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They don't do it often. Sometimes they go for a week without, and Biro starts wondering if it's over. And then she'll get an pseudonymous email forwarded from her pseudonymous account.

It's never chatty. Tonight, it might say. 23:00.

The account name is a bunch of numbers. The emails are never signed. But she knows if she jacks into the system at 23:00 and goes to their reserved space, he'll be there.

Dec, he calls himself. It's what started this, why she noticed him in the first place despite his square-jawed, over-muscled avatar.

"Deckard?" she asked, that first time, in the common area. "You mean, like Rick Deckard? Because, wow, Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies ever." And then, because she just couldn't stop herself: "Oh, hey, are you trying to make a statement about the inherent solipsism of cyber interaction? Because if you're saying this is the ultimate Turing test, well, I can definitely see your point, although I can assure you that I am, indeed, human."

Even as she said it, she was sure that would turn him off, the way she'd managed to turn off several other prospective cyber encounters already. But he just grinned at her and said, "Oh, I'm human, too. Want to get a room?" and she forgave him his ridiculously obvious physical overcompensation right there on the spot.

Her own avatar is much more sensible. Well, she doesn't wear glasses and she has long black hair and fine, violet eyes. But honestly, that's mostly just disguise. Although she will admit it's kind of entertaining to indulge herself like this. In here she can be anything, wear anything, and it doesn't matter that it's really not her because no one else knows. Besides, in cyberspace it's not any harder to walk in five-inch heels.

The virtual environment is amazing. She can say that because she wasn't one of the programmers. Not that she's technically incompetent, but her skills lie mostly in other domains. If she were guessing, she'd say Dr. Zelenka worked on it. And maybe Dr. Coleman, too. She's pretty sure there was at least one woman's hand in it, because she feels safe here. She feels powerful.

Of course, part of that is because she has Dec spread out in front of her, his ridiculous, useless muscles flexing against the handcuffs around his wrists. He's bent over a bondage table -- Biro may not be a programmer, but she's really good at figuring out how to take full advantage of the interface's potential -- and his ankles are cuffed wide, spreading him so that she can see the pink pucker of his asshole.

It's hairless like most of the rest of him, and she can't help wondering if that's overcompensation, too. She knows it's wrong to be wondering about him like this, but tonight she can't seem to stop herself.

She has to keep reminding herself that she doesn't want to know who he is. She really doesn't, because if she knew, she'd be bound to give herself away, and as soon as he figures out who she is this is going to be over. She has no illusions. She knows she's on the wrong side of forty, and even when she was younger, she didn't have a lot of boyfriends. Or, really, anyone who stuck around for more than a few months.

Her work has always come first, so she never really thought of it as missing out. Not until the last few months.

"Valerie," Dec groans, and she realizes she's just standing here watching him. Watching him sweat and strain, the anticipation translating beautifully into make-believe physicality.

"You want something?" she teases. "Because I have plenty of plans for you tonight. I just can't seem to make up my mind where to start. I mean, there are just so many poss--"

"Anything," he says. "Please, Valerie."

The name still amuses her. It's laughable, of course, but that's on purpose and it's not like she's all that attached to her own first name. It's been so long since anyone but her mother called her by it that some days she barely thinks of herself as having one.

And anyway, this is cyberspace. She doesn't have to be boring old Lindy Biro here. She can be Valerie and she can make Dec beg, and that still amazes her when she stops to think about it. Which she really shouldn't be doing right now, because he's right here in front of her and anticipation is one thing, but there's no point in taking it so far she wastes their precious time together.

Right. Time to get started. She lifts her hand and does exactly what she feels like doing, which means smacking him playfully across the ass. "That's for interrupting me," she says. "I really thought you would know better by now."

"Sorry," he says dutifully, but she can see how hard his cock is, hanging down between his legs.

"You know, sometimes I start thinking you do it on purpose," she says, giving him a harder smack. "Isn't that funny?"

"Would I do that?" he says, and she wonders if his real voice sounds anything like that. Valerie's voice is low and sexy, nothing like her own, so he probably has a different voice, too. His real voice is something high-pitched and squeaky, no doubt. Nothing like Dec's easy drawl.

"Yes," she says. "You know, I really think you would."

Of course, sometimes Dec can sound kind of nasal, and his laugh is surprisingly loud, so if it's all put on, he has a pretty funny idea about what's supposed to be sexy. But Biro doesn't mind. It's not like she doesn't already know he's a geek.

She runs her hand over his ass, right where she smacked him. The interface is showing a red mark even though she knows she didn't hit him that hard, but that's probably Dec's doing. He likes it when she leaves a mark.

It's the domination rather than the pain, she thinks, although he doesn't seem to mind the pain all that much. So she doesn't hesitate when her hand gets to his gluteal cleft. In the real world she'd need lubricant. She'd need to be careful. But here she can just straighten two fingers and plunge them right into his ass.

She gets a gasp for her efforts, and then a moan when she finds his prostate. She massages it for a moment, enjoying the way he squirms and pants. But she wants something more tonight. She wants to do something new to him, something he's never had before. And this is cyberspace. She can do anything.

"So what do you think of my shoes?" she asks. She's still fully dressed, and today's shoes are cherry red with an impossibly long, tapered heel. If she wore them in real life she'd have bunions inside a day. "Do you like them? I designed them myself. Well, of course they're based on a number of shoes in the database, but I said to myself, 'Valerie, you're going all out tonight.' So what do you think?"

"Uh," he says, and she rubs his prostate a little harder, just to watch him stumble over his words. He's not the most talkative person in the world at any time, but when she has something up his ass he goes downright monosyllabic. "They're, um, nice?"

She takes her fingers out of his ass and steps out of the shoes, then, first the left, then the right. "You know what's funny?" she says. "Nice isn't really the word I'd use. Not for these bad girls." And she strokes the toe of one shoe across his ass.

"Unf," he says, like she still has something up his ass. That's pretty interesting. Definitely a useful data point. She turns the shoe onto its side, stroking his skin with it and then rolling it up so that the only thing touching him is the long line of the heel.

"Of course, one person's 'nice' is another person's 'nasty,'" she says. "And if you think about it, that goes both ways, doesn't it? I've always thought it's funny how language works. And sex. Sex works like that, too."

"Yeah," he says breathlessly, and wow, he's really worked up by this. She strokes the heel across one cheek and then the other, and then, daringly, in between, and he lets out a huff of air like he's been holding his breath.

This isn't what she meant to do. She was thinking about making him lick them. But the long, wicked heel is right there, and this is cyberspace.

She grasps the heel and twists it until a real shoe would break, praying that the programming can handle what she wants. For a moment she's sure it won't work, and then it turns in her hand, momentarily as malleable as putty. She twists until the heel is pointing backwards rather than straight down, like a vicious spike out the back of the shoe. It looks bizarre, but Biro doesn't care. She just lines it up so that the angle is anatomically optimal and presses the point of the heel against his hole.

"Fuck," he gasps as she slides it in, and she doesn't let up, just keeps pressing it into him until the whole five inches are inside, the flare of the heel opening him wide. "Jesus fuck," he says again.

The shoe should look laughable, flush against his ass like that, but when Biro pulls it out a little and slides it back in, it he curses some more and she can see a fat droplet of semen forming on the tip of his cock. She reaches between his legs and cups his balls, squeezing as she pumps the shoe again, and he pants and pushes back like he wants more.

"Wow," she says. "You really should see yourself like this. I mean, it's not every day you see a guy with a shoe stuck up his ass, is it? Oh, wait, I know just the thing." And she nudges the interface until the wall next to them shimmers into a mirror. "There you go," she says, enormously pleased with herself. "Now you can see for yourself."

He turns his head and his eyes meet hers in the mirror. He holds her gaze for a long moment, and then he finally looks down at his own reflection. His angle's not as good as hers is, but he must see something he likes, because his cock twitches and the shoe moves in his ass like he's clenched down on it.

"See?" she says, pulling the shoe out almost all the way. "It looks pretty cool when I do this." And she pushes it back in.

"Fuck," he gasps, and his cock twitches visibly again.

"Hmm," she says thoughtfully, pumping the shoe a few times. "I wonder if I can get the heel of the other shoe in, too. Do you think you can take them both? I bet if I lined them up against each other, maybe back to back, I could just..."

"Valerie," he groans, and comes all over the floor.

"Hey, wait," she says, ridiculously put out, because she's nowhere near out of ideas and he doesn't usually do that. Well, not anymore. The first few times they had sex he shot off astonishingly fast, like he hadn't gotten laid in ages. "I wasn't done with you."

"Crap," he says, and this time he sounds like he means it. "Sorry."

"Oh, no, it's okay," she says, easing the shoe out of his ass. "Guess I'm just too hot to handle tonight."

He grins, and she crouches down to unfasten first his ankles and then his wrists. If this were in the real world, she'd be checking him for bruises, but here she doesn't have to. Here he stands up smoothly and then drops down to kneel at her feet. Her misshapen shoe is still there where she left it when she undid his bonds, and he picks it up and turns it over in his hands. It's perfectly clean, of course. Another bonus of cyberspace.

"Wow," he says, looking at it. "I can't believe you did that." And he takes it in both hands and carefully twists the heel. The interface makes it go molten again, and in a moment it's back to its original form and he's holding it out to her.

"I'm just chock full of ideas tonight," she says happily, letting him put the shoes on her, first the left, then the right.

"Yeah," he says, looking up at her, "you are."

She has a moment's traitorous desire to see his real face, just once, instead of this bland, blue-eyed perfection. She beats it back with pure willpower as he bends and kisses the instep of her left shoe. She didn't tell him to do that, but it makes her shiver, so she lets it pass.

"You know it's funny," she says. "I didn't realize you had a shoe fetish."

He looks up at her again. "I never did before," he says, and she can't help laughing out loud.

"Oh, hey," she says. "I guess if you want to find yourself a new fetish, I'm your girl."

"No shit," he mutters, and bends to kiss her other instep.

She shivers again, feeling it all through her body. She feels so warm. So alive. She still sometimes can't believe someone she doesn't even know can make her feel like this, but here she is. And here he is, looking up at her through his lashes, not saying a word, but begging anyway.

She's asked him what he wants before. He's not really very good at talking about stuff like that, but she's learned to read him pretty well. And right now she knows exactly what he wants.

He wants to please her. And, amazingly enough, she wants to be pleased.

She brings her hands up to her waist and undoes the buttons of her dress, pulling it open and dropping it on the floor behind her. She's not wearing anything underneath, so all she has to do is take two steps toward him in her bright red shoes.

He's still on his knees, watching her avidly. She buries her fingers in his too-neat, too-blond hair, guiding his head forward. He's exactly at the right height for this, she thinks smugly as she widens her stance. "Dec," she says, "show me what your tongue is good for."

He doesn't say a word, just buries his face in her crotch, his tongue finding her clit immediately, and she sways on her too-high heels. Wow, maybe this isn't the best position after all, because cyberspace or no, she's rapidly getting weak at the knees. She closes her eyes and rearranges the scene until the bondage table is behind her, at exactly the right height and angle to lean against.

He makes an appreciative noise but his tongue never stops moving, gradually speeding up, just the way she's taught him. She loves the fact that he remembers, the way he's paid so much attention, the way he tries so hard to please her. It makes her feel ten feet tall in her five-inch heels.

She opens her eyes for a moment and sees that he has his hands behind him, like he's forcing himself not to use them. Apparently that's what she gets for asking him to use his tongue. Or maybe...oh. She's been remiss. She should have cuffed his wrists together again.

"Clasp your hands together," she says. "That's right, behind you. Now keep them that way. You have to do it all with your tongue tonight. No cheating."

He groans and licks her faster, and there must be something in the cyberair tonight, because apparently she has no stamina, either. His tongue is working her over with singular intensity, and in mere minutes she feels the heat start to spread, the delicious anticipation that makes her tingle from head to foot.

"Dec," she starts to say, but she can't think like this and he doesn't stop and then she's tightening her hands in his hair and shooting off like a firework, and his tongue slows and he leans his clean-shaven cheek against her thigh.

"You want me to keep going?" he asks. They've tried that a few times, and she even managed to come three times in a row once, but it doesn't come naturally to her and right now it's not what she wants.

"No, just come on and get up here," she says, hastily transforming the bondage table into a nice, wide bed. It's not something they do very often, but with the way he shot off and then the way she shot off, she figures he has to have at least a little more time.

He doesn't question it, just rises to his feet and joins her on the bed. He stretches out next to her and she pillows her head on his shoulder. "Don't worry," she promises. "I won't fall asleep on you. I just thought, you know, since we both went off like rockets tonight, we might as well..."

"I'm sorry," he says, and she feels his hand stroke her hair.

"Oh, no, no," she says, and maybe that's coming on too strong, but she hates the thought that he might think he did something wrong. "Don't be silly. There's nothing to be sorry about. It was fantastic, you were great, and I kind of got the feeling you liked the thing with the shoe."

For a moment he doesn't say anything. His avatar isn't blushing, but she's pretty sure he's embarrassed and she feels a little guilty about that. "Yeah," he says softly. "That was pretty damn creative."

She can't help an embarrassed laugh. "Well, you know, I do try. You never know when inspiration is going to strike. One minute I'm wondering, 'What would Dec like?' and the next, boom, I'm taking off my shoe."

He smiles and then turns his head, and the next thing she knows, he's kissing her forehead, and then her cheek and then her mouth. They've kissed before, of course, but usually it's as a prequel to other things. But Biro doesn't pull back or even try to take control of it. She just lets him kiss her, softly and with no urgency. Like he cares about her. Like this is real, which it's not; she has to keep telling herself that. He doesn't know her. He doesn't even know what she looks like. He can't possibly be fond of her.

But when he finally releases her lips, his eyes look unfocused and there's a hint of a smile around his mouth.

It's too much. It makes her gut feel like undercured jello, and all she wants to do is lie next to him like this for the next eon or two. She sits up with a jerk, forcing herself to speak. "You probably need to go, don't you? I mean, I know you're a busy man."

For a moment he doesn't move, but the smile fades. Then he sits up slowly and rubs a hand over his face. "Yeah," he says. "Got a mission in the morning. But I'll see you again soon, okay?"

"You know how to find me," she says, and he kisses her one more time, lingering just a little before his avatar shudders and disappears, so it's not her fault that she doesn't realize what he's said until he's gone.

But he really did it. He gave her a hint, a detail about his real life. A mission in the morning.

It's the first time he's ever mentioned anything like that, and she can't help wondering if he did it on purpose. If he wanted her to be curious. Or maybe he just slipped up. Maybe he didn't think she'd care. Maybe he thought she wouldn't even notice.

But she does and she did and it makes her feel strangely unsettled, like she just crossed a line she shouldn't have. Even if it was his own darn fault for saying it.

--

It bugs her, like a splinter in the brain, which is a ludicrous metaphor but the one she keeps coming back to. She lies there in bed, wondering about what kind of mission it is and why he mentioned it so casually. It doesn't mean he's on a gate team, she tells herself. He could be doing field work, and he didn't even necessarily mean offworld.

But he mentioned it so off-handedly. Like he does it a lot. And she doesn't know of any field work projects starting up on the mainland in the morning.

Not that she would know, of course. She pretty much sticks to her own little enclave of biomedical researchers, so she doesn't have a lot of contact with the geologists, say, or the botanists. But she does most of her work in an open lab and she hears a lot of gossip and wow, this is driving her batty.

She gets out of bed, wraps herself in her ratty bathrobe, and opens her computer. Mission schedules are posted to the public server; it's the work of a moment to determine that there's nothing going on over on the mainland tomorrow morning. And the only scheduled offworld mission is...Colonel Sheppard's team.

Oh, God. Biro slams her computer shut and then strokes its cover apologetically. Dec's scheduled to be on that mission. And there's only one geek on that team.

She doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, because apparently she's been cyber-dating Dr. McKay, and she would never have guessed that, not in a million years. Not that she really knows him all that well, but in her tenure on Atlantis, she's had her share of contact with him, just like she's had contact with all of the other original members of the expedition. Well, she's never had a lengthy conversation with the man, but she's seen him around the labs more since he started dating Dr. Keller, and...

Oh, God. He's cheating on Dr. Keller. With her.

Biro stumbles to her bed and sits down, pulling her comforter around her. It makes far too much sense. Why he doesn't contact her very often. Why the one time she tried to contact him, all she got was a, "Sorry, not tonight." Why he doesn't look or sound a thing like the Dr. McKay she sees in the halls of Atlantis. She should have known it was all a colossal disguise.

So maybe Dr. Keller isn't into handcuffing him and having her way with him. Maybe she likes the same old thing every night, or maybe she likes him to be the one who's creative, and he gets tired of that every once in awhile. Maybe he goes to cyberspace to blow off steam and he doesn't really consider it cheating.

But damn it, she does. It's the only sex she gets these days and if it's not real -- if it doesn't count -- then nothing does.

Biro pulls her feet up and curls into the comforter. Her stomach hurts. Her head hurts. Even her heart hurts. She wants it to be fifteen minutes ago, when she didn't know, but the thought that she didn't know is what hurts the most. He didn't tell her. He abused her trust.

She wonders if he thought she'd never find out. Or if he honestly thought she wouldn't care that he was cheating. Maybe he thinks she's just that desperate.

Well, she's not. She may not have ever been in this situation before, but she's the kind of person who thinks things through in advance, and she's very much not okay with this. Which means she's just lost her little, private source of joy, the thing that gets her through the day when things get hectic and Dr. Keller wants those specimen reports right away and Dr. Bramer wants her to examine that mummy they brought back from M3R-826 and she's never going to get time for her own research projects.

It was her secret weapon, her little private escape, and now it's gone. She knows that's not a tragedy compared to things that happen on a weekly basis in this galaxy, but it is to her.

It is to her.

--

She makes it through the night. She makes it through the morning on six cups of coffee and two donuts. She buries her head in her work and actually gets an important analysis completed before lunch. But she mistimes her afternoon break, and as she's heading back to the lab, she passes the infirmary just as Colonel Sheppard's team is coming in.

They look bruised and beaten. Specialist Dex has a gash across one cheek that looks like it will need at least ten stitches, and Ms. Emmagan is limping noticeably. The colonel is cradling his right wrist like it's sprained or possibly broken and the only one who appears unscathed is Dr. McKay.

Biro's eyes skitter away from him, even as something inside her twists with relief that he's unhurt. He's not Dec; Dec is a lie. Maybe if she keeps telling herself that, she'll eventually believe it.

She's next to useless all afternoon. She reruns her analysis and gets a completely different result, then spends four hours trying to reconcile that with her previous figures, only to discover she made the most obvious error imaginable the second time around.

It's disconcerting. She hasn't done anything like that in years. It's enough to make her knock off early and take the long way home from the lab, just so she doesn't pass the infirmary. She's pretty sure Dr. McKay will be long gone, but she's not taking any chances.

She eats dinner early, neatly avoiding any encounters, and holes up in her quarters. But even when she exhausts herself catching up on her pathology journals, she can't sleep. She can't stop thinking about it. She wants things back the way they were. She wants this to have all been a horrible dream. She doesn't want to have ever been the Other Woman. But most of all, she wants to see Dec.

She has to resign herself to the fact that that's not going to happen. She has to take control of herself and stop this pointless mooning. She has to find a way to get some sleep.

The infirmary is well-stocked with sleeping pills, of course, but she would have to go to the doctor on duty like anyone else, and the last thing she wants to do is explain herself. She might end up babbling the whole, awful story, and she can't do that to Dec. Even if he is a cheater.

But she's not a biomedical researcher for nothing, and the mess hall has chamomile tea, which is at least mildly soporific. The place is also nearly empty at half past one, so she fixes herself a cup of tea and goes to sit by the window where she can sip it in peace.

She has no idea what makes her look up, but when she does, she notices that all of the other late-night snackers have gone. All except one lone figure over by the coffee urn. It's Colonel Sheppard, she realizes when he turns and looks straight at her.

She looks away immediately, something squeezing tight in her chest. It's not the colonel's fault that he's friends with Dr. McKay, but she can't help herself. Suddenly the tea's not relaxing her at all.

She's not looking, so she's totally unprepared when the colonel stops at her table and clears his throat. "Hi," he says, like it's a completely normal thing to do, when she's pretty darn sure she's never said more than three sentences to him in her life.

"Oh, hi," she says, too surprised to be flustered. "Sir."

"This seat taken?" he asks, pointing to the chair across from her. He's wearing a velcro splint on his right wrist, she notices absently. So it's a sprain, probably at least second degree.

"No," she says, and okay, maybe now she's flustered. "No, of course not. I mean, obviously, we're the only two people in the whole room."

"Yeah," he says, setting down his cup and slipping into the seat. He looks exhausted, up close.

"You really should be icing that," she hears herself say. "And elevating it, too. You know how the saying goes, above the heart, from the start. And hey, are you really drinking coffee at this hour? Because I can't have any after four pm or I'll never get to sleep."

"It's decaf," he says, and takes a sip. "And don't worry, I'm taking care of myself."

"Oh, I wasn't," she says. "Worried, I mean. Well, obviously as a career military man you've had enough injuries that you know what to do. I guess I just sometimes can't help a little professional interest. Not that orthopedics is my specialty, but once you've been through medical school and general residency that stuff sticks with you." She suddenly realizes she's babbling again and abruptly closes her mouth. "I'm sorry, did you want to say something?"

"Nothing in particular," he says, and she realizes he's just kind of staring absently at her across the table, like he's beyond exhausted.

"You really should be in bed," she can't stop herself from saying. "An injury like that needs rest more than anything."

"I know," he says. "Can't sleep." He looks down at his splinted arm. "Had a crappy day."

"Oh, you, too? That's funny, because I couldn't sleep, either, for exactly the same reason. Well, I didn't sprain my wrist or, actually, have any sort of physical injury, so I suppose it's not much like your day at all. Except for the part where it was really pretty awful." And she must be overtired on top of upset, because she hears her voice go shaky on that last little bit.

"Crap," he says, and his eyes snap into sudden focus on hers. "Did something happen in the lab? No one informed me of any problems."

She suddenly remembers that he's not some random guy who sat down at her table. He's the military commander of Atlantis. "Oh, no, nothing like that, sir. It was purely a personal issue. Nothing you would need to be concerned about."

"I see," he says, but he doesn't relax. "You want to talk about it?"

For an unprecedented moment, she does. She wants to tell him all about how she just lost someone who meant the world to her, someone who apparently never existed. Only if she tells him, she'd be telling him that his friend and teammate is a cheater, and she can't do that.

It's ridiculous, anyway. He doesn't need to know her problems. He's only sitting with her because she's the only person in the mess at this hour.

"You know what?" she says, pushing back her chair abruptly. "I really should go. It's late and I have a busy day planned for tomorrow and I'm sure you do, too."

His face goes strangely blank. "Yeah," he says. "Sure. Thanks for keeping me company."

"Of course," she says, and she can't help a strained giggle. "You know, any time."

"I'll hold you to that," he says, almost like he means it. "Good-night."

"I hope you can get some sleep, sir," she says, and then cuts off any risk of further babble by grabbing her teacup and leaving.

--

She feels a little better in the morning. She slept well, so apparently the tea did its job, and she feels a little stronger. A little better braced to face another day with no chance of a reward at the end. So she's really not prepared for the email she has waiting in her inbox.

It's from Dec, and she almost deletes it unread, but no. She has to do this. She has to break things off properly.

2100, it says, which is earlier than he's ever suggested. And there's more. I know it's only been a couple of days, it goes on, but I really want to see you.

She stares at the screen, hating herself for the way her heart jumps in her chest. She has to face Dr. Keller today. She can't do that unless she breaks it off with Dec right now.

Only, okay, she may not be an expert on the so-called rules of dating, but she's pretty sure she's heard gossip in the labs about someone who broke up with Dr. Aga via email, and how everyone tutted and said how heartless it was. She's not sure the same rules apply to cyberdating, but she's not sure they don't. And she can do this. She can face Dec one more time and tell him to his face it's over.

See you then, she shoots back, her usual response. It seems unfair not to give him a hint, but if she did that, she'd be breaking up with him in email. And anyway, he'll find out soon enough. Soon enough for both of them.

--

She's a nervous wreck when 2100 rolls around, but she jacks into the system anyway, taking a moment to choose Valerie's clothes with extra care. She knows it's stupid, but it's the last time Dec's going to see her, and she wants him to remember her, and possibly regret what he's done, if he's capable of that.

He's waiting for her in their space, and for a moment she can't speak.

"Hey," he says, coming over to her. "Something wrong?"

"No," she says. She didn't think she'd shake in cyberspace. "Yes. Everything's wrong. I can't believe I was so stupid, but I guess it comes with the territory. I mean, if you want to have meaningless, anonymous sex, this is the place to go."

He's staring at her, his too-handsome face strangely blank. There's something familiar about the expression but she can't quite place it. "It's not meaningless to me," he says quietly.

She throws up her hands. "Do you really think that makes it any better? Look, I have no doubt you can come up with some song and dance about why you needed this and why it doesn't count because it's only cybersex, but it counts to me. And maybe it's none of my business if you want to cheat, but I won't have any part of it."

"Whoa," he says, holding up a hand. His left hand, she notices absently. "I don't know where you got that idea, but I'm not cheating on you. I'm not seeing anyone else, in here or out there."

Biro closes her eyes. She can't believe he's lying to her. "Is that what you say to her? All the other nights when you're not with me?"

His voice goes even quieter, but there's a note of steel in it she's never heard before. "When I'm not with you, I'm either out there on some backwater planet doing whatever it takes to keep our asses safe, or I'm alone in my god-damned, too small bed, thinking about the last thing you did to me or wondering what you'll think of to do to me next. And I have to tell you, I have a hell of an imagination but you still manage to surprise me every single time. So don't tell me I'm cheating on you. You're the one thing that keeps me going."

She stares. She's never heard him say that much, not in one breath, and she wants to believe him so badly it's a sharp pain in her chest. "But what about Dr. Keller?" she hears herself say. "I know you haven't broken up with her. I saw you together just two days ago."

Dec's jaw drops. "Now hang on a damn minute. You think I'm McKay?"

"You gave yourself away the other night," she says. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spy on you. But the mission schedules are posted publicly and I didn't realize it would hurt to check until I saw there was only one team scheduled to go offworld yesterday."

He straightens, and she realizes only then that he's been slouching this whole time. "I don't know whether I'm more offended on McKay's behalf, or my own," he says. "You do realize there are four people on my team, right?"

Something about the way he says it flips a switch in her brain. My team. Like he's not just a member, but the leader. And he's been unconsciously gesturing with his left hand all evening, like he has a body memory of needing to protect the right.

Oh, God.

Oh, God.

She's been having kinky cybersex with the military commander of Atlantis. The man who's everyone's hero. The man the women in the lab have a betting pool over, with prizes for whoever can prove she's slept with him, only no one's ever collected.

She wants to laugh, or maybe cry. She always thought those women were kind of ridiculous, and here she's been sleeping with the object of their obsessions and she didn't even know it.

"Valerie?" he says softly, and it's suddenly way too much. If he knew who she was...oh God, she's going to give herself away. If she'd known last night she would have blurted out everything in the mess hall and made a complete fool of herself.

"I have to go now," she hears herself say, and cuts the connection with a thought.

--

Back in her room, she hyperventilates for a full five minutes. She doesn't know what she's going to do. She's glad -- fiercely glad -- that he's not a cheater, and that he never lied to her. And she keeps hearing his voice (which is, now that she realizes it, not all that different from Colonel Sheppard's) saying, "You're the one thing that keeps me going."

She almost wants to jack back in and see if he's still there, but she can't. How could she possibly have cybersex with him again when she knows? When he knows she knows? And what if he pressured her to tell him who she really is?

Well, okay, no. She's the one who's in charge in there. If she told him not to pry, she's pretty sure he wouldn't. He's pretty good at following her directions.

And wow, isn't that crazy? Even if it is still profoundly disorienting to realize he's not a geek after all, it's a hell of a power trip to realize just who she's been doing this with. It's his job to order people around, but he lets her order him around. He likes it when she does. Hell, he begs her to.

Biro gets up and paces around the room for awhile, but every time she thinks about it, her head goes hot and her stomach goes queasy. She feels like she's lost him all over again. Because even if she can bring herself to have cybersex with him again, even if he behaves himself and promises not to try to find out who she is, she's still going to feel incredibly self-conscious.

She can't stop knowing what she knows. Cybersex will never be the same.

She gets ready for bed slowly, shedding her uniform for an overlong t-shirt and a pair of fuzzy socks. She doesn't know how she'll be able to sleep, but she has to try. But she's just turning back the covers on her bed when her door chime rings.

Biro jumps half out of her skin. It can't be. It's not possible. She grabs her bathrobe and yanks it on, tying the belt haphazardly before she reaches to swipe the door crystals.

It's Colonel Sheppard.

"Hi," he says, leaning against the door frame. "Can we talk?"

"Um," she says, and just stands there, too frozen with shock to do anything else. He's wearing civvies, and the black wrist brace stands out starkly against his rumpled, pale blue shirt.

"I've got you at a loss for words," he says. "That can't be good."

Her heart is racing. Her hands are clammy. She can't believe he's here at her door. "How did you find me?" she says. "Oh, no. Please tell me you didn't use your position of authority to override the anonymity on the cyberserver, because unless someone was dying or committing assault in there I really don't see how you could justify that."

But he just shakes his head. "I already knew."

Her jaw goes loose. "You knew. You just somehow, magically knew."

His lips press together in a brief, pained expression. "It wasn't on purpose. I heard you talking to Doc Keller about a month ago in the infirmary and I recognized your voice."

"I changed my voice," she says, her real one shaking, now. "Valerie doesn't sound a thing like me, and I know that because I dictate my autopsy notes sometimes, so I've spent a lot of time listening to my own voice. From an outsider's point of view, if you know what I mean."

"Not the voice," he says. "The way you talk. Look, can I come in?"

He knows. He's known for a month. He kept right on asking her for cyberdates, and he didn't say a god-damned thing.

"I'm not sure that's such a great idea." She can't think straight. She can't get past the part where he knows. "I'm not exactly dressed for company."

He blinks, like he's noticing her old bathrobe for the first time, and doesn't that make her feel special? "I'll wait out here while you get dressed," he says. "We can go somewhere. Anywhere you want. I just want to talk."

Right. Talking. Well, they probably owe each other that much. At least they're not doing this in email. "Give me a couple minutes," she says, and closes the door.

She has to breathe for half a minute before she can do anything else. It's the worst-case scenario: he knows. And she can't even blame him for recognizing the way she talks because she knows she's prone to babble. She's always been like that. And now it's her downfall.

Right. Clothes. She crosses the room to her closet and pulls out the first things that are clean: a pair of uniform pants and a pink polo shirt. It's not her favorite color, but it's not like the colonel will care. He's used to looking at Valerie.

She throws her uniform jacket over the shirt because she doesn't know where they're going and she doesn't want to get cold, and then turns for a moment to the mirror.

Her hair is extra tweaky today. She runs her fingers through it, trying to calm the ends, and then realizes what she's doing. She's acting as if it matters, and that's just pathetic.

She straightens her glasses, then turns, marches to the door, and opens it. "Well," she says, falsely bright. "Where are we going?"

He turns toward her and this time he really does seem to see her. Funny, but that doesn't seem to make her feel any better. "Figured I'd leave that up to you," he says.

She thinks fast. She doesn't want to go anywhere that might be construed as romantic, or any place she's particularly fond of, because she's pretty sure she's going to have bad associations with it for a long time. "We could just go down to the pier," she says. There's easy access at the base of the tower, and it doesn't have the spectacular views that the outer piers have, but it's close to a transporter if one of them needs to get away.

"Okay," he says, and steps back to let her lead the way.

Outside it's cool and cloudy, and Biro's glad she brought her jacket. She makes her way to where there are steps down to the lower level and sits on the second one, leaving him plenty of room. He sits as well, not too close, and stretches his legs out, leaning back on his good arm.

"Should've brought a bottle of wine," he says conversationally.

She can't imagine how that would help, but then, she can't imagine how anything would help. "Look, can we just get on with this?" she says. "You have something to say to me. You might as well just go ahead and say it so we can both go do whatever it is we're going to do with our evenings."

He lifts his splinted hand to his face and rubs his eyes with his knuckles. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, okay." She can see him swallow. "Lindy, I..."

She can't help it. It's probably just nerves. She laughs out loud at the name. "I'm sorry," she says when she manages to choke it off. "Nobody calls me that."

He frowns. "Thought it was your name."

"Oh, it is. Technically speaking, anyway, but no one's called me that since my mother died, and that was six years ago."

He's still frowning. "What do they call you?"

She blinks, because he really should know already. "Well, most people call me Dr. Biro."

"Your friends," Sheppard persists. "What do they call you?"

She tries to think. Both Dr. Becketts always called her by her title, and so does Dr. Keller. And most of her colleagues in the lab don't bother to call her by any name at all. "Usually it's just 'Hey, you,'" she says.

He's rubbing his eyes again. "Okay," he says. "Okay, fine. Let me put it a different way. What do you want me to call you? I can go with Valerie if that makes you more comfortable."

She wants to laugh again, only this time she can't. She has no idea why he's stuck on this. Why would it matter what he calls her? "Quite frankly, I don't think anything's going to make me comfortable right now," she says.

He winces and turns to look out over the ocean. "Yeah, okay," he says, and then doesn't say anything more.

It's suddenly extremely clear why she was the one in charge in cyberspace. But of course she already knew he's not so good at talking about personal stuff.

She should just say it. She should get up the nerve and tell him she knows it's over and put him out of his misery. "Colonel," she starts, but it's his turn to interrupt.

"John," he says. "Call me John."

He has a point. She's had her shoe up his virtual ass. "Okay, John," she says, trying it out on her tongue. It feels awkward and wrong. "Sir."

But he interrupts her again. "Just John," he says, and then somehow that seems to give him the impetus to speak. "Look, I realize you're not too thrilled about finding out who I am, and I owe you an apology for that. I wasn't thinking, and I'm sorry."

She blinks back her surprise, because that really wasn't what she'd been expecting him to say. "I wish I didn't know," she says.

"I know," he says.

"But in all fairness, I have to admit that I was the one who looked up the mission schedules. So the truth is, I really have no one to blame but myself and my own curiosity. Guess I should have remembered the story about the cat, huh?"

He's still looking out at the ocean. There are decent-sized waves tonight; she can hear them slapping against the wall of the pier below them. "You were hoping I was someone else."

"No," she says, and it's not entirely a lie. "Well, not anyone specific, because that would be a pretty foolish, wouldn't it? I mean, not that the chance of hooking up with any particular person in a base-wide anonymous meeting place is statistically impossible, but it's still not something you'd want to bet your heart on."

"No," he says quietly. "It's not."

"Honestly, sir," she says. "Sorry. I mean, John. I just thought you'd be a geek."

His eyes find hers, startled. "I see."

"Which I think I can be forgiven for," she says. "What with the name from Blade Runner and the ridiculous avatar. It was only logical to assume you had something to overcompensate for."

"Overcompensate?" His eyebrows go up, and his voice slows to a drawl. "You saying you didn't like my avatar?"

He's teasing her, at least, she thinks he is, and it sounds so much like Dec she feels a twinge near her heart. "Well, I wouldn't say didn't like," she says magnanimously. "But even you would have to admit those muscles were bordering on ludicrous. It's not like you even got to use them once I had you tied up."

"That was kind of the point," he says, looking back out to sea again. "So you're looking for a geek, huh?"

"I'm not looking for anyone," she says. "Honestly, I have no idea why I tried that program in the first place. I mean, sure, I was curious, and possibly even lonely, but I certainly wasn't looking for a cyber-boyfriend. I wasn't even expecting to hook up with the same person twice."

His face goes tight. "Can I ask you something?"

She doesn't have a lot to lose at this point. "Sure."

"Was there...anyone else?"

"Don't be ridiculous," she says. "That would have been cheating on you. Well, unless I told you from the start, which I obviously didn't."

"Right," he says, but some of the tension in his face eases. "Thank you."

They sit like that for a few minutes. Biro has no idea what to say. Well, she knows what she ought to say, but she doesn't want to do it. She's strangely glad that he cares about the cheating thing, though. It evens the score.

"I was married once," he says, out of the blue. "Screwed it up pretty bad."

"I'm...sorry," she says, not sure what the appropriate response is.

"Yeah," he says. "Me, too. Just, you know, so you know."

"Okay," she says. She has no idea why he's telling her this. Unless it's meant to be another kind of apology. But why would he compare anonymous cybersex to marriage?

He shifts on his step, bending one leg and stretching the other. "I have a pair of reading glasses."

This time she can't help a reaction. "Excuse me?"

"You know, if you're looking for the geek thing. Ronon says they look pretty stupid on me."

"Oh," she says. "Oh, God." Because that can't mean what it sounds like, but what else could it mean? Why else would he care what she's looking for? Except he's talking about the real world, not cyberspace, and it just doesn't make sense.

He smiles at her, but it looks a little pained. "I guess this isn't helping."

"What? No. Yes. I don't know." She's losing it completely, but how is she supposed to think straight when he's acting like this? "Colonel. Sir. John," she forces herself to say. "You don't have to do, well, whatever this is. Is this flirting? I'm sorry, I'm a little out of practice. Actually, I'm not sure I was ever in practice. But I don't see why..."

"I'm not flirting," he says, and he looks almost hurt. "Look, maybe you shouldn't make any decisions tonight. Just give yourself some time to get used to the idea."

That's even more confusing, because if he's not flirting, what the heck is he doing? "I'm sure that would be easier if I knew what idea I'm supposed to be getting used to."

His eyes flick to hers, and then look away. "You know," he says. "Me."

She can't help it. She laughs. But then she sees his face go all tight again and she cuts it off abruptly. "I'm sorry," she says, because he can't possibly be serious but he actually almost looks like he is. Like he wants them to have...something. Something that includes knowing each other in the real world. "I really am. But this is the danger with anonymous cybersex, isn't it? We could have been having sex with anyone, and whoops, look at that! We were. But John, even if it was good -- and I have to admit that from my side it was very, very good -- we can't expect it to be the same now that we know. I mean, no cyber avatar is going to make us forget who we're with, and I have to be about as far from your ideal physical type as you are from mine."

"You're forgetting something," he says, and she can see that his jaw is set like he's already made up his mind about this. "You're the girl who gave me a shoe fetish."

She feels tingly all over just remembering that, but it doesn't change anything. "But you didn't know who I...oh. Oh, wow. You did." She still can't fathom that, how he could go on having sex with her when he knew.

He sits up and runs his good hand through his hair. "I knew," he says. "Look, I'm just saying it's not an issue on my end. Even if you were...unappealing -- which, for the record, you're really not -- you're the girl who could make me want anything."

She feels hot and cold at the same time. For the first time she pictures kissing him. Kissing John Sheppard, not Dec. So, fine, maybe he's not entirely not her type. And suddenly she actually wants to see him in those glasses.

"Remember when you made me suck my own cock?" he says, and wow, that's really not playing fair.

"I don't see how I could possibly forget," she says, and she has a sudden image of him doing it. John Sheppard, not Dec. Oh, God. Of course, that sort of thing only works in cyberspace. Well, unless the guy in question is a teen-aged circus performer, which John Sheppard is most definitely not.

The corner of his mouth twitches, and whoops, she might have said that last part out loud. But then he goes serious again. "Look, I can make up a new avatar, one you'll find more appealing. With glasses and a pocket protector and," he waves his splinted hand, "whatever you need."

She wants to laugh again but for once she manages to control herself, because he actually seems like he means that. Like he honestly wants to make her happy, and she still can't fathom that. "Wow. I don't really know what to say. No one's ever offered to turn geek for me."

"Say you'll think about it," he says.

"Oh, all right," she says. "I'll think about it." She figures she owes him that much, especially since she's pretty sure she's not going to be able to think about anything else for quite awhile. "I can't promise I'll come to any particular conclusion, of course, but..."

"I'm not asking for promises," he says.

"Okay, then," she says, taking a slow breath. "Okay."

--

She thinks. For a week and a half, she can't think of anything else. She thinks about him in the mess hall, and she even sees him there a few times, but he's usually with his team and she's not sure he even notices her. One time he passes her in the hall and nods to her, but he doesn't say anything. There's no look of longing on his face. She's sure she would have noticed if there were.

It's actually not a bad face, now that she's getting used to it. His hair's pretty crazy for a military guy and he doesn't seem too uptight in other ways, either. His posture, for example, is terrible. And a couple of times she sees him pulling faces that can't possibly be regulation.

The thing is, even in her younger years, she was never that big on the movie stars all the other girls drooled over; she didn't see the point of physical perfection, and the few handsome men she had contact with turned out to be arrogant jerks. But John Sheppard isn't physically perfect. He doesn't have Dec's muscles (although now she can't help wondering if he wishes he did) and he's actually pretty close to her own age (what's three years, one way or the other?).

But she still can't get past the part where he's her military commander. Well, not hers exactly, because she's science rather than military, but Atlantis's. He's saved the city, saved them all, more times than she can remember. He's bigger than life, and she's still boring Lindy Biro, slaving away on her obscure research projects and, oh yeah, cutting up anything dead that anyone else wants cut up.

Well, she draws the line at anything that's not at least vaguely humanoid. Zoology can handle those. The point is, she's not an idiot, and she's pretty sure people would laugh at her if they thought she thought she could land John Sheppard.

She tries to imagine what it would feel like, ordering him around in cyberspace while knowing who he really is, but her mind's eye won't cooperate. She keeps picturing a weird meld of Dec and John who looks like both and neither and whenever she puts herself into the scenario, she freezes up.

It doesn't bode well.

So when the email finally comes, she almost tells him she can't do it. Except he's devious, because he wrote, we don't have to have sex if you're not comfortable and he signed it J and she can't help herself. She fires back her usual response, see you then. Signed L.

It's stupid. She doesn't care one way or another about her first name. But for the first time in years she wants to be called something other than Biro, and she can't remember what his voice sounded like the one time he did.

It's a bad sign, a really bad sign, but when the time comes, she jacks into the system like she's ready for it.

He's waiting for her, but she almost doesn't recognize his avatar. He has Dec's blond hair and blue eyes, but the resemblance ends there. The muscles are gone and he's wearing glasses and that looks like a slide rule in his pocket.

She, of course, is Valerie.

"Hey," he says, his voice sounding more like John Sheppard than ever. She wonders how she never noticed that before, only she never spent that much time listening to him in the real world. "Thanks for showing."

There's something about the way he says it that tells her he was genuinely worried that she wouldn't, and that probably shouldn't make her feel better, but it does. "Wow," she says, and her voice doesn't shake at all. She looks him up and down, taking in the ill-fitting pants and the misbuttoned shirt. She'd almost think he was having a joke at her expense if he didn't have that eager, hopeful expression on his face. "You sure went all out, didn't you?"

He grins, and she wonders if he ever smiles like that in real life. "You like it?"

Suddenly she can't help it. She wants to see him. The real him, not this ridiculous masquerade. "Please don't think I'm ungrateful, because I'm really not. I appreciate the effort, and I can see it was a considerable one, but in all honesty, it's not working for me."

"Oh," he says, and his eyes go puppy-sad behind his coke-bottle lenses. "You want me to go back to the old one?" And before her eyes, his avatar morphs, clothes and all, into Dec's familiar, equally ridiculous form. Only with glasses.

She can't help a giggle. "I wish I could say this one is better."

"Hey," he says, "you realize this is the guy you've been having your wicked way with, right?"

"No," she says, completely serious. "Well, obviously what I was seeing was the avatar, and I won't say it didn't affect my perception of you because that would be denying the obvious and there's really no point in doing that. But when I did those things, it had nothing to do with some programmed external shell. I was doing them to you, John." It's not hard to say his name this time. It just comes out.

"I know," he says, and then his avatar morphs again, and suddenly it's John Sheppard, standing there in front of her. He's wearing jeans and a black t-shirt and the glasses, still, only this time the lenses are thinner and the frames suit his face better. He's watching her carefully through them, like he's the one who's nervous. "Too much?" he asks.

"No," she says. She's drinking him in, from the unlaced combat boots to the lean thighs and narrow hips to the chest and shoulders which are neither ridiculously bulging like Dec's or painfully hunched like his geek form's. He looks strange and familiar at the same time, the figure she's seen from a distance for six years, the last person on Atlantis she ever expected to get to know. "No, I'm working on getting used to this one. It's mostly about expectations, you know."

"Yeah," he says. "Thanks."

There a sudden moment of silence. He's standing where he was, not encroaching on her space, and she doesn't know what to do next. If she can actually do anything more than this.

But she wants to. It's the best kind of epiphany, looking at him like this and realizing that yes. Yes, she really wants to.

"What about you?" he says.

"I'm sorry?"

"Your avatar," he says, waving a hand in her direction. "You gonna keep it like that?"

Biro frowns. "You don't like Valerie?"

"She's fine," John says, and he almost sounds like he means it.

"But?" she says, taking a step toward him in Valerie's shoes.

He presses his lips together, like he regrets starting this conversation. "She's not you."

Her laugh sounds like an embarrassing combination of a bark and a giggle. "You don't really mean that. I mean, wow, I can look like anything, here. Anything you want." She closes her eyes and manipulates the interface, making herself taller, turning her hair red, lowering the neckline of her dress and puffing up her already ample chest.

He raises an eyebrow at her. "Now you just look like Jessica Rabbit."

She can't help another laugh. "I thought all the guys liked Jessica Rabbit."

"Sure," he says easily. "Look, I'm not...you don't have to. You don't have to do anything you don't want to."

He sounds like he means that, but he also sounds kind of wistful. Before she thinks she's even made a conscious decision, Biro feels her avatar morph again, feels her body shrink down to her own height, and she doesn't need to look in mirror to know she has her own unmanageable hair, her own glasses. She's still wearing Valerie's shoes and dress, but she banishes them with a thought, swapping them for the kind of ordinary civvies she usually wears when she's off duty.

"Well," she says, crossing her arms below her chest. "Here I am. You can change your mind at any moment if you want. You don't need to worry about offending me. It's not like I wouldn't understand, and this really should be about your fantasies as much as it's about mine."

But he's staring at her like he's seeing her for the first time, which is, of course, perfectly ludicrous.

"John?" she says.

His gaze snaps to her face. "Can I kiss you?"

It's a bad idea. She's not ready for this, and she's not sure he is, either. But he's asking. He's deferring to her like he always does, and it feels so normal, so them that she can't stop herself.

"If you keep it light," she says. And then he's right there in front of her, holding her face in his hands and leaning down to touch his lips to hers.

It doesn't feel like Dec kissing Valerie. It's still happening through the interface and there isn't any new source of verisimilitude, but he's a little hesitant and she's a little awkward and for a moment it's far too real. But John's lips are easy and he keeps his mouth mostly closed and she breathes through her nose and gets used to it pretty fast.

Or maybe he's the one who gets used to it, because he's kissing her extremely thoroughly now, as if whatever was making him hesitate before is gone. He's kissing her like this is what he's been waiting for, like he's been thinking of it for weeks, and it's so contagious she almost forgets she's herself until she takes a stumbling step backward and remembers to breathe.

"Whoa," she says. He opens his eyes slowly, like it takes effort, like he was just as lost in the kiss as she was. "I have to tell you, that was really not what I was expecting."

"Yeah," he says. "I think we better try it again."

She can't help herself; in a moment they're kissing again, and she's the one who opens her mouth, who pulls him against her, who knots her hands in his messy, springy hair. He makes a soft noise and lifts her onto her tiptoes, pressing his body to hers.

"Okay," she says, panting inches from his mouth. "I guess that's one hypothesis disproved."

"Want to disprove a few more?" he says.

She freezes against him, suddenly aware that she hasn't been planning anything. Usually she spends her free time thinking up new things to do to him, but she's been a little preoccupied lately. If they do anything more, she's going to have to wing it.

He tilts his head. "Something wrong?"

"No," she says, and she can feel the moment she decides she's going through with this. One moment, she's still debating; the next, she just knows. "No, everything is fine. Well, this is going a little faster than I expected, and for the record I don't think that's all me, but I can handle it. If you can."

"I can handle anything," he says.

It's a challenge, and she can't help wanting to rise to it, wanting to surprise him, wanting to completely blow him away. So much for going slow. "Great," she says, and she can't resist pulling him down for another quick kiss. "Why don't you get undressed?"

She only realizes what that means when he gives her a long look before stepping back and slowly stripping off his shirt. Because of course she's seen Dec naked, plenty of times, but she's never seen John.

John -- or this avatar of him, anyway -- isn't hairless. He doesn't have washboard abs, either, although his chest is kind of nice. She can't help wondering if he looks like this in real life, or if he changed a few details.

Not that she's having any regrets about not changing hers. This is who she is, and if he doesn't like it, he should have the grace to ask for what he'd prefer. But when he takes off his pants, he's pretty close to hard, and as she watches him, she can see his erection rise.

So, not turned off, either by her or the situation. She feels suddenly overwarm as she lifts her gaze to his face. "Very nice," she says, and he drops his eyes momentarily, almost like he's embarrassed, which is hard to imagine. But when she steps closer and reaches to take his glasses off, he holds her gaze like he's searching for something in her face.

"Now let's see," she says briskly, trying to cover for the flutter in her stomach. "Oh, I know just the thing." And suddenly she does. She wants to be able to see him. She wants to have him spread out for her. She wants to make him feel like he's flying.

He's still Dec, she reminds herself. She still knows how to make it good for him.

She summons the interface with her mind, using the programming to create just what she wants. It descends from the ceiling at her command, a web of black straps.

John's eyes go a little wide, but all he says is, "Where do you want me?"

She guides him into place and gets him into the sling, adjusting the straps as she goes. She cuffs his wrists to a spreader bar suspended above his chest, being extra careful with the right one even though she knows nothing she does here can actually hurt it, then tucks a pillow behind his head. She wants to kiss him again, but it's a little awkward with all the straps in the way, so she refrains and just lifts his heels to the stirrups.

"There," she says, eyeing her work critically. "That should do it. Are you comfortable? Does that pull too much on your hamstrings? Or, okay, I guess that's a stupid question, isn't it? This is cyberspace, so if you don't want it to hurt, it won't." She flushes and tugs a strap that doesn't really need adjusting, making the whole thing sway. But he's grinning when she puts out a hand to steady him.

"I'm great," he says. His cock is hard against his stomach like that's the truth, and she indulges herself for a moment, just looking at him. Fully erect, his cock is almost the same size as Dec's, and that surprises her. Not that Dec was ridiculously well endowed or anything, but she always assumed it was an exaggeration like the rest of him. Of course, that could be the one part he's changed. Men can be weird about things like that.

"Getting used to me yet?" John asks, and Biro feels her chin jerk up.

"There's a lot to get used to," she admits. "But I'm working on it. Why don't you just close your eyes for a few minutes and relax?"

He smiles again as he closes his eyes, settling back against the pillow like he's in his favorite easy chair. She was right. He loves this, and they haven't even done anything yet.

Time to correct that. Biro wills a small stool into existence and settles comfortably on it, close enough to his ass to touch. She hooks her fingers in the straps and pulls him toward her, feeling his shiver through the harness.

Up close the sight of him is overwhelmingly close to real: the soft, wrinkled skin of his scrotum, the pulse visible against the taut skin of his cock, the hair he has in places where Dec was hairless. She wants to do so many things, but mostly she wants to make him beg. And maybe this isn't something they've explored before, but this is cyberspace, so she doesn't have to worry about disease transmission or cleanliness, and she's pretty sure she knows how he'll react.

She leans in and licks his perineum, then slips her tongue lower to touch his anus.

His body jerks and he lets out a soft, "Fuck."

She can't help grinning. "You weren't expecting that, were you?"

"No," he says. "God."

"Well, I don't have to do it again," she says. "I mean, if you don't want me to. I have plenty of other things I can do to you like this. Trust me, I'm just chock full of ideas, so if that wasn't working for you..."

"No," he says, and she can hear him swallow. "You could...do that again. Please."

Oh, God. He's begging already, and that does things to her insides she can't even begin to describe. "Sure," she says. "I can do that. If you really want me to." But she doesn't wait for a confirmation. She just pulls him toward her and presses her tongue against him, licking experimentally at first, and then exploring more boldly as he twitches and moans.

It's the idea of it, she thinks, as much as the sensation. She wonders if anyone's ever done this to him before, and she feels a peculiar stabbing feeling in her chest. Somehow it's different now that he's not a blank slate. Well, she didn't ever really think she was the first person he'd done this sort of thing with. She didn't even think she was his first cyberdate. But now she wishes she knew him well enough to ask.

She wishes she knew him well enough to ask a lot of things, and wow, this really wasn't supposed to work this way. She's never been a romantic. She never really saw the point of going all google-eyed over another ordinary human being. But now that he's real to her, she's starting to wonder if this is what it feels like.

Because having him like this, cuffed and spread and dangling while she teases him with her tongue, well, she could learn to crave this. It wouldn't be much harder than breathing.

She strokes the backs of his thighs with her thumbs, pressing harder with her tongue and listening as the noises he's making go up in pitch. He gasps every time her tongue pushes against the rim of his sphincter, and she knows what he wants next. It's easy enough to slide a finger up next to her tongue and slip it inside him; easy enough to find his prostate and stroke it while he bucks against the straps and swears.

He's still Dec, all right. In all the ways that matter.

She pulls her mouth away and gives him three fingers, straightening up off the stool as she works so she can see him better. His cock is still full against his belly and there's a smear of semen in his stomach hair. His head is thrown back, his eyes closed, and maybe he doesn't look like anything she's ever wanted, but she's not inflexible. She's pretty sure she can learn to crave this, too.

"That's good, John," she says, sliding her fingers out and then in again. "That's right, you can take it. You can take a lot more than this, can't you?"

He doesn't open his eyes, but his lips twitch. "Yeah."

"Well, let's give it a whirl, then." She pulls her fingers out of him and pushes the stool back so she can stand. She feels a little self-conscious for a moment, but his eyes are still closed, so she strips quickly and then directs the interface to give her a strap-on. She's done this once before with him, but she was Valerie and he was tied up face-down, and it feels completely different like this. Especially when she realizes his eyes are half-open, watching her.

She feels her face heat and doesn't try to tamp it down even though she knows she could. This is her, and he asked for it. And his cock is still just as hard as it was a few moments ago.

She lowers the sling with a thought and a tug, until he's exactly at the right height. Then she lines her cock up, wraps her fingers into the straps next to his hips, and pushes into him.

He makes a wordless noise, somewhere between a groan and a gasp, and she sees his cock jerk. "That's it," she says, and she's kind of breathless, too. "That's it, John, just take it."

"God," he says. "Lindy..."

She feels a rush of blood everywhere. It's not that she really cares all that much what he calls her; it's that he obviously thinks of her like that, which means he's not thinking of Valerie and he's not thinking of anyone else. She can't stop herself; she fucks into him hard, and the interface translates it as a stroke of pure pleasure, like it's connected directly to her clit. She didn't ask for that, or maybe she did; she has no idea anymore. All she knows is that he's making more gasping, needy noises and she's fucking him and she never wants to stop.

She uses the sling in counterpart to her hips, rocking him onto her and back off again, and she can see the muscles in his legs tense, his heels pointing sharply in the stirrups. It's fast and fierce, but she doesn't know how to slow down, Not when he opens his eyes and looks at her like that.

"Lindy," he gasps again, and suddenly she's close. Really, really close, and she's not sure she's going to be able to keep this up if she comes.

She strokes into him and holds it like that, reaching up to free both of his hands.

He lifts his head, brows crumpled in confusion, and wraps his hands around the bar they were cuffed to. "What are you..."

She pulls out and strokes back in, making them both shudder. "I need you," she says between breaths, "to suck yourself off."

"Holy shit." His eyes are wide, but his hands come down and grab the straps that are suspending his ass, and he curls up as she strokes in a second time. "I can't..."

"Yes," she says, "you can. Come on now, you know I've seen you do it before."

"Fuck," he says, and bends, impossibly, down to get his mouth on his cock. She pumps in as he swipes the head with his tongue, pumps in again as he gets his lips around it, and then he lets out a low groan and she sees him fountain into his own mouth. Semen dribbles out everywhere, and when he pulls back the next spurt hits him in the face.

It's too much for her. She feels her own orgasm crest as he spurts again, and then she's crying out and pumping into him with short, sharp jerks as he slowly settles back in the straps, spent.

She's there with him in a moment. She banishes the strap-on to the proverbial bit bucket and climbs into the sling harness on top of him, lowering his legs as she goes and stretching out across his messy stomach. It's not like she cares; she won't have to clean up afterwards. But apparently he does, because he wipes his face with his hand before she gets there.

"Hi," he says, and she can't help the giggle that escapes her.

He grins, and then they're kissing, the sling swaying as her hands stroke his face and his arms go around her. Biro closes her eyes, but it doesn't feel like Dec; she's firmly with John now, and she doesn't even know when that happened.

He tastes like his own semen and she revels in the knowledge that she's responsible for that. She probably makes herself a little obvious, tasting the skin across his cheek before returning to his mouth one more time, but he doesn't seem to mind. He kisses her back with surprising intensity, considering how hard they both just came. And when they finally take a breather, his eyes don't leave hers.

She's suddenly acutely aware of the press of his bare skin against hers. Of the fact that she's naked in his arms. It's funny how that's suddenly more intimate than licking his asshole.

"Hey," he says, and one finger strokes her cheek. "This wasn't so bad, right?"

She can't help it. She laughs again. "Well, I suppose that's one way of putting it, although not exactly what I would have chosen."

"Okay," he says, like he doesn't know what that means. Like he's the one who's insecure, and she feels another rush, like when he said her name.

"Oh, don't be ridiculous. I mean, sure, there's the inherent impossibility of truly understanding another person's point of view, but I think in this case it's safe to say we're both pretty damn satisfied."

His face relaxes into a smile. "Guess you got used to me, after all."

"I'm getting there," she says. It's easier to think about it that way.

"Good," he says, and kisses her again.

"Well," she says eventually, even though she really doesn't want to, "I expect it's that time. We can't stay here forever."

His brows crumple just a little. "I was kind of hoping for a few more minutes."

"Oh, all right." She's not an ogre, after all. "Just don't fall asleep."

"Wasn't planning to," he says, and his arm around her moves, his hand stroking her back. "I've got better things to do."

She tucks her head against his shoulder and lets him pet her. It's surprisingly relaxing. "I kind of wish we could," she says. "But Dr. Keller thinks too much time spent in the system could interrupt our circadian rhythms, and I have to concur. There's simply no point in taking unnecessary chances."

His hand on her skin is hypnotic. "It's only a problem in here."

"I'm sorry?" Maybe it's the way he's touching her, but she has to be confused, because that can't mean what it sounds like.

"You know," he says. "The sleeping together thing."

"I understood that part," she says. "It's the implication I'm not following. Are you suggesting that we take this out of cyberspace? Because, you know, just because we're compatible here, it doesn't mean we'll get along out there. I don't even know you."

His hand stops moving. "You know me," he says roughly. "You know stuff about me no one else in the whole damn city knows."

"Maybe some things," she says. She has to be practical, even though her heart is beating fast and her face is flushing again. "But let's face it: we don't know anything about each other in nonsexual situations. We might very well drive each other crazy. I mean, maybe you haven't noticed it, which I could understand given the distraction of the sex and all, but I sometimes have a tendency to talk a little bit too much. Especially when I'm nervous, which apparently would be now."

"Hey," he says, his hand coming up to stroke her hair, "it's cool. I like how you talk."

She can't help lifting her head to look at him, but he's looking right back at her like he means what he says. "Really?"

"Yeah," he says. His hand is still on her hair. "Sometimes you, you know. Say the stuff I can't."

"Wow," she says. "That actually makes a certain amount of sense. Well, as long as I'm saying the things you want me to say, although I don't imagine there's any guarantee of that."

"I don't need guarantees," he says.

Her mind is still racing, leaping through the possibilities and implications. "Wait," she says, and it feels strange to think it, but she can't leave this unsaid. "Are you saying you want to have sex in the real world, too?"

He shifts under her like he's embarrassed. "We don't have to."

"But you want to," she presses, because she has to know.

His eyes find hers. "Yeah."

"You understand it wouldn't be the same," she says. "Well, not that it couldn't be good, of course, but a lot of the things we do in here just wouldn't be possible out there."

"I know," he says, stroking her hair. "It wouldn't have to be a scene. We could just, you know, do whatever."

Her face goes warm, thinking about it. She's not naive; she knows that the potential for awkwardness and mistakes would go up tenfold in the real world. But there's something undeniably, yes, kinky about the thought of seeing him the way he really is, of touching his skin without the barrier of the interface. Even if it does mean needing to worry about safety and birth control and whether she's remembered to shave her legs.

"No need to decide right now," he says, his hand migrating down to her shoulder and squeezing. "Take your time."

"Okay." She can live with that. "So you're saying we'll just play this whole thing by ear?"

"Works for me," he says, and then he kisses her again like they have all the time in the world.

--

"Playing it by ear" is considerably harder than she was anticipating. For two days she doesn't even see him, and she's starting to get cranky about it even though she knows that's not fair. Atlantis is a big city and they move in completely different circles. In the ordinary course of things, she doesn't usually see him more than three or four times a week, and that's if she's looking. And given the way they left things, she's really not sure he'd even say "hi" if he saw her.

But she can't help herself. She can't stop thinking about him. She wants to see him -- even at a distance would be fine. A glimpse of his hair, maybe, or that loping walk of his, and how is it possible she noticed that when she's never really paid attention to him before?

She's so far gone she gets herself a late-night cup of tea at the mess, but he doesn't show, and she eventually has to head for bed. Alone.

It's only when she passes Ms. Emmagan's partner in the hall the next morning and sees little Torren toddling after him that she realizes what she's missed. Moments later she's on her computer, checking the mission board, and damn it, John's team has been offworld for a day and a half.

She feels like a fool. She can't believe she didn't think to check. She wishes he'd told her, but then, why would he? He probably just assumed she'd check the board if she wanted to know.

The schedule lists a gate address but nothing else, and it's not a planet she knows anything about. There's no anticipated return time posted, so Biro keeps the board open in a spare window as she works. She figures someone will post a status change when they come in, and fortunately she's crunching numbers today.

Or she's trying to. She's a little distracted wondering why anyone thought it was a good idea to let him offworld with a sprained wrist. She doesn't know if he's still using the splint because she hasn't seen him in person and she didn't think to ask in cyberspace, but even if he's out of it, there's no way he can be a hundred percent. And it's his right wrist. He needs that stable to hold his gun. If he's out there holding a gun.

Damn it, she doesn't know. She doesn't know anything, and it's killing her.

She's staring blanky at her screen when Dr. Aga comes into the lab and stops at Dr. Cole's workstation. Normally Biro would just ignore their gossip, but she's too rattled to tune it out.

"Tip for the day," Dr. Aga says, taking a sip from her mug of coffee. "Don't cross Keller. She's on a rare tear. Nearly bit Zarnoff's head off when he botched a blood scan."

Cole swivels her chair, her face sympathetic. "Let me guess. McKay's not back yet?"

"Four hours overdue," Aga says. "You'd think it was four days."

Biro feels the words settle in her stomach like cold lead. Four hours isn't that long, but if Dr. Keller's worried, she probably has a good reason. She must know what the mission's about.

Suddenly Biro can't take it. She can't just sit here, not knowing anything about anything. In a moment she's on her feet, brushing past a surprised Aga and Cole on her way out the door. The last thing she hears is a puzzled, "What's got into her?" but she doesn't have the time or the energy to care.

The infirmary is quiet, a couple of patients in beds and a consultation going on at the far end. Dr. Keller looks up from her computer as Biro approaches. She looks a little tired, maybe, but not particularly upset.

"Dr. Biro," she says, smiling like she always does. "What can I do for you?"

That's when Biro realizes she doesn't have a cover story or any reason to be asking about John's team. "Oh, nothing in particular," she says. "I'm just, you know, stretching my legs. It gets kind of stuffy in the lab."

Keller's smile twitches. "So of course you came here."

"I was looking for a change of scenery," Biro says, "and I figured, what better place?"

Keller laughs. "You really should get out a little more," she says. "There's more to life than work, you know."

Biro can't help a strangled laugh. Wow, if Keller only knew. "That's good advice," she manages to say. "Not that either of us is saying work is unimportant, of course, because you know I always say--"

"Listen," Keller says. "I'm really sorry, but I have some things I need to be doing right now."

"Of course you do," Biro says, feeling her heart sink. She's blown her chance. And maybe she should have just come right out and asked, but she can't do that. John agreed to play it by ear, but she's pretty sure he was thinking about the private stuff. He certainly never said anything about making their relationship public. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be a distraction, well, obviously not to anyone but myself."

"So I'll just be getting back to work then," Keller says, but there's something in her voice, a noticeable crack, and suddenly Biro knows the gossips weren't wrong.

"Dr. Keller," she says, "are you okay? I mean, I'm sorry if I'm overstepping professional bounds, here, but you don't really sound that great."

"I'm fine," Keller says quickly with a little purse of her mouth.

"Is this about Dr. McKay's team being offworld?" Biro says, and it's suddenly not just fishing but genuine compassion. She has a feeling she may be one of the few people who understand what Keller's going through right now.

"Really," Keller says, "it's fine. What's a few hours, right? I know they've been a lot later before, and there are plenty of reasons why they might not be answering their radios. I'm sure Mr. Woolsey's right and they don't need a rescue team yet."

"You're sure?" Biro says, fighting a sudden spike of fear. She knew Keller must have had a good reason for her worry.

But Keller's not really paying attention. "I just...I can't help thinking I shouldn't have given them the green light to go. I mean, it was my call and I could have scrapped the whole mission based on the colonel's wrist alone, but it was supposed to be a diplomatic thing."

Biro's pulse is pounding. "How bad was it?" she hears herself say. "Was he able to use it at all, or was it still in the splint? Because I saw him with it a couple of weeks ago and I have to say, it didn't look good, particularly the way he was favoring it, and if he needs to fire a gun..." She breaks off, suddenly aware of what she's doing. "Oh, God. I'm sorry. I'm not asking you to break confidentiality."

Keller's looking at her strangely. "Of course you aren't."

"It's not like I would have any reason to," Biro says with a laugh that sounds false, even to her. "I mean, I obviously don't have any kind of personal stake in..."

But Keller's hand is flying to her radio. "This is Keller," she says. Her voice is wobbly, but as she listens, her face breaks into an impossibly bright smile. "Yes," she says. "That's great. Thank you. And tell Mr. Woolsey I want to do post-mission check-ups on all of them, no excuses."

Biro feels like the spring that's been winding her tight has broken, and it's uncoiling inside her, leaving her limp. "Colonel Sheppard's team is back," she says.

Keller's smiling ear to ear. "They're fine," she says. "Perfectly fine."

"That's great," Biro says, but the words stick strangely in her throat. John's okay. She was worrying for nothing. But she wants to see him now, so badly it's almost a physical pain.

"Yeah," Keller says, still smiling. "It really is."

What she needs, Biro realizes wildly, is a plausible reason to stick around the infirmary. There are any number of things she can come up with; heck, she could just rescan some of the tissue cultures she's working with. That wouldn't even be useless, and then she'd be here when John comes in.

She almost says something. Almost. And then she realizes that if she's here, she'll give herself away. She'll say something inappropriate or simply stare too long, and everyone will notice and she'll end up embarrassing John.

She can't do that. She's not like Dr. Keller or Sergeant Banks or Kanaan. She's just someone John occasionally likes to have cybersex with. She doesn't have a right to wait for him.

But she wants that. She wants it desperately. And she wishes she knew if "playing things by ear" means she'll ever have a chance of getting it.

"Dr. Biro?" Keller says, and Biro realizes she's just standing there.

"I have to go," she says, and gets out of there as fast as she can.

The rest of the day is completely shot. She sits in front of her screen idly poking numbers and doing her best to remember not to save any changes. She hears the eddy and flow of the open lab around her: Dr. Aga and Dr. Niazi going on break together; Dr. Renshaw swearing over his microscope; Dr. Niazi coming back with Dr. Cole in tow.

And then, suddenly, the noise stops. She hears footsteps, and then, impossibly, Dr. Cole's voice saying, "Colonel, this is a surprise. What can we do for you?"

Biro's heart is pounding so loud she can swears she can hear it echoing.

"I'm looking for Doc Biro," John says, and she turns around in her chair in time to see Dr. Cole pointing him in her direction. He catches her eye across the room and smiles.

"Thanks," John says to Cole, and comes over with his deceptively lazy stride. He leans against the closest lab table. "Hi."

He looks like himself. Just exactly like himself. He's not wearing the wrist brace but he's using the other arm to lean on, so Dr. Keller's probably right that he's not fully healed. But he's smiling at her like he means it and her heart does a couple of backflips.

She can't believe he's here. In her lab. To see her.

"Hi," she manages to say. She's fairly sure she sounds like a teenager talking to her first crush. She's dead certain the entire lab is listening to them.

"We just got back," he says, like that isn't the most obvious thing on the planet.

"So I heard," she says with an awkward little laugh. "You know how the grapevine is. No news too small."

"Yeah." He just leans there, looking at her for a long moment, and she, Lindy Biro, officially voted biggest motormouth of the Class of '83, can't think of a thing to say. "Hey," he says, like he just had an amazing idea, "you free for lunch?"

She doesn't need to check her watch; it's midafternoon. "I'm sorry," she says. "I ate hours ago. You know how it is if you don't keep to a schedule. Your whole day falls apart."

"Right," he says, bringing his injured arm up to rub the back of his neck. "Sorry, gatelag. I get a little mixed up sometimes."

That's when it hits her. She's just turned down a date. Sure, it was only lunch in the mess, but it was a chance to be with him. In public. "Oh," she says, "but it's been a long afternoon. I mean, I'm sure I could use a snack if you're, you know, looking for company."

His smile spreads slowly until it's so bright she almost has to look away. "Cool," he says. "Shall we?"

Suddenly she remembers she's in an open lab, surrounded by her colleagues. Dr. Renshaw is staring fixedly at his petri dishes. Dr. Cole is looking at her screen. But both Dr. Aga and Dr. Niaz are staring openly, like they can't believe their eyes.

"Absolutely," Biro says, and pushes back her chair. She keeps her chin up as she walks through the lab at John's side. She doesn't let her eyes stray to either side, but she hears the whispering start before she's even out the door.

"Well," she says when they're out of earshot, "I suppose that was only to be expected. It's been a pretty slow day for gossip, and they're not used to seeing me with visitors. Well, not visitors like you, anyway."

John looks over at her with a lifted eyebrow. "Crap," he says. "Did I just blow your geek cred?"

She's feeling lighter than air. "Well, you could have at least worn your glasses," she says with mock severity.

He lets out a choked sound, and then a guffaw. "I'll try to remember next time."

She grins and goes squishy inside at the thought of next time as they turn the corner and start up the stairs to the transporter. They pass an engineer in the stairwell, and he stares for just a moment too long. Or maybe it's all in Biro's head. She can't be sure.

"Look," John says as they reach the top, "I think I owe you an apology. Doc Keller said you were asking about me."

"Oh," she says, feeling her face go warm. "That was nothing, really. I was just, you know, curious, and I hadn't realized you were offworld, so..."

"I know," he says. "I should have told you. Guess I'm still getting used to this."

She lets her steps slow as they near the transporter. "You've had a lot longer to get used to it than I have. After all, you've known for a whole month."

"Yeah," he says, and stops next to her. They're just down the hall from the infirmary, but the corridor is empty for the moment, and he runs his hand through his hair. "I'm just not used to you knowing."

"Oh, I see," she says. "I suppose that does make quite a difference."

"Look," he says, and he almost sounds shy, "I don't give a damn what people think, but if you do, we can keep it on the down low."

She thinks about Dr. Aga's stares, about the whispering in the lab, and she suddenly wonders if she's just won the lab's betting pool. Not that she cares. "I'm pretty sure it's a little too late for that."

"We could say we're just friends," he says, and she thinks about the way they were staring at each other and laughs.

"That might have worked fifteen minutes ago, but I don't think anyone's going to buy it now." She touches his arm, suddenly sure of herself, and of him. "John, I realize this is going to be an adjustment for both of us, but if you want it, you should know that I do, too."

"Oh, yeah?" he says, and he sounds a little breathless, like he's thinking about exactly what she's thinking about.

"Yeah."

They're in a public corridor, even if it happens to be deserted at the moment. It's easy enough to put her mouth where her money is. Biro slides her hand to his neck, lifts up onto her tip toes, and touches her lips to his.

She means it to be a quick kiss, touch and go, but his mouth chases hers when she pulls away and somehow she ends up with her arms around his neck and his around her waist. It doesn't feel like kissing him in cyberspace. Well, his mouth moves against hers with the same, slow intensity. But everything feels more real: the prickle of his stubble, the pressure of his lips, the scent of him, warm and heady. He feels solid in her arms, real-life strong, real-life fragile. She can't help thinking about him offworld, wondering what he had to deal with and if he had to fire his gun, and then she realizes: she can ask. He may not be able to answer if it's sensitive business or whatever passes for classified information here in Pegasus. But she can ask. She has that right, now.

When he finally pulls back, his smile is soft around the edges. "No regrets?"

"No," she says. "You?"

"Not a chance," he says, and they enter the transporter together, side by side.