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Watercolor by Crysothemis, of Rodney leaning back with eyes closed and John leaning in and nuzzling him.

"Seriously," John said as he yanked McKay down the corridor, other hand sweeping ahead of them with his zat, "I've only been here, what, a week, and already base security has been breached twice and I'm searching for invisible aliens." He was feeling more than a little stressed.

"Your point being?" Rodney yelped when John had to stop suddenly and let go to hold up his fist. There, just there up ahead, he could barely pick up that faint, distorted wrongness in the air, and he let his eyes hyperfocus, trying not to zone this time. When he opened up his skin he felt faint vibrations as well, and tried piggybacking his sight on those.

"There," he whispered. "I see..."

"What? What do you see?" Rodney said, a little too loud.

"Well, 'see' isn't the right word, exactly." John crept forward a step, still holding up his hand to keep Rodney back.

"Duh." Rodney shifted nervously behind him. "Where—?"

"Shit!" John raised his zat and fired, then tracked the blur as it sped toward Rodney. "Look out!"

:::

[A week earlier.]

"So." Dr. Jackson smiled briefly at John, settled his glasses and then glanced down at his index cards.

"So." John nodded from his seat, feeling awkward and uncomfortable in his odd little classroom of one, and Dr. Jackson nodded back, then cleared his throat and waved a hand at the alien, Teal'c, who didn't so much nod as bow his head solemnly at John.

John gave him a nod a back.

"This is Teal'c," Dr. Jackson said unnecessarily, seeing as John had seen Teal'c with his team in the mess this morning. He was sort of hard to miss, what with the big gold stamp on his forehead and his metallic, faintly fishy smell, although John wasn't so far gone as to mention that. "Teal'c is a Jaffa. Together, we teach, ah, Introduction to the Goa'uld and Other Non-Tau'ri: the Abbreviated Course," Dr. Jackson said, then pressed his clicker. John gave Teal'c a sideways grin before turning to look at the first slide.

"Ugh." John grimaced at the eel-thing.

"Yes, I know." Jackson cleared his throat. "The Goa'uld are parasites—well, strictly-speaking symbiotes—from the planet P3X-888. While it is possible for them to survive for a brief time in a liquid environment outside the host—specifically, at the very beginning of their life-cycle—eventually they are implanted to mature within the incubating pouch of a Jaffa in a ceremony known as the prim'tah."

John glanced over at Teal'c, who raised an eyebrow at him.

"I take it this happened to you?"

"Very good, Major Sheppard. I carried a larval Goa'uld for many years. But no longer."

A new slide popped up, and John jerked involuntarily.

"Notice the curved fangs—once mature, the symbiote is ready to take a host, and uses these fangs to slice through either the back of the neck or the soft palate, thus entering the brain of the host."

John winced. "And that's what happened to Gusty?"

Pushing at the bridge of his glasses, Jackson nodded. "At some point he must have come into contact with someone already hosting Atum, who decided to, ah, 'jump ship', as it were. A general would have presented a rise in status. That's important to the Goa'uld."

"He seemed to have a pretty high opinion of himself, yeah."

"They wish to be worshipped as gods, Major Sheppard. For thousands of years my people were their slaves. There are still many who have not shaken free of their influence and continue to do their bidding."

"So you end up fighting your own people?"

Teal'c nodded gravely.

"Well, that just sucks."

"We'll come back to the Goa'uld, but first, let's talk a little bit about the Asgard." Click.

John blinked and slid lower in his seat, suddenly flashing on the alien autopsy scene from The X-Files.

And he thought his life was fucked up before.

:::

Next up, John's schedule had something called "SentOps In-Processing." Peachy. His whole life he'd been almost completely successful in staying under the radar; his parents and his brother, 'Dutch' Holland, Dex, and Mitch were the sum total of people who knew about him and, hell, almost all of them were dead now.

Now everyone around him knew. It was like waking up naked at the zoo.

He'd lost a lot of his natural control lately. He'd spiked more in the past twenty-four hours than he had in the past six months, and he'd woken up with an irritating rash starting under his collar

Sentinel Operations Command was on SL-16. John shared the elevator with a blond, sharp-eyed marine captain and a tall, sandy-haired A.F. master sergeant. He felt their curious eyes on him, and shifted to the back of the elevator for the long ride. They both smelled of the same sentinel-friendly stuff he'd found in his kit this morning; she wasn't wearing perfume and he wasn't wearing aftershave, but they were military, and after being on the run so long and in the small space John's skin prickled with stranger-alarm, his hearing scaling up. He heard his heartbeat tangling against theirs, faster and lighter.

The elevator stopped suddenly and he shook his head, barely registering the sergeant's "Sir," and the captain's cheeky, "Some other time, Major," as they exited.

A couple of levels later he got off on sixteen, took a left and then, consulting the map Dr. Jackson had drawn him, finally made his way to the door marked 'SentOps'. He gave it a couple of knocks then stepped in, immediately coming to attention when he found himself face to face with a colonel.

"Major Sheppard, reporting as ordered," John said, the words feeling weird in his mouth after so long.

"At ease, Major. I'm Colonel Kawalsky." The colonel had a friendly-looking smile on his face. "Follow me." John followed Kawalsky past a station outfitted with surveillance monitors, then through a hallway and a lounge with a kitchen and back into a small office, where Kawalsky pointed at a chair in front of a desk, then closed the door and circled around. "I was just about to hunt you down. Easy to get lost around here at first."

"Yessir." John resisted the urge to scratch at his rash. His whole chest was itching now.

"So, welcome to the SGC." The colonel gave John a wry grin. "Seeing as you've already been attacked by a Goa'uld, I can tell you'll fit in pretty well here. Me, I almost got jumped by one of those snaky bastards myself, so I know what that's like."

John bit his lip. "Yes, sir."

Kawalsky waved a hand at him. "One thing you should know: we don't stand on protocol much. O'Neill doesn't think that's half as important as doing your job and keeping the scientists and our people safe. And we got all kinds here—marines, Air Force; hell, we got Army rangers, even a couple of Navy SEALs, though they don't much like it underground." Kawalsky chuckled. "Point is, everybody gets along, and nobody cares if we can hear or see a little too much. They're not paranoid like the folks upstairs. They've already seen a lot stranger shit, believe me."

John would believe it when he saw it, actually. He'd heard about a man in his unit given a blanket party for being a suspected sentinel; the poor kid had left the service with brain damage.

"Anyways, every sentinel on base reports to me during a crisis. You hear the alarms, could mean a crisis in the labs, could mean a foothold situation. You report in and get your assignment. But in the meantime, you don't belong to me; O'Neill hasn't given you a permanent assignment yet." Kawalsky shrugged. "Since you're nobody's just yet, I have to ask: you got everything you need? From what I hear, we grabbed you with nothing but a rucksack."

"I could use some civvies, sir." John tried to look disinterested. "Am I allowed off-base?"

Kawalsky didn't lose the grin. "Sure, once you've been through in-processing. If that's what you want. Most of our people don't like it out there much, though." He tapped the table with his fingers.

There was a babble of noise outside the office, and Kawalsky tilted his head. "Sounds like you're in time to meet some of the gang. But first, let's talk short-term duties. For right now, since we don't know anything about your ranges or sensitivities, in-processing means testing and training. I'll assign you a buddy who'll take you on your rat drills, all right?"

It wasn't really a question, so in spite of not knowing what the hell 'rat drills' were, John said, "Yes, sir."

"And since you don't have a guide, you'll need to check in with the medicos once a day without fail."

John nodded.

"Also," Kawalsky's eyes dropped down to his desk, "you'll have to go there first thing to get your chip implanted and get a new set of dog tags."

Fuck. John had forgotten all about the chip. Well, he hadn't forgotten so much as pushed it out of his head. The chip that identified him as a sentinel, and which, if he tampered with it, would get him thrown into Leavenworth. The chip that limited his access to certain places and let every cop or emergency worker use the nearest sentinel as their personal S&R dog or whatever.

"Hey," Kawalsky said, and John jerked his eyes up. "Just so you know, everyone on base has a personal locator implanted, not just the sentinels. Everybody." He screwed up his face and joked, "They're just like us, here—workin' for the Man," and he slapped the table. "C'mon on. Let me introduce you to some folks."

So, John met Lt. Hristov, a beanpole of a guy with dark eyes and a hooked nose, and Cappy Welles, a red-headed gal with a sharp smile, and it turned out the sandy-haired master sergeant from the elevator was a sentinel, too; his name was Siler. There was also a sentinel doctor named Fraiser whom John vaguely remembered from the infirmary.

She pulled on the collar of his shirt and said, "What's this, Major? Are you reacting to the detergent here?"

"No, ma'am, I don't think so."

"Mmm-hmm. What does your guide have to say?"

"Well, I—"

"Nuh-uh," Cappy interrupted. "What is rule number one? 'No guides in the lounge'!" She gave John a slightly apologetic look. "Sorry," she muttered, "but we have to have one place safe from all the fussin' and botherin'—"

"It's fine. I don't have one anyway. Not right now," he added to her incredulous stare.

The others were looking equally pitying, which got his back up. "Been doing just fine," he said. Not that he wasn't kind of thinking—but then Rodney hadn't shown up at breakfast like they'd sort of planned, and a little hand-holding in the infirmary after an alien invasion wasn't a lot for John to hang his hopes on.

"Right, you're doing great, with a cycling reaction that's escalating, from the looks of it," Fraiser said. "What unfamiliar agents have you been exposed to recently?"

"Uh." John didn't know how to answer that one. "Pretty much everything here is unfamiliar, Doc."

"Well, you're coming with me."

Kawalsky spoke up. "Take Siler with you. Siler, you're his buddy for the week. He has his rat drills to get through; might as well get started."

"Oh, that'll help with his body fighting him already." The doctor scowled at Kawalsky. She was something else.

"Don't baby him, Doc."

"It's fine," John said, giving the Colonel a sketchy salute and nodding goodbye to Cappy and the other sentinels on his way out.

For a non-guide, Fraiser fussed pretty effectively, making him take off all his shirts and then swabbing his skin down with something that smelled strongly of aloe vera and immediately tamed the itching he'd been trying to ignore. He didn't even mind so much being touched by strange hands, he was so grateful for the relief.

"Sergeant, go to the quartermaster and fetch Major Sheppard a sentinel-clean uniform."

Siler hustled off without a word. John didn't blame him; the doc commanded respect, and he made himself ignore the prickles in his skin as Fraiser gave him a complete once-over, checking his pupils and his pulse, temperature and blood-pressure, looking at the inside of his mouth and throat—heck, even his ears—and noting stuff in his chart.

He hadn't had anyone look him over so carefully since he couldn't remember when. Back when he'd last been injured, maybe. Back when he was in service and still considered a valuable commodity. Only it didn't feel that way with Fraiser. It felt more like she gave a good goddamn he was healthy.

Finally she gave him a pat on the leg and told him to get dressed again, saying he should report back if the rash of little bumps rose above his collarbone.

Siler had returned with John's fresh set of ABUs and, thank God, underwear to go with. They left him alone to get changed.

"Where to, next?" John asked as he was buttoning up his shirt.

Siler scratched his head, looking rueful. "Baseline testing with Dr. Beckett. going to be tough without a guide."

"Do you have one?" John wanted to ask what that was like. He'd been dealing with his senses on his own for so long it felt normal to be like this, always in control, always on guard. He wanted to reach out right now, in fact—listen for McKay and see what the hyper scientist was up to—but as always he automatically kept his senses locked in close, the better to prevent a zone-out and also not to give himself away. Anyway, he had no excuse to invade Rodney's privacy.

"Yeah, oh, yeah. Um. His name is Walter. He's the best. Helps me with reducing pain reactions from my injuries, great with biofeedback, top notch. And, you know," Siler's Adam's apple bobbed. "It's good. He's around."

"Uh-huh." John trailed him down the corridor to the elevator. "Where is he now?"

"Oh, he's on leave. He got injured protecting me when that Atum asshole came through here."

"Damn, sorry." John bit his lip. "It doesn't bug you that he's on the front line with you?"

Siler shot John a dark look, and John raised his hands.

"Forget I said anything."

:::

Sentinel testing took the rest of the day. John tasted salt in one parts per million and then sugar, vinegar, yadda-yadda. No cheeseburgers, unfortunately, but it got more interesting after that with flashing mirrors and teeny-tiny text at a thousand yards, and he thought he did pretty good with the low-yield radiation and sound tests, except when they took his headphones away he had one dizzying moment when he could swear he was hearing noise coming from street level, and almost fell out of his chair hearing a taxi coming right at him.

Then he was directed to identify complex odors, roses and fish guts and plastique in trace amounts all garbled together on swatches of cloth.

He aced that shit, but thanks to his calluses he didn't do so hot on the touch test, only identifying some of the words on the pad after the doc scribbled on it and then tore off the top ten sheets.

"If you can...something...time...get a snerk?"

"'If you can read this, it's time for us to get a snack.'"

"Ah. Funny, Doc." His head was throbbing, anyway. They took him back to the infirmary and gave him an apple and a granola bar and some juice. While John was munching, Siler kept eyeing him like he was a bomb about to go off. "Got something to say?"

"Okay, yeah: you seriously don't have a guide?"

"Nope."

"But I heard Carson talking to himself. He's over the moon with your results." Siler gulped. "Just think if you had a guide."

The food was settling John's head a little, but he wouldn't mind being somewhere dark and quiet right about now. He shrugged.

Carson returned rolling a tray, and John finished up his granola bar and dusted off his hands.

"We'll have to take a wee sample of your blood, Major."

"Have at it, Doc." John rolled up his sleeve.

By a 'wee sample' Carson meant three whopping vials. And then he set them aside and said, "All right, lad, for this next part I'll have to ask you to drop your trousers."

Siler made himself scarce.

"What for?"

Carson held up something tiny and cylindrical in his gloved hand. "It's a combined locator and SID chip. We put it in the thigh muscle."

Fuck. John had managed to forget—again—about the chip. And Kawalsky had said something about a locator. He stood up and unbuttoned his ABU pants, letting them drop down to his ankles, and then hopped back up on the gurney, boots and all, feeling like a sullen kid.

He distanced himself from the sting of the local, from the sound of his own flesh parting under the scalpel, and from Carson's droning voice as he explained what he was doing as he cut into John's leg and implanted the chip and locator; all John could think was he'd successfully evaded this for thirty-five years, only to get trapped by his own stupidity. And now he was caught for life. Marked. He'd have to change his identity, dig this thing out of himself if he ever wanted to be free again—

He cut off the thought and found himself listening for McKay.

"See? Right there—you owe me a Twinkie, Radek. The power supply isn't stable enough to interrupt the frequency—"

"Okay. We re-run the simulation with new power source, maybe trillium based—"

"No, don't be ridiculous, a naquadah-ion—

"There. All done." Carson patted his leg, and John's deadened nerves twitched painfully to life, a sizzle shooting up his leg. "Now, just remain still for a moment." Carson held up a small unit and thumbed a control, then nodded when it beeped. The sound gave John a chill that lifted the hair on his neck.

Carson gave him a sympathetic smile. "All right, Major. Be sure to let me know if you feel any unusual reaction to the local or to the materials we use. We'll remove your stitches in a week. Now off you go to the next round of tests."

John hopped off the gurney, ignoring the throbbing in his leg, and yanked his pants back up. "Will do."

The walls felt heavier around him now, narrowed corridors of cement and metal, and helpless rage burned in his chest as he strode off.

:::

Rodney was hiding. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, because he was a very busy man, but it was true he'd been through this data set, and without resetting the simulation parameters and re-running the damned thing, which would take half a day, he really didn't have much left to do in the lab this evening.

Zelenka was giving him funny looks and clearing his throat a lot.

"I'm just going to reset these parameters and do a fresh run," Rodney said unnecessarily.

"Yes, you do that," Radek said with more than a little sarcasm. "Seeing as the current data is absolutely useless to all of us."

"I told you it was a long shot to begin with!" Rodney typed quickly out of self-defense, because although he really was the uncontested master of the lab, he'd learned to respect a certain tone Radek sometimes acquired.

"And now, perhaps, you will go eat food. People food, which is served down in the mess, and not food bars, which make you a gas balloon."

"Hey!"

Zelenka sniffed. "It is a small lab."

True, it had been a long day of nothing but coffee, PowerBars, snack chips and more coffee, and Rodney's stomach had that achy, bloated feeling he associated with a keen need for something not out of a cellophane wrapper.

But that was no reason to be insulting.

"I'm going. I'm going."

He took the back corridor and the freight elevator that was often used to move heavy equipment into and out of the lab spaces; a simple precaution, he thought, it being so close to dinner time when the front elevators were likely to be crowded with other personnel: arrogant marines and Air Force officers and...sentinels.

And a particular sentinel in need of a guide, which Rodney most certainly wasn't. He should have made that very clear from the start—should never have allowed Carson to force him into giving any false impressions during the frantic moments at Sheppard's bedside in the infirmary, because now that Rodney had had a chance for reflection, he wasn't sure he had the time necessary to be devoted to guiding someone.

Rodney's attention was focused on precisely one thing: his work. He didn't have room for anything else, or anyone, really, although he had to admit he wouldn't mind being able to focus on his social life a little bit, at least as it would pertain to the sexual aspects thereof. He'd thought he was pretty close for a while there, too, until he'd been almost abducted by the Trust and ended up on the floor under his hot prospective entanglement, who turned out to be an Absent Without Leave—no, a Missing in Action—sentinel on the run from a murderous, insane Goa'uld-possessed retired general with a chip on his shoulder.

Was it too much to ask for a little uncomplicated sex? Rodney had to wonder about his life sometimes. Because now he found himself questioning if Sheppard was really interested in him at all, or just in having a babysitter. The thought had kept Rodney up half the night examining his memories of John's smiles and flirtations in the café and contrasting them with the grateful glances he'd given Rodney in the infirmary just yesterday.

The elevator stopped and Rodney headed toward the entrance of the mess. He took a peek through the cutaway window, hoping against hope, but his luck had deserted him. Sheppard was in there, sitting with Lieutenant Ford and the accident-prone Sergeant from SentOps, Siler.

Rodney pushed inside and was only two steps in when John lifted his head and turned, his face brightening a little from the scowl that was on his face.

"Yo, McKay!"

Rodney waved and hastened over to the food line, his gut vacillating between conflicting impulses. But after he'd gotten his tray loaded, when Sheppard waved him over, Rodney found himself taking the open seat beside him.

"...gave me a headache firing it," Sheppard was saying.

Ford grinned and said, "You'd better get used to it. They're really effective in the field."

"What's this?" Rodney said, digging into his mashed potatoes. God, he was starving.

"Those zat weapons. They're really not sentinel-friendly." John gave an exaggerated wince.

"Yeah, but Si said you're scoring almost as high as the general on the other stuff, right? You think he'll give you your own team?" Ford asked, then batted his eyelashes outrageously.

John laughed. "Oh, I see where this is going."

Rodney suppressed a groan. It just figured. The man was not only good-looking and charming, but apparently he was a high-scoring sentinel as well. He even smelled good, Rodney noted, a clean, male scent overlaid by the smell of fresh SGC laundry. Rodney realized he was leaning over, close enough that their upper arms were touching, and he shied back.

Sheppard let out a faint moan and rested his head on his hand.

"What's the matter?" Rodney said sharply.

"Baseline tests are rough going," Siler said, his hound dog countenance looking more mournful than usual. "He's pretty stressed."

"I'm fine," Sheppard said, raising his head and glaring at Siler, whose face twisted apologetically.

"I'm just saying the tests are tough enough, let alone without a guide."

"It's not a problem." Sheppard's eyes flicked Rodney's way, and Rodney looked down at his meal and started eating self-consciously. He had the most uncharacteristic urge to do something, pat John on the back, or get him a bowl of soup or something. It was ridiculous.

"How're things going with you, Rodney?" John said casually.

"Fine, fine. Just running some simulations on the new, improved Goa'uld shield disruptor."

John tilted him a sly grin. "Thought you named it the Interrupter 2000 or something."

"I was overruled," Rodney said dryly, his irritation ameliorated somewhat by the way sudden amusement crinkled the corner of John's eye.

"Sorry to hear that, buddy." John's grin was mock sympathetic, and Rodney's heart fluttered erratically as he pretended to be offended.

"It's a perfectly serviceable name!"

"Uh-huh."

"Describes the function in a single word!"

"Hey, I'm on your side," John said, raising his hands. "One hundred percent." His smile was almost fond—yes, Rodney would describe it as fond, and his chest twinged again alarmingly.

"Me, too, Doc," Ford put in. "Worked like it was supposed to, anyway; saved all our asses." He nodded at Siler, and they both stood and picked up their trays. "See you two later. Maybe catch you on the range."

"See you at eight hundred, Major."

"Eight hundred. And thanks for all the help today, guys." John sketched a salute as Ford and Siler left.

"The range?"

John shrugged. "He wants to watch how I test out on staff weapons. Says it's hard for sentinels to use 'em at all."

"Especially without a guide," Rodney said flatly.

Again, a shrug. "I wouldn't know. Never had one. Never needed one. So, listen," John's voice changed, dropping in tone, "you done for the day?"

"Um. Yes? That is, as much as I ever am. I have something running, but it doesn't require supervision," Rodney babbled, because there was that smile he remembered from the café, suggestive and appealing.

"Then you're free to hang out?"

"Uh, yeah. I guess."

John's eagerness was flattering, as was the surprised look Rodney got from Simpson as Sheppard walked beside him out of the mess, still teasing him lightly with possible alternate names for his shield disruptor, such as the Ultimate Nullifier and the Infinity Gauntlet.

"This isn't a comic book," Rodney said, as they stepped into the elevator.

"Okay, so we're back to the Doomsday Machine," John said, punching level fourteen for the on-base residences.

"This isn't Star Trek, either," Rodney said.

"Sure feels like it, though, don't you think?" John grinned and nudged him with one shoulder, and Rodney had to agree, remembering his first days at Area 51.

"I suppose you're right," he conceded, and then they were at John's quarters, and Rodney's heart slammed up in his throat. Oh, finally, finally, the hot guy from the café wasn't just fantasy jerk-off material, he was the major in a black T-shirt and khaki uniform pants who was pushing Rodney up against his closed door with gentle hands, leaning in to kiss him once before pulling back with a worried smile on his face.

"When you didn't show up at breakfast this morning, I thought maybe you'd changed your mind," John said.

Rodney shook his head. "Uh, no. Just got—" he tried to wave a hand and ended up flicking John's biceps—his tanned, firm biceps, and Rodney gripped him. "—busy," he finished breathlessly.

John bent his head, and Rodney thought he was going to get seriously kissed, at long last, but instead John ducked and pressed his face to Rodney's neck, right where it met his shoulder, and inhaled slowly. Cool air traveled against Rodney's skin, making him shiver.

"What—?"

"God, your smell," John said, his voice humming against Rodney's neck. Rodney's dick thought about filing a complaint for cruel and unusual punishment, because holy Jesus, that was a sexy voice the major was deploying, and they hadn't even gotten to the kissing yet, just Sheppard's lips brushing upward with a flicker of tongue, and the occasional indrawn breath, and if this was how a sentinel went about things, as if every taste, every breath, every inch of Rodney's skin was something to be savored, well, Rodney was doomed, that was all there was to it.

"Are you, what, imprinting on me or something?"

John drew back and arched an eyebrow. "I'm not a baby duck, Rodney."

But the question did have the effect of derailing John's single-mindedness somewhat, because he leaned in and brushed his lips against Rodney's, and then slid his tongue into Rodney's mouth, then again, groaning deeply as he did so, and Rodney tilted his head back, feeling absolutely taken apart by John's sly tongue, by the hand gripping and stroking through Rodney's hair, and the insistent push of John's thigh between his.

"Oh, God," Rodney said the moment John gave him a chance. "Are we going to—not to rush you or anything, but I don't want to create a disaster in my pants."

John sucked on Rodney's lower lip one more time before sliding down to his knees, his hands dragging down the front of Rodney's shirt as he did so. And then John rubbed his cheek against the front of Rodney's pants, which did nothing at all for Rodney's composure, feeling John's hot breath seeping in through the fabric, or the way he seemed to be inhaling Rodney's scent even more deeply down there.

"John," Rodney groaned, and as if his voice broke John's daze, suddenly his hands flashed into motion, flipping, yanking, dragging open Rodney's slacks and tugging them downward along with his boxers, exposing him to the cool air and the grasp of John's warm hand.

"Yeah, yeah," John said, and then he dragged his tongue up along Rodney's cock, and Rodney's head fell back against the wall with a painful thunk.

"Don't stop," Rodney whispered. "Carry on," he added, just in case John was worried about head trauma and the like, but apparently John was lost in his own little world of sucking and licking and moaning around the head of Rodney's cock. John grabbed Rodney's hips and pulled him closer, and suddenly John's head just sank, and Rodney reached with one weak hand and rested it on his bobbing head, felt the vibration of John's groan in his fingertips, in his cock, and trembled with pleasure.

"Oh, that's. Oh. Very..." Rodney might have mumbled something right then about how hot and wet and soft John's mouth was, how yes, right there, oh, right there, please with that tongue, yes, rubbing and sucking, and the way if John kept swallowing like that Rodney might lose every percentile point he lorded over the other scientists in the labs, but then Rodney was jerking and gripping a little too hard and shoving with his hips, and all words fled.

Rodney heard John moan. He felt John freeze in his movements, his hands clutching tight on Rodney's hips as Rodney came helplessly in his mouth. Rodney thought, I'm choking him, God, but he couldn't stop coming, and then John shuddered under his hands and Rodney realized, He's coming too, and the thought was unbearably hot, that John could come just from tasting him, just from feeling Rodney pulsing in his mouth.

Rodney whimpered.

He let go of his death grip and pulled away, but John immediately rested his head on Rodney's hip, still trembling and panting, his breath hot against Rodney's skin.

"Are you all right?" Rodney said, his voice strangely hoarse. He didn't know what to do with his hands. After a moment he rested one on John's shoulder, and John seemed to relax under it somewhat.

"Maybe I am a duck." John said under his breath, then chuckled a little, sounding strained. He shook his head and pushed himself to his feet. "Because that was..."

"Hot," Rodney said quickly. "Really hot."

"Yeah?" John's eyes wouldn't quite meet his. "Well, it was still—"

Rodney moved in for a kiss, and John responded, his mouth a little surprised, but willing. Afterward, he put his nose right back below Rodney's ear, sniffing for a second before drawing away. He grimaced.

"Sorry, but I have to change," he said, then smiled and shrugged ruefully. "Maybe take a quick shower."

"Well, I, um, I really should head back to the labs?"

"Okay." John rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "So, I guess I'll catch you after my morning drills tomorrow? Lunch or something?"

"Sounds good." Rodney felt himself practically vibrating with nervousness, and he squeezed John's arm quickly before turning toward the door.

It didn't escape him that John looked as weirded out as he himself felt.

:::

Rodney didn't go back to the labs. Instead, he went back to his quarters to do what he should have done days before—research.

Because that had been, without a doubt, the hottest encounter that had ever happened to him in his life, but also the weirdest. John Sheppard was indescribably sexy, but he was also, apparently, a baby duck. Because something decidedly strange—something more than sex—had happened just now.

Hadn't it?

The research did not go well. Before Rodney could find anything about sentinels and sex, he ran headlong into a wall of things he just didn't want to know. As per usual with such things, Rodney discovered as he pulled up page after page on sentinels, he was much worse off than his direst predictions could prepare him for.

Zone outs were one thing—simple to combat, as it turned out, by using a different sense to coax the sentinel from whatever caused the unresponsive state. A piece of cake. Rodney had already done it once.

But escalating, cyclic responses to allergens? Hypertrophic Pulmonary Syndrome in reaction to irritants such as pepper spray or tear gas or even certain perfumes? In amounts so minuscule even a machine couldn't detect them, but a sentinel somehow could by dropping dead while Rodney so foolishly wasn't paying attention?

Oh, dear no. By Kepler's ghost, Rodney couldn't think of anyone less suited for the job of looking after a sensitive person who might feasibly die if he weren't paying attention. Rodney could barely be trusted to take care of his cat, let alone be responsible for another human being's life. A life so fragile—John's life—so delicate that being randomly sprayed at a perfume counter could end it?

No way. Rodney was looking for a boyfriend, not a baby duck.

:::

John couldn't believe he'd just come in his freaking pants. From sucking a guy off.

If this was what happened if he let the senses loose while having sex, he was having no part of it.

He hadn't meant to, was the thing. He'd leaned in meaning to kiss Rodney, and then, like some switch had flipped in his brain, he'd done something else entirely, some weird sentinel thing he'd never—well, the truth was nobody he'd ever slept with before except for Holland even knew he was a sentinel, so it hadn't been a possibility. But he'd never been tempted to lick on old Dutch's neck like he was a Tootsie Pop, so that was no excuse.

John had been out of control. He couldn't stop tasting Rodney, couldn't stop feeling him on his tongue, tasting him with his eyes, in his hands, in his mouth, with his fingertips, with each draw of breath, until every sense had zinged up the scale and he'd tasted Rodney's pulse, delicate and dark and sweet, and his own cock had swelled and shot in the cramped folds of his pants, and he'd nearly choked on Rodney's come, nearly choked but swallowed it all the same, tasting ocean-bitter salt in the back of his throat.

He'd never tasted anything half as right.

But he'd been out of control, and that wasn't good. He hadn't been himself, and Rodney had smelled anxious, nervous, a little bit weirded out as they kissed again, so John had gotten out of there.

Next time John would be in control, he'd have sex like a normal person, not some freak, some genetic throwback who didn't even have to be touched before coming in his pants.

He grimaced and headed for the showers.

:::

The next morning John felt well rested and more in control. Besides, the tests were much cooler—he proved to them he had no trouble at all with concussive blasts or firing explosive weaponry, which they should have known if they'd read his jacket at all, but he guessed they needed it all verified for the official paperwork.

He really dug the staff weapon. And by Ford's grin, he wasn't alone in that love. Sure, the refire rate was awful, but there was no chance of fouling or stoppages, and they made a really pretty boom.

The zat he could do without. It still made the bones of his skull sing, so badly he found himself squinting in anticipation, but he managed to hit the target dummies just fine. He figured with more practice he'd learn to tune out the sensation. Well, after a lot more practice.

They issued him a zat and a Glock and sent him on his merry way. Siler met him at the door and dragged him back to the infirmary for yet another blood draw.

Carson seemed especially happy to see him. "Sit, sit, Major." He had the big needle out, John noticed.

John sighed and rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. "Didn't get enough yesterday?"

"Oh, this time it's for my own special project." Carson looked oddly bashful. "Did you know I'm not just a physician, but a geneticist? It just so happens one of those toys you made light up earlier today for Dr. Lee reveals something useful about your own genome, Major."

"Sure, whatever, Doc." John watched the needle slide into his skin, his focus so acute he could actually see the metal separating the tissues. His blood immediately began bubbling out into the test tube in an angry wake.

He wondered sometimes, if he zoomed in hard enough, would he be able to see the individual cells of his own blood? Usually he thought about it when he was badly injured, so he could be forgiven for the morbid thought. Probably it was a little dangerous to zoom in that close. He should probably ask Carson about it.

Carson popped out the one test tube and slipped in another, all the while babbling on about genes and ancient human legacies and stuff. After the fourth or twentieth vial, he finally released the rubber tourniquet and pulled the needle, slapping a cotton pad and a sentinel-friendly Band-Aid in the crook of John's arm.

"There you go, lad. Now go grab some lunch."

"Aye-aye, Doc."

Siler was there again at the door.

"You getting tired of sheep dogging me around, Si?"

"Nah. But that's it for the day."

"What, seriously? It's not even twelve hundred."

"Oh, but you had weapons practice. They always go easy on us..." Siler winced theatrically.

"Poor little fragile sentinels, yeah," John said, disgusted. He'd spent days in combat without a break, and now they thought he couldn't handle a morning of weapons drills. Still, it would be nice to have the afternoon off. Have lunch with Rodney, if he could drag the mad scientist away from his labs.

"Thanks, Si. Catch you later."

John went back to his quarters to clean off the stink of explosives and get into a fresh set of ABUs, and then, in the quiet, opened up enough to listen for Rodney. It was amazing how easy it was to tune into him, even six levels or so away.

"...is fruitless! I'm telling you, we're looking in the wrong direction."

A woman replied, sounding amused, "This is the smallest unit with the highest yield currently known—"

"Yes, on Earth."

"And which of our alien allies do you propose to hit up for a pack of batteries, Rodney?"

With Rodney's location pinpointed, John headed for the elevator.

:::

Sparring with Sam Carter's intelligence was a pleasure even on the most dismal of days, but sadly Rodney had to admit he was off his game, being distracted by thoughts of last night's encounter with John. They intruded at the most inopportune moments and from the unlikeliest of prompts—say when Sam would mention 'power peaks' or 'penetrative thresholds' and suddenly Rodney would find himself pushing his chair further under the lab desk to hide his sudden arousal.

So, he should have been expecting it when a bristly, dark head popped into the lab doorway and a low, mocking voice interrupted their argument, saying, "Is this where the brainiacs play?"

"Major Sheppard!" Rodney promptly bumped his kneecap against the underside of the table in his haste to get up, and Sam beat him to the door.

"Hello, Major. I'm Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter," she said, holding out her hand.

John's face brightened appreciatively. "It's nice to meet you, ma'am."

She grinned, her cheeks dimpling. "Oh, we've met before, it's just you were, ah, kind of unconscious at the time."

"Well, I sure am sorry about that." And now Sheppard was affecting a mock apologetic smile.

Dear Lord, Rodney thought, and hastened over. "What's up, John?" he asked.

John's eyebrows rose. "Just thought I'd see if I could drag you away from the big debate, naquadah polymer versus strontium buttium or whatever," he said. "Want to grab some chow?"

"Yes, great, of course," Rodney said, wincing a little when Sam tried unsuccessfully to hide her shock. "I eat lunch," he whispered at her in an aside as he hustled back to check on the state of his open documents.

"At noon?" she mouthed, her back to Sheppard, who was leaning nonchalantly against the doorway.

"Care to join us, Colonel?" he asked.

"Oh, no. You two have fun," she said brightly. "I'll just run some sims while you're out, Rodney."

Rodney gritted his teeth at the lost computer cycles, glaring at her smile of victory.

"Every dog has its day, Colonel," he warned as he followed John out the door.

:::

The food in the mess was the usual base fare; John was already getting tired of it and wishing he could go topside and order take-out. After a year of freedom he'd gotten pretty spoiled.

Rodney seemed to have no problem with it, though. He'd grabbed the entrée and all three of the sides offered, along with two desserts, and hustled to find them a pair of seats in the crowded hall.

John made a mental note to come at a less busy time in future.

"So, how goes work?"

Rodney gave him a strange look, and then burst into some scientific gibberish about difficult power requirements and joules per second, and the possibility of converting to radiant flux necessitating fewer dioptres...but at that point John's brain had congealed into peat moss and he focused on his meat loaf.

"I'm sure you'll think of something," John said eventually into a convenient, dessert-filled silence.

Rodney "mmmm'd" into his pudding.

"Hey, so," John leaned onto one elbow, "speaking of impressive power, I got to fire a staff weapon today." He grinned. "Blew the test dummy into teeny pieces."

Rodney's head shot up and he suddenly stared right at John.

"What?" John rubbed his palm over his mouth. "Pudding?"

"Staff weapon...no, variable packets, oscillations, but perhaps one of the smaller..."

"Yo, McKay..." John snapped his fingers, but it was like Rodney wasn't even there. Suddenly he grabbed his radio off his belt and started talking into it.

"Sam! Sam, kill that sim. Do we have a Goa'uld intar? Try pulling a power pack from one of those and we'll check the curve on that, shall we? Thanks. Yeah, no, it was," Rodney gave John a slanted smile, "Major Sheppard's idea, really." Rodney snapped off the radio.

"You're kind of weird, you know that?"

"So I've been told."

"You busy after lunch, or do you have a few minutes?"

Rodney suddenly looked wary, his eyes narrowing.

John raised a hasty hand. "Just a few. Come back to my quarters with me." And yeah, that didn't make Rodney relax any, but he followed John anyway after they bussed their trays and slipped between the crowded tables to the exit. John waved at Lieutenant Ford, who'd just arrived with a blond marine.

"What's this about, anyway?" Rodney said as they reached John's room. He sounded nervous, which wasn't a good sign.

John bit his lip and closed the door behind them. "Just...things got weird there at the end yesterday, but I had a good time, you know?" He smiled, hopeful, and leaned in, but Rodney ducked his kiss and headed for the other side of the room.

"I'm not certain this is the greatest idea. In fact, I've been doing some research—"

"Research?" John's voice cracked embarrassingly and he crossed his arms. "On what? Sex?"

Rodney scowled. "Nice, with the sarcasm. No, on sentinels, thank you very much, and everything you didn't tell me. You said you didn't imprint—"

"Because it's an old wives' tale!" Something John had barely heard vague rumors about. Maybe Rodney had heard the same ones.

"Oh, is it? Then explain that whole—" Rodney waved his hands, and yeah, John knew he'd been a little weird, a little intense, but he thought he'd done all right by Rodney, at least from what he could remember of the blowjob.

"Look, I can do normal—I mean, usually..." John felt his face flush. "It's not usually like that for me, okay? Things got a little out of hand."

Rodney cocked his head and gave him a skeptical look.

"What? Cut me some slack. I've been in the closet my whole life, okay? Hell, my fiancée, Nancy, didn't even know I was a sentinel."

That earned him a blink, and then Rodney said, "Which explains why it appears you never married her after all."

John ducked his head. "Yeah, you could say she wasn't thrilled about the secrets I kept from her. The point is, I've always had regular sex. I don't know what happened last night. C'mon..." He took a couple of steps forward, feeling a little bit like he was coaxing a squirrel out of a tree. Rodney was still giving him the hairy eyeball, but he was also softening up, John could tell.

"And you don't want me to be your guide?"

John froze mid-step. "Don't you want to be my guide? You said you wanted to."

"I just, I thought you liked me—" Rodney's eyes were downcast.

"I do. What makes you think I don't?"

"You just want me for my-for my guidey qualities."

John had to snicker. "Your what, now?"

"Oh, you know what I mean. Whatever makes you want to lick, and-and, with the—" Rodney gestured helplessly.

God, he was impossible. Brilliant, hilarious and impossible.

John rolled his eyes. "I don't just like you because you smell good."

"So, why else?"

"Jesus Christ, Rodney. I don't know. You're a smart ass. You like Ron Goulart. You stare at my ass when you think I'm not looking." John's face got hotter. "Why do you think?"

"Oh. Well. I supposed those are all good reasons." And finally, finally Rodney stepped toward him. John took his hand, raised it to his mouth and brushed his lips over Rodney's pulse point. He meant just to kiss him there quickly, but there were so many scents—electrical wiring, coffee, solder, computer plastic, dry board marker, cat, woman's perfume—and John's sense of smell spiked momentarily until he hit Rodney, the base note that rang true, right straight through him, and John gasped against Rodney's skin and took a taste, just one taste.

It was enough.

All of a sudden John was back in that place from the night before, his dick as hard as a rock, as he sucked at Rodney's pulse, felt it beat against his lips. He heard Rodney moan his name, and John pulled him in close and took his lips. He told himself, Just one kiss, and he meant it. He kissed Rodney, took his mouth, pushing his tongue inside and tasting Rodney, sweet and raw, just once, before regretfully pulling away.

Rodney made a small sound and stared up at him, his eyes wide and puzzled.

"Sorry," John said roughly, his face hot. "I guess you were right after all." He shrugged apologetically and made himself take a step back. "I don't think I can do normal with you."

"Oh, that's just great." Rodney pushed past him. "You mean, 'it's not me, it's you'."

John let out a sigh and sat down on his bed. "Look, was it really that weird last night?"

"It's not that! It's not...it wasn't...awful." Rodney's face reddened. "It's just, I don't—if that would make me—I don't want to be a guide, all right? Even yours."

"So what does sex have to do with that?"

"Everything! If you imprint on me like a baby duck."

"I was fucking kidding about the duck!"

"No you weren’t! There's definitely something weird going on..."

It was true, John had to admit it. Maybe there was something to the tales. Something about Rodney was different, something in the way John had reacted to him. But any problem would be on John's side, anyway. He was the one who was reacting.

"...and I don't want to be...beholden." Rodney shifted uncomfortably.

Or maybe it had nothing to do with being a guide, but was more to do with how freaky sentinels were, and Rodney was just putting a window dressing on it.

"So, it's not me, it's you," John said sarcastically, earning himself a scathing look.

"I'm not the one who'll drop dead without a keeper."

"What?" John crossed his arms. "What the hell are you talking about? I've been without a guide for my entire life, bucko. What makes you think I'll drop dead without you?"

"Every single goddamned thing I've read."

"Oh, please tell me you didn't Google 'sentinel'. What a pile of crap." John stretched out onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. "I've been online since I was four, McKay. I've had two anaphylactic reactions that spiraled out of control. The first was from pepper oil when I was eight years old and my mom guided me out of it. The second was from tear gas in Bagrame, and my buddy Dex knocked me unconscious before my body could tear itself apart and shut down my lungs. He managed to do that and keep me hidden until I recovered." John swallowed hard and looked over at Rodney. "Unless you think we're going to be hit by tear gas anytime soon, I think we're pretty safe."

"You don't know; we could be," Rodney blustered, "or a lot worse. You have no idea what this place is like. I just don't want to be responsible."

"I'm not asking you to be!" Even though you said you wanted to be.

"Well, then, okay!"

"Fine!"

"Fine."

They stared at each other a moment, then John smiled tentatively, but Rodney said, "Well, I guess I should be getting back to the labs."

"Yeah. All right," John said, but Rodney was already out the door.

So, okay, that had turned out less ideal than John had planned, but then when had his love life ever gone spectacularly? He sighed and dug an X-Treme X-Men from his bag. Even though he'd read it about twenty times, it was one of his favorites, the one where Beast was badly hurt battling Vargas. He'd just gotten to the part where Tessa was about to save Beast from dying when he heard a double-rap on his door.

He sniffed and faintly smelled blueberry pie, and grinned with genuine pleasure.

"Come in, General." John stood and went to a semblance of attention.

The door opened and General O'Neill poked his head in. "Disturbing you?"

"No, sir. In fact, I was thinking of trying to find your office myself."

"Yeah. I try to keep off the grid." O'Neill grimaced. "Don't let 'em pin you down if you can help it."

"I'll try not to, sir."

"So. How're you settling in?"

John wasn't sure whether or not O'Neill wanted an honest answer, but, "The truth is, sir, folks here have been great, but I'm starting to get a little stir crazy."

"Do me a favor and can the 'sir.'" O'Neill folded his arms and leaned against the door. "You mean haven't been topside yet?"

"Nope. I'm kind of missing the sky. But..."

O'Neill waited him out.

"Seems I've got this chip now."

Biting the corner of his lip, O'Neill nodded once to himself. "You know, you're not the only one. Everyone who works here has a locator." The general grinned. "I made a little deal with the brass, see, explained how everyone here is vital to national security, not just the sentinels."

"Huh."

"It's not about you getting tracked by the feds anymore, Major. If someone up top ever gives you any guff, you tell them to call us and we'll spring you. You belong with us now. In fact, before any of our crew goes out, we give them a panic button so they can be retrieved from orbit in a real emergency. You might remember when McKay used his?"

"I don't remember much about that. I got shot, and there was a burst of light, and I woke up in a cell. I figured it was a flash-bang."

"Yeah, first transport really messes with the senses. Also, someone probably stunned you."

"Gee, thanks a lot."

They grinned at each other.

"So, there's another reason I stopped by," O'Neill said, and John found himself deflating at the change of topic.

"What's that, sir?"

O'Neill narrowed his eyes at the honorific. "Carson tells me you have the gene."

"He said something about my genetic heritage." John shrugged. "I wasn't paying attention."

"Well, you shoulda been, because it means you and me, we get to take a little ride."

:::

Good God. John took back all the mean thoughts he'd had about O'Neill's hairline and about him smelling a little bit like Rolaids.

Even the sting of the SID chip buried under John's skin faded a little in the face of this—sitting in the co-pilot chair as O'Neill's steady hands took them super atmospheric in the little "gateship" he'd commandeered and flown up a tunnel carved right through Cheyenne Mountain.

John stared in awe at the stars and then, as O'Neill swung back around, at the Earth floating serenely below them.

"Holy Christ." It was a dream. It was his childhood dream.

"Yep. She's a beaut of a planet. Like to keep her that way," O'Neill said. "Best we can, anyway."

"Yes, s—yeah. Shit. Hell, yes. Anything I can do."

"want to take the controls?"

"What?" The general was out of his mind. "I've flown a lot of birds, but I don't know the first thing about this—"

O'Neill cracked a grin. "Neither did I, the first time. That's the beauty of this baby—she practically reads your mind if you've got the right 'genome', Major."

"If you say so." At least they couldn't rightly bump into anything out here. Like gravity. Tentatively, John rested his hand on the yoke and felt a buzzing surge under his fingers, just like those gizmos the scientists were showing him back in the lab. Startled, he closed his hand, and wondered what he was feeling—it was almost like he was seeing the intent of the little ship.

"Where should I fly her?"

The next moment, a colored screen popped up before his eyes right out of thin air.

"Jesus!"

The hologram displayed a map of the solar system, and smack next to Earth was a tiny blip he assumed was their ship.

"Cool, huh?"

"Not even close," John said, barely breathing.

"So, where to?"

"Well, I've always wanted to check out the rings of Saturn."

O'Neill waved his hand like Queen Elizabeth, and John gave the yoke a push, barely containing a whoop when the little ship responded smoothly, shooting them in a smooth arc around the Earth and out into space.

And to think, just a few hours ago John had been feeling hemmed in.

:::

Rodney slept poorly. Usually he had no difficulty dropping off—a good, complex problem was better than counting sheep, and the power supply problem, especially with the diversion from optics into off-world power sources, was a juicy one. But even as he tried and discarded multiple possibilities he found his mind returning to Sheppard, with his impossible hair and his even more impossible proposition.

And the unlikely possibility that John wanted him for more than his genetic predisposition to be pleasing to his senses.

Rodney spent the morning working with his new power concept and trying desperately not to think about sex and John and sex with John and just what myriad complications might ensue. Rodney's stomach started growling abominably by the late afternoon, and he snuck into the mess for a snack, relieved to find it empty of any and all good-looking Air Force majors with complicated proposals.

After a delicious meal of ground beef and macaroni he returned to the lab, where he found Sam monkeying with his simulation.

"I was just about to reconfigure that," he said, ready to brush her aside.

"Too late; it's all done," she chirped, looking quite smug. "I think this next round will work perfectly, actually. The only issue is this power source looks completely crazy. Where did you get these numbers?"

"Ah, well." Rodney coughed. "There's an Ancient device, about yea big. O'Neill found it in that little ship of his—"

Carter frowned. "You mean the Life Signs Detector?"

"Yes. I think that was its purpose."

Crossing her arms, she gave him a suspicious look. "You do realize there's no way he's going to let you take it apart for its power source."

"Of course not. But we have a bunch of trinkets lying around in storage collecting dust. One of them has to be useless enough that we can re-purpose the so-called battery, if the general would just accede to any of my many requests for just a modicum of his time—"

Sam snorted. "Right, like Jack is going to sit around playing with Ancient toasters. Anyway, haven't you heard? Bill Lee just discovered Major Sheppard has the ATA. So there you go—problem solved."

"Oh. Uh." John had the ATA. Perfect. Rodney turned away and looked at the monitor. The simulation was cooking along nicely. Carter was right—the numbers looked much better for the shield disruptor's efficacy. Assuming Rodney could locate an Ancient power source.

"McKay?"

"Hmm?"

"Contact Kawalsky," Carter said with exaggerated patience. "Sheppard is almost done with in-processing, and I'm sure he'll have some free time in his schedule. He's not assigned to any duties just yet."

"Yes, I'll...keep that in mind."

Sam laughed a little. "I can't believe you, Rodney. All this time you've been complaining about not having access to someone with the ATA gene, and now you're not jumping at the opportunity? I thought you liked Sheppard?"

"Oh, he's all right for a military type, I suppose." Rodney winced at how fake his voice sounded, but Carter didn't call him on it; she just smiled, looking amused.

"Well, I'll bring it up during staff meeting later if you want. That way the request will be a formal one from the lab."

"Fine, fine. Whatever," Rodney said, and bent his head to re-install the power pack on the intar.

Of course, his focus wasn't up to par—how could it be, with Carter hanging about bringing up irrelevant subjects and messing with his calibrations?

That was his later explanation for when it exploded under his hands.

:::

Siler told John it was his last day of rat drills, so maybe they saved the worst for last. It was a tough morning, anyway, with pain tolerance and temperature differentials, followed by chemical sensitivity tests. Dr. Beckett gave him sympathetic pats as he pricked an awful grid on John's back, leaving him pretty much at the edge of control. John thought about taking a nap before lunch.

"This is it," Siler said. "Last one, and then you are free for the day."

Just thinking about clean sheets in a dark room was enough to keep John following Siler down the corridor and through the double-wide bomb blast doors into the large room with the SOs guarding the ramp and the...thing. A giant metal ring stood at the end of the ramp, which made no sense, because behind the ring there was just a wall.

"What the heck is this?" John rubbed his eyes.

"This," Siler said smugly, "is the gate."

"The gate."

"Yup. The Stargate."

John stared at him silently.

"This is how we go from Earth to other planets," Siler said, bobbing his head as if the sentence made any sense at all, but then John started to catch up, and snatches of weird conversations and 'off-world activation' announcements began to come back to him, and he took a deep breath.

"You're not joking. We don't fly there—the aliens don't come here in spaceships? We go through this thing instead?"

"Well, we have spaceships, too," Siler said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "But mostly we go through the gate."

And now John could hear the reverence in his tone. "You ever been through it?"

Siler winced. "Only twice. It really messed with my senses. I'm off the map on touch sensitivity and I passed out when I went through." He hung his head.

John looked at the gate. "That sucks. But I kind of want to try it anyway." He was pretty touch sensitive, but if he were grounded enough he'd give it a go. "Not today, though." Today he was already shaky enough.

"Oh, no," Siler said, sounding shocked. "You're just here to watch."

"Watch what?"

But just then a klaxon went off, forcing John to wince and adjust his levels. He heard the by-now familiar words about an off-world activation, and felt Siler tap his arm, directing his attention to the gate, which bloomed a plume of blue water in time with the waterfall sounds he'd been hearing in his dreams.

It was unreal, gravity in defiance, and it did something strange to the bones of John's skull, to the nerves in his spine, as if he were physically connected to it somehow, then reaching through it—he was dazed, close to zoning on the sensation, when suddenly he heard a zing! and the surface of the rippling blue water was torn open with a plop, releasing a blue-eyed soldier in full tactical gear.

So much made sense, all of a sudden.

A moment later the sequence repeated itself, but this time John noticed a strange thing, a double-zing, and an echo on the plop, although only one person stepped out, a tough-looking woman with long dark hair in pigtails. After her, again, another double-zing, double-plop, and Dr. Jackson stepped out of the gate and down the ramp, followed by a single zing-plop and Teal'c appeared.

But there was something wrong with John's eyes, because the air was wavering behind Dr. Jackson and in front of the brunette. John focused hard, trying to understand what he was seeing, as the marines in the room lowered their weapons and the water in the gate suddenly disappeared, sucked back to wherever it came from.

John staggered.

"Hey, Siler, looks like your buddy there needs a hand." It was the first guy to step out—an airman, John could now see the Air Force patch on his shoulder as he turned—but just as John was taking that in, the guy distorted in front of him as if he were standing behind a heat wave.

John blinked and looked hard, uncertain if it was his eyes or something in the room. The edges of his vision grew dark as he focused a little too hard.

"You okay, major?" Siler said, grasping his arm. John pulled away, taking a step closer. The airman was looking at him, sounding bemused. John couldn't see his expression clearly—his face was wavering and pulsing—but as soon as John took another step, his skin tingled and he saw the phenomenon shift away, almost as if in response, and in trying to track it, he felt the last of his control slip.

He zoned.

:::

Rodney felt like a complete idiot. What's more, he knew he looked like one, seeing as he was missing part of his right eyebrow and had a shiny red forehead as well, since he'd only managed to protect his eyes when he'd thrown up his hand. And the pain in his fingers was excruciating, but the best Carson would offer him were a couple of Tylenol and some meaningless clucking.

"Three days! What am I supposed to do without the ability to type for three full days, Carson?"

"Be grateful you didn't do worse damage, Rodney. And you still have use of your right hand—you can use a pen and paper—"

"A pen! A pen he says!"

But Carson didn't seem inclined toward sympathizing much because at that moment there was a rush of activity at the doorway and someone wheeled in a new patient.

Rodney peered over and saw a shock of dark hair and green, unseeing eyes, and a twinge tightened his chest.

"Carson! What's the matter with him? What's happened?"

But Carson ignored him and followed the gurney to where they parked it beside a neighboring bed, leaving Rodney to stew in his own juices. And to pick at the bandages on his left hand.

Well. There could be any number of things wrong with the sentinel. That was the problem, wasn't it? Because in spite of John's assurances, just breathing air was apparently a hazard for sentinels. So good riddance, and Rodney wouldn't worry, because he was sure any moment now Carson would do whatever voodoo magic he did so well and Sheppard would blink and the whole thing would be over and Rodney could go back to focusing on the burning agony that was presently the fingers and palm of his left hand.

Any moment now.

Any moment.

"Major, can you hear me? I want you to listen to my voice and come back to us," Carson was saying, and the foolish man was nonsensically patting John's hand like a fussy old grandmother. When that had no effect, Carson moved on to poking John in the sternum. "Major Sheppard," Carson said sharply, "report!"

Sheppard just lay there staring up at the ceiling like a full-grown GI Joe doll.

Carson patted his cheek, then lifted a saline bottle and—oh, good Lord—proceeded to dribble water on Sheppard's face.

Rodney snorted.

Carson turned and positively glared at him, then jerked his head over as if he were expecting Rodney to do something about this ridiculous situation, which was impertinent, to say the least. Rodney had already done his duty once, and it had already entangled him far too deeply for comfort.

And, okay, the blowjob had been pleasant, more than pleasant, really, but that hadn't indebted him, Sheppard himself had said so. There was no reason for this uncomfortable iciness in the pit of Rodney's stomach.

"Can't you try—"

"We could try artificial means, yes, Rodney," Carson said impatiently, "but most sentinels react unpredictably to any medication, and we have almost no history on Major Sheppard as yet. We could kill him with even a mild stimulant." Carson leaned over and shook John's shoulders, which did nothing, nothing at all, and, oh, sweet Jesus, now Carson had actually slapped John's face! What was this, were they living in the Medieval Ages?

"Stop that right now, you idiot," Rodney said, standing up and shouldering Carson aside. Leaning low, Rodney spoke directly into John's blank face. "Major, I suggest you wake up before Torquemada here brings out the Iron Maiden." He put his fingers on John's wrist. "John? Can you hear me?"

After only a few seconds, John blinked and focused on Rodney. "Rodney? What're you doing here?" He tried to grasp Rodney's hand, but Rodney just patted him and pulled away, waving his gauze-covered fingers as an excuse.

"See? Easy as pie," Rodney said, disconcerted by quickly John had reacted to him, by the flush of comfort he felt, by the way the room suddenly seemed warmer knowing John was all right.

"Excellent, yes, thank you, Rodney," Carson said, shunting him aside to check on John.

Rodney felt oddly reluctant to leave John's side. "But you saw how quickly he responded." Rodney looked over Carson's shoulder and saw John watching him, green eyes dark and a small smile on his lips.

"A miracle, it was," Carson said dryly. "You might want to sit down. Aren't your burns paining you?"

But strangely, they weren't. Rodney frowned and watched while John got checked over. His eyes hadn't left Rodney's.

"No dizziness? Do you remember why you zoned, Major? I need it for my records."

John almost sounded drugged as he responded, "I was watching the gate—it sounded strange, there was a double-zing and plop, and when the people came through, there was this distortion, like a heat-wave in front of two of them. I was trying to focus on sight too much, I guess."

Another voice piped in, and Rodney turned his head to see Sergeant Siler standing by the infirmary doorway. "This was Major Sheppard's first time seeing the gate in action. It hits everyone hard."

But something John was saying rang a bell. "A heat wave, you say?"

John nodded, still staring at him. "Distorting the air."

Siler sounded a little patronizing as he said, "Major, I almost passed out the first time I felt the gate in action."

John made an irritated noise. "This was after the water stuff went away." He closed his eyes with a wince.

"Okay, that's enough for now. Major, I'm going to give you an analgesic for that zone headache—ah-ah, don't say, 'what headache?' I've got your number."

Rodney watched, still feeling vague anxiety as John took the tablets Carson gave him, so he didn't protest too vociferously when Carson suggested he help John back to his quarters.

"Are you sure he's all right to leave?"

"It was just a zone, Rodney," John said, sounding irritated.

"He's right as rain." Carson was smiling at Rodney for some reason as he helped John to his feet.

Rodney didn't snap back asking why he would then be needed to help John back to his quarters, because he wanted to get Sheppard to look over the old SGC SI report that was niggling in his brain—this situation sounded so familiar, the air distorting, the gate, the gate—

"Oh, my God!" Rodney said, coming to a halt halfway down the corridor on the way to the labs. John staggered beside him and gave him a pained look.

"Thanks, McKay," he said. He put one hand on the corridor wall. "Where are we going, anyway?"

"Well, I was taking us to my lab to check something on my computer, but that won't be necessary any longer. I know—" Rodney swallowed heavily, "at least, I think I know what we're dealing with, and we need to get to the armory. Like, right now. Or, better yet, find a radio—"

"Oh, yeah?" John straightened, losing the vague, sleepy look. "Tell me why?"

"Those air distortions? We've seen them before. Or, at least, a very few of our sentinels have." Rodney took John by the shoulders and got him turned in the right direction. "There are these aliens, see—generally very peaceful, except for a rebel contingent of them who are quite nasty terrorists. And a few years back they tried to attack us, thinking if they could kill all the hosts, the Goa'uld would stop being a threat. Crazy idea, really."

They'd started walking faster and faster as Rodney talked, and now Rodney was really regretting that he'd left his radio when he'd burned his hand, because the corridor was empty and all he had to protect him was one rookie sentinel with a migraine.

Who was suddenly reaching behind his back and pulling out a zat, which charged with a zing.

"And did I mention they're invisible?" Rodney said. "Phase-shifted like one-eighty degrees or something ridiculous? And they're enormous, like gigantic, purple bugs, so, really, it's a relief we can't see them."

"Terrific," John said, and grabbed Rodney's wrist and started dragging him faster down the hallway.

"We don't have to get them ourselves, you know. All we have to do is put out a base-wide alert on the code nine and lock the place down until someone can hunt them down with those TERs from the armory—"

"And we'll do that," John said, tugging him along. "Jesus, I've only been here, what, a week, and already base security has been breached twice and I'm searching for invisible aliens."

And then, of course, John had to 'see' one. He fired, but then cursed, which Rodney had to assume meant he'd missed. Then the wall exploded behind them, so, terrific—apparently the aliens had nasty weapons of their own.

The explosion sent them both flying, and when Rodney opened his eyes he was on the floor staring at John's zat.

"Rodney!"

Rodney picked it up and squirmed onto his side to see John gesturing frantically. "Fire at my two o'clock! Toward the 'Exit' sign!"

Rodney pointed and starting firing.

:::

"I remember these guys," O'Neill said, aiming the funky-looking pistol, the 'Transphase Eradication Rod'—and who the hell paid these guys to name things?— at the alien in the cell. John watched the alien glow under the light, purple and bug-like, just like Rodney had said.

"They've been here before, huh?"

"Yep. How many did you say?"

"I think there's two. At least, I only heard two coming through the gate."

"Huh. Usually they come in fives. Must be an advance team. Welp," O'Neill snapped off the TER, "we'd better get cracking."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, not you, Major. It's off to the infirmary with you. Dr. Fraiser is sorely pissed at me. Apparently I'm not allowed to break the baby sentinels before they're out of in-processing."

John bristled, and watched O'Neill's eyebrow lift with amusement.

"Yes, sir. I'll just head down there now then."

"You do that. Teal'c and Daniel and I are going to go hunt us an alien."

John told himself he wasn't jealous, not at all.

Besides, Rodney was in the infirmary.

:::

"Didn't expect to see you back so soon, Rodney," Carson said, the 'R' rolling with disapproval. This made no sense since Rodney had just effectively helped save the base from an alien invasion.

"Look at the state of these bandages," Carson said, tsking as he started yanking at the adhesive tape.

Rodney hissed. "Watch it, you hack!"

Carson just ignored him, a hint of a smile plying on his lips. "I hear you and Major Sheppard went and captured an alien."

"An invisible alien, yes."

"Sounds like you make a good team." The smile was growing into a smirk.

"He's not bad for a military type." The fresh layer of burn salve gave Rodney a measure of relief, and he sighed happily. "Thinks on his feet. Although I was the one who shot the alien. The invisible alien."

"Nice work, that."

"Well, with John's help," Rodney was forced to amend.

"Speaking of which, where is he?" Carson finished re-bandaging Rodney's left hand and gave him a pat, then took out his infernal penlight. "I need to check the lad over. Sentinels are susceptible to all sorts of respiratory dangers from explosive residue."

Rodney's chest tightened. Carson gave him a narrow-eyed look.

"Ah. Grown a bit partial, have you?"

"I don't know what you mean."

Carson finished examining Rodney's eyeballs, or whatever it was he did with that thing, and settled back on the gurney opposite. "I hope I'm not out of line, Rodney, if I offer a bit of advice, but you seem a bit at sea with this guide and sentinel business—"

"If that isn't an understatement—"

"—and obviously I've had to do a lot of training on the subject, seeing as we have such a high concentration here."

"And? What have you learned in your great wisdom?"

Carson stripped off his gloves and eyed Rodney thoughtfully. "Well, for one—you already seem to be feeling the effects of imprinting."

Rodney cursed inwardly. He knew it.

Carson was nodding. "Felt it, have you? All humans are predisposed, of course, to such feelings—it's a natural biochemical process to feel good when the people we care about are near and happy. But a physical relationship between guide and sentinel takes it that one step further. You'll find you want to protect him, and you'll be rewarded for that care. And similarly, he'll respond to you—obviously, he's already attuned to you, Rodney, whether you want to admit it or not."

"What if I find I don't—I mean, I never said I would—"

Shaking his head, Carson said, "Ah, well. There's nothing permanent about it, if that's your concern." Carson stood and ran his fingers under Rodney's jaw, then down the sides of his throat. "You might feel some effects of withdrawal, but again, that's only natural. Perhaps somewhat stronger than the usual. If you find you feel depressed, come see me and I'll see what I can—"

"Hey, Doc. How's the patient?"

Rodney froze guiltily at the sound of John's voice, but Carson turned smoothly and said, "He seems to have survived the blast all right."

John came over and sat on the gurney opposite Rodney, then immediately began stripping off his outer shirt. "O'Neill said Fraiser said I'd better report for a check-up."

"Aye. You should have straight away, Major." Carson went to put on a fresh pair of gloves.

"Well, there was this alien, see—had to get it up to the brig..."

"Yes, yes."

"And then I had to debrief with Colonel Kawalsky. Last I heard, the general and Teal'c had the second one trapped somewhere on the fourteenth level." John struggled out of his T-shirt.

Rodney couldn't tear his eyes away from John's chest, which was mottled with bruises along the left side. At the same time, he had to admire the nice definition of the man's shoulders and arms as John shifted his dog tags around to his back.

Reluctantly, Rodney raised his head and caught John looking at him, a pleased smirk on his face. Heat rose on Rodney's face.

"That's a nice set of bruises you have there," Carson said, disapproval once again rich in his voice. "Take a deep breath for me." He had his stethoscope out and started listening intently as John breathed in and out.

John stared at Rodney over Carson's head. "I'm okay, Doc."

"I'll be the judge of that," Carson said, finishing at John's back and then letting go of the scope to start prodding John's ribs. John flinched, and Rodney winced in sympathy.

That odd feeling welled up again—a desire to do something, anything, to help, and Rodney stood hastily, saying, "Are you finished with me, Carson? Because my work has been set back enough already—"

"Oh, I think not," Carson said, turning on him. "I don't want you using that hand at all for the next three days. The impact on top of the burns has put you at risk of infection. I mean it, Rodney—no typing, because if you try to use the one, you'll use the other."

"But-but—"

"And come see me tomorrow for fresh dressings." Carson's blue eyes were glaring no-nonsense at him. Rodney knew that look, and nodded meekly.

"God, I can't even drive like this," Rodney muttered. "I'll have to use on-base housing."

"Well, that sucks," John said sardonically.

Rodney's mouth dropped open, and then he snapped it closed. Oh, right. He was working up a snappy come-back when Carson started squeezing John's ribs again, making him do that face, the one that made Rodney want to invent a machine that would flay Carson using electricity.

But John was trying to smile at him again. "Hey, I meant to say, good shot today, Rodney. You got 'im good. Saved our asses."

That was the last straw. "Uh, thanks—you as well. I mean, we did well." Rodney backed toward the door. "I guess I'll just leave you to it."

"Hang on," John said, looking alarmed. "We're still on lock-down. You can't go out there alone."

"I thought you said the other Reetou was trapped?"

John cocked his head and went still. Rodney looked at Carson, puzzled, and then realized—of course, John was listening. This was all it took, apparently, for John to just, well, tune in to what was going on.

It was humbling, if somewhat terrifying. Rodney had never given a great deal of thought to what sentinels did or how they did it.

"Rodney," Carson murmured quietly. "Come here."

Rodney obeyed, confused but not unwilling when Carson took his uninjured right hand and placed it on John's bare shoulder, which was rigid with tension.

Almost as soon as Rodney touched him, John relaxed somewhat, his shoulder dropping, and he said, "Got it. Oh-ho, O'Neill is...heh, good plan. He's got Teal'c waiting at the vantage point and they're...okay, Jackson is in position with one of those phase things in another cross-shot so they'll know as soon as the Reetou passes by, and now O'Neill and his team are flushing it down the hallway toward where Teal'c is waiting. They're all up on fourteen." John looked up. "I guess it's safe if you want to go to your lab, Rodney." He suddenly seemed to realize Rodney was touching him, and he flushed.

"Ah, um. Yes, of course." Rodney dropped his hand and backed away, feeling warm himself. Of course, Carson had told him exactly what that feeling was; the sensation was easy enough to identify now that he realized what was going on. It was merely a biochemical reaction.

Rodney mumbled something incoherent and fled.

:::

"Well, that was...interesting," Carson said, staring after Rodney.

John found himself nodding, then cursed silently. Rodney had grounded him. John didn't know how or why, but Rodney had voluntarily put his hand on John's shoulder and grounded him while he sent his senses out, and the difference—Jesus, there was no comparison. It was like punching the afterburner on his controls. He'd immediately grounded on Rodney's touch and heartbeat, on the rhythm of his pulse, and zoning hadn't been a factor at all.

But what had made Rodney even try? Rodney didn't want to be his guide. He'd made that pretty damned clear. Which John could kind of understand, considering all the weird shit they already had to put up with here.

"What is it with this place, Doc? First with the fish-snakes, then with the giant purple bugs."

"Oh, Major, you haven't seen the worst, I'm afraid." Carson's fingers tested the sides of his neck, and then he thumbed down John's lower eyelids, checking for what, John didn't know.

"So, am I good to go, Doc?"

"Well, your ribs aren't broken, and there's no sign of lung irritation, but I'm putting you on light duty the next three days, Major."

"Call me 'John', Doc."

Carson smiled. "All right, John."

"Not like I have any real duties yet, anyway."

"No, but I'm sure the scientists working on the ATA project could use your assistance now that you've officially completed in-processing." He handed John his shirt. "And maybe you'd consider giving Rodney a hand while his is healing." Carson slipped him a look.

"What, like, help him with his email and stuff?"

"Oh, yes."

Okay, the doc was definitely playing matchmaker, or guide-maker, or something. "Carson, he really isn't interested in being my guide. We've talked about it, you know?"

Carson's frowned. "John, I'm not trying to interfere here—well, not too much, I should say—but as a doctor, I have to tell you it's much safer for you to have a guide. Period. Safer medically-speaking, and for your mental health."

John straightened. "Well, I've done okay without one for a while now—"

"Yes, you have. This is no reflection on how you've done previously. But you're in a new environment now and are constantly being exposed to the unfamiliar. You know the potential dangers there. And once you begin going off-world, you'll be exposed to alien planets and environments. And I would say to anyone in such a situation, if it were already clear they had found someone appropriate, someone with whom they had an affinity and common interests..." Carson gave him a weighty look, and John clenched his jaw. "Well, I would say both parties might benefit from such an association."

"Yeah." John started shrugging stiffly into his shirt. "If both parties were up for it."

Carson smiled and handed him a packet of Tylenol. "I expect you'll be needing these."

:::

John swung by the mess, figuring with his hand injured, Rodney would be hurting for some dinner.

A quick listen told him both Reetou were now contained in the brig, and O'Neill was having some sort of conference with Teal'c and Jackson about installing TERs in the gate room to prevent any further incursions.

John felt satisfied with what he and Rodney had accomplished. Maybe when the general was giving John his assignment he would think about letting him work with Rodney some more. They made a good team. And Rodney had really held it together under pressure.

Speaking of Rodney, John had no idea where he was. Pausing by the elevator, John leaned back and let the wall ground him as he stretched out his hearing. But wherever Rodney was, he wasn't talking.

Okay, that just meant John was going to have to find him the hard way. He knew the sound of Rodney's heartbeat, knew it in his fingertips, against his lips, and now he recalled it to his mind, felt the rhythm of it, the distinctive slide-hush-tha-bump, Rodney's signature beat, and let it slip deep beneath his skin, slowly and painstakingly filtering out all other sounds as inconsequential. When he lifted his head he could faintly hear it, eight levels above him and to the right.

He could hear Rodney's heartbeat from that distance.

John lifted his tin foil wrapped packages and hit the button for the elevator with his elbow.

It was even weirder hearing the beat get louder the closer he got, hearing Rodney get louder, the sound of his breathing, the clothing rustling against his skin as he moved about his room, and suddenly John realized he was invading Rodney's privacy, something he'd swore he'd try not to do—somehow all those old boundaries he'd set for himself just slipped and blurred when it came to Rodney.

John gritted his teeth and set his levels back to normal, then for good measure pushed them down further, to regular people normal, until his shirt felt dull against his skin, and the air warmer on his face, and sounds were muffled in his ears like cotton.

He kicked on Rodney's door, and a few moments later heard the far away thump of Rodney's footsteps as he approached.

"Sheppard! Um, hello."

"Brought you dinner. Figured you might have had some trouble with your hand..."

"Oh, that's very...come in. Come in." Rodney backed away and waved him in. "Temporary quarters, so, you know—not much in the way of amenities."

"You don't have to play host or anything." John looked around and saw Rodney had managed to procure some spare clothing and a laptop, a small bag of toiletries, but otherwise, yeah, the room looked like a hotel room, pretty much like John's still did, actually. "I brought you stuff that's pretty easy to eat one-handed."

"Again, that's really...nice." Rodney smiled, his mouth going crooked, as if he wasn't quite sure what to think.

John didn't want him feeling obligated—Christ, he just didn't want the guy to go hungry. "Look, if you're busy or whatever—"

"Hardly. Carson won't even let me type. It's criminal!"

"Oh, right. Hey, do you want me to help you with your email or something? I'm not fast but probably faster than you at this point."

Rodney's eyes went a little round. "No, that won't be—look, this is ridiculous. Sit down, and we'll eat dinner. I don't feel like dictating angry smack downs at the moment. I'd much rather just relax and let Carson's painkillers do their job."

John took a deep breath. "Sounds good."

They sat at the desk—Rodney directed John to pull it in front of the bed, and then made him unwrap the sandwiches, chips and cookies. Rodney ate his half-sandwich one-handed, his injured hand gesturing as he spoke about the explosion that caused his injury.

"Hey, do you feel like a movie?" He said out of the blue.

"Uh, sure. What do you have?"

"Um..." Rodney leaned over and typed at his laptop with one-handed for a while, irritatingly slowly, until finally John took it from him. "Hey!"

"Just let me, okay? I promise I won't sneak a peek at any of your porn."

"Oh, you can look all you want. Just don't delete any of it."

John chuckled. He poked around for a bit while Rodney continued to munch on his sandwich. "No way, you have Dune? I've never seen it. Read all the books, though, even the son's."

Rodney dropped the crust he'd been nibbling on. "You've never seen Dune."

"Nope," John said cheerfully.

"Never."

"I think I was doing something that day." Junior high? All John could remember was being terrified that his raging hormones would make him give himself away as a sentinel.

"Priorities," Rodney muttered. "Well, that's it then, we'll have to watch it. Nobody should go through life without experiencing the travesty that is David Lynch's Dune epic. If only for the fiasco of the sandworms and the hotness of Duncan Idaho."

"If you say so, buddy."

"Not to mention Sting, the singer! As Feyd Rautha."

The movie was pretty hilarious, but the best part was watching Rodney's reactions. Well, that, and the sandworms. They were awesome.

"Oh, Patrick Stewart," Rodney said dreamily. He'd made John unscrew his Oreos for him, and was now licking the cream from one of the cookies. "We really should be stoned or something to fully enjoy this experience."

"Uh, hate to break to you, but I'd probably get a contact high just from looking at a joint."

It was obvious from Rodney's dismayed expression he'd momentarily forgotten about John being a sentinel, which on one hand was kind of gratifying, like John had somehow 'passed' by damping down his senses for the evening. On the other hand, though, it was who he was. He couldn't walk around damped. Already he had a headache going from the effort. And what was so bad about being a sentinel, anyway? Or being a guide?

"One time," John said, "I got so drunk on two tablespoons of cough medicine, I almost broke my arm falling off the floor."

"You fell off the floor?"

"Practically. It was pretty funny. It's not all bad, you know, being a sentinel."

Rodney paused the movie just as Feyd was about to get knifed. "I never said it was bad." He frowned at John.

"It's just...watch." John held out his arm and turned up his sensitivity, letting it rise until he could feel the air currents, until he could feel the buzz of the fluorescent lights against his skin, and watched as the hair went up and the skin pebbled on his arm.

He looked up to see Rodney staring at him, mouth open. "That is just so weird."

The words made John start to freeze up, but Rodney reached out and ran his fingertip up John's arm, making him gasp, "Jesus!"

Rodney kept staring at him, and suddenly, John didn't know how, they were kissing, Rodney's palm coming to rest on John's neck, his thumbs brushing against the bones behind John's ears.

Rodney's touch on his skin—John could feel it all the way down in his cock, just the barest brush of Rodney's thumbs against his ears-bones and, oh, John seriously, seriously should have turned his sensitivity back down, because just that, just Rodney's tongue rasping against his and the tips of Rodney's fingers on his neck were almost enough to make him come.

He shuddered hard, and Rodney pushed him down on the bed. John wrapped his legs around Rodney's hips, surging up frantically to get some pressure on his cock, just a little, grinding once, twice, and he choked off his groan, swallowing it back, but was too late, it was already too late. He came in his pants, waves crashing over him.

Rodney pulled away from the kiss and blinked in surprise, saying, "Just from that?"

It was wrong, all wrong, and weird. No matter how hard John tried, this was three times now it had gone weird on him. This wasn't working. Not how Rodney wanted it to. But, God, it was so good.

"Fuck, I'm sorry, just—" Humiliating heat flashed through John's body, flooding his face, making his ears burn. "I tried so damned hard to—damn it." He fumbled to his feet.

Rodney stared at him, his mouth open.

"Look, sorry to leave you hanging, but this isn't going to work," John said, his voice rough. "I'm sorry. I thought I could. But the truth is..." A dry laugh escaped him, because being a sentinel had warped his entire life, had screwed up more than one relationship for the secrets it had forced him to keep, but now he was out, and it was still messing with him. He couldn't just have sex with Rodney. It wasn't enough.

John grimaced. "Really, this time it's not you, it's me, okay?"

Rodney's mouth went thin. "I knew it. I knew you wanted me to be your guide."

John shook his head. That was hardly fair, because he had tried, damn it, but he'd already messed up enough.

"Maybe we can catch another movie sometime," John said, each word stumbling awkwardly from his mouth. "I'd like that. Okay?"

Rodney nodded grudgingly.

John took that as enough of a win, and left.

:::

Well, that was both extremely annoying and a little fascinating, Rodney thought as he lay down to ponder Sheppard's hasty retreat. The humiliation on John's cheeks as he'd scurried out had inspired a sympathetic clench that made Rodney feel a longing to fix it somehow, along with an accompanying resentment, seeing as Carson had explained the source of his emotions. Also, John's retreat made Rodney unsure of where they stood, although that was nothing new.

But, more immediately, John's enthusiastic response to his touch had left Rodney with a more pressing problem that needed addressing. He reached down and palmed his erection through his pants.

He'd always felt he was a more than adequate bed partner, but he had to admit it was quite a rush knowing he'd made John, usually so detached and sardonic, react in such an extraordinary manner, that the mere touch of Rodney's bare fingers on his face and one dirty kiss should make him come in his pants. It was...intriguing.

Rodney could only imagine what he might accomplish if he were really trying. He was a scientist, after all. To have John completely naked and waiting for Rodney's touch—could Rodney make him come just by brushing his fingers over John's nipples, by breathing hot air over the head of his cock, one slick fingertip running over his perineum, or sliding a tongue-tip over—

Rodney groaned and stuffed his hand into his pants. A few rough pulls later and he was coming over his fingers in sweet relief.

Okay, maybe it couldn't possibly work long-term, but the situation had certainly gotten a lot more interesting.

:::

Stupid. So fucking stupid, was all John could think as he headed back to his quarters to clean up. He hadn't been this close to losing it since Nancy, and when it came down to it, he'd lost his nerve with Nancy after all.

He couldn't understand where his control had gone. Thirty-five years he'd trained in it, kept it, honed it. Sure, everything he'd been through lately had tested it, but nothing like combat had, or hell, even the first time he'd flown solo.

But just a week in this place and with these people, with Rodney—it all came back to Rodney—and he was all over the map, zoning out twice, spiking like crazy, and for the first time unable to control basic stuff.

Hell, things had almost been simpler when he'd been on the run. On his own, at least, he didn't have to worry about screwing other people over, even if he was out in the cold.

Outside. Now there was an idea. Now that he was done with in-processing, he was allowed to get the hell out of this place. John went over to his duffel and dug up his wallet and a set of civvies.

:::

Three checkpoints, two phone calls and no less than forty-five minutes later, John was finally free of the Mountain.

Yet another phone call had him waiting for a cab down into Colorado Springs, but at least he was above ground and breathing sky, his skin stretching out in the crisp fall air, wind and tree rustle and small animals and birds drowning out the hum of compressors and fluorescent lights and the EMFs resonating from the base behind him.

John wasn't keen about climbing into a stinky cab after that, and had the guy drop him off at the edge of the city. With no particular plans in mind, John found a small drug store and shopped around for some basics, feeling naked without his duffel or his M90.

Aloe gel worked fine as a sentinel-friendly lube for jerking off. He threw in some candy and a couple of movies—cheesy sci-fi flicks as a peace offering he thought Rodney would get a kick out of—and then he paid and went outside.

He was thinking about hitting a clothing store next—his leather jacket was okay for fall, but with winter coming he'd need good civilian cold weather gear—when he saw a pub on the corner.

It felt like just about forever since John had relaxed with a cold beer.

The inside smelled of sawdust and rust, of sweat and ancient wood and whiskey and stale beer, but it was a good smell, a pub smell, and John smiled and settled himself down at the bar.

He was playing with the coaster in front of him waiting for the bartender to take notice, when the afternoon chatter of the regulars in the place died down suddenly. John raised his head, on alert, and discovered everyone's eyes on him.

He dropped his hand below the bar, but of course his duffel was back at the Mountain.

"You're in the wrong place, mister." The bartender was holding something, a square, black meter of some kind, like something out of Radio Shack. Hell, it was responding to the goddamned chip. 'Doesn't apply to me' had just started applying to him, and John had completely forgotten like a total asshole.

"Guess I'll just leave then," John said, rising slowly, his chest burning with sudden anger.

"It's too late for that," the bartender said. "Already wired the violation to the cops."

"Never seen you 'round here before," one of the regulars said right after, a beefy-looking guy complete with bushy beard and a plaid shirt. "They letting just any freaks cross the city limits?"

John was ready to mouth off about them importing some brains to the area when the bartender responded, "Now none of that, Clark. You let the police take care of this or I'll ban you for a week."

Apparently the threat of no booze at his favorite hang out was enough to shut up the no-neck. John didn't say anything or try to leave, either, figuring he truly deserved whatever they wanted to dish out for being such an idiot. He'd completely forgotten about the sentinel restrictions. His whole life was different now.

Christ, the rest of his entire life. He was lucky he hadn't tried to buy any contraband in the drug store. The most they had him on was just coming in here. The bartender had been kind enough to call him on it before he'd ordered his beer. Although wiring the cops was a little extreme.

John wondered what the hell that was about until he met Sergeant Carl Arnett, a gruff but friendly enough guy with a brown, weathered face, who shook his head and took John outside to lean him against the fender of his squad car.

"Now, what exactly were you thinking there, son?" Arnett said. He'd already pulled out a device from his pocket—a much slicker-looking one than the bartender had—and was waving it below John's waist.

"I was thinking I was thirsty for a beer," John replied, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.

Arnett squinted at him then grimaced down at the readout on the device. "Yep, and you're one of O'Neill's, so I have to wonder if you're plumb crazy, or you just had a bad day and are spoiling to get into trouble."

John clenched his jaw and stared hard at the ground.

"Uh-huh. Well, I have a call to make, so you just sit yourself right there."

Arnett climbed into the car and got on the radio while John looked up at the sky and pondered what a fuck-up he was. It hadn't taken him long to fall from grace, that was for sure. And here he'd been thinking what an improvement his relationship was with his current C.O. At least O'Neill hadn't ordered him assassinated yet.

Not too much later Arnett joined him to wait for whoever would show up from the Mountain.

"Seems to me I haven't seen you around here before."

"Nope. Just came in last week."

"Where were you stationed before?"

"Afghanistan. Pilot."

Arnett's eyebrows went up. "I didn't think they let sentinels fly in combat."

John smiled wryly. "They don't."

"Mmm-hmm." Arnett twirled his hat. "That clarifies matters somewhat."

They watched the sparse traffic pass for a while. It was a clean little city, John had to admit. "How long have you been a police officer?"

"Well on twenty-five years now."

"That long, huh?" John frowned, looking down at Arnett's well-worn shoes and creased uniform belt. "How does rank work in the police force, anyway?"

Arnett gave him a sideways smile. "You telling me you'd still be a officer if you hadn't passed all those years, son?"

John acknowledged the jab with a grimace, and they went back to people watching. A few minutes later a jeep pulled up and, to John's surprise and dismay, General O'Neill hopped out of the passenger seat.

"Oh, shit," John breathed.

Arnett chuckled. "Hello there, General," he called out, pushing himself off the squad car and walking over. "How've you been?"

"Just peachy." O'Neill flicked a narrow look over at John, then smiled warmly at Arnett. "Good to see you, Carl." He held out his hand, and they shook. "I see one of my men has been making a nuisance of himself."

"I reckon he just lost himself on the way to church."

"Is that what happened, Sheppard? You mistook the bar for a confessional?"

John took his cue. "Yes, sir."

"Well, we'll just have to keep him confined to quarters until he's learned the difference," O'Neill said. "Sorry for the trouble, Carl."

"Glad to be of service." Arnett's brown eyes were warm. "You take care now, Major, Jack."

O'Neill gave Arnett a friendly clap and then headed back to the jeep. "Sheppard, you're with me." John climbed into the back, a cold feeling in his stomach. He gave Arnett a wave of thanks before the engine roared to life.

O'Neill didn't speak as they tore down the road, but John thought he probably didn't want to be overheard by the driver, a young, starched-looking Air Force lieutenant. John expected them to head straight back to base, but instead the jeep took them higher up into the mountains and onto a gravel road, until about twenty minutes later they pulled up in front of a neatly trimmed A-frame. The engine shut off, and John's jangled senses hummed in the sudden silence.

"This is our stop," O'Neill said. "Thanks, Lieutenant. Be back tomorrow at oh-eight hundred."

"Yes, sir."

Confused, John followed O'Neill up the gravel path to the front door of the cabin, where he pulled out a set of keys and let them in.

"So," O'Neill said as he shut the door behind them, "you want to tell me what was in your fool head pulling that stunt? Or do you need a beer, first?"

John blinked, but hell. "Beer, thanks."

He could swear O'Neill face wanted to smile or something, but he just turned and headed toward what turned out to be a kitchen.

John admired the small, tidy cabin. "This your place?"

"Yep." O'Neill cracked open a couple of beers and handed him one.

John accepted it and took a swig. God, that tasted good. He was lucky he could handle this much, that in spite of the fucked up senses he could deal with a nice cold beer, although not much more than one. "Thanks," he said sincerely.

O'Neill grunted and waved him down a couple of stairs to a den area. "Have a seat."

"And to answer your question, I wasn't. Thinking, that is. I forgot."

Brown eyes leveled at him over lip of the bottle. "You...forgot."

"Yeah."

"Son, you trying to make the Air Force look stupid?"

John clenched his jaw. "Not trying real hard, no." He fought down his embarrassment. "I've never been out before, and I'm sorry, sir. But I forgot about all the damned rules that never applied to me before."

The dimple in O'Neill's cheek grew more pronounced. "So, you're a mite spoiled, is what you're saying."

"If by spoiled you mean I was momentarily under the impression I had rights, then yeah—"

O'Neill's expression hardened. "You preaching to the converted, Sheppard? 'Cause if you are, it's a damned waste. All I'm saying is, you've had it easy compared to some up 'til now." O'Neill leaned back and stared at him thoughtfully. "But I know what you're going through. I was sitting right where you are just a few years ago, and I won't deny it sucks. But you'll get the hang of it." He nodded. "Just, you know, come talk to me or Kawalsky when it gets to be a problem."

John scraped his thumbnail against the label on his bottle. "And you'll do what, sir?"

"Thought I told you to can the 'sir'. While we're off-duty, you can try calling me 'Jack.'"

O'Neill was, without a doubt, the weirdest C.O. John had ever had. "You can't change the world outside, Jack."

"Naw. But I can buy you a beer when you need it. Say, do you fish?"

:::

Jack was a liar—there were no damned fish in this pond of his, and he'd forced another two beers on John, which was one past his usual limit. John was wearing an old field jacket of Jack's and was propped up in a patio chair holding a useless fishing rod.

The surface of the water stirred with the wind, but John didn't hear the sound of any life beneath the surface.

"No fish," John got out slowly. "You big liar."

"Peaceful though, ain't it?"

"Yeah. 'S nice."

"So." There was a creak as Jack leaned back in his seat and stretched his long legs out in front of him. "What got you in a bother today, anyway?"

John shot Jack a wary glance, but got a bland look in response. And hell, maybe Jack had gone through the same thing when he'd first come clean, which was a few years back according to him.

Rubbing the back of his neck so he could hide behind his arm, John mumbled, "Been having some trouble since I met someone. Things are more intense lately. Can't...do it like normal."

"Like normal." Jack frowned. "'It. You mean..." He chuffed a soft laugh. "Oh, I get you. Normal. And you want to?"

John glared.

"Strike that. I take it back. This...person you're talking about, I take it they're a guide?"

"Yeah. He's not my guide, though. He doesn't want to be." John stared down at his empty beer bottle. Oh, he shouldn't have had that third beer; he was being a regular old blabbermouth. "He doesn't have to be—no law about that. It's a pretty thankless job, anyway, from what I hear." He ignored the smirk slowly growing on Jack's face. "'S got no obligation, you know."

"Riiiight. I hear ya. No obligation. Thankless."

John scowled. "Especially if I shoot off like a damned thirteen year-old."

Jack blinked.

"Oh, crap." John slapped a hand over his face.

"Now, that, my friend, was just a little too much information."

"Fuck, yeah."

"On the other hand," Jack winced and rubbed his chin, "You're drunk, so hopefully you'll forget this conversation."

"I'll try my damnedest," John swore faithfully.

"That being said, I'll tell you—this is your first time having a guide, so," Jack shrugged, "it's no big surprise. Your senses will adapt, you'll learn a little control—no big deal."

John narrowed his eyes. "You sure?"

"Sheppard. Would I lie?"

"I don't know—you lied about the fish."

Jack rolled his eyes. "Not about this. He's your guide for sure, though. That's how you know—when you turn into a two-pump chump." Jack laughed at John's expression and made him drink some water. It was good, fresh from the pump, Jack said, and it was ice-cold and tasted of minerals but nothing else. John drank two glasses and his head started swimming, so he didn't protest too much when Jack made him go up to the cabin and dumped him on the couch to get some sleep.

He thought about what Jack had said, other things he'd imparted as he dropped a pillow and rough blanket on him, about his senses adapting eventually and that it might help if he tried to damp it down a little going in.

Maybe it was the beer talking, or maybe it was that Jack had been right where he was at one point, but John believed him, which was a real load off. John didn't want to be some two-pump chump the rest of his life, not that it mattered, because Rodney didn't want to be his guide. So they couldn't have sex anyway.

John groaned and let the swimming room rock him to sleep.

:::

Rodney, to his dismay, discovered Sheppard had somehow managed to make himself scarce, because Rodney didn't see him at all that evening or the next day, in spite of Rodney's hand still being painful and useless. He'd really expected John to show up and keep him amused since he was also on the disabled list.

There was still no sign of him at breakfast, and Rodney amused himself by researching sentinel sexuality, or what little literature was available on the subject. By lunchtime Rodney had jerked off to the limits of his libido and was bored out of his mind and starting to suspect Sheppard was too embarrassed for them to be friends, even.

Obviously, steps had to be taken.

If Rodney was perhaps feeling a little anxious and willing to throw his weight around to ameliorate that situation, so be it.

He found Sam, as usual, hogging cycles in the lab, her blond head bent over two laptops and some ancient tome she'd probably stolen from Jackson. Rodney felt strangely hesitant approaching her, though—this wasn't the realm of science but that other thing, the area where she so readily excelled: people.

But he had to shove down his pride and talk to her, because Colonel Carter was a lot of things: smugly smart, annoyingly beautiful, and a goody two-shoes to boot, but she was also a guide. Well, half of one, anyway—the general's back-up guide, a strange situation that had arisen after Dr. Jackson had died and Ascended and left the general without anyone to guide him.

She bore his meandering preamble with patience, her eyebrows perked up alertly, until finally Rodney got tired of his own fiddle-faddling and got to the point.

"Sheppard wants me to be his guide."

Carter blinked. To her credit, she didn't burst into hysterical laughter, but she did bite the corner of her lip. "Well, that's...good for you, Rodney."

Rodney scowled at her, then at his hands, as he settled on a stool at the lab table.

"I didn't say I was planning on accepting."

She raised her eyebrows.

"Yes, yes, tremendous honor, blah blah—"

"Oh, I don't know if I'd call it that." She looked amused.

"Exactly!" He pointed at her.

"I guess I'd call it..." She gazed up at the ceiling, then shrugged. "No, maybe honor was right."

Rodney sighed explosively. "It's just that...I don't know if I can do it! I'm an extremely competent individual, obviously, but it's not about competency." Oh, dear, that wasn't what he'd meant to talk to her about at all. But Carter was looking at him attentively, so he found himself continuing. "Medicine is a very tricky business, you see, and I'm not a medical doctor, not that that seems to be a job requirement. Nor does it even appear to take much intelligence—" he backpedaled, "Oh, I'm not talking about you, Colonel, stop glaring. It's just...my primary concern is...beyond the obviously wretched time-sink such a duty would represent...have you ever had to—have you ever screwed up with O'Neill's senses? Isn't that ridiculously dangerous...how could you possibly deal with the repercussions if you made an error?"

Carter frowned. "You're seriously considering it."

Was he? He was, he realized, or at least he wanted the information. He always wanted information, and so he nodded.

Her eyes softened. "I won't tell you it's not a terrifying position to be in," she said, and there was a quality to her voice that raised the hair on the back of Rodney's neck. "Or that I didn't have second thoughts; hell, third thoughts—if there were anyone else around who could do it, I would have pawned it off in a heartbeat. I didn't want to be making the decisions that could mean Jack's life or death." She ran her fingers through her short hair and stared at Rodney intently. "This one time, Rodney, we were off-world without access to the gate, and Jack had a serious incident, a case of Hyperactive Toxicity Syndrome, and I couldn't remember the combative therapy—my mind went completely, terrifyingly empty. I couldn't think. I was looking down at the little zippered case, at all the tiny syringes, and all I could think was, Jack is dying, Jack is dying and it's all my fault. God."

Rodney shivered. "Wha-what did you do?"

She shrugged. "I tore through the stupid pamphlet and gave it my best shot. Whatever it was worked just enough long enough for him to get control back. He started breathing on his own again. Eventually, Teal'c got back to the gate and returned with a med team. Afterward, I told Jack I couldn't do it anymore, couldn't have his life in my hands like that." Sam gave a rueful laugh. "You know what he said to me? He said it wasn't to begin with. He said sometimes his body was the enemy, and he needed me to fight it along with him, that's all."

Leaning over the lab table, Sam stared at him urgently. "I thought about it, and decided he was ultimately right. This is too big for you to hold onto, Rodney. You can't think about it like John's life is in your hands, because it isn't. Just ask him what he thinks, and I'm sure he'll tell you the same as Jack." She patted Rodney's wrist. "All he's asking for is a little help. A voice to hold onto. Someone to make it easier when things get bad. If something does go wrong, he'd be the last person to blame you."

Maybe that was true, but Rodney thought if it really was about interactions, about syringes and solutions and minute traces of this or that, signs and symptoms and reactions and a pamphlet to memorize, well, it might be medicine, the least scientific of the physical sciences, but it was science nonetheless.

Rodney was good at science.

Maybe he could figure this out, after all. Not that he was certain he was willing to, but perhaps it wasn't as terrifying as it had seemed.

"Thanks, Carter," he said gruffly. "You've been...helpful."

She nodded seriously, saying, "You won't tell anyone I helped you?"

"Not a soul."

"Terrific."

"While we're on the subject of favors, though, I have another small one to ask..."

:::

"Major? Major!"

John held up and waited for Colonel Kawalsky to catch up to him. He stood at attention just in case—except for the debrief on the Reetou, he hadn't seen the colonel much since his first day of in-processing. It probably wasn't a good sign he was flagging John down outside the mess.

Kawalsky didn't seem pissed, though. "You about to head into lunch?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, after that—Colonel Carter put in a request, so General O'Neill has you on lab duty."

"Lab duty, sir?"

Kawalsky grinned. "Oh, it's not bad. You just have to hang out with the scientists and do what they tell you."

"And that's not bad?"

"Well, sometimes you get to blow shit up." Kawalsky smirked and started to head off, throwing over his shoulder, "Report to SL-3032. Dr. McKay will be waiting for you in the storage area."

John stared after him, wondering what the hell Jack was up to, assigning him to McKay.

Suddenly lunch didn't sound so appealing. John decided to skip it and head on down to SL-30. In the elevator, he did a full body check and set his levels to below normal, then locked them down hard.

This time he would not fuck up.

:::

Hampered by his freshly wrapped hand, Rodney waited impatiently for Sheppard in the old lab. Rodney was looking forward to seeing how Sheppard interacted with Ancient technology, considering Carson, though fascinated by the concept, was nearly useless in that regard, and the general quite irrationally refused to work with Rodney in the labs ever since the Ancient "laser pointer" incident.

Honestly, science implied a certain factor of uncertainty. Anyone knew that.

Even more, though, he was looking forward to confronting John about this whole mess that was the current state of their affair.

"Hey, McKay." Sheppard hovered by the doorway. It was dim in the old lab, which was lit by a single flickering florescent mounted in the ceiling, so Rodney couldn't easily read John's expression. From his tone of voice Rodney gathered he'd rather be anywhere but here, which was hardly gratifying to the ego, especially considering their previous encounter.

Rodney decided to play it cool. "Good of you to show up, Major. I've been bored out of my skull, you realize—" he put down his coffee cup and waved his useless hand, "—seeing as you left me to the wolves all day yesterday."

John squinted at him distrustfully as he stepped into the room. "Hey, now—"

"I'm sure you had your reasons, stupid as they were."

Leaning against the wall by the door, John crossed his arms and opened his mouth, but Rodney was having none of it. "I've been giving it a lot of thought, not having much else to do with my hand in the state it's in, and I've come to the realization you are a no-good foul-weather friend who's only—."

"Well, I was kind of busy getting arrested."

"—interested in, what? Arrested? Oh, you are kidding."

"Nope." John leaned forward. "See, that's what they do when you order a beer wearing one of these chips. Who knew?"

"Ah. I guess they should include a pamphlet."

"Guess so, yeah."

An uncomfortable silence descended between them, until Rodney remembered he was pissed. "Well, if you hadn't left me on the lurch, that wouldn't have happened."

John ducked his head and rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, so listen," he mumbled. "That was my bad."

"Mmm-hmm."

"I just didn't realize—until it was laid out for me—how the guide thing, uh...really worked." John's voice went nearly inaudible. "With sex, I mean."

"Oh, um." Rodney cleared his throat. "You mean, all that—" He didn't mention the painstaking research he'd done after John had left, or how preoccupied he'd become all evening with fantasizing about it, because John looked nearly apoplectic.

"So, I'm kind of stuck, because you don't want to be my guide—not that I need one," John hastened to assure him.

"Right, right," Rodney said.

"But, there it is." John shrugged helplessly.

Rodney didn't know where that left them, except he had a hard-on again. "I guess we should get to work, then."

"Right!" John pointed at him.

"The storage room is over there," Rodney said, gesturing. "Pull out the first crate and let's get to it."

John smiled in relief and did as he was told, and set the open crate on the bench beside the lab table. Rodney pulled his clipboard from his pack—a man of his intellect reduced to pencil and graph paper, seriously—and lifted the first item gingerly from the top of the pile then scribbled down the lot number.

"All right, Major. Have at it."

Sheppard scratched one hand up the nape of his neck. "What exactly do you want me to do?"

"Lay hands on it. Meditate. I haven't the foggiest—the general and Carson are the only ones with the gene around here, and Carson gets the heebie-jeebies around artifacts that rely on the ATA. But the general says he touches it and thinks 'on' at it. That should put it in stand-by mode, and then you should get a feel for what its purpose is."

John squinted at him dubiously. "Get a feel."

Rodney gestured impatiently.

With a shrug, John picked up the widget—which looked like nothing so much as an old punch-style label maker with a wheel and a pistol-grip—and closed his eyes. A moment later a blue light flickered around the wheel for a moment before steadying into a glow.

John's eyes blinked open and his lips lifted into a disbelieving grin.

"What?" Rodney suppressed a slight glimmer of envy. "What is it?"

"It tickles."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'll be sure to include that in my analysis. And...? What is its purpose?"

"I haven't the foggiest." John closed his eyes again, this time frowning hard in concentration. After a few long seconds, the glow brightened and the wheel began spinning rapidly with a faint whisper. John's jaw dropped open, and then he shook his head in disbelief, and the wheel slowed to a stop.

"Well, this may sound stupid," he said, "but I think it's a shoe polisher."

"You're kidding."

"I wish I was." John put it down on the table, and the light blinked off.

"No, wait—I need a power reading." Rodney grinned and went for his Ohmmeter. Well, actually it was a hell of a lot more sophisticated, but Carter had called it that after helping him cobble it together, and the name had stuck. Damn it. "And, actually, I'm not disappointed at all—we need a strong power source from a useless device—the more useless the better."

John's expression brightened. "Really? Cool. 'Cause I can't think of anything more useless than a ten thousand year-old shoe polisher."

It turned out he was wrong.

The power supply from shoe polisher was far too weak to drive the shield disruptor. So was the pill dispenser, the cup warmer, and the automatic hair-styler, although that one was more than a little fascinating in that it had an actual holographic display showing Ancients as models, so Rodney set it aside to show it to Jackson later. The dehumidifier came close in terms of watts but not in voltage.

Then they hit the one that looked like a personal hand-held fan, but most certainly was not, which they discovered John thought 'on' a little too energetically.

"What the fu—" John jerked back as it buzzed into the air and seemed to take a pass at his head. It hovered over him like a humming bird, then dipped suddenly.

Zwip!

"Shit!"

A lock of John's hair fell onto the table.

"Fucker just chopped my hair! Off! Off!"

"I think you have to be touching it." Rodney retreated toward the door.

John was backing away too, one arm warding over his head. "Hell, no! It'll cut my finger off."

"I think it's just after that haystack you call your hair."

John flashed him a glare. "Oh, fuck yo—" Zwip! There went another thick lock. "God damn it!" Flicking a hand out, John snatched the thing straight out of the air. Rodney had to admire his reflexes and courage—or stupidity—because the blades on the thing looked pretty damned sharp. But John had caught it right on its silver, bullet-shaped body and held it tightly, staring at it.

"Oh, you are kidding me." John looked over at Rodney.

"What?"

"It's a hedge trimmer," John said with disgust.

Rodney started laughing. After a while—and after threatening to sic it on him, John snickered too and held the thing down on the table for Rodney to test it. He didn't seem at all alarmed about the loss of his hair, which—well, Rodney supposed it was all well and good when one had enough to spare.

The thought wasn't bitter at all.

The other two devices in the crate turned out to be completely dead, no matter how much John squiggled his eyebrows at them.

"Okay, next box," Rodney said. John clapped his hands together and went over to the closet.

"There's more than two crates in here, but it's too dark to see if they're marked; also, there's this giant treadmill thing. Hey, that's bound to have enough power, right?"

"What giant thing?" Rodney heard John shifting crates and stepped into the storage room to investigate. He almost tripped right into whatever John was talking about, and took a step up, steadying himself on the plastic-wrapped handlebars. Curious, he shifted his grip until his fingertips touched oddly smooth material. John was on the other side shifting crates around and pushing them toward the doorway.

Then he stepped up and faced Rodney, saying, "So, I think we should start with this one, since it's the biggest," and placed his hands on the curved bars.

Everything went nuts. For a moment the store room brightened, and Rodney was terrified to see his own face staring back at him, eyes wide and mouth gaping open, and the details were incredibly crisp—the lashes on his eyelids, the crinkles of color in his irises, and the very air seemed to hum with sound and vibration. And then a moment later, like a tipping slide, the light brightened into a flare of white, and his skin was on fire, and he stumbled backward with a moan that roared in his ears, that turned into a rush of noise like thunder, a pounding that rattled through him. He curled down onto the floor and clutched at his head but it didn't make any difference—everything was too loud and bright, flashes against his eyelids—he slapped his palms over his eyes, but there was something wrong with his hands, the palms were calloused, his fingers were too long, and the skin itched and burned on his chest and neck.

He groaned and clawed at the pain.

"Rodney! Rodney," he heard John say quietly, only the voice was wrong—that was his own voice. Yet it was right somehow, too—it broke through the thunder in his skull, soft and insistent. He felt John take his hand and press it against him. "Rodney, listen to me."

"John," Rodney said, then groaned. His voice was creaky and strange. He sounded like John. Christ, he was in John's body. They'd switched somehow and now he was the sentinel.

"Yeah, I know, it's weird for me, too. But you're worse off right now, and I need you to listen to me, because you're spiking pretty bad. So listen to me, listen to my voice. Feel my heartbeat, okay? Concentrate."

Impossible. Rodney couldn't concentrate, couldn’t feel anything but pain and more pain, and his own sweat filled his nostrils like a stinking cloud, and he couldn't hear anything but a thousand sounds, clicks and whirs and whooshes and thumps and clunks all meshing together into one giant wash of noises overwhelming him—

"Rodney, it's all right. It's going to be all right. Just listen to my voice. The sound of my voice...um. I'll just talk." John's hand squeezed his. "This was fun, you know? The Ancient stuff. Working with you. You're a smart guy, you know that? And...and..." John trailed off.

Rodney groaned.

"Okay, okay. We should watch another movie tonight. Maybe a marathon, all the Batman movies, and finish up with the Dark Knight. I have all the comics. I always thought he retired because of the second Robin dying, because he couldn't take it, you know? He needed his buddy. When I was a kid, I thought, well, I've never had a guide and I told myself I didn't need one, I could handle it, but it's hard. It's really hard. That's the truth. And not because of the senses. That's not why, Rodney. And it's been great having you around lately, so, I know whatever I did was weird—is this helping? I can shut up if this isn't helping—"

Rodney squeezed his hand hard, because he could breathe, he'd started to breathe freely again. The band around his throat, the fire burning the skin of his chest had eased.

"Okay, good. That's good. So, can you feel my heartbeat? Feel this." John pressed harder against the back of Rodney's hand, and Rodney could feel it, the fast pounding against his palm—John's heartbeat. "Now see if you can hear it. Listen to my heart."

Rodney listened, listened hard as it slowed, and felt his own heartbeat slow, felt himself relaxing into John's embrace.

"That's it—you got it now. Step one, feel for your sound dial. It's way too high. Turn it down so my voice is the baseline. Everything else should be quieter. Filter everything else out."

"You're talking moon talk," Rodney whispered, but his voice didn't rasp in his ears like before, didn't shred at his brain.

John laughed softly. "Yeah, but it works, right? All right. I'm going to radio for help."

"No!" Rodney grabbed at him, but John was already letting go.

"Sorry. Have to. We need to get help with this. It's nuts."

"Just put me back on the machine and let's switch back." Except now that he could think a memory was surfacing—Daniel Jackson and the infamous inventor of Goa'uld weaponry who had stolen his body for a brief time, and then Teal'c and O'Neill had ended up changing bodies as well, and the whole mission report had been filed NTK, but that had never stopped Rodney in the past. "Crap. It’s the Ma'chello Device. Yeah, you'd better call in Sam." He tried to open his eyes but light speared through his skull, and he cried out.

"Hey! Hey, just relax, okay?" John said, his hand warm and comforting as it once again pressed Rodney's against his chest. Then John got on the radio and called in the cavalry, and Rodney just focused on not letting his brain explode.

:::

John felt like a fucking moron four times over, even inhabiting Rodney's smarter brain, when he called Carter for help and O'Neill, Jackson and Teal'c showed up in train. Especially when Teal'c carefully maneuvered the device out of the storeroom into the lab and John saw it was gaily wrapped in garish yellow tape labeled "WARNING: DO NOT TOUCH!" on almost every exposed inch.

Unfortunately, not every inch.

"All right—how did you not see that?" Jack said, managing to sound both amused and annoyed.

"See what, sir?" John said, figuring it was worth a try.

"Oh, hello! Funny. I'm referring to the yellow warning tape there, sentinel."

John grimaced. It felt weird with Rodney's face. "I might've had my senses tamped way down. Piece of advice someone gave me."

"Mmm-hmm." Jack eyed John as if he wanted to zat him for the laughs.

Carter gave him a sympathetic look. "It is awful dark in there, sir. And he was effectively off-duty."

"Stop making excuses for him, Carter. I can spank him all I want. You do realize we're going to have to do the multi-body tango, here? And that I'm going to have to be in Rodney McKay for a little while? Unless you're volunteering."

Carter's face did something indescribable.

"I thought not," Jack said smugly.

"Wait, so there's a way to switch back?"

"Keep up, Sheppard. Yes, there's a way, but you can't switch back directly—you have to do a little dance." Jack motioned with his fingers, two with each hand. What do you think, Carter?"

"Well, sir, first, Daniel and you should swap—"

"Hooray," Jackson said with deadpan enthusiasm.

"—then you should go into Daniel, Major, so Rodney can stay immobile while we get everything set up, then transfer him into Jack. Try to set your senses low from the start, sir."

"It didn't help," John said glumly. "He spiked right away."

Jack bobbed his head. "Yeah, the transfer is a little rough as I recall. Teal'c almost chipped my tooth. Of course, he had the whole kelnoreem thing going for him."

"The what, now?"

Jack waved. "It's a meditation thing. Calmed him right the hell down." Jack nodded at Teal'c.

"It did," Teal'c said. "Perhaps you also might benefit, Major Sheppard."

"Yeah, no. Meditation makes my knees hurt."

"Me, too!" Jack grinned. "I'm always saying."

"Excuse me!" Rodney croaked using John's voice, "Could we please get on with this farce?"

"Right!" Jack clapped his hands. "First up, you and me, Danny. We've done this before."

"And what a joy it was, Jack."

They both took their places on the machine and lifted their hands at the same moment. For once, O'Neill's face was serious, and he nodded at Jackson before placing his hands on the curved bar. Jackson followed.

It only took a second. Almost immediately, O'Neill's body stiffened, his face twisting, and Jackson rushed around to help him off the device.

Except that was Jack in there, John realized.

"Okay. You're all right, Danny. You remember the drill."

John felt a keen pang of envy at the way Jackson nodded and seemed to relax trustingly in O'Neill's hold, his face smoothing, hands holding on tight. Rodney had been almost hysterical; in fact, he was still almost catatonic with pain and fear, just waiting the whole thing out, it seemed.

"All right, Sheppard. We're up," O'Neill said in Jackson's voice—amazing how easy it was to tell who it was in there—and John nodded and stepped up to the treadmill.

:::

Rodney was in hell, no two ways about it. As soon as he lost contact with John—with John-as-him, as it were—he felt his senses start to swing wildly out of control again, and he shut his eyes tightly and listened to the sound of his own voice as John said, "Here goes nothing...whoa. Okay, yow. Hey, Carter. Guess we're finally seeing eye to eye, huh?"

If Rodney weren't already fighting nausea, that would have done it. But in spite of the words, when O'Neill in his body came over and put his hand on Rodney's shoulder, saying, "Hang in there just a few more minutes, McKay," he still calmed almost immediately at the touch and voice.

"All right, let's get him up," O'Neill said, and he and Jackson helped Rodney to his feet. "Now you get to be me. It'll be a real treat for you. I get all the babes."

"I hear you've got crappy knees," Rodney said, wheezing against the tightness in his chest.

"Yeah, that's what brings them panting, the way I hobble around."

Rodney could hear the concern beneath the jovial tone, and he hurried as best he could, lifting his foot on command and stepping up onto the device. He held on tight, his eyes clenched closed, and felt the machine hum through him painfully. An instant later the bars under his hands shifted slightly, and his knee hurt, all right, but his chest felt better.

And then whatever balance he felt was knocked away by the sheer volume of sound—too damned much, all massing into a sudden spike of pain in his head.

"Jesus Christ," he gasped. "What the hell?" He moaned and started to sag, but someone's arms caught him—his own voice in his ear saying, "It's okay; I've got you."

But it didn't help. It was just more noise, and Rodney shivered against the sensation, pushing away. "No, God."

"I'm here too, buddy." It was Jackson. No, not Jackson.

"John?"

"Yeah. We switched. Just hang in there for a few more seconds, okay?" John touched his shoulder, and just the sense of him there, the sound of his heartbeat, helped soothe the pounding in Rodney's brain. The pure torment. The inexplicable, ridiculously excruciating torture—how and why, why did these people put up with this? To what possible purpose? How did they function?

But he knew the answer to that, because already Rodney felt his senses calming down, and when John said, "Okay, O'Neill's getting on the device. Can you stand on your own and put your hands on the bars when I say so?" Rodney nodded, because that presence, that voice—it made it possible. Made it possible to focus enough, so when John said, "All right, this is it—now, Rodney," he could.

And he did.

When he opened his eyes, everything had changed. He was back in his own skin, and the light was normal, easy on his eyes, and the air wasn't shards in his lungs, and his skin didn't burn, and there was no thunder in his brain, just quiet, and he was staring across at Jack O'Neill, whose face was set in a tight grimace.

John-as-Jackson was at his side, talking to him softly, and Rodney tried hard not to feel a pang at that. Because of course John wanted to help. Of course.

But as John spoke to O'Neill, he looked up, and his eyes met Rodney's, and he gave a lopsided smile in happy relief, in reassurance, before nodding over to the right.

Rodney turned his head and saw—oh. Jackson was still trapped in John's body, his head hanging down, fists clenched at his side.

It wasn't until that moment that Rodney really understood.

He gathered himself and went over to the sentinel.

"I'm here, Jackson. Just listen to my voice, all right? It's almost over."

:::

Carson wasn't happy with any of them, but since John was the one with the lingering wheeze and the rash that had flared up on his chest, Rodney was the one who got yelled at, thank you very much.

"Third visit! This is your third visit in almost as many days, for the both of you!"

"I know, I know." Rodney couldn't help craning his head around, trying to see past Carson's shoulders. "Is he—did I mess him up?"

"I'm fine, Rodney," John mumbled.

"Oh, he's super," Carson griped.

"And...and Jackson and O'Neill?" Rodney asked, feeling very much like he was poking the bear.

"Oh, they're all right. I've already sent them on their way. It's this one who's overdone the stress reactions in the past ten days, and you were supposed to ease off using that hand of yours, if I recall correctly—which I always do."

"We weren't trying to do anything! A little bit of cataloguing, that's all."

"It's not his fault, Doc—"

"Well, we'll see how much trouble you can get into confined to quarters for the next three days."

"Oh, God." John groaned. "I can't. I'll go stir crazy."

Rodney echoed the sentiment, only silently.

"I'm absolutely serious," Carson said firmly. "I'm going to put you both under orders. See that you heed them." He went turned toward the cart and dipped a pad of gauze in a bowl of something. "I'm going to wipe you down with a finely diluted cortisone and aloe solution, Major. I hate to go to extremes but we need to nip this reaction in the bud."

"Whatever you say, Doc."

"Hmmph."

Carson had moved enough that Rodney could finally see John's face. John's eyes were closed, but he turned his head and opened them. When he saw Rodney looking, his expression went blank, then twisted guiltily.

Rodney sighed and stared down at his freshly bandaged hand.

"There. That should do the trick, but use the inhaler, and I'll have you back here tomorrow and no arguing," Carson said. "That goes for you as well, Rodney."

"Yes, Carson."

"Yes, Carson."

Carson faced them both and nodded smugly.

"Well, get on with you. To your quarters, and rest. No typing," Carson pointed at Rodney, "and shower and put on some clean clothes." This was directed at John.

"Jesus Christ," John said after they'd traveled a safe distance down the hallway. "I guess my mom is out of a job."

Rodney stifled a laugh.

"You still bunking in the same quarters?" John asked as they got in the elevator.

"Yes."

John hit the button for level fourteen and leaned against the wall of the elevator.

Rodney stole a glance over and felt his mood sink at how inscrutable John appeared. Words hung in Rodney's throat—everything they'd been through that day, everything he'd learned, felt distant now, the intimacy washed away by the later interference of the corpsmen and Carson's brusque yet kindly ministrations.

Everything tidied up and put away.

But then Rodney remembered the look on John's face in the infirmary—not so inscrutable.

"It's going to be a ridiculously boring three days."

John nodded and pushed away from the wall a little before settling back.

"Feel like watching a movie tonight? You did mention you haven't seen Outland."

John's lips curved. "Another classic I missed."

"Oh, yes."

The doors opened and John ushered him out.

"Well, you better edurcate me then."

:::

John knew he'd screwed up. In fact, his fuck-ups had reached epic numbers at this point. He was running out of fingers. First, coming on to Rodney to begin with when he'd never done it with a real guide before. Followed by trying not to come on to Rodney and doing it anyway.

Then turning his senses down when—turned out—he really could've goddamned used them.

He'd put Rodney through hell. He'd made the base commander humiliate himself and his guide by playing musical chairs with three other bodies, he'd made the general's guide suffer sensory spikes, although Jackson seemed to handle it a lot better than Rodney, having been through it once before.

All in all, though, not a stellar first couple of weeks for Major Sheppard, newly reinstated to his service and rank.

Not a great performance as a friend, either, for John. He got the feeling this was his very last chance to try to fix that. So after his shower, he threw on some civvies, set his levels carefully, took a deep breath, and went and knocked on Rodney's door.

"Hey! Hi." Rodney answered looking flushed, his blue eyes bright with something John couldn't identify.

John smiled carefully. "How're you doing, buddy?"

"Oh, I'm good, good. Feeling much more myself," Rodney said, a slanted grin on his face, and John huffed out an involuntary laugh, grateful Rodney could even joke about it a little.

"Christ, I'm sorry about that," he blurted, glad to get it out of the way. "I didn't even see the warnings—"

"Well, yes. Idiotic, really, but everyone is allowed to make at least one catastrophic error with alien technology within their first month."

"What, seriously?"

Rodney rolled his eyes in answer.

"So, don't do it again is what you're saying."

"Exactly." Rodney waved him toward the viewing set-up, where he'd placed his laptop on the side table next to the bed. "So, we can watch like this or, I thought, if you'd be more comfortable..." he broke off and fidgeted.

"What?" John prompted after a few seconds.

"Okay. All right, so, today was unusual—not that every day isn't, around here, but more than most, because it certainly was eye opening, if nothing else. But the thing I don't understand—because being in your body certain didn't give me any sort of backdoor to your brain, and you really define inscrutable—"

"Hey. Whoa, slow down just a second," John said, because Rodney was starting to look downright flustered. "Whatever it is, it'll be all right, okay, buddy?"

Rodney looked up, his eyes wide. "You said that to me. And it was."

It took a few seconds, but then John got it. "You mean when I was you and you were me."

Nodding, Rodney smiled uncertainly, but then he shook his head and flip-flopped his hands. "And, the other, when Jackson and O'Neill..."

"Okay..." John sort of understood where Rodney was going with this. "You're talking about the guide thing."

"Yes. I think I understand it now. God, I really had no clue at all, the power a guide has—but that's neither here nor there—"

John's head was starting to spin like an unbalanced rotor. "And, so?" Wait, did that mean Rodney possibly wanted to be his guide after all? But what did he mean by power?

"You—before this all happened, you said, after the movie that time—well, of course, there were hormones and pheromones and God knows what else involved, so what can we really trust, but you seemed to imply that beyond all that, there was a certain, uh..." Rodney frowned and seemed to run out of steam.

A little crease formed between Rodney's eyebrows, the same one that had made an appearance the first day in the coffee shop when he'd thought John was only pretending to flirt with him in order to make fun; the one that had disappeared when John congratulated him that time for shooting the invisible alien.

"Hey," John said, taking a step closer. "This isn't just the guide thing. What—Jesus, Rodney, you have to know it's gone way beyond that."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Hell, yeah, Rodney." John brushed his fingers over Rodney's arm, watched his eyes close momentarily, and had to fight to control his dials. "Do you—does this mean you want to—because I want to, I really, but I can't, seriously, I've tried—" And John wasn't going to say it, because it was fucking humiliating, but he couldn't do it like normal people. Not with Rodney. "I can't, unless you're okay with—"

Rodney raised his chin. "Well, yes, actually. I think I'd be pretty damned good at it, too."

John felt himself flush. "At what?"

"Being your guide—in fact, I don't know how you did without me, frankly. You're obviously in dire need of my skills."

"Now wait just a damned minute—"

"Seriously, John, I can't believe you'd consider doing without one. Not to mention, do you have any idea the potential you've been wasting all these years? It's unconscionable, really." Rodney licked his lower lip and stared up at him, eyes gleaming. "Plus, there’s…well, the rest. The things I could do to you, the ideas I have." He grinned suddenly, a wicked grin. "I've been giving it a lot of CPU cycles lately. You have no concept what I'm capable of making you feel."

John swallowed hard. Rodney was saying yes to all of it. Rodney wanted to be his guide.

"I guess I'll find out," John said. Maybe part of him, yeah, was seriously worried about going off like a teenager as soon as they kissed, but most of him just wanted it—wanted this—Rodney kissing him, strong and warm and gasping open against his lips, fingers digging into the muscles of John's back.

God, he'd wanted this. He felt his senses surging at the dials, his blood throbbing in his temples, and every breath surrounded him with Rodney's taste in his mouth, his nose and throat; Rodney's arousal a hum in his ears, the tingling flush of blood filling the capillaries of his lips as John kissed Rodney hard, sucking his tongue into his mouth.

John pulled back with a gasp, trying desperately to hold onto his tenuous control.

"Oh, no you don't," Rodney said.

"Wha—" John stumbled as Rodney starting shoving his T-shirt over his head.

"See, I have this theory...well, backed up by what research I could gather, although information on sentinel sexuality is remarkably hazy," Rodney said accusingly, "but it's obvious you don't know nearly as much as I do on the subject, which is appalling, considering you are the sentinel in this room."

"Rodney—" John said warningly when Rodney tugged open his belt. He was pretty sure he'd lose it as soon as Rodney touched him.

Rodney raised his hands. "All right, all right. You get undressed while I get rid of the entertainment center."

By the time John had struggled out of his boots and was down to his boxers and socks, Rodney had cleared away the laptop and table and was himself stripped down to a T-shirt and boxers. He eyed John uncertainly from the other side of the bed, and this John understood—he immediately went over and kissed Rodney again before pulling up his shirt. John was rewarded by the smell of fresh laundry detergent and unscented soap—Rodney must have showered as well.

"Your hair is wet," Rodney commented on the same track, and then he ran his fingers through John's hair, making his scalp tingle.

"Showered," John said, closing his eyes.

"Excellent," Rodney said, and pushed John's boxers off. "So, listen, I've got a plan." The cooler air brushed over John's groin, over the head of cock, and he shivered in reaction, nipples pulling tight. He was close to losing his fragile hold on his controls.

"Rodney..." he said, and thankfully Rodney didn't touch him anywhere but on his shoulders, turning him and pushing him toward the bed.

"You're trying too hard," Rodney said, a smile in his voice, and he pushed John to lie face down on the bed. "I think that's part of the problem."

"Was that in your research?" John griped.

"Not really," Rodney said, pulling John's socks off and pushing between his legs, "the documentation is a little thin." He shoved John's leg up, the hair on the front of his thigh brushing against the back of John's in a way that was likely to drive John just a little nuts—he could feel the sensation running like a shock all the way up his spine, and—Christ—this wasn't fair. John dropped his head and let out a groan of frustration, because he was so focused on holding on he could barely fucking think, let alone do anything in return.

"Give me a break; would you relax?" Rodney ran his hand down John's spine until his palm rested on his lower back. Rodney's thumb moved in a tiny circle just at the seam of his ass.

John swallowed hard. "Can't. going to come."

"Right, and do you realize how hot that is? Knowing I can make you come by barely even touching you? You have no idea the scenarios I've been running in my head." Rodney's thumb slipped slower, joined by his gauze-covered hand, to slowly spread John's cheeks apart.

Cool air traveled over him, making goosebumps travel up John's skin.

"So, let's just get this first time out of the way, shall we? Because I'm really curious to test the limits here," Rodney said, his voice almost detached, but still very, very smug, maybe because John was almost trembling with the effort of holding back a whimper as he felt Rodney's breath brushing over his hole.

"Oh, jeez," John whispered. "No fair." And then he felt the warm, moist press of Rodney's tongue right there, right on his hole, and every nerve shot right to attention, sending sweet signals to his balls and cock, and John clenched his fists and came soundlessly.

"I am a sex god," Rodney said, his voice rough in John's ears, every dial blown completely as John trembled and twitched in the aftermath. He heard Rodney groan wildly, and John's sinking feeling of defeat was obliterated by the sensation of warm come suddenly spattering his leg.

John chuckled weakly. Now it was both of them. Terrific. Jack had better be right about being able to adjust over time, or their sex life was doomed to be pretty pathetic.

"Wow, that was..." Rodney said a moment, sounding gleeful. "And look, I'm still hard!" He rubbed his cock slickly against the back of John's thigh. "Told you: sex god."

John groaned, still revved on high and barely able to move. "Shut up and fuck me already."

"Oh, that is definitely in the plan," Rodney said, and John heard the crinkle of a condom wrapper. "Only, I think you don't quite understand the full import, not having slogged through the double-speak these so-called researchers used in their reports."

There was the familiar click of a cap being opened and the smell of aloe, and then a cold puddle glopped onto the small of John's back. He jerked and muttered, "Bastard."

"Sorry," Rodney said, unrepentant, then his fingers swiped through the gel, leaving a trail of tingling nerves. "As I was saying, from what I could gather, it's different with guides, thanks to the proximity and the adjustments our bodies have been making to each other, all unknowing."

"What are you babbling about?" John said, then moaned quietly into the pillow when Rodney circled his fingers around John's hole before sliding them in, and God, John could feel—everything. Every ridge of his fingerprints, it felt like, every bump and knuckle and—John shuddered and arched his back, drawing up his leg.

"Oh, nice," Rodney commented.

John felt his face heat. But he was helpless to do anything about it, because Rodney's fingers, God.

"I was speaking of dopamine and endorphins and all sorts of goodies that apparently you and I are encouraging each other to produce in spades when we're around each other." Rodney did something then, a twist and pull, that made John lift his hips and bite back a shout of pleasure.

"Jesus fuck, Rodney."

"Yes, okay, I take your meaning," Rodney said, and shuffled up behind him, leaning over him so John could feel the heat of him pressing close as he withdrew his fingers. And then Rodney's gauze-wrapped hand rested on his, thumbs overlapping, before he fumbled his cock into place and pushed in.

Rodney had forgotten to lube up the rubber, and the shaft of his cock stuck uncomfortably inside the cheeks of John's ass, but the head pushed in so smooth and hard, stretching him, and maybe Rodney had it all right about endorphins or whatever, because John's heart was pulsing in his dick, in his balls, and when Rodney squeezed his thumb and groaned softly, John squeezed back, caught in a sensory loop of not knowing where Rodney's cock ended and his own cock began, because every time Rodney pushed forward John could feel it at the back of his balls, and when Rodney reached down and gripped his cock, John clenched around Rodney in reaction.

He could feel the ridge of Rodney's cockhead, feel Rodney's pulse beating inside him.

"God, fuck me, fuck me," John heard himself saying, finally letting go. Fuck holding onto the senses, fuck staying in control. This was too damned good, and anyway, Rodney had it all in hand. "Fuck me," he said again, and Rodney did, kept fucking him in and out, nice and even, saying his name, and yes, that's it,, and you feel so amazing, John.

John would have told him it was even better from his end, because he could feel everything, every nerve wide open, soaking up the sensation of Rodney's cock working his ass, the feeling building even if it was too soon but still, he shocked himself a little while later when his balls tightened up and he started to come again, clenching and clenching around Rodney's cock, almost yelling in surprise.

Rodney didn't stop fucking him, but he let out a grateful moan and started moving a little slower while John jerked and groaned.

"I knew it," Rodney panted, and John couldn't believe what the fuck was happening but he wasn't going to argue, he just held on and listened to the blood rushing in his ears and Rodney's little whimpers and the slap of balls on skin. He could smell the faint chemical taint of the lube, but mostly just sex-smell, two males fucking. The scent of Rodney wanting him and their come drowned everything else out.

The rhythm of Rodney's hips changed to faster and shorter—the guy had stamina—but it still felt so damned good John regretted it was almost over. Still, if he kept popping off at the drop of a hat, chances were he'd spend a lot of time getting fucked like this. The thought made him groan and clench up, and Rodney gasped in answer and then pounded him a couple of times before coming to a stop.

John felt it—the throb of his cock inside—could hear the pounding of Rodney's heartbeat, but then Rodney's soft moan of gratitude drowned it out. John squeezed his thumb, whispering, "Yeah, Rodney," his heart tangling in his chest at the sound of that little moan.

As soon as Rodney pulled away to get rid of the rubber, John squirmed onto his back so he could get hold of him and kiss him properly, run a palm over Rodney's sweaty face.

His smug, grinning face. Rodney ran an eye over him, then reached down and cupped his hand over John's cock. Which was still, goddamn it, semi-hard. John shook his head in disbelief and then closed his eyes when Rodney stroked him once, ever so lightly.

"Hmmm," Rodney said, then slid his hand downward. John automatically bent open his knee, then shuddered when Rodney rubbed the pads of his fingers over his slick and open asshole. "Sore?"

"A little," John said, then drew in a breath when Rodney slid a couple of fingers in a ways, his thumb coming to rest under John's balls. "Oh, you're kidding."

"Oh, I'm not." Rodney circled his fingers tightly right where it counted, and John felt heat rise in his groin, his balls tingling. He gave Rodney a look of utter disbelief. Rodney grinned. "I won't lecture you on hypersensitivity and the hypogastric nerve."

"No, don't have to do that," John said, tensing his thighs when Rodney rubbed in just right. "Holy jeez."

"Yeah, it's pretty boring stuff." Rodney leaned over and kissed him, and John took him in, sucking on his tongue. He almost bit down when Rodney ran his thumb under John's balls.

"Boring," John said, "totally boring," gasping and dropping his head back and closing his eyes, close, so goddamned close, and then he felt warm breath brushing over the head of his hard cock, and looked down to see Rodney stroking his tongue in the air over it, not quite touching. Not quite. Just stroking the air with his tongue, his fingers working John's ass.

John came dry, looking down into those bright, eager eyes.

It was one of the good ones, the kind where everything seemed so wonderful and warm and close, and the world stopped for just a moment, colors edged and brilliant, Rodney's red lips and intelligent eyes, and for just a second John thought he understood why he'd fucked so many things up, with the path to right finally open and clean, looking at Rodney's face.

His guide.

John closed his eyes, afraid to lose the feeling when it was over.

But Rodney patted his leg, and pulled the sheet from underneath to wipe his stomach, griping about multiple wet spots, and kissed him, and insisted they shower and clean up.

And for some reason, when they were up and had changed the sheets and brushed their teeth and John had managed to get the spunk out of his chest hair, the feeling still hadn't gone away.

John slung an arm around Rodney in a clumsy embrace while they stood side-by-side in front of the bathroom sink.

"So, this theory of yours, I take it it has something to do with guides being amazing in the sack," he said, because he seriously thought his nuts would need an overhaul after this.

"Well, if you want to put it crudely," Rodney said. But the smug little smile was still in evidence, this time with a fleck of toothpaste at the corner of his mouth. "More to the point, I think I understand why the literature on sentinel sexuality is so very thin. Which isn't to say I believe it will always be this way—from what I understand, there's an adjustment period—"

"That's what Jack told me."

Rodney's eyebrows went shocked. "You talked to General O'Neill about this?" He leaned over the sink to rinse.

"Well, talked around, more like."

"Hmmph. Which explains a lot, really. In any event, I fully expect you to adjust and be less, er, overwhelmed in future..." Rodney flushed suddenly, painfully red, and John grinned and nosed Rodney's neck. The guy had been flat-out lethal in bed, but apparently couldn't talk about it for shit.

"Can't wait to return the favor," John said, "Just want to make it worth your while."

"Oh, I imagine you will," Rodney said, sounding like he needed to gargle, but it just made John want to kiss him again.

So he did.

:::

Waking up next to John, Rodney discovered two things. The first was: it was impossible to wake up before a sentinel. John was already awake and watching him, green eyes a little foggy, mouth curved with possessive smile.

The second was, Rodney wanted nothing more than to do this again. He wanted it with a desire that grabbed him as strongly as the first time he'd understood how atoms worked—with the same clear, fierce thirst for more. More of this. He must have more.

And just of this—having John beside him.

As bewildering and terrifying as this desire was, Rodney found he didn't care anymore where the impulse came from. It was his.

So he leaned over and planted a kiss on John's lips and said, "Pancakes?"

John grinned.

:::

After Carson gave John the all-clear, he went to SentOps to report in to Colonel Kawalsky, and also to let him know he now had a guide.

But it was apparent from Siler's congratulatory grin and the clap on the back Kawalsky gave him that somehow everyone already knew. Which was a little freaky, and also, the sly smile Kawalsky had on was making John want to fidget.

"My orders, sir?"

"Funny you should ask, Major. The general says he wants you to go on some milk runs with SG-5 to get some missions under your belt. But in order to do so, your guide will have to undergo field certification."

"Oh. Uh..." John gave in and fidgeted, imagining trying to convince Rodney to have to do firearms training. "Yes, sir," he said dismally.

"Guess you'll have your hands full with that one."

John bristled. "What's that supposed to mean?" Yeah, he supposed he shouldn't talk back to a superior officer, but, hell.

Kawalsky grinned approvingly. "Oh, no offense meant, Major. Just, he's a smart one—you'll have a tough time keeping him out of trouble." Kawalsky winked. "That's all."

John saluted and got the hell out.

:::

People had been smiling and nodding at Rodney all day. It was positively strange.

At first, he thought it was because he'd finally solved the power source problem; well, actually John had had a hand in it, pausing in the middle of a spectacular blowjob, wherein he seemed to sense the significance of every little twitch and shiver Rodney's body was giving up and capitalize on them ruthlessly until Rodney was a shuddering, whimpering mess.

John chose that moment to lift his head and say, "Hey, those TER things really pack a wallop. What powers those?" And then proceeded to suck Rodney's brain cells out through his cock, which was cruel, cruel and unusual punishment, because Rodney had not considered the TERs at all, which were Tokra in creation and so the SGC had the specs on them and could build as many as they liked.

It was a simple thing to determine whether a TER power pack could generate the proper curve to interrupt the Goa'uld shield device, which it did in simulation from at least twenty feet.

Sam even hugged him, but she'd already been giving him sly smiles all morning, and had patted him on the shoulder and said, "Welcome to the club."

That afternoon he discovered she meant that literally. There was a guide clubhouse—well, more a lounge, really—that was kept stocked with delicious treats and, even more importantly, fresh-brewed coffee, mere steps away from the labs.

As little as a week ago Rodney would have been outraged at the preferential treatment, but now he understood all too clearly the burden he'd undertaken, but also the importance of his new role. Keeping John healthy and safe was...imperative. Not just because John could sense aliens shifted into another dimensional phase, or hear things taking place ten levels away, or sniff out a Goa'uld symbiote in a once-friendly ally, but because he was extraordinary.

Of course, that could be the blowjob talking.

What Rodney hadn't expected was this wave of respect from his colleagues and co-workers for doing something not science-related. He hadn't even saved the base today, let alone the world. There was no way Shelley the cook knew about his conversion of the TER power source for use in the shield disruptor when he scooped out a big helping of mac and cheese from the corner, just the way Rodney liked it with the extra crispy crumbs and cheese, and said with a smile, "Here ya go, Doc. Enjoy your lunch."

"Thank you, Airman."

"No problem. Don't forget to grab some dessert. We got rice pudding today."

"Rice pudding's my favorite," a somewhat creaky baritone voiced from his left, and Rodney closed his eyes for a moment at the strange rush of delight that overcame him.

"Sheppard," he said, trying to sound curt and missing by about a light year. He looked up and saw Shelley looking at them both with a wide grin on his face. Rodney flushed and pushed his tray to the right. "Keep the line moving; there are hungry people waiting."

"Sir, yessir," John said, bumping his elbow.

Rodney scowled, but waited by the desserts for John to finish collecting his entrée and salad, and then let him select two bowls of pudding, one with raisins for him and one without.

"They look like bugs," John explained, "I don't like bugs," then waved toward a pair of seats in the corner. Rodney noticed Lieutenant Ford and Captain Cadman were already there, both gesturing animatedly as they discussed something, probably having to do with explosives of some kind, Rodney could only assume.

"Mind if we join you guys?" John said.

Ford grinned and moved his cap so Rodney could set down his tray. "So, Cadman was just saying you guys have paired up."

"Yeah, way to go, Rodney," Cadman said, giving Rodney a look he could only describe as salacious.

"Oh, honestly! And-and what about him?" Rodney said, flustered. "Isn't he the lucky one?"

"Yup. I get one half of a classic sci-fi collection," John said, calmly digging into his mac and cheese.

"Seriously, don't you busybodies have anything else to gossip about?"

"Well, it kind of affects us, Dr. McKay," Ford said. "We're the odd men out. Two shy of a gate team. They've had me running training exercises instead of being useful out there."

"Supplies and requisition," Cadman said disgustedly, thumbing her chest.

"The general said there was a possibility you two would make a four, but only if you paired up."

"Oh my God, it's the yenta militia," Rodney said.

John snorted into his water glass.

"Anyways, apart from that, mazel tov, McKay," Cadman said, her eyes twinkling.

"Well, not to get your hopes up, but we still have one last hurdle guys," John said. "See, Rodney here has to pass firearms training."

Rodney almost choked on his green beans.

"No problem! We'll have you up to speed in no time, Doc," Ford said eagerly. "I'll even get you going on a staff weapon."

Try as he might, Rodney failed to burn two holes straight through John's head with his eyeballs. He didn't even make a dent in the lazy grin on John's face, and a moment later Rodney felt John's calf giving his a nudge under the table.

"What she said." John raised his glass. "Mazel tov, buddy."

Rodney suddenly realized this was going to be his life—two crazed explosives experts and the weirdly compelling sentinel who encouraged them.

And God help him, but Rodney found himself oddly content.

 

End.


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