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Where the Brave Dare Not Go

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  • Drug and background check are required, no exceptions.
  • Must have reliable transportation and clean DMV record.
  • Minimum 2 years Mig and Tig Experience in a welding shop (your garage does not count)
  • A crafting background is a plus.

  •  

    John stared at the screen. "A crafting background...?" he muttered, shaking his head before hitting the back button on his browser. He didn't even know why he was looking at this category; all the manufacturing jobs either called for skills he didn't have or things he didn't have.

    Like a Driver's License that without a big damn shiny holographic W stamped on the bottom right hand corner of his picture.

    Schilling Manufacturing is an equal opportunity employer. M/F/D/V/W

     

    "Sure you are," he said. He scribbled the information down, but he was pretty sure that, while he might actually get an interview with them, just so their HR department could show that they really were an EOE, he wouldn't get the job.

    He shouldn't have been doing this right now, not at this point in his cycle when he was restless and edgy and his temper felt frayed and worn. But really, he was kind of tired of fighting to make ends meet, and deep down underneath it all was the feeling that, at forty-two, he was going nowhere.

    There wasn't anything else that he even remotely qualified for and he had a few more minutes, so he checked his email. Spam, spam, yet another letter from the Courage Campaign: did he know that the Governor had used his line veto to cut money from....

    He trashed it without reading all of it. Of course he knew; really, anyone who was either surprised or expected the vetoes to be overridden was an idiot.

    There was also a note from Ronon asking if he was busy over the weekend and, if not, did he remember that there was a WFC meeting on Saturday afternoon?

    John felt a little guilty about forgetting the meeting and even more guilty when he realized he was kind of glad he couldn't make it. Ronon was his best friend but the thought of going to an organizational meeting full of young and earnest kids was too much right now.

    Wrong time of month, he wrote back. I'm spending the weekend up at the ranch.

    Shutting down his laptop, he tucked it into his backpack, grabbed his keys and headed out the door. It was light outside, which made it a little easier to walk to work at six in the morning. The air was cool and John's slightly heightened sense of smell caught the scent of gardens and breakfasts, and then the bitter, rich smell of roasting coffee hung over everything the closer he got to work."

    The evening shift had left everything pretty clean; still, John wiped the glass of the pastry and gelato display cases, wrinkling his nose at the acrid scent of the spray cleaner. He moved on to the counter that held all the extras, filling the pitchers of half-and-half and milk and restocking the coffee stirrers, straws, cup sleeves, lids and all the different sweeteners.

    He checked the newspaper basket, but someone had already cleared it of yesterday's papers; things must have been slow the night before. From there, the next stop was the bulletin board. John pulled down the ads for a seminar and a handful of garage sales that had taken place last weekend and rearranged things so that the flyer from the Lambda Center wasn't covered by "seeking roommate" ads.

    If you

  • are Were
  • are a non smoker
  • do not drink heavily
  • do not use drugs
  • do not have any chronic illnesses
  • are not on any kind of long term medication, either prescription or over the counter
  •  

    Then you might are a candidate for a new clinical trial. We are seeking to develop a course of medicine that will enable Were to control and even limit their changing cycles. We will offer compensation and full medical treatment for the duration of the trial.

     

    John stared at the piece of paper--yet another fucking study, like he and people like him were ill and could be fucking cured or something. He stood there for a minute, filled with the urge to crumble the paper up and toss it in the trash, but then he took a deep breath and pushed the anger down and read the rest of it. These people were connected with the university. They weren't likely to be crackpots or anything, and they certainly weren't responsible for John's own issues.

    He pinned the paper back to the board and then turned away. Shawn had come in from the back and was unlocking the door, and it was time for John to get behind the register.

    The morning rush passed in a haze of lattes, blended mochas, scones and "do you want room for cream?" He chatted with the regulars, smiled, just a little, at the college girls who tired to flirt with him and made change without looking at the register.

    Things calmed down around nine, so John was able to leave the register alone and clean up some. He took a big pitcher of water outside and refilled the dog bowl, then emptied the ash trays. Coming back in, he switched the CDs out, slipping The Sun Years and Document in before grabbing the sports section of the paper out of the basket. He scowled as he took in the baseball standings.

    The rest of his shift--a long one because he couldn't work for the next four days--passed as it usually did, and if he glanced at the bulletin board every time he passed it to see if anyone had torn a phone number off the bottom of the university study, well, that was just curiosity.

    Two phone numbers were gone by the end of the day. John reached up and let his fingers rest on a paper tag, but he didn't actually tear the number off the flyer.

    * * *

    John stopped by CoffeeWerks on his way up to the ranch the next day. By now the smell of the coffee roasting in the back was almost overwhelming, but this early on a Saturday morning, there would still be plain bagels available. Anything else would taste weird and wrong right now, and John hated changing on an empty stomach.

    He said a quiet "hi" to David, who looked incredibly hungover, and admired the new ink--"Do I dare to eat a peach?"--on the inside of Laurel's left arm.

    "I should get 'Shall I part my hair behind?'" John said. David looked confused but Laurel just laughed.

    "Can you actually part your hair?" she asked, and John shook his head.

    "Only if I let it get pretty long, and then it's kind of floppy."

    He'd finished the bagel and almost all of a bottle of water by the time he drove his battered truck down the long dirt road to the old farm house that everyone in the county still called "the old Jaeger place."

    "Hi, John," Vicky said, glancing up from her book as John came into the reception area. "How are you doing?"

    "Itchy," John said and she gave him a look.

    "Cutting it a little close, aren't you?"

    "Yeah, I guess," John said, taking the key she held out. "How're you?"

    "Not bad. Cassie finished the quarter with all As and Dan's taking the kids to Disney World next week."

    "Cool," John said. "They're just about the right age for Space Mountain." He turned the key over in his hands. "Who else is up here this weekend?"

    "It's slow. Only Dr. Z and Anne Teldy." She looked over the big calendar on the desk. "Oh and Chuck will be by on Monday."

    "Thanks, Vicky." John gave her a smile and headed for the stairs. Zelenka wouldn't be a problem; he was energetic but not very aggressive and tended to spend most of his time running around barking and occasionally chasing his own tail just because he could. John didn't know Teldy very well, but she was an ursine of some kind and during the summer, she spent a fair amount of time down in the creek fishing.

    Chuck was a local from one of the big farms up the road who came to the ranch to keep from scaring his own stock. Anywhere else, the two of them in the same space might have been a problem, but he had a pretty good notion of territory and tended to stay out of John's way.

    The big old master bedroom was familiar; it didn't matter how many times John told the staff that they didn't have to reserve it for him, they did anyway. And in a way, he found it oddly comforting, not quite a home away from home, but only because he really didn't think of his apartment as home. He had a copy of the picture of his great-aunt and great-uncle sitting with their arms around a small, dirty kid with impossible hair and one of Great-Aunt Matilda in her other form, curled up in front of the fireplace downstairs, but he didn't hang them on the walls of his apartment.

    John was a firm believer in compartmentalization.

    He had cut it close; less than an hour after he arrived, the itching suddenly got almost unbearable. John pulled his clothes off, tossing them onto the easy chair in the corner of the room. He paced until his muscles started to ripple and twist under his skin. Sitting down on the floor, he gritted his teeth against the pain, but soon he was groaning helplessly. The next five minutes were an agonizing blur of screams and pain, but then, with a final shudder, it was done.

    John remains lying down for a moment, relaxing in the sudden absence of pain and then he uncurls and gets up on all fours. Stretching until he feels loose and comfortable, he opens his mouth and tests the air.

    Someone's been in the room since he was last here, and he hisses a little before moving around the place, rubbing his cheek on things--the bed, the doorway to the bathroom, the dresser and easy chair--to scent mark them. Maybe he dosen't have to be quite as thorough as he is, but dammit, this is his room. After he's taken care of that, he drinks a fair amount of the water set out in a big bowl on the bathroom floor and then nudges the window open until he can get through it.

    The roof of the front porch is right under the window; John jumps out onto it and from there down to the ground. He pauses to mark the porch and then rubs up against the bumper of his truck. By the time he's finished, he feels a little more grounded and settled into his body.

    Stretching one more time, he lets his mind go blank and takes off, sprinting toward the lightly wooded end of the property. It feels good to let go and just run for the hell of it, and he keeps it up until he runs out of steam. He's close to the fence that marks the boundary of the property and he takes a few minutes to sniff along it, snarling a little at the scent of some other big cat, one he doesn't know. Probably an animal, he thinks.

    This calls for something a little more serious than scent glands, and John pauses. He really needs to make it clear that this is his territory or there could be problems, but still.... With a mental sigh, he lets his instincts come to the surface and then scrapes up a pile of dirt near the corner of the fence. Once the pile's high enough, he pisses on it.

    There's still that disconnect; in the back of his head he knows it's a ridiculous instinct, but then, as he moves away, he smells something different, something that grabs all of his attention.

    Rabbit!

    The rabbit is incredibly easy to kill and it smells a little like Human as well, but John only realizes that someone's released it for him after he's settled down to eat it. He doesn't mind; that's part of the deal, and while he enjoys killing while he's doing it, he's just not as into the whole "thrill of the kill" thing as some Were are.

    The next three days go quickly. John actually messes around with Radek just a little, chasing things and one another, but it's something he can only do when he's full--it's not that he's going to attack Zelenka and eat him, just that a little part of him wants to--and John usually prefers to nap right after he eats.

    He also hangs out with Teldy, and that's easier; they spend time dozing in the sun and once, while he's lounging on a rock near the creek, she deftly slings a fish in his direction. He can't remember ever having had fish in his Were form, but it's tasty, even if it is a little colder than the food he's used to.

    There's a brief thunderstorm one night, but he chooses to hang out in the barn instead of going in the house. He isn't all that wild about being wet, but he doesn't like being in the house, either. Even though the furniture is all sturdy and old, he takes up a lot of room and he worries about breaking things. The barn's a good compromise, and he likes the support beam with the heavy rope wrapped around it; it feels good under his claws, better than a tree trunk.

    The time passes and then he starts to feel weird and itchy. He makes one last round of the property and then heads into the house. Vicky's husband Hank is on desk duty; he says "Hey, John" before turning back to his sudoku book.

    John yowls his way through the change, forcing himself to remember that lashing out with his claws won't make it any better or easier. It's tough because it hurts like a sonofabitch and the pain clouds his reason, leaving only instinct.

    When it was over and he was left panting on the floor, he felt drained and exhausted, and only the fact that sleeping down here would leave him stiff and sore kept him from dropping off right where he was.

    He managed to brush his teeth and splash water on his face before he crawled into bed. It was late afternoon--two-thirty by the beside clock--but he fell into a dreamless sleep almost instantly.

    He slept until six the next morning, when hunger and the fact that he smelled pretty bad drove him out of the bed. The shower felt great; he stood under the water after he'd washed up and just let it run over him. He'd have stayed even longer, but his sense of smell was still acute enough that he could smell coffee and bacon. It was enough to get him out of the shower and dressed.

    Vicky was in the kitchen, and she smiled at him before setting a cup of coffee down at the table. "Pancakes or French toast? And how many eggs?"

    "Pancakes," John said. "And three eggs please."

    She caught him up on what her family was up to then moved on to the three ball games he'd missed over the weekend. "I just don't approve of inter-league play," she said. "It's gimmicky. So really, I don't think you missed much."

    John grinned; near as he could tell, Vicky had picked up her feelings about baseball at his great-uncle's knee, but since John's mother had as well and then passed her opinions on to John, he tended to agree with her. John's father had been the football fan; it was one of the very few things they'd had in common even before his dad had disowned him.

    Zelenka came in while John was working his way through another stack of pancakes. "Victoria," he said with a smile, "you make the best some of the best coffee I've had here in America."

    "Hey," John said with a frown. "You like our coffee, don't you?"

    "That is why I said 'some' of the best," Zelenka said. "And do not glare at me; you are much less intimidating now than you were yesterday."

    Radek was a freelance writer, mostly for popular science and engineering magazines, and John had always wondered how he'd managed to get through college. Of course they were a lot more accommodating toward Were in Eastern Europe, even before the end of Communism, than they had been at Stanford, but still, it couldn't have been easy.

    They talked about the latest space shuttle mission while making their way through breakfast, then John got up. "I need a walk after all that," he said, and Zelenka nodded and picked up the newspaper. Sitting there in the kitchen, glasses perched on his nose, he didn't look the least bit fox-like, and John found it hard to believe that Zelenka had smelled like food yesterday.

    He walked the property for a while; it always took longer to settle back into his Human body and he'd found that walking helped. The air was fresh and crisp, and everything looked and smelled and felt different than it had yesterday morning.

    As he walked near the creek, he came across Teldy scratching her back on a tree. He would have backed off--not everyone liked to be seen in their Were form, even by fellow Were--but she stopped and waved him over. She gestured again and turned around with her back facing him and even then it took John a moment to figure out what she wanted.

    When he finally got it, he laughed a little and dug his fingers into her thick cinnamon-colored fur, trying to find the right spot. She made a noise when he found it and then another noise, a little like a happy grunting sigh, when he scratched hard with both hands. After, she gave him a wave, dropped down onto all fours and ambled off.

    By the time John reached the house again, it was warming up. He decided to take off before the lack of air conditioning in the track became too big a factor. Grabbing his backpack, he looked around the room once, pausing to look at the picture of his great-aunt, curled up with the fire glinting off her fur. No one knew much about how Were genetics worked, but it was somewhat rare for two Were in the same family to have the same form.

    Someday he really should, he thought, get someone to take a picture of him; he'd like to see just how much he looked like her, see if their markings were the same.

    "Oh John," Vicky said as he came downstairs. "I almost forgot to show this to you."

    It was a letter and with it, a much better copy of the same information he'd seen pinned to the bulletin board at CoffeeWerks. John read the words "clinical trials" and "double blind" and "Were cycles" and "compensation will be provided" and frowned. The cover letter asked if the staff at the Jaeger Ranch Retreat would check and see if any of their clients were interested in participating.

    "I called them," Vicky said. "They're working under the auspices of the FDA as well as the University; they're legit."

    Far more relaxed than he had been a few days ago, John handed everything back to Vicky and shrugged. "If you want to mention it to people, feel free," he said.

    "Okay," she said, putting it down and coming around the desk. She hugged him and patted his arm. "You know that you have a place here," she said. "Right?" It was the same thing she said every time and John just smiled at her.

    "Yeah. Thanks, Vicky."

    * * *

    Over half the numbers were gone from the bottom of the Were study flyer when John checked it the next morning. In some places, it would have been surprising that that many Were had seen the flyer, but CoffeeWerks had always been a bit of a hangout. While John was the only Were currently working there, he hadn't always been. Really, it was the best job he'd found and he knew that the little voice in the back of his head that said things like "if serving over-priced coffee is the best you can do, that isn't saying much" belonged to his dad, but that didn't make it any harder to ignore.

    Ronon came by for lunch; John made them panninis and they sat outside to people watch.

    "How'd the weekend go?" Ronon asked. He was close to cycling; even if John hadn't known Ronon's cycle pretty well, his still-heightened senses would have smelled it on him.

    "Same old, same old," John said. "I think there's been a mountain lion sniffing around--an animal, I mean." He felt the little tug of irritation and remembered marking the fence; it felt weird and oddly distant. "Hank'll keep an eye out," he added.

    Ronon nodded and took a bite of his sandwich. "What're you gonna do when Hank and Vicky get too old to run the place?"

    "Oh God, not you too. Vicky keeps trying to get me to move up there."

    "I don't know why you don't." Ronon's look clearly said that he thought John was an idiot. "You could still work here in town if you really wanted to."

    "You make it sound pretty good," John said. "You want a job? Because all you have to do is ask."

    "It's not my family's place, and you know you'd never put up with another cat actually living on your property full time."

    "It's not my property," John said automatically. It would have been if he hadn't been nine when his great-aunt and uncle had died, but as it was, it was still run by the trust they'd set up. John never told anyone that, if he wanted to, he could break the trust and own the property outright.

    "Might as well be," Ronon said. "Don't know why you're so weird about it."

    "Yeah, well...you never met my dad."

    Ronon had met John's brother, and John hadn't done a damn thing to disabuse Dave of the notion that Ronon was John's boyfriend. He wasn't--John didn't date fellow Were--but the only good thing about his dad's funeral had been watching Dave try to be polite to Ronon when it was clear he felt that they were both a couple of deviants.

    "He's dead, John."

    "I know."

    Sighing, Ronon took a sip of his water. "So," he said. "You see that thing for the study at the U?"

    "It's fucking following me around; they wrote to the ranch as well. Vicky said she called them to make sure it's not a scam. Apparently, they're legit."

    "Yeah, but are they any good?"

    "It doesn't matter; it's a fucking pipe dream," John said. "There is no magic pill."

    "Not yet. I think I'm gonna give them a call."

    Later, after Ronon had headed back to the bookstore, John leaned against the counter. It was slow, a typical weekday afternoon; a couple people playing chess in the corner, a young woman curled up on the couch with a lap top and her girlfriend next to her reading a paperback. Laurel was at lunch and John had Johnny Cash, k.d. lang, Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco and Simon and Garfunkel in rotation; he could slow it down in the afternoons and no one really minded.

    He wasn't really thinking of anything in particular when he finally picked up the phone and dialed. He supposed it meant something that he'd memorized the number, but he'd always had a head for numbers, so then again, maybe it didn't mean a damn thing.

    Five minutes later, he had an appointment for his initial screening interview. Chances were good, he thought as he hung up, that he wouldn't bother to make it.

    But then there he was the next evening, walking down a hallway at the university. He'd expected the place to be quiet, but there were a few classes in session. It made him feel weird and a little nostalgic; he'd liked Stanford probably a lot more than Stanford had liked him.

    The next floor up was quieter, but John was still frowning and feeling more than a little defiant by the time he reached the right door. "Dr. Rodney M. McKay, PhD, PhD" the sign next to it said. The small bulletin board under the name only had one thing pinned to it--an old Far Side cartoon with several men in lab coats looking at a lopsided and disjointed rocket. "Let's face it gentlemen, we're not exactly rocket scientists," the caption read.

    "What the hell do you want?" the guy at the desk snapped.

    He looked well-ensconced, and John was pretty sure he was McKay, PhD, PhD, but that didn't stop John from giving him a look.

    "I'm sorry," John said. "I'm looking for Dr. McKay. Are you the janitor?"

    McKay's face went red and he opened his mouth, presumably to tell John off, but then he paused and rolled his eyes. "Very funny."

    "I try," John said. "I'm here for the...."

    "The trials," McKay said. "Unbelievable that I have to do these initial screening interviews, but two of our student assistants just up and quit on me. We were paying them and everything, which you'd think, in this economy, would have been enough to keep them around, but...."

    He trailed off and dug through the papers on his desk as John stepped into his office and sat down in the surprisingly comfortable visitors' chair.

    "Okay, before we do this, let me talk you out of it."

    "Excuse me?"

    "I just want you to know upfront that this is...we got permission from the FDA to do human, or in this case, Were, testing, but the only thing we know about this is that it won't kill you or even make you very ill. Hopefully."

    "I thought you were trying to find a way to reduce the number of cycles a Were goes through."

    "Well yes, but it's not like we can turn mice, or even monkeys into Were. We've tested its toxicity on the mice, but that's all we can do until we have a range of Were subjects. So this isn't going to be a short or easy process for us, or you, for that matter."

    "You getting many volunteers with this little speech?"

    "It's nothing that isn't in all the literature I'll want you to read and sign off on, but really, it's shocking how many people don't read the fine print. Or even the regular-sized print."

    "I'll read it," John said, a little tightly. "I was raised by a businessman."

    "Okay." McKay gave John a questioning look but then picked up a piece of paper. "Well then, let's move on to the intrusive questions part of the process. We used to have everyone just fill out the questionnaire, but trust me, it's easier if I ask you some of this stuff so that if you aren't suitable for the project you haven't wasted all of...everyone's time."

    John took a deep breath and tried to look casual and relaxed. It helped that McKay was kind of a trip; John had caught that hesitation when he'd almost said "my time."

    "How old were you when you experienced your first Were cycle?"

    "Seventeen," John said.

    "And you manifest as...?"

    "A mountain lion...a cougar."

    "Yes, I know what a mountain lion is, thank you." McKay glared at him. "Are either of your parents Were? Any of your siblings if you have them?"

    John couldn't help the snort that escaped him. "I have one half-brother," he said. "And no, none of my immediate family are Were."

    "More distant relatives?"

    "None on my father's side. At all." John took a deep breath. "On my mother's side, it crops up now and again; my great-aunt was a mountain lion as well."

    McKay actually looked interested for the first time. "Do you know more about that side of the family?"

    "There are records up at the ranch, a book of genealogy charts and stuff that goes all the way back to Germany in the 1600s."

    "The ranch...the Jaeger Ranch Retreat?"

    "Nobody actually calls it that, but yeah. It's my...Matilda Jaeger was my great-aunt."

    "Oh God, really?" McKay said, shuffling papers again. "You're John Sheppard?"

    John nodded, suddenly wary.

    "Please tell me that you don't smoke, drink to excess, do any kind of illegal drugs, take much more than an aspirin now and then, or have any long term illnesses."

    "Don't smoke, but I have a beer now and then. I last smoked dope about ten years ago and haven't done anything else since I was 16. I don't have any long term illnesses. I get a headache now and then, for which I take the occasional ibuprofen."

    "You did drugs as a teenager?"

    "Doctor McKay, I went to Phillips Academy." When McKay looked blank, John added, "Andover?"

    "And that's supposed to mean something?" McKay said. "I'm Canadian, so I don't get the reference."

    "It's an insanely expensive prep school for rich idiots. It was the 80s, okay? I did some coke and drank a fair amount."

    "I wore eyeliner and had a sort of Flock of Seagulls thing going on with my hair," McKay said. "Somewhat safer than coke and booze."

    Blinking, John looked at him, and then had to hold back a laugh at the mental image. McKay glowered at him and John shook his head. "I stopped all of it, the prep school, the drugs, the booze, after my first cycle. Control...well, it becomes a little more important."

    "I'm not going to say something stupid like 'I understand.' Trust me, I'm all too aware of my own privilege." McKay paused and then handed John a thick manilla envelope.

    "Normally, I'd ask a lot more questions, but we've actually wanted get in contact with you and bring you into the study if you were at all amenable. So, read all of that carefully, sign off on it and answer the questionnaire. I'll have someone call you tomorrow to schedule a full physical, unless you'd rather go to your own doctor?"

    "I don't even have insurance," John said.

    "Where do you work?"

    "CoffeeWerks. I do other stuff here and there."

    "Where'd you go to school?"

    For the first time in a long time, the question embarrassed John, and so his answer came out with a harder edge than he might have liked. "Stanford. I dropped out."

    McKay opened his mouth and then, with a quick glance at John, clearly changed what he was going to say. "Okay, did you have any questions for me?"

    John looked at him for a long moment. There were half dozen legitimate questions he could ask and a bunch of stupid stuff he could throw out there to wind McKay up, but finally, because he had to know, he took a deep breath and asked the question that had been nagging at him since he saw the flyer.

    "Why are you doing this?"

    There was another long pause while McKay looked down at his hands and then, just when John was sure he wasn't going to answer, McKay spoke.

    "My sister...she had Rapid Cycle Syndrome; by the time she was sixteen, she was changing every two weeks. Eventually..." McKay glanced off into the distance.

    "I'm sorry," John said. RCS was rare and deadly; neither human nor Were bodies could handle the strain of constant changing.

    McKay waved a hand as if to push aside John's sympathy. "Like I said, fill out the paperwork and hand it in when you come in for the physical."

    "Okay," John said, oddly reassured by McKay's brusque attitude. Hopefully everyone else on the project was just as disinclined to get personal.

    * * *

    "So what did you think of McKay?" John asked Ronon two evenings later as he drove toward the university med center.

    "He's kind of weird," Ronon said. "But funny."

    "Did he tell you about his sister?" When Ronon shook his head, John continued. "Apparently she had RCS."

    "Shit, that's rough."

    "Yeah." John had found himself wondering the night before, what his dad would have done if John had had the nerve to suffer from RCS. Bad enough that John had been Were....

    He'd dreamed of flying and had woken up in a foul mood.

    There was one other person in the waiting room, a small woman with dark skin. John nodded to her as he and Ronon gave their information. Ronon's appointment was first and as John sat down to wait, the woman looked over at him.

    "I could not help overhearing your name, Mr. Sheppard," she said holding out a hand. "I am Teyla Emmagen."

    "John," John said, smiling at her as he shook her hand.

    She smiled back. "Very well, John. I spoke with Ms. Kohler about the possibility of staying long term at the retreat. She suggested I get in touch with you."

    "Long term?" he asked.

    "I live in Chicago," she explained. "But I wished to participate in the study."

    "May I ask," John said, "what your form is?" Before she could say anything, he felt compelled to explain. "Sorry, but I'm a mountain lion and having another feline actually living on the property is tricky."

    "I understand," she said. "But it is not a problem; I am an otter."

    "You're going to love the swimming hole; it doesn't lose water all summer." John fished out his phone. "If you want, I'll give Vicky a call; tell her to expect you."

    "Thank you. I would appreciate it."

    "So," John asked after he made the call. "Chicago...where do you stay when you change?"

    "I have friends who farm in southern Illinois. I have a very long cycle and they do not mind the occasional visit."

    "Well, I hope you like our farm."

    "I have heard good things about it."

    He would have said more, but a nurse called Teyla in. John pulled his book out of his back pack and leaned back to read and wait for his own turn.

    Dr. Jennifer Keller looked like she was about twelve, but she was thorough and professional as she examined him. She was much chattier than McKay; John learned that she was new to the project. "There's Dr. Beckett, our geneticist, Dr. Biro, our pharmacologist and I'm the plain old medical doctor."

    "What about McKay?"

    "Biochemistry and head of the project," she said. "And constant thorn in our sides."

    "Oh?" John asked, a little surprised.

    She laughed. "Trust me, Mr. Sheppard, you'll have plenty of time to get used to all of us. Rodney...he says time and the Nobel wait for no one; we're not making fast enough progress for his tastes. "

    "John," John said. Call me John. And wow, McKay wants a lot. What is this, the fourth actual scientific effort to control cycles? Or the fifth?"

    "Actually, the sixth, if you count...." She ducked her head and fussed with his chart.

    "The Nazis," John said dryly.

    "Sadly," she said, "we're using some of their data."

    "As long as this doesn't turn into Howl Force," John said, "I'm good."

    "Oh God, I heard they were doing a remake of that. Hollywood is officially out of ideas."

    * * *

    "Hey," Ronon said the next morning. "How late are you working?"

    "'Til two," John replied. "Why?"

    "Escrow finally closed; we've got the space next to the store." Ronon was the manager at alt.books (An Alternative Bookstore), which was right across the street from CoffeeWerks.

    "About time," John said.

    "Yeah, fucking banks," Ronon said. "Anyway, Elizabeth wants us to start the remodeling right away."

    "Cool," John said. "I'll come by after my shift."

    Three days later, after John had spent the morning stripping wallpaper, he wandered into work and came face to face with McKay. John was wearing an old pair of cargo shorts and a black t-shirt and he was kind of a mess; McKay stared at him for a long moment until David asked if he wanted room for cream in his coffee.

    "I don't," McKay said with utter self-righteousness, "adulterate my coffee." He was still looking at John.

    "Good on ya," John said. He paused and watched as McKay took a hesitant sip.

    "Ohhhh...." McKay closed his eyes and his face went a little slack. It was John's turn to stare; he liked coffee well enough, but McKay looked like he was having an orgasm or something. It made him oddly attractive, and John shook his head a little.

    Okay then.

    McKay was still there when John came out from the back of the shop where he'd cleaned up and changed into another black t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Looking up, John was aware of being examined, as if McKay were trying to catalog him. It felt weirdly intimate, and John did his best to keep his face blank as he moved behind the counter.

    "How many jobs do you have?" McKay asked, handing his stainless travel mug over to John. "And how much is a refill?"

    "It's free," John said, filling the mug. "And technically, only one job. Why, you gonna turn me in for working under the table?" Remembering McKay's earlier once-over, he felt his ears go hot.

    "You're joking, right? Just don't kill yourself with overwork before the project is finished, okay?"

    John snorted, biting back a real laugh. "Uh yeah, I'll be careful not to do that."

    The next day, John continued to work on the bookstore annex, tearing down wallpaper and pulling up the crappy linoleum to make way for the the old hardwood floor Elizabeth, the store owner, had found. After receiving his first dose of the experimental medication, Ronon took off for the ranch and John kept on working. By the time Ronon came back several days later, relaxed and happy, John had started painting the walls.

    McKay came by CoffeeWerks every day and actually popped into the bookstore a couple of times; John saw him flipping through a copy of The Advocate and wondered if McKay was actually interested in the magazine or trying to drop an unsubtle hint. He still checked John out, but he also stared at a lot of things that weren't John, so John simply couldn't be sure if McKay was just interested in everything around him, or in John in particular.

    It shouldn't have mattered; McKay, with his thinning hair and down-turned mouth, was hardly John's type. But still, it was nice to be appreciated, if that's what McKay was doing. John found himself watching McKay, who seemed to have bonded with one of the frequent chess players. He played a good game and trash talked like he was playing video games, and before John knew it, one day when McKay's usual partner wasn't in, John had challenged McKay to a match.

    "I knew it," McKay said as John called out a move. "You're a lot smarter than you let on."

    It was the middle of the afternoon; David was on his lunch break and the only other person in the place was a guy hunched over his lap top, earbuds firmly in place. Still, John found himself looking around, oddly worried that someone might have heard McKay.

    "I'm sorry," McKay said, not sounding all that apologetic. "But really, I've never understood that whole hiding your light under a bushel thing."

    "Really?" John finished brewing a new batch of coffee and wandered toward the chessboard to glance over McKay's shoulder. "I'd never have guessed from the way you sit in here tearing through scientific journals and muttering about idiots."

    McKay made a move and John frowned a little.

    "It's not my fault if everyone in the field is a moron," McKay said, watching intently as John leaned over him to make his move. "I was going to be an astrophysicist, you know, and even though it really didn't work out, I still like to keep up. It's appalling that I know more than most of them."

    "What's your other degree in?" John asked as McKay made a move that would enable John to checkmate him in ten moves.

    "Engineering," McKay said. "I already had it when...when I shifted my focus."

    "Rocket science," John said, remembering the cartoon on McKay's door. "Mate in nine," he added, moving a pawn.

    "That was my goal...hey!" McKay glared down at the board and then turned in his seat to stare up at John. Given the way John was standing, McKay's face was level with John's belt buckle and John felt a sudden jolt of heat low in his belly as he looked down at McKay's broad mouth.

    "Sorry," he said, his voice hoarse. He stepped back quickly, heading toward the garbage can near the door. "We can play it out if you like."

    "Um...I...no, you're right. You win." McKay seemed as flustered as John and he suddenly grabbed the big messenger bag he used as a briefcase. "I've...uh...got a meeting."

    McKay pushed past John at the door and John could smell him, soap and a little sweat and coffee and under it, McKay's own smell. For a moment, his mouth hung open, as if he could scent McKay like that even in human form.

    "Wait," he said, but McKay paid no attention.

    McKay didn't show up the next day or the day after that, and when John called to arrange an appointment for his first dose of the medication, he got a cheerful student assistant.

    Dr. Keller was the one to give John the three injections. "I understand that it's hard to keep track of symptoms while you're changed," she said. "But we're going to take blood now and afterwards and if anything seems different during your change, please try to remember it."

    "Okay," John said.

    "Eventually, we'll want to take samples from you when you're changed, but that's going to take some doing and we need to get some baselines first."

    Fighting past the instinctive urge to refuse to let someone he barely knew see him in his Were form, John nodded. "We can probably work something out up at the ranch. Not every Were in the county goes up there when they change, but most of them do."

    Keller nodded. "You have no idea how much we appreciate your participation," she said. "I know Dr. McKay planned on it, but I'm sure he hasn't said thank you."

    "Sure, no problem," John said with a shrug. "I haven't seen him in the last week or so," he added, partly to find out if McKay was away or avoiding him, but mostly to get away from the idea that his participation meant something to the rest of the local Were community.

    It undoubtedly did, but that didn't mean John liked it.

    "He's holed up in his office and the lab. He does that sometimes, but he's been yelling at people a lot more than he usually does."

    "Huh," John said.

    * * *

    Vicky and Teyla were sitting in the reception area of the main house when John arrived at the ranch. There was a cribbage board in front of them and each had a pile of match sticks at hand. "I'm shocked," John said, shaking his head. "Shocked to find that gambling is going on here."

    They both laughed and then John headed upstairs. He'd given himself a little more leeway than he had last time and now he sprawled on the bed and thought about McKay. He had been interested in John, that much was obvious. It was just as obvious that McKay hadn't had a problem with that until he'd discovered that John returned that interest.

    And that was just weird; it wasn't unusual for people to suddenly need to be elsewhere when they discovered that John was Were, but McKay had known from the start. John didn't know what to make of his retreat and, in spite of the fact that he'd been trying to talk himself out of his own attraction to McKay for the last several weeks, he didn't like it.

    It was that whiff of McKay--Rodney--that John remembered most. It wasn't just that Rodney had been turned on, but that the scent of him had somehow gotten stuck in John's brain. With a groan, John shoved his jeans and shorts down around his hips and did what he hadn't done for the last week.

    It was rough and urgent; John was already wound up tighter than a string. He spat into his hand, grabbed his dick and stroked it almost ruthlessly. He wasn't even sure he wanted this, could think of a dozen reasons not to get involved with Rodney, but right now, all he could think about was the way Rodney had smelled.

    "Fuck," he gasped. "Oh fuck...." He came hard, imagining Rodney's mouth and big square hand on his dick.

    "My timing," he muttered as he kicked his shoes off before pulling off his pants and damp boxers, "sucks."

    He was cutting it close again but he managed a quick shower and tossed his clothes in the hamper in the bathroom before the familiar itching started up. Nothing felt different, not that he'd expected it to on such low doses of a drug that might not even work.

    The three and a half days spent in cougar form pass quickly. As usual, Zelenka is around--he and John have close to identical cycles from what John can tell--but John avoids him to spend most of his time hunting rabbits and sunning himself on a big rock near the western boundary of the property. He feels restless toward the end of his cycle and he makes the rounds of the property, marking it more than usual.

    The change back wasn't any different either; it still hurt like fuck, and John shuddered as he thought of Rodney's sister. Like every Were, he knew he had a pretty good chance of eventually dying mid change. While most Were were blessed with excellent health, he couldn't imagine changing as often as every two weeks.

    He found himself hoping for a glimpse of Rodney when he stopped in at the med center on his way back to his apartment. But while Dr. Beckett was there along with Dr. Keller, Rodney wasn't. John did his best to answer their questions; at least they understood that his impressions from his time in Were form weren't all that easy to articulate.

    "That's only one of the problems we've run into," Beckett said. "This is by far the most complicated project I've ever worked on."

    "It's early days," Keller said, deftly taking yet another vial of John's blood. "This is only the first phase after all."

    As John headed home, he found himself wondering how Rodney put up with someone so cheerful.

    A week went by and he and Ronon, along with some of the guys from the Were For Change group made some serious progress on the bookstore annex. Elizabeth paid them in cash and bought them beer and either pizza, burgers or tacos for dinner at the end of the day. John was amused at how long it took the beer to disappear from the fridge in the store's break room; most of the guys were Were and involved in the trials and worried that drinking too much might "mess up the data or something," as Jerry Ruiz put it.

    Rodney hadn't come by the bookstore or CoffeeWerks once and finally, John had had enough. He kept thinking about Rodney and it was driving him a little crazy. It had been a while since John had gotten laid, but this was ridiculous. He'd go and see Rodney and realize how stupid his thing was and then maybe Rodney could get over whatever his problem was too.

    "No no no!" Rodney was yelling into his phone. John could hear him halfway down the hall, and he smiled. He doubted that Rodney was only loud when it was this late, and he couldn't help feeling sorry for the professors whose offices were near Rodney's.

    "I don't care! I need those results tomorrow, not next week! Hey! Don't you hang up on me!" John had reached the doorway and he saw Rodney slam the receiver back down before he looked up and almost jumped out of his seat.

    "Jesus, don't have a heart attack, McKay," John said, sliding into the visitor's chair. Rodney looked tired and rumpled and grumpy, and John felt his plan fall apart because, goddamnit, John still wanted him.

    "What the fuck are you doing here?" In spite of his words, Rodney sounded more nervous than angry.

    "Why'd you stop coming by the place?"

    "You're just one of our testers," Rodney said. "Not my mother."

    John slouched in the chair, letting his legs spread a little, and Rodney's gaze flickered over him. When John smiled, Rodney stared down at his desk.

    "Not exactly trying to be your mom," John said. "Was it because I'm a better chess player?"

    "Oh please, one game is hardly an indication of skill." Rodney frowned at John. "And really, you're not stupid; you know why I stopped coming by."

    "Because I figured out that you're interested in me? Or was it because you figured out that I'm interested in you?"

    "You are? I mean...it doesn't really matter."

    "No, I think it does," John said, sliding his palm slowly down his chest until his fingers rested on his belt buckle. "If we're both interested...." He took a deep breath and, oh yeah, Rodney was turned on; John would bet anything that Rodney was hard.

    "Stop that!" Rodney snapped. "You aren't making this any easier."

    "What the hell is your deal?" John asked, a little unsure of why he was even bothering.

    "I thought you were intelligent enough to figure it out on your own, but since you obviously aren't, let me spell it out. You're part of the clinical trial that I'm running. It's not just that I'm a member of the team; this is my project. I can't be involved with you."

    John blinked. "Oh," he said.

    "Yeah, 'oh,'" Rodney replied. "Believe me, I'm stunned and amazed that you're even interested in me and God knows, if you weren't part of the trial, I'd be all over you, but since you are...."

    "I don't have to be," John said. "You have enough people."

    "Most of whom would quit if you did." Rodney leaned back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Because of you...well, you and your great-aunt's bequest, you're the most influential Were in this part of the state. You're one of the reasons I chose to do the research here."

    "I...." John looked down at his feet.

    "Yes, yes, I know. You like to pretend that you're just this guy, but be honest with me. You know better."

    "It's nothing I did," John found himself saying. "So my mother was a Jaeger.... It's not like I've had to work to achieve this position and I really don't like it."

    "That much is clear. It's one of the things I really like about you. Well, that and your mouth."

    "You know...it's not like my being in the trial really matters at this phase. None of us are being given enough medication to do anything."

    Rodney stared at him. "Why are you doing this? Yes, I'm brilliant and interesting and I play a mean chess game and I love the coffee you brew, but really, I'm hardly a prize."

    Since this was the question John had been asking himself for about the last three weeks, he was a little surprised when he blurted out the truth. "I can't stop thinking about the way you smell."

    "Really?" Rodney swallowed and stared at John, his expression both wary and a little hopeful.

    "No of course not," John said, sitting up and crossing his arms across his chest. "I just say shit like that all the time."

    "I...Jesus, I can't believe this. You're insanely hot, you know that, right?" Before John could figure out how to reply, Rodney went on. "And you have no idea how much I really want to throw ethics out the window right now, but...."

    "Yeah." John took a deep breath. "Okay then, I won't jump you. I promise." He stood up, suddenly understanding why Rodney had fled that day. He felt like an idiot.

    "I'm sorry," Rodney said, both sides of his mouth turned down. "I...God, there just isn't anything I can think of to say that isn't some big fucking cliche."

    "Yeah," John said again. "Look, I meant it. I won't...it's okay if you want come in for a cup of coffee or a chess game."

    "Thank you," Rodney said. "For...." He paused. "You know."

    John didn't know, but it was kind of cool that Rodney wasn't any better with words than John was when it came to the important stuff.

    "See ya," he said and gave Rodney an apologetic smile.

    Rodney nodded and then sighed and picked up the phone. As John walked down the hall, he heard Rodney yelling at some hapless lab tech again. Shaking his head, John made his way to the stairs.

    Maybe he should take a few days, head to another city, check into a cheap motel and find a gay bar to cruise. A few days of sex and he'd burn the need out of his system like he had a dozen times before. He had enough money, thanks to Elizabeth's generosity, and he could probably get someone to cover his shifts at CoffeeWerks....

    John went back to his apartment and jerked off thinking of Rodney.

    * * *

    About three days after their conversation, Rodney showed up during the morning rush, bought a cup of coffee and a bearclaw and retreated to a table. He set up his lap top and started working on it, pausing every now and then to sneak peeks at John. John managed not to screw up any orders, and when the crowd thinned and he had a moment, he came by Rodney's table, grabbed his mug and refilled it for him.

    "Thank you," Rodney said, giving him a nervous little smile.

    An hour later, they were playing chess while John put out the gelato and restocked the pastry counter. John came by to check the board every once in a while, but he didn't lean over Rodney or get too close.

    Rodney won the game and crowed about it enough that John challenged him to another match. "Sadly, I need to head by the lab, where, hopefully, my results are in." He paused and then picked up his bag. "I have a meeting tomorrow morning, and more lab work in the afternoon, but I'll probably pop in later on."

    "Cool," John said with a slight smile.

    Later that afternoon, he and Ronon sat outside and ate lunch. "What's with you and McKay?" Ronon asked, and John blinked.

    Of course it was too much to expect that Ronon hadn't noticed anything, but John still sighed. "He's kinda cool, in a weird way." He took a drink of his Jones orange soda. "Plays a good game of chess."

    "So do those two old guys and that one really cute girl. Don't see you sniffing around them."

    "Jesus, am I that obvious?"

    "Only to me."

    "He smells good, okay? And I like him. It's weird."

    "Huh," Ronon said and smiled enigmatically when John glowered at him.

    "Not that it matters; he's too ethical to fool around with someone on the project."

    "That sucks."

    "Or doesn't."

    Ronon reached out and smacked the side of John's head.

    Whatever was going on in the lab started taking a lot more of Rodney's time. He still popped in for coffee and a danish in the mornings, but he didn't linger. Of course, once he learned that John had a lap top at work he started emailing chess moves mixed in with gossip about the lab techs.

    By the time John won his third game, they had two different email threads going--one short and devoted to chess moves, and the other long and rambly. John learned how much Rodney hated people assuming he liked hockey because he was Canadian but that he missed poutine and if that was stereotypical, that was just fine with Rodney.

    In turn, John explained the infield fly rule at great length, doing his best to make it look like he hadn't looked up most of the details on wikipedia, and explained why he'd take an order of chili cheese fries over poutine any day.

    And if, in amongst the teasing and the talking about food and sports and beer, John mentioned that he really wished he'd been able to see his great-aunt in her Were form, it didn't seem like he was oversharing, particularly when Rodney mentioned the relationship he tried with a girl in college only to have her be the one to explain that of course it wasn't working what with Rodney being gay.

    I'd honestly had no real idea up to that point, which I blame on society and also on the fact that I was only 18 and in the middle of writing my master's thesis at the time.

    I figured it out at 15, John replied, because swapping coming out stories actually came pretty easy to him. My roommate and I went from jerking off together to jerking one another off to me blowing him on a pretty regular basis. He had a different roommate the next year, but that didn't stop me from blowing other guys.

    My God, could you be any more stereotypical? Rodney asked.

    I could be British and also get off on caning because I went to Eton, John replied, snickering as he typed.

    He didn't talk about his much more disastrous coming out as a Were, although he was beginning to think of Rodney as someone he might tell, eventually. Maybe.

    They finished with the bookstore annex, and there was a big reopening party/sale/event thing. The new space was full of t-shirts and bumper stickers and all the other weird shit bookstores had to sell these days to keep in business. John wasn't sure if it was his age or his upbringing, but he simply couldn't imagine putting a "my other ride is my own four feet" license plate holder on his truck. Then again, he wasn't likely to buy a set of rainbow pride rings either.

    Rodney showed up, and John was amused that he didn't even try to look hip. It was also a little disturbing how good Rodney looked in baggy cargo pants and a t-shirt with the chemical breakdown of chocolate on it. He smiled when he spotted John, a smile that got even wider when he moved to John's corner of the store and John handed him a beer.

    They stayed where they were, making smartass remarks, lame jokes and drinking beer for the rest of the evening.

    "I should go across the street," Rodney said when the party was over. "Grab a cup of coffee to wake me up a little."

    "That's bullshit," John said. "And you know it; coffee won't sober you up."

    "I said wake me up," Rodney said. "I'm not exactly drunk here."

    "Not exactly sober either," John said, because he was in pretty much the same state. "Tell you what, you can walk back to my place with me, hang out for a while and then I can drive you back over here to your car. I've got coffee," he added as an enticement.

    "Sounds good."

    "Lemme say good bye to Elizabeth," John said.

    "I like this part of town," Rodney said as they walked.

    "Yeah, me too." John laughed. "I think real estate agents say it has 'character.'"

    "More than my place does." When John glanced over at him, Rodney shrugged. "I'm in this very nice, very boring block of modern condos over near the U."

    "You probably have a dishwasher and laundry facilities near by."

    "You don't?" Rodney looked appalled.

    John shook his head. "There's a laundromat a few blocks away and I tend to eat at work more often than not. I don't run through a lot of dishes."

    "The joys of bachelorhood."

    "You know it."

    John's apartment was a small one bedroom apartment on the second floor of what had been a large house built back when the town had first been settled. He kept it neat, but he was aware, as if seeing it through Rodney's eyes, that it was nothing special.

    "Do you mind opening up the front window?" John asked as he headed into the bedroom to open up and get the fan going. "Oh and leave the door open, just close the screen"

    "No air conditioning either?"

    "Yeah, that part's kind of annoying, but it means a lower electric bill." John heard the big living room fan start up, and then as he headed back toward the living room, he met Rodney coming down the very short hallway.

    He didn't ever know if it was the beer, the fact that he was four days away from a change or the fact that Rodney had walked several blocks in the warmth of a summer evening and smelled fucking incredible, but suddenly, he had Rodney up against the wall, had Rodney's face in his hands and was kissing him hard.

    And, oh God, but Rodney was kissing back and yeah, John had imagined what it would be like to be kissed by Rodney, but clearly, his imagination was lacking. Rodney kissed like he was starved for it and and he was all over John, hands strong on John's hips and one thigh pushed between John's leg.

    "Bed," Rodney groaned. "Please tell me you have at least a double, because...."

    "Yeah, queen-sized," John said, his breath catching in his throat. For a moment he almost reminded Rodney of his earlier ethical objection, but then Rodney's teeth closed on John's bottom lip. "Fuck," John grunted. "This way."

    They fell on the bed in a tangle of arms and legs and before John could even think about getting undressed, Rodney was kissing him again, deeper and hotter and so fucking dirty. By the time John pulled away, gasping, he was about ready to come in his damn pants. "Naked," he said.

    "Naked is good," Rodney agreed and there was a confusing moment during which they tugged and pulled and yanked at their own and one another's clothes.

    Finally they were naked, or close enough--John still had his socks on and Rodney's boxers were down around one of his ankles. John didn't really care though; he slid down Rodney's body, breathing in deeply. "Let me," he mumbled. "Let me...need...."

    "I'm not gonna...oh fuck...say no."

    Rodney's dick was thick and slick at the head and John's mouth was already watering. Taking one last, deep breath, he mouthed his way down Rodney's cock to his balls and then back up, finally taking the head into his mouth.

    "Oh God, oh God, oh God," Rodney chanted, his hands coming to rest on John's shoulders, half gripping, half-petting as John's head moved down.

    It wasn't one of John's better efforts. He wanted it too much, was far too into it to give Rodney a really good time. Not that, if his muttering and the restless flutter of his hands on John's shoulders were anything to go by, Rodney minded. John absentmindedly pinned him to the bed when he started thrusting a little and Rodney let him, going still under John's hands as John kept sucking.

    "I'm...John...fuck!"

    John didn't need the warning; he could tell from half a dozen little cues that Rodney was close. He gripped Rodney's hips tighter and sucked harder and Rodney cried out and flooded John's mouth.

    Yeah...fuck yeah, John though as he swallowed. "Yeah," he repeated aloud when he finally finished and rested his head on Rodney's thigh.

    "Holy crap," Rodney said, his fingers moving gently through John's hair. "That was...wow."

    "I can do better," John said, looking up at Rodney.

    Rodney blinked down at him. "Any better and I'd be dead," he said. "Now roll over so I can do you."

    "Not gonna last," John said, still breathless. He moved up, nuzzling at Rodney's belly and chest. "Can I kiss you?"

    "Stupidest question ever," Rodney muttered and John shoved his way back up Rodney's body.

    He took Rodney's mouth hard, moaning into it. His dick found the firm muscle of Rodney's thigh and when Rodney slid a hand in between their chests and pinched at John's nipple, John gave a loud shout and came.

    "God," he muttered after a moment. "I...." He trailed off, not sure what to say.

    "So much," Rodney said, "for academic ethics."

    As much as he wanted to, John couldn't help the snort of laughter that escaped at Rodney's words. Rodney looked up at him and then began to laugh too. Relieved, John reached out and hooked a hand around the back of Rodney's neck and pulled him in for a kiss, slow and easy this time.

    "I can always," he said when they finally separated, "make that coffee in the morning."

    * * *

    Rodney woke John up with a blowjob the next morning, something that John had read about happening in porn but had never actually experienced. It was astonishingly hot, but it wasn't how he wanted to come.

    Before he could really think it through and come up with a better way to ask, he reached down and clumsily patted Rodney's head. "Can I fuck you?"

    Rodney lifted his head and stared up at John. "God, please?" He moved back up the bed, kissed John enthusiastically and then rolled over and spread his legs.

    "So," John said, reaching for the lube and condoms he kept stashed in his nightstand drawer, "you're a bottom then?"

    "Do you always state the obvious before you've had your coffee?"

    "Sometimes after too." John forestalled any further conversation by moving into position between Rodney's legs. Squirming just enough to show off his ass, Rodney got his knees up under himself and looked back at John.

    "Well?"

    And really, John thought as he slicked up a finger and pressed it into Rodney, he should have guessed that Rodney would be pushy.

    "Oh yeah, oh fuck yeah," Rodney moaned five minutes later as John pushed his dick into him. "Jesus, just fucking do me, c'mon!"

    Gritting his teeth because damn, Rodney was hot and tight and so fucking eager under him, John did his best to keep to a slow, steady rhythm. Rodney cursed and pushed back, trying to get John to fuck him harder, but John just gripped his hips to keep him still.

    John felt Rodney give a faint shudder before he suddenly went pliant and easy in John's hands. "That's right," John said, bending down and nipping at the back of Rodney's neck. "That's it, just let me fuck you."

    "Yeah," Rodney said, sounding almost drugged. "John...."

    Rodney's neck was right there; John shifted a little and bit down, gently at first. When Rodney groaned and clawed at the sheets, John grinned against his skin and then bit harder. He wanted to do this forever, just fuck Rodney and fuck him and fuck him, but the more noise Rodney made, the harder it was to hold back.

    "God," he grunted, moving fasted and harder. "Take it," he mumbled hoarsely against Rodney's skin. "Fucking take it...."

    "Oh fuck...please...c'mon, more," Rodney babbled. "John, please!"

    "Can you come from this?" John asked, fighting to get the words out. "Come from just my dick up your ass?"

    He pulled on Rodney's hips, changing the angle just a little and he must have gotten it right, because Rodney's breath hitched. He yelled something John didn't quite catch and after two more thrusts, he came, going tight around John's cock.

    John fucked him through it and then kept fucking him, his mouth back down on Rodney's neck. Rodney smelled like sweat and come and, suddenly, it was almost too much; John came, his harsh groan partially muffled against Rodney's skin.

    When John collapsed down onto Rodney's back, Rodney actually put up with it a little longer than John expected. Finally, though, he muttered, "get off. You're heavy."

    Rolling to the side, he reached out and rested a hand on the small of Rodney's back. "Damn," he said. "Fuck."

    "Yeah," Rodney said, turning to look at him. "That was...incredible."

    "It really was." John grimaced and dealt with the condom, a little unsure of what to say. He normally wasn't quite that possessive, or at least not the first time he fucked someone. At least Rodney seemed to like it if the slightly unfocused expression of contentment on his face was anything to go by.

    Clearly, John was feeling something similar because otherwise, he'd never have had the idea that just came to him out of the blue. "You wanna come up to the ranch in a couple days?"

    "Huh?" Rodney blinked and then his eyes went wide. "Really? You're okay with that?"

    "Yeah, I think so. Are you?"

    "I...I don't know if I'm ready to...to see or hear you change." Rodney took a deep breath. "I didn't see Jeannie change very much because I was already away at college by the time she was old enough, but there was this one winter break when she changed twice while I was home and it was...God, it was awful."

    "I'm sorry," John said. "I shouldn't have asked."

    "No no no," Rodney said. "I'm really flattered; I can only guess what it means to you."

    John was surprised to discover that it did mean a lot. "I'll tell you what. I'll change in the barn; it's far enough from the house that you won't hear me."

    Rodney's expression relaxed a little. "That would work." He leaned over and kissed John. "I'm sorry about my fucked up issues."

    "Jesus," John said with a little snort. "Don't apologize; you're hardly the only person in the bed with issues, trust me."

    * * *

    John wasn't surprised that Rodney filled the hour it took to drive to the ranch with random chatter. What did surprise him was how little it bothered him. Rodney didn't seem to expect John to carry his part of the conversation and John found Rodney's voice almost calming.

    He'd called and warned Vicky that he'd be bringing a guest and so she greeted Rodney warmly. Rodney, in turn, went out of his way to be polite and John had the sudden realization that he was, in effect, bringing his boyfriend home to meet his family.

    I should be more freaked out, he found himself thinking as he and Rodney went up the stairs to John's room. And yeah, he did feel a little twinge as Rodney looked around, peering at the photos on the wall.

    "So your hair does that naturally?" he asked after looking at the picture of John as a kid.

    "Yeah." John moved to look over his shoulder. "That's Matilda and Gordon; this was their place and Matilda's dad's before that. I told Vicky that you were curious about the family records; she probably knows more about the family than I do."

    When they went back downstairs, they found Teyla sitting in front of a lap top.

    "You have internet access up here?" Rodney asked, after John had introduced them.

    "Yeah," John said. "Satellite. Knock yourself out."

    "I would like to say that I'm busy working," Teyla said, "but mostly, I am reading blogs and wasting time."

    "What do you do?" Rodney asked.

    "I am a writer," she replied.

    "Mysteries," John added. "And kids' books, right?"

    "Young adult," she corrected.

    There was an awkward silence, and then Vicky mentioned the genealogy books and John realized that he was feeling both restless and itchy.

    "I should leave you guys to it and head out to the barn."

    Rodney took a step forward and then stopped and shrugged a little, looking almost helpless. "I'll see you...later, I guess. I mean, if that's okay...."

    "Yeah," John said.

    It's early evening by the time John feels ready to be around people. He's run the length of the property, checked the boundaries, marked the fence, eaten a rabbit or two and had a long drink of water out of the creek. Finally, he has to admit that he's procrastinating and so he slowly makes his way toward the house.

    He smells Rodney long before he sees him and for a moment, he pauses with his mouth hanging open as he fixes Rodney's scent in his mind. Rodney's alone on the porch, John realizes once he gets closer and he looks up when John pads slowly up the driveway.

    "Wow," he says, putting his book down. "You're...wow."

    Rodney remains still as John circles his chair and sniffs at him. He keeps his hands to himself until John nudges at one of them and even then, he's tentative as he strokes John's neck and down his back. When John doesn't back away, Rodney pets him a little more confidently and finally laughs.

    "Is it okay if I...see, I like cats but I don't know if you mind...."

    John nudges him hard on the thigh with his head.

    "Can I scratch behind your ears?"

    Sitting back on his haunches, John looks at him for a moment, wishing he could laugh. Instead, he leans forward a little and rests his head on Rodney's thigh and Rodney seems to get the hint. It feels good, better than John expected, and before he knows it he's purring.

    They sit like that for a long time before John suddenly feels the need to move. Sitting up, he scent marks both the chair and Rodney's knee and then turns and runs off into the night. Later, he thinks of going back into the house to sleep, but he chooses a strong tree branch instead.

    The rest of the time passes without incident. Rodney spends a lot of time on the porch with his lap top and John lounges, sometimes on the porch near Rodney and sometimes in the driveway. The second night and the third, he spends part of the night sleeping in the big bedroom with Rodney, but he's restless and feels too big for the room and ends up jumping out the window both nights.

    When he finally goes into the barn to change back, there are clothes laid out for him.

    It was an effort, but he managed to pull on his jeans and stuff his feet in his shoes before staggering back to the house. He thought about going upstairs, but it was too much work; he got as far as the sofa and collapsed, asleep almost instantly.

    Some time later, when it was fully dark outside, he was dimly aware of Rodney waking him and guiding him up the stairs. The bed was far more comfortable than the couch, and he muttered a rough "thanks" before falling back asleep.

    Rodney was dead to the world when John woke at dawn. Moving as stealthily as possible, John pissed, showered and brushed his teeth before sliding back into bed with Rodney, who mumbled but didn't move from his position face down on the bed. "Mmmmm," John murmured, nuzzling the back of Rodney's neck.

    He was already half-hard when he pressed up against Rodney's ass, and by the time Rodney mumbled something that might have been John's name and pushed back, John was fully hard. Gripping Rodney's biceps, he rubbed up against the firm swell of Rodney's ass.

    "Let me," John said, more a demand than a request.

    "Yeah," Rodney said. "S'okay."

    It didn't take long and John wasn't really thinking about much of anything other than the feel of Rodney under him. When he came all over Rodeny's ass and back, he growled Rodney's name out and buried his face in Rodney's neck.

    "God," Rodney murmured. "That is so hot."

    "Really?" John asked, relieved. He ran his hand along Rodney's ass, slicking it up before reaching under Rodney's hip to grasp his dick.

    "Oh hell yeah." Rodney was hard and he moaned when John's hand went tight around his cock. "Oh fuck...that's your come, isn't it?"

    "Yeah," John said. "I'm jacking you off with it."

    And now that he was thinking again, it wasn't all that difficult to realize what he was doing, but he found he really didn't care. So what if he was marking Rodney? So what if he'd never actually been like this with anyone else? He wanted this and, if the way Rodney was thrusting into his palm meant anything, Rodney did too.

    "So hot," Rodney said again. "So fucking...oh God, John."

    He came in a slick rush all over John's hand and then, before John could do anything else, Rodney rolled a little and brought John's hand up to his mouth. "Jesus," John muttered as Rodney licked his fingers clean. "If I could get hard again...."

    * * *

    Rodney didn't show up for coffee the day after they got back into town. At first John just figured something had come up in the lab; after all, Rodney did have the project to deal with. But then, as the day went on, there were no emails, no chess moves via text, no nothing. By the time John went home, his good mood had vanished.

    What the hell did he expect, coming off all...doing that to Rodney, like Rodney was his...was some kind of possession? Jesus, of course he'd scared Rodney off.

    "Acting like a fucking...animal," he muttered as he opened up his apartment. "Marking your fucking mate like you're some kind of goddamn Alpha."

    He'd tried all his life not to give in to all the damn stereotypes. He knew that a good eighty-five percent of the Were in town already thought of him as their Alpha and the other fifteen percent would probably, if asked to name the local Alpha, name John. But John didn't believe in that outdated bullshit and did everything he could to avoid encouraging the rest of the town's Were to look up to him in any way.

    And yet, he'd let Rodney and everything connected with his fucking project, with those damn trials, treat him like an Alpha and what's more, he'd acted that way with Rodney. That Rodney had liked it at the time, didn't mean all that much to John. Clearly, after the fact Rodney was looking back on the whole thing--at John--with distaste and contempt.

    What do you expect? You acted like what you are, a filthy fucking animal. The words, his father's words, rang in John's head and he turned and slammed his fist against the nearest flat surface.

    It hurt, but not as much as it should have, and John stared at the gaping hole in his closet door. "Oh just fucking great," he muttered. He was exhausted, still coming off his change, and he undressed, throwing his clothes on the floor, and climbed into bed.

    Well aware that his pity party was partly fueled by his fatigue, he nonetheless curled up in a tight ball and fell asleep that way.

    * * *

    Dr. Keller and Dr. Beckett were waiting for him when John arrived for the morning shift at CoffeeWerks. "Oh great," he muttered when he saw them. "Rodney's friends have arrived to read me the riot act. I'm so looking forward to this."

    But the closer he got, the more it became obvious that they were more scared than worried.

    "John," Keller said. "We...we need to talk to you."

    "Something's happened to Rodney," Beckett said.

    "Yeah, I pissed him off," John said, but he was pretty sure there was more going on.

    "Huh?" Keller said. She shook her head. "No no, he's been kidnapped."

    John's keys hit the sidewalk as he glared at Keller. "What!?"

    Beckett looked around nervously. "Can we go inside?"

    "Okay, tell me what the hell is going on," John demanded as soon as the door closed behind them.

    "Rodney was supposed to meet with us yesterday," Beckett said. "When he didn't show up, we thought he'd gotten held up at the lab, so we called over there. He hadn't been in all day. We checked his office, tried his email and phone and then, when we didn't get any answers, we headed over to his apartment."

    John had crossed his arms across his chest and it was only when Beckett glanced at him nervously that he realized he'd been glaring.

    "I've got a key," Beckett said. "He's not home and we found a note."

    "I think we should have gone to the police," Keller said, but John hardly heard her.

    "A note?"

    "We left it where it was, but...." Beckett glanced at Keller. "I think you should see it."

    "It's from a Were, isn't it?" That was the only answer that made sense and John wasn't surprised when Beckett nodded.

    "They're threatening to kill him if we don't shut the project down."

    "What? That doesn't make any sense." John shook his head. "No, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Do you mind taking me over there?" Keller frowned, but she didn't say anything when Beckett nodded.

    "Look," John said as he pulled out his phone. "The police will end up bringing a Were in and then they'll have to get me involved anyway."

    "Why?" Keller asked.

    "Because my smell is going to be all over his things," John said, dialing to forestall any more questions. Beckett gave Keller an "I told you so" look, but neither of them said anything.

    John rarely called in sick, so Shawn wasn't too annoyed when he asked her to cover his shift. "Something's...come up," was the best he could manage, but she just told him to take care of himself.

    It isn't me that needs taking care of, he thought as Beckett drove the short distance to Rodney's apartment. They were silent along the way and John had to keep forcing himself to unclench his jaw. Even telling himself that he was firmly in Alpha mode didn't do much to calm him down.

    Deal with that part of it later, after you get him...he's back.

    The moment he stepped onto the nicely landscaped path that led to Rodney's condo, John smelled them. "Two of them," he said. "No one I know." That much was a relief; John wasn't sure what he'd do if someone he knew--or even worse, someone who spent time at the ranch--was involved.

    It was worse in the apartment; John could smell Rodney's fear under the thick scent of the two Were and, very faintly under that, his own scent.

    He stood there for a long moment, trying to control his rage. Finally he shook his head. "Let me see the note."

    we are the CENTRAL WERE NATION and we know what your real goal is and we wont be wiped out by your drugs. stop what your doing or we kill him.

     

    Instead of a signature, there was a stylized paw print. "Looks like a wolf," Beckett said and John nodded.

    "The Central Were Nation?" Keller asked. "I've heard of the bigger separatist groups but not this one."

    "It might not have even existed two months ago," John said. "These people are either stupid or pretending to be stupid."

    Pulling out his phone, John dialed Ronon and explained the situation before asking, "have you heard of the Central Were Nation?"

    "No, but I can ask around. See if any new guys have been hanging around asking questions."

    "Okay," John said. "If we can't find some answers pretty quickly, we're gonna have to call the cops."

    "I think we should call them now," Keller said after John snapped his phone shut.

    John glanced over at Beckett, who shrugged and said, "we probably should, but I get the feeling you want to take a crack at this first, don't you?"

    "This isn't...Batman," Keller began, and John turned on her.

    "Do you think the cops give a damn?" he snarled. "They'll just tell you to shut your project down and even if you just pretend, do you really think there's a chance in hell you'll see Rodney again? He's the head of the project, and if they really think he's trying to wipe us out, they'll just kill him anyway."

    "Then why the note?" Beckett asked. "Why didn't they just...."

    "It's a challenge," John said.

    "A challenge?" Keller looked confused.

    "I didn't think that kind of thing happened any more," Beckett said.

    "They're challenging me," John said at the same time. Beckett went silent as John continued. "If they really are traditionalists, then they have to offer me the chance to get him back."

    "Because you're lovers?"

    "Because he's mine." John unclenched his fists. "I mean, these guys would think he is."

    "But," Keller began. John glared at her and then stalked into Rodney's bedroom. Behind him, he heard Beckett murmuring something but he didn't even bother to listen in.

    The smell of the other Were wasn't nearly as strong in here; they must have grabbed Rodney in the living room. John sat down on the bed, buried his head in his hands and just let himself shake for a moment. All the years spent trying to be just another guy, all those years trying to be as normal....

    When his phone rang, John almost jumped out of his skin. It was Ronon, and John frowned a little as he flipped the phone open; it was kind of soon for Ronon to have tracked down any gossip.

    "Yeah?"

    "You need to come back to your place." Before John could ask why, Ronon added, "some Were broke into it. There's a note...."

    "I'll be there as soon as I can."

    John would have liked to leave Beckett and Keller behind, but he needed a ride, and he also wanted to keep an eye on Keller. At least Beckett seemed to understand why John didn't want the cops involved.

    "My place is pretty small," he said when they arrived in front of his building. "Do you mind staying in the car?" Beckett nodded and John turned and took the stairs up to his place two at a time.

    He smelled them before he even reached his apartment--two Were, one of them the same guy who had been at Rodney's place. John's lips pulled back in a snarl he didn't even try to hide as he reached what was left of his front door. It had been kicked in and with all of the neighbors at school or work, no one had noticed.

    The note was sitting on John's kitchen table.

    come and get him TRAITOR!!

     

    There was a set of GPS coordinates along with the paw print and John frowned. "Great, I have no idea where that is." He got his lap top out and fired it up. "Lemme see if I can figure it out...can you call someone, Jerry maybe, and have him come over and keep an eye on things here?"

    "Sure," Ronon said, pulling out his phone.

    "Sonofabitch," John muttered a few minutes later.

    "What?" Ronon leaned over his shoulder.

    "They're on some piece of property about an hour up the road from the ranch. On the other side of Chuck's place, just over the county line." He paused, thinking.

    "Well, that makes it easier," Ronon said.

    "Yeah, it really does. I didn't want to bring Keller and Beckett along, but I'm worried that we might need a doctor at some point. Also Dr. Keller keeps talking about the cops."

    "Yeah, like they'll give a damn."

    "That's what I said." John shook his head. "I get the feeling that they were planning on killing him and then threatening the rest of the people on the project." The more he thought about it, the more everything fell into place. "It would make sense if they really buy into the whole pack thing. Kill the leader and that takes care of everyone else."

    Ronon nodded. "So why didn't they?"

    "Because they realized he was...realized we were involved. So this way, they call me out, I lose because I'm a pretty sad excuse for an Alpha, they kill Rodney, and their Alpha thinks he can move into town. Works out well, for them."

    "Like we'd put up with that shit," Ronon said, narrowing his eyes. "And you know...you're a damn good Alpha. There isn't a Were in the county who wouldn't follow you."

    "I...thanks," John muttered, ducking his head. "Okay, let's get this show on the road.

    Beckett and Keller were sitting on the stoop.

    "I'm worried about the rest of the project's staff," John said, although, really, he wasn't. Not yet, at least.

    "We called everyone," Beckett said. "Just told them there had been some threats and we were looking into it, but for now, people needed to stick together and not have anything to do with strangers."

    "Okay," John said. "Here's the deal. I was right, this is a challenge. I know where they are and," he held up a hand, "before you say we should set the cops on them, they'll kill Rodney if we do because they'll have nothing to lose."

    Keller sighed. "Carson says the same thing," she said. "I don't like it, but I think you're right."

    "Thank you." John took a deep breath. "I'd like it if you followed us up to the ranch. It's on the way and you'll be safe there. Plus, if anything happens, you'll be the closest doctors."

    Beckett frowned, but all he said was, "all right."

    The drive up to the ranch was agonizing; John took his truck, because at least that way he'd have something to do, but it wasn't enough. At least Ronon insisted on them stopping at a store on the way up.

    "You need to eat," he insisted. He tossed some Clif bars and a couple big bottles of sports drink into a basket and then frowned as John added a large bottled mocha. "You don't need that crap."

    "It's for Rodney," John said, steering them toward the snack food aisle, where he grabbed a box of Ho Hos. "He's hypoglycemic." He shrugged a little as they headed to the register. "And he likes junk food."

    Ronon gripped his shoulder. "We'll get him back."

    John had polished off the Clif bars and a bottle of sports drink by the time they reached the ranch. He quickly updated Vicky, Hank and Teyla on the situation. Teldy, Zelenka and Chuck were there as well, already in Were form and all three of them gathered around as John explained what he was going to do.

    "I'll need you guys to watch out for the place. I don't think anything will happen, but...."

    John wasn't surprised when Beckett wanted to come with them. "It's an hour away, you said it yourself. If one of you needs a doctor, that's a long drive."

    "I thought you were a geneticist," John said.

    "I have an M.D. as well," Beckett said. "And...." he trailed off.

    "And?"

    "I've picked up a fair amount of veterinary medicine along the way."

    "Okay fine," John said with a scowl. He hated to admit it, but if he forced the change and then got hurt, he was going to need a vet. "I don't know how this is going to go down...."

    "I will go with Carson," Teyla said, and John remembered that they were friends, that Beckett was the reason Teyla was here for the trials. "I am close enough to my change that if I have to force it to protect him, it will not be difficult."

    "That works," John said. "You can take his car; we'll need the truck because I can't stand to be in a car in Were form."

    "I don't know what the hell I'm doing," he said to Ronon as they started down the highway toward the county line.

    "You did good back there."

    "Oh, that was easy; it's this challenge thing that I don't get." He looked over at Ronon. "Feel free to tell me that I'd know more if I paid more attention to that side of my heritage."

    "Kinda makes me want to smack your dad around some."

    "Yeah, you aren't the only one." John sighed. "But really, I shouldn't blame him. I should have done more to figure things out after I left Stanford."

    By the time they reached the gate to the Middle Bar Ranch--at least that was what the sign said--John knew just about everything Ronon knew about challenges.

    I must be out of my mind, he thought as he pulled over to the side of the road.

    "Ronon will be staying in human form," he told Teyla and Beckett. "He'll call you when...when it's over."

    "Fight well and strongly," Teyla said. She'd gotten out of the car and now she leaned toward John and touched her forehead to his. While John didn't know any of the rituals she was obviously aware of, the gesture made him feel better.

    "After this, I'd like to spend some time with you," he said. "Learn a few things...."

    "We do things differently where my family comes from, but yes, I would be honored to teach you."

    "Good luck," Beckett called as John headed back to the truck.

    The long dirt drive eventually brought them to a big, sprawling-looking house. Standing in front of it were a group of ten men. Rodney was nowhere in sight, but when John stopped the car, he caught a faint hint of his scent.

    "John Sheppard," one of the men said. "I'm Carl Anderson." He was a big blond guy, maybe an inch shorter than John, but a little broader through the chest.

    He's gonna be one fucking big wolf, John thought.

    "Yeah, I'm not particularly pleased to meet you. Where's Dr. McKay?"

    When one of the other guys brought Rodney out, John gritted his teeth. Someone had hit him pretty hard across the face, and he looked pale.

    "I hope you didn't come with any intention of reasoning with these morons," he said. "Because they refuse to believe that I'm not working on drugs to destroy all Werekind."

    "Yeah well," John said, managing a smile. "Reasoning with them wasn't what had in mind."

    "Oh no," Rodney said. "Don't tell me...."

    "Rodney," John said and, surprisingly, Rodney went silent. "Trust me, okay?"

    "Yeah," Rodney said. "Of course I do." He sounded like he meant it, and John's smile came easier this time.

    "Cool. Oh hey, I brought you some Ho Hos."

    "Well then," Rodney said. "By all means, let's get this over with; I'm starving."

    "What you see in him...." Anderson muttered, but he nodded to his men, who sat down in a half circle.

    "How much time do you need to recover from the change?"

    John wanted to ask for the full half hour that tradition allowed, but he was pretty sure he'd think differently once he changed. "Fifteen minutes," he said, trying to ignore the fact that Anderson looked to be a good ten years younger than John.

    "All right. Your terms?"

    "Dr. McKay leaves with me. You will keep out of my territory and you and your...pack will not interfere with any research done by Dr. McKay, Dr. Beckett, Dr. Keller, Dr. Biro or anyone at the U or the university med center."

    "You want a lot," Anderson said. "For that much...you'll have to kill me. From what I've heard, I'm not sure you have it in you, Sheppard."

    Glad he'd talked to Ronon beforehand, John did his best to look casual. "Can't say that I'll enjoy it," he said and then glanced over at Rodney. "But then again, maybe I will."

    After Ronon and Anderson's second, a guy named Eric, talked and and checked each other's watches, John moved back and started stripping. Anderson was doing the same thing, and John wanted to laugh. The guy was seriously buff, which wouldn't mean damn thing once he changed, but said a fair amount about him.

    Taking a deep breath, John sat down on the uncomfortable ground and closed his eyes. He'd only ever forced the change once, but as soon as he thought about doing it and thought about why he was doing it, he could feel it coiling around him, feel the tension of his muscles.

    He looked up, wondering if Rodney was watching, and yes, he was, his expression a mix of defiance and fear. God, I hope this doesn't freak him out too much.

    One more deep breath and then something in John's brain was twisting and his skin crawled and his muscles twitched and he changed. It hurt more than usual, a lot more, and John didn't even bother to try to hold back his screams because...oh fuck, but this was going to kill him even before he got to the....

    He almost blacks out, but then he's blinking his eyes and everything's different. He's shaky, but it's more adrenaline than pain now and he looks around eagerly, trying to remember why he shouldn't just run up and tear the throat out of the big gray wolf he can see.

    "Not yet," Ronon says, and John growls a little. The smell of all the other Were is almost overwhelming but under it, grounding John, is Ronon's scent--and Rodney's. He paces, tail moving back and forth hard as he settles into his body.

    Time always passes weirdly in Were form, and John's a little surprised when Ronon crouches down in front of him. "It's almost time," he says and then pauses. When John tilts his head, Ronon takes a deep breath. "If he kills you, we'll go to war over this. I'll do everything I can to save McKay and I will not let Anderson take your place or your home. Understand, John?"

    John leans forward and rubs his face against Ronon's hands and it's affection and marking and friendship all rolled up in one gesture.

    "Okay," Ronon says, standing up and backing away from John. "And...time!"

    John moves without thinking, tearing across the ground to launch himself at Anderson. The wolf is moving as John catches up with him, and instead of going for the pounce and neck bite that a real mountain lion would use, the one Anderson probably expects, John swipes at him, dragging his claws across Anderson's face. Anderson growls, but it's high pitched and hitched; John's obviously done some damage.

    Just as he's pulling back a little, to get a good angle on his next lunge, Anderson launches himself at John. He was going for John's shoulder with his teeth, but John manages to get away somehow and instead of his shoulder, the powerful jaws try to close on his side. John yowls as he feels the skin along his ribs tearing open, but Anderson missed the big muscle he was going for, and now they're rolling on the ground bleeding on one another.

    It's breathless and confusing for a moment, and John wants to flail with his claws and teeth, but he forces the instinct down, forces himself to hold back until the perfect moment. He's not really sure how he knows it when it comes, but he does. He's on his back, Anderson leaning in for another bite when John hooks his front claws into Anderson's shoulders and lashes out with his back legs, catching Anderson in the stomach.

    Then, while Anderson is reeling and throwing his head back to howl in pain, John lunges up and rips at his throat with his teeth. The howl becomes a horrible, gurgled scream and Anderson falls, half on top of John. Hissing in pain, John twists out from under him, readying himself for another attack.

    It never comes. John snarls at him and nudges him with a paw, but it's not necessary; he can tell that Anderson is dead.

    "John?" It's Ronon's voice and John turns to look at him. "You recognize me, right?"

    John nods and then sits down. He hurts like hell and he just wants to leave; the smells of the dead wolf and the pack are almost overwhelming. But there's something, something important....

    He smells Rodney before he hears or sees him. "Can I...will he...."

    Forcing himself to his feet, John turns and heads slowly for Rodney, who goes still. It seems like it takes forever, but then he reaches Rodney, and stands there nuzzling at his hip. "Oh God John," Rodney says, dropping down to his knees. Rodney's hand is stroking down his back and John is too tired to do anything but just lean there.

    After a long moment during which he hears Ronon talking, Rodney stands up. "Can you make it to the truck?"

    John's not sure, but he's damned if he's going to make Ronon and Rodney carry him, so he walks carefully over to the truck. Rodney lowers the tailgate, and John tries to jump in. It's harder than he expects, and in the end Rodney does have to help him.

    Rodney gets in with him, sitting back against the cab and letting John rest his head in his lap. "Jesus," Rodney mutters, "you're really torn up; we've got to get you to the med center...."

    John tries to pay attention, but nothing Rodney's saying makes any sense. Before he can worry about that too much, however, everything goes gray and then black.

    When John comes to, he can tell that he's home, at the ranch. He feels groggy and completely confused, but he's not hurting nearly as much as he was. Before he can think about it, he turns his head to lick at the wound on his side, which is aching dully.

    "Oh God," Rodney says. "Don't tell me we're going to have to put one of those lampshade collar things on you."

    John ducks his head and tries to pretend he was just planning on doing some grooming, but damn, it really itches. I could be dead, he thinks. Rodney could be dead.

    He wishes he could say something to Rodney, but the thought of changing right now is unbearable, even if he could. Since he can't, he just leans forward and nuzzles Rodney's chest and neck. Rodney's arms go around his shoulders and he leans down until his face is next to John's. "I was so fucking scared, John. I can't even...." John nuzzles him more and Rodney goes silent. They sit for a long time, John purring and Rodney petting him before John gets sleepy again.

    He falls asleep with his head in Rodney's lap.

    * * *

    It turns out that John's a totally crappy patient in Were form, and more than once Rodney has to threaten him with a lampshade collar. John can't help it; the stitches fucking itch like crazy and he's restive and unable to move very fast. For once, he's bored while in his Were form; he wants to be able to talk again.

    Both Ronon and Rodney give him updates; Anderson's second, Eric, is moving his pack, and Rodney has every intention of tracking them so that Ronon can go onto the Were forums and warn people about them. That John killed Anderson is already a poorly kept secret, and even though John finds it hard to do any real soul searching in Were form, he finds himself trying to figure out if there was any other way.

    Teyla sits with him in the evening and tells him stories, even though they both know he won't remember them all that well after he's changed. But he appreciates it, and he wants to laugh when Rodney joins them one evening, taking notes and asking Teyla questions.

    Finally, he feels the all over itching and restlessness that heralds his change. He'd been sitting with Rodney and when he shivers and gets up, Rodney puts down his laptop.

    "Are you okay? Do you need anything?"

    John stretches and squirms and suddenly Rodney gets it. "Do you want to be alone for this?"

    Tilting his head, he looks up at Rodney. He'd picked up John's cues pretty quickly and John waits while Rodney tries to figure out what John is asking. "You want to know if I want to be there?"

    John nods.

    "Um...yeah, actually. I do."

    When John finished yowling his way through the change, the first thing Rodney did was check his stitches. "Oh thank God, they held up." He helped John up to the bed and then settled in with him.

    "Rodney," John mumbled, trying desperately to think. "I...."

    "Shhhhh," Rodney said, reaching up to run his fingers lazily through John's hair. "Get some sleep; I'm not going anywhere."

    Epilogue

    "Oh my God," Rodney yelled.

    John blinked and sat up in bed, making a face. As usual after changing, his mouth tasted disgusting. Also, he had no idea what Rodney was yelling about.

    "You got fur all over my best black sweater! I swear to God, next month I'm going to make you sleep in the barn."

    "In January?" John asked, trying to look pathetic as he crawled out of bed and headed toward the bathroom.

    "Why not? It's not like you'll freeze or anything, seeing as you have so much fur that you feel perfectly justified in leaving it all over my clothes."

    Still brushing his teeth, John glanced through the doorway as Rodney went on, "And don't think I didn't catch you scent marking my pants last night!"

    "I like those pants," John said after rinsing his mouth. "And if you'd actually pick up your clothes instead of leaving them on the floor, I wouldn't sleep on them."

    "There's a perfectly good rug," Rodney said.

    "Yeah, I know." John ducked his head. "But your sweater is...comfy."

    "Is it?"

    "Yeah," John said and then brought out the big guns. "And it smells like you."

    Rodney was still muttering about cats and clothes when John reached out and pulled him into his arms. "Hey," he said, "guess what?"

    "Let me see, you just changed and it's morning and...." John cut him off with a kiss.

    "Why are you so grumpy this morning?" he asked as he pulled Rodney toward the bed.

    "Got the results of the last round of lab work yesterday."

    "I take it they weren't good?"

    "Nope." Rodney sat down on the bed, his mouth turned down on both sides. "Not good at all. Oh, the stuff is safe, but...."

    "Not effective?"

    "Not at all." Rodney leaned against John when John slid an arm around his waist. "Seven months of clinical trials and for what? Nothing!"

    "I'm sorry," John said. "That just sucks."

    "Yeah." Rodney slumped down and was quiet for a long moment. And then John felt him taking a deep breath. "Oh well, back to the drawing board, I guess."

    "Sex first," John murmured, and Rodney rolled his eyes.

    Later, as they got dressed to go down to breakfast, Rodney paused, his shirt half buttoned. "I'm sorry," he said.

    John didn't need to ask what he was talking about.

    "Hey, it's okay. I'm not gonna leave you because you didn't come up with a wonder drug."

    "Oh right," Rodney said with a smile. "I forgot; I smell good."

    "Yeah," John said. "That too.'"

    -end-