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Cut my feelings to the bone

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It's been a long day, and John's thoughts are starting to stray. He loves the full body and mind experience of flying Atlantis, but hours upon hours of constant trajectories and status updates gets monotonous. They've prepared this trip meticulously for months, and since everything is going according to plan John thinks he can be excused if he doesn't dedicate all of his attention to a glorified autopilot function at this stage of the journey.

He lets the process and technicalities of navigating towards the planet they chose for their big return in Pegasus aside to experiment with the link itself. He can feel Atlantis like a presence in his mind every second he's in her, discrete but there, but when he sits in the chair it's a lot more intimate. There's a conscience below the controls, of that John is convinced.

He can't have conversations with Atlantis, but he's learned to decode the city's moods. Over the years she started to communicate with him through colors: from the general impression behind his eyes being almost universally blue like the outside manifestation of Ancient tech at first, she has started to vary the color of their mental exchanges in different contexts. If the glow of the chair remains the same, in his head he picks up other tints.

John asked around, and there are very few who have the privilege to communicate with her in that way. Lorne gets hints of colors when things are charged, Rodney says he's getting flashes but also some matrices in which the writing is color coded and Mia from Operations, who is a back-up pilot, barely gets anything at all. Too bad for them; the ever-changing rainbow hue of flying is pretty spectacular.

"Sheppard! Ready for the drop?"

John shakes his almost trance, opening his eyes to get back to reality; Rodney must have tried talking to him more than once, judging by his frown and the impatience in his tone. John rapidly checks the calculations, and they are still perfectly on track. The drop from hyperspace is... in 10 minutes? Okay, so he zoned out, there was an hour left at what feels like moments ago.

"Yes, all systems ready."

"Get your head in the game," Rodney says, squeezing his arm. "From the specs we have on M45-343, there should be plenty of water for a smooth landing, but I don't want to ricochet like a pebble if I can avoid it."

"Of course not. Doubting me, McKay?"

"You're passable; it should be fine." Rodney's smirk is teasing but the words are sincere. In Rodney-speak, it's a pretty straightforward compliment of John's skills and everyone in the room knows it.

The sector where they drop out of hyperspace is thankfully devoid of visible threats, and there, shiny and beautiful on the displays in the chair room, is M45-343. There's a murmur in the room, surely because the color scheme is so reminiscent of Earth. When John zooms in on the planned landing site, there's a collective intake of breath. In a good way.

It looks like the Caribbean Sea, with turquoise to indigo water and a coastline covered in white sand and vegetation similar to palm trees.

"Really?" Rodney says, looking almost offended.

"This is the opposite of a problem," John replies, and he thinks he's talking for everyone.

"Oh, I'm not complaining. But this planet's suggestion by the database is clearly Atlantis trying to butter you up. Could you scan for activity, especially near the main archipelago?"

The sensors detect a group of twenty five persons on the biggest island, plus isolated pairs on what appear to be a half a dozen fishing boats. It's very small for a settlement. The only structures visible from their position are rudimentary housing and storage. Since nothing in view can be labeled as a threat until a full assessment is made, John follows protocol and makes sure the city is cloaked before he starts the landing sequence.

***

John is sitting on the edge of the South-West Pier, exhausted from the journey – and his flawless landing, thank you very much - but too wired to go to bed. He's on his second beer when he hears the closest door swish, seconds before Rodney comes to sit beside him. The sun is setting on the horizon, bight orange skies warring with purple clouds, and it's absolutely breathtaking.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Rodney asks.

"That there must be a catch?"

"Exactly," Rodney says. "It makes no sense that there's only a handful of people on this planet."

“Well, there's no gate, for one. And maybe Pegasus natives aren't into tropical paradises?" John asks. They must be crazy, because this is perfection.

“That, or every life form is poisonous, venomous or especially aggressive."

"Always the optimist," John says, nudging Rodney with an elbow.

"I'm just saying we should be careful."

"Agreed. But in the meantime? Let me enjoy this."

Rodney snorts as he lies down on the Pier, hands linked on his chest and closing his eyes.

"Enjoy away." While it lasts, is implied.

Whatever Rodney says, he looks pretty content.

John is distracted from the sunset by the way Rodney's blue t-shirt stretches over his chest and biceps.

Either way, the view is pretty great.

***

The day after the landing, John's first order of business is to reunite Teyla with Kanaan and Torren, who later move with them on Atlantis. Half of their gate teams are sent out to visit their key partners, while John and Woolsey plan for the first contact with their new planet's inhabitants. They've observed them from afar, and it looks like a working crew: no children, with only able-bodied men and women and a handful of elders.

A week after landing and a couple of recon and analysis on other parts of the planet – mostly uninteresting, very arid – John makes his team gear up for their first mission out on the main archipelago, with Lorne as a backup in an invisible jumper, just in case.

Everyone is a good mood, even Ronon who keeps smiling as he twirls his gun. John flies the puddlejumper high into the atmosphere before uncloaking and coming back down towards the encampment. No need to give up Intel on Atlantis at this point.

There is some pointing at the jumper when they are spotted, but no outward sign of aggression. Several men take out what look like guns, but it's only prudent when about to engage with an unknown force, so John can't blame them.

He lands just short of the encampment, near a row of army-like tents. When the hull opens, the team steps out with weapons holstered, trying to project that they are friendly and trustworthy. They've had five years to practice this particular routine; John feels as if they are pretty good at it.

"Greetings," Teyla says.

"Salutations to you," one of the oldest-looking guys says, inclining his head. He sounds pretty angry, no matter the civil words. "Our transport was not supposed to be here for twenty more days. We are not ready."

John shakes his head and waves the word off. "That's not us, don't worry."

Rodney chimes in. "We were, you know, around. Decided to come and say hi."

Which… Rodney knows better than to engage, it's not his job.

The men and women look perplexed.

"I am sorry; let me explain better," Teyla says. "I'm Teyla Emmagan from Athos, and my friends are Ronon Dex of Sateda, and John Sheppard and Rodney McKay of Lantea. We're here to explore and meet new people."

"We are of Doemas; I am Milas," the old man says. John has never heard their planet's name, but Teyla smiles more widely, and Ronon relaxes. That's always a good sign.

"Pleased to meet you," John says.

One of the younger women leans towards someone who looks like her mom to whisper into her ear.

"Your names echo," the lady says, squinting at them. "The Travelers have stories about the Lanteans, and they are not always flattering."

"The Travelers, of course," Rodney says. “Well, we have stories about them, too."

“Rodney, please," Teyla says with a meaningful widening of eyes that shuts Rodney up. "We have had successful alliances with the Travelers, for the most part. I understand you are not airborne yourselves?"

The first elder scoffs. "Not a chance. Using their services is a necessity for commerce, but I cannot say I enjoy space travel."

"That's because they have lousy ships," John says.

The girl who knew about them speaks up. "Is it true your people live in the city of the Ancestors?"

If they’re bound to be neighbors, at least for the next twenty days, it's best to be honest.

"We do. Those are for our day-to-day transport," John says, gesturing to the puddlejumper. "You're here to fish?"

It's the logical conclusion, with the several smoking racks in usage, and the boats they've seen.

"As much as we can in forty days, yes. Are you looking to do it too?" Milas, whom John thinks is the leader, seems a bit wary.

"No. We could be interested in some fish, though," John says. "If it's to the taste of our people."

The man smiles, his posture relaxing. "The ullu is a high-prized delicacy. I am sure one taste will be enough to convince. Mac, go prepare bites to try."

One of the youngest guys immediately scuttles off towards a tent, and satisfied they're getting a relatively warm welcome, John walks down the ramp, and approaches Milas.

"Am I wrong in thinking you don't have a permanent team here?" John asks.

"Permanent? As several months?" the man looks astonished. “Heavens, no."

"Why not?" Ronon asks. "The Travelers could come and collect the fish from time to time."

"Not with the weather."

"It seems pretty great to me!" John says. They've been here a week with a stable 80 degrees in the day, light wind and almost no humidity.

"Now. In fact, we have been extremely fortunate lately. But the storms that the planet withstands most of the year are too harsh."

"Ah, that's the catch," Rodney mumbles and John sighs. Of course there had to be something.

"Tell us more," Teyla asks.

***

The little courtyard of the temple on Cellinor is packed, all seats taken at the tables that have been placed in a spiral pattern. Many more people are milling about, stopping to chat and laugh with each other. John is slouching in his chair, hands linked on chest, content to soak in the sun as he watches his team having fun, too. Ronon says something to Teyla who throws her head back and laughs, and frankly it doesn't get better than that.

There are some chimes, and the High Priest at the dais at one end of the courtyard starts reading from an old-looking book, but his voice doesn't reach them, at least not enough for John to pay attention to whatever he's so intent about. He's not alone; many people around them are having hushed conversations as the High Priest goes on and on. There are more rituals they've seen a million times, like the blessing of a pitcher of dark red liquor that is poured into a close equivalent of shot glasses. John's attention is brought back to his team when Rodney leans into him to say something.

"Ah, the sweet sound of religious nonsense in the morning. Weirdly, I might have missed this."

John uses a hand to hide his smile, but yes, indeed. There's a certain rhythm to life in Pegasus that is not just Atlantis, commerce, fighting the Wraiths and scientific discovery. He nudges Rodney away so he can pay attention, or at least fake it.

Once the High Priest is done, several boys and girls enter the courtyard with trays holding bowls of food. Everything looks great, but doesn't always taste as expected, which is also par for the course. McKay becomes animated when a purple sauce tastes almost like chocolate.

"We've got to bring whatever this is made of back to the botanists."

"We can always ask," John says.

The Cellinians are friendly, smile a whole lot and are maybe a little too fond of public displays of affection. Couples are particularly demonstrative, and there are many casual touches between friends and strangers alike, from touching an arm to be sure they have their interlocutor's attention to squeezing or clapping someone else's shoulder to punctuate a sentence. When everyone sat down to eat, Rodney and Ronon took chairs on each side of him to act as human barriers from all of this touching, and John's glad he didn't even have to ask for it.

John can't help it, he checks out Rodney's expression, as the music starts when the High Priest is finished. It doesn't disappoint, as Rodney looks horrified at the amount of flute in the almost-jig they are now subjected to. He looks back at John, eyes wide, who smiles and shrugs.

I know, buddy. I know.

No need to say it aloud. There's something reassuring in knowing someone that well. In most things, at least, because John's pretty sure that Rodney has no idea that his feelings go beyond platonic friendship. Rodney's always been a little dense about things like that, which suits John just fine: he doesn't want to jeopardize their friendship with unrequited feelings.

One of the young priests, or maybe an apprentice, is slowly making his way from table to table with a tray of the shots John has noticed earlier. People are eager to get their hands on the little glasses, and then they catch eyes with their neighbor and down them with enthusiasm.

When the young priest reaches them, he distributes shots to the team with a smile.

"May you all be blessed in life and love," he says, with no hint of deception.

Since everyone, natives and guests alike, are drinking it, John lifts his glass, the dark red liquid catching the sun.

“Cheers, Rodney."

Rodney salutes back, and they sip at their glasses. It tastes fruity, mostly like berries, while John expected alcohol. He does feels a shiver go down his spine after he drinks it all, though, which he doesn't like; years of interacting consciously or not with Ancient tech has made him cautious of this sort of feeling. All around them people keep on chatting, as if there's nothing out of the ordinary. Rodney looks at his drink as if he's perplexed, though, and John is about to grab his P90 when Rodney makes a face and swallows the rest of his shot. It must be nothing.

Soon after they start serving the desserts, and with them more purple chocolaty sauce and yeah, the excited little moans Rodney makes at his food are very distracting. He definitely needs to get his hands on whatever it's called for the mess hall. Reassured that everything is fine, John eats a little but mostly just sits back and enjoys the day.

It's good to be back.

***

John has a meeting in the armory in thirty minutes, but he decides to go by the labs first to bring them a weird little cylinder Lieutenant Dion found in one of the new living quarters. John tries guessing what it is, but it mostly stays inert apart from a blue light shining from one of the tips. It could be a glow stick of a sort, but imagining Ancients having a party (or even having fun in general) is weird. Maybe Rodney will make sense of it.

In the lab, Jennifer is in an animated conversation with Radek and Rodney at the whiteboard. When Rodney and Jennifer split a month after landing in the San Francisco Bay, everyone walked on eggshells for a couple of weeks. Knowing Rodney's temperament, expecting drama wasn't that far-fetched but the break up seems perfectly smooth, and they remain friends. It's not that John wants anyone to be unhappy – especially not Rodney – but he might still resent Jennifer (he was so jealous, it was ridiculous), and hates himself for it. She did nothing wrong, and he needs to get over his bullshit.

Jennifer throws her hands in the hair when Rodney and Radek start contradicting each other about – from what John understands - a molecule from an indigenous plant and how it could potentially be purified to give a strong antipyretic agent.

"You guys are not helping at all!" she complains.

"Maybe you'd get better results asking the actual chemists," John says, making the trio look at him.

Rodney has the gall to look affronted. "Excuse you, this is not rocket science."

"Exactly. You know rocket science inside out. Not this."

Jennifer smirks. "You know what, John? You're absolutely right. I'll go see Doctor Lambert. Anyway, it's freezing in here. I think a trip to the greenhouses will do me some good."

John meets Rodney's eyes as Jennifer leaves with her notes, and they frown. The labs have a strictly regulated temperature, and it feels fine. Maybe she's coming down with a cold.

But, well, she's gone, and Rodney rapidly moves his focus to John.

"Did you need something?"

"Nothing urgent," John says. He wiggles the little cylinder before putting it down on the workbench.

"What's this?"

"No idea," John says with a shrug. "Dion found it in someone's living quarters."

Immediately Rodney picks it up, humming, and when Radek walks closer to have a look too, Rodney curls around it protectively.

"You are ridiculous," Radek says, rolling his eyes.

"He brought it to me, so," Rodney says. "Find your own toys."

John can't help the smile as he leans against the desk: this is going to be fun. Radek throws his hands in the air and walks away, though John almost chokes when Zelenka mutters, "Of course he brought it to you. Stupid courtship ritual."

Thankfully, Rodney was fully absorbed in making the blue light shine and didn't hear it. John feels his ears turning red and he hopes Rodney doesn't notice it either. Anyway, he needs to go, so he makes a strategic exit.

***

John's been feeling weird in the last couple of days, but it's been quite hectic with several tornadoes battering at their shield and all but uprooting the trees on the archipelago. He was on puddlejumper ferry duty as he moved the fishermen in and out of Atlantis, eating and sleeping when he could. The storms on M45-343 are extremely violent, as advertised, and their experts are having a hard time making accurate forecasts with the planet's complex marine undercurrent and three moons that govern the climate. Fortunately, Atlantis has good shields.

The fishermen appreciate being brought to safety with the fish they had smoked and packed for trade, but they are now ready to go, with the Travelers due to come and get them in two days. John asked them to be discreet about Atlantis being on the planet, but who knows if they'll talk, and to whom.

After a night of sleep that wasn't as restful as it could have been – he'll ask for antacid tablets when they come back – John's team gears up and leaves for M91-203. It's important to secure the partnerships they already have, but they need to keep on with the exploration of the worlds that have a potential for interesting resources, too.

Their mission is kind of a bust, but not really. The weather was great – welcome after the deluge they sustained in the last days – and they've walked for a couple of hours without any bad surprises. Even though they had nothing new to bring home, especially not a clue for a ZPM, they took some fresh air and had a good time. John felt better as soon as they stepped onto the planet, and the nap he took after lunch near a lake was rejuvenating.

All and all, John is pretty happy to have become an intrepid space explorer. Aside from the inevitable mortal peril situations and occasional suffering, there's a little ass kicking from time to time, (which is fun), they get to help folks with their defenses against the Wraiths (pretty great, too), and from every so often they have quiet days like this.

And, after every mission, John goes back to Atlantis with his friends. That's pretty sweet.

***

They have finished the maintenance on John's puddlejumper and are touring the others when Rodney is distracted by one of the new mechanics, Sharon Cullen. She greets them with a wide smile even though she surely noticed Rodney staring a little. Or the smile is because Rodney has been staring, who knows?

"Hey Doc, Colonel," she says with a nod.

"Hi," Rodney says.

John has a good idea why he seems fascinated: she looks like a young Samantha Carter. Very blond, pixie cut, big blue eyes, and there's potential for disaster right there.

"There's something weird with the back hatch of this one," Sharon says, pointing to the next puddlejumper in line.

"Weird how?" Rodney asks, but he's looking at the girl, not the ship.

John feels as if he suddenly disappeared, and he hates it. Not that Rodney seems interested in someone that's not him - it was bound to happen sooner or later - but that he's affected by it. He can't help the stab of envy, and when he reaches for the hull of the puddlejumper at the same time as Sharon does, an electric shock startles them both.

"Ow!" they say simultaneously.

John shakes his hand, as it tingles still, but has no idea what happened.

Sharon scrunches up her nose. "That's really annoying."

"What did you do, again?" Rodney accuses John.

"Nothing!" he protests. "Something sparked."

He gets an eye roll for that. "It must be your hyperactive wonder gene again, go take a walk."

John hadn't planned to take the puddlejumper out again, but maybe it's for the best before he says or does something he'll regret.

"Fine, see you later."

"At six in the rec room?" Rodney asks expectantly, and it soothes John's ruffled feathers. He refrains from looking at Sharon, to see if she got the hint to stay away.

"I'll be there," John says, and can't help but smile back when Rodney grins.

Once out, John pushes the jumper up and up until he's left the atmosphere, before launching in a series of acrobatics. Flying has always been a sure way to make him feel better, though he might have overdone the rolls and spirals because he's gone from pissed to slightly nauseous.

When John flies down to the planet's surface, he's almost at the North Pole, the surface a frozen wasteland. There's nothing interesting to explore in the area so he speeds towards Atlantis, making once again making a mental note to go by the infirmary to pick up something for his stomach. This frequent heartburn is getting old fast.

***

Rodney always follows a logical grid pattern to find John's boats when they play Battleship, while John favors random hits. He's lucky, more times than not, which infuriates Rodney. But that's not the way John plans to play today. He feels like teasing Rodney a little, to get a rise out of him. A red-faced, eyes-shooting-arrows Rodney is a sight to behold, and John indulges himself every so often.

"C-5," Rodney calls as he starts the game.

"Miss. C-5," John counters, acting as casual as he can, slouching exaggeratedly in his love seat. They've had the place all to themselves until now, which is unusual but welcome. It should fill up soon.

Rodney rolls his eyes. "Miss. H-8."

"Miss yourself. H-8," John says.

That earns him a squint from Rodney. John wonders when he'll go from slightly aggravated to calculating.

"Miss too. H-3," Rodney tries.

And shit. Rodney's got one, a three pins submarine. John had hoped to ramp up the repetitions a bit before that happened. But hey, he'll stick to the plan.

"Hit," he says, as cool as possible, but nonetheless amused at how Rodney crows in delight.

"I'm going to bring you down, Sheppard," Rodney says.

Always so dramatic, John rolls his eyes. "It's one hit, the game is young. My turn: H-3."

Rodney snorts. "Seriously? What are you, four years old?"

"Are you saying those are bad choices?" John asks with a smirk.

Rodney frowns: he can't say that, being his own calls. "Well no-"

"H-3. Hit or miss?" John interrupts.

"Miss," Rodney says with a sigh. John is pretty sure he can call the next shot, and Rodney doesn't disappoint, continuing his grid instead of trying to sink John's submarine. "C-8."

"Miss." John is about to call C-8 when there's a weird sound coming from the door. Then, audible only if they pay attention, what sounds like knocking.

John and Rodney look at each other because… what? No one knocks to enter the rec room.

"What is it?" Rodney shouts.

"Rodney?" It's Zelenka, voice faint but clear across the door. "Are you okay?"

"Yes! I'm with Sheppard, we're fine. What's going on?"

"Oh! Oh. Sorry for interrupting…"

"What are you talking about? And why aren't you coming in instead of yelling through the door?"

"Because it is locked! That is why I am here: we have had multiple complaints about how the door does not open."

That's really fucking strange. Perplexed, John goes to the door, Rodney on his heels, and it does take a very firm mental command for the door to open. Zelenka is on the other side, hands deep in the control panel, and looks at John in surprise.

"Ah, there it goes. It was just you two?"

"Yeah," John says. "We watched an episode of Twilight Zone, and we'd just started a game of Battleship.”

"How long was the door shut?" Rodney asks. "We didn't realize it was locked."

Radek checks his tablet. "Maybe one hour?"

Huh. That's about the amount of time they've been in there. John makes the door open and close several times.

"It looks fine, now."

"Good," Rodney says, rocking back on his heels. He then turns to John. "Come on, I have a game to win."

John scoffs. "Yeah, right. We'll see about that. Sorry Radek, no idea what happened."

Mako and Dion, who had been waiting by the door, follow them in and race to the air hockey table (well it's not exactly that, but a fairly equivalent Ancient version. It's very popular).

When Rodney and he sit back down to resume their game, John immediately calls C-8 and laughs when Rodney starts bitching. He doesn't care if he doesn't win the game, the show is well worth it.

**

John is doing inventory, chewing on the end of his stylus, when he gets a call.

"Sheppard, can you come to the chair room?"

It's Rodney, and the request has John frowning. They are working on the ventilation system today, and he didn't expect to be called in for reinforcement.

"Is everything okay?"

"Your girl is being difficult, can you come over now?"

"Sure thing, on my way."

Once there he finds a frustrated Rodney and also a frowning Lorne, which is cause for concern.

"What's the problem?"

"Atlantis doesn't power the systems as she should. We need two gene bearers to override a security point – and yes, everything is fine; it's not because of a safety issue – but it didn't work with Peterson in the chair. Nor with Mia who is a natural gene carrier."

"Or with me." Lorne says, and that makes John pause. Evan is the strongest natural carrier they have after himself, and if he can't do it, there could be a problem.

John walks to the chair and sits down. Atlantis connects immediately and the blue glow envelops him with the familiar enquiry undertones. She's generally very eager to please.

"What do you need me to ask?"

Rodney shoves a tablet in his face. "I want power in those sectors and for her to unlock the grid when I ask her at my end."

The beauty of mind-controlled tech is that the response is almost immediate. John asks, and suddenly all the right sectors light up on the map as Atlantis makes a great imitation of a purring cat in his head, mild yellow.

John taps the chair's armrest. "That's my good girl."

"Typical," Rodney says with an eye roll. It sounds fonder than annoyed, though.

John tries to convey to Atlantis that she needs to listen to Lorne and Rodney, and she turns back to blue. The equivalent of "All systems ready" in Ancient appears on the control and John scoffs. She can be a little cheeky, sometimes.

He won't lie; he likes being special for Atlantis. If he smirks a little bit at her playing favorites again, well, he can't help it.

***

Several days later, John goes on a mission with Lorne's team: they suspect that they'd need to show a little firepower to a group of mercenaries who have started to harass a village of allies. They want to enroll the teens, maybe even by force, and just don't understand the meaning of the word 'no'. Nothing impresses more than a fully loaded puddlejumper appearing out of thin air; it's John's favorite trick, so he insisted on doing it himself.

The showdown went without a hitch, and now John takes a moment to rest under a tree, looking for shade. He feels queasy again and needs to go to the infirmary to find something stronger than Maalox. He hopes he doesn't have stomach or liver problems, which would suck. John suspects he might have eaten something weird, but it's been getting worse at the weirdest times.

"You know, sir," Lorne says as he joins him, throwing John a water bottle that he accepts gratefully. "I think Atlantis is starting to play favorites.”

"I've always been the favorite," John says with a shrug. It's just how things are.

"Of course. But tasks that I used to do perfectly fine on my own are sluggish at best if you are on base, but if you are off-world with your team, it's fine. I am afraid that it might become a security issue."

It's worrying indeed.

"I'm sure that if I was incapacitated, she would defer to an able individual."

"What about... you know, what happened when the aliens took control of Dr. Weir and you?"

"Possession? I sure hope that won't happen again." Lorne is right, though, Atlantis did obey Thalan that one time.

"Maybe you could..." Lorne makes a face.

"Reprogram her? I can't control Atlantis," John says. He can input basic commands, may it be directing a flight or when she needs to defend herself, but Atlantis has a mind of her own.

"Fix some parameters and nudge her in the right direction, maybe?" Lorne suggests.

"I see what you mean." It's reasonable, and he'll look into it with Rodney.

He drinks his water, frustrated that it doesn't calm the fire in his stomach, when something dawns on John. "You waited until we were out of Atlantis to talk to me, did you?"

"I might be paranoid, but she reads minds." Lorne says with a shrug.

Which... okay, fair point.

"Are we done, here?" John asks.

"Yes, sir," Lorne says.

"Okay, let's go home."

When they get back, Woolsey is in the jumper bay, frowning.

"Colonel, we have to talk," he says, turning around and walking briskly towards his office.

"What is it?"

Woolsey pauses and looks around, as if he's afraid to be overheard.

"Atlantis started acting out when you left. Whatever we tried to do that meant interacting with the city's systems only worked on the third try."

"What? How widespread was it?"

"Communications, transporters, basic equipment, all of it. No one managed to even turn on a puddlejumper, let alone make it fly. Atlantis kept trying to open the gate to the planet where you were."

That's a real fucking problem.

"Did McKay look into it? Maybe it's a virus." John needs to know how screwed they are ASAP.

"McKay is in the infirmary," Woolsey says as they enter his office.

"What?" John exclaims, and Woolsey leans back slightly, startled.

Before he can explain what happened, Rodney barges in. His eyes are a little wild with panic and he's totally disheveled.

"What the ever-loving fuck!" Rodney says, breathing hard. It must be bad because he rarely swears.

"Are you okay?" John asks, scanning him from head to toe. He doesn't look injured.

Rodney swears again, then continues on his momentum and doesn't stop until he reaches John. He grips John's uniform sleeves and drops his forehead on John's shoulder.

"Do not move," he mumbles. "Give me a second."

John might be panicking a little bit because... What the fuck? He doesn’t know where to put his hands, and he's rapidly getting flustered the more the almost-hug continues. He would very much like to know what is going on.

"It seems that the migraine that started when you left disappeared just as you came back," Rodney offers as an explanation.

Rodney's been having headaches? It's the first he’s heard about it. Immediately, John thinks about how he's been feeling sick, too, generally when he's far from Rodney... Could Atlantis be trying to play matchmaker? Is his crush is so obvious that he's been found out by a city? But then again, she does have access to his thoughts.

Woolsey's got his thinking face on. "It's as if she's trying to keep you both at hand."

That explanation would fit with Lorne's theory about Atlantis playing favorites. John has the strongest gene and Rodney believes he can fix whatever is wrong if needs be. It might sound conceited, but the two of them are indeed an essential part of the crew.

John really hopes that what's going on is based on who's best for running the city, and not because Atlantis is trying to make them hook up. Rodney doesn't reciprocate, anyway, so it would be pointless.

Whatever is going on, Atlantis needs a good talking to.

"I'll go in the chair," John says.

"What, you'll ground the city?" Rodney asks, picking his head up to throw him a disbelieving glare. He's close, very close, and John can see the lines of tension on his face. The migraine must have been a bad one, and that can't be tolerated.

"Something like that."

John briskly walks to the chair room, and he doesn't wait for a second, he immediately sits down. Atlantis pulses as they connect, extra pleased to see him, and as always the feeling of communion remains a rush, like a siren call, but he can't be swayed, or distracted from what he came to say, or, more appropriately, think. He refrains from his usual mental pat in return and Atlantis' mood turns questioning.

As clear and direct as he can, John forms the thought:

Never. Ever. Hurt. Rodney.

The feeling that immediately flashes back isn't guilt, it's outrage. Orange in his mind, it shivers under his skin.

John continues. You do not toy with people. Do not get in the way. Do not shock people. Do not play with the temperature. Do not lock us together in a room. Do not interfere.

The communication turns to red, angry.

Always answer to someone with a gene. Not just me. Immediately. he persists.

It's pulsing red, now, as if he's reaching the limit of Atlantis' patience. They are on the razor's edge for a second, and then everything goes dark. Atlantis has shut down, not only the mental link but the power in the chair and everything around them, too, and John gapes, both surprised that she went there and absolutely fuming himself. It's like dealing with a teenager, even if she's millions of years old.

In the chair room – and possibly everywhere else – all controls and systems have switched down to their emergency levels. The lights have dropped, the ventilation is at a minimum and John doesn’t want to play that game. He gets up from the chair, convinced he should not give in.

Rodney walks into the room, and judging from the time it took for him to react, he must have been right outside of the door.

"What the hell? What did you do?" he asks, immediately accusatory.

Without waiting for John's answer he goes to the chair. John wants to tell him to stay far away while Atlantis finishes her tantrum because he's convinced it's temporary, that she'll come around eventually. When Rodney touches the chair, it comes back to life.

“Hey, hey, it's fine. I don't know what Colonel Grumpypants said, but it's okay. Just give us the power back," Rodney says, petting the armrest.

She does, and Rodney coos. "Good, that's good."

John rolls his eyes and leaves. He'll deal with Atlantis later.

***

"This, I haven't missed," Rodney yells, as they dodge staff blasts from the Wraiths, running through one of their hive ships. The intruder alert sirens are flashing and tooting, urging them on.

"Liar!" Ronon says as he turns and shoots, and John can't help the chuckle.

"What?!" Rodney protests.

"We all know you secretly like when a mission goes to hell!" John adds.

"Allows you to save the day," Ronon says with a smile.

"Well there is not much saving the day going on right now, it's more like running for my life. I have no idea why you'd think I enjoy this!"

"Adrenaline," John says. He sure gets a rush himself.

Teyla is waiting for them at the exit they've agreed on.

"The explosives are all set in the hangar," she reports.

"Then let's get out of Dodge!"

They zig-zag between several crates of materiel and Darts pinned down for maintenance, aiming for the exits before everything blows up.

When they get out in the evening air, they have lost their pursuers. It's not like they want to linger, though, and as rapidly as possible they run to their cloaked jumper. John maneuvers it to overlook the valley, and they watch the fireworks destroying the Wraith outpost with huge smiles. There's a hefty dose of adrenaline coursing through his veins, and it's been days since John's felt this great. No belly or stomach ache; life is good.

"Okay. I might enjoy this a little," Rodney says, making them all laugh.

***

Everyday life goes back to normal, and Atlantis doesn't try to lock John and Rodney together even once. She responds lightning-quick to everyone with a gene, but seems to give John the attitude still. When he cannot coax the performances he should get from his puddlejumpers, he goes back to the chair.

They connect instantly, but all is blue. Standoffish. A little orange still.

Look, I'm sorry. Is that's what you want me to say? I was hard on you. But Rodney got hurt and I was scared, angry.

Immediately the connection soothes, the tint magenta or close. But Atlantis obviously wants to communicate more than by moodlight, because characters start flashing in John's head and begin to fill some screens in the room. They are written with the Ancient symbols but are simple enough to decode.

Not Atlantis. Not Atlantis. Not Atlantis.

The message increases in agitation, too, writing faster and faster. Radek, who is in the room with John, tries to type on the terminal, but Atlantis doesn’t stop until John says he understands, and then steps out of the chair. He's perplexed, though. She was malfunctioning: the way she wasn't responding to him for the last three days is proof of it.

"What happened?" Radek asks.

"I don't know." She sounded honest, truthful. Not deceptive. "She says she's not to blame for what happened lately. Can you double-check for some kind of virus?"

"Will do. But all of the diagnoses we ran in the last couple of days turned out fine."

"Except for when I asked for something."

"Except for that," Radek says with a smirk. "That is what happens when you get in a fight with your lady."

John doesn't say that he's never felt like Atlantis' favorite in that way. When they got here she was relived to finally have someone to awaken her. Then, as they worked together, she started responding more and more, and over the years she has begun to feel more like a child or a sibling.

"Tell me if you find anything," John says.

"Of course, Colonel."

John pats the doorframe as he exits. They'll fix whatever is wrong.

***

Gun requalification is surprisingly popular with the scientists. Some of them are even pretty gifted at gun handling and target shooting, which makes his Marines extra-competitive (John won't argue with what gives results). Even Rodney got into it over the years. He's not good, not really, but he's decent enough, and he knows how to handle every firearm they keep. Everyone gets to practice on most of the arsenal, even the Wraith stunners they've collected over the years. There's just Ronon who still won't share his gun, but no one call him on it.

John leans against the back wall as Rodney does the Beretta qual. Rodney's form is almost perfect as he fires on his target, and the focus he displays as he aims is pretty hot; John won't lie. He's in a thin white t-shirt and BDU pants that hug his frame just right, and it's possible that John's eyes wander from what he's supposed to observe. He snaps out of it only when Rodney turns to him with a crooked grin, calling his target close.

"Let's look at this," John says.

The shots are grouped, all deadly in center mass and one to the middle of the face for good measure. John whistles; it's a marked improvement from six months ago.

"Have you been practicing?" he asks.

"Chris gave me a couple of pointers," Rodney answers.

John can't help the flash of hurt, because if Rodney needed tips, he would have helped. And then he realizes that Chris can only be Lieutenant Cafferty, one of the second to last wave of Marines. He's gorgeous, stupidly endearing and not shy about making his interest known to women and men alike. From what John heard – Lorne is the biggest gossip – Cafferty has slept with half the base and is still friendly with everyone, somehow.

"Lieutenant Cafferty," John says to confirm.

He can't help the frown. Did Chris hit on Rodney, too? He hopes he doesn’t have a harassment problem on his hands.

Rodney nods. "Yes. Cute and knows it, but somehow manages not to be obnoxious about it?"

John grunts but his mind is reeling. Could Rodney be less straight than John thought all of these years? Chris is a blue-eyed blond, though, which only proves that Rodney has a type.

Acting jealous won't give him anything, so John tries humor. "How did he get you to train? I need pointers."

Rodney scoffs. "He disguised it as a date. Sneaky, I have to give him that."

John's jaw almost unhinges and Rodney reddens, taking it the wrong way.

"As you know, this is an international mission. Don't you dare give him trouble."

"I wouldn't do that!" John protests. He's still processing that Rodney is bisexual, and that may be why he blurts out his next sentence. "It would be pretty hypocritical of me, anyway."

John immediately turns around, hoping he's not beet red. He takes his Para-Ordnance, puts on his earmuffs and aims, trying to escape this conversation. Unfortunately, Rodney doesn't go away (of course he doesn't), and when John has emptied his clip and cannot avoid it anymore, he turns to see Rodney observing him like a good equation. He expects a comment, maybe being asked flat out what he meant, but once again Rodney surprises him.

"Let's go eat," Rodney says, dropping the subject.

And that is that, for now.

***

The residents of M78-567, or Nomani as they call it, are long-time partners. They mine Naquadah, which makes them strategic allies, and John thanks the universe every day that, for the moment, they're definitely on their side. They don't deal with the Genii, and the Wraiths haven't culled them in two generations. They are doing everything so it stays that way.

The Nomani people drive a hard bargain but are honest and quite friendly when you've earned their trust. The mayor of Bila, the town that is adjacent to the main mining site in operation, is a middle-aged man called Koren that John would not call a close friend, but is a fun acquaintance. Koren is curious about all things Ancient, and John is convinced that he would be an archeologist on Earth. Each time they visit, John brings a couple of Ancient doohickeys: it costs them all but nothing and makes for a fun afternoon while Rodney goes down in the mine to help the Nomanis improve their process and survey production. Of course, John never lets Rodney go by himself, Ronon acts as a shadow, but by now the arrangement is routine, and they never had an incident.

It's probably because of that false sense of security that John is taken by surprise when he starts feeling very bad shortly after dinner. Due to his recent stomachaches, John had a complete check-up the day before and got a clean bill of health.

John excuses himself from turning on and off an Ancient music box for Koren, who has eyes as large as saucers, to go to the bathroom. With every step he's feeling worse and worse; he's feeling hot all over, his stomach is cramping and he has an overwhelming desire to throw up. He's half convinced that he's been poisoned – feels like nerve agent or something - when he calls Teyla, one hand on his radio and the other on his gun as he slumps in a corner of the room.

"Teyla, meet me at the south sanitary block, right now," he orders, biting back a moan of pain.

"I am on my way, Colonel," she answers immediately, which reassures John a little. Teyla sounds fine; maybe he just ate something bad.

"Sheppard, we're coming up, something's wrong with McKay," follows on the coms. It's Ronon, and his tone is clipped, which means he's either pissed, scared or both.

This sends a chill down John's spine. That's it, the Nomanis turned. Or maybe it's because Rodney and he have the Ancient gene? Teyla appears, her P-90 at the ready, and kneels at his side, visibly worried.

"John? What is wrong?"

"I feels like I'm going to pass out," he says, though the urge to puke has passed. Maybe he should do it anyway, and expel whatever he ate or drank. He doesn't have any ATNAA, nothing, and he feels helpless.

Teyla helps him get up, and when Koren appears in the doorway, looking concerned, John hisses, trying to get to his sidearm.

"Mayor, could you please stand back? We're going to the ring of the Ancestors," Teyla says, tone cool but not aggressive.

"Are you sick?" Koren asks, but then he notices the guns and whitens. "Did something happen?"

"I don't know, why don't you tell me?" John says through gritted teeth.

Koren frowns, completely bewildered. Then he gets it and his mouth opens in shock. "How can you even think..."

"We're in the elevator," Ronon says. "We'll be up in five."

In the background, John can hear Rodney whine, "That's it; I'm dying, oh god!"

"Meet us at the gate," Teyla says, starting to drag John towards the door. Karen steps back to clear the way, hands rising reflexively.

"Doctor McKay is sick too? He asks, puzzled. "How? Why?"

John is starting to feel a little better, and it seems more and more likely that if there is a ploy to take them down, Koren isn't involved.

"I have no idea." John very much would like to know, though, and catch the perpetrator.

"Could you please make sure no one approaches our friends?" Teyla asks.

"Yeah, Ronon can be a little trigger-happy when stressed," John adds.

"Of course, of course. We'll make light of this, Colonel, you have my word," Koren says, jogging towards the mine's entry.

He hopes whoever is behind this won't try to take Koren down, too. It wouldn't the first time that an elected official would fall when there's a putsch.

John relies on Teyla to guide him at first, his guts tied in knots so painful that it makes everything hazy, but the pain starts to lessen as they approach the gate.

"Where are you, Ronon?" Teyla asks as John leans on the DHD and takes deep breaths.

"We're up, getting out of the mine right now," Ronon says.

"Let me down, you big oaf!" Rodney says in the background.

"Seems like McKay is doing better," Ronon adds, drawl almost back, and John sags in relief.

"Rodney, status report," John orders.

"I'm better; headache becoming more manageable by the second. I have no idea what fresh hell this was," he says.

Instead of dialing out to get back to the base, John starts walking towards the mining site, Teyla by his side.

"You seem better, too," she says, tone speculative.

"Yes, lots," he says, distracted.

In fact, as soon as he sees Rodney appear, still guided by Ronon who has a hand on his bicep and his gun at the ready making the Nomanis back away, John feels perfectly fine. He jogs to them, and grabs Rodney's head, peering into his eyes to check for signs of pain.

"You good?" he asks.

Rodney's eyes are clear blue, no strain. The only sign he wasn't okay is that he doesn't try to get out of John's grip in annoyance but sort of pushes into the touch. He has a hand hooked on John's tac vest, the other squeezing one of John's forearms reassuringly.

"Yes. It was like the other week, but ten times worse."

"Huh."

Like on Atlantis, when Rodney was hurt, and it got better when John came back. But they are not in the city, and they didn't even bring a puddlejumper today, so it can't be her influence. Not Atlantis. Not Atlantis. she has said.

Reluctantly, John lets Rodney go.

"What the fuck?" he murmurs, completely baffled by the whole thing.

"My thought exactly," Rodney says.

"It felt like I was shot in the gut," John says. "I'm fine now."

Immediately Rodney looks alarmed. "You were in pain too?"

"Yes."

"How long as this been going on?" Ronon asks.

"I don't know, a couple of weeks? But never as bad as today," John says.

"It's worse when we're far apart," Rodney says, turning around to stare at the mine. "I don't want to risk an aneurism in going back down there, but why don't you go take a walk while I stay here?"

"You want to test this?" John asks.

"We have to, sooner rather than later."

True, it's a security risk.

"I agree with Rodney," Teyla says. "I will go reassure Koren."

Koren, with several other Nomanis, are indeed keeping their distance while looking on anxiously. John feels bad for snapping at him, but he was not in his right mind. He nods at Teyla and does a thumbs up at Koren, with a smile. He'll apologize himself later.

"Okay, let's do this. I'm not risking going through the gate separately and being billions of kilometers away; it might make my head explode," Rodney says.

John shivers at the idea, and thanks god they stepped in the puddle together to come here today.

"Fine. Ronon, stay with him." Making sure to catch Rodney's eyes, he adds, "You radio me as soon as you feel anything."

"And you do the same. No stoic business."

"Okay."

With that, John turns around, and immediately, when he doesn't have his eyes on Rodney, it feels wrong. Not that it hurts, not yet, but his instinct asks him to turn, to check if he's okay. He wonders if that goes both ways, too.

"Are you looking at me?" John asks.

"He always loves watching you go," Ronon jokes. Which... what?

"Shut up," Rodney says as Ronon chuckles. "Yes, I am, why?"

"I wanna test something. Turn around for a sec,"

Rodney hums. "Interesting. Doesn't hurt, but... Go on."

John starts walking towards the gate. He doesn't feel sick right away, but now that he's actively looking for the signs, he can feel an unpleasant fluttery feeling in his stomach. It's something he'd felt several times back on Atlantis lately, but he had brushed aside as inconsequential, something weird that he ate. In fact, he had blamed the new milk because he'd made a habit to drink some at night, and the feeling was worse in the night or early morning. When he hadn't seen Rodney in a while. As John walks, the feeling intensifies.

"Rodney?" he asks.

"There's pressure building behind my eyes," he replies. "When I turned around to see you it got better."

John doesn't know what to say. Instead of going straight to the gate, which is in Rodney's line of sight, he bifurcates in a side street. Immediately he feels queasy. It's not pain, not yet, but he knows it's coming.

"Okay, that's it, come back. I don't need another headache today," Rodney says.

He agrees; it's pointless to continue this experiment when the conclusions are this obvious. John jogs back to his friends, and each step he takes makes him feel better. Physically at least, because he's starting to freak out. By the looks of it, Rodney is shaken too.

"What the hell is going on?" John asks.

"I have no idea," Rodney says, frowning. "It's obviously triggered by distance, and it's getting worse."

Teyla walks back to them. "Koren says that he is happy that you both are feeling better. He agrees it was suspect that you both were sick at the same time and is not offended by the way we reacted. He hopes we know the Nomanis have nothing to do with it."

"I'll go talk to him," John says.

Rodney's mouth pulls down. "I'm sure he gets it."

Rodney has always irrationally disliked Koren.

"I shall ask if anyone has heard tales of a similar situation," Teyla says.

"No specifics, please," John asks. "It's an insane security risk, and it could be used against us."

"Of course," she agrees with a nod.

"I'll look into it, too," Ronon says.

John sees that a couple of Nomani officials are still looking their way, so he decides to go smooth things out.

"I'll be right back," he says.

John approaches Koren, and is reassured when he gets a small smile and concern instead of scorn.

"How are you, Colonel?"

"A lot better, thank you," he says. "Sorry about earlier."

"Do you know what happened?" Koren asks.

"Frankly? No," John says. "I should not have accused..."

"No, no, I understand," Koren says. "You were in pain, and I heard Doctor McKay was too, at the same time. Anyone would have been suspicious."

"As far as I know, it has nothing to do with you, so again I am sorry if we jumped to conclusions."

"Has it happened before?" Koren asks, looking speculative. "I could not help but notice what you just did..."

John could deny, try to control the information that is definitely putting them in danger if it gets to the wrong people, but he trusts the guy. With his love of Ancient culture, maybe he's heard of something similar.

"We felt as if something was wrong when we're apart lately, but not as strong. It's getting more intense. Do you have any idea what is going on?"

"I've heard of a ritual that binds soulmates together," Koren says and John almost chokes on his spit.

"Soulmates?”

Koren has a wry smile. "Yes. I remember my grandmother speaking of a world that had a ritual to bind lovers together if they were meant to be. My cousins used to play at it, as if it was the quintessence of romantic love."

"Do you know where that ritual was from? What triggered it? How to stop it?" If it's an Ancient gizmo, John might be able to reverse the damage.

"I don't remember much; I was young when my grandmother passed. I need to ask, maybe one of my cousins would know more. If I remember correctly, the soulmate link was rare, but celebrated as sacred. I also heard about a great tragedy where soulmates were separated by the ring of the Ancestors, or the Wraiths."

It's a nice folktale, but John doesn't know how to take it. Or how to get out of this mess.

"Does it have to be, you know, romantic?" John asks, extremely uncomfortable. "Rodney and I, we're very good friends but that's it." At least for Rodney, because given a chance, John wouldn't say "no" to more.

"I wish I knew, Colonel."

"Thanks for the info." It's not much, but at least it's the start of something to explain this.

"Thank you. And again, I'm sorry for earlier. I was in so much pain I couldn't think straight."

"And I suppose that Doctor McKay being in pain, too, didn't help," Koren says teasingly, and John scoffs. He's happy he didn't make a diplomatic faux pas with partners as important as the Nomanis, but that doesn't mean he likes being poked where he's vulnerable.

"Stop it, or I won't bring you fun stuff next time," John warns.

Koren raises his hands in mock surrender. "I said nothing."

"We will come back soon; sorry about the shortened visit," John says.

"Not a problem, I understand."

John makes the hand signal of rounding everyone up, as it's time to go home.

"What did he say?" Ronon asks when they regroup around the DHD.

"We'll debrief on Atlantis." John already cringes at the idea of putting the soulmates idea on the table.

"Fine." Rodney says.

Teyla dials home, and when John and Rodney step into the puddle, it's side by side (like usual, to be honest.).

***

John finishes brushing his teeth and spits in the sink, eyeing forlornly Rodney's bathtub. The separation pain is getting worse, so he wouldn't enjoy it unless Rodney was in here with him. John can't help but snort: he would, indeed, enjoy that very much. When John goes back in the bedroom, he's met with a glare from Rodney, who's rubbing his forehead with the back of a hand.

"Finally! What took you so long? Did you hair need extra-fluffing?"

John winces in sympathy; he didn't mean for Rodney to hurt.

"Sorry." Atlantis seems to mitigate the separation effect a little for John, but Rodney gets the full on headaches. "You should have said something."

"Well I'm saying it now: if I can't see you, it hurts. I don't like hurting for nothing. So let's just agree that you stay visible as much as possible."

"Fine," John says, testily.

He likes the guy, a lot, and normally wouldn't mind spending a lot of time with him. But this is taking things to extremes, and John's reaching the level of maybe too much Rodney.

John slips into his cot, set in a corner of the room. "Can I dim the light?" he asks.

Rodney is still working, of course, clad in an old t-shirt and boxer shorts. He looks adorable.

"Yes, yes, sure," he says, lost in his work.

"Good night, Rodney," John says.

"Night," Rodney says, typing away.

John dims the lights, fluffs his pillow and turns on his side, trying to let the stress of the day bleed away. He thinks about how Wolsey's face at the soulmates hypothesis was absolutely priceless, but John's still intrigued by Rodney's reaction. He expected scorn at the mere idea, but instead Rodney had pinked up, not saying a word (apart form angrily glaring at a smirking Ronon who – John thinks – had elbowed him in the side).

He's had a long day, and is exhausted, so falling asleep should be easy since he learned in basic to catch sleep at every occasion. But he can't, because even though the room's lights are off, there's a big glow coming from Rodney's bed and desk where he's running three computers at the same time. John tries to turn on his other side and face the wall, which is better for the light, but then the frigging link kicks in and he's uncomfortable. If Rodney isn't in his line of sight, the pain starts again. So rolls around, grumbles, tries to put the covers over his head as Rodney types and types. It's too hot under his blanket, so after a good ten minutes, John sighs and comes back up.

"Will you type all night or what?" he asks, a bit brusque.

Rodney looks up in surprise and then scowls. "Sorry, princess. Some people have work to do."

John grits his teeth, but finds somewhere deep inside the strength to plead his case.

"I know, but it's been a long day. Could you please turn off the computers?"

"Twenty more minutes? Then I'll shut everything off," Rodney promises.

"Okay." John agrees only because he feels like he's invading Rodney's room. "By the way, why did we end up in your room?"

"Because yours is ridiculous," Rodney says.

"It's not!"

"You have sparkly curtains and a child-sized bed, John," Rodney says. “Anyway, I need this mattress or I'll throw out my back.

"Fine. Just don't take too long, okay?"

Rodney is good to his word and about twenty-five minutes later everything is shut down.

Maybe they can make this work until they find a solution.

***

Just seeing Rodney stops being enough to stay pain-free later in the week. They've been quietly working on their respective administrative backlog in a corner of the lab when John notices how Rodney keeps stopping to close his eyes and rub the bridge of his nose. His own stomach is rolling, making him slightly nauseous. John hates seeing Rodney hurt, and he instinctively reaches over to grab Rodney's shoulder and squeeze it lightly.

"Hey, maybe you could take a break."

It takes only a second for a calming sensation to roll through John's belly, soothing the ache and make him feel so much better. The touch seems to work for Rodney too, judging by the way he immediately reaches for John to grab his other shoulder, eyes blinking slowly and face going from pinched to soft.

"Better?" John asks. He doesn't feel like letting go.

"Lots. What the hell, John?"

They've asked infinite variations of that question lately, but they are still waiting for the answer.

"No idea." John lets go, just like Rodney, and fortunately he still feels fine afterwards.

By tacit agreement they get back to work.

Ten minutes later Rodney sight loudly. "Fuck, it's starting again."

True, John has a stomachache starting to roll in, too.

The logical solution is to touch regularly to keep the hurt at bay. If it wasn't because of a shitty situation, John would be pretty stoked about that, unfortunately at the moment it's a necessity that feels more like a chore. He never wanted it to happen that way, for sure.

***

"Hey, Sheppard," Ronon hails as he enters the lab and both he and Rodney twist on their stools to greet him.

By necessity, they manage to turn without breaking physical contact: Rodney grabbed his forearm and now they are resettled, shoulder-to-shoulder and thighs touching. Ronon notices because he raises an eyebrow, even though he doesn't comment.

"Did you find something?"

"I've talked with Koren and his family, and we cross-referenced with other info we picked up, and we're pretty sure it's Cellinor," he says, and Rodney snaps his fingers.

"Yes! The cherry liquor!"

Right! John now recalls vividly feeling something strange when they drank that shooter.

"Makes sense," he says. "We need to go, reverse it. We'll go clear it with Woolsey right now. Call Teyla, go get ready. Jumper bay in an hour."

"Got it," Ronon says with a nod.

"I just need to shut this down," Rodney says, turning to his laptop again. Unfortunately they break physical contact for a fraction of a second, and that small moment before John reacts and touches Rodney's shoulder is enough to feel as if he's been kicked hard in the gut.

"Ow," Rodney says, breathing hard.

"Ditto," John says, wincing.

He really hopes they manage to break the link because this can't go on.

***

Woolsey clears the mission immediately: if this situation doesn’t get resolved, he's going to lose both his military and science heads.

They take the puddlejumper for safety reasons, since John is pretty sure that if he lost contact with Rodney in the wormhole, they wouldn't survive it. The gate on Cellinor is in the middle of a plain that is east of the planet's main city, and the guards in place wave joyfully when they breach the iris and get out of the jumper.

"Greetings, friends," the head guard says. He's smiling wide, which gets on John's last nerve since this whole ordeal is probably their fault.

"Greetings," answers Teyla. "We are in dire need to meet with your Head Priest."

That puzzles the guard. "Oh? Is there a problem?"

"That's what we need to discuss," Teyla says with a polite smile.

"Come this way," the man says, leading them into town.

John puts a hand on Rodney's lower back, guiding him forward. Rodney moves without protest as they walk to the temple, then a waiting room. When they sit at the table, Rodney puts a hand on John's thigh, out of sight. It's a bit distracting, he won't lie.

After a couple of minutes, High Priest Moor - a little balding man sporting a perpetual smile - enters the room.

"Friends, I am very happy to see you again so soon!"

John senses Rodney about to lash out just by the way he tenses, so he puts his own hand on Rodney's under the table and squeezes. They agreed beforehand to let Teyla start the discussion, in order not to escalate things. Thankfully Rodney stays quiet, and almost blows John's mind when he turns his own hand around so they are palm to palm and then link their fingers together.

"We have heard that you have a tradition that results into bonds between two people.”

The priest nods, still smiling. "Yes, yes, the Sacred Link. Such a wonder. You were here for the ceremony, yes?"

Teyla smiles too, but there's an edge to it now. "Indeed. Could you tell us more about the link?"

"Many generations ago, High Priest Dakor asked the gods how to strengthen the community. He studied old texts and, in his laboratories, managed to produce the Elixir that had been lost."

Ronon is the one who asks, "What does it do?"

"It allows soulmates to find each other, or to confirm what they already knew. It is very rare, but such a blessing," Moor says with a wistful sigh.

"How rare?" John asks. "And what does it do?"

"I have more fingers than true pairings discovered, unfortunately," Moor says. "As for what it does, the soulmates are indisposed when away from each other. Being in the same room helps at first, then they need to touch."

John is on the edge of his seat, because this is it. It has to have started here, so these people have the solution.

"And?" Rodney asks. He still hasn't let John's hand go; in fact he's holding on tighter.

"The only way to stop the pain is to acknowledge the bond. A confession of feelings for one another," the High Priest says with enthusiasm, as if it's the most wonderful thing in the world.

Which... crap. John has feelings all right, but how can he confess to them without totally sabotaging his friendship with Rodney?

"How can telling someone about feelings undo a physical link? And how did the link form in the first place?" Rodney asks again, looking agitated. Mystical solutions obviously don't sit well with him.

"The gods work in mysterious ways," Moor says, looking towards the ceiling.

That makes Rodney scoff. "Please."

The High Priest frowns, which is the first time he shows an emotion other than easygoing cheerfulness. "That is how it happens, every time."

"And we do not doubt you," Teyla cuts in. "You said the Elixir was rediscovered many generations ago. How did it become a ritual? "

"Doesn't everyone want to find true love?" Moor asks. "Every spring, at the equinox, we hold the ceremony where everyone drinks the Elixir and hopes for the link to form. It's very rare and always a cause for celebration."

"And what happens if someone from another world drinks the potion and goes through the ring of the Ancestors?" Ronon asks.

"Oh, you mean the story of Vini and Jul? Unfortunately it ended in a tragedy. Jul, realizing he was suffering from the link sickness, sent emissaries to every outworlder that had been at the ceremony. By the time they found Vini, who was hurting without knowing why, it was too late. She came back, but Jul had already perished, severing the link.

"Death cuts it?" Rodney asks.

"Yes," Moor looked chagrined. "Vini never left our world afterwards. She visits Jul's grave every day and never loved again."

"How irresponsible are you?" Rodney explodes. "Don't you warn people about how dangerous this is? Why even give the Elixir to strangers?"

High Priest Moor puffs up, getting angry too. "Of course we warn! There is a whole ceremony, explaining the Sacred Link in details. You heard it, no?"

Which… that must have been the long-ass speech at the banquet that John had zoned out. A look to Rodney shows that he looks guilty of the same.

"Do you know if Vini, Jul or anyone who experienced the Sacred Link had special gifts? With the technology of the Ancestors?" Teyla asks, which is their theory for now since only him and Rodney were affected.

"I could not say for everyone," Moor says, thoughtful, "but certainly with some."

"We would love to learn how the Elixir is made," Teyla says.

That doesn't seem a winning proposition. "We love to trade with the Lanteans, but the formula is sacred."

"You have our word that we do not want to replicate it, or belittle it in either way," Teyla says.

"But we've drank some," John adds. "And it has effects. So we need to understand why."

High Priest Moor eyes go wide and happy. "You did! I am so happy you found your soulmate, Colonel!"

"No, I didn't!" John says. "It's not like that." He squeezes Rodney's hand in what he hopes is reassurance for how harsh he sounds, hating to have to lie about this.

"But I don't understand," Moor says with a frown.

John makes sure his calf is flush with Rodney's before taking his hand back and putting his fists on the table. He stands up and leaning over the table towards the priest a tad menacingly.

"I am hurting. And I want it to stop."

"But how…" the priest says, looking totally bewildered. "If you have not found your soulmate within your people, I don't understand! No one has felt the symptoms here on Cellinor. No guests who were at the Ceremony from other worlds came back to ask, and it's been weeks."

"Hence why we need to know how the Elixir is made," Rodney says.

"I understand," Moor says with a nod. "We can make some tomorrow; start when the sun rises."

"Why can't we start now?" Rodney asks.

"Because the flower that is used only blooms in the early hours of the morning, before it falters and falls from the stem. We have to pick it then, before we start. You are lucky we are still in season for the flowers, because making the Elixir is a very delicate process. We usually do not make any after the equinox."

"Fine," John says, sitting down. It seems like they won't be able to rush this, so there's no need to insist.

"Until then, you should be careful," Moor says, concerned. "Did the signs just start?"

That's the best explanation to give, because John doesn't want to reveal that Rodney is just as affected as he is.

"Yes. In fact I need to go lie down," John says.

Rodney puts a hand on his forehead, and makes annoyed noises, frowning.

"You should have said you were not feeling well!" he says, then grabs John's arm to haul him up. "Let's go find you a place to rest."

John is impressed at the quick thinking that allows them to be in contact without pointing out that Rodney needs it too.

"Follow me," High Priest Moor says, leading them into the temple.

***

They end up in a decent looking room, with a large bed, a table and a dresser. The window has a view of the rolling hills of Cellinor's countryside, bisected by a river. It's a pretty sight, very pastoral and quiet. Not bad for a retreat for those who come to this temple for a love quest, and it makes for a nice vacation if nothing else. Maybe that's what cements some couples who come over for the ceremony: it makes them leave with the sentiment, at least for a little while, that they've found the right person.

Ronon and Teyla went to dine with the Cellinians, while John and Rodney grabbed a MRE and plan to wait in their room until morning. There isn't much to do but to find a comfortable position on the bed, and they end up sitting side by side with their backs against the wall and one of John's legs hooked over Rodney's shin.

Unsurprisingly, Rodney takes out his laptop, but even though John has his own tablet, he can't be bothered to work (so many requisitions to review, ugh). Looking at Rodney's screen is relatively interesting, but John soon feels his eyes drooping. He's been bunking in Rodney's room for four nights, now, but the last few have been restless before they reached the inevitable conclusion today that they needed to touch all the time. John's tired, stressed out by this whole situation, but right now, slumped against Rodney's side, he's starting to relax, drifting in and out of a doze. Nodding off makes him wake with a jolt every so often, so Rodney eventually nudges him.

"Come on, lie down," he says softly.

John scoots down the bed, and ends up on his belly with his face wedged between his pillow and Rodney's hip. To block the sunlight, of course. And the reason he throws an arm over Rodney's lap is just to make sure that they remain in contact. It's not because it feels amazing to be so close. He's drifting off in no time and he's probably already dreaming when he feels fingers in his hair.

***

When John wakes up it's dark, the quiet of the night only broken by Rodney's slow breathing. John's spooning him, his arm over Rodney's side now, but his wrist is clamped in Rodney's hand, who's keeping his prize at chest level. It's probably to prevent John from rolling away. The only light in the room comes from the moon outside, casting a blue glow on the bed. Rodney lay down fully clothed, but John guesses that he didn't give him any chance to do differently with his octopus impression.

Nose at Rodney's nape, John can't help but to long for this embrace to be real. They fit just right, and even though Rodney gives up heat like a space heater, John hasn't been that comfortable lying with someone in... ever. Cuddling has never been a thing for him, but he's starting to feel the appeal. Rodney smells great, and from what he can touch with his nose and cheek, his skin is very soft. He's tempted to be selfish and sneak in a kiss – Rodney will never know – but that would be weird. Especially because the rhythm of Rodney's breathing has changed, and he stirs, waking up.

"Hey," John says, softly. He hopes Rodney won't be uncomfortable with their spooning. "Sorry I conked on you."

"Mmm," Rodney says, stretching a little and an undercurrent of desire hits John when he feels his muscles shift. He's always had a thing for Rodney's shoulders. "S'fine," Rodney mumbles. "I needed the nap, too."

They lie like that for a couple of minutes, in silence. John doesn't dare to move, afraid to break the moment. It's bad enough that his heart is beating so hard he's half sure Rodney will feel it against his rib cage.

"This must be hard for you," Rodney says at one point. Before John can ask what he's referring to, he continues, voice almost a murmur. "You hate people invading your personal space."

"Better than hurt," John says. It's maybe because of the hushed atmosphere, but he dares to confess, if only partially. "That it's with you makes it easier."

"Good," Rodney says, squeezing his wrist. Then he moves, twisting and turning until he faces John, their hands joined between them.

Rodney's eyes are a pale washed-up blue in the moonlight, eerily beautiful as he observes him closely. It makes John slightly uncomfortable, because he's afraid that the scrutiny will reveal his hopeless crush if he's not careful. Spooning was less intimate, as weird as it sounds.

"Are you hungry?" John asks, trying to deflect.

"Yes, but I have an idea that I want to run by you first."

"Shoot."

"Moor said that the people feeling the symptoms need to admit the link, right?"

John feels his lips turn into a small smile. "You're my best friend on Atlantis, Rodney." He doesn't say that he wishes for more.

Rodney grins, crooked and pleased. "That's great. Same, of course. In fact, you're my best friend period, Atlantis and beyond. But I wasn't thinking about us needing to say that out loud. There has to be more."

"What do you mean?"

"It makes no sense that words would cut a physical link, if there is no machinery or conditioning involved," Rodney argues.

"Who knows, with that potion and whatever Ancient tech they use to make it..." Because John is sure of it: there's something fishy going on and it has to be linked an Ancient device, somehow.

"Still, it's just words. Highly improbable. There must be a physical element. "

"We're already touching, and it hasn't stopped," John says.

"Are you being purposely oblivious? Let me walk you though it: the potion is said to forge a sacred link between two individuals. We suspect it happens when it's drunk by two gene carriers."

"What if there had been three?"

"Huh. Let's not go there right now; stay with me," Rodney says. "As the days go by, the people who are affected by the potion want to spend as much time as possible together, first because it feels unnatural to have them out of their sight, but soon because it starts to hurt when they are apart."

"Do you think Atlantis figured it out?" John asks. "She did try to make sure we remained together as much as she could, and to keep others away."

"That makes sense," Rodney muses. "How, I don't know. Maybe something lit up in our brains? But if we come back to the people who are experiencing the link, it progresses until there's severe pain that can be only alleviated by the touch of the other person. Cue implanting the notion that said person is good, safe, a harbor of some sort. It doesn't take much more conditioning to make that person the most important for you, the one you want close."

"It manipulates emotions," John says, stomach sinking.

He's had feelings towards Rodney for a long time now, and lately he'd started to think they could be reciprocated. He doesn't want Rodney to want him only because it's an alternative to pain.

"Exactly," Rodney says gravely, nodding a little. "But once it's underway, especially here where the link is celebrated as finding your soulmate, what do you think people jump to?"

"Love," John murmurs.

"Yes. How do you act on it, or, as they say here, admit a link like that?" It may be unconscious, but Rodney wets his lower lip, and John zooms on it.

"A kiss," John says.

"That's what I think. Something more than just words, a physical element," Rodney confirms.

John nods. "I see. A chemical in the saliva?"

"It's my best guess."

He doesn't know if Rodney means to just put saliva on a finger or something, but impulsively John leans forward to kiss him. If he's got this one chance, he's going to take it. Rodney makes a surprised sound but quickly gets with the program, opening his mouth as soon as John's tongue caresses the seam of his lips.

Finally having a taste of this, them, something he dreamed about almost desperately for years without any hope of it ever happening, is one of the biggest highs of John's life. It makes John's blood sing and his heart soar, even though he knows that it could end in a second. The possibility that this one kiss could be all, forever, makes it precious. They kiss slowly but with definite intent, and John has to repress a groan when Rodney's hand moves to tangle in the hair at the back of his head, holding him close. He's not shocked at all that Rodney is a great kisser, but is surprised – though grateful! – that he doesn't cut the kiss short, that he's so into it.

They do have to come up for air at one point, and John definitely feels a tingle in his spine, reminiscent of what happened when he drank the Elixir, almost four weeks ago. He doesn't dare voice it, though, fascinated by the flush that has appeared on Rodney's cheeks the way his eyes are wide, pupils blown. That's not the expression of a guy who kissed only for practical reasons, or at least if he did at first, he got into it. It's a lot to take in, especially with the hope that blooms in his chest, so John closes his eyes and puts his forehead on Rodney's. They're both breathing fast.

"I think it worked," Rodney says, voice gravely.

"Yeah. Good thinking."

Rodney starts to wiggle away and John's first instinct is to try to keep him close before he remembers himself. Reluctantly he untangles their limbs, scoot back too until all that's left is their joined hand.

"Ready?" Rodney asks as they look into each other's eyes.

"Yes."

They let go, and John braces for a pain that never comes. He sees Rodney sag in relief, so the test is conclusive on his side too.

"Thank fucking god," Rodney exclaims.

John snorts laughs at the sheer enthusiasm. "Happy?"

"No pain? That's definitely good. Aren't you glad to be rid of me?"

No, not really.

"It was an inconvenience, but eh," John says with a smirk.

Rodney's eyes are scanning his face rapidly and he bites his lower lip. "You know, it's possible that we'll have to, you know, keep kissing to be sure –"

John's stomach summersaults at that, and he immediately fists a hand in the material of Rodney's shirt, pulling him forward in a hard and demanding kiss. It's met with great enthusiasm, and soon Rodney is pushing John on his back, rolling on top.

"Yes, definitely," he says, panting against John's mouth when he breaks the kiss. "I think we'll have to schedule regular kissing."

Emboldened, John caresses down Rodney's back, grabs his ass and presses them together, which makes them moan at the glorious pressure where they want it most.

"Yeah. And other stuff. You know, just to be sure," John says, and it makes Rodney smile wide.

"I like the way you think. Also, you should move to my room," Rodney says.

Oh that's good. That's better than only hookups.

"Not on the cot?"

"Definitely not on the cot," Rodney says, kissing him again. "Fuck, John, I've wanted you for so long."

That makes him blink, dazed. "What? It's not just-"

"No, no. I think I fell for you when you sat down in the chair in Antarctica and made the world light up," Rodney says with a crooked grin.

Oh, fuck, that early? And John thought he'd been pining for a long time.

"I've liked you for a while, too," he admits.

Saying 'like' is understating the whole thing, but he's confident Rodney will be able to read between the lines, now that he's clued in.

John doesn't want to worry about the soulmate thing being true or not, or if it's just another trick of the Ancients to fuck with people. It's not important if he can be with Rodney. He brings him down into another kiss, something tangible, that feels right and oh, so good.

They'll figure out the rest in time.

(They always do.)

 

The End

 

The next time John sits in the chair, Atlantis makes colors explode in his head like fireworks. Under the excitement and joy he feels her form a clear thought: "Finally".

 

.