience John had gotten one of the botanists to make him a series of 20 beakers with successive dilutions of a drop of lemon juice. He'd practiced identifying it right down to homeopathic levels.
Teyla was bending over them, and Ronon had his hand on his blaster. Rodney was pale and thin-lipped. "Apparently the Colonel detected citrus in the food." He gestured at the bowl of innocuous-looking bean paste.
"Are you well, Dr. McKay?" Teyla asked, concerned.
"Yes, yes, Sheppard caught it in the nick of time." Rodney eyed the feast nervously. "I'd better not risk any of it, though. They might use citrus in other things."
"I will explain to our hosts," Teyla said. "I will only be a moment."
She huddled with Nonya and another elder, a tall white-haired man. He waved his hand at a servant who scurried off through a curtain, and returned with a bowl, which Teyla brought over. She placed it on the table. "Do not touch these, Dr. McKay. They are raka fruits, which I had heard mentioned when I was a girl, but they are rare, and grow on few worlds. Nonya and Tebbin think they are the likely culprit, although they have never before heard of anyone falling ill after eating them."
Rodney leaned away from the bowl, squinting at it sidelong. "They look kind of like limes," he said.
John took one of the small green fruits and sniffed it cautiously. The sharp scent, now inextricably labeled DANGER in his brain, filled his nose. He dialed it down; there was enough going on without him zoning as well. "Yeah, that's what I smelled. Can we take a few home to get them analyzed?"
They had to cut the feast short, not knowing if all the food preparation surfaces might be contaminated. As they left, Teyla reassured the elders the trade deal was secure. John figured the locals probably thought they were paranoid hypochondriacs. Most people did, until they saw someone like Rodney turning blue and choking.
It was citrus—a new species, the botanists said, like a lime crossed with a kumquat. At least they had something specific to be paranoid about, at the next off-world feast. Rodney still made John play royal taster, which he bitched about, but secretly liked. At least his goddamn senses were finally good for something.
John would do anything for any of his team, but increasingly, that went double for Rodney. Pegasus kept trying to kill them, and they kept dodging the bullet, and being a sentinel hardly ever crossed John's mind. They were just his team, and even Rodney's habit of feeding John spoonfuls of dishes before he ate them mostly felt kind of kinky, and tended to make grandmotherly types fuss over them approvingly.
Then Rodney was kidnapped by a Genii splinter group and John went quietly insane. He paced, unable to eat or sleep, while Radek hacked a series of DHDs until they geared up and fell upon the rebels from a pair of cloaked jumpers like the wrath of God. Later, John realized Ronon's job in the op hadn't been to retrieve Rodney from the disused complex—Lorne's team had managed that just fine. Ronon's job, and Teyla's, had been to stop John going postal and slaughtering everyone between him and Rodney.
John was still silent and tightly wound as he flew their jumper back to the city. Rodney chattered away, made voluble by relief, recounting his adventures from where he sat wrapped in a blanket on one of the rear benches, tucked in beside Teyla. He was entirely unharmed, but John kept having to turn and look back at him to check, until Ronon, riding shotgun, said, "He's okay, Sheppard." John just shook his head.
The infirmary checks were interminable, and then John followed Rodney back to Rodney's room and pushed inside after him. Even Rodney'd figured out something was wrong by now, and he stood quietly as John stripped him and checked meticulously for injuries.
John was close to zoning, exhausted and strung-out as he was, and in the end he just wrapped his arms around Rodney, sank his nose into his neck and let Rodney fill his senses.
Rodney put up with it for a couple of minutes before he caved. "Are you zoning? Do I have to talk you down from primitive throwback land? I'm fine, John, honestly, not a scratch on me. As you've just seen pretty comprehensively, and okay, I was planning on having a shower but I usually undress myself. Are you with me yet? John?"
John pulled back reluctantly from the haven of Rodney's neck. "Shower," he agreed, because Rodney still smelled like the Genii, and that was wrong. He started to strip.
"Right, sure, showers for everyone, why not," Rodney said, blinking.
Rodney fretted about his sensitive skin so the bathroom was stocked with hypoallergenic products that John could safely use. In the shower Rodney washed John's hair as though John was the one who'd been abducted and threatened with broken fingers if he didn't build a bomb. John soaped Rodney up as well, making sure all traces of the Genii were sluiced away.
"You’re such an idiot," Rodney said, drying him off after the shower. "Why didn't you say anything?" John rolled his eyes and Rodney sighed. "Yes, yes, stupid question."
In bed, John curled around Rodney, playing the big spoon.
"I hope there's going to be sex at some point," Rodney said after a while. "This isn't some weird sentinel bonding thing, is it?" He wriggled against John, getting comfortable. "Because it's not like I'm your guide or any of that nonsense."
"Might be," John said, not that he cared what label anyone used. Rodney was Rodney, and he was John's.
"Oh for–" Rodney squirmed around to face John. "Look, there's no scientific basis to all that crap about guides. Sandberg was an anthropologist, for fuck's sake! An anthropologist with an unpublished dissertation! Next you'll be telling me you're seeing spirit animals!"
John just grinned and leaned in for a kiss. Rodney tasted as good as he smelled, and John got lost in his mouth for a while, until they were both hard and gasping for air. He worked his way down Rodney's body, sticking his nose and his tongue in every delicious crease and hollow until Rodney was writhing.
He eyed Rodney's dick. Rodney tasted so good he figured he'd manage it someday, but not yet, not now. He slid up again. "Sorry, I can't–" he waved a hand. "Blowjobs. It's too...I had a bad experience in college."
"Oh Christ. Tell me you've had sex since then?" Rodney's face was creased with consternation.
John felt the tips of his ears go hot. His traumatized resolution after the fiasco with Brian hadn't lasted, but mutual handjobs were standard fare in the Air Force so it hadn't been an issue. "Yeah, 'course I have. Just, I don't do that." He pulled a face. "There was barfing."
"Yeah, TMI," Rodney said quickly. "Well, maybe we can work up to that. I'll train you to handle it."
John's cock liked the idea of Rodney training him. It liked the idea a lot. He reached down and stroked it, and then Rodney's cock, which was very interested as well.
"Wait, wait," Rodney said. He pushed John back and scrabbled in the nightstand, finding a tube of lube which he used to coat both their cocks. Then he took them in his fist and began jerking them both off. John fell back on the bed, moaning, pushing up into Rodney's hand. He lurched up and they kissed again, then John rolled them and covered Rodney, pinning Rodney's hands beside his head and just moving against him, their cocks sliding deliciously in the hollow of hip and thigh.
"Are you growling?" Rodney panted, sounding incredulous and turned on. "Oh god, you are!" But John was gone, his hips pistoning, face jammed in the crook of Rodney's neck as pleasure dragged him under and Rodney shuddered and cried out.
"Oof, you're too heavy to be a duvet you big oaf, get off," Rodney said, too soon, shoving him aside. John subsided, grumbling, then submitted to being cleaned up and arranged to Rodney's liking as the big spoon again. He sighed happily, curling around Rodney's back and draping an arm over him.
"Yours'd be a cat," he said.
"What would?" Rodney put his hand over John's.
"Your spirit animal," John said drowsily.
"Hmph," Rodney snorted derisively. "And I suppose yours'd be an eagle, or a, a condor, or some such."
"Nah," John said into the back of his neck where the Rodney-smell was strongest. He figured he'd finally made some sort of peace with his sentinel senses.
"What is it then?" Rodney asked, yawning.
"Not telling," John said, yawning in turn.
"Load of... clap...trap," muttered Rodney, falling asleep.
John smiled into his neck.
Across the other side of the room, in the shadows, the bright-eyed crow looked back at him, and bobbed its head.