The aviators were a must. John even carried a back-up pair, just in case. He laughed off comments about them, turning everything into a joke, mostly about himself. Anyway, Antarctica was a bright place, and he never wanted to be snow blind.
By the time he managed to get his 'copter (Air Force general very much intact, thanks to him) to the outpost, he was glad for the extra pair of sunglasses. Diving head first into a snowbank had destroyed his favorites.
"Don't touch anything, Major," O'Neill drawled. "And you can lose the glasses."
Now was the time for a sarcastic comeback, but John felt like growling, not teasing, after that rough ride. "I'm not in the mood to have my tail pulled."
O'Neill made a show of checking John's ass. "Not going to pretend to understand."
"Good." John crossed his arms and wished for an out of the way place to sit for a second. Adrenaline was starting to make him edgy. O'Neill wandered off, muttering about someone named Daniel, and John took a deep breath and tried to work the shakes out.
That thing had tried damn hard to blow him out of the sky, and his keen ears picked up someone joking about it. Joking. He stormed that direction, ready to tear someone limb from limb.
"You! You're the one who nearly blew me up?" John could hear the growl in his voice. Maybe he was getting old or something, but it just wasn't funny at all.
The man's hair nearly stood on end. "What? No! I mean, yes! But it was an accident! We're dealing with technologies that..."
John tuned him out, captivated by the sight of an actual chair. He stalked over to it, took a delicate sniff, and didn't listen to the warning at all. It felt good, even though it was metal, and he leaned back, almost relaxing. Time eased away, and then a man's voice brought it sharply back into focus.
"Major, think of where we are in the solar system!"
"Is he... purring?"
"I told him not to touch anything!"
With a snap, John did it, throwing up a map of their system onto the ceiling above him. He narrowed his eyes, forcing himself to coherent thoughts. "I did that?"
"This changes everything," O'Neill said. "Major, go with Dr. Beckett. Stay with him until I send a security detail."
Leaving the chair was hard, but John heaved himself out, letting his fingertips linger on the armrest. "Yes, sir," he said, scanning the small crowd of gaping people. "Which one is Beckett?"
"That would be me." Beckett – the guy who'd tried to kill John - waved his hand in the air. John sighed, knowing this couldn't be good.
"Can't I have him first?" the blond guy in an orange fleece whined. "There's so much he could do!"
John tilted his head, assessing, searching for a hint of scorn. The guy seemed sincere, no smell of ridicule on him. John looked at the floor, avoiding their curious faces. "I could go back to my 'copter and pretend this never happened?"
"Too late," O'Neill said with a groan. "Go with the doc."
"Yes, sir." John wanted to protest, maybe cling to the chair. Right now, no one except O'Neill knew what John was, but by the end of the hour, everyone on this base would know, and the ridicule would start all over again. He was damn tired of it. At least at McMurdo they left him alone.
O'Neill put his hand on John's shoulder. "He won't hurt you."
"That's what they all say." John shrugged the hand away. "I'll go. I follow orders," he said, daring O'Neill to challenge that.
"Usually." O'Neill grinned, taking the sting out of the word. "Everyone, back to the conference room. Beckett, keep him until I send for him."
John tucked his proverbial tail between his legs and slunk after the doctor, down circular hallways, past hurrying scientists, to what was obviously a small infirmary.
"Up on the table. I'll need blood." Becket pointed at a gurney. "Glasses off, please."
"I'd rather not." John slid up on the gurney, trying to turn off a lifetime of painful memories that all started like this. "So I sat in a chair, big deal!"
Beckett strode back to him, white lab coat flapping now. "It lit up for you like a Christmas tree. That means you have unique genes."
Growing up with unique genes was hell. John shrugged off his jacket, reluctant to roll up his sleeves. "I never wanted to be special."
"Well, laddie, it's not all bad. I have the gene too." Beckett smiled at him. John narrowed his eyes in disbelief, taking another look and smell of the man. It just wasn't possible. Beckett motioned to a nurse. "Four vials please."
Slowly, John rolled up his right sleeve, keeping his arm turned so the hairiness of his arm was less visible. The nurse made no comment, just sticking him with a needle and drawing off the vials. It didn't hurt, and he made sure to control his breathing. After a quick band-aid, Becket gave him a pat on the knee.
"Now we'll get a complete exam." Beckett held out a robe. "Change in there."
John drew a breath over his teeth, making a quick decision. "No."
Beckett frowned and edged closer. "Did you not understand? I need to know everything about you."
"Send for my medical file. It's very complete." John hated how thick it was. He buttoned his shirt sleeve and shrugged on his jacket before hopping down. He would be outed before the end of the day, but he would not go quietly into the humiliation this time. "The general ordered me to go with you. He said nothing about getting naked. I'll wait over there for my detail."
There was a long moment of silence. John went over to sit in a tattered folding chair, crossing his legs as if he were relaxed, but then Beckett moved to stand almost directly over him. Tamping down his instinct, John didn't even smile up at him.
"Oh," Beckett said. He ran his hand through his hair, taking several steps back.
John knew the game was up. A slight smell of embarrassment crept through the air, and John nodded. "Right. So. No, to the exam." Curiosity got the better of him. "How did you guess?"
"Believe me, you pass for Human, but I'm a geneticist." Beckett flushed at John's sharp look. "Fine, it was the ears."
"They're not that pointy!" John protested, wishing again he had the courage to bob them. He ducked his head, disgusted, but it switched to surprise when Beckett sat down next to him. Not many Humans had the courage to sit next to him, once they knew the truth.
"Major," Beckett said, reaching to touch him, but then drawing his hand back, "you have no idea what this means. There is no way on god's green earth you could have the gene!"
"You're right. I have no idea what you're talking about," John agreed, but he could see that Beckett was stunned. "On the other hand, I'm the poster child for shit that shouldn't happen." He slid off his aviators, giving Beckett a good view of his eyes. "This time, I may not cooperate with your urge to dissect me, and that other guy's plan to use me."
"Dear god, man, I would never." Beckett looked stricken. "And Rodney is harmless. He just wants you to turn on the odd Ancient gadget." He shook his head, getting to his feet. "This changes everything. Maybe I've been... No, I'm sure I was right about... but..."
John slid his sunglasses back on his face and settled in for a long day. Somewhere, the brass was fighting over who would get him next. Unfortunately, it looked like he was valuable again. He'd hoped when they'd exiled him here that it meant they didn't care any longer. That he could fade away into obscurity, no longer a military asset. He had no illusions that they'd actually discharge him, let him go free, but a small out-of-the-way base would be fine. Some peace and quiet, and he'd thought maybe McMurdo would be that spot. He'd been fine with it. He still got to fly, no one harassed him. He liked it here.
"May I please have a hair sample? A cutting of your nails?"
The questions shook John out of his wool-gathering. "Aren't you going to sedate me and take what you want? Spinal fluid? Biopsy? Shave my head?" The truth of what he expected slipped past his rule about keeping his mouth shut. It'd been happening a lot lately. Well, he was getting old, and Felines had a reputation for getting ill-tempered after thirty. "How about a snip of my liver?"
Beckett swallowed hard. "Why did they sedate you?"
The odd question made John pause to think. "They were afraid."
"Oh, aye. That makes sense." Beckett winced. "I'd hurt someone who shaved my head too."
For some odd reason, that made John laugh. "Not the spinal tap? The hair?"
After a second, Beckett laughed a little. "Man has to have his dignity."
Dropping his voice to a growl, John let his temper out to play. "I just pass for Human. I'm not, remember?"
A dark flush worked its way up Beckett's throat. He looked like a deer caught in headlights. There was no telling what Beckett would've said, and John would never know because a Human bulldozer forced its way between them.
"Are you done?" the blond guy demanded. "How long can it take to draw some blood? Shake your rattles? Carson?"
Beckett's eyes met John's over the guy's shoulder. "He has to wait here, Rodney. You heard the general."
"Yes, yes, whatever. They can walk on down to my lab when they show up. If they show up. O'Neill was yelling at Daniel when I left, and I have the feeling they'll be at it awhile."
The guy, Rodney, turned, facing John squarely. "You'd rather come with me, right? Initialize some technology?"
Taken somewhat aback, John eased to his feet, just in case this crazy Rodney guy did something physical. "I think Dr. Beckett plans to shave my head. The technology will have to wait."
Rodney whirled the other direction. "What? Has the cold finally driven you mad? Shave his head? I knew you were nothing but a voodoo priest!" His hands started moving wildly, punctuating his insults, and Beckett fired back sarcastic comments of his own.
And John took a very deep breath. He sorta liked these two guys. They weren't your average Air Force civilian contractors. He decided to take pity on Beckett, who was getting his skin ripped off by Rodney. Gently, John tapped Rodney on the shoulder.
Rodney flailed John's direction, and John pocketed his aviators. His green cat eyes dilated and contracted in the light, and Rodney's mouth flapped open.
"I have to stay here." John tried to smirk, bracing himself for any reaction. Some people blathered on about God and abomination, some called him an animal, and some fainted. John shut Rodney's hanging jaw with one gentle finger. "If you get a few things, I could look at them while I wait for my detail."
Head whipping back and forth, Rodney pointed at Beckett. "You will not shave him while I'm gone!"
Slumping down in the cold chair, John smothered his laughter. Beckett grinned at Rodney's retreating back. "Annoying bugger."
"He had a few good points." John knew he'd regret it, but he was going to give Beckett a break. "Yeah, you can have a few samples, but I'm not getting in that paper outfit."
"It's a deal." Beckett's smile could've lit up the room. "I feel like I need to pinch myself. This has to be a crazy dream. Feline and ATA positive! You're a damn miracle!"
"So exciting," John drawled, rolling his eyes.
By the time the security detail arrived to escort John to some unknown location, the jig was up. He could smell it in the air. The Marines were nervous, more serious than a heart attack. Several nurses had seen John's eyes, so he wasn't surprised, just resigned to the usual stupid questions, unabashed hatred, and the occasional shove.
"No, no, no! I'm not done by a long shot!" Rodney jumped up and got right in their faces. "Go tell O'Neill to--"
"Rodney, let the men do their jobs." John wasn't going to bother with his aviators now until he went back outside. If he went back outside. He moved a touch slower than usual to let the Marines settle down. "Maybe I'll see you later."
"As if I'm letting you out of my sight!" Rodney started packing his gear.
The Marines pointed, and John went, keeping his hands at his sides. No reason to provoke them.
"Yeah, you're a good kitty," the Marine on the left muttered, and John marked him for trouble later.
Everyone in the room stopped talking when the Marines opened the door for John. John's gaze went to O'Neill and stayed there. The general was the only who mattered to John's future. He assumed an easy parade rest, not even pulling out a chair.
"Major, I won't lie. This isn't going to be easy. As of right now, your orders are in limbo." O'Neill took a breath, and Rodney came bursting through the door, mostly yelling, and it was like the room exploded. Everyone had something to say. John shuffled until he could put his back to a wall and watched them argue, picking up a bit of conversation here and there.
O'Neill smacked the back of Daniel's head, and Rodney stopped yelling at someone long to stab his finger in John's general direction. John leaned back slightly and crossed his arms, settling in to wait. He was used to it.
When his father had turned him over to the police, they'd made him wait for days. A thirteen-year-old kid, and it'd taken them practically forever to get him transferred, in shackles, to the Center for Feline Control on the East Coast. It'd been a hard lesson to learn. That his life didn't belong to him any longer. That he wasn't Human. That he was now the property of the U.S. Government.
The waiting had driven those points home. He blinked lazily, amused at Rodney's continued insistence that John be posted to the labs immediately.
O'Neill stood with a distinct air of disgust. "Shut up!"
Everyone quieted down, except Rodney, until the red sweater lady pulled him into a chair.
"Major Sheppard is in the Air Force, which I also happen to belong to, and I'm sure we'll work out his status soon enough. In the meantime, Daniel, find him some quarters." O'Neill glared at Rodney. "The rest of you can wait until his clearance is decided, and he's read into the project."
John nearly laughed at that, nothing like closing the barn door after the horse was out.
"Dr. Weir, I'll put your suggestion forward to the proper people. Daniel, enough with the equal rights stuff. Not my decision." O'Neill met John's eyes. "I need a pilot to get back."
"I'd be happy to fly you, sir." John would like another taste of the sky before they made him wait in this over-sized igloo for year or two while they poked him with needles and stuck him in chairs.
"But you're a Feline," the lady – Dr. Weir – said into the silence. "It seems a contradiction."
"That's me, ma'am." John was keenly aware that he was one of a kind. A few Felines were in the Armed Services, but he was the only pilot. "I never Switch under stress."
"Never?" Her eyebrows went up.
"Never." John kept his voice cool and clear. "General?"
O'Neill ruffled Daniel's hair. "I'll be back soon enough." He made his way around the table, took John by the arm, and they were moving back to the elevator. "Did you give Carson some blood to keep him happy?"
"Of course, sir." John got his aviators out to combat the glare from the snow. "Did you want me to stay at McMurdo or return here?"
"You better come back, or McKay will hunt you down." O'Neill barked a short laugh, shooing away the airman who wanted to help take them up top in the elevator. "I'd feel sorry for you, but he's been chasing me for years to turn on his whoo-sits and whatsits."
That made John pause. "You have the gene?"
"In spades." O'Neill flashed him a cocky grin. "Welcome to a very elite club."
"Great. Another one." John slumped his shoulders, not liking the sound of all this. Being a Feline was bad enough. "I gotta tell you the amenities in my other club are few and far between."
"I know." O'Neill pushed the button to take them to the surface in the noisy elevator. "But look at you. You're a pilot. Best job in the world."
John got the hint to stop complaining. "Yes, sir." He wouldn't make that mistake again, and he couldn't figure out why he'd made it in the first place. Chances were good that he was getting old, cranky, and someone would figure it out and have him put down. "My apologies."
"They teach you to apologize for having opinions in cat school?"
To avoid answering that, John grabbed his gear from where it'd been stored and picked up the pace, glad to see his 'copter. He strapped in, relieved he didn't have to show O'Neill the ropes. The blades started to turn as he flicked switch after switch, and the routine calmed him.
O'Neill put on his helmet and mike. "You've never changed under stress?" he asked, loud and clear.
Ramping the engines up, John threw him a grin. "Not even when they set me on fire." He double-checked everything, received clearance, and put his 'copter into the air. The flight back was remarkably quiet, nothing tried to kill them, and John made sure to land without even a bump.
O'Neill gave the signal to power down. "You can have someone ferry you back over in the morning."
"Yes, sir." John would make sure to take his magazines.
"Daniel will get you quarters. Honestly, I recommend you stay in them, avoid McKay, and try to keep one step ahead of Carson and his needles." O'Neill patted him on the shoulder. "I'll be back."
"Thank you, sir." John went through his checklist, instead of watching O'Neill leave to catch a cargo plane to somewhere warmer. A few more hours of freedom, and then he'd be confined to the igloo. He was long past cursing his genetics, but this seemed like another stout kick to the testicles.
A detail wasn't waiting for him at the igloo when he stepped down from his 'copter, and that threw him for a loop. He hated to stand there, looking like an idiot, so he retraced his steps to the elevator and tried to look at the airman like he knew what he was doing.
"Welcome back, sir."
"Thanks." John grimaced because he could hear the other pilot taking off with his 'copter. There went his ride, and he knew it wouldn't be coming back. He'd gotten attached to that one.
"Here you are." The airman opened the metal door for him when they got to the bottom level.
At a loss for where exactly he was supposed to go, John made a quick decision to find Daniel Jackson. The only question was where, so he wandered towards the chair. He wasn't surprised at all to see Rodney there.
"Hey, Rodney," John said, embarrassed at how glad he was to see someone he knew.
Rodney spun, face breaking into a huge grin that was a little intimidating. "Major! Excellent! Please tell me no one else has co-opted your time yet?" He rushed towards John, nearly bouncing on his toes.
John lifted his duffel bag. "Just got here. You know where Daniel Jackson is?" He tried not to lean away, really hoping Rodney wasn't one of those people who liked to touch. "I should report to him."
"Probably somewhere groaning over broken pots." Rodney rolled his eyes. "Do you have to wear the glasses? It's creepy."
"Most people think my eyes are creepy, not the glasses." But John tucked them away. Everyone here knew he was a Feline anyway. "Better?"
"Much." Rodney snatched up a tablet. "We'll go find Daniel, but I'm not letting you out of my sight."
"Now that's creepy." John smirked at the glare he received, following Rodney through rounded corridors and crowded labs until they found a room full of whiteboards. Standing in front of one, marker tapping his lips, was Daniel.
"Reporting as order, Dr. Jackson," John said before Rodney could open up a salvo of insults.
Daniel slowly turned, blinking rapidly behind glasses and saying nothing.
"He probably doesn't remember who you are," Rodney muttered. "Archeologists are not real scientists."
John leaned Rodney's way, whispering. "I think he can hear you."
"Call me Daniel, and hello." Daniel put the marker down, fussing with the cap. "Did I get you quarters?"
"Not that I'm aware of," John said, watching Rodney roll his eyes and look disgusted.
"Huh." Daniel frowned. "I thought I took care of that."
"Daniel, wake up and smell the coffee! I need him in the labs, not standing here watching your two brain cells bang together for the next twenty minutes while you figure out where you stashed him!" Rodney had a gift for insults. "Did you get him a room?"
"Pretty sure." Daniel nodded. "Maybe."
"Good god, I'm losing I.Q. points the more I stand here. The room next to mine is empty." Rodney made a shooing motion at the door. "I'll take him there. You go back to whatever plane of existence your brain is currently residing on!"
Daniel smiled. "Sounds good. Later, we need to get together and discuss..."
"Yes, yes, whatever." Rodney herded John back out into the hallway. "He should sleep more."
"You should give him a break." John enjoyed Rodney's flashing blue eyes. "He's only an archeologist."
After a second, Rodney laughed. "There for a moment, I thought I might have to lump you with the morons who dare to try to teach me manners."
"Not gonna happen." John stopped when Rodney did, watching him palm open a door. "No such thing as privacy here, huh?"
"Oh, that. All the doors open to me. Don't tell." Rodney looked slightly embarrassed. "I swear it's only because things keep breaking, and they keep sending me to fix them!"
"As long as I can lock it, we're good." John went inside and tossed his duffel on the lower bunk. He could smell a past resident, but it was dim. The room was clean, if sparse, no furniture at all except the beds. "I have a roommate?"
"No." Rodney eyed the bunks with distaste. "I could probably have it dragged somewhere else, if you want."
"Nope." John liked top bunks. He'd had worse billeting than this, even if a desk or dresser would've been nice. "Thanks." He stared at the door, concentrating, feeling something want to move. The door slid open. "Bye."
Rodney's eyes flicked from the door to him, and back again. "Oh, that was cool."
"Right." John wished there was a window. "I'll catch up with you in awhile. Haven't had my morning shower."
"Oh. Really? You won't ditch me?" Rodney looked oddly vulnerable for one second before trying to sneer. "Not that I care. It's just--"
"I'll want to eat. You can show me around." John unzipped his duffel, fishing out a towel. "So... bye?"
Rodney sighed and trudged out the door. John wondered if the guy would stand in the hallway for the next couple of hours. Fumbling with his brain, he got the door to lock before stripping off his clothes. Out of habit, he folded everything neatly, removing everything except his dog tag. He stretched, shaking a little, glad for the privacy, and Switched.
Stretching again, he slashed his tail back and forth, wishing he could go for a run, or a hunt, or really anywhere. He paced the room, sniffing and imprinting before launching himself at the top bunk. Jumping up and down from increasing distances kept him amused for a few minutes, and then he flopped to his back and put his paws in the air.
Some sunshine would've been nice.
To Rodney's credit, he wasn't lounging in the hallway when John finally emerged. The speed at which he showed up, however, gave John a clue to the fact that there were active surveillance cameras.
"Hey!" Rodney was somewhere between acting casual and desperate. "Hungry?"
"Starved." John noted a few passing people staring at him, but he kept moving. "What's good?"
"MREs?" Rodney trotted a little to get in front, and John got the message to slow down. He was always hungry after a Switch. Rodney turned a quick corner, and they queued up for a small selection of fresh food and a stack of MREs. John took one of everything before retreating to a corner where he could put his back to the wall. Rodney joined him with a couple of MREs.
"You are hungry." Rodney sat down across from him. "I figured you were anorexic, since you're so skinny."
"Were you born without the gene for social graces?" John laughed, wasting no time tucking into his food. Rodney shrugged, mouth full, and they ate without chatting. John was starting to think he could like this guy. It didn't happen very often, but Rodney had no smell of fear or lying. It was rare to find someone like him.
"You ate like it was your last meal." Rodney glowered at him. "How do you stay so thin?"
"Feline." John wiped his mouth and slugged back most of a bottle of water. Now that he was full, he glanced at some of the people in the cafeteria. Eyes shifted away, and guilt showed on several faces. "Did they stare at me the entire time?"
"It was like watching some sort of wolf go at a carcass." Rodney gave a mock shudder. "There's finally someone here with worse eating habits than mine."
John didn't mean to, but he burst out laughing. He smothered it, but Rodney grinned at him. They moved as one, ditching their trash and going to the hallway. Rodney suddenly looked worried, so John threw it out there. "Should we go play with the doodads now?"
Rodney's hands moved a mile a minute. "It's vital research." He paused. "And yes."
"Cool." John thought it had to be better than doing nothing, and he'd had a nap already. "You got snacks?"
"Hello, genius here." Rodney moved fast now, and John hustled to keep up with him. Back through more labs, they didn't stop until John could smell the unique scent of Rodney all over everything. It wasn't an office, but it was bigger than the smaller labs. "Nice place. Pretty sure you're not allowed to shackle me to that bench to get me to stay, so don't try."
"Only in my dreams." Then Rodney flushed red. "I mean... I'd never! Don't be stupid! Anyway, I'd use zip ties. I can steal those from the security guys."
"I'm so comforted." John found a stool and slouched onto it. "You do not want me to gnaw off my arm. Or, your arm." He grinned.
Rodney went pale. "No, no I don't." But there was no fear smell. "Let's crank up the space heater and get busy."
The cat inside John liked that idea.
"I thought cats were nocturnal!"
"But I haven't even scratched the surface!"
John sighed and yawned. The last ten or so hours had been interesting, and he'd been surprised how well they'd gotten along, but it was time to go to his quarters. "I need fur time before bed. I'll catch you later."
Rodney's mouth dropped open. John played that back and winced. He must be tired. "Sorry, I should've said, I need sleep. Later."
"Fur time? What? This is important research! I don't have time for you to laze about and eat catnip!"
"Do you have any?" John prowled close to him and sniffed deeply, liking the scent of him. Rodney froze in mid-rant; his eyes dilating. John flicked his tongue over his lower lip, unable to resist teasing. "You get some nip and we'll talk. Later."
Before Rodney could kick up another storm, John bolted for freedom. He'd had a good time, mostly, except for that one shiny bit that had sprayed him with fire suppressant, but Rodney was like the Energizer Bunny, unstoppable, and John needed sleep. He still couldn't believe he had the run of the outpost, no guards at all. Tomorrow, he might explore a little, see if he could go jogging. It was hard to tell the night from day stuck in this igloo, but his inner furball was itching, so it was time to go to bed.
They'd foisted any number of stupid classes off on him at the Center, but the one that stuck with him was Manage Your Inner Feline. It had sounded stupid, but the instructor had been a cop with years of experience in stressful situations. Switching could happen spontaneously under stress, but the cop had a theory. If you let your cat out every day, it was much more controllable.
It worked for John. Twice a day, whether it was convenient or not, he gave in to fur time, and his cat never gave him trouble. They had a truce. He knew it was ridiculous to think of the cat as a separate entity, but he did it. There'd been classes in that too. In his experience, the Felines who denied their cat or ignored their cat, were in for a world of hurt.
John prowled around his room, poking with his mind. After hours of handling Ancient technology, he had a much better sense of what he could do, and what it could do, which was just about anything. He was drawn to the area behind the bunks, so he spent fifteen good minutes shoving them against the other wall. Military issue, heavy, but he made sure they were straight before going to the spot.
Squatting down, he reached, seeing no seams, but as soon as his hand touched the wall, a drawer slid open. He dragged his fingers up and found five in total, big too. Smiling, he unpacked his duffel, organizing his clothes and putting all his books and magazines in the top drawer. Satisfied, he stuffed the duffel in the bottom one. Not a cozy room by any definition, but he'd rather have room to pace than furniture cluttering up the place.
Now, he stripped off his clothes, shut his eyes, and Switched. He pandered to himself by pacing. It was a shock when the door slid open. He drew back and then cautiously approached, ready to dive under the bed.
Right in front of the door was a big bowl of milk.
John was tempted to drop some scat in it. He shut the door and locked it with his mind, very cool, and then went back to pacing. Over the years, he'd taken his share of teasing, but he never backed down and emptying his anal glands in a locker or two usually ended the prank wars.
It was disheartening that it'd started so soon. He couldn't say he was surprised, however. It was damn strange, not knowing whose command he was under, and what they expected of him. No one had said a word about him helping out Rodney. No one had cared, but maybe he should've made a greater effort to find a commander, or colonel, or someone who outranked him. When he'd been sold to the Air Force, allowed to attend the Academy, he'd been told in no uncertain terms that the rank he achieved wouldn't be real, and he wouldn't make it past major. He hadn't cared a damn bit. All he wanted to do was fly.
Flying didn't look like it was in his future, just metal chairs and gadgets that liked his brain. He jumped up to the top bunk, glad it now faced the door, and curled into a ball, putting his tail over his eyes.
When the door chimed, John grumbled while extending his senses to find out who was on the other side. Before he could smell them, the door helpfully blinked transparent, and he saw Rodney, staring down at the bowl of milk with a quizzical look on his face.
With a grunt, John opened the door, knowing Rodney would come right inside. Rodney did, stopping barely past the door. It was always tricky, that moment when his co-workers saw him in his fur. He tried to avoid it altogether, but if Rodney was going to be a pest, he could get used to fur in the air. John yawned, flicked his tail rhythmically, and waited for the blowback.
"Really? You're going to laze about all day?" Rodney spun in a small circle. "Where'd your stuff go?"
John heaved himself down, noticing that Rodney didn't run out the door screaming, and went to the wall. He touched it with his paw, and the drawer slid right open.
"Wow." Rodney rushed over, peering down. "That's... wait... does my room have those? Damn it, it doesn't matter because I don't have the gene!" He huffed in annoyance. "God, this is unfair. I could get so much done if I did, and you, you big--"
Whipping around, John crowded him, chuffing and chirping.
"Okay, so I won't say that." Rodney lifted his hands in surrender. "Milk? Really? What asshole left that for you?"
Circling him, John had to control the urge to swat at Rodney's legs just to make him yowl. Rodney smelled good, and he wasn't scared at all. He just kept talking, like John would answer. It was almost more bizarre than the people who fainted.
"Major! Work! Now!" Rodney pointed at the door. "Unless you have some yarn that is far more interesting?"
That was low, and John grinned, flashing his teeth. Rodney didn't even seem to notice. "Do I need to brush you? You still have your dog tags on, I notice. Don't you worry about choking? Good god, I should've brought the haunch of a deer." He rubbed his forehead, wandering over to the bottom bunk and sitting down, slightly hunched. "Just my luck, I finally have someone to initialize Ancient artifacts, and he's more interested in napping."
John strolled to him and gave him a head butt to the orange fleece covering his belly. Rodney reached, hesitated, and then grabbed a pointy ear. John yowled dramatically, flopping half his body into Rodney's lap.
"You weigh a metric ton." Rodney oofed and pushed to no avail. "If I suffocate, O'Neill is going to be highly upset." Then he sighed. "So he won't care, but I'll be upset!"
It was a good point, and John shimmied up on the bunk, putting his head on Rodney's thigh. He shut his eyes and purred.
"You realize no one likes me, right? Not even the scrawny Czech guy?" Rodney took a deep breath and then put his hand on John's head, petting him with just the right touch. "Also, your teeth are really long."
John whistled, enjoying how Rodney blinked in surprise. He knew those things, but he didn't care. Cats liked who they liked, and his cat liked Rodney. John liked Rodney. He couldn't even say why.
"Cougars are weird," Rodney muttered.
"Do you always eat this much?" Rodney asked, waving his hand at John's tray.
"Switching takes a lot of energy." John leaned forward. "Do you have any deer haunch? It's my favorite."
"I no longer believe anything you say." Rodney fiddled with his MRE, seemingly bored.
John made sure to keep his voice low. "Do you have a family member who's Feline?"
Rodney slurped his coffee first. "No, but my great-aunt was remarkably hirsute. Maybe her father was a bear. She used to shave every day."
"I'm horrified by that." John didn't understand at all, and he wanted to. "Why aren't you scared of me?"
"Should I be? I thought you were sorta okay, not overbearing like some military guys. You're also a bit of a geek, with your Star Trek references, but if you plan to hunt me down and strip me for meat, I'd like a warning and an hour's head start." Rodney crossed his arms. "Two hours."
"Still wouldn't save you." John grinned. "Okay, whatever, I just, never met anyone who wasn't horrified, or terrified, or both."
"Morons." Rodney shrugged. "Are you done? I've wasted half the day with your grooming, fur flying everywhere, eating large quantities, and now with the non-stop talking."
"And that was just you." John liked teasing him, seeing him glare. "Okay, let's head to your lab, but are you sure there's no one I should report to?"
"O'Neill is in charge. You could go see Dr. Weir, but she's not military. There's a sergeant who's a pain in the ass." Rodney took his trash, John one step behind. "I really don't know. You could ask Daniel."
"Okay." John would do that, after he spent a couple of hours helping Rodney.
"It is not an electric toothbrush!" Rodney snatched it from him. "It's important technology!"
"If you have tooth decay. I crunch bones to keep my teeth clean." John loved it when Rodney's eyes widened.
Rodney edged away from him. "Okay, fine. It's a toothbrush."
"No, it's actually a part for something..." John pursed his lips . "Medical?" He tried to find words to convey the images. "Like some sort of scanner, maybe? If I see it, I'll know where it goes."
"That's reassuring." Rodney was looking daggers at him. "Toothbrush, my ass."
John grinned and eased up from his stool. He took a stretch and said, "I'm going to find Daniel. See if he has a real assignment for me."
"This is real!" Rodney waved another part at him. "Come on! One more!"
Shrugging, John got out of there, and unfortunately, nearly bowled over Beckett, who looked entirely too pleased to see him.
"Major! I was about to send a squad in to rescue you from Rodney's clutches!" Somehow Becket managed to get John moving towards the infirmary. "I was wondering if we could discuss your results."
"Why?" John was immediately suspicious. "No doctor has ever said anything to me besides 'hold still' and 'bend over.'"
Beckett turned big, blue, sad eyes on him. "I'm sorry, lad. After I read your file, I was amazed you were willing to even give me blood."
"Practice, Doc, practice." John hated pity, but he could see Beckett was truly sympathetic. "So I get a pass on all other tests in the future?"
"Ah, no." Beckett, at least, was honest. "For this program, I have to run a number of tests, regularly."
"Damn." John meant that. Since Rodney wasn't able to answer the question, John went after Beckett. "Who's the commander of this base?"
"General O'Neill. Whatever instructions he gave you, I'd follow them."
John stopped walking. "He told me to avoid you."
"Oh." Beckett slowed but didn't stop, forcing John to start after him. "Too late for that, huh?" And he grinned.
Tempted to take off running the other way, John was nonetheless curious about his results, and against his will, he found himself liking Beckett. They moved straight through the infirmary, nurses whispering, to a tiny office in the back.
Beckett pointed at the coffee pot. "Help yourself."
"Thanks." John got a cup to give his hands something to fiddle with while he got the bad news. "Am I dying of cancer?"
"Good god, no, man!" Beckett opened three laptops and started clicking. "Your case is a fascinating one."
John wanted to cover his eyes and whimper. "Please, my life is not fascinating. I'm a poster boy for the Feline underground movement. See that Sheppard Feline? Run for your life when the government comes to call."
Blinking several times, Becket frowned. "There's a movement?"
"I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." John hoped there was a movement, but he'd be the last Feline on Earth to know about it.
"You use humor as a defense mechanism. I'll make a note." Beckett went back to studying his data. "You shouldn't have both genetic mutations. It's not possible, but there you sit. I read in your file that your cat is a puma."
"Cougar, yes." John took a sip of coffee and grimaced at the taste. "This is awful."
"Oh, aye." Beckett might possibly have smirked for a half second, and John liked him even more.
"So I'm a talented cat. What's the big deal?"
"I wish you had years of schooling so I could explain it." Beckett's eyes flickered from screen to screen. "Can your cat work Ancient technology?"
"Yes." John wished he could flick his tail in irritation. "No, you may not have blood samples while I'm in my fur."
That got Beckett's attention. He sat up a bit straighter. "May I ask why not?"
"Are you a vet?" John crossed his legs and reviewed the path to his room and his locked door. "Do you know how much it hurts to be stabbed repeatedly by a needle with no hope of blood in sight?"
Beckett opened his mouth and then shut it. "That's a very good point." He frowned. "They didn't use a vet?"
"Of course not, just some nurse who thought my neck was a good spot to start jabbing, and she was one of the smarter ones." John wasn't doing that again. "I'm through being Mr. Nice Kitty. I've got a black mark, no possibility of career advancement, and now they've stuck me in an igloo. I have no incentive to cooperate."
"You aren't worried they'll..." Beckett stopped, turning somewhat pale.
"Put me down? Gas me?" John snarled. They'd kept him in line with that threat before, but he was done with that fear. His family had thrown him away like garbage. His only friend had died in Afghanistan, and they had no leverage now. "I'm not afraid any longer. Anyway, I'm an old puss."
Beckett's eyes bulged. "You're in excellent health! I will not have you talking like that!" He sighed loudly and shut one laptop after another. "Have you been read into the program?"
"No." John wasn't sure he wanted to be after the hints the Ancient technology had been giving him for the past two days. "O'Neill told me to wait and avoid you and McKay."
"Good luck avoiding Rodney." Beckett smiled now. "You have the strongest gene I've seen since I took a peek at O'Neill's. Rodney's like a bloodhound when it comes to his technology."
"He does keep tracking me down." John eased to his feet and put the horrible coffee on Beckett's desk. "Anything else?"
Beckett shrugged. "I suppose much of it can wait. If your knee aches, see me for Tylenol."
John doubted he would, but that made him think. "Is there a track? A gym? Some place to work out?"
"Has no one even given you a tour?" Beckett got to his feet with a grumble. "I suppose Rodney has kept you locked away, turning on his gadgets."
"Pretty much." John wasn't going to criticize Rodney, and some of that stuff had been pretty cool. "Do you have time to show me around, or do you have patients who need poking?"
"I'll make time. Least I can do since I nearly blew you out of the sky." Beckett flushed, grinning.
"Good point." John was going to call that marker in often. "I broke my best sunglasses because of you!"
"I'll find you another pair." Beckett didn't sound all that guilty. "Do you exercise daily?"
"I did." John needed it to keep his life in balance. He ambled along next to Beckett, enjoying the nickel tour. The base was bigger than it looked, having multiple levels. There wasn't really a gym, but there was a room with a treadmill and a few free weights. John would admit to some disappointment. "Maybe I can run outside."
"Are you daft?" Beckett shook his head. "You're no snow leopard!"
John shrugged, agreeing, but he had to do something. "Maybe Rodney would jog with me."
"Maybe you'll sprout wings and fly." Beckett laughed, moving the tour along until they ended up back in the chair room. John touched it with a finger, spinning it. Beckett moved closer to him. "No samples?"
"I can get you some scat." John grinned at Beckett's grimace. "Urine? Scent mark?"
Now Beckett looked interested. "Some urine might be interesting. A fur sample? I'll be gentle."
"You could trim my nails. They're long." John flexed his hands, seeing Beckett's eyes widen. "I promise not to scratch you too much."
"Deal." Beckett nodded. "Let's head back to the infirmary."
Now John balked. He wasn't sure he felt comfortable there. "What if I yowl or something? Are your nurses going to faint?"
"No." Beckett seemed to take a deep breath. "All of us have seen a fair share of odd things, working here."
Strangely enough, John believed him. "I don't like Switching in front of people." He'd done it enough, but he'd never liked it.
"Private room." Beckett's eyes gleamed with excitement. "Please."
"Tell me every procedure before you do it." John would never forget, or forgive, the nurse who had tried for a stool sample. "Don't assume I know what you're doing."
"And I'll give you a lollipop." Beckett waved his hand in a 'come on' motion. "It'll be grand."
Rolling his eyes, John nonetheless followed him to the infirmary. Beckett was the first reasonable doctor John had ever met, but he'd keep a close eye on the nurses. They couldn't be trusted.
There was no actual door, but Beckett pulled a curtain, and John wondered how many security cameras were taping him as he took his clothes off. Technically, he could Switch with his clothes on, but the boots usually got hung up in his paws, so if he had time, he undressed. He took a moment, hoping he hadn't made a mistake with Beckett and then Switched before he changed his mind. He slunk under the curtain, sitting down and flicking his tail in irritation as everyone stared at him, jaws dropped, dumbfounded.
It seemed they'd never seen a cougar before, and with a grunt, he padded over to Beckett.
"Well. That's. Holy crap." Beckett's eyes were as big as fifty cent pieces. His scent ramped up to fear, but he didn't flee.
Yes, John knew he was a large cougar, but he was still sleek, and he thought his coloring was nice, if a bit darker than normal. He chirped, trying to reassure them, and one of the nurses fainted. Crouching down, he covered his eyes with a paw. He hated that.
"Help him, and everyone else clear the infirmary. Move, people." Beckett sounded as if he were in charge. "Yes, yes, get moving!"
John waited until they were gone before prowling around Beckett, sniffing, and tempted to mark him.
"You do know how to make an entrance." Beckett stared down at him. "And you're a big bugger. For some reason, I pictured you smaller."
Maybe Rodney could explain about mass ratios later. John patted Beckett on the thigh, trying to encourage him to get on with it. Finally, Beckett nodded. "Right, then, let's get busy."
Pacing seemed a good answer to that, but he stopped when Beckett called him close and took a mouth swab with a large Q-tip. The first of many, and they tasted nasty, but he behaved, not even snapping it in half once. Beckett talked non-stop, explaining and asking John to hold still. They were fine until Beckett got out a pair of clippers and moved in on John's... body. John backed up and kept backing, ignoring the platitudes. The urge to flee down the hallway pounded at him.
"Carson!" Rodney yelped. "Stop!"
Beckett froze, and John would tell himself later that it was his cat who was over-joyed to see Rodney. John ran right to him, knocking him down and sprawling on him, purring up a storm.
"No!" Rodney yelled, arms going up. "He's not hurting me! No!"
John flattened himself even further and licked Rodney in the face.
"I think he's tasting him."
Carson rushed to stand over the both of them. "Put your guns down! We had a wee misunderstanding is all!"
"I told you not to try to cut his hair!" Rodney pushed at John's head. "Get off me, you big lummox. You smell."
Offended, John did as he was told, moving to sit directly in front of Rodney. Their guns didn't waver, but John wasn't scared. He was tempted to lick his balls in their faces.
"Really, go away. You might accidentally shoot me." Rodney kept one hand on John's head. "There's nothing to see here."
"We're fine. Please, go on with you now."
John waited until they were gone and then swatted at Rodney's legs, tripped him and sat on him. Beckett started laughing, and Rodney cursed a blue streak in two, or three, languages. John purred and chirped, finally rolling to his back on the floor.
"The major seems fond of you," Beckett said.
"Cats like me." Rodney gently tugged John's ear. "You have to be more careful, Carson. His body language was screaming that he was scared."
Grumbling, John batted at him. Rodney waved his hand. "Fine. Not scared, but not willing to get his head shaved either."
"I just wanted a sample of fur." Beckett sighed. "Good thing you came along."
"Rumors were flying that you were dissecting him. I didn't believe it, of course, John would eat you first, but I was worried because I know you're a moron around animals." Rodney raised his hand. "Give me some scissors. Have a sample bag ready."
Flattening his ears, John tried to slink away. Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'll snip some belly fur. You'll be fine."
Groaning, John collapsed on his side and wiggled until he was on his back with his paws in the air. He didn't like it, but he'd hold still.
"Is everything okay in here?"
Jumping straight up, John flattened his ears, not wanting an audience. This time, Rodney got in front of him. "Yes, Daniel, everything is fine."
"I hope so. You know how mad Jack gets if I break his men when he's gone." Daniel kept his eyes on John, and John returned the favor. There was no fear smell on him, not yet. Daniel smiled. "Nice fur."
"Don't compliment him." Rodney scritched the base of John's tail, which was completely rude, but made John turn to chirp at him. "He knows he's beautiful."
Daniel laughed. "Never hurts to let someone know." He extended his hand, palm out. "Friends?"
Rodney snorted, but John was intrigued. No one had ever done that, and John paced over to him and took a sniff. Daniel smelled of coffee, books, ink, and whiteboard. John chuffed and put his paw on Daniel's hand, careful not to scratch.
"Nice to meet you." Daniel looked very serious.
Ducking his head, John whistled, taking his paw back. He wasn't sure what was going on in this igloo, but he was meeting some very interesting people. People who he didn't instantly hate. People who didn't seem determined to hate him from the first. He would never fool himself that there was a place for him to fit in, to feel at home, but this place could be a hell of a lot worse.
John wound his way back to Rodney and sat near him.
"Can I get my sample now?" Beckett sounded almost pathetic. "All this for a bit of fur!"
It felt good to run, even if it was just a treadmill under a ton of ice. Rodney had pronounced John nuts and gone off to his lab. After the stress of yesterday's events in the infirmary, John felt like he needed to run or explode. His cat agreed with him, even if his knee wasn't happy with all the bounce in this old treadmill that had seen better days.
At three miles, John quit, backing down to a walk. When he was gasping less, he moved to the weights and did some reps. He was sitting on an old bench, working his arm with some curls when three Marines stepped inside, looking the room – and John – over.
The instinct to snarl kept John from smiling. He moved the weight up and down, watching them watch him. He was trapped in this tiny room, but he'd faced larger odds and come out on top.
"Doing okay, sir?" one of the Marines asked. The tone was mild, not full of scorn.
"Yup." John switched to his other arm, every muscle tense in case of an attack.
They wandered closer, and John straightened, wishing for his sidearm. The dark-haired one stepped into an easy parade rest. "That cat thing is pretty cool. I bet you could take out a Goa'uld with no trouble."
"How about a Jaffa?" the tall one asked.
This set off a round of mock betting and discussion of the fighting points of a cougar versus some sort of warrior that John had never heard of. Finally, when they seemed to be losing steam, he put the weight down on the floor. "Guys, I'm on TDY. Haven't been cleared for anything but sitting in my room, watching the paint peel."
"You didn't hear anything, right?"
"O'Neill is gonna kill us."
All three beat a path out the door, and John breathed a sigh of relief. Those Jaffa, or whatevers, had to be hard to kill from the sound of things, and John hoped he never met one. He scooped up his towel, deciding to call it good enough. A shower was next, some fur time, and food, in that order.
Unfortunately, his nap was interrupted by Rodney, who followed the theory that ringing the door chime eight times was better than once. Cranky, John jumped down and nosed the door open.
"Get out of that fur. We have work to do." Rodney's eyes were bloodshot. He smelled like old coffee and not enough deodorant, and he had dark rings under his eyes. "Important work!"
John doubted it. Using his paws, he herded Rodney to the lower bunk and then shoved him on it. Rodney collapsed with a thump, head on the pillow, almost instantly curling. John wondered how many days it'd been since Rodney had slept, and then he wiggled his way onto the bunk and found a spot for himself.
"You smell good," Rodney mumbled, cuddling into John's long back and throwing an arm over him. John held out until Rodney snored, and then he purred.
Keeping watch over Rodney, John slept some more himself and then grew hungry. He slithered off the bed, Switched, and dressed, heading down to the cafeteria. Loading up on food, he went back, sitting on the floor by the bed and eating. Rodney slept on, oblivious. John covered him with a blanket, grabbed a magazine, and let the hours roll by.
Not many times in John's life had his cat demanded a Switch, but seeing Rodney twitch and mutter like he might wake up soon, his cougar stretched and prodded. John toed off his sneakers, shucked out of his clothes and let it happen. No one smart argued with a cougar, even if it was on the inside.
"God, you're furry," Rodney mumbled, not even opening his eyes but getting double handfuls of fur. John crawled up and sprawled on him. Rodney grunted and then started stroking him. It felt so good. John almost started kneading him, but managed to control it.
"No, do not make starfish paws on me. You'll shred me!" Rodney stroked over and back across John's cheekbones. "You're such a big kitty."
John narrowed his eyes, but he was too blissed out from Rodney's magical hands to complain. He'd never let anyone touch him like that, and he wasn't sure why his cat had picked Rodney for the job.
"You're not still upset about your fur, are you?" Rodney had sniped away a fair amount of belly hair for Carson, so John obliged by rolling to show off the spot. Skimming his hand down, Rodney furrowed his brow. "It grew back. When you changed?"
Chirping, John head-butted him in the chest and then jumped off the bed. They'd cut his hair off several times, knowing it would re-grow when he Switched. No military haircut for him. His hair mostly looked the same, out of control.
Rodney stretched and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. "Need coffee. Shower too."
Full of energy, John raced around the small room, using a wall to gain greater momentum.
"I'm getting dizzy." Rodney stood and yawned. With a sudden move, he slapped John on the butt as he ran by. John jumped, flipped, and took Rodney's legs out from under him. Rodney yelled, "I'm getting a spray bottle!"
John licked him in the face. Rodney struggled to his knees and crawled to the door where John let Rodney use him as a brace to get up. The door opened, and Rodney stumbled out in the hallway. John nearly followed. He wanted to go out. He really did.
"Well, come on. I'll see if I can find you some meat."
Crouching down, John wasn't afraid, but he knew the bad things that could happen.
Rodney hurried back to him and tugged one of John's ears. "Major, here's the truth. You are never leaving this outpost, except to go with me to Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. Your life, your destiny, if you will, is here now. People are going to have to get over it. Just act casual. And don't bite anyone.
"Also, I'm pretty sure I can find some bones."
That made John's ears perk up. He wanted to believe that this was his last assignment before he was retired to the Center to teach classes to kits, but it was hard. So many bases, so many combat zones, and he wasn't that old.
Rodney patted him on the head. "Think about it. I'm going to take a quick shower."
The door shut, and John sat there. He Switched to his skin, hoping it would make the decision easy, but it didn't. To roam around in his fur would be... awesome. Outside of a desperate combat situation, when it'd been kill or be killed, and his claws had been coated in blood? Just walk around? Like a... Human?
A short time later, the door chimed, and John Switched again before opening it.
Crossing his arms, Rodney glared. "So, are you a cougar or a big chicken?" He started down the hallway without a backward look, clucking and crowing.
Somewhere between furious and amused, or a blend of the two, both cougar and man, John growled his loudest and took off after him. Rodney glanced back and started running. He was slow, very slow, but John stayed behind, swatting at Rodney's heels, making him screech. It was the most fun John could ever remember having that didn't involve going fast.
Pulling to a stop at the door of the cafeteria, Rodney rounded on him. "Stop that!"
"If he eats McKay, I'm gonna laugh."
"No way we could be that lucky."
John laughed in his chirpy way, and Rodney glared at the two Marines. "Go guard something!"
They walked off, laughing, and Rodney pointed at John. "You should be on my side." He hurried on into the cafeteria, but John paused. The hallway was one thing, but this...
"Major Chicken Hawk, please report to the cafeteria," Rodney intoned.
Stalking inside, John flattened his ears at the gasps. He watched Rodney get a tray and coffee, and then followed him to a table. It was tempting to slip under and hide, but Rodney still looked smug, so John jumped in the chair across from him and put his big paws on the table. If he could've, John would've roared, but cougars didn't, so he snapped his teeth.
"Yes, I'm very impressed at kitty's bravery." Rodney rolled his eyes. "We may make a big cat out of you yet."
Flexing his claws, John lowered his head to stare him down.
"Okay, that might've been mean." Rodney swallowed hard. "Here." He tossed a sausage, and John snapped it out of the air.
"But that's all you're getting." Rodney tucked into his food, and John was jealous. He strolled back to the line and sat in front of the sausages until the airman serving got up the courage to look at him.
"Did, you, um, want some?" the airman choked out.
John smacked his lips. The airman prepared a plate of sausage, added some eggs, and took it to the table across from Rodney. John thanked him with a whistle and protected his plate from Rodney with a well-placed paw.
"Dogs have owners. Cats have servants." Rodney laughed. "I would've done it."
It'd been more fun getting the airman to do it, and John ate everything but the plate, giving it a good lick when he was done. He was thirsty now, but he hated coffee when he was in his fur. He wandered back to the line, grabbed a bottle of water, and was glad when Rodney scooped up a bowl. Licking his lips when he was done drinking, John rubbed his wet face on Rodney's thigh.
"That is disgusting." Rodney shoved him away. "Can we work now?"
Giving a shake, John sat on his haunches and tried to look sad. Rodney frowned down at him. "I suppose you need exercise. Want me to find some Marines for you to chase?" He sighed. "No, they might scream, and that would be bad. Play in the snow?"
Now that was a good idea, and John smiled like a cougar does.
"Scary, but I'm taking that as a yes." Rodney went back towards their rooms, and John ambled along behind him, curious to peek in Rodney's room. He talked the door into staying open and sat right inside while Rodney threw on layer after layer of clothing, ending with a huge coat, lined with coyote fur. John had never met a coyote, but he was fairly sure he wouldn't like them.
The room was like a glimpse into Rodney's mind. There was stuff everywhere, but it was organized into some system that only Rodney understood.
John beat Rodney to the elevator causing the airman to go pale. Rodney threw him out, and they went towards the surface. "I have no idea how you've put up with these idiots over the years without seriously biting one of them. You're a cougar, not a dinosaur, or a Goa'uld! Now those are scary!"
Now was not the time to Switch and explain about how he didn't know what Rodney was talking about. The further they went up, the colder it got, and John hoped he had his winter coat on too. As soon as the door opened, he gave in to the excitement and dashed out, startling everyone within distance and provoking a few raised guns.
Rodney yelled at everyone to stop being idiots and lumbered after him. John suddenly understood how Felines lost control to their cat. He wanted to run wild, growl, roll, and generally bite things. Then a snowball came out of nowhere and clocked him in the head.
Turning on his tail, John streaked at him. Rodney held very still and then pummeled him with another snowball. John jumped in the air and disappeared into the snow. His blood pounded, and he couldn't resist a yowl or two. When he surfaced like a submarine, there was more people than just Rodney, and they all threw snowballs at him.
It was completely unfair. And fun. Oh, the fun. He hadn't run wild since... he jumped as high as he could and swatted the snowballs that came at him. Running fast, he took Rodney down, dodged, and slid into another drift.
"Not fair!" Rodney groaned and thrashed, snow flying everywhere.
Laughter filled the air, and John poked his head up to get another lay of the land. Most everyone was gathered around Rodney, and it was wrong, very wrong, but John stalked closer, ears flat, tail twitching.
"Where is he?"
And he took them all down, reveling in the shouts of surprise and groans. When the carnage was over, he climbed to the highest point – the top of a snowplow – and settled in to laugh at them.
"You get down now! That's high up there!" Rodney wagged his snow-covered glove at him. "It's dangerous!"
The cold wind blew through John's fur, and the sky was very blue, and John lifted his head, whistling his loudest. The only thing that could make this day better was a rabbit, or a deer, or an elk, not that John had ever been allowed to hunt much of anything.
"Fine! Freeze your tail off!"
Two jumps and John was down, pressing into Rodney's side and herding him back towards the elevator. Several people laughed and gave him a smile before going back to their jobs, wherever those were. John didn't quite know what to make of it. He felt alive, blood pumping, pulse beating in his throat.
The boredom of years pacing in a tiny room sloughed away, and his cat... no... John was happy. John the cougar, John the man, was happy, and it didn't seem possible.
"You totally cheated." Rodney brushed some snow off John's back and head. John shook all over, whiskers still trembling from excitement. He smoothed his chin along Rodney's thigh, tingling from the jumping and chasing. Rodney laughed. "Stop that."
John waited until the door was open, and then gave Rodney a head butt. Rodney pulled John's ear, and the pushing and shoving continued down the hallway.
They both stopped, looking at anything other than each other.
Dr. Weir had her arms crossed and her eyebrows up. "Major Sheppard, I presume?"
Sitting on his butt, John blinked at her, smelling her fear and not wanting to send her screaming down the hallway.
Rodney waved his hand at John. "Yes, and yes. We were outside, taking atmospheric readings."
She frowned. "In a snowbank?"
A bit of water dripped off Rodney's coat onto John's tail, and he flicked it away. John wondered how soon they could make a break for it.
"Well, no." Rodney was a terrible liar. "We might've thrown a few snowballs. All in good fun. Did you need something?"
"Major Sheppard can throw snowballs?" She looked confused now. "Oh, never mind. I tracked you down to tell you that General O'Neill will be here in about a week. I'm hopeful that Daniel and I will have a breakthrough with the translations by then."
Rodney nodded. "Any word on Major Sheppard's situation?"
John was grateful that Rodney had asked. She shook her head. "I suspect the Center is giving General O'Neill a hard time, and the military keeps a tight leash on... Felines." She flushed. "Sorry, poor choice of words there."
Thoroughly disgusted, John felt like peeing on her shoes. He was the only Feline in the Air Force, last he knew, and he was sick to death of their tight leash.
"The Center is nothing more than a petting zoo, and the Air Force needs to come to grips with the fact that Major Sheppard has the gene. He's mission essential." Rodney looked as furious as John felt.
Anger competed with disgust, and he'd had enough of this conversation. She had no idea how insulting she was.
"Oh, one more thing. Our mission commander is going to be Colonel Marshall Sumner. I've heard he's tough but fair," Weir said.
Shock went through John like a bolt of electricity. He actually jerked.
"John?" Rodney asked, turning to him. "You okay?"
Nodding, John wanted to Switch. Right now. He clamped his jaw shut and nudged Rodney on the leg.
"I think John's cold. We'll meet later?" Rodney took a tentative step towards their rooms, and John tried not to lean into Rodney's thigh.
"Let's meet for dinner. I'll call if you forget." Dr. Weir smiled at them both. "Good to see you again, Major. As soon as your status is decided, you and I have a lot to discuss."
Grinding his teeth, John made it to his room, ignoring Rodney's questions, comments, and complaints. Once inside, he headed straight for the shower and Switched mid-stride.
"I'll give you some privacy," Rodney muttered from behind him, near the door.
John paused, ashamed that he hadn't thought to hide his Switch. "Thanks for the day, McKay."
Rodney flushed. "Go shower and lock this door." He seemed to give himself a shake before he left.
Locking the door, John went to the shower. He made the water as hot as he could stand and bowed his head underneath the spray.
Colonel Sumner hated Felines. Hated them. His reputation was legendary for the depth of his hatred.
Rodney had said John was mission essential.
Dr. Weir had said that Sumner was in charge of that mission. She was only waiting until John's assignment was official before reading him in on the mission.
No. Just. No. He wasn't going on a mission with a commander who hated him. He wasn't. They couldn't make him. They could put him down like a rabid dog, but they couldn't make him. Shivering, he crouched down in the shower and fought for control. His cougar wanted out, wanted to scream and pace, and he...
He jumped out of the shower, racing to the wall, jumping and snarling. Around and around he went, wishing he could destroy something, shred it.
"John!" Rodney pounded on the door. "John!"
He'd never Switched under stress. Never. Until now, and he could see clearly the problem. He'd had fun. He'd almost felt Human. It was too damn much to keep under wraps. He nosed open the door but laid his ears back, hissing. This was not fun and games now.
Rodney raised his hands. "Let me help."
John snarled, flashing his teeth and shutting the door. He stomped back to the shower and sat under the water until his fur was sopping. His cat gave in, and he Switched. Angry at himself, he scrubbed himself clean, dried off, and went to find clean clothes. He dressed in military fatigues, laced up his boots, and slid on his wristband.
One emotion at a time, he bundled it up and shoved it behind a good stout door. He locked it all down. No friends. No fun. Nothing. He'd wait. When the bad news came, he'd deal with it. He was in complete control of himself and his cat.
His stomach demanded attention, and he slid on his aviators before heading that way. Rodney pushed away from the wall outside John's door and fell into step next to him. It didn't matter.
"So, my worst thing is people--"
"I'm not Human," John snapped, furious at himself.
Rodney blanched. "Let me finish! My worst thing is people, but I'm quite good at cats, and from all the hissing, I'm guessing you don't like Dr. Weir all that much."
John wasn't answering that. He couldn't even look at him. His cat might've fallen for Rodney, but John couldn't afford to like him. Keeping his cat under control meant John had to find balance, and Rodney was like a tornado.
"You're mad at me?" Rodney's voice was somewhere between incredulous and appalled.
Guilt nipped at John, and he pushed it away. "No, we're fine."
"Back to super soldier garb, huh?" Rodney squeezed into line first, and John was happy to let him go ahead.
The airman serving food smiled nervously. "If you have any special dietary needs, let me know, okay? Always glad to help."
"This from the man who never knows if there's lemon in the food!"
The airman rolled his eyes. "Dr. McKay, I've told you a million times. We don't get lemon up here, just watch out for the MREs."
While they were bickering, John piled on a few more things, got a water, and went to sit in his usual spot. A couple of random people nodded at him, and he returned it, but he felt like he was on a slippery slope. If he couldn't control his cougar, he had no right to be among Humans. They'd pounded that into his skull at the Center.
Control meant life. Lose it, and they'd put you down. John never let his emotions run wild, or at least, he hadn't, not until today. He shoveled his mouth full, and the realization hit him that he could shot for even hissing at Rodney, like he'd done earlier. If it was on video, or if someone wanted him dead, they had cause now.
"Are you going to talk to me at all?"
With a blink, he realized Rodney had been talking for awhile. John shrugged, trying not to panic on the outside. Rodney sighed as if he'd been insulted.
Dr. Weir stepped in the cafeteria, clearly looking for someone, and John took that second to fill his pockets. Rodney sputtered something, and John grabbed his tray and left, passing her with a bare nod. After dumping his trash, he went back to his quarters to mull it all over again.
Climbing up on the top bunk, he put his back to the wall and finished his dinner. His mind kept circling fact after fact and coming up with nothing but bad news. His only hope was that the Air Force would refuse O'Neill and ship him somewhere. Anywhere would be better than here once Sumner arrived, but pinning his hopes on that was the act of an idiot. O'Neill was a general. The Air Force brass would nod their fool heads and stamp John's papers.
The Center really had no say whatsoever, not since the Air Force had taken ownership of John when he was seventeen. His dog tags were truly dog tags. He was owned. At the Center, they'd told him more than once that no Feline retired from the military. They'd all gotten very nice funerals though. He hadn't cared. All he'd wanted to do was escape, fly away, and he had to admit, he'd flown every 'copter in inventory. He'd wanted fighters, but they'd put him in helicopter training after the Academy. It'd been a breeze.
His door chimed, and with a grunt, he went to palm it open, fully expecting Rodney to be there, demanding his time.
Daniel gave him a small smile. "Good news. Jack says I can read you into the program."
Keeping his face expressionless, John stepped out into the hallway so the door could shut. "Does that mean I've been reassigned?"
"Not yet, no, but your security clearance has been upped, so I'm sure it's just a matter of time. What Jack wants, Jack gets, and he wants you in the Stargate program." Daniel sounded happy about all that, nearly bouncing on his toes as he led the way down some hallways that John hadn't been given a tour of by Beckett.
They ended up in a lab, cluttered with whiteboards that had on them a strange language that John had never seen, even worse than Arabic. He wasn't sure what to say. This was like another nail in his coffin – the one Sumner would make sure had John's name on it.
"Rodney tells me that you've been a big help in his lab. I appreciate you helping him out. I know he can be--"
"I like Rodney," John interrupted, not wanting to hear the rest of that sentence. "He doesn't lie or smell like fear."
Daniel raised his eyebrows. "Oh. That's true. Well, the first part. Not sure about the second. I have allergies." He laughed. "Not that it'd make a difference. What do I smell like?"
The odd question threw John for a second. "Coffee and whiteboard marker. I make you out to be slightly nervous, but you're being very brave."
Laughing, Daniel found a chair and sat down. "All true. I admit, you're my first Feline. I think it's the uncertainty of it."
John found a stool to perch on because he had the feeling Daniel was going to lecture him.
"You could change at any time and kill me, if you wanted. If I make you angry." Daniel shrugged. "Most of our enemies are known. Betrayal is scary."
"Any person in this base could snap and start killing people, especially those armed Marines, half of whom have PTSD of one sort or another." John found it interesting that Daniel would actually discuss his fears. "Don't you worry when they walk by? Flinch when they move too quickly?"
"Good point." Daniel seemed to mull that over. "Before I met your cat, I saw you as more of a jaguar."
"He went into the SEALs, or so I heard." John figured that crazy jaguar was dead by now. "I wanted to fly, not swim."
"Do you think your cat was chosen by your wants, or did it make you choose its wants?"
Furrowing his brow, John thought about it. "I think, that as much as the Center likes to teach us that man and cat are separate, my desires and wants are mine. I'm John Sheppard, whether I'm in Human or Feline form."
"So your cat doesn't make demands on you?" Daniel pulled some papers and a laptop closer. "Come sit with me. We may be here a while."
Unsure, John stayed where he was. "My cat lets me know when I'm not meeting his needs."
"So he speaks to you?" Daniel had a pencil and was making notes.
John wasn't sure he wanted to spend any more time discussing this. These last few days had made him re-think a couple of things about his cat. "It's complicated."
"You don't want to tell me." But Daniel smiled, not looking up and rummaging through papers.
"It's not that easy. When I'm in fur..." John hesitated, not able to articulate it. "Priorities are different."
Daniel nodded like he understood. "And when you're in your skin, everything shifts again. It's a wonder any Feline is sane."
"Some aren't," John said dryly. "I found at any early age that if I spend time every day in my fur, my life is much easier."
"I'm sure some Felines repress their cat until it runs wild." Daniel tilted his head. "They should really write some books about this. It's fascinating."
"Not really." John's butt started to fall asleep, so he eased over to a chair and sat down. He still couldn't believe he'd experienced a stress Switch. "I'm not sure about all this."
Now Daniel looked right at him. "This, as in being here, or this as in, you're a cat sometimes?"
"I'm sorta used to the last part." John was tempted to roll his eyes. "I had my first Switch at a very young age."
"The being here part then." Daniel opened the laptop and started searching for something. "How young?"
"Six." John had been lucky that day. No one had seen him fall from the big oak tree, Switching in mid-air to land easily on four paws. He'd kept his secret for seven years until circumstances had forced his hand. He forced himself not to re-hash it again, getting back to the subject at hand. "Daniel, I'm not sure this post is the place for me. I like flying helicopters."
Daniel frowned, double-clicking before looking at him again. He spun the laptop towards him. "I respect that, but I'm pretty sure Rodney would hunt you to the ends of the Earth if you tried to leave."
"I never should've licked him," John muttered. He tugged the laptop closer. "It's too late to get away, isn't it?"
"Pretty much." Daniel nodded, adjusting his glasses. "But, I will tell you this. This program is bigger than you realize, and Jack isn't going to make you do anything you don't want to do."
John snorted in disbelief. "Right. The general. A general in the Air Force, of which I'm a part of." He skimmed his finger along the edge of the laptop, postponing his doom for another minute or two. "I guess if Rodney knows this stuff, it can't be too scary."
"He's braver than people realize." Daniel got up and poured himself a coffee. "You want?"
"Is it awful like Dr. Beckett's?" John wasn't falling for that trick again.
"Yeah." Daniel drank some anyway. "I have a cooler full of water over there." He pointed at a corner, and John went for one of those. Another delay, but John wasn't in any rush. His doom, in the form of Colonel Sumner, was bearing down on him. His cat made his skin itch, wanting him to pace, so he indulged while he drank his water, ignoring Daniel's quizzical stare.
Daniel cleared his throat. "You look very feline doing that."
"It calms us both down." John wasn't sure why he was willing to tell a few truths to Daniel. The guy had a way about him that was very non-threatening. Daniel started studying some papers, and John stopped pacing to stare at the gibberish on the whiteboard. "Why seven symbols?"
"What?" Daniel glanced up, brow furrowing. He stared. "Oh, well, you need to do your homework." He nudged the laptop.
"But why seven? Not five, or eight?" John was more curious about the program now than was safe for his cougar hide. "Does the mechanism only accept seven symbols?"
"Well..." Daniel stopped, tilting his head. "I don't know."
John let his desire for knowledge win over his instinct to run away. It was probably another mistake. He sat down, took a breath, and started reading. There were videos too, and he watched them with wide eyes, breath coming fast once or twice. His estimation of General O'Neill's abilities went up a notch.
"Those Jaffa look tough," John mumbled, wondering if he could take one down. He might get his chance, if he were unlucky, and he usually was. "Spaceships. Wow." He couldn't help it. This was like his greatest childhood fantasies all come to life, even including the flamboyant bad guys. "They'd never let me fly one of those."
"Never know. You have the gene." Daniel smiled at him. "That gene can open doors for you."
"It opens other stuff too." John went back to reading, going back over some of the super cool stuff. He felt like purring, but he shoved that down. "Can I be on a gate team someday?"
"I don't know." Daniel shrugged, but his scent said he was lying, which was disappointing. "Do you think you'd stress change if you went through the gate?"
That was a good question, and John had no idea. "Does it hurt?"
"Not since Sam fixed it." Daniel grinned. "My idea, by the way."
Hours later, John's neck had a crick, and yet, he still sat there, reading and making mental notes of questions he'd want to ask someone. Daniel got up and left once, but John wasn't finished. He didn't think he'd ever be finished. The math alone made him giddy, and spaceships, honest-to-god spaceships, with transporters and everything.
It was all so cool. Someone slid a tray of food at him, and he blinked, focusing on Rodney. John couldn't help but smile. "Rodney, this SGC thing has got to be the coolest thing ever."
"The stargate, or the ships, or the food?" Rodney grinned back at him.
"Yeah," John breathed, still stunned beyond belief. He chewed a biscuit, and his cat twitched at him. He needed some fur time, but it could wait another minute. "How do the ships achieve warp?"
"God, you're a nerd. It's a hyperdrive system."
"Same thing." John scrolled down to re-read another section. "Shield technology? I bet the math has to be perfect."
"Wait. What?" Rodney peered at the laptop. "Oh, ship specs. Think they'll let you fly a 302?"
"No. I might stress Switch." John would never brag about 'never' again. "Cougars don't belong in fighters."
"They belong in helicopters?" Rodney blinked at him.
"Not as cramped, not as hard to fly, and they don't achieve the speeds." John listed off the reasons by rote. "I was lucky they let me in an Osprey."
"Lucky. Yeah." Rodney stole a carrot off John's tray and munched it.
"Maybe they'd let me poke around on the Prometheus."
"The Daedalus will be done soon." Rodney tapped the laptop. "You can keep this one. It's a lot to absorb in one sitting. You have access to mission reports also. If you can stomach reading them."
John would do that. He shifted his attention to the food and finished in record time. "No MREs?"
Rodney pulled one out of his coat pocket. "Tuna."
"Give." But John glared at him while taking it. "Once, there was this captain who thought it'd be funny to dump tuna MREs in my locker."
"Did you swat him?" Rodney fished in his other pocket and opened a power bar to munch. "Use him as a squeaky toy?"
"I emptied my anal glands in his locker." John laughed when Rodney started choking. Rodney stole a drink of water and coughed. John dug into the MRE. It wasn't a favorite, but it was protein. "I have to go back to my quarters soon."
"Remind me never to piss you off," Rodney gasped. "And why?"
"I got stuff to do." John needed to pace, think all this over from his other perspective. "Thanks for the food."
Nodding, Rodney got to his feet. "I'd appreciate some time in my lab. If you want." He ducked his head, not looking John in the eye. "Not that I care or need the help."
John wasn't sure what to say. He shut the laptop and grabbed his tray to take back to the cafeteria. "I'll consider it." It was the most he could commit to right now. "Thanks again."
Frowning, Rodney left without another word. John felt like a heel, but forming a friendship with Rodney wasn't possible. It was a ridiculous idea to even think it. John couldn't afford it. He couldn't take the risk that it would erode his ability to control his cat. He had to be perfect. Colonel Sumner was coming, and he'd never seen a Feline that he didn't want dead.
Back and forth, back and forth, and John would give anything for another snowball fight. His cat was restless, disgusted with sitting around, doing nothing but reading. John hadn't seen Rodney the entire time, and it wasn't a surprise. Most people stayed away after he rebuffed them. John's skin had itched for most of the day and night before he finally gave in to his fur.
Around and around the room, and finally, out of desperation, he ventured to the door. It opened with a snick, and he peeked out. Nobody. He wasn't scared. If anything, the people of this base should be scared.
"Hey, Major Sheppard, looking good."
"Fur is so in this year."
The two ladies giggled, not even breaking stride, and he suspected they were scientists from the smell. Part of him wanted to go hide under the lower bunk. The other sixty percent wanted to prowl down to the cafeteria and demand food. He huffed and hesitated.
Did he want this, or did his cat? John eased out into the hallway and sat down again, watching the door closed. Did it matter? He wanted to wander around, maybe run on the treadmill, and definitely swat at Rodney's legs. John remembered what he'd said to Daniel. The Center had told him for years that he and his cat were separate beings, sharing consciousness between changes where one was in ascendency. It was John's job to always stay on top, always be in charge of his cat.
When he was a kid, it'd been so easy. He'd been Johnny Sheppard, pretending to fight evil with his superpower cat abilities. There had been no separation. Just. John.
With a cat grumble and a sweep of his tail, John set off for the cafeteria in search of something to crunch. If they shot, they shot him. He was sure that by now Sumner had heard there was a Feline on base. Sumner might shoot him on sight, so John might as well enjoy himself today.
The buzz in the cafeteria dimmed as John paced the length of the selections. Wishing for steak didn't make it appear. He chirped at the airman, stopping in front of the stew. Where there was stew, there might be bones.
The airman stared and then flushed. "I did save something for you."
John put one paw on the table.
"Be right back."
Putting his paw down, John hoped it wasn't tuna, or he might have to swat it across the room. He waited, and no one pushed in front of him.
"Here you go." The airman handed him what had to be a cow bone. "I cut the meat for the stew off it."
Rearing up, John took it with his mouth, making a note to thank the airman later. He wanted to jump for joy, but everyone was looking. Head high, he paced out of the cafeteria and did a quick reconnaissance. He didn't want to go back to his room, so he trotted down to Rodney's lab.
Rodney didn't even turn around as John slunk in the door and hid under a lab table that was pushed into a corner. The bone was cold, allaying John's fears about bacteria, but he wouldn't have cared anyway. He'd always been able to digest anything.
Delicious. Amazing. He licked his lips and gloated over it.
"Really? That's disgusting." Rodney's face was upside down, glaring at him. "Go find somewhere else to moan over your bone!"
John gnawed, ignoring him. It was safe here, and he was tired of being alone. Rodney kept on complaining, interspersed with a running monologue about why John was a crappy friend and everyone on this base was a moron.
"How long are you going to snack on that?" Rodney was upside down again. "And why did you drag it in here? I thought you were avoiding me?"
The bone snapped, and John started licking out the marrow. He switched the bone from his left to his right paw to get a better grip.
Rodney disappeared, still talking. "In my spare time, I've done some research. That Center for Feline Control is a joke. It's just a warehouse until Felines can be sold to the highest bidder."
Everyone knew that, or at least everyone who was a Feline. John spotted a part that hadn't been chewed enough and started on it.
"I just assumed that it was like Canada." Rodney sounded sad now. "We don't round up our Felines and sell them!"
There was no way to answer that. Some countries were better than the U.S., some were worse. Woe to the Feline who was born in China. They were always shot, skinned, and their organs and bones were ground up and made into potions, cures, and aphrodisiacs. On the open market, it sold for hundreds of thousands an ounce. There were rumors that Felines desperately tried to get to Mongolia, but no one knew how few made it.
"And did you know the Air Force owns you? You have no free will! No choices! Even your dog tag is custom made. Did you know if they catch you without your tag, you can be shot?" Rodney's voice kept going up.
They'd explained that to John in boot camp. He hadn't cared.
"You can be shot for all kinds of things," Rodney said in a calmer voice. "Shot!" Then he went off again on a tirade about imbeciles and rules and how John should head for Canada and seek asylum. John didn't have the heart to Switch and explain to him that there was a treaty and the Canadians would just ship him home to be shot for running away.
There was a glug-glugging noise and then Rodney slid a bowl of water under the table. "I'm a genius, you know, and all that got me to thinking. You're not waiting here to make a decision. You're stuck here until they decide your next posting, and then that led me back to Dr. Weir and all the hissing."
All of the sudden, Rodney crawled right under the table with him. His face was dead serious as he fought for a second to sit cross-legged, hunching over. John put his bone slightly away and took a drink of water, waiting for it.
"The video cameras can't see us under here, and there's no audio." But Rodney still spoke barely above a whisper. "I might, possibly, have hacked a few files. Colonel Sumner has had five Felines under his command die. Five."
John put his chin on Rodney's knee.
"You knew. God, you knew." Rodney put his hand on John's head. "That's why you freaked out. You're waiting in that tiny room until O'Neill puts you under Sumner's command, at Dr. Weir's request. Hell, even I requested it!
"Sumner is going to kill you. Oh, it'll look like an accident, or you'll die heroically, but you'll still be very dead!"
There was no way to answer that, not in Human or Feline form. John raised his head and stared into Rodney's eyes.
"And you've accepted it." Rodney put his face in his hands. When he looked up, his eyes were fierce. "I'm not going to allow that to happen. I don't know how, but I'm a genius, I'll think of something."
Pulling his bone close, John went back to chewing. Air Force personnel went on missions with little or no guarantee of success all the time. He'd flown his 'copter into hell holes to extract casualties, and he'd do it again. No, he didn't want to die, and he'd fight to the bitter end, but if it came, well, he'd had a good run. The average lifespan of a Feline was thirty, and he'd beaten the odds for years.
"So maybe you're a crap friend, but I understand why now." Rodney nearly hit his head on the edge of the table, crab-walking out from underneath. "Maybe I'm a crap friend too, for demanding you go on a mission with a commander who wants you dead."
John abandoned his bone, plodding out. He sat down in front of him and raised his paw.
"I'm not touching that until you've showered. Twice."
Tackling him was dead easy. John sat on Rodney, who yowled, and then he purred, a little, not much. He was still going to die, but at least someone understood.
"I tell you. Sooner or later, Sheppard's gonna eat him."
"I'm not reporting it, if he does."
John waved a paw at the security guys and then let Rodney get to his feet. Rodney, as usual, pulled John's ear.
"I hate you."
That was probably for the best, but John had given up on keeping his distance. They'd be friends, and his cat purred.
"It is not a shoe shine machine!"
"If you're going to argue with me, I'm going to spend the afternoon chewing my bone." John wished he'd brought it with him. Next time, he would. He picked up the next piece, sniffed it to irritate Rodney, and tilted his head.
It jolted through him, and it clattered to the floor as he Switched in a manner that could only be described for Rodney later as violently. He'd Switched in his clothes before, and it was always irritating. Tangled in sleeves and boots, he looked up to see Rodney's mouth hanging open. That wasn't helping at all.
The device wasn't too far away on the floor where it'd fallen, and John wiggled to it, putting his paw on it. Once again, it blew through him, and he panted on the floor, making sure not to touch it again. "Wow."
"What... just happened?" Rodney scooped it up and put it on the bench. "Did it...?"
"Yes, it forced me to Switch." John pushed to sitting, still out of breath. "A hard Switch. It kinda hurt."
"Does it usually hurt?" Rodney pushed a bottle of water at him before starting to take notes.
"No." John scrubbed his hand through his hair. "I can't imagine why... oh, wait." He uncapped the water and took a sip. "Put it in your hand, right in front of my eyes."
Rodney did exactly that. "Are you attempting a mind-meld?"
John sighed. "Shut up a second." He probed at it with his brain, hoping for some information, but all he got was a picture of DNA. Whose DNA, he didn't know. "It's showing me DNA. Not human, I don't think. It looks weird."
Pulling over a laptop, Rodney clicked and clicked, finally showing him a picture. "Feline DNA?"
Nodding, John drank some more water. "Okay." He put the bottle down. "I'm going to let it Switch me again. Then do the thing where you hold it close to my eyes."
"Are you sure? You said it hurt." Rodney fumbled for the laptop, the device, and the water. "Stay down so you don't fall again."
"Yes, Mother." John took the device from him and had the wind knocked out of him again. He should've taken off his boots. They hurt his paws. Rodney held the device up for him, and John tried to see. It was much harder in this form, but after a minute he got it. Instead of touching it again, he Switched under his own power. It was so much easier. He groaned. "Human DNA."
Rodney handed him the water again. John put the cool bottle against his forehead. "It was made to force a Switch. Say, if a Feline hasn't had their first one yet or was stuck in the other form."
"Stuck?" Rodney frowned. "You can get stuck?"
"It happens. Some people lose too much of themselves to the cat and stay that way. That?" John pointed with the water. "Would make them change, whether they liked it or not."
"As long as they also have the ATA gene."
"We don't know if that's true." John wasn't willing to guess on that. "My head kinda hurts."
"Let's get you to Carson." Rodney put the device and the laptop far away. He came back to help John to his feet. John swayed a little, feeling dizzy. He was going to say no, push Rodney away, but his knees were weak. Rodney put John's arm over his shoulder and got him moving. John thought he mumbled something about being able to walk on his own, and then he passed out.
"Rodney, settle down. The major is fine, just sleeping."
"He totally passed out, and he's heavy. He looks skinny, but wow, he's incredibly dense." Rodney wasn't whispering. "Not in a stupid way, Carson. In a thick way."
John cracked open his eyes. "Hey, I'm sleeping here. Go away."
"John, don't ever do that again." Rodney awkwardly patted him on the shoulder. "The passing out thing, I mean."
"Okay, I won't." John brought his hands up to rub his face and noticed he was trailing an IV. "Beckett?"
"You were dehydrated. Too many changes, I imagine." Beckett took John's pulse. "You're staying put. Go back to sleep."
"Not with Rodney talking." John caught Rodney by the arm before he could get away. "Tell him about the thing."
"I did. I'm going to try to get Daniel to do some research on it." Rodney didn't yank his arm away. "What if it can transform anyone with the gene? We need more information."
John's head swam with the possibilities. "Be careful. It hurts."
"Noted." Carson frowned at them both. "No more taking risks like that."
Rodney might've nodded. John shut his eyes all the way and fell asleep before Carson could fuss at them anymore.
"Before you leave, I want you to change, just to make sure everything is working properly," Beckett said. "I promise no one will faint this time."
John wasn't sure he believed that. "Okay, but someone will need to carry my stuff to my quarters. I'm not Switching right back."
"Grand idea." Beckett pulled the curtain around John. "Get to it, lad."
Stomach grumbling for food, John tugged off the scrubs and Switched. He hopped off the gurney, ducking under the curtain. Beckett smiled. "Everything in the right place?"
Making a show of checking his balls, John whistled when Beckett laughed. John was surprised when Beckett himself carried John's clothes and boots. The instant they were on his bunk, he turned back to the door. He was starved. Beckett followed after him.
Cougars do not play charades, John thought, and he got in line at the cafeteria. Beckett was still behind him. "Oh! You're hungry. I'll get you a tray."
Putting his paw in front of the items he wanted, John watched Beckett pile it on. John wasn't in the mood to eat like a civilized cat. He grabbed a water bottle with his mouth and went back towards his quarters. Beckett followed, balancing it all easily enough. John opened the door and sat down, wishing he could rip the tray out of Beckett's hand.
"Not a lot of furniture in here." Beckett sat the tray on the floor. He went to the bunks and perched on the lower one. "It wouldn't kill them to get you a chair. I suppose you'd never ask for one."
Crouching down, John ate. He almost ate plastic from his greediness.
"I'm a right idiot. You have special dietary needs, being a large carnivore and all. I should've made arrangements." Beckett sighed. "We know so little about Felines, and the Center doesn't share its information. Have you heard when you'll be going to Colorado?"
John shook his head at him and went back to lick the tray clean. Stomach full enough, John strolled over to Beckett and sat down close enough to lean against him. Beckett didn't know that he was being given a rare treat.
Beckett stroked his hand down John's head and neck. "Your fur feels healthy. If you do suffer from anything, tell me. I can get a veterinarian here. I'll have to stomp my feet, but that's no trouble."
It was nice of him to say, and John put his head on Beckett's knee to thank him. Beckett laugh and rubbed him. "I see why Rodney is so enamored with you. He misses his cat dreadfully."
So Rodney had a cat. John wasn't surprised. He rubbed his chin on Beckett's thigh, marking him as John's doctor, not that Beckett needed to know that.
"You gave Rodney a fright." Beckett continued to stroke him. "Be careful with the Ancient technology. It can be dangerous, as you know, since I nearly blew you out of the sky with it!"
Eyes drooping, John pushed away and leaped on the top bunk. He thumped to his back and put his paws in the air.
"Clear enough. Rest, John." Carson picked up the tray and crept away. John locked the door with his mind and dimmed the lights. The Ancient gene made being lazy easy.
For the next week, John did exactly what he wanted with his fur for the first time in his life. He knew it was ridiculous, but since Sumner was going to kill him, he might as well live it up. No sneaking around, no hiding in the bathroom, no pacing for hours in a tight circle behind a locked door. He played in the sun, ran on the treadmill, and ate all the food he wanted, once or twice even when he was full. Rodney monopolized hours of John's time, and John lost all concept of day and night, but he would never complain.
When he wanted to be his fur, he was, and when he felt like being Human, he did that too. No one harassed him, or teased him, and he wondered if the moron who'd left the bowl of milk had been told to knock it off.
Rodney was protective of John when he was in his fur. It was hilarious, but John liked it. That was a first too.
The first time – it might've been day – that John noticed Rodney was flagging from exhaustion, John simply circled and pushed until Rodney, yelling about how he was fine and thanks but no he was not going anywhere, gave up and went to his quarters.
"You better be awake when I'm ready to go back, you lazy bag of fur!" Rodney marched in his room, heading for the shower from the last peek that John got before the door closed.
John eyed his door, not far away, and considered a shower of his own. He could still hear movement inside Rodney's quarters, and suspicious, John lay down in the doorway. Putting his head on his paws, he shut his eyes, relaxing. He was half-asleep when the door opened, and Rodney practically fell on top of him.
Growling and grumbling, John herded his... Rodney to the bed and pointed with a paw.
"Damn it. Who knew you were a guard dog too?" Rodney toed off his shoes and rolled on the bed. It was full-sized, much bigger than either of John's bunks. There was also actual furniture in Rodney's room. It looked as if he'd lived in it for some time. John yawned, suddenly tired himself, and turned to go when Rodney got back up.
John let him have a real growl this time.
Rodney stared at him for a long moment and then started stripping. If John had been in his skin, he would've blushed, but instead, he covered his eyes with a paw. Rodney laughed and dived back into bed in only his boxers, green, and a T-shirt, faded white.
Heart beating a touch faster, paws dragging, John took two steps toward the door. Shower and bed sounded good, fine, really it did.
"You could stay," Rodney whispered, voice full of hurt and rejection that John never would've heard if he'd been wearing his skin. John froze, one paw in the air, not sure that he wanted what he'd been hoping for. He might sleep Switch. It happened occasionally.
"Either way, skin or fur." Now Rodney sounded scared, exactly the way John felt. Muscles trembling, tail tucked, John crept back to the bed, unsure of everything except that he didn't want to be alone any longer. Rodney already had his eyes closed, which made it easier for John to crawl inside the circle of Rodney's arms. With a long sigh, Rodney curled around John, pulling them together. John felt like maybe he should grumble, or chirp, or something, but Rodney snored into John's neck before that happened. All of John relaxed at once, and he wrapped his tail back and around Rodney's leg. Sleeping was good. They could do that.
Waking up hours later, John's tiny bit of courage failed him, and he snuck to his room. He Switched before he got to the shower, and he had hold of his cock before the water hit his body. A sexually aroused cougar wasn't something to fool around with, and humping Rodney's leg or back would've been beyond embarrassing, maybe even dangerous. John did it quick and nasty, thinking of very little besides Rodney's mouth on him, somewhere, anywhere.
When his head cleared, he realized that Rodney might well kill him for sneaking out. Fast, John washed, dried, and threw on some clothes. He beat it down to the cafeteria, got as much food and coffee as he could carry, and opened Rodney's door with a thought.
Rodney was asleep, but he muttered something the instant John sat the food down on a handy table. John almost wished he had one. With a smile, John took the coffee and went to the bed. Rodney blinked up at him, blurry-eyed.
"I accept your offering," Rodney said, taking the cup. "But it was still crappy to sneak out."
Lowering his head in apology, John had a feeling he'd better say the right thing. "I needed to Switch, and, well, no one likes to see that." That was mostly true. "Sorry." He was man enough to say it.
"I've seen you change." Rodney took a long sip, slurping to cool it. "Sorta gross, sorta cool. It's very mutant meets X-men meets--."
"Lion King?" John interrupted. He wasn't sure whether to be complimented or angry, and that happened pretty often when Rodney talked. "You like Wolverine, I guess?"
"He's the best in that universe." Rodney leaned back against the wall, cradling his coffee. "Can I call you Simba?"
"Only if you feel like getting bit in the ass." John left him in the bed, going to sit at the table and eat. If he stayed near the bed, he was going to reach out and touch Rodney somewhere that might not be welcome. The scrambled eggs had actual pieces of sausage in them, and he concentrated on that.
"Are you leaving me some?" Rodney asked, looking offended. "I'm surprised there's any food left on base after last night's dinner."
"Beckett ordered it special. For me." John was still gloating over the bones in the freezer with his name on them. "Are you getting up sometime today?"
Rodney blushed, and John had a good idea what the problem was. Right now was the time to make his move, but his feet seemed glued to the floor. His cat itched at him, but John knew now it was his own urge to be stroked, petted, even caressed.
"It's easier when I'm in fur, isn't it?" John stopped eating long enough to ask. "You miss your cat." He needed to make this less, so it didn't hurt so much when it wasn't more.
"Newton is a great cat. You are not a cat." Rodney staggered a little, getting to the table. "You eat like a pig, ergo, not a cat." He started eating directly from the tray, not even bothering with a fork. "I think you're some sort of pig-man furball hybrid, genetically designed in an Ancient laboratory with the distinct purpose of driving me insane!"
"That's cruel, even a tad harsh." John couldn't stop from laughing, knowing that other people cried from Rodney's insults, and that being called a pig should bother him. "You're just worried there won't be any food left for you!"
"Who can blame me?" Rodney ate a little faster, and they finished off every scrap while glaring, even if John was laughing on the inside. John ate the last bite insolently, licking his lips, and then Rodney threw a fork at him, and it was on.
When the carnage settled, breathless with laughing, John bore Rodney to the floor and covered him with his skin instead of fur this time. Rodney still yowled and wiggled. John curled to the side, draping an arm and leg across him. It felt good.
"You oaf," Rodney said, but he was holding on tightly. "The floor is cold."
John wanted to kiss him, hold him, stay in bed all day with him. Rodney moved, pushing, and John let him go. "Thanks, Rodney."
Rodney staggered to his feet, nodding as if he knew what John was talking about. "I am a genius. I'm going to shower."
Making sure he didn't stare at Rodney's erection, clearly visible in old boxers, John sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. He could want this, but he couldn't have it. The teachers at the Center hadn't recommended any of them have sex. Powerful emotions led to stress Switching.
"Is it because I'm Feline?" John asked, pitching his voice low. He hated that he needed to know the truth of why Rodney was walking away.
Hesitating at the door of the bathroom, Rodney looked at his feet. "Sometimes it's not about you." And he ducked inside, gone in a flash of boxers. John didn't know what to think. True, it wasn't always about him, but it usually was. Sighing, he got to his feet and went to his room. He'd stay in his fur today to avoid blushing and asking stupid questions.
"Hey, Puss n' Boots! Can we go inside now? I'm freezing!"
John yawned from his perch on the top of the snowplow. A snowball flew by, but Rodney generally had crappy aim. Rodney stamped his feet. "Damn it, John! My ass is frozen!"
Ears perking, John rose to his paws and listened. He'd recognize that sound anywhere, and it was coming closer. He wavered between panic that Sumner was on board and hope that the cafeteria had sent for more bones.
Then it hit him that it was his 'copter, and he jumped down like his tail was on fire. Rodney started yelling, but John left him far behind in his dash to get to the helicopter landing pad, or what passed for one in the snow.
He got there right as it touched down. She was still beautiful, and he tried to look dignified as he paced over and rubbed his chin on a strut.
"Guess you're glad to see me," O'Neill drawled, leaving his door open as he got his feet on the snowy ground. The rotor blades slowed way down, and John reared up to drape over the passenger's seat, giving the pilot a glare before making sure that nothing had been damaged.
"He's taking good care of your 'copter," O'Neill said. "I made sure of it."
Barely satisfied, John chuffed and snorted. He would give anything to go for a flight. The pilot saluted him with a grin, and John got out to properly greet O'Neill. O'Neill started for the elevator, and John caught up with him easily. They met Rodney halfway there, and Rodney had a lot to say. O'Neill grunted his answers and then ditched the airman who ran the elevator.
"It'll be crowded." O'Neill held the door until John's tail was safely inside. "McKay, shut up a minute. Major, how are you settling in?"
John whistled, tucking his tail tightly around his hindquarters, out of range of feet and doors. O'Neill suddenly surprised him by going to one knee, and they were more or less at eye level. John held perfectly still as O'Neill reached and then cradled the dog tag that dangled against John's chest.
"Daniel read you in to the program?"
A nod was good enough. O'Neill let go of the dog tag. "Daniel has been filling my ears. He's right, of course. We're no better than the Goa'uld when it comes to how we treat Felines."
That seemed a bit extreme, but not by much. John chirped, and the elevator ground to a halt. Rodney got the door, and O'Neill stood.
"My knees ain't what they used to be," O'Neill grumbled. "Okay, McKay, you can start whining again. Major, why don't you go help unload the shipment of supplies I brought? In a supervisory capacity of course. You're an officer."
John would do that. He swatted Rodney's leg with a paw, wanting to know where Rodney would be.
"I'll need McKay with me."
Good enough, and John knew when he was being ditched so his 'fate' could be determined by the ranking officers. He swiped his chin on Rodney's dangling hand and got back in the elevator. The good news was that Colonel Sumner wasn't here yet. The bad news was that O'Neill had John's orders with him, and those orders would most likely get him killed.
Rodney glanced back once, looking worried, and John hit the button to go up with his paw. Once the supplies were put away, he'd Switch and take a shower. He'd rather hear about his new assignment and all the death that came with it as a Human. That way he wouldn't yowl as much.
Up top, the airman looked glad to have his elevator, and John hurried back to his helicopter. There were several people taking cargo off, and John jumped right inside to supervise correctly.
"Hey, Major! I think there's a whole carcass in here!"
John tried not to drool on the seat. He could sit around and worry, or he could make sure he had meat for dinner. The meat won out, and he put it down to the fact he was wearing his fur. He took the job seriously, making sure the paperwork was done and everything was put away. The Marines handling the job didn't laugh at him. They worked, once or twice groaning when he used a paw to correct something. He was damn careful not to scratch anyone or anything.
The airman in charge of the kitchen looked happy. "Best shipment ever. Real food for a change!"
That was good news for everyone. John snatched a bottle of water and headed to his quarters. Later, he might sneak out to make sure his helicopter was still there. He hadn't heard it leave, but he was far underground.
Switching before he hit the shower, he guzzled the water, glad he'd eaten in his fur so he wasn't hungry now. He dressed in his cleanest uniform, even putting on his watch and wristband. For a long moment, he sat on the bottom bunk, head braced into his hands, telling himself over and over again that no matter what happened, he would not stress Switch.
The door opened, and O'Neill stepped inside without a please or thank you. He took it all in with one glance. "You could use some furniture. Are they afraid you'll chew it up?"
John was already in parade rest by the end of the first sentence. "That's all there was when Rodney said I could bunk here."
"That's why I wanted Daniel to find you a room. He knows how important couches and stuff are to a guy." O'Neill rolled his eyes. "Everyone is talking at me about you."
"Yes, sir." John was used to that.
"It hit me that no one has talked much to you." O'Neill leaned against the wall, almost slouching. "Dr. Weir assumes you're going with her to Atlantis, if they find it. When Daniel finds it."
John made sure not to flinch, or wince, or even look interested. "She said she was waiting until you returned before talking to me about the mission."
"You see, I don't get that. Why not give you all the details? Ask you if you want to go?"
"She knows I don't have free will." John shrugged. "Of course, no one in the Air Force does."
"You have less than most, but no one is being assigned to this mission. It might be one way. Volunteers only." O'Neill shook his head. "You can't volunteer."
"No, sir." John was willing to stand here all day and talk in circles, but it wasn't going to change anything. "Truth is: I've exceeded my life span, pissed off some brass, and McMurdo was supposed to be a punishment. You turned it into some sort of vacation for me." He smiled. "And thanks."
O'Neill laughed. "It's true they have no idea what to do with you any longer, and in that light, they've washed their hands of you and given you to the SGC." He reached in his pocket and tossed over a shiny bit of metal on a chain. "Welcome to the club."
John caught it easily. He didn't read it. He put it on before taking off the old one. That one, he slipped into his pocket. "Thank you, sir." He couldn't put much heart into it.
"I like enthusiasm," O'Neill said with remarkable sarcasm. "Buck up, you might get to fly a spaceship some day."
It was difficult, but John said nothing, swallowing down his sarcasm and disbelief. On the one hand, he was glad to be under O'Neill's command. On the other, he figured this was his last stop. No going any further, no retirement to the Center, and he would make sure to update his will soon so they'd know what to do with his body.
"Yeah, I wouldn't believe me either." O'Neill pushed away from the wall. "Let's walk and talk, Major."
With a thought, John opened the door and fell into step beside him. "The Ancient technology is very cool."
"Usually, yes." O'Neill didn't rush through the halls. "McKay says you've initialized a device that could help stuck Felines, or something like that."
"Maybe." John wasn't a scientist, but he thought it needed more study. "It brings up the idea that there have been Felines on this Earth since the Ancients were here."
"Daniel has been turning back flips over it. It opens up whole new ideas about why some people are Felines."
"Did you ask the Center for the DNA results they keep on each and every one of us?" Frankly, John thought Felines would be better off in this program than others.
O'Neill stopped walking, turning enough to eye him. "They have those?"
"For every Feline who's ever graced their doors." John had kept his ears open when he was being experimented on as a teenager. "They weren't surprised when I showed up. Apparently, one of my uncles was a Feline."
"He's...?" O'Neill looked uncomfortable asking.
"Dead." John hadn't known him. "He was a lion in his fur. They told me he died a hero in Vietnam."
O'Neill stuck his hands in his pockets. "You sound skeptical."
"They lie." John shrugged. There wasn't anything he could do about it now.
"I want those records." O'Neill turned to him, narrowing his eyes. "The Center doesn't cooperate with the military."
"They always seem happy to sell us to you." John couldn't even flash a bitter grin. He thought about it, coming up with a few ideas. "Other than a midnight raid, I'd suggest sending Dr. Beckett in, wanting more of my records so you can dissect me properly. Then, while he's there, have Rodney steal everything with his laptop."
Pointing at John's chest, O'Neill tilted his head. "I like the way you think." He paused. "Without the dissecting part."
"Thanks." John pushed his own agenda. "Do I get to fly them there?"
"That would be irony, and I love irony." O'Neill nodded, moving again. "We'll do it. We're four months out from Atlantis. It's going to be tight."
"Assuming Daniel finds the address." John wanted to see a stargate in action. Reading about and watching videos had to pale in comparison.
"He will. Trust me." O'Neill opened a door and ushered John inside. "Right now, we need to talk."
John had thought they were doing that, but he took a seat in front of a smallish desk, covered with papers. O'Neill sat down, shoveled things around and opened a few drawers, peering inside as if it weren't his desk. "Colonel Sumner has been placed in command of the Atlantis mission."
"Dr. Weir informed us of that, sir." John kept his tone even and refused to bounce his knee. He was fine. He was breathing.
"I vetted you through him, naturally, because Dr. Weir wants you on the mission." O'Neill fiddled with a few things, not looking up. "I was thinking I could get you to volunteer, if I promised you a spaceship or two."
"That would've worked." John told himself it was the truth. He eased out a breath, glad he'd been in his fur for hours already today.
"Colonel Sumner refuses to have you." O'Neill met John's eyes head-on now. "And I won't share his reasons why."
Disappointment chased a quick rush of relief. John rubbed his hands down his legs and flexed his hands, not sure what to think. He'd been dreading this assignment so much, he'd never considered that Sumner would turn him down.
"McKay went ballistic. I practically had to have him restrained in the meeting." O'Neill didn't look away. "I'm not sure he's ever had a friend, so I cut him some slack for some of the verbiage he used.
"Dr. Weir is unhappy as well. The situation is being discussed." O'Neill sighed and shrugged. "The IOA wants Sumner as base commander. You did read about the IOA?"
"Yes, sir." John leaned back marginally, not longer feeling quite so much like throwing up. "I have to admit, I'm surprised you wanted me at the SGC at all after Colonel Sumner refused me."
"You have the gene, and Daniel tells me you're a nice guy." O'Neill smiled. "We'll take the changing device to the Center. See if you can help any Felines who are stuck."
"And if there are more Felines with the ATA gene?" John thought he knew the answer, but he had to ask.
"We'll bring them back." O'Neill sounded sure about that.
"And if the Center puts up a fight?" John thought they might. They were highly secretive bastards, who loved their position as overlords of the Feline population.
"I'll have the President explain things to them." O'Neill nodded at John's wide eyes. "Yes, I can do that. He's not happy about this situation either."
So much for flying under the radar. Even the President was irritated with John.
"You're going to be spending a lot of time in that helicopter of yours in the next month. Are you up to it? Feeling fit?" O'Neill waved his hand in John's general direction. "Your cat likes to fly?"
"I never wanted anything else." John smiled, honest now. "I'm in top form. My teeth are sharp and everything."
O'Neill leaned back and laughed. "Good. For now, you're on my staff as my aide and personal pilot."
John felt like he'd been hit in the chest. He clicked his teeth shut. He managed a ragged breath. "Yes, sir," he breathed.
"Don't get excited. It doesn't come with a promotion, and from what I understand, the Air Force doesn't even pay you."
"No, sir." John was owned, not employed, and he honestly wasn't sure if it was excitement at an assignment that many pilots would fight over. It was more like a bare hope that Sumner might not get his hands on John's fur after all. "But, I was promised a very nice headstone."
Rubbing his eyes, O'Neill laughed like it was painful. "Take that other pilot back to McMurdo, get my helicopter shipshape, and laze about here for three days. Then we're gone."
"Yes, sir." John got to his feet, and he couldn't help but bounce a little at the thought of flying. He'd thought he was in this igloo to stay. "Should I run away if I see Rodney?"
"As fast as your paws can carry you." O'Neill grinned. "But he'll still catch you."
"He's pretty quick for a Human." John nodded at the waved hand and manage to leave without kicking up his heels. He was back in the air, for now, and that was good enough. He would deal with the rest of it as it came at him.
Back to his room, he switched into his flight suit and got his coat. He made sure he had his aviators and tried not to bound out the door. Rodney leaned against the nearest wall, and his face was somewhere between furious and crumpled as if he was beyond upset. John stopped cold.
"You're happy you're not going." Rodney's voice sounded raw. "Of course you're happy! You like living! How could I be so stupid?" He started wandering off towards his lab, and John followed, feeling helpless. Rodney kept on talking. "I don't blame you. I'd make the same choice, but the work we could've done. The things we could discover. All lost because some stupid colonel is a dog person. I swear, some days I want to nuke the planet." He took a ragged breath. "Are you following me? Stop that. Go do other things."
Confused, John did stop. Rodney was out of sight quickly, and John tried to wrap his brain around it. He'd thought Rodney would chase after him, demand all sorts of things, up to and including that John stow away on the mission. Instead, Rodney had taken one look at John's somewhat happy face and been crushed.
Everyone said Rodney was terrible with people, but John was even worse. Hell, John wasn't even Human, and he figured that's why he sucked at it. Still, he should be able to understand. They were friends, and that hadn't been easy for John to accept at all. Wouldn't Rodney still want to be friends, even if John couldn't go to Atlantis?
Checking the time, John hurried after him, catching him right at the doorway to his lab. John grabbed him by the arm, pulling him to a stop. "You find out that I can't be your personal Feline tech slave on Atlantis, and you blow me off? I'm no longer good enough for you? Is that what this is?"
Rodney's mouth clicked shut. He yanked his arm away. "I thought maybe you wanted us to work together."
John was starting to understand. "And if I can't, you don't want anything to do with me? I get it now. We're not friends, you're just another Human using me." He turned away fast before Rodney could lie and jogged to the elevator. It didn't matter. John had work to do, and he put on his aviators before the elevator made it to the top. It made sense now, why Rodney hadn't responded to John's overtures, picking a shower instead. Rodney was smart enough not to get too attached. John ran his hand through his hair, shaking it off. This was what he knew. Humans used him. It was his fault for being dumb enough to think that Rodney was different. After all these years, John would've thought he was smarter than that.
"No snowballs today, Major?"
"No, I get to take the 'copter out." John forced a grin, like he was fine, and he was. Flying was what he loved, not turning on Ancient tech, and certainly not hanging out in Rodney's lab. It was good he finally understood the rules, before he'd done something ridiculous like kiss Rodney. It was just as John had been taught over and over again. He could want, but he couldn't have, and he sure as hell wasn't surprised.
There was a feeling that all was right with the world when his copter was secured properly, outfitted with all the necessary supplies and fuel, and buffed to a deep shine. John thanked his crew, good guys, and decided it was past time to hit the cafeteria. He ate alone at his usual table, and he wasn't keeping an eye on the door for Rodney.
After he dumped his trash, he wandered over to his favorite airman. "Give me some bones to go, will ya?"
"Sure, how many?"
John shrugged. "More than a few." He needed to crunch his frustration out. The airman nodded, going back to the freezer, and John had his bones a few minutes later. He hefted the bag, grinned his thanks, and started for his room. He wanted some time in his fur, nothing else. Unfortunately, Dr. Weir got to him before he reached his door.
"Major, we need to talk," she said with a brittle smile.
"I have no say in my deployments, assignments, or postings." John covered all the bases, hoping to forestall her. "I'm assigned to the SGC now. They will put me wherever they want."
Her eyes narrowed. "You refuse to even speak to General O'Neill about the Atlantis mission?"
There was a line here, and John didn't want to piss her off, but he wanted her to understand. "I've spoken to him. Colonel Sumner refuses to have me on the mission. His opinion is the one that counts, and unfortunately for you, he hates Felines with a passion. McKay thinks maybe he's a dog person."
"Rodney is threatening to stay here. My entire mission is in jeopardy," she said with a slight tremble in her voice.
That news was a shock, but he kept his face expressionless. He would think about it while he chewed his bones. "Colonel Sumner and General O'Neill are the ones who can help you. I have no power. None. I go where they put me."
"You seem satisfied with that." Her tone was sharp now, almost an insult.
"Dr. Weir, I'm a Feline. I can't help you. No one will listen to me." John clenched his jaw, not wanting to continue this conversation. He wanted to have choices in his life, but his gene pool made that impossible.
"Rodney listens to you." She edged closer. "Remind him that he's wanted this mission for years."
John was starting to think that he was never going to like this lady. He took a breath, ready to say something scathing and smelled him. The general was a sneak, coming out of nowhere. John waited, raising his eyebrow at him when he appeared around a corner.
"That is far above his pay grade, Lizzie," O'Neill said, hands in his pockets. "Let him go enjoy his lunch. We need to talk."
Weir turned to O'Neill, and John beat a hasty retreat inside his room without a trace of guilt. With deliberate motions, keeping his brain from running in circles, he stripped off his clothes, folding them neatly. He Switched, tail flailing, noisy growls and pacing all coming at once. The bones smacked the wall with a thump.
The pacing wore his temper out, and where he'd assumed that he was done talking to Rodney, it seemed as if they had a yelling match or two left to go. That made him slump to the floor. He didn't want to fight, argue. Even if Rodney was just another Human, who'd used John to further his own career, John still... liked him. It was damn annoying.
He snagged the bag, ripped it open, and settled down for some serious chewing. If he and O'Neill were leaving in a few days, he'd have to make sure to get all his bones for the trip. There was no telling what accommodations, if any, he'd get if he were flying O'Neill around the world. John wasn't worried. He'd slept in a lot of 'copters over the years, sometimes it was safer.
Tearing the bag further, John rooted out an especially meaty one. His mouth was full when the door rang, and he opened it with his mind without getting up. His heart sank, thinking it was Rodney, but Daniel stepped inside, hands in his pockets, looking everywhere but at John.
For fun, John snapped the bone in half.
Daniel flinched. "Jack asked me to come see if you're all right. That's not the remains of Rodney, is it?"
Flicking his tail in irritation, John shook his head.
"You should've ask for a sofa, or a chair, or something." Daniel didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor. They were close to eye level, but John kept on with his bone. He didn't have anything to say. Daniel cleared his throat. "This is the thing: everyone is upset. Please take what they say with a grain of salt. We've all been working on this project for years in one way or another, and tension is running high. We finally found someone with a strong ATA genetic expression, who's not Jack, and Sumner throws a temper tantrum."
John licked his chops, considering offering Daniel a bone just for the humor of it.
"Add in the hurricane that's McKay when he's pissed off, and you could see where Dr. Weir might be pushed to a bad place." Daniel leaned forward, face curious. "Are those delicious in both forms?"
Chirping, John went ahead and rolled a bone to him.
"Believe it or not, I've gnawed on a few of those myself." Daniel smiled at a memory that he wasn't sharing.
It was interesting that O'Neill has sent Daniel to apologize for Weir. John wasn't sure what to believe, and it really didn't matter one way or the other. It wasn't as if his wishes would be followed or even taken into account. He shrugged in a cougar way, not willing to Switch to discuss it. He did wonder if Daniel got tired of making excuses for his friends, but once again, not John's business.
"This is sort of like talking to Teal'c." Daniel levered himself up to his feet. "I'll leave you to your bones, just think about what I said."
John opened the door for him.
"And that's really cool." Daniel gave a weird little wave and hurried out the door. John let it shut, going back to gnawing the messy one. He would need a shower after this, but he didn't care. Flipping them, cracking them open, was satisfying. He even played a game of floor hockey with one until it went under the bunk.
Stomach full, fur filthy, he rolled to his side and let his eyes shut.
Rolling around and eating bones didn't hold any attraction for John the next day, and by lunch, he was bored out of his mind with reading reports. Usually, he was busy with Rodney, but that didn't bear thinking about, so John plucked up his courage and went to O'Neill's office.
It was empty, of course. John sat across from the desk and dragged a piece of paper towards him. He'd leave a note, if he could find a pen. That took some digging.
"Are you looking for something in particular?" O'Neill drawled, slouched in the doorway.
"You are the sneakiest general in the Air Force." John's heart rate shot through the roof. He straightened, trying not to look guilty. "I admire that about you."
"Thanks." O'Neill moved around him to sit down. "Did you need something?"
"I was leaving you a note that I'm bored and about ready to find someone to bite." John sat down, not worried any longer that he'd be yelled at for his usual amount of mouthiness.
O'Neill nodded, finding a pen and handing it to him. "Write this note for me."
"Okay." John was willing to play along.
"Dear Dr. McKay," O'Neill said, stopping for a moment and peering at the paper under John's hand, "are you getting this?"
"Do I write that too?" John smirked.
Grinning, O'Neill shook his head. "You're a smartass."
"I don't think he's going to like this note." John acted like he was writing that. "Anything else?"
"Give me that." O'Neill gave out a heavy sigh. "You're a better pilot than a secretary."
"You better hope so." John handed him the pen. O'Neill dashed off a fast note and handed it to John. For some reason, John read it aloud. "'Dear McKay, Sheppard is bored. Please let him turn on gadgets so I don't have to. Thanks, General Jack O'Neill.'"
"Don't you wish you'd stayed in your room?"
"Yes." John got to his feet, note in hand. "Do I have to deliver this, sir?"
"Toot sweet." O'Neill opened the bottom drawer, staring down into it. "Daniel hid my booze again."
John stepped close and leaned over to take a big sniff. "Yup. I can smell him."
"Okay, never do that again." O'Neill glared and then broke out laughing. "I like you, Sheppard."
"Sorry about that, sir." John left before he wore out his welcome. He wasn't sure what it was about O'Neill that brought out John's natural inability to be serious about anything for too long. Maybe it was the smirking. John walked very slowly to Rodney's lab, picking up a fresh cup of coffee in the cafeteria. It might distract Rodney long enough that John could escape while still obeying his commanding officer.
The lab was quiet, not even the clicking of computer keys, but Rodney was hunched over something. John sat the note down near him, putting the coffee on top. Rodney didn't look over, but he did sip the coffee and read the note. He let it drift to the floor. John edged towards the door. This silent version of Rodney was creepy.
"If you hadn't come along, I could've gone on, living in stupid ignorance." Rodney's voice was soft and low. "But no, you had to shove your big cougar nose in my face and teach me about Ancient tech, how it works, when it works, and now? Now, I know that if we go to Atlantis without someone like you, we might as well not. Nothing will work. The whole city is Ancient. Carson can only turn on things when he's scared to death. I've heard there's a couple of guys who can manage the odd artifact, but you? No, you turn them all on, and they give you their secrets, and we are so screwed if you don't go with us."
"Nice to be appreciated." John made up his mind to let a little anger show. "Here I thought you were having second thoughts because you wanted to stay here with me."
Rodney's shoulders managed to hunch further. "Why would I want to be with someone who thinks I'm a terrible person?"
"You are a terrible, no-good, rotten person. Everyone says so." John wondered why he wasn't fleeing this argument. "I wasn't surprised you were using me."
Now Rodney turned, eyes bloodshot. "I was honest about what I wanted. You knew this was about the tech."
"Point." John assumed that meant he had to stop whining about oppression and such. "You guys might do fine on Atlantis, never know." He tried to sound reassuring. "Some of that stuff once initialized can be used by anybody."
"What if their DHD is gene activated?" Rodney drank some more coffee. "I can come up with a million different ways we could die. Genius, here."
John didn't want to envision any of those scenarios. "Weir and O'Neill want me to go die with you guys. They may over-rule Sumner. It could happen."
Rubbing his eyes, Rodney yawned. "I'm sorry I was angry, okay? I never say that, but I am. I was mad that you looked thrilled when I was the most unhappy I've been since I was shipped to Siberia. It was petty of me, but that's me. I'm a petty man. And yes, it's easier to talk to you when you're in your fur, as you say."
"I don't smirk as much when I'm furry." John smirked on purpose. He felt like he should explain one or two things, but he did appreciate the apology. "I was happy because O'Neill was letting me take my 'copter up."
"So you weren't jumping for joy at the prospect of living?" Rodney went back to his coffee.
Letting out a long sigh, John found a stool and sat next to him. "The average lifespan for a Feline is thirty. I've beat the odds for the last five years. I'm not excited about Sumner, no, but if I get that assignment, I'll go. You know I will."
"You had a panic attack at the mere idea!" Rodney was on his feet now, waving his hands.
Lowering his head, John wished he'd had better control that day. "Colonel Sumner is every Feline's worst nightmare, but Rodney, I'm in the SGC now. It took me a few days to adjust to the idea, but here I am." He tugged out his new dog tag and showed it to him. "O'Neill owns me. I honestly don't know what he'll do with me. Could be anything."
"I apologized, and I never do that, and we're still back to the problem. You have no idea where you'll be assigned, and I'm assailed by doubts that going on this mission is the right thing for me. I like living. I like living a lot."
"You want to keep this friendship between us professional." John nodded in agreement on all those points, recapping his own. "I wanted, something, but I was being an idiot." He clapped his hands on his thighs. "Are we good? I'm tired of talking."
"I agree that you're an idiot." Rodney swayed a little, ending up leaning against John. John let it happen, keeping his hands to himself, but liking the touch. He wasn't sure what to say now, and he wasn't sure they'd worked anything out. Rodney started to slide, and John caught him, pulling him up and towards the door before they both hit the floor.
"You have to sleep occasionally, Rodney," John fussed, hauling him down the hallways to his quarters. Rodney flailed the door open, and John put him on his bed. Five seconds later, Rodney was sound asleep, still in his clothes. Grumbling, John yanked off Rodney's shoes and pants, getting him more or less under the covers. Rodney muttered about work and his cat and then did nothing but snore.
Somewhat satisfied, John turned off the lights and found a chair. There wasn't any place he had to be, or anything he had to do, and he was content to sit and watch for a few minutes. John's Feline suggested he take a nap, curled up next to Rodney, but John's Human was more interested in being awake. Usually, John gave in to his cat, but today he was too restless.
Rodney sat bolt upright. "Oh. You're here."
"Yeah." John rubbed his hand through his hair. He might be terrible with people, but he knew when he was screwed. "Rodney, you're killing me with the mixed signals."
Flopping back down on his pillow, Rodney sighed. "I'm not saying sorry again. Felines don't have sex. That's not my fault."
Stunned, John flew to his feet. "Wait. Rodney! Wake up!"
Again, Rodney sat up. "What? What?" he snapped.
"Did you hack the Center? All the files? All of them?" John might've yelled the questions.
"No!" Rodney crossed his arms, trying to look indignant and only pulling off confused and rumpled. "Yes! All of them!"
John laughed, swooped over and kissed him on the mouth. "Good job. Go back to sleep, I'll explain later."
Rodney grabbed him by the shirt. "Where are my pants? I'm awake now!"
Excited, relieved, and willing to take him at his word, John stuffed Rodney back in his pants and shoes.
"I feel violated," Rodney said, shoving at him.
"You liked it. Come on!" John didn't want to explain. He dragged Rodney to the infirmary and put him in a chair in front of Beckett's desk. Beckett stared at them both, wide-eyed. John grinned. "Rodney hacked the Center. He got the files!"
Beckett blinked and then grinned. "Even the medical files?"
"I'm nothing if not thorough. What is this all about?" Rodney groused at them. "I was trying to sleep!"
"I'm going to track down the general. Rodney, stay here and give him everything he wants." John hurried away, hoping that for once Rodney cooperated with a minimum of complaints.
Daniel's lab was the first place John looked, and sure enough O'Neill was slumped in a chair, fiddling with a pencil.
"I'm so close!" Daniel was in front of a whiteboard. He took off his glasses and tossed them on the nearest table. He stopped, pointing and staring at John. "Wait. You said... something about the symbols..."
"General, good news. Rodney already hacked the Center. He and Beckett are holed up, going over the information now." John hoped Daniel stopped staring at him soon.
O'Neill sat up straighter. "That McKay is less and less annoying."
"I'm gonna get him some coffee. Keep him Human a bit longer." John almost smiled, but Daniel was still staring, and it was getting weird.
"You're still going to the Center." O'Neill pointed at him.
John wasn't sure how to give O'Neill the bad news. "For me to go there, my owner has to accompany me. No unsupervised Felines are allowed on site."
"I'm starting to dislike those people." O'Neill's face shifted to anger. "I'll be there. Do I have to leash you?" The sarcasm would've made an airman cry.
"It's customary." John let out the breath he was holding. He felt like he should explain. "They don't trust us with the kits. We might..."
"Advocate rebellion and freedom?" Daniel asked in a mild tone.
John pointed at him. "That."
"You've never been back before?" Daniel squinted at him, flipping a marker in his hand.
"No. We only return if we're being retired there." John had never wanted to go back. He still thought the device needed more testing, but there was no way to do that without Felines. Hopefully, Rodney and Beckett could give them more information from the stolen files.
"Tell McKay we're having a meeting tomorrow at eight a.m." O'Neill smiled for no reason that John could see. "Daniel, I see a twinkle in your eye that bodes no good."
Daniel ducked his head and grinned. John took that as his cue to leave, moving back to the infirmary. Those two were something beyond friends, something that John had never had or even known existed. It sure as hell didn't exist for his kind.
"Nay, I do not need your help!" Beckett made a shooing motion at the door. "You may be Feline, but you're not a geneticist! Go on with you now. Let me work." His tone was gentle, not harsh. "As soon as I know anything, I'll look you up."
"C'mon, John, we'll get food. You're always hungry," Rodney wheedled. "We'll play with yarn, and I'll get out the catnip."
"I hate you both." John still laughed as he marched out of the infirmary, head held high. Rodney ended up chasing after him, and John whipped around, poking him in the chest. "Never joke about the nip," he growled.
Eyes wide, Rodney shook his head. "I wouldn't!"
"Liar." John still let Rodney tag along all the way to the cafeteria. It was deserted, no fresh food in sight, no airman with bones, just MREs, and John realized he had truly been living the high life.
At their usual table, two MREs each, John wondered how many hours Rodney had actually been awake when he started drowsing. John wanted to smack at him, but he was clearly exhausted. It wasn't the right time, but no one was around, and John had to correct something.
"Felines can have sex, you know. The Center doesn't recommend it. Ever. But that doesn't mean we can't."
Rodney sat upright fast. John stuffed his mouth full of bread, wishing he could take the words back. He chewed and watched Rodney think.
"Oh. I thought it meant that you couldn't. Like they'd neutered you or something."
"That is the most offensive thing you've ever said, and I've heard you compare Grodin's brains to tapioca pudding." John shoved his tray away and got to his feet. "I need fur time." He stalked off to his room, unable to sit any longer. He stripped out of his clothes fast and Switched before his shirt hit the bed. Staying in the confined space of his room wasn't an option. He opened the door just in time to stop Rodney from ringing the chime.
Pushing past him, John grumbled. He wanted to swat Rodney on the ass. Rodney made a few gulping noises and then yelled, "Come on! How was I to know?" to John's retreating tail. John lifted his tail high enough to show off his balls and kept moving. He was still bitching when he got on the elevator. The airman swallowed hard and then took him up. John stomped out into the snow, glad to see some sunshine, and looked about for the highest vantage point. The snowplow didn't seem high enough today. What John would give for some trees or a cliff.
"You okay, Major?"
John chirped and spotted exactly what he wanted. He took a running start, jumped, and jumped again, sliding to a stop on a metal overhang, probably built to give people a bit of protection from the snow. He rolled to his back, making a spot, and then sat up, crossing his paws. There was enough wind to ruffle his fur. He watched people come and go, and once a small plane landed, delivering some crates.
"You're an idiot!" Rodney, bundled up like a snowman with goggles, glared at him. "A damn idiot! Get down here before those precious balls of yours freeze off!"
Kicking some snow in Rodney's direction wasn't mature at all. John indulged, and then got down while Rodney was sputtering. He landed lightly on his paws and then cannon-balled Rodney into a snowbank. The lovely sound of cursing in two languages was his reward, and he sat on Rodney's face to make sure Rodney got the message about John's balls.
"Get off me, you psychopathic furball!" Rodney squirmed and threw his arms and legs around, but John sat calmly, waiting for the storm to pass. Finally, Rodney collapsed, not fighting any longer. "Okay! I'm sorry! I give!"
Snorting, John let him up. Rodney brushed ineffectually at the snow before trying and failing to pull John's ear. "O'Neill wants you in his office too."
With a cougar sigh, John shoved Rodney back into the snow and headed for the elevator. Rodney could've mentioned that first. If John was in trouble, he was placing the blame squarely on Rodney's shoulders. The airman running the elevator didn't wait for Rodney, and that was fine. John considered going to Switch, but he was already late, so he trotted through the hallways, dodging a few people, to get to O'Neill's office.
The door was open, so John went inside.
"Holy shit," O'Neill breathed, startling back until his chair hit the wall. "That better be you, Major, or I'm having a serious talk with the President about global warming and the spread of wildlife."
Chirping, John sat politely and waited. He should've been noisier, scaring his commanding officer was always a bad idea.
O'Neill tilted his head, continuing to stare. "When you change, are you naked?"
John nodded, exaggerating the movement.
"Then don't." O'Neill got out of his chair and came around the desk to stand over him. "We're leaving in the morning. You'll be flying us. As a Human, I hope." He smiled, bright and sharp. "And Daniel found Atlantis."
That was good news for the expedition Weir planned, and John whistled his approval. He didn't think there was any way in Hell they would ever convince Sumner to take him.
"The list of people going is still changing, being updated daily. But." O'Neill hesitated, going again to one knee even though it had to hurt. "I am not going to ask you to go, nor is Dr. Weir going to be allowed to guilt you into going, as long as Colonel Sumner is in command. Like everyone else, you have the right to volunteer. And the right to decline. There's plenty of work for a fine cougar such as yourself in the SGC right here on Earth."
The words clanged into John's head, and he opened his mouth, panting. It was damn hard to believe, and he'd been lied to so many times, but he didn't smell deception on O'Neill. John lowered his head and rubbed his chin on O'Neill's knee. Loyalty earned.
"That doesn't mean anything icky, does it?" O'Neill's eyes laughed, and he slowly reached out to pat John on the head. "Don't tell anyone I did that."
John chirped and clicked. He got to his paws and looked at the door.
"Yeah, you're dismissed." O'Neill went back to his desk with a groan and a curse about getting old. "And there better not be a pile of bones in that room when you leave!"
Flicking his tail, John ambled towards his room and a shower. Tomorrow, he was getting in the air again. This place had been great, but he was ready to fly away. He smelled Rodney before he rounded the last corner, and John paused.
For the first time since he was a child, he'd been able to be in his fur whenever he wanted. He'd even made a friend, or two, and yes, he wanted to fly, but he would miss this igloo. Maybe O'Neill would let him visit from time to time.
Peeking around the corner, John saw Rodney leaning against the wall that was opposite both of their doors. Rodney was waiting on him. John would miss Rodney. Head down, tail dragging, John went around the corner.
"John? Oh shit, what did O'Neill say? Did he threaten you?" Rodney opened John's door and ushered him inside. John toppled dramatically to the floor and groaned. Rodney went to his knees and clutched at him. "John? I am going to kill O'Neill!
"He can't do this! Whatever it is! I'll fight it! I have a big brain!"
John grabbed Rodney with his paws and pulled him down to sprawl on, laughing in his cougar way. Rodney froze for one second and then punched him. "You dirty furbag! I was worried! I thought bad things!"
Deliberately, John licked Rodney's face from chin to receding hair line. Yes, he would miss Rodney. Rodney made gagging noises but got busy stroking him under the chin, behind the ears, and all the other good places. John rolled to his back and purred.
"John, we have to talk about Atlantis."
That wasn't going to happen. John surged to his paws and strolled to the bathroom. He looked back once to see Rodney on the floor, arms wrapped around his knees.
"Sooner or later, we have to talk."
Later was better for John. He shut the door, Switched, and started the shower. If he knew Rodney, the stubborn Human would be waiting when John was finished. They did need to talk, but Rodney could never understand the heady feeling that came with having a choice.
Clean, dry, John wrapped a towel around his hips and stepped out. Rodney averted his eyes and kicked at a bone. "Are you taking these with you as lovely souvenirs of your time here?"
"Yes." John went to his dresser and palmed open the drawer. Letting the towel drop, he dressed and began pulling everything out to be re-packed in his duffel. "I've had fun. Sure, once or twice, I wanted to bite you, but it's been fun."
"You act like this is over. We're done."
That made John pause. "Aren't we? You want a professional relationship. I'm going to spend some time flying General O'Neill here and there. You have your research, whether here or on Atlantis. Maybe I'll catch up with you later."
"Maybe they did neuter you." Rodney flinched when John was suddenly right there, putting them face-to-face. "No emotional attachments? You move from base to base. No friends. No family. Nothing but you and your helicopter."
"I had a friend. He's dead." John ground out the words, angrier than he had any right to be. "And yes, that's my life. No one cares. No one wonders where I went. That's the way it's always been."
"It won't be for me. I'm going to miss you, and I don't miss anyone." Rodney rubbed his face with his hands, leaning towards him. John could smell Rodney's sadness. Rodney seemed to have run out of words, and John took the tiny step that brought them together. John nuzzled into Rodney's neck, wanting to mark him, not sure how this was going to work. This was more than a furtive hand job behind the ammo dump with someone who would hate him later. This was something John desperately wanted, and that was scary as hell. Rodney's hands came up, squeezing and stroking, making John pant.
"Promise me there'll be no claws. Claws near my dick is bad." Rodney tapped John on the nose. "Pay attention. This is important."
John was lost in the smell and feel of him. Part of him wanted to Switch and rut like an episode of Wild Kingdom, but he'd control it. "Why did you turn me down before?"
"Did I mention the claws? I'm pretty sure I did." Rodney tugged John's ear. "I also don't fall into bed with every handsome cougar who comes to town!"
The reasons were stupid, but John understood fear and hesitation. He nudged Rodney with his cheek and kissed him. The bunk was just two steps away, but Rodney refused to budge.
"My room. That bunk is tiny, and I'm not banging my head on a metal strut!" Rodney side-stepped towards the door. "Move it, or I flush the nip I had Carson smuggle me."
Now John believed him. "I can't get high on duty!" He hadn't indulged in years. "I have to fly tomorrow morning!"
"Oh. Sorry then." Rodney didn't look sorry. "I'll just keep it, ensuring that you'll come back to me." He looked smug. "I mean, to turn on stuff, help me in the lab, you know."
"And if you go to Atlantis?" John wasn't giving away his feelings on the matter, either way. He had moments where the tech, and Rodney, lured him, and moments where he'd rather be shot than be under Sumner's command, which was very ironic.
"Even there." Rodney raised his chin. "I don't want to say goodbye."
"You sure?" John had to give him an out. "I shed a lot, leave bones everywhere, and generally like to chew things."
Rodney kissed him, slow and easy, lots of tongue and heat. "Not sure you ever had a bone until you got here. You had the look of a starved kid in a candy store."
"Oh, shut up," John growled, deciding that they had to get things moving to skin again and away from the talking. He grabbed Rodney's hand and dragged him to Rodney's room and the big bed. Pushing him down, John had one more thing to say. "I might stress Switch. Please don't scream. I'll Switch right back, I promise."
"Truth in disclosure, huh?" Rodney spread his hands. "How about we go slow, and you focus tightly on keeping your claws away from my dick. Oh, and your super, sharp teeth." And he started undressing. As soon as John saw skin, he sorta lost his mind. It was the fact that he could touch, lick, even nibble if he was careful, and Rodney's wiggling was a good thing this time. Rodney reached up and yanked John's ear. "Undress, maybe today, fur-face?"
John practically shredded his clothes in his hurry to get naked, and for one second, the familiar routine nearly Switched him.
"You can, if you want," Rodney said, pulling him down. "I've had cats in my bed before."
The laughter came easy, and John Switched. He purred in Rodney's face, marking him with his chin several times in different spots. Rodney stroked him and laughed, and it was easy to Switch back. John curled down on him, bringing every part of his skin into contact with Rodney.
It made his head spin, and he made sure not to say anything at all because it would be something pitiful and stupid. Rodney's hands grabbed, pulled, stroked, touching him gently, roughly, and John went to pieces. Finding his breath was hard, and Rodney's grinning made John want to bite him, and twice didn't seem near enough as John came again, pushing against Rodney's cock over and over.
Rodney held him, guiding him to the side, and they lay together, breathing and continuing to touch. John kissed Rodney until they were both drowsy, and when Rodney's eyes shut, John Switched without even thinking about it. He shifted until he was mostly on his back, nosing the side of Rodney's head when he cuddled in close. They fell asleep that way.
"I don't want you to go," Rodney said for the tenth time.
O'Neill rolled his eyes. "I'm leaving now, and he's my pilot."
"That means I have to go." John double-checked the cargo to give Rodney a chance to complain some more. This was the first time in John's life that flying away was difficult. John stole a quick kiss from Rodney when O'Neill wasn't looking, and whispered, "Not goodbye."
"It better not be, you big fleabag." Rodney kicked at some snow, shivering. "Fly safe."
"I always do." Any sappy words stuck in John's throat. "You owe me some catnip, and I will be back to collect!"
Rodney grinned, but it was gone fast. He looked away and back, and John couldn't delay any longer. O'Neill yelled something about any day now, getting in the far door, and it was time to go.
"So long, Rodney." John dug in his pocket and tossed Rodney the old set of dog tags. Rodney barely caught it, staring down, looking confused. John smiled and opened his door. He started the engines, and finally, Rodney cleared the area, going inside.
"Did you get your stash of bones from the freezer?"
"Yes, sir." John decided to take the question at face value, instead of an insult. He ran a quick pre-flight and got them in the air. The morning was crisp, clear, and he could see for miles. A good day to fly, but he was leaving something good behind too. "Nice base you got there."
"A little creepy at times, but yes." O'Neill didn't look over at him. "You know how you feel about flying?"
"Yes, sir," John said, wondering if the other shoe was going to drop. "It's a very, very good thing."
"So is the stargate. Something to think about."
"Yes, sir." John was willing to ride in silence after that statement. He wasn't sure what to think. If he was going to be allowed to make a career decision, which would be a first, he didn't want to rush into it. Or maybe he'd just flip a coin, but at least he didn't have to pack if he went to Atlantis. Everything he owned was in his duffel bag.
McMurdo came up fast, and John set them down easy. John looked over at O'Neill. "Do we wait for a cargo plane?"
"Nope. Refuel. Keep flying. You can find South America, right?" O'Neill grinned.
"Maybe." John answered that grin with one of his own at the prospect of some serious flying time. "I'll be ready in an hour."
"Good." O'Neill exited the 'copter with a jaunty wave, going inside to no doubt slouch in a chair.
The crew and John got busy, and at fifty-nine minutes, O'Neill crawled back inside. "Let's go, Major."
"You bet, sir." John thanked his crew and then got things rotating. They were ready, but he made sure there were no problems before taking them up. He wouldn't take any chances over the ocean.
O'Neill didn't say a lot during the first leg of their trip, but John found him a relaxing co-pilot. John kept the 'copter in the air until fuel forced them down to a base in Chile. He'd logged enough hours to keep him happy for a month, and they had a long way to go.
"You tired, or can we keep going?" O'Neill asked.
"I can keep going." John was honest. He wouldn't risk their lives on pride. "Two hours to refuel, and we can leave."
"I'll be back." O'Neill caught a ride in a jeep towards the headquarters. John stayed with his 'copter, overseeing the re-fueling process and eating three MREs. He tossed out a few things they didn't need to increase flight time and put some water bottles within easy reach of the front.
"Hey! Whose helicopter is this?"
John scrambled out of the back and down the side. He swiveled, and suddenly a sergeant was too close for comfort. "That would be General Jack O'Neill's 'copter," John said, keeping his tone even. "I'm Major Sheppard. His pilot. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Get this piece of junk off my tarmac!"
"You'll need to take that up with the general. I'm under his command, not yours." John had dealt with this type of annoyance for years. He went back to work but kept an eye out for trouble. The sun went down, and he tucked his aviators away, staying inside his 'copter now. No reason to ask for trouble.
Before O'Neill showed up, the sergeant was back, and John started the blades slowly rotating. The sergeant started yelling, and John made a cutting gesture, pointing at his ears. Finally, the sergeant stomped away. John snagged a bottle of water and checked the time. At exactly two hours, O'Neill un-slouched himself from a jeep and got aboard. John waited until the safety harness clicked and then took them up.
O'Neill got his helmet on and opened the comm link. "In a hurry?"
"Some idiot was yelling at me to move my 'copter." John made a few adjustments, but overall he loved the way this 'copter was handling the flight.
"You should've snarled at him." O'Neill barked a short laugh. "Those sergeants need a smack down occasionally."
John made a few speed fuel calculations in his head, thinking ahead to their next stop. "And here I thought you liked your pilot." He laughed with no feeling behind it.
"What's that got to do with it?" O'Neill was looking at him now, expecting an answer.
"If a Feline makes an aggressive move towards a Human in a non-combat situation, he, or she, is shot. I did hear about some guy who insisted they euthanize him. He went out in his fur." John admired him for that. "When Felines get old, they have a tendency to get more aggressive, so no one would be shocked." He happened to glance at O'Neill and decided to shut up. There was a line in O'Neill's jaw that was twitching, and that couldn't be good.
"Let me get this straight. They sell you. You get no pay, no vacation days, don't own anything, spend your free time confined to base, and they expect you to be cheerful? Happy? You're not even allowed to be cranky?"
"The Center doesn't recommend the military for any of us." John kept his tone mild. "I wanted the Air Force, so I didn't listen."
"That's the first thing you've said that makes sense." O'Neill reached back and grabbed a bottle of water. "We've found no Feline populations off-world. Daniel says there aren't even any legends on any other planet but this one. He drew a bunch of conclusions from that, but I was eating cereal, and it was hard to hear over the crunching."
"We're genetic leftovers from when the Ancients walked this planet." John had a few ideas of his own after reading all of Daniel's papers on the subject. "It really bugs Beckett that I got both mutations."
O'Neill laughed. "It's fun to watch the geeks freak out."
John agreed, laughing with him. "I'll miss those guys."
"You'll see them again." O'Neill smirked, knowing secrets that he wasn't willing to share, and John wasn't going to try to get them out of him. O'Neill fiddled with a few things. "I haven't ever flown a 'copter."
"I haven't ever flown a fighter," John said with real resentment. "Fun?"
"Oh, boy." O'Neill grinned. "I'll get you in a 302. Better than anything the Air Force has to offer. I bet you could thread the needle with no trouble." He took a drink. "Take it through a stargate. Gotta have balls of steel."
"You're not afraid I'll stress Switch?" John couldn't believe he'd be given a chance.
"No." John was pretty sure the only thing that made him stress Switch was Colonel Sumner. He wasn't counting the Switches with Rodney.
"Good enough." O'Neill reached for an instrument that John would rather not be adjusted. John blocked him, getting a snort of amusement from O'Neill. "No claws now."
They flew into the dark until, again, low fuel forced them to land. O'Neill shook himself awake when the 'copter began to descend. "How long can you go without sleep?"
"My record is six days," John said, beginning the calls for clearance and getting instructions on where to put her down. O'Neill yawned a couple of times but said nothing until they were on the ground.
"Take eight hours. I have some calls to make." O'Neill tugged off his helmet as John began to power down. John nodded, not needing sleep, but some fur time would be nice. O'Neill got out with a groan, stretching his back. "I'm getting old."
John grinned, thinking he better not comment.
"Make sure to eat. Let's make it ten hours. You good with that?"
"Yes, sir." John would be fine, but he figured he should warn him. "Your friendly Air Force cougar will be making an appearance at this stop."
"Aw, I've missed him. I'll warn the riff-raff." O'Neill strode away without a look back, and John thought he moved pretty good for an old guy.
After his 'copter was refueled and supplies were restocked, John made sure no one was around when he Switched from inside his 'copter. He used his paws to shove the back door further open and watched the sun come up. Glad he'd had the foresight to unpack a few bones, he lay right by the door, crunching. He wasn't too hungry because he'd mastered the in-flight MRE long ago.
A flash of movement caught his eye, and he raised his head, bone dangling from his mouth. A young airman froze like a deer in the headlights. John put the bone down and chirped at him in the way most people found less threatening.
Slowly, like his feet were sticking to the asphalt, the airman crept towards him. John lowered his head to look less aggressive.
"Major? I have a delivery for you," the airman's said; his voice breaking. "From a Dr. McKay."
John grinned. The airman gulped, and John put his lips back over his teeth. He nodded, not wanting to Switch and talk.
The airman's hand trembled, and John backed up to the far reaches of his 'copter. "Dr. McKay told me to tell you that you're a-a-a moron and a f-f-furbag and..." The young man couldn't get any paler. "Please don't eat me."
Sinking down, John laughed like cougars do.
"Anyway, here it is." The airman slid an open box at him. "I'm going to..."
John was sure he actually heard a sonic boom as the airman ran away. Stepping to the box, he peered inside, seeing a military issue phone and a charger. He scooted the box over by his bones and lay back down. He chewed, crunched, and licked while he thought about it. Finally, giving in, he used his paws to fish the phone out and put it down next to him.
It was on.
He flexed his claws and pushed talk and the number one ever so carefully.
"John? I thought you'd dropped off the Earth!" Rodney didn't even take a breath. "And that can happen when you hang out with the likes of O'Neill. The man finds trouble like you find fur on your clothes."
John took the tiny break to chirp and whistle into the phone.
"You're in your fur? Are you crazy? Someone might shoot you!" Dimly, in the background, the sound of something banging came through. "Did you eat? Change into your skin, you idiot!"
Rolling to his back, John purred his loudest.
"Yes, it's good to hear from you too." Rodney's voice softened. "Don't get hurt, okay, not that I care, but who will turn on all this stuff if--?"
Between one word and the next, John fell asleep.
It was easy to lose track of the bases and the cities after a few days. John's world narrowed to fly, food, fur, and the sound of Rodney's voice coming through the phone that John was meticulous about keeping charged. O'Neill apparently wanted to visit every base in the Americas, and John had someone scavenge him a sleeping bag for his 'copter because he refused to use on-base housing. The sun had come up about an hour ago, and he yawned lazily, wondering when O'Neill would show up.
"Rise and shine, kitty!"
John leapt straight in the air, nearly hit his head and then fell out of his 'copter to land in a heap. He rolled to his back, rubbed his eyes with his paws, and hated O'Neill a little. The man had to be part jungle cat. It was the only explanation.
"That's for scaring me back in Antarctica. I hope there's video of that somewhere." O'Neill laughed at John's pain. "Are those bones? Are you leaving a trail of bones behind us? Have you eaten anyone important?"
Grumbling and chuffing, John staggered up, jumped in his 'copter, and shut the door. He Switched, getting dressed as quickly as possible. Opening the main door again, he sat on the edge and waited for the insults.
"That was cool how your cat curses turned to Human ones." O'Neill grinned. "No really. You look great. Your hair isn't sticking ten directions at all."
"Good morning, sir, and how are we today, sir?" John used his sugary voice. "Where can I take you? To a finishing school to learn some manners?"
"Oh, Sheppard, I still like you, and that worries me." O'Neill laughed some more and clapped his hands together briskly. "Today, we are landing on the White House. Follow in-air flight instructions exactly or we will be shot down. Do not accidentally crash and absolutely do not chop off part of the Washington Monument. It's Daniel's favorite."
John stared at him, waiting for something to click over, sarcasm to come out, or something, anything. He cleared his throat. "What?"
"I know you heard me." O'Neill went around to his side of the 'copter and got inside. "Maybe we should leave the bones here. Wouldn't want the Secret Service to think we were eating people."
"Those are clearly cow ribs." John shoved them out on the tarmac with a sad sigh. He didn't rush through putting things away, checking supplies, and then doing his regular pre-flight checklist. When he was satisfied, he shut the door and went up front.
"Are you ready, Princess Kitty?"
John buckled and put on his helmet. "Just for that, I'm hitting the Washington Monument." He couldn't quite believe they were going to the White House, but O'Neill was in his dress blues. That meant something.
"I believe you would." O'Neill tossed his hat in the back and put on his helmet. "I miss Daniel. He doesn't even notice when I insult him half the time."
"And the other half?" John got the blades going, moving faster now.
"He grumbles, crosses his arms, and whines. Good times." O'Neill put his hand on John's, right before John took them up. It stopped John in his tracks. O'Neill looked right at him. "Please be patient with us Humans today, and possibly tomorrow. We can be idiots."
"I know." John made sure not to smirk. "I'll be patient, and you'll owe me some steak. I like it rare."
"I'm shocked." O'Neill double-checked his harness. "Let's fly."
Happy to comply, John got on the radio and made it happen. He knew it was serious when a fighter jet picked them up outside Washington, D.C., giving them a short escort. The instructions were simple enough: stick to the flight plan or be killed. John was extra careful, wishing he could fly quietly, which was ridiculous. He bought his baby to the roof and landed her like a leaf kissing a pond.
"Nice," O'Neill said. "Now shut her down, get in back, and put on your cougar suit. The President wants to meet you."
Disbelief made John gape at him. "Sir, I--."
"Are you disobeying a direct order, Major?" O'Neill's voice went flat, hard.
"No, sir. I'm at your disposal." John was suspicious that he would be disposed of, but he wasn't afraid. They should be afraid, because if something happened to John, Rodney would be pissed, and Rodney talked about nuking the planet constantly. John concentrated on shutting down his 'copter and then went in back to peel off his flight suit. It needed a washing machine. With a small sigh, and a feeling of foreboding, he Switched. O'Neill got out of the 'copter and went around to slide open the main door.
"Service before self," O'Neill said, quoting an Air Force motto at him.
John wasn't comforted, but he appreciated the pep talk. He jumped down to land right beside O'Neill. Ten guns trained on him, and he had no doubt they'd shoot for very little cause. He rubbed his cheek against O'Neill's thigh, once again claiming and pledging to follow him. It did nothing to calm John's nerves.
"Gentlemen," O'Neill said. "See to the helicopter."
"Right this way, General O'Neill." Their escort was an older agent, silver hair, and he smelled nervous. His clothes smelled like he was always nervous. John wondered if that was what made him a good agent. O'Neill clearly knew the way, striding along, and John wasn't sure whether to pace beside him or trail him. He hoped his fur looked okay because he hadn't had a shower in two days. No wonder O'Neill had wanted him to Switch. People began to line the halls, staring directly at him. He heard whispered comments that were far from polite, but he also heard a couple about how handsome he was from people he suspected had cats at home.
"Remember how stupid Humans are," O'Neill whispered.
Nodding, John allowed the tip of his tail it twitch in annoyance. It was hard not to stop and stare at some of the artwork they passed, and it sank in that he was inside the White House. It would've helped John's nerves if O'Neill had told him why, but O'Neill loved surprises.
"Wait here. I'll inform the President that you've arrived."
John wanted to pace around the tiny office, but he sat down near O'Neill instead, letting his tail flip around.
"Stop that," O'Neill said. "Someone, like me, might step on it."
Grunting, John tucked his tail around his haunches. If he were in his skin, he'd insist he be allowed to wait with his 'copter. O'Neill had probably guessed that. Sighing loudly, John shifted on his front paws.
"Easy there, big fella," O'Neill said right as the inner door opened.
"He's ready for you now."
O'Neill smiled. "Major, you go first. I rarely get opportunities like this."
Hoping no one shot him, John trotted inside the Oval Office and made a bee-line for the President, who, for his part, dropped his pen, jaw sagging. The room was full of people standing about, looking important, but they all fell quiet. John stopped right in front of the Resolute desk and sat down. If he could've, he'd have saluted. He disregarded the sound of guns being drawn and safeties being flicked off.
"Good morning, Mr. President," O'Neill said with considerable cheeriness in his voice. "I'd like you to meet Major John Sheppard, Air Force, decorated war veteran and Feline."
President Hayes shut his mouth with an audible snap and then got up to walk around his desk. He stopped within swatting range. "At ease, Major Sheppard."
John wasn't sure what to do. This was something that hadn't been covered in all his years in the Air Force. He chuffed and wound his way around to sit at O'Neill's heels. Out of habit, he marked the exits, the windows, and who had guns.
"You do love a big entrance, don't you, Jack?"
"That I do. I wanted you to get an idea of how significant this moment is, Mr. President," O'Neill said.
"Don't lecture me." Hayes sounded disgruntled. "Okay, everyone out."
"But, sir," one of the men with a gun said, "he's--"
"A member of the Air Force," Hayes said. "Sworn to protect and serve. Out. Now."
That got people moving, and John relaxed a little once all the guns had left the room. They were still right outside the doors and windows, but it was easier to believe they hadn't brought him here to force him into doing something stupid so they could shoot him.
"Jack, I know what you want."
"Good." Jack tossed his hat in a chair and sauntered to one of the sofas to sprawl. John felt like gaping at him. "Major, relax. No one is going to shoot you."
"Does he think that?" Hayes swiveled his attention back to John, who wanted to slink under the sofa, but instead he lay down near O'Neill's shiny shoes.
Proving that his loyalty was earned, O'Neill talked to John, instead of about him. John whistled, nodding his head.
"He whistles? Doesn't he roar?"
"Cougars are the only big cat who don't roar. Daniel informed me of that when I displayed my ignorance." O'Neill had a way of insulting people in a nice way. "I'd have the major change, but he doesn't own a set of dress blues. I hear those are required to meet the President."
Hayes leaned forward. "I did some investigating. There is no code of conduct for Felines in the Armed Services. No rule book. Just a rough set of guidelines, passed among the different branches."
John ceased trying to look casual and sat up, eyes intent. If that meant what he thought it did, he might have to bite someone.
"How many Felines are currently in the military?" O'Neill asked an important question.
"Six." Hayes sighed, leaning back after giving John a wary look. "Their circumstances are much like his, without the black mark for disobeying orders.
"No, don't start with me, Jack. I know he did the right thing, but that's not what following orders is about." Hayes gave O'Neill a credible glare. "People don't want Felines in their midst. That's the real issue here."
"Works fine in Sweden," O'Neill drawled. "Leadership comes from the top down."
Hayes got to his feet in a blur of movement that made John twitchy. "People are afraid."
"People are idiots." O'Neill moved his hand, and John allowed him to touch John's back, resting his hand there lightly. "Education is the key. Not ignorance."
"There will always be ignorant people."
John eased up and went to the window to stare out at the grass and Secret Service agents. He had no idea where all this talk was going, but it was obvious that O'Neill had an agenda, probably one that Daniel had written for him.
"We keep them ignorant. No one knows anything, not even those guys at the Center is my guess."
Four miserable years, John had spent at the Center. They'd run countless tests on him, but no one had ever asked him what he wanted, what he liked, what he would do if they'd stop poking at him. None of the Humans there had ever listened a word that John had said, or screamed.
Each Feline had been kept separate from the others, except during lunch and classes. Talking wasn't encouraged. Switching without permission was against the rules. He shut his eyes and shuddered from the memories. Things had been better in the Air Force.
He couldn't remember meeting another Feline in all his years since he'd left the Center, but he'd seen them on TV, usually dead.
"Fine. We'll do it your way. I'll issue the Executive Orders as soon as your people are in position." Hayes sounded tired. "Major Sheppard?"
John went directly to him and sat politely, right on the edge of panic. He trusted O'Neill, but he had the nasty feeling the Felines in this country were about to be rounded up, and that usually led to bad things.
"If you had the choice, Sheppard, would you stay in the Air Force?"
Choices weren't a part of John's life, but it wasn't as if he had anywhere else to go. He nodded, whistling softly.
"His piloting saved my life."
"He hasn't disobeyed orders near as many times as you." Hayes extended his hand. "Major, fly safe."
Claws tucked in tight, John put his paw in his President's hand.
"He needs serious downtime. I've pushed him hard." O'Neill got to his feet. "Major, are you hungry?"
Food sounded great, and John went for the door. He paced in a tight circle, waiting for O'Neill to get moving.
"Subtle, isn't he?" Hayes asked.
"He's probably still mad about all the bones I made him kick out of the helicopter." O'Neill patted Hayes on the back. "Did you know he can go days without sleep, and once they set him on fire to see if he'd change under stress?"
"On fire?" Hayes opened the door to the outer office. "Why the hell didn't he claw their eyes out?"
"He wanted to fly." O'Neill was right about that. "You wearing that tie?"
"Shut up. It looks presidential."
John waited, dropping in behind them as they headed down a long hallway. He felt like his world was tipping on end, and he wanted nothing more than to get in his 'copter and fly back to Antarctica. He missed Rodney, even when he was being stupid and pulling John's ear.
Two men with guns fell in step behind them, and then a young lady met up with them, and right before they reached a door, O'Neill turned. "Remember what I said, Sheppard."
Patience. Right. John chirped and followed them into the absolute chaos that was the White House press room. The noise fell to zero. Someone in the back choked off a gasp, and John moved to sit directly beside the President. He really hoped this ended soon so he could go eat, and he was never flying O'Neill to Washington again.
The ceremony was short and embarrassing. The President took a few questions before leaving, and John settled for letting his tail twitch because he couldn't pace. His cynical side was in full-force, knowing that the shiny metal hanging from his dog tag was all about him being a poster boy for Felines and nothing to do with being brave. Brave. Right.
"Major Sheppard! Major Sheppard! Can you understand us, Major?"
John looked at O'Neill incredulously. O'Neill smirked, no doubt enjoying John's discomfort. John caught the eye of one noisy reporter and nodded. Chaos erupted, and John was tempted to put his paws over his ears.
"Major Sheppard, come with me." O'Neill made a gesture, and John got the hell out of there. Unfortunately, they didn't go far. O'Neill pointed at two young men. "You got it?"
"In here." The dark-haired one opened a door. "Everything's there."
"It better be." O'Neill herded John in the small room. "Major, get changed. Come back to the press conference, and then I'll buy you that steak."
Using his paw, John pointed at the door. O'Neill laughed. "Shy. I get it. If you need help, those two guys will be on this door. They'll also make sure you don't run away."
That required words. John Switched, enjoying O'Neill's dropped jaw. "I hate you, sir."
O'Neill got out fast, chuckling, and John surveyed the dress uniform with distaste. It was his first, and it was shiny, but he'd prefer a flight suit any day. It took some doing, getting it on, but he got it done, and he carried the jacket when he opened the door.
"Your hair, good God," one of them said. "Derek, get my bag."
Scowling a little, John allowed them to make sure his dress uniform was perfect. Blaine pronounced John's hair impossible, and John thanked them before forcing his feet to take him back to the press conference. He opened the door and silence fell for half a second, and then the shouting started, and he'd never heard such stupid questions.
O'Neill whispered in John's ear. "Looks good."
Thanking him would have to wait. The press conference took forever, and a few questions that were far too personal, John refused to answer. O'Neill took pity on him after someone asked if John had ever mated with another cougar.
"We're done! Thanks!" O'Neill wrapped his arm around John's shoulders and got him out of there. "Major?"
"I'm fine. Just stunned." John felt weak in the knees. "Also, very hungry."
"We're going." O'Neill brushed off John's shoulders. "Where's the new medal?"
After thinking for a second, John pulled out his dog tag from under his shirt. O'Neill rolled his eyes, rescued the medal and pinned it in the proper place on John's uniform. "We'll make an officer out of you yet."
Shrugging, John stared down at his fancy, new hat. He'd never cared that he didn't have dress blues like all the other guys. When there were ceremonies, he wasn't allowed to attend, not even funerals. Like the one for his friend, Holland, who'd died because John had been too slow. The uniform didn't mean anything, except that it did, and angry words wanted out, but he forced them away. He'd had plenty of practice over the years.
"Major? You have my permission to speak freely." O'Neill steered John into a small alcove.
It was difficult to take him at his word. John kept his eyes down. "Are you taking this dress uniform back, or am I going to be your token Feline, trotted out for the press when the President needs a boost in the polls?"
O'Neill didn't answer immediately. He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. "Let's just say that we're using you to promote the cause, but this was a one-shot, Sheppard. If the President feels like we need to do it again, we'll get one of the other Felines. You're going to be busy, and the uniform is yours. It was always yours, you just didn't have it yet."
John looked down at the ribbons and shiny bits that represented his lifetime in service to the Air Force. "It's not even real. I don't have rank. I'm owned."
"I'm fixing that too." O'Neill sounded sincere. "And you deserve that medal."
"Doesn't erase the black mark." John had a feeling he was veering into whiny territory. It was time to stop. "Food?"
"Fur or skin?" O'Neill smiled.
"Skin, then fur." John tried to find a smile, but it fell flat. "Where to next? Buckingham Palace?"
"If that's what it takes to get Daniel off my back." O'Neill got John moving again, and John was a little bit horrified that they'd be dining with the President. John would much rather eat MREs with Rodney.
Rodney. Shit. John put his hand on O'Neill's arm. "I left my phone in the 'copter."
"You realize that McKay has probably called out the National Guard by now? Sheppard, I expect better from you!" O'Neill grabbed a young lady and informed her of the dire situation. She promised to get it, and John would've tucked his tail in if he could've.
"Sorry, General," John said, meaning it. Rodney was a huge pain in the ass with that cell phone. "I guess I need to figure out a way to carry it when I'm in my fur."
"We'll get you a pouch of something." O'Neill grinned. "Saddle bags? Those little clothes they dress dogs in?"
John shot him a glare. "Or Rodney could stop calling all the time."
"Good luck with that." O'Neill opened a final door that led to steak. John could smell it. He walked faster, trying not to growl. It might scare the President. O'Neill caught up with him. "Sorry, sir. Sheppard is hungry. I hope there's plenty."
"Switching takes energy." John defended himself, not standing on ceremony and finding a seat. He might've been very uncommunicative during dinner. Shrugging and nodding weren't good manners, but he was damn hungry. He knew his father, who loved his fancy dinner parties, would be appalled. Another steak being slid on his plate helped him push away memories that did him no good.
"Major Sheppard? Here's your phone, sir."
"Thank you." John took it, made sure it was off, and put it away.
"Call him," O'Neill said. "You know he's going stark raving mad, not that he has far to go."
Groaning, John rolled his eyes and turned on the phone. It rang instantly, and he answered it. "Hi, Rodney."
Gingerly, John set the phone down by his plate and started eating again. He could hear Rodney with no problem.
"Aren't you going to speak to him?" the President asked. He really was a nice guy.
"I can hear him. Give him a minute to run down." John managed to swallow before talking. The table got even more quiet. John looked at O'Neill, wondering why.
"We Humans can't hear him." O'Neill rolled his eyes at John's stupidity.
"Oh, sorry." John didn't see how they could not hear Rodney. Tilting his head, John winced. "You don't want to hear that. I promise."
"Amuse me." O'Neill pointed. "Hit the speaker."
With dread in his heart, John pushed it.
"—you realize that moronic president of yours just painted a huge target on your back? Everyone knows you now! And it only takes one redneck with a gun, who wants your fur under his feet!"
John took it off speaker. "Sorry, Mr. President."
Hayes looked at O'Neill. "McKay never changes. Remind me never to give him dual citizenship."
O'Neill laughed, and John put the phone to his ear. "Rodney, the President says hello."
"Tell him he's an idiot."
"I think he got that." John wasn't sure what made him say. "I'm sorta fond of him. I got my first dress uniform today. Ribbons and everything."
"You'll look lovely when they bury you in it!"
John picked up his fork and put the phone back down as Rodney went off on another tangent. This one included how much actual work John could be accomplishing if he weren't lolly-gagging about in his helicopter, trying to impress people with his shiny fur.
"You can really hear that?" the President asked.
"I'm surprised you can't. God, I hate it when he switches to French." John grimaced. "Mine is rusty, and he knows it." He glanced down at his plate and realized he'd plowed through another steak. "Good steak. Thank you, sirs."
"You could hang up," O'Neill suggested.
"He'd just call back." John fiddled with his salad, not his favorite food. He needed some fur time to work off stress. "I hate to be rude, but I'm sure you two need to talk shop. Can I head to my 'copter?"
Hayes looked at O'Neill and raised his eyebrows. "You make him sleep in the helicopter?"
"I gave up arguing about it." O'Neill sighed, looking guilty. "Sheppard, by now they've moved your helicopter to the closest base until we're ready to leave."
Unable to help himself, John narrowed his eyes. "I would've been happy to do that for you, sir."
"You were busy." O'Neill didn't look intimidated. "Daniel told me you might get stir crazy. You want me to show you where the gym is?"
Not sure how Daniel knew John needed exercise in his fur, John still went ahead and nodded. "Then a car could take me to my 'copter?"
"A bed is not asking too much!" O'Neill actually pouted. "You see, Mr. President, what I have to put up with?"
"Loyalty, unswerving sense of duty, and a great desire to chew bones. Yes, I see. I'm never having a Feline bodyguard, I have the feeling he'd want to sleep on my bed."
No one said anything, but John felt the tip of his ears get red.
The President coughed. "I stepped in it there. Major Sheppard, you're dismissed. O'Neill, you're with me." He pushed back his chair and opened a side door. "Derek, would you show Major Sheppard where the gym is, and his room, please?"
"Yes, sir." Derek tried a smile, almost succeeding. "Major?"
"Thank you." John tried to leave the room with a measure of decorum and politeness, but he felt like grabbing the steak bones and running. He turned off Rodney, knowing he'd talk with him again soon enough.
John stepped back inside.
O'Neill handed him a plate of bones. "Enjoy."
"You're a great commanding officer," John said, meaning it.
"It's to make up for the whole moving your helicopter thing." O'Neill shut the door in John's face.
"This way?" Derek asked, voice breaking on the second word. "Did you want me to show you your bedroom or the gym first?"
"Bedroom." John prayed that it wasn't so nice that he'd feel guilty for shedding everywhere. "And Derek, don't be scared. I won't eat you."
"You're too scrawny," John finished, looking him up and down. "Human bones, and you are boney, aren't that good unless they have fat on them."
Derek swallowed hard. "You're a mean man."
"Feline. There's a difference. Just so you know." John stepped inside the open door and stopped, staring at the chandelier, the beautiful bed, and the portraits in horror. "Hell no."
"Sir?" Derek paled.
"I need some place I can shed and chew bones." John went with honesty. "Derek, we need a plan B."
The silence between them lasted, but John wasn't backing down. Finally, Derek nodded. "There are several small bedrooms on the same level as the gym."
"I can scratch the furniture?" John was teasing now.
"I would guess so." Derek moved a little faster now. "Do you want the basketball court, or the bowling alley, or the outdoor tennis courts?"
"I better stay indoors, so the basketball court." John didn't want to create absolute chaos. He'd done enough for one day. They went down a few levels. John memorized the way, and Derek opened up a door that led to a perfectly serviceable bedroom. Nothing antique, and it had a connecting bathroom. John put the bones on the desk and nodded. "Great."
"I'll have your things moved here. The gym is down at the end of the hallway." Derek paused in the doorway. "I like your hair."
John raised his eyebrows. "Oh, get out, you flatterer." He reached down to untie his shoes, Derek beat it out the door, and the rhythm of undressing calmed John down. He took his phone out of his jacket and turned it back on. It rang, of course. "Rodney, I need fur time."
"Oh. Are you okay?"
"Good. You should've seen where they tried to make me sleep. You'd have laughed your ass off. I made them move me down by the gym. O'Neill had my 'copter taken to a base while I wasn't looking."
"Poor thing." Rodney snorted. "You are an internet sensation. Your video went viral, and Fox news says that Felines are possessed by demons, or something like that. I wasn't really listening, and everyone in the lab was laughing." He lowered his voice. "I'm in Colorado now. Colonel Sumner is here."
"Bite him for me." John unbuttoned his shirt, deciding to hang everything up and not wanting to talk about Sumner. "This jacket is really nice. Did you see?"
"I don't have time to watch you prance around and get a medal for saving O'Neill's life, which wouldn't have been necessary if Beckett hadn't tried to kill him."
"So that's a yes?"
"Of course I did, you idiot. The jacket is nice. You looked like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming semi-tractor trailer. It's a good look on you."
"You say the nicest things. Okay, I'm going to go run a little, chew some bones, and take a nap."
"It's only noon!" Rodney disapproved of John's napping. "I wish you were here."
"My guess is I'll get there sooner or later." John missed Rodney, but saying that stuck in his teeth. "Be careful, Rodney."
"I miss you too." Rodney hung up.
John shut the phone and put it on the nightstand. Meticulously, he hung up his clothes, wondering if O'Neill had been right about keeping them and wishing he didn't care about it. He tucked his shoes in the closet, focused, and padded over to the door. Only then did he remember that doorknobs were not his best thing.
A knock on John's door woke him up, and he might've panicked for a moment because he had no idea where he was.
The door opened, and O'Neill smirked at him. That brought everything back, and John idly waved a paw at him.
"Cute. I was heading to the gym for a game of dodge ball. Want in?"
Fast, John leapt off the bed and shoved his way out the door. O'Neill laughed. "God, you're easy. Do you really think we play dodge ball at the White House?"
Disappointed, John stalked back in his room and Switched. O'Neill was still standing there when it was over. John sat on the end of his bed, not even bothering to cover himself. "Orders, sir?"
"Right to snippy, huh?" O'Neill never lost his smirk. "All the Felines in the service have been reassigned to the SGC. At least for now. We're going to the Center in the morning. Just me and you."
"Yes, sir." John didn't know what else to say. He hadn't met another Feline since he left the Center. It might be interesting. "My 'copter?"
"It'll be here in the morning also." O'Neill nodded. "While we're there, we'll be taking over the facility."
"What?" John stared up at him. "I mean, of course, sir."
"Nice save. The President is declaring it illegal to own a Feline tonight. The Center is being closed."
"He can do that?" John wanted to pace, but he was naked. "Really?"
"Really." O'Neill leaned against the doorjamb, casual. "It's a government agency. Problem is: no one knows what the Center is doing anymore, and they refuse to tell us. We'll go in, use your nose to get a sit-rep, and then my teams will arrive to make sure everyone cooperates."
"But where will they go? They don't have families anymore." John got up, hands flexing. "You can't just abandon the kits."
"They'll go with us. We'll sort through them. Some might have families who want them back. The rest will be stationed at the SGC until they get their feet under them." O'Neill looked stony-faced now. "No more sales."
"Why? Why now? Why are you doing this?" John blanched, realizing he was near to crossing the line with a superior officer. "Sir."
"Daniel told me to do it, and as it turns out, according to Dr. Beckett, all Felines have the ATA gene. All of them."
"Wow." John sat down with a thump. "All?"
"Yup. This could mean the difference between us winning the war against the Goa'uld and losing it." O'Neill flicked some imaginary dust off his dress uniform. "I want to win."
"That would be good. Okay then, sir." John wanted to get started now. "What's our cover story?"
"You're being retired. I'm there to place you." O'Neill grimaced. "It's the only reason Felines are allowed entrance."
"I know." John tried to control his facial expression. If he were being lied to, at least he'd never have to face Sumner. Retirement at the Center couldn't be worse than Afghanistan. O'Neill was studying his shiny shoes. John got up to get dressed. "What now, sir?"
"A White House tour. An interview with Barbara Walters, and tomorrow morning, we fly to the Center."
John stopped putting his pants on and turned to glare at him. "Barbara Walters?"
"You have my permission to go as a cougar, if you want. It'll keep the interview short." O'Neill grinned in that way of his.
John sighed and considered it. He ended up telling the truth. "This is the thing. With all the flying, I haven't spent near enough time in my fur lately. I don't want to stress Switch tomorrow."
"I agree that would be bad. I'll have some BDUs brought to the interview. You can change there, if you like."
Relieved, John took off his boxers and Switched. He knew he'd made the right choice when his first thought was running, jumping, and playing. Gently, he slicked his jaw along O'Neill's thigh.
"Stop that," O'Neill grumbled. "The other guys laugh at me.
"Well, come on. It's not like you need to brush your teeth."
Chirping and whistling, John trailed him back upstairs. People got out of the way, but no one fainted, which was good news. O'Neill acted casual, and John couldn't smell any nervousness coming from him. They ended up back in the Oval Office, and John padded over to say hello. Three guys drew their guns, but he ignored them, sliding his head up on the desk and laying his ears back.
"Good afternoon, Major." The President smiled, not dropping his pen or looking scared this time. "Did you sleep well?"
John purred, not entirely sure why he liked this guy.
"I wish I could sneak off for an afternoon nap occasionally." Hayes leaned back, glaring at the few people lining the walls. "Give me a few minutes to finish up here, and then we'll go for that tour."
Nodding, John went around to the glass doors to stare out at the grass and trees. He'd lost track of time in the basement, but the sun was still up and there was a breeze teasing the bushes. He shut his eyes, dreaming of days when he could run and chase all he wanted. As long as no one saw him. He remembered the day clear as a bell. It had cost him everything and everyone he'd loved. His entire life, gone in a few minutes, but he'd do it all over again. A choice that was no choice.
John thrust the memory away and turned his head, pricking his ears.
"Maybe you'd rather go outside? The gardens are beautiful too." Hayes smiled. "Leave all the dusty art for another day."
O'Neill had the answer. "That's a yes. That thing he does with his paws."
"Good. Nothing like fresh air, not that I ever get any either." Hayes pushed a pile of paperwork away and opened the door to the garden.
"Jaguar is on the move."
John heard the whisper and chuckled to himself at the President's code name. He was the first one out, and it was a damn near perfect day. He forced himself not to run off and climb a tree. The President took them around to where it opened up more, and John whistled his appreciation.
O'Neill laughed. "Should we let him go play?"
"Why he hasn't bitten you on the butt is a real mystery to me." Hayes turned and faced John. "You can go play, Major."
Rearing up on his back legs, John flashed his teeth in a smile and bounded over the bushes. He knew he should've stayed, should've acted mature, but there was a big tree over there just dying for a good scratching.
"You can see why people want to shoot him," O'Neill said.
"People are idiots." Hayes wiped his brow. "He is big."
"I can't wait to see him take down a Goa'uld." O'Neill grinned. "Lovely day."
John stopped listening and ran... wild.
"Major! Get out of that tree right now! You have an interview!"
Balancing without a care in the world, John yawned. He crouched, tilting his head and looking down at Derek.
Three graceful jumps, and John was down. He shook all over, making fur and twigs fly. Derek backed up and waved his hand in front of his face. John might've bumped Derek's knee, making him fall head first into the lush grass. It was barely possible.
"I am not a cat person," Derek mumbled. John ran across the lawn and up another tree. Fast as he could, he pounded down the other side and jumped over some bushes to hide. Derek got up, brushed off his pants, and started turning in circles, looking for him. John went into full stalk mode, waiting until just the right moment to--.
"Major, get your ass in here," O'Neill said.
Jumping straight up, John spun around and landed less than gracefully. He growled and grumbled as he trudged to the open door. O'Neill was a sneaky bastard, and John had serious doubts that the guy was even Human. After all, O'Neill had the ATA gene, so didn't that make him Feline too? It would explain the sneakiness.
"Okay, go push him down one more time, but then get in here."
Running full out, John catapulted off a tree and knocked Derek over, stopping to lick him on the face. Only then did John go inside with his head held high.
"Nice job. You just ensured he will hate Felines forever."
Whistling, John didn't believe a word of it. He was a great cat.
"I am not brushing your fur. Go clean up and then Derek will take you to your interview." O'Neill pointed at a door that John assumed was a bathroom. "Also? I saw what you did in the bushes. Tacky, very tacky."
John disagreed. This had been the most fun he'd had since he'd knocked Rodney in a snow bank. He sat back on his paws, raised up, and put his front paw in the air. O'Neill laughed and gave him a high five.
"Go on, before I start liking you again."
The bathroom was big enough, and John Switched before getting in the shower. He didn't like too many Switches at a time, but he wanted to be clean, and he'd eat extra later.
Clean, dry, he ran his hand through his hair and remembered to open the door before Switching. Stupid doorknobs.
Before entering the interview, John took a second to pat Derek on the knee in thanks.
"You're still a mean man." Derek rolled his eyes. "Cougar, whatever."
The first three minutes of his interview consisted of Barbara Walters staring, and he shoved the chair out of the way so he could sit and stare back at her. Finally, she cleared her throat.
"Major John Sheppard?"
"Is that a yes?"
He chirped again, wishing he'd brought a bone to chew on if the interview was going to be this dull.
"I've never interviewed a Feline." She laughed nervously, smelling of fear. "I thought you'd be smaller."
Whistling, he flicked his tail, wanting her to get on with it.
"First of all, people are saying that it's all a trick. That you're nothing more than a trained cougar, and the man the White House press corp interviewed is someone brought in for this elaborate hoax."
Unable to quite believe how stupid that sounded, John tilted his head. He raised his paw and nudged his dog tag. The one thing he wasn't going to do was Switch on TV. She leaned forward, and he obliged her by edging closer. Now, she smelled like flowers and old Humans.
"And you never take it off?" She didn't quite touch it.
He shook his head no. This was going to take forever.
"Are you the son of Patrick Sheppard, the millionaire?"
Staring at her, stony-eyed, he made no movement whatsoever. He shouldn't have been surprised, but he was, not at the question, but at how much it hurt.
"Press swarmed his mansion today, but he had no comment." Walters paused. "Fox News claims that you're his oldest son, who vanished at age thirteen."
Almost sick with fury, John felt his muscles tremble. His father hated him even more now, and he hadn't thought that was possible He slowly got to his paws and hoped he made it to the anteroom where they'd arranged for him to have a set of clothes. Clenching his jaw, he forced his fur to stay on until he'd slammed the door with a paw. The Switch was immediate, and he gasped from the sheer force of it.
Every movement measured in breaths, he dressed in a black set of BDUs, even putting on his wristband. He shut his eyes while he laced up his boots, forcing full control over his emotions. Nothing in his life had changed, and he was going to be fine. Pulling the dog tag out, he returned to her, putting the chair back and sitting down.
"Major?" Her eyes were blown wide.
"Only one door in and out. Yes, it's me." John crossed his legs, almost wishing for his aviators. "Ease up on the lights, will ya?"
It was like she'd been cautious before, but now she pounced. Question after question bombarded him, and he did his best to answer honestly, even if he did leave out some information. After about an hour, she started to wind down.
"Are you angry at how the government has treated you?"
"No." John had gotten over his anger years ago. "I have it better than some Felines. Can I ask you a question?"
She blinked but nodded "Go right ahead."
"How can the press, and Humans in this country, be so ignorant about Felines? We're all over the world. We work, play, and live on the same planet as you do. Does it really take me getting a medal for you to sit up and notice us?"
Walters hesitated a long time. "Perhaps you've been out of sight, out of mind."
John raised his eyebrows. "Tomorrow, I'm being retired to the Center for Feline Control. For them to allow me on the grounds, I have to be collared and leashed. What if I were your son, Mrs. Walters? Your child? Would you want that for me?"
"People are frightened. You're not... Human." She went with the old standard that John had heard a thousand times before. "You're something bigger."
"A Feline is nothing more than a Human with a quirky genome. It's all words, semantics." John let his foot gently swing in irritation. "I guess being scared justifies everything Felines have been through down through the ages."
Walters took a sip of water before licking her lips and continuing. "A lot of people would argue that you're not Human at all."
"Do those same people believe in space aliens? Otherwise, how did we get here? Or, maybe they believe we evolved from cats. Of course, that begs the question of why there are still cats, but I'm sure they can come up with something." John hated stupid people. "Maybe space aliens left us here, and then Humans evolved later. To me, that would mean that this is our planet. You think you guys could find another one?"
She laughed as he'd intended, and he chuckled with her. "Anything else, Ms. Walters?"
"I have a million questions." She smiled. "But let's go back to the beginning. Are you Patrick Sheppard's son?"
"No." John made sure not to clench the arms of the chair. "He disowned me when I was thirteen. I'm owned solely by the United States Air Force, and that's something I'm proud to belong to, and as I heard quite recently, I have the best job in the world." He got to his feet, careful not to flex his hands like claws. "Thank you, ma'am."
"Thank you, Major."
Derek practically pulled John into the hallway. "You're so dead."
"Yeah, what's new." John heard his stomach rumble. "Now, Derek, I need to eat. A lot. Is there food somewhere, or do I have to snack on you?" He licked his lips and loomed over him.
"You wouldn't." Derek still shifted like he might run away. "Dinner isn't for more than an hour."
"Food." John crossed his arms like Rodney always did. "Now."
"Okay, come on, but you gotta stay Human. The chef will die if you get fur in his food."
John followed from in front, letting his nose find the way and leaving him behind down the last hallway. Thirty people in white uniforms and assorted hats turned to look at him, and he pointed at his stomach. "I gotta eat, or I swear I'm going to eat Derek."
Silence, and then someone giggled. Derek ran up. "Feed him! For god's sake, feed him!"
"Get Major Sheppard a stool and a plate." A large man with an apron and a tall white hat took charge. "If you get fur in my food, I will chop you up and serve you on crackers."
"I'm hungry enough to eat myself." John thanked the young lady who handed him a plate and some silverware. "I like meat, if that helps."
"We noticed the inroads you made on the steaks at lunch." The chef slid a fat slice of turkey breast on John's plate. "I was complimented."
John stuffed his mouth full and chewed. The noise level began to increase, and everyone seemed to have some tidbit to put on his plate. He ate everything and wanted more, but he skipped dessert. He'd have some later.
The chef delivered a thick piece of broasted chicken, thigh and leg still attached. "Did you like the carrots?"
"Too sweet." John decided to go with honesty. "The potatoes were excellent, however. Never been a fan of broccoli, but the asparagus was very good."
"Cats are picky eaters." The chef snapped his fingers, and a glass of milk appeared in front of John. "I like sweet carrots."
"You lose the natural flavor of dirt." John obediently drank his milk. "No fish today?"
"You're a tease." The chef grinned. "I suppose I could dig up something. Possum, raccoon?"
"Those are good on crackers." John wished Rodney were here to share this meal. "I also like the occasional squirrel."
"Good in stew." Now the chef looked serious. "Will you want sausage or bacon for breakfast?"
"I have to choose?" John tried to look horrified. "I better stock up on MREs."
"Now I've been insulted." But the chef grinned. "Go chase squirrels, Major."
John finished his milk and took the chicken with him to snack on later. He made it back to his room with no directions needed and took a minute to sprawl on his stomach on the bed. Groping up under the pillow, he turned on his phone. It rang.
"How do you do that, Rodney?"
"It's possible I've hacked your phone. Barely possible." Rodney paused for a second, which wasn't like him. "Did you interview with Barbara Walters?"
"Yeah. I'm thinking I might be fired after it airs, but I wasn't given any guidelines." John refused to feel guilty. "We're headed to the Center in the morning. The chef here is amazing. You would marry him."
"You must be upset. You're never chatty." Rodney sighed. "It'll be okay. It may take a while, but we'll get there. Everything is crazy here. No one even knows how many Felines are at the Center, at least not until I get these sensors done."
"There were about thirty of us when I was there. If that helps." John rolled to his back. "No one is talking about the Felines who are already owned. What happens to them?"
"Didn't you hear? Once I finish, we'll be able to locate Felines with the sensors on the Prometheus. Every Feline in the United States is going to be extracted and interviewed, given choices."
"That's insane." John couldn't even picture it. "Wait. Who is doing this?"
"You? I don't know. Not me. I'm far too busy." There was the sound of clicking from Rodney's fingers on a laptop. "Carson has been doing back flips over the DNA results I might've hacked."
"What's the news on Atlantis? Daniel found it." John began to think he was in way over his head. He should've begged to stay at McMurdo.
"The mission is being analyzed, maybe retooled? The last thing we want is to take a bunch of people who can't initialize any of the technology. Colonel Sumner is frothing, absolutely frothing, at the mouth. I think he's nuts."
John groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes. "I never should've sat in that chair. Did I mention I have to go to Center in the morning?"
The silence from Rodney was uncharacteristic. Then he sounded sheepish. "Sorry? I'm not good with this sort of stuff. Tell me about the food."
It was strange for John to do the talking, but he did. He told Rodney about the garden, and Derek, and the chef with the tall hat, who knew that squirrel tasted good. It turned out Rodney was a good listener, and John missed him.
A knock at the door interrupted them. Derek poked his head inside. "Dinner in fifteen minutes, sir."
"Thanks, Derek." John decided to put on his dress uniform, so he left Rodney to talk on the bed and started changing clothes. It got easier with practice, but he was going to be late. Finally, he picked up the phone and said, "Gotta go eat again, Rodney. Talk to you later. Be safe."
"I miss you too." Rodney hung up first.
John straightened his collar one more time and beat it upstairs. Derek was waiting for him, guiding him to a dining room that John had never been in before. It was elaborate, fancy even, and there were plenty of brass and big shots, milling about with drinks in their hand. John edged to the corner of the room that had a window, just in case. He had rarely felt more like an idiot.
O'Neill strolled over, looking casual. "Nice uniform. Oh, and thanks for showing up."
"Rodney got to talking." John lowered his voice to a bare whisper. "We're stealing Felines from their owners?"
"Damn right we are." O'Neill spoke softly as well, knowing that John could hear him. "After I fix this country, I may start on all the others."
Stunned, John fell silent, noticing that people were shooting him glances when they thought he wasn't looking. O'Neill clapped him on the shoulder. "Can I get you a drink?"
"Not allowed, sir," John said automatically.
O'Neill narrowed his eyes, looking fierce before smoothing it all away. "Now that's just wrong. Every man should get to enjoy a beer every now and again."
"Not a man." John smiled, all teeth. "Why am I here?" he asked, making sure no one could hear him.
"Because I have to be. Mingle. Make nice. Dispel their prejudices with your charm." O'Neill smiled, but it was fake. "Consider it an order."
"Yes, sir." John remembered a few parties from when he'd had a family. His father had been in his element, making friends wherever he went. John guessed this was payment for having had fun in the garden. He stiffened his spine and moved to the bar, ordering a club soda.
John took a deep breath, smoothed the back of his hair down, and stepped into the fray. Combat would've been easier.
Never had John been so glad to see his 'copter. Even knowing what was coming today, and it would be awful, at least he got to fly himself there. He stowed his things in the back, noted that O'Neill's stuff was already on board, and took a minute to check out the view of the Mall from the White House roof. The sun was barely up, there was a mist, and it was a beautiful day.
Tearing himself away, he made sure there were MREs and bottles of water right behind his seat, within grabbing range. That done, he did a complete systems check, not liking the scent of another pilot on his seat. He resisted the urge to Switch and mark his territory again. He had to face the fact that when they reassigned this 'copter, and they would, he was going to be pissed. O'Neill kept promising space ships, but John would believe it when he sat in one.
The wind shifted, and John whipped around. O'Neill, fancy dress uniform gone, dressed in Air Force regs, grinned. "We ready?"
"We are cleared for takeoff, sir." John stuck his hands in his pockets, nervous. "I cleaned up all the bones. Before you ask."
O'Neill shrugged. "I would've left them on Derek's desk, but that's just me."
"He had a desk?" John laughed, wishing he'd thought of that. "My cat liked him."
"You mean that you liked him." O'Neill didn't seem to be a hurry to get inside the 'copter.
"Not really." John felt like he should explain further. "My perceptions of people are slightly different when I'm in my fur. My cat liked Rodney from the first time I met him. It took a while longer for me to catch up."
"I'm sure Daniel would have something to say about your instinct versus your intellect, blah blah blah."
"He would." John could see how that could be true. "It feels disconnected though. Like two parts of me."
"Semantics." O'Neill looked mischievous. "You're just a complicated mix of cat, Human, and Ancient."
John turned one more time to look out at the Mall. "I can do this," he said, more to himself than the general.
"You have the flight plan?"
"Yes, sir." John lowered his head and wiped everything from his mind but the mission. "At your service, sir."
"Good. Let's go."
They landed at a small airstrip about two miles from the Center, which was in upstate New York. John hadn't broken any air speed records getting there, but he'd flown straight, without any circling. His palms were sweating by the time he set down, and before he could ask if they were walking, he spotted the black SUVs, easily twenty of them. In fact, the entire airstrip looked as if it'd been taken over by the military, and it probably had been.
For some reason, that was reassuring.
Shutting his 'copter off, John caught O'Neill's look. "I'm fine."
"If you pass out, I will get video and show McKay so he can laugh at you."
"Thanks, really." John made sure to roll his eyes. He unbuckled and locked her down tight. O'Neill got out leisurely, waiting for John to finish. Together, they went towards the small encampment, and it was as if a spell had been broken, there were suddenly fifteen people, in various states of combat readiness, vying for O'Neill's attention.
"The Prometheus is on stand-by."
"We count eighty security guards and forty Felines, some are very young."
"You will be searched."
"Do not engage until you get the signal," O'Neill said. "And again, what is the signal?"
"Your phone will wink out."
"Exactly." O'Neill pointed at Sheppard. "Major, what is the backup signal?"
"I set fire to my tail and run in circles?" John spread his hands, knowing he'd missed a meeting or two while he was napping. There was silence, and then everyone laughed.
"That would be fun to watch, but no. Major, they may confiscate our phones. What does that leave us?"
"Not a whole lot." John thought it through quickly. "Dog tag?"
"Correct. Yours has a GPS in it that we are monitoring."
Curious, John dug it out and looked at it. "That tiny crystal?" He squinted, barely able to see it worked into the SGC logo. "I could piss on it?"
"Just smash it, Sheppard." O'Neill rolled his eyes at the snickers. "One last thing," he took three steps, put his hand on John's shoulder, and looked him right in the eyes. "Can you do this?"
Honesty forced John to reconsider what he was getting ready to do, and how he would react. He looked down at the asphalt. "I don't know what will happen when you leash me. I may panic. Switch. Bite you."
"I'd rather avoid that. I've seen your teeth." O'Neill nodded. "Give me a second." He walked away from everyone, pulling out his cell phone, and John did him the courtesy of not eavesdropping. A few men shifted on their feet, it grew quiet, and John wanted his words back. He should've lied.
"I didn't want to have to do this," O'Neill said, coming back to him. "I really didn't."
"What have you done to Sheppard?" Rodney's voice blasted across the air field.
A bolt of lightning hit John in the chest. When his vision cleared, he'd Switched, and he was flailing in the clothes and boots, feeling like an idiot.
And then Rodney knelt down on the asphalt and pulled John's head into his lap. "Sh-h-h."
Yowling a little, John made his paws stop moving. He panted, pushing his head into Rodney's chest over and over again.
"I know you're stressed. Breathe, breathe."
John managed to roll to his back, hating clothes. He wrapped his front paws around Rodney and let it all drain away. Purring, he listened to Rodney berate him for being stupid, inconsiderate, and way too furry. It helped John find his balance, and with a twist he Shifted to his skin.
"I blame O'Neill for this," Rodney muttered.
Fast, hoping the other guys weren't staring, John got to his feet and pulled Rodney along with him. They stood close enough to kiss, but John was just breathing in the scent of him. When John did look around, the military personnel all had their backs politely turned to them. It was the nicest thing John could remember in recent years.
"McKay, you're with us." O'Neill's eyes were shifty. "I recommend you keep your mouth shut while we're there, but I know you won't, so please don't say anything that will get Sheppard tasered."
"Or shot," John whispered. "Or hit with a cattle prod. Those hurt."
"After we rescue everyone, I'm burning the place down." Rodney looked furious. "To the ground."
O'Neill nudged them towards a black SUV. "Go get in the back. I need to finish up with these guys."
"Thanks." John knew when he was being given a minute to get his shit together. He dragged Rodney to the SUV, shoved him inside, and pulled him into a long kiss as soon as the door was shut.
Rodney finally pushed him away. "You okay?"
"Sure." John nuzzled him. "I missed you."
"I was on the Prometheus, working on the sensors." Rodney kissed him. "I suspect the United States has a rather large clandestine Feline movement, probably fueled since the onset of the Internet. There's a cluster of Felines in Montana of all places. I can't imagine why anyone would want to live there, unless they were hiding from the government."
"Trees, open sky, lots of deer: sounds great." John hoped it was true. "They say there are forty Felines in the compound, and that sounds low, compared to the overall population of the United States."
"Exactly." Rodney ran his hand up to John's face. "Was that a stress Switch?"
"In all it's glory. I think, maybe, that was my first one. It's never hit me like that. I Switched so hard I couldn't see, or think." John remembered the few times he'd Switched against his will, but that had been nothing like this one. "Congratulations, Rodney, you officially blew me out of my skin."
Rodney blinked and then gave him a lopsided grin. "I knew you loved me."
"I'm not sure it was a compliment."
The front doors opened, and John scooted away from Rodney, putting the middle of the seat between them. He didn't want to look weak, but he did keep hold of Rodney's hand. Sighing, he gave up on looking tough. This would just have to be another regulation he broke. If they booted him out of the Air Force, he was fairly certain Rodney would let him hang out in the lab.
"We're ready, right Sheppard?" O'Neill motioned to their driver to get them going down the road.
"Yes, sir, and you might warn me next time you beam Rodney down." John had to tell him the truth. "I'm not fit to fly now that I've had a stress Switch. It's not safe."
"Bullshit." O'Neill shook his head. "McKay makes us all crazy. I think it's funny he makes you Switch but being on fire doesn't. I can't wait to tell Daniel."
"Hilarious," Rodney muttered. "I need to be brought up to speed. What's the plan?"
John caressed Rodney's hand with his thumb, needing to Switch and pounce on him. O'Neill's words droned in the background.
"Stop purring, Sheppard! I can't think!" Rodney smacked John on the hand.
Grumbling, John put his hands in his lap and looked out the window. He was going to hell, but it was hard to be gloomy when he was taking Rodney with him. Far too soon, the SUV came to a halt at a large gate, and O'Neill said, "It's show time. Let me do the talking, McKay. Sheppard, keep it together. We need to know what's going on inside before I call in a few friends."
"Yes, sir." John poked Rodney until he muttered something about fine and how he wanted extra pay for going into this hellhole. John felt the same.
Private security guards surrounded the vehicle, guns everywhere. They were deadly serious about their job. O'Neill rolled down his window, presented his credentials and talked a lot about how they were expected. The guy with the gun didn't look impressed. "Everyone walks from here."
John scooted back over and got out Rodney's side. He wanted to Switch, protect him, and he opened his mouth to pant softly.
"Easy, John, it's okay," Rodney said, putting his hand on the small of John's back. It helped John to stay in his skin.
"The driver stays here." The guard had a loud voice. "General, are you armed?"
"None of us are." O'Neill smiled his best, but John saw that it was wasted. They were patted down anyway, and true to O'Neill's prediction, all of their phones were confiscated.
"Are you afraid I'll phone a friend?" O'Neill rolled his eyes.
The guards opened the gates, training their weapons on the SUV so it couldn't pass. "Stay on the paved driveway. You'll be under escort and surveillance at all times. General, you're clear to go, and the Feline too. The other guy is staying put."
John growled, but O'Neill grinned. "The other guy is the Feline's handler. I'm a general in the United States Air Force. I don't get furry. His name is Rodney McKay, and he's in charge of keeping the Feline under control. He's going, or I'm climbing back in my SUV and leaving."
The guard tried to glare O'Neill down. O'Neill just raised his eyebrows. "I have an appointment with your director. So whenever you're ready."
"Let him in, Randolph." The voice came from a box on the gate. "Leash the Feline first. Sheppard's too large to let roam about like a kitten."
Rodney's eyes were practically shooting sparks. He opened his mouth, no doubt to call them all morons, and John distracted him by curling into his side. "Rodney?"
"One more minute, John." Rodney stroked his hand down John's hair. "Don't worry."
"Sure." John had to play this right. They'd no doubt watched the Walters' interview so they knew John was far from an idiot. But pretending to be overly attached to Rodney would play right into their mindset. They'd preached enough about how Felines needed keepers.
The big guard came at John with a choke collar and a leather leash. John told his feet to stay still, but he backed up until he hit the roof of the SVU. Rodney jumped in front of him.
"What part of handler did you miss? Give me that, you idiot! Do you want him to Switch and eat us all?" Rodney didn't back down, braver than John by a mile. "Now go away! Go polish your gun! Felines have to be handled with care!"
O'Neill's face was impassive, and John swallowed hard when Rodney stepped to him. "Rodney," John whispered.
"You can do this." Rodney didn't hold the collar up. He looked angry and sad, and his mouth turned down. "It has to be done, so we'll do it, right?"
John nodded, but he felt sweat break out along his forehead. He had to do this, for the kits who needed real homes, not this hell hole. "I trust you."
"You should." Rodney ran the chain through the circle link. "It's oversized, in case you Switch, so you won't choke."
"Okay." John felt faint. He panted through his mouth as Rodney put it over John's head, leash attached. John's focus narrowed to the weight around his neck, and he felt a little dizzy.
"Pull it tight," the guard growled.
Rodney did tighten it a little, grimacing while he did it, but John knew he could get it off if necessary. He told himself that twice. If he Switched, he'd never get it over his head, so he wouldn't do that. John reached up and tightened it a bit further. He didn't want Rodney in trouble over this stupidity.
"If you two are ready?" O'Neill sounded disgusted. "I don't have all day." He was just the right touch of disdain, and John saw that it put the guards at ease. Compassion made them nervous. Brutality was their bread and butter.
"If he's spotted off his leash, he'll be shot on sight."
"We get it, you moron. Back up! If he claws your eyes out, I'm going to laugh." Rodney held the leash loosely in his fist. "Follow the general, John."
"Will do." The first step inside the gate nearly dropped John to his knees. He was doing this. Rodney was right; John could do this. The memories of his childhood couldn't control him. Those days were gone. He was a pilot, an Air Force major, who had dined with the President last night, and this place was nothing to him.
The asphalt pounded under John's boots, and he could smell O'Neill anger, Rodney's worry, and his own sweat. Three men flanked them on each side, armed and ready, and he wanted to kill them. Tear their guts out, and he figured O'Neill could take a couple of them down too. They smelled like death and terrified kits, and he pulled the chain tighter on his neck to keep from Switching.
Rodney put his hand in the middle of John's back. "Focus."
"I want to kill them," John said in a voice that wasn't near quiet.
"Pretty sure they feel the same from the way they're clutching their guns and pissing their pants." Rodney's scorn didn't get a response from them. "If I'd have known we were going hiking, I would've stayed in my lab."
John glanced at Rodney's white-knuckled grip on the leash and scooted over enough to bump shoulders with him. "Glad you're here."
"Oh. Me too." Rodney sounded completely insincere.
Not more than three steps later, they were still nowhere near any buildings, following a winding driveway through a perfectly manicured lawn, two golf carts rounded a bend and pulled to a stop in front of them.
"About damn time," O'Neill said, commandeering the first one.
Rodney and John got in the back seat of the second one. "Two-seater golf carts. Fancy," John said.
"They can afford them with all the Felines they sell." Rodney pressed his knee into John's. "Crunch any good bones lately?"
"The steak at the White House was to die for." John appreciated Rodney's attempt to distract him. "I ate two in my skin, and four bones in my fur. I nearly burst, but did you know there's an underground bowling alley?"
"Why?" Rodney looked at him quizzically. "Does the President really have time to bowl?"
"I don't think so." John wished the wind would change and blow the scent of their driver away from him. The guy smelled disgusting. "Also a basketball court. I popped three balls, but I put them back on the rack so they might not notice for a day or two."
"That'll teach them to invite you to the White House." Rodney laughed, but it was brittle, harsh. "I think Barbara Walters is a little in love with you."
"She wishes she could have a fine Feline like myself." John eased his hand onto Rodney's thigh, squeezing with no real pressure. "I'll miss you." He played his part of the Feline who was going to be abandoned, knowing their driver would report everything that was said.
Rodney shot him a dirty look. "Of course you will, but I'll come visit. You'll enjoy whatever it is you'll be doing here." He waved his hand. "You know it was just a matter of time before you bit one of those idiot generals they make you fly about in those death traps called helicopters."
They rounded a bend, and lo and behold, there was his adolescent hell. It looked the same.
"John, stop growling."
Shaking himself, John stopped, but he mapped out all the big trees and calculated the distance to the fence. He could make it, if it came down to it, but he'd never leave Rodney's side. Maybe he could push Rodney's ass over the fence.
The main door opened, and John was surprised that he recognized the man coming down the few stairs. "That's Mr. Kinsey. He ran the place when I was here," he whispered. John didn't know the people trailing after Kinsey but assumed they were assistants of some sort. From the smell, they weren't Felines.
Rodney flipped the leash back and forth, showing his nerves, and they got out the instant the golf cart stopped. O'Neill did the same, going to shake hands with Kinsey. The carts took off across the grass, and John hesitated, unsure. Rodney didn't look as if he knew either.
O'Neill snapped his fingers. "Major, get over here."
John and Rodney went. "Sir?" John asked.
"Mr. Kinsey and I have business." O'Neill practically snapped out the words. "Find something to do that doesn't involve crunching bones. "
"Yes, sir," John said automatically.
"Perhaps a tour for them?" O'Neill asked.
"Certainly Sheppard and his handler can take a tour." Kinsey's smile never reached his eyes, and he still smelled like a snake, oily. "It's rare to have a Feline of his age return. We've made quite a few improvements since his days here."
"The Air Force needs more like him." O'Neill dismissed John with a glance. "Young ones."
Kinsey motioned to one of his people. "Tour B, Sam. The Feline will remain leashed."
"Great. Now I have to haul your furry butt around this huge compound." Rodney sighed loud enough to be a complaint. "Where do they think you're going to go?"
"Up a tree?" John watched Kinsey escort O'Neill away. Kinsey spared John a glare before going back through the main door. John shrugged, sizing up the assistant, Sam.
"Well, chop chop. Let's get this tour done. I have actual work to do today." Rodney got in the assistant's face. "Touch him, and I'll let him bite your arm off. Touch me, and I'll let him slash your face in half. Got it?"
The assistant swallowed hard and nodded. "Usually we deal with children, or kittens, as we call them."
"He's not a kitten. He's a Feline who would love to snap your spine and lick out the marrow." Rodney seemed to be enjoying himself. "Move along now, and we're going to need refreshments at some point."
"Okay," Sam said with a tremor in his voice. "Follow me."
An hour later, John had seen enough, more than enough, and he couldn't make his hands stop trembling. He needed to Switch, but fear kept him from doing it. The fear that he'd actually tear someone limb from limb, and the collar wouldn't stop him.
"They're kits," he whispered. "Children. They all smell so scared."
Rodney pulled John close with a gentle hand. John took shameless advantage, tucking his face into the crook of Rodney's neck. Breathing in the scent of him made the urge to kill a little less urgent.
"They see them as tools, nothing more. Not even Human." Rodney's voice was small, broken. "Did you see the nursery?"
"They're breeding for kits." John shuddered, hating them. It was new – the breeding thing – they certainly hadn't been doing it when he'd lived here. They must be getting desperate to keep up a steady supply, and that was actually good news. It meant there was an underground Feline movement, and they were somewhat successful at staying hidden.
Sam, the hapless assistant, stared at them, and then moved to a safer distance. John had no doubt their every move was being recorded, but he couldn't force himself to pretend.
Snapping his fingers, Rodney got Sam's attention. "How often do people bring in Felines nowadays?"
"Not very often. We get the occasional call from a school. Police account for a few. Older Felines are sold or..." He paled at the look on John's face. "Put to sleep."
Steeling himself for the answer, John tried not to snarl the question. "How many do you have who are stuck in their fur?"
"Two. Ages fifteen and sixteen. Mr. Kinsey has some hope they'll come out of it soon." Sam smiled, but he stank of fear. "They're in a restricted area."
Rodney shrugged, but his look to John had a wealth of meaning. For all John knew, the Switching device was in Rodney's pocket. John took a step back. "I've seen enough. Where is General O'Neill?"
"I'll take you to Mr. Kinsey's office. You can wait outside."
"John, one second." Rodney tightened his hand on the leash. "Sam, I noticed most of the Felines were going to lunch. Could we join them? Talk to a few?"
"I don't see why not, especially since he's..." Sam trailed away. "This way."
John waited until Sam was four steps ahead. "What's going on, Rodney?"
"I'm not leaving these children alone any longer," Rodney whispered, fury in his voice. John agreed, grateful Rodney was thinking clearly when John was seeing red. They walked for a few minutes and then Sam pushed open a heavy oak door.
It was a large cafeteria, no windows, three doors, and a few bored-looking guards standing here and there. They straightened up when John stepped inside, and John hunched his shoulders, trying to curl into Rodney's side.
"Food, Rodney? I'm hungry." John did his best to sound like the village idiot. Rodney blinked, eyed the guards, and then stroked him, promising him food. They went through the line, and John played it up, acting like a large child.
They settled at an empty table near the middle, and Sam shifted on his feet. Rodney glared at him. "What? Go away! We'll have someone take us upstairs to Kinsey's office later!"
Looking relieved, Sam hurried to the big doors, gone in a flash.
John nuzzled Rodney's shoulder. Rodney eyed the kits, who were starting to eat again. "I count twenty-five, give or take."
"Leaving about fifteen elsewhere." John flexed his hands. "Let's find out where." He made eye contact with an older boy, not faking a smile. The boy, maybe twelve or thirteen, narrowed his eyes, shrugged, and wandered over to their table. John made sure his voice wouldn't carry. "Where's everyone else?"
"Confined to quarters, most likely." The boy sat down next to him. "You were on the news. The administrators were angry we saw it. Some of the older kits demanded to be allowed to join the Air Force. Killer Kinsey locked them away and revoked everyone's television privileges."
"We used to call him Crazy Kinsey." John didn't remember that fondly. "What's your name?"
"What does it matter? My owner will call me Fluffy, or something equally moronic."
Rodney pointed at the boy. "I like him. Can we keep him?"
"I don't see why not." John watched the guards, but they weren't on alert. "If Kinsey is mad about me, why did he let us in today?"
"Because he got the last laugh." Rodney shoved some more food at John. "You'll teach the kits that the Air Force is evil. Or else."
John could see that scenario playing out with no trouble. "Any more guards in back?"
"Just those," the boy said, sitting up very straight. "You're here to get us out," he said in a tiny voice. "You came for us."
"It wasn't my idea, but yes. If we have to get you all room by room, it could get messy. It'll be easier to do it from here." John hoped that O'Neill agreed with John's assessment of the situation. He went back to eating, peering into every nook and cranny of the cafeteria. "Rodney, do you see the laptop over there?"
"On it. Take off your dog tag and hand it to me." Rodney slurped a huge drink of his milkshake.
Digging in his shirt, John untangled it from the collar and got it off. He dropped it in Rodney's hand, trusting him, and John couldn't remember ever trusting, not since his father had betrayed him.
Rodney dropped it on the floor and casually destroyed the tiny crystal with his heel. "I have no combat skills. You know that, right?"
"Yup." John patted the boy on the hand. "Go spread the word that I'm going to get you out of this place or die trying. Any lions?"
"A few." The boy was gone in a flash, and the cafeteria buzz dropped by increments until there wasn't a sound. John used the time to untie his boots and slide out of his jacket. He leaned over, swiped up his dog tag, and put it back around his neck.
The guards circled and then decided to have a conference about the silence near one of the doors. John tugged the leash. "I'll take them out. You make sure the kits bar the doors."
"Let's do this. We're idiots, but it's O'Neill's fault." Rodney groaned and got to his feet. "No! We are done! Move it, you giant fleabag!"
"I'm still hungry!"
Rodney dragged John by the leash, complaining and whining, straight to the door by the guards. "He is such a big baby! Keep walking, furball! Or I'll take your catnip away!"
John slumped and whimpered, and the guards laughed. They laughed. Rodney puffed up. "Stupid cat! They should've neutered you!" He stopped. "Hey, can you hold this?" He held out the end of the leash to the guard nearest the door. "Feel free to give him a yank."
"Will do." The guard took the leash and jerked John right to him. "Stupid Feline. We'll have a good time playing with you before Kinsey puts you down."
The leash choked off John's air, and he did something that he had never done before. He Switched with the intent to kill. Adrenaline surged, and the screaming sounded good to his ears. One of the guards got off two shots, but the nick in his front leg wasn't even enough to slow John down.
"Bar the doors," Rodney yelled. He ran for the laptop. "And pull down those surveillance cameras!"
John wondered where his clothes were, sitting on the chest of a very dead security guard. He licked his paw to help stop the bleeding before Switching to his skin. He ripped off the collar, threw on some pants, and didn't bother with a shirt or boots.
The kits seemed frozen, and then several ran right to him. "What should we do?"
"The cameras!" John pointed. "The doors! And get the little ones to the back!" He armed himself with every gun he could find on the guards, even an extra clip of ammo. "Rodney!"
They worked together, shoving tables in front of the doors. They were too slow on one door, and he shot the guard who opened it. It seemed to galvanize the kits and suddenly everyone was helping. The younger kits were spirited to the back, chairs and tables were used to create barricades, and John was glad the doors opened to the inside. No locks, but it still bought them time.
"We got the cameras!" The boy from earlier grinned as he ran up. "Oh, and I'm Tom."
"Good going, Tomcat." John patted him on the back. "Help is on the way. We just have to hold out. Rodney!"
"I'm almost in!" Rodney's fingers flew over the keyboard. "Come on. Come on."
Gunfire erupted, they were trying to shoot their way inside, and everyone but John hit the floor. A few of the kits Switched from stress, and that seemed safer anyway. John knew the guns the guards had wouldn't do much against the combined oak and heavy tables, unless they went and got P-90's. He wanted to go out and fight them all, but it wasn't a smart strategy.
"I'm in! They're coming! Lots of them!" Rodney stared at John wildly. "And they look pissed!"
John grinned from the thought of killing a few more. "What are you going to do?"
"Initiating lock down procedures," Rodney said, and they all heard heavy bolts slide into place. That was why the doors had been so thick. It had been good thinking, except that now they were even safer inside. Rodney laughed. "Oh no, you don't."
The keys clacked wildly, and Rodney's eyes gleamed. John loved him a lot in that moment.
"Sheppard. His name is Sheppard. He's a hero!" The kits chattered, but gunfire forced them all quiet, and more of them ran towards the back.
John noticed a few of the older boys had Switched, and they looked ready to do some damage. A thrill of excitement strummed inside John, and he wanted to hunt, Switch, play, and run with the kits.
"John! They're going to try a ceiling duct." Rodney pointed at it. "He's got a gun and what looks like a smoke bomb."
"I'll handle it." John walked over to it and started firing upwards. The cover blew off, but before John could make another decision, one of the young lions launched himself up and into the vent. He fit, but his tail hung out. John wanted to yank him back down, but no one with any sense pulled a lion's tail.
Wisps of smoke began to filter down.
"He's keeping most of the smoke out with his body!" Rodney yelled. "We've got helicopters coming over the gates."
"Everyone Switch and get down!" John knew the lion would asphyxiate from the smoke soon. They had to do something fast. "Rodney? Ideas?"
"Yeah, but O'Neill isn't going to like it," Rodney said. "He's got Kinsey in a head lock, by the way."
"I like that guy." John stared up at the lion, over to the doors, and back to the kitchen. "Fire extinguisher!" He ran to get it, yanked it off the wall, and dashed back to the lion. "Get down! Now!" And he pulled the hanging tail.
The lion scrabbled and then dropped out. Several of them broke his fall, and then John got on a chair to level the fire extinguisher at the vent, driving the smoke back up with the propellant. He emptied the can, hoping it was enough to smoke out the guards at the other end of the vent.
"It's working!" Rodney came running with another extinguisher. "Keep blasting. Everyone get to the kitchen, stay low to the floor! Tomcat, make sure everyone stays there!"
The kits obeyed, Tomcat looked grim but determined, and John went back to blowing the extinguisher up at the vent. When it was empty too, he immediately looked at Rodney.
John coughed several times and went to him. "Much longer?"
"Your arm is bleeding." Rodney kept his eyes on the laptop. "The SGC Marines are extremely efficient.
"Kinsey is screaming about congressional hearings. O'Neill is sitting on him."
They both whipped around at the noise of someone dropping through the vent. John ran full tilt, Switching in mid-jump. He jerked from the bullet that grazed his back leg and then he was on him. This idiot who dared to try to kill kits, another Human, stinking-like-pain, determined to kill John's kind.
Rodney grabbed a Beretta and fired up into the vent over and over again until the clip was empty, making sure no one else was coming. "John, pretty sure he's dead." The gun was limp in Rodney's hand. "I think I need a refill."
Drawing back, John could see the guy was dead now. Later, he might have some sort of breakdown, but for now he had to keep going. With a grunt, he Switched again, and he was going to be paying for all these Switches.
Taking the gun from Rodney, John slammed his last clip home. "Are they still trying to get in here?"
Rodney hurried back to the laptop, clicking and clicking. "They're running. Let me do a sweep of all the cameras."
John moved around to where he could see the layout of the room and keep an eye on the open vent. "I'm surprised how many fought back against our Marines."
"Morons." Rodney kept on clicking. "I'm releasing the lock down in here. Let's get these kids to safety. I have cameras on the kids confined to their rooms. We need to get them out."
"Right." John tucked the gun in the small of his back under his waistband and went to the kitchen. Kits cowered in piles, except for Tomcat, who immediately strutted over to him. John gently pulled Tomcat's ear. "We're out of here. I hope there's nothing you guys want in your rooms."
Tomcat Switched, naked as the day he was born. "We're not allowed to own anything. I want to wear my fur, maybe forever." And he Switched again.
"Good enough. Come on!" John led the way to one of the barricaded doors and started shoving tables out of the way. Rodney joined him, some of the older kits helped, and the lion roared when they finally got it open.
"I agree." Rodney snatched up the laptop, and John scooped a small leopard kit toddling towards the door. She collapsed, exhausted, into his arms. "Stay together!"
They poured out of the cafeteria and up a flight of steps, and John took the lead. A group of Marines pounded around a corner, stopping in their tracks and lowering their guns.
"Major Sheppard, General O'Neill wants to know what the hell is going on."
"We need to clear rooms. Some of the kits are still in lock down. This group is more than ready to leave." John didn't want to turn loose of the leopard. She was purring into his chest. "Get this group into the 'copters and head west."
"Tomcat! You're in charge. Make sure everyone gets in a 'copter." John chucked the young tiger under the chin. "I'll catch up with you in Colorado. Okay?"
The tiger nodded, yowling, and the Marines spread out, covering them. John pulled one of them aside. "They'll all need lots of food and water."
"We've seen you eat, sir."
Rodney laughed, and John glared at them both. "Rodney, let's clear some rooms. I want some Marines with me."
"On it." Rodney opened the laptop, and John couldn't help but grin at the straggly bunch of Felines who were running in starts and stops toward the exit. They were free. Rodney pointed with his chin down another long hallway. "That way. Let's hope there are no more security guards."
John growled, moving quickly even with the leopard in his arms. They picked up an escort two hallways away, and then Rodney led them to the first room. He got the door, and John motioned for the Marines to step far back.
A young lion stopped his pacing, crouching as if he'd pounce. John stroked the leopard in his arms, hoping that sent the right message. "We're here to get you out."
He Switched, gaping at them. "You're Major Sheppard!"
"I am, and it's time to go. The rest are getting in 'copters. Come on." John made a motion at the room. "Do you want to dress?"
For an answer, the boy Switched and roared. Rodney cringed a little. "I'm glad you don't roar."
"I'm glad I kept this little girl." John kissed her on the forehead. "He was about ready to rip our throats out."
"Keep her close." Rodney pointed to the left. "Next one down."
The lion went with them, and they found twelve more Felines, all in a state of distress, and none of them wanted clothes. John knew it was a symptom of them being in their skin for too long. When they'd gotten everyone, the lion took the lead up the stairs, and John understood why they'd confined him, even if it was wrong. That young man needed to run, hunt, and sleep in his fur. He crackled with energy. It made John feel a little old.
"Where are the two who are stuck?" John still didn't hand off the leopard when this group started for the 'copters. "Where's the device?"
"I think O'Neill has it, and I don't know where they are."
O'Neill caught up with them before they'd gone too far. He was shoving Kinsey, hands zipped together, along in front of him. Kinsey was still shouting about his rights, and John growled.
"Sir, do you have the device?" John hoped so. He didn't want to leave a single kit in this hellhole for any reason.
"Kinsey gassed them when my helicopters came over the fence. I stopped him from taking out the entire facility, but we lost them." O'Neill looked so angry. "He murdered them."
"Why? Why would you do that?" Rodney sounded crushed. "I could've helped them!"
"They were animals! Animals!"
Anger burst into clear, passionless fury, and John handed the tiny leopard to O'Neill, who took her with a grunt. "With your permission, sir."
"It's a shame Mr. Kinsey fought back when the kits were forcibly removed. I'm sure his funeral will be lovely," O'Neill said. "You could give him a head start."
"I'll even give him a gun with one bullet in it." John took out all the bullets but one, freed Kinsey's hands, and said, "I'll take the time to remove my pants. The fence is about a mile from here. If you can make it that far, I'll stop. Cougars aren't much for a long run."
Kinsey went pale. "You can't do this!"
"Oh, he can." O'Neill grabbed Rodney by the shirt. "We're moving. Let Sheppard handle this."
"But he's bleeding from his leg and arm." Rodney didn't go.
"I should've put you down when you were brought in! Your father asked me to!" Kinsey ranted. "I didn't because I thought you had potential! I cared about you!"
"You cared about making money." John remembered Kinsey giving the order for the experiments on John to proceed. The thing about his dad didn't bother him as much as it should have. He knew his father hated him, hated what he'd become. It was old news.
O'Neill managed to get Rodney around a corner, out of harm's way. John handed Kinsey the gun, took a good six steps back, and smiled. Kinsey stared down at the gun like he didn't know what to do with it.
John loosened the top button on his pants, but he was ready to Switch in a blink if the gun came up. His arm and leg ached, burning the way bullet wounds did, and he was tired, almost weak from all the Switching.
"What's stopping me from just shooting you in the head?" Kinsey raised the gun level with John's chest. The heavy gun shook in his hand, and John doubted Kinsey had the guts to pull the trigger.
"You can try." John let his pants drop. He still wasn't sure how they'd stayed on during his last Switch. "It's your life."
"This isn't over. I have powerful friends in Congress. People who owe me favors. I'm not afraid." Kinsey just never shut up, waving the gun side to side. "Felines are nothing but animals."
"Whatever." John watched the gun. "How many kits did you breed?"
"More than a dozen." Kinsey grinned. "I enjoyed my work there."
Instantly, John understood, and his fury pounded in his veins, ridding him of his exhaustion. "And then you sold them?"
"Of course. There's high demand for Felines. Demand equals profit." The gun dipped, and for the first time, Kinsey put his finger on the trigger. "Once you're dead, I'll make this all go away. I can start over in a year or two. Maybe run for Congress myself. People love to hate Felines."
In that instant, John Switched, ready to rip him to shreds when a shot rang out. John waited for the pain, but nothing happened, except Kinsey crumbled to the floor, blood gushing from a hole in his chest.
"I'm sorry, John, I couldn't let him shoot you."
Transfixed by the sight of Kinsey taking his last breath, John did nothing but shuffle back a few steps. Kinsey stiffened, went to hell, and John rounded on Rodney, who was shaking like a leaf.
"Please don't hate me."
Later, John would yell at him. Right now, John could only rub his chin along Rodney's thigh and press into him. Rodney sat down hard on the floor, dropping the gun, and John crawled right on top of him.
"He was evil. Evil." Rodney stroked John over and over again. John purred, rubbing his forehead into Rodney's chest. "He would've shot you. He raped young women, made them have babies, and then sold the babies. God, I want to shoot him again."
John licked Rodney's face, backtracked to Kinsey's body, and lifted his leg, pretending. Rodney laughed, harsh and loud, scrambling to his feet, and together, they ran for the front door. O'Neill, leopard still in his arms, was waiting for them at the top of the steps.
"We're going to Colorado. Sheppard, the medivac is over there. That's your ride. I believe Carson is waiting for you. McKay, go with him." O'Neill was all business. "I'm going to make sure the cleanup is started here, and then I'll join you."
"You want me to take her?" Rodney made grabby hands.
"Not really." O'Neill handed her over anyway. "Make sure she gets to Daniel."
"I can do that." Rodney pressed her close. "You make sure to get every bit of technology."
"Don't tell me how to do my job." O'Neill pointed at a 'copter. "Get Sheppard moving before he passes out."
Rodney grabbed some of John's scruff, and they went fast, ducking down under the blades. John made the jump into the back, happy to see Beckett, and Rodney scrambled up behind him. The door was slammed, and John collapsed down to his side, panting.
"Let me work, Rodney," Beckett said.
The world tilted as the 'copter took off, and John let it all spin. He was free. They were free. He could go anywhere, do anything, and the kits would never wear collars or be sold to the highest bidder, not in this country.
He dropped into the black.
"Cats don't eat pudding." Rodney protected his ill-gotten goods with a spoon wielded with deadly accuracy.
"They do too." John was full, but that wasn't the point. He caught some movement at the door and smiled as Daniel wandered in, a little leopard chasing his feet. The leopard Switched, and Daniel tugged a sundress from his pocket, sliding it over her. John held out his arms. "Miranda, you look so pretty today."
She climbed up onto his gurney, tucking herself into John's space. "Hi, John."
John cuddled her, shutting his eyes and enjoying it. "Rodney stole my pudding."
She giggled. Rodney patted John on the leg that wasn't shot. "Going back to work. If the kits will let me get that far."
"Be nice. They're still traumatized." John remembered that Daniel was close and opened his eyes. "Daniel?"
"The kits are driving Jack crazy. Suggestions?" Daniel put his hands in his pockets, slouching. "I think he's mad because they ate all his Fruit Loops."
"They all need extended fur time." John thought about it a minute. "Is there some place outdoors we could take them? Like summer camp? Let them climb trees and eat bugs?"
"I don't like bugs," Miranda said seriously, and John tickled her to make her giggle again. She was two, the youngest of the kits, and she was smart as a whip. Rodney had delivered her to Daniel as promised and then had his heart broken because she'd fallen in love with an archeologist. Somehow, Jack had known. John had comforted Rodney for hours by sitting in his lap and letting him pet to his heart's content.
"It might be better anyway. I'm hopeful we'll have a few parents arrive, once all the kits are cleared by medical, and this isn't exactly a good place for that sort of thing." Daniel sighed. "You'll be released today?"
"I better be." John healed fast, and he was tired of the infirmary. "I'll go. It'll be fun." Unspoken was the thought that he'd be far away from Sumner, who was holed up on a different level. Rodney claimed Sumner was allergic to cats and doped up on antihistamines.
"Great!" Daniel smiled. "Miranda?"
"Good nap." She snuggled, Switching.
John motioned for Daniel to go on and wished he could Switch to curl around her. Beckett complained about the fur though, so John stayed in his skin.
It seemed like John had no more than shut his eyes and Beckett was tossing him out of the infirmary, Miranda nowhere in sight. He wasn't worried. Everyone looked out for her. For Miranda, there'd be no going home. She'd been conceived at the Center, and her mother had died giving birth to her. John refused to even consider that Kinsey was her father.
By the time John hit the elevator, he had a trail of kits following him. John got directions to Rodney's quarters where, sure enough, his duffel and suit bag had been stashed. He stripped out of his clothes, took a long stretch, and Switched. A small lion rubbed his cheek on Rodney's door, and John growled at him to little effect. Half the kits claimed Rodney on daily basis. John kept having to re-mark him.
Tom, in his skin for a change, was leaning against the wall in the hallway. "I heard we're on the move. Tired of us already?"
After swatting at Tom's legs, John and his minions, as Rodney called them, went to find Daniel. Miranda found them first, pouncing on John's tail. John dragged her into Daniel's office and flopped down on the floor.
"Give them another hour to get everything set up." Daniel didn't even glance over at John, who was being mauled by kits. "I'm worried someone will get hurt. They're children."
John chirped and grabbed a kit with his paws to get him to stop biting so hard. The kit purred in John's face. It was more likely the kits would break all of O'Neill's Marines. They were a tough bunch. A skinny tiger slunk inside, pointedly turning his back to John, and John twisted up, pouncing on Tomcat's back end.
Tomcat yowled and swatted, while John bore him to the floor, establishing dominance. John licked the tiger's ears clean before letting him up. Tomcat sulked, and Miranda chased his tail.
Setting a table back upright, Daniel nearly stepped on John's paw. "Let's go early. Maybe we can help," he said. He danced over several bodies and made it to the door, looking down the hallway. "There's hordes of them."
Chuffing, John heaved himself up, flicked his tail high, smacked Tomcat in the head, and started after Daniel. It did seem like every Feline in the mountain was in the hallway. After the isolation of the Center, none of them wanted to be separated. While John was in the infirmary, Rodney had informed him that at least fifteen Felines slept with him every night. John had been jealous. Beckett refused to let even one sleep with John.
"I'm getting Rodney," Daniel said with a trace of exasperation. "And Jack."
A lion roared down towards the end of the hallway, and John trotted that way to see what was going on. O'Neill was holding open the elevator, and he had six servicemen with him, different branches, even Coast Guard. They were all young, early twenties, and they smelled a mixture of worry, curiosity, and confusion.
John sat down and tilted his head. He'd wanted to meet these guys, but it would've been nice to be in his uniform when it happened.
"Major Sheppard, aren't you supposed to be in the infirmary?"
Shaking his head, John patted O'Neill's leg while keeping an eye on the other guys.
"General? If you'll excuse me, but what the hell?" the sergeant asked. "The Center was moved here?"
"No, the Center is gone." O'Neill grinned and shoved the last guy out of the elevator. "The President thought it set a bad example."
"No kidding," one of the guys in the back drawled. "If we don't leave soon, I'm going to stress Switch."
The biggest lion, Ronald, roared again, and John decided someone had to do the smart thing. He Switched and said, "General, these guys probably need a de-brief and a chance to get used to the idea that kits are chewing their shoes. Daniel is taking us to a camp up top. Why don't you join us there later?"
"Fine. Just put on your fur!" O'Neill covered his eyes. "Back in the elevator. Oh, wait, hi Miranda!"
She climbed O'Neill like a tree, ignoring the complaints, and made herself comfortable on his chest. The elevator door shut, and John Switched while laughing. Rodney came tiptoeing around the far corner, and John ran straight at him.
"No! No! Ew!"
John made sure to let Rodney breathe.
The military did know how to set up good temporary camps. John had to give them credit as he surveyed the small base. In the middle of a clearing sat an old Quonset hut, and there were tents, even port-a-potty’s. The trees were close, and he could dimly hear a small stream. Good times for everyone, and he'd put the older kits in charge of watching the younger ones.
Inside the Quonset hut, there was row after row of bunks, pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, and even space heaters in case it got chilly during the night. John approved. They could all stay together, and the younger ones were desperate for touch.
"It's like kitty wonderland." Rodney kept his hand on John's neck. "I'll have them hang a tire swing."
Several of the kits looked hopeful at that. John swiped his chin on the bunk closest to the door before going back outside to sit in the sun. He knew one of those tents had plenty of food and drinks, but he had high hopes that he might bring down a deer. It was possible, if the kits would let him out of their sight.
Rodney sighed, stroking John's neck. "It's safer with them out here. Six of them invaded my lab the other day, and every Ancient device I have perked up for them."
That was a little scary. John glared up at him.
"I locked everything away after that." Rodney tugged one of John's ears. "What are we doing about Atlantis, John?"
The quick subject change made John blink, and then he smiled. Rodney had said 'we.' That sounded good. John wished he knew. No one had told him anything when he'd been in the infirmary, and he hadn't seen Dr. Weir since Antarctica. She had probably given up on him. Anyway, there were plenty of Felines who could volunteer now. She didn't need him.
The sun was making John sleepy, and it was hard to think. He wanted to roll in the dirt and sleep in his fur.
"I'll get a sleeping bag and we can sit together. You have that sleepy-eyed look you always get, and you're still healing." Rodney ducked into the Quonset hut and came back with a red sleeping bag. He spread it out and sat down. John noticed that it was mostly in the shade, but Rodney had fair skin.
First, John took a good dirt bath. Then he shook everywhere before dragging his paws to Rodney. Rodney fussed at him for being disgusting, and John curled up mostly on Rodney's lap.
"That lion is sorta scary," Rodney whispered in John's ear, rubbing there where it felt so good. "He roars a lot."
John licked his sore paw and let his eyes slit. If anyone had told him this was possible even two weeks ago, he'd have called them a liar. He was happy, and he wasn't alone. Purring, he licked Rodney on the hand and fell asleep.
"Private Morris, who's a snow leopard, refuses to join us in the morning," Jack said, dropping down on a conveniently placed log in front of the fire that Rodney and John had put together to make s'mores. "He seems a bit surly."
"Typical snow leopard." John shrugged. "Did you tell him he's on leave?"
"Sheppard, you're mouthy." Jack patted a cheetah on the head. "Miranda is with Daniel. She refuses to sleep in the wild, or so I heard." He leaned back, dug in his pocket, and tossed John something shiny. John caught the dog tag on reflex. "You broke your other one."
"Rodney did." John didn't like the idea of being tracked at all times.
"We all carry them, Sheppard. I have three. One in my leg, my dog tag, and my phone. Chances are good there's one I don't know about." O'Neill shrugged. "As long as it's not in my ass, I don't worry."
John gave in and put it around his neck, pulling off the one Rodney had broken. He handed it to Rodney.
"You should give it to Tomcat," Rodney said, pushing it back at him. "He worships you." He tugged down his collar. "And I have one."
It was impossible not to grin at seeing it around Rodney's neck. John knew it was ridiculous, but Rodney wore it, and that meant something good. Lowering his voice, knowing that it was mostly hopeless, John tried for some privacy. "Are his parents coming to get him?"
"Yes, but I suspect he'll be back," O'Neill said, nodding. "He's tried to enlist twice since he got here."
"How are the extraction teams coming along?" Rodney asked. "I thought we'd be beaming them up!"
"Too much paperwork. Easier to send teams to make sure the Feline in question has the choice to leave." O'Neill snapped his fingers until he was given the marshmallow bag.
"And?" John was skeptical about the whole thing. It was damn hard to make choices after years of being given none.
"So far, none of them have stayed with their former owner. The Mountain is going to be full of Felines for years to come." O'Neill stole Rodney's stick and impaled two marshmallows. "Ronald, the lion, is seventeen. I heard he wants to be a Marine. I'm thinking the Marines are in trouble."
They all laughed. Jack pulled his flaming marshmallows from the fire and blew them out. Rodney made a disgusted noise, and John heard someone tromping through the twigs and leaves, definitely not a Feline.
Beckett stole some graham crackers from Rodney before sitting down on the sleeping bag next to him. Before John could say a word, Beckett started talking, and a lot of it went right over John's head. But one or two things stuck out.
"I think the device may well switch anyone with the ATA gene into a Feline."
"I want to test it."
O'Neill's eyes were wide, even in the firelight. Kits started pushing closer, crowding around. A few in their skin sharpened sticks for the marshmallows, and the only female tiger in the entire bunch wiggled her way into Rodney's lap. John grumbled, resigned to sharing but not liking it.
"Who's going to volunteer?" John asked when no one else said anything. "Who wants to be a Feline? We're persecuted, hunted, chopped up for parts, bought and sold. Sure, the super sharp claws are fun, but overall, not the best investment of one's time."
"John, not in front of the kits," Rodney scolded, cupping his hands over the tiger's ears.
"They know, Rodney." John snagged some chocolate from the stash that Rodney guarded.
"I'd do it," Rodney said, "but I don't have the ATA gene."
"Not yet." Beckett munched his cracker after dropping that bomb.
O'Neill, who had been uncharacteristically quiet, shrugged. "It doesn't work. I tried it already."
Jaws dropped around the fire. Beckett began scrubbing his face with his hands. "You did what?"
"I picked it up and asked it to make me into a cat." O'Neill handed his stick away to a kit. "Nothing, absolutely nothing. There was nothing in me to change."
"Damn." Beckett sighed loudly. "There goes that theory!'
"They made it to help Felines who are stuck in their fur." John might've put some bite in his words. "It told me so."
"Why wasn't that in the notes, Rodney?" Beckett shoved him. Rodney squawked about this and that, and John got up, heading for his bunk. He wasn't tired. He wanted fur time under the stars, and he might claw a tree or two. Some of the kits were curled up on the bunks and blankets, tired from the day of pouncing and yowling. They'd run around naked too, ignoring the clothes provided, laughing and generally being crazy. John didn't even want to estimate the amount of food they'd consumed, but Beckett had pronounced each and every one of them underweight. Twice, Rodney had threatened to go back and bomb the center.
He stripped, putting his clothes on his bunk, and Switched. He'd either sleep by the fire or on top of Rodney, who no doubt thought they should go inside. John had the feeling his leave was about over now that the other servicemen were here.
"You okay?" Rodney asked as soon as John sat down next to him, seriously considering nudging the tiger off onto Beckett's lap. Rodney transferred the sleeping tiger to Beckett, and John instantly took advantage before some thieving kit got there.
"Sheppard, you're assigned kit duty for at least a week. By then all the parents who are coming should be here. There will be Marines patrolling, and your fellow Feline servicemen will be helping. Okay, maybe not Morris, but I'll leave a trail of steak bones and see what happens." O'Neill got to his feet and brushed his hands off on his pants. "Don't be surprised if we have some new arrivals, and Sheppard, we're not finished talking about Atlantis."
John yawned and flicked his tail. A little bit of freedom was a heady thing. O'Neill got up, brushed off his hands, and slouched away into the dark. John couldn't even hear him leaving, and that was annoying. Not a Feline. Right. Rodney ate some more chocolate, leaning against John.
"We sleeping at my place?" Rodney asked. "I am not sleeping out here with the bugs."
Beckett laughed, stroking the tiger kit. "The kits would all wake up and follow him to your room. Give up, Rodney."
"Stupid hero worship, and I'll have you know some of them are very fond of me." Rodney flicked John's ear just to pester him. "Those new guys? Are they going to fight with John?"
"Cats are territorial, but I imagine they all respect chain of command." Beckett shifted the tiger, and John was amused when her head lolled to the side. She was deeply asleep. John wasn't worried about the new guys. He was older, and none of them had smelled particularly aggressive.
The fire burned lower, John purred non-stop, and finally Beckett stumbled up and took the kit towards the Quonset hut. Rodney tickled the inside of John's ear and said, "You know, if we got the kits to bed, we could do stuff."
John heaved himself up and started herding cats. Rodney should've said so earlier. But once they had everyone in the Quonset, John began to wonder where exactly they could do anything. Rodney tugged John back to the fire and the sleeping bag.
"They have super hearing," John whispered, after making a quick Switch to his skin.
Rodney pulled him down and kissed him. "So be quiet." He flicked the end of the sleeping bag over both of them.
"But I like to yowl. And the moon's up and everything." John bit his way down Rodney's jawline, stopping to lick in a few spots. Rodney's hands roamed all over John's body, and it felt better than good. John kept thinking Rodney would rush, considering how long it had been since their first and only attempt, but Rodney seemed content to kiss John into a stupor.
When Rodney sucked John's tongue, John nearly Switched, which would've been disastrous, hanging on by a thread. Rodney made soft, greedy noises, giving John's cock a workout with his hand. Somehow Rodney matched his sucking with his fondling, and John nearly shook apart, coming all over both of them.
Rodney let John find his breath again before fumbling with his khakis. John took a second to make sure no one was near and then helped him, curling down to suck Rodney's cock. He fully expected Rodney to stop him – to complain about John's teeth.
"Oh, yeah," Rodney whispered, flailing his hands to dig in to John's shoulders. John was going to drag it out, make him suffer in silence, but Rodney bucked up, coming with a long groan. Licking his lips, John kissed up Rodney's body until he bumped into Rodney's face.
They adjusted their arms and legs until they were both comfortable, and John fell asleep before he could think of Switching.
A huge roar blasted John out of his sleeping bag, and he Switched before he hit the ground. He was running before he knew where to, and he nearly crashed into Tomcat, who laughed so hard he fell over.
"They got you there, Major."
The ruff on John's neck refused to settle. He marched over to Ronald and glared him down. Ronald rolled to show off his tummy, but he was laughing like a lion.
Then John realized he had no idea who the guy in the Navy uniform was, so he went back that way.
"Petty Officer Robert Johnson reporting for kit duty." He saluted. "You were sleeping pretty hard."
Embarrassed, John chirped a few choice cougar curse words. It didn't help that he was hungry, thirsty, and wanted to know where the hell Rodney was. John swatted Tomcat on the ass and headed for the Quonset to Switch.
Johnson tagged along. "Can I Switch? I haven't in a while. My skin gets itchy, ya know? But I hated to make a bad impression on General O'Neill by wearing my fur. My last commanding officer made it clear that I was never to Switch on duty, not for any reason. It was hard, ya know?"
John Switched in mid-stride, grabbing up his boxers from his bunk. They had fur on them, and it wasn't his fur. He sighed and put them on anyway. "Yes, I know. Okay, Johnson, you can Switch all you want, but you still gotta help me with these kits. They have a tendency to get stuck in trees, fall in the creek, eat too much and groan, piss everywhere and run around naked in their skin. Got it?"
"Naked?" Johnson swallowed hard. "In their skin?"
"They're a little giddy. The Center had gotten worse over the years." John felt sorry for the whole lot of them, making it hard to establish any type of discipline.
"How is that possible?" Johnson muttered and then straightened. "Yes, sir, I'll help. Can I scratch trees and run around too?"
"Sure." John laughed, zipping his BDUs and pulling on a T-shirt. "Oh, and keep an eye on our perimeter here. I don't trust anyone." Except Rodney, but no one needed to know that. "Claim a bunk, use it for your clothes. And Johnson? Don't ever roar when I'm sleeping."
"I don't roar." Johnson took the bunk next to him and began to strip. John took his time putting on his boots. Finally, with a shy look, Johnson took it all off and Switched. He was the leanest cheetah John had ever seen.
John held out his hand to him, and Johnson ducked his head under it. Smiling, John scratched him behind the ears. "Welcome to Camp Furball, Johnson."
Johnson chirped like a bird at him, and John wondered if that was how he sounded. Tomcat strolled into the Quonset, naked, still smiling, and John waved him over.
"You'll show Johnson here around, right?"
"Sure." Tomcat nodded. "Are my parents coming today?"
"I don't know." John dug in his pocket and fished out his broken dog tag. "I saved this for you. I had to get a new one. Rodney broke this one." John felt sorta stupid, talking fast. "If you want it."
Tomcat nearly left scratches on John's arm. "Really? I can have it?"
"It'd mean a lot to me." John caught Tomcat in a rough hug. "Now I gotta eat."
They laughed together, and Tomcat slid it over his head. "Awesome."
While John ate, four other Feline servicemen reported for duty, and he divided up the tasks, emphasizing that their first responsibility was to be nice to the kits. No snarling. They were young guys, and he thought they'd do okay. The world hadn't turned them mean, not yet.
The snow leopard guy, Morris, never showed, and John sighed because he knew at some point O'Neill would tell John to handle it. Sure enough, by the time the sun hit mid-morning, Rodney came striding into camp, looking somewhere between furious and confused.
"Why me? I see why he's sending you, but why me? I am never going to get anything done if I'm constantly pampering every cat on base!" Rodney looked John up and down. "You're in clothes."
"It does happen from time to time." John would get in his fur after he dealt with a surly snow leopard. He sighed and pulled Rodney into a hug that made him even grumpier. "At least you weren't woken up by Ronald roaring at the top of his lungs this morning. Somehow you missed it." He glared.
Rodney got out of the hug, making a fussy noise. "My lab doesn't run itself! And I was sticky."
"And you hate bugs and dirt."
"I really do." Rodney started back towards the entrance to the Mountain, not even looking to see if John was following. "I say we zat the guy, drag him up here, and let the kits handle it."
John snorted in amusement. "My money would be on the kits." He caught up easily. "You have a zat?"
"No." Rodney stopped, nearly bumping into John. "You'll protect me, right?"
"You should probably ditch me right at the door. Call for help if you hear me screaming."
Rodney's eyes widened, and his breath came quicker. "Are you joking? You better be joking!"
Catching him by the arm, John sent the two kits who were trailing them back to Tomcat. "Snow leopards are solitary creatures. They don't like anyone. The good news is that I'm bigger than he is. The bad news is that he might not appreciate me telling him what to do."
"I'll get a zat." Rodney sounded serious. "Maybe a couple of Marines?"
"Do you know how to work a zat?" John took the brisk nod as a negative. They wound their way through security, getting direction to Morris' quarters. John checked for anyone in the hallway and pulled Rodney into a kiss before buzzing the door.
"What was that for?" Rodney was a little pale.
"Luck." John pointed at the wall across from the door. "Stand there and wait. I mean it. If he makes a move at you, I might do something stupid."
"I'm going to wait right here." Rodney crossed his arms. "I'll run for help if you need it."
"Good idea." John rang the buzzer. "Morris?" No answer. He rang it again. "Morris?" he yelled.
"Marines. Lots of Marines," Rodney muttered.
"Wait a minute." John put his ear to the door and focused intently. He heard... whimpering. Making his decision, wishing he had time to take his boots off, he tried to open the door. It was locked. He threw himself at the steel door to no effect whatsoever. "Rodney, get those Marines. Now!"
Rodney ran, and John kept fighting the door.
"Sir, back away."
With a snarl, John jumped away. "Blow it and then get back. I meant it! Do not go inside!"
One of them shot the doorknob to hell, and John launched himself at the door. It swung open, and he took in the scene with a look. Morris was curled tightly in the corner, sweating, pale, sobbing, and John had a feeling he knew what was wrong.
"Rodney, get the Switcher. Run!"
"I spend a lot of time running for you!" But Rodney pounded away. The Marines lingered in the doorway, guns drawn.
"It's okay," John said, crouching down and putting his hand on Morris' shoulder. His skin was cold and clammy. "Get medical. Dr. Becket."
One of the Marines did that. John sat right down and pulled Morris into his lap. Morris was a small guy, not anywhere near six feet tall and skinny. John couldn't imagine him in the Army, carrying a giant pack. "What's happening?"
"Can't. Tried so hard." Morris shook. "All those kits. I wanted for the first time, but I can't."
"How long?" John rocked him back and forth, trying to comfort him.
"Years." Morris cried on John's shoulder. "My cat is gone."
"We'll get him back." John stroked his hand through Morris' hair. "Relax. Relax."
"Major?" Beckett dropped to his knees beside them.
"He can't Switch. He's in shock." John didn't turn him loose. "I sent Rodney for the device."
"Aye. Good." Beckett took vitals, working quickly, and then gave Morris a shot in the arm before John could ask what was in it. "That will help. If it Switches him, will he pass out?"
"Probably." John felt some of the tension go out of Morris. "Good job, Morris. Relax. We're going to fix this. I promise. You'll be biting people before the day's over."
"I hate him," Morris whispered, keeping his face tucked into John's chest. "I never wanted him, but..."
"He's you." John wanted Rodney back right now. "He's you, Morris. You need that part of you."
"Scared." Morris started shaking again. "I'll bite someone."
"No, you won't." John shouldn't have joked about it. "Remember when you were a kit? A boy who liked to run in the grass, hide in the rocks, and chase your own tail?" He took a breath. "Remember how good it was to be both, skin and fur."
"They caught me. It was awful."
John wondered if Rodney had walked back to Antarctica to get the damn Switcher. "I know. Same thing happened to me, but they were wrong." John kept hold of him. "Relax. Let the cat parts loose to have some fun. It's sunny out, birds chirping, and I even saw a squirrel the kits hadn't managed to eat yet."
Movement behind John alerted him, and Rodney put his hand on John's shoulder. "I got it," he whispered.
"Okay, Morris. McKay here loves cats, and he's going to pull your cat to the surface. Are you ready?" John made sure no claws were going to be near his crotch. "Can you stand it?"
"Do it. I need him. I do. They were wrong." Morris hitched a breath. "Help? Please?"
Rodney knelt and patted Morris awkwardly. "It's going to hurt a little, but we'll be here."
John held his breath, and Rodney pressed it into Morris' bare chest. For a long second, nothing happened, and then John pushed Rodney back out of harm's way as hard as he could.
"Holy crap," Carson whispered.
It took twice as long as it should have, and Morris screamed until it turned into a yowl. It was a relief when the snow leopard staggered to his paws and promptly fainted.
"Get the gurney." Becket took over, as if John and Rodney weren't in the room.
"You okay?" John crawled to Rodney, making damn sure not to touch the Switcher and grabbed him by the shoulder.
"You about broke me, shoving me like that!" Rodney rubbed his ass, stuffed the Switcher in his pocket, and got himself inside John's arms. "Warn a guy!"
"Sorry." John nuzzled into Rodney's neck. "Go put that thing away. I'll stay with Morris."
"All I do is run your errands. You owe me serious lab time." Rodney stole a kiss before getting to his feet. John helped him up the last of the way.
"Major, with us, please!"
Beckett had the gurney moving, and John trotted after them, down to the infirmary. By the time they got there, the long fuzzy tail draped off the end of the gurney began to twitch.
Any number of things could go wrong, and John untied his boots, ready for the worse. Morris raised his head, and Beckett said, "Lad? Stay in your fur. Don't try to change."
Good advice, and John stepped close. "Are you in there, Morris?" He didn't want to have to kill him, but a crazy snow leopard could do a lot of damage.
A streak of fur went by John's legs, and he made the grab way too late. Miranda licked the snow leopard in the face over and over, and John's hands were inches from snatching her away.
"Major?" O'Neill's voice was laced with anxiety.
John saw the change in Morris' eyes. One minute they were confused, and then it cleared, and the Feline looked at him. Miranda made starfish paws on Morris' tummy, and John smiled. "Welcome home, Morris."
Morris sat up and licked Miranda on the top of the head. His posture was loose, easy, and John relaxed. Miranda started purring, and O'Neill said, "We're good, then?"
"Seems that way." John hoped so, but he was reluctant to take Morris to Camp Furball until he knew the snow leopard was under control. "Miranda saved the day."
"She's a talented girl." O'Neill picked her up and held her close to his chest. "She nearly gave me a heart attack."
"Me too." John looked at Beckett. "He's okay, for now."
"Aye. Keep him close." Becket gave John the eye, and John nodded. Miranda struggled to get down from O'Neill's arms, failed, and Switched.
"I want down. Now." She glared, poking O'Neill in the chest.
"That's your girl." John fought a smile. "Miranda, Morris has had a rough day. Let's give him a minute before hordes of kits drag him down and lick him to death."
Morris got to four paws, still on the gurney, swaying, and John moved fast, grabbing him to steady him Becket did the same from the other side, and O'Neill got back, clutching Miranda.
"Easy, lad. You need time to adjust."
Morris hissed, and Beckett dropped the gurney down to floor level with his foot. John wasn't scared, but he was thinking he might Switch, just in case. Staggering, Morris stepped down off the gurney, nearly fell over, and then tried to pace in a circle, falling on his side and panting.
"Everyone out," John commanded, amazed when everyone listened, even Beckett. Quickly, John undressed and Switched. John licked him on the head until he got back up and then used his weight to support him. After years of two legs, Morris had forgotten how to work four paws. What amazed John was that Morris didn't appear to be insane. He should have been.
It took awhile to get Morris' paws working right, and when John was sure the snow leopard wouldn't fall down, he lay on the gurney and crossed his paws. Morris looked at him, blinking.
Someone had the sense to bring in a big bowl of water and a tray of meat. John jumped down and went to inspect it. Morris sat, waiting. John took a short drink and then a bite. It was good, and he flipped a chunk over to him.
Morris crouched down and ate it, and John chirped at him. The tray was clean a few minutes later, and they both took a long drink. Morris started grooming himself, and John pounced on that lovely tail. When the gurney hit the wall during the excitement, Beckett stormed inside.
"Take it outside! Major! Quit chewing on him!"
John tried to look innocent, but Beckett pointed. "Out!"
Slinking, John went out into the hallway, but Morris beat him there. No one was close so John Switched. "Can I trust you outside with the kits?"
Morris sat up very straight and then nodded.
"Okay, but let me warn you. There's a lion. He's noisy. Okay, they're all a pack of nuts. If it gets too much, remove yourself from the situation. That's an order." John waited until he got another nod and then Switched. They went up and out together, and sure enough, there was a legion of kits waiting on him. John took off running, knowing that he'd be dragged down and mauled, and strangely enough, he was okay with that.
John led them on a wild chase, making sure none of the little ones were trampled, and it was Tomcat and Ronald who finally teamed up to bring him down. Of course, John wasn't really trying, or so he'd tell Rodney later.
The day passed in a blur, and no one was more shocked than John when a Marine escort came up the path, and a woman yelled, "Samuel?"
Every kit, whether in fur or skin, skidded to a stop, and John began to wish he had some clothes nearby. But in the end, it didn't matter. A small lion ran for her, Switched on the way, and jumped in her arms. The reunion would've brought tears to the hardest of hearts. So John didn't Switch.
Samuel went home, and perhaps the older Felines were more stunned than the younger. Johnson came up and sat right down next to John, and John knew the cheetah was thinking of his own parents. One more thing to fix, and John gave him a head-butt.
Before the sun went down, three more kits went home, leaving the rest somewhere between elated and despondent. John put them to bed early with the help of Johnson and the other adults, even Ronald pitched in. When it was mostly quiet, John went in search of Morris, finding him in a tree not far from the small fire.
Staring up at him, John Switched to his skin. "Morris, get down here."
Quick enough, the snow leopard did just that, coming over to sit in front of him. John went to one knee and look him in the eyes. "Switch."
Morris shuddered all over, lashing his tail back and forth, hissing, and then, a man unfolded from the fur and faced John.
"Oh, god." Morris went to his knees, and John sat down next to him. "I did it. I can do it. Oh, god."
"You did good." John shoulder-bumped him. "You need to eat more. You're too skinny. Switching takes a lot of energy. Part of the reason you went into Switch shock was because you didn't have enough energy to begin with."
"Yes, sir." Morris put his head in his hands and rubbed. "You make it look so easy."
"Practice." John avoided direct eye contact now they were both in skin and naked. "How old are you?"
John shot him a look.
"Sixteen." Morris blushed. "The Center wanted to get rid of me. They figured I'd get killed in the Army soon enough."
"Dead in a car accident. I Switched when it happened." Morris sounded tired and alone. "The cops used a taser on me."
"Bastards." John stared into the fire, pushing away his own memories. "Can I give you some advice?"
"I trust you."
"Let O'Neill get you out of the Army. You're too young, and you're miserable."
"Where will I go?" Morris asked in a small voice. "I'd rather not be homeless."
"You can stay here in the Mountain." John was sure O'Neill wouldn't toss any Felines out in the cold.
"How many times have I asked you to wear your fur, Major?"
John slumped in defeat, adrenaline pushing through him. He'd let O'Neill sneak up on him again. He was a disgrace. "Sorry, sir. Left my clothes in the infirmary."
Miranda marched over and plopped her butt down in Morris' lap. "We're cousins!"
"What?" Morris and John asked at the same time.
"I was gonna tell him!" O'Neill perched on a log. "It's true. Miranda insisted that you smelled like family, so she forced Dr. Beckett to check. Miranda's mom was your aunt, Morris. It's genetic, the Feline thing."
"Wow," John said. He wasn't worried about Morris' future any longer. Miranda would take care of him. "He Switched by himself. He needs to eat."
"I hope you weren't attached to the Army because I got you an honorable discharge today." O'Neill sounded pleased with himself.
"I said you had to stay with me." Miranda Switched and cuddled into Morris' lap. Morris looked like someone had struck him between the eyes. It was a lot to accept in one shot, but his arms slowly came around to wrap Miranda into a hug.
Easing to his feet, John stretched just to mess with O'Neill. "I need to find Rodney, make sure he's okay, and I owe him lab time."
"Go ahead. Miranda informed me that I'd be sleeping with the kits tonight so they aren't scared."
John laughed. "I'll send Daniel up too." He had one more question. "How many won't be going home?"
"The five oldest." O'Neill shrugged. "They'd been at the Center so long that there was no one to go home to. They know. I had counselors up here today while you were chasing snow leopards in the infirmary and making Dr. Beckett into your sworn enemy."
"I should never doubt you." John wouldn't do it again. He Switched in a flash and bolted away, towards the Mountain and Rodney.
Getting through security took some time, and John hurried. He hadn't visited Rodney in his lab yet, but it was easy enough to find him. Following his nose and then the sound of Rodney's irritated voice, John zeroed in on him.
"No, I will not tell O'Neill that the mission is ready!"
Confused by the real anger in Rodney's voice, John started to run, startling at least two security guards, who began to pound along behind him.
"Because we're not! Logic says that if the outpost in Antarctica needs a ZPM to run it, that Atlantis will need at least one! That combined with a lack of strong ATA gene bearers, and we're already in trouble, and we haven't left this base!"
John slid around a corner, nearly losing his footing, paws skidding.
"Carson can barely turn on a flashlight!"
The door was open, and John went through it like a freight train, not stopping until he was between Rodney and whoever was upsetting him.
"He's out of control!"
The shot was loud, and only then did John turn to look at his attacker. Rodney yelled something that John couldn't hear, and the face sneering at him was familiar.
The light swam in front of John's eyes, sound bounced in and out, and he tilted his head. Staggering, he stayed between Rodney and the gun. He lowered his head, chuffing up blood.
"He attacked me!"
The floor was cold, but John kept a paw on Rodney, who was yelling about something at the top of his lungs.
"Don't Switch! Don't!"
John got it then. He was dying. The smell of blood was thick in the air, and he made the choice to die in his fur. It was better that way. He remembered the first time he'd almost died. The maid had a son, but she rarely brought him to work. Too afraid of getting fired for it, but that day, she'd brought him, and he was so little, barely walking.
The boy had walked right out into the big, circular driveway while she was cleaning the bathroom. John had seen their car bearing down on the boy, and he'd made his choice. The driver of his father's limo must've been distracted. He never even slowed down.
The boy had been saved by the skin of John's teeth. John had lost everything. At the time, and still today, it seemed like a fair trade. John saw Rodney's face for a second. Rodney was trying to tell him something, but John needed some rest. No one appreciated how hard it was to be a cougar part time. He shut his eyes and drifted away.
Pain ripped up John's spine, lodged in his chest, and no amount of breathing could make it less. He tried to ask for help. He needed it to stop. Please. Stop. Pain.
Each harsh second stretched, and John couldn't believe they couldn't hear him asking for help. It needed to stop.
"If he changes, he'll die."
"Rodney told him not to, so he won't."
John remembered that, and he tried to roar. Oh, to have been born a lion. Dark started circling him again, and he reached for it to get away from the pain.
He fell from the tree. The ground rushing up fast, and he was scared, knowing this would end badly. Something inside shouted for a chance to help him, and he pushed it down, away, landing hard and hearing his bones snap. He screamed and screamed. No one came.
"I don't think he can hear you."
"He never listens anyway, but he knows I'm here."
He watched from the window as the limo struck the small boy, sending him flying into the grass like a broken toy. Turning, he went back to his room. He wouldn't take the chance. He knew what happened to Felines. When he was old enough, he was running away. No one would care.
"What book are you reading?"
"I found it in the lab. It's thick. That's all that matters."
He turned his helicopter around, following orders. His friend was probably dead anyway. No reason to risk his career for nothing. Flying was all he had, and he wasn't going to take a chance on losing it.
"Tomcat, you have to go with your parents. I'll watch over him. I promise."
"He'll wake up. I know he will."
He fell again, the rotten branch giving way under his weight, and he saw the ground coming up fast. Something inside him clamored for a chance, and he grabbed for it, twisting out of his skin into fur and landing on four paws. It was the right thing to do.
"Miranda, how many times do I have to tell you not to shed on my patient?"
Miranda licked John's face. John wrapped his paws around her and Switched. He needed some skin time.
"Holy crap! Major!"
Every part of John's body ached, down to his toenails, and he took a ragged breath. "Hungry." He was. He could've eaten a horse. Or two.
"Inconsiderate furball! Waking up when I was griping at Carson!"
"Not dead." John could almost believe it. His eyes were sticky. Miranda dashed away, yelling for Daniel and everyone else, and Rodney turned John's face so they could stare at each other. John licked his dry lips. "Hi."
"Hey." Rodney wiped his eyes with a swipe of his hand. "Thanks for coming back."
"I took a chance." John didn't have strength to move beyond a twitch or two. "How long?"
"Four days. Long enough to scare the shit out of me." Rodney kissed John's forehead. "Is he well enough for me to yell at him? Loudly? Please?"
"No," Beckett said, working around John's body, pushing Rodney aside twice. "Do not change again, Major. It puts far too much stress on your body, and you can't take much more." He held a straw for John to sip, and it tasted like heaven. John managed to wiggle his toes, hoping all his parts worked. He felt like he'd been run over by a car. The thought flashed him back, the infirmary blinking out for a moment.
"I had to save him," John whispered, still believing that, wincing away from the idea that there might be a universe where he hadn't saved the boy.
"I wasn't in any danger," Rodney said, not understanding at all. "Sumner was just in for his weekly bullying session. I can see where you might've panicked though. He was right in my face. Still, it was no reason to get shot."
John shut his eyes, not able to keep them open any longer. Rodney took hold of John's hand, and John let it all go. The choices he'd made were his own, and he wouldn't waste one more minute of his life regretting or wishing for something else.
"Take it slow, John."
John hissed, swiping at Rodney's feet. It was his first Switch in over a week, and it'd hurt, but he was in his fur and that felt like a victory. He sat down, took several deep breaths, and then started following Rodney again. It was John's morning walk, and he was getting faster, but he felt older than the hills.
Rodney reached back to tug John's ear. "Tomorrow, I'm getting Morris to chase you."
Growling, John bumped Rodney's knee hard enough to send him to the wall.
"That was mean." Rodney started walking slower. "Does it hurt more on paws?"
It did, and that made no sense, but John had to sit again and pant through his mouth. He was still sitting there, trying to decide if he could take another step, when Miranda ran around the corner, slid to a stop, tail high in the air. She yowled at him, and he weakly waved a paw, unable to care if she ate him or not.
"Easy, Miranda. He's hurting." Rodney bopped her on the nose with his finger. "Go terrorize that lazy snow leopard you call your brother."
She bounded straight up in the air, came down facing the other direction, and raced away. John felt very old. Rodney snorted, and John made his paws take him as far as Rodney's room. He chirped, refusing to go further.
"We'll take a break." Rodney got the door. John pointed at the bed, and Rodney shrugged, going to the headboard and leaning back. He spread his legs, and John crawled gratefully up between them, dropping down on him. John got comfortable, rubbing his head into Rodney's belly.
"Yes, yes, I'll rub your ears. You sleep." Rodney huffed. "I do all the work around here. Bring you food, read you books, tuck you in at night, and call Tomcat with updates."
John managed a garbled chirp, blissed out from the rubbing.
"Seriously though, has O'Neill told you anything? Sumner is at Area 51, but that doesn't mean he's in trouble. I think Daniel was afraid Miranda would attack him, chew his calves to bits. In all seriousness, Ronald was out for blood. I think that's why they went ahead and sent him to boot camp. You'll be happy to know that some relative, who showed up out of nowhere, convinced him to go Air Force.
"Morris is gaining weight. O'Neill put all the Felines in quarters on this level. Did I tell you a van load arrived yesterday? They're up at the camp. Johnson is in charge there now.
"Oh, and I saw Dr. Weir this morning after I brought you breakfast. The oatmeal was good with raisins, don't you think? I like the hint of --.
Sleeping on Rodney was John's favorite thing.
"I'm not going to sugar coat it, Sheppard. It's a mess." O'Neill waved John at a chair and pointed.
John came off parade rest and sat down, careful not to bump anything painful. He'd refused to think about this meeting for the last week, but it was here now, and it was going to be messy. "I'll put in my papers, if it'll make it easier on you, sir." He would, but he wouldn't like it. He'd chosen the Air Force, even if they'd bought him.
"I'm not sure that's the answer." O'Neill shook his head, sighing. "The Air Force is backing you up. You perceived a threat to Dr. McKay and moved to shield him. You didn't attack Colonel Sumner at any point before he shot you. The video is plain as day."
That was all true. John wished he'd taken a piece out of Sumner's back end now, but that didn't count.
"The Marine Corp feels differently. They maintain Colonel Sumner reacted to the threat of your attack and had every right to defend himself." O'Neill looked away and then back. "Which is bullshit. If you'd been a human, shoving between them, Sumner wouldn't have shot you."
"I do look very fierce." John tried to put some humor in his voice. The truth was that Sumner had been looking for an excuse to shoot a Feline. John had given him one. "You've seen my teeth."
"Be that as it may. Sumner shot you in the back." O'Neill sighed again, briefly rubbing his face. "He's not welcome in the Mountain any longer. The IOA changed their mind on his ability to lead a military mission to another galaxy and deal with potential aliens, since he can't seem to cope with Felines here on Earth."
"He does seem to have issues." John let out a long breath. "Rodney will be relieved."
"He should've told me that Sumner was bullying him, but that's another conversation." O'Neill didn't even comment as Miranda strolled in the door, rubbed her chin along John's calf, and then hopped up on O'Neill's desk. She sprawled on some papers, flicking her tail up and down in O'Neill's face. "Hello, Miranda.
"The Atlantis mission is on hold for now, but Sheppard, think about it."
"I will, sir. I'd have never let Rodney go alone, even if Sumner was in command," John said with conviction. He took this chance to get his two cents in. "The Ancient technology is dangerous. The potential for casualties is high."
"And that's why we're going to send as many ATA gene-holders as possible." O'Neill stroked his hand down Miranda's furry back. "I'm very sure Dr. Weir will be meeting with you. Please don't eat her."
John laughed softly. "Why do people always say that? I've never eaten anyone!"
"That we know of." O'Neill grinned and started teasing Miranda with a pencil. "You have another week of medical leave, and once Dr. Beckett certifies you for duty, I'm going to need a pilot for a few things."
Miranda bit the pencil in half.
"My 'copter is here?" John jumped to his feet with a wince.
"Yes." O'Neill rolled his eyes. "You better start figuring out how you're going to get that thing through the gate when you go to Atlantis."
"I'll have Rodney do it." John would help. He had one more question. "So I'm not being court-martialed and forcibly ejected from the planet?"
"No, but you may be disciplined, busted back to captain. I can't promise you won't." O'Neill tugged Miranda's tail. "Go away. Miranda and I have to talk."
"Yes, sir." John wondered when command had been ceded to a small leopard, but he wasn't going to ask. He walked to Rodney's quarters and rang the chime even though technically they lived together. Rodney yanked it open and pulled him inside. John made sure not to flinch from sore body parts, stealing a kiss and letting Rodney hold him.
"Do we need to flee to Canada? I have the transporters preset. Just say the word."
"Not yet." John leaned against him and breathed in the smell. It calmed John, and it was time to ask a few questions. "You were there. Did you think I was attacking him?"
Rodney grimaced. "I didn't even see you until you pushed into me. Then there was a huge bang, and blood, and, well, you know." He raised his face and kissed John. "Your claws weren't out. I remember that. Sumner's an idiot. Wouldn't you have slashed and bit the back of his neck instead of shielding me?"
"You say the nicest things," John said, giving him a kiss that left them both panting. He felt like he was spinning from all the things they needed to talk about and a deep desire to get naked, but there was one thing more important than most of it. "Can you figure out a way to get my 'copter through the gate?"
Drawing back, Rodney narrowed his eyes and bit his lower lip. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"It's not a deal breaker, but it'd be nice to take her with us when we go." John swiveled out of Rodney's arms, sitting on the edge of the bed and untying his boots. They had a lot to accomplish before Atlantis, including a trip through the gate to see if it blew John out of his skin. John also wanted to make sure Tomcat was okay with his family. He purred a little when Rodney stepped close and helped him with his shirt. "I'm still sore," he whispered.
"I know, you idiot." Rodney kissed him on the top of his bare shoulder.
John wanted to get fierce, push Rodney down, and claim him, but there was a stronger urge to go slow, let Rodney lead the way. "I would've killed him for you. I just didn't get the chance."
"I know that, too," Rodney said, cupping John's face and kissing him. "I ruined his credit rating for you."
Laughing, John toed off his boots. "I was hoping you'd dump his savings account into the local humane society, but I'll take what I can get."
"I never hack people's accounts." Rodney really was a terrible liar. He knelt down in front of John and kissed him on the chest. "The scars are fading."
"I heal fast. Always have." John hadn't listened to Beckett explain why. He wrapped his arms around Rodney and leaned into him. "You feel good."
"So do you." Rodney twitched when John pulled the T-shirt off him. "I'll lock the door."
"Good idea." John missed having his brain do the work. He shucked out of the rest of his clothes while Rodney was doing that. Rodney came back fast and tackled John onto the bed with clumsy grace. John laughed, wiggled, groaned, and said a lot of rude things. Rodney seemed satisfied with that.
"I owe you about thirty more tackles and then we're even." Rodney kissed him roughly. "I didn't hurt you?"
"No." John grinned up at him. "You really like me."
"Moron." Rodney rubbed his chin along John's. John groaned, cock jerking at being claimed. It was made even better by the possessive gleam in Rodney's eyes.
John made himself a little more comfortable under Rodney. "But that leads to this question. Can I bite you?"
Rodney's eyes widened and he pulled all the way back, sitting next to John's hip. "Hard?" He rushed on, "You know how I hate pain. And blood. And stitches, and even a mild rash is a real annoyance when I'm trying to work twenty hours a day."
John laced his hands behind his head. "I had no idea." He might've purred when Rodney started stroking his hand down John's chest. Rodney kept on talking, but he sputtered to a halt when John turned his hips enough to hump his cock against Rodney's still-clothed leg. "You could bite me."
"I could?" Rodney suddenly got to his feet and ended up naked after a mad scramble. He nearly fell right on John, but John caught him and brought him down without getting kneed in the groin. They kissed, wet and messy, and then Rodney latched his lips onto John's neck, sucking and worrying at the skin.
Tingles roared up into John's head, and he felt light-headed as Rodney bit him just that much harder. It felt so good, and John couldn't help but Switch.
Sputtering out fur, Rodney jerked back. "You--"
Licking him right on the mouth shut up the insult, and John Switched back so he could laugh. "Sorry! Sorry!"
"You are not!" Rodney wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "And gross!"
Still laughing, John gave him a Human kiss. "It's hard to resist when you're biting me! Bite me some more."
Rodney bit him on the collarbone. "No more Switching. You're still healing, and you know it dehydrates you after a couple."
John knew that, but he liked being in his fur when Rodney was naked. They pressed together in all the right places, and skin felt good too. Pleasure wound through him, building, and he put himself in Rodney's capable hands, letting him loose to do whatever.
And whatever seemed to include a lot of licking and sucking, two things that John liked a lot. He wanted to wallow in this because he'd assumed he'd never have it. Rodney brought their cocks together in his fist, pumping his hips, and John wrapped his hands around Rodney's ass, encouraging him.
Face intent, eyes fluttering, Rodney groaned and grunted above John. It was the best thing ever, even better than steak bones.
"Someday, I'm gonna make you come in your fur," Rodney said, not slowing down.
The mere idea sent John crashing into his orgasm, bucking and grinding, nearly tossing Rodney on the floor. "You have a filthy mouth!"
"What?" Rodney pushed his still-hard cock through the mess on John's stomach. "Shut up a minute. I need to finish."
John wanted to be involved with that, making Rodney squawk in protest but then gasp when John sucked him deep. Rodney grabbed John's hair, pulled, and came. John swallowed and then licked until Rodney whimpered for him to stop.
"You taste good," John said, crawling up to sprawl next to him. Sticky and sweaty, John relaxed, enjoying the lassitude, no pain, and Rodney against him. "But you still have a filthy mouth."
Rodney shifted, fumbling until he could turn John's head by his chin. "John, you're not a cat. Trust me, I've had cats. In addition, I know your fur-self wants to come on me."
Mouth hanging slightly open, John swallowed hard. "I do?" he choked out.
"You do." Rodney looked smug, shutting his eyes again. "Now Switch before you wipe that mess on me."
"Sticky fur is gross." John grumbled, but he Switched because Rodney had told him to do it. As usual, Rodney tucked around the back of him. Yawning, John let his paws dangle in the air. It was something to think about, fur sex, but later, much later. He fell asleep between one of Rodney's snores and the next.
The smell woke him up. He froze and then opened his mouth to take the scent deep. Astonishment rolled him out of bed to land on four paws, and then he stared up at Rodney.
"Go ahead. You're off-duty, right?"
John shuffled his paws, a little nervous at the idea. Despite his big talk, he'd only indulged once before, and it'd been nowhere near the amount that Rodney had sprinkled on the floor.
"I made sure the floor was clean, if you're worried about that, because that would worry me. Of course, I've seen you gnaw bones that had been far too close to the toilet, so I'm fairly sure you're not picky."
Eyes already wide, John crouched and sniffed. It shot up his nose, right to his brain, and he would've sworn he could see the color of the air.
"I was going to wait until we were up at Camp Furball, but I didn't want you to run off into the woods, never to be seen again." Rodney went to his comfy chair and sat down. "I can leave, if you want, or whatever."
That made John break free of his paralysis brought on by deep indecision. He strolled over and marked Rodney's knee, purring. It smelled so good. His whiskers twitched, and he dragged his tail through some of it, stirring it up into the air. He had the irrational desire to share it with Rodney, but that wasn't possible.
Flopping over, John began to roll, digging his shoulders into the nip. He might've yowled.
"I should've hit Daniel up for some pot, then we could've gotten baked together. Of course, one of us should stay somewhat reasonable." Rodney eased down to sit by John, scooping up some catnip and tossing it on John's stomach. "If you are going to go crazy, I expect some sort of warning so I can flee."
John scooted to him, put his head in Rodney's lap, and got higher than the Empire State Building. He'd feel guilty in the morning. Maybe.
Rodney burst inside their quarters, ripping a golf magazine from John's hands. "You will never guess what they found!"
"Something good?" John blinked up at him, uncoiling from the chair and hoping for a kiss or two.
"Something better than nip! We found a ZPM!"
"Nothing's better than nip." John widened his eyes, laughing when Rodney smacked him on the back of the head. "A ZPM is good though." He smiled, tugging Rodney close. "Not as good as knowing my 'copter is ready to go, but good."
"You realize we may be too busy to assemble it right away, don't you?" Rodney kissed John hard on the lips.
John narrowed his eyes and growled softly. Rodney did a funny dance, chanting about zero point modules, and John gave up on trying to look mean. It never had any effect. Instead, he grabbed Rodney, pulled down the grey T-shirt, and nibbled on his collar bone.
"Ow!" Rodney pushed at John's head without any strength at all. "When you're done chewing me like an old bone, let's get food. I heard there's cake in the cafeteria."
"You taste better than cake." But John turned him loose. Rodney might get vicious if he were denied cake. They walked together, only pausing in the hallway to let Daniel catch up. Daniel and Rodney gave each other a high five, and John laughed at their antics. "So the mission is a go?"
"Stupid question!" Rodney crowed.
"Jack tells me we're four weeks out as of today. I heard Dr. Weir is somewhere quietly drinking an entire bottle of champagne." Daniel grinned, stuffing his hands in his pockets and trailing them to the cafeteria. "And there's cake."
"We deserve cake. I can't wait to see it!" Rodney bounced along. "This changes everything. We might live!"
Daniel nodded. "And who knows what technology you'll find. I'm pretty sure Jack will let me go now."
Rodney and John stopped walking at the same time and turned. John raised an eyebrow. Rodney rolled his eyes. "Right. Jack will let you go. Have you been licking the fungus from old pots again?"
It was impossible not to laugh. John clapped Daniel on the shoulder. "No chance in hell of that happening, but nice try."
Slumping, Daniel sighed. "But, it's Atlantis."
"I'll send video."
"I'll take a picture or two."
The cafeteria was full of celebrating scientists, and John lost Rodney to the crowd fairly quickly. The cake was delicious, but he had to protect his piece from Miranda, who was trying to score another while Daniel wasn't looking. John scooped her up to tickle her, refusing to consider how much he'd miss her.
John kissed Miranda on the head and put her down, looking up. "Yes, sir," he said after a pause to ascertain that he was outranked. "Can I help you?"
The colonel frowned, and John knew he'd screwed something up already. He eased to his feet and gave him a small salute. "Sir?"
"Colonel Caldwell. I've been placed in command of the Atlantis mission." He was tall, dressed sharp and polished, mostly bald, and had a look in his eye that John had seen a hundred times before – there would be no ignoring the regulations on this colonel's watch.
Rodney danced by, blowing a kiss to John, and Caldwell actually flinched. John curled his shoulders, knowing that this wasn't going to end well.
"Yes, sir," John said. Those words seemed safest. "And congratulations."
"It's an honor." Caldwell was still planted near the table like a tree, ignoring the celebration going on around him.
Miranda made her move, making off with John's cake in a flash. John would fuss at her later, but right now he was searching his memory, coming up blank. He'd never heard of a Colonel Caldwell, and that could be a point in his favor.
"As you'll be my XO, I'd hoped to get acquainted as soon as possible," Caldwell said.
Blinking rapidly, John made sure his jaw wasn't sagging. "I haven't officially received my assignment to the Atlantis mission. A bunch of us Felines know we're going, but not in what capacity."
Caldwell nodded. "I have your orders. My office?"
"Yes, sir." John followed him up several levels to an office not far from O'Neill's. The thought of being anyone's second in command wasn't sinking in, but John wasn't going to ask a lot of questions. He took a seat across the small desk, noting the orderly files and pencils. "If I may, where was your previous posting?"
"Here and there." Caldwell opened his laptop, avoiding the question without a trace of guilt.
Taking the opportunity, John took a good whiff. He narrowed his eyes. "You have Feline scent on your clothes." He sorted through his memory. "Ronald?"
"Is my nephew." Caldwell glared right back at John. "His father was killed in Iraq. His mother died years ago. I'm all he has left."
Surprised, not sure whether to be pleased or insulted at Caldwell's belligerent tone, John lowered his eyes. "My apologies. I'm protective of all the kits."
"I know." Caldwell leaned back in his chair. "Do you always sniff people?"
"Yes." John wasn't apologizing on that point. "Saved my skin a few times." He put his hands on his knees and tried to relax a little. Caldwell obviously didn't hate Felines, so that was something. If John could control his sarcasm, they might learn to get along.
"Have you ever seen a regulation you didn't want to break?" Caldwell raised his eyebrows.
"No, sir." John controlled his sigh. He was screwed.
"Oh, good. You two have met."
John flexed his hands into his thighs, wishing O'Neill would wear squeaky shoes. "One of these days, sir."
O'Neill laughed, cocking his hip against Caldwell's desk. "I assume you two have introduced yourselves. Colonel, Sheppard here is a good man to have at your back. Don't screw it up by being too rigid. Sheppard, Caldwell here is by the book, Air Force all the way. He likes regulations, and you could use some structure in your career. Don't screw it up by being a wise-ass."
"Yes, sir," John and Caldwell said simultaneously.
"See? You'll learn to get along." O'Neill grinned. "It'll be great. Oh, and Colonel? Don't try to get between Sheppard and McKay. Sheppard is the only thing that keeps McKay from being a complete asshole, and McKay keeps Sheppard from eating Humans."
Caldwell sighed. "So that regulation he can break."
"Exactly." O'Neill never lost his grin. "And the hair. The hair can't be fixed."
"You are sucking all the fun out of this posting," Caldwell drawled.
Uncurling his hands from his legs, John told himself not to growl. He had a feeling that these two were old friends, and Caldwell wasn't quite the hard-ass that he liked to portray. John forced his spine to sprawl. "I have a lot of other faults he can try to fix."
"Oh, we know." O'Neill strolled out of Caldwell's office laughing. "Have fun, boys."
"Have you ever been in a position of command?" Caldwell asked.
"No, sir." John didn't think his little troupe of kits counted. "I'm sure I'll screw it up."
"Me too." Caldwell rummaged through the folders, handing John one. "These are your orders. When you're done reading those, start on the rest of the files. You're a real major now, and it's time you learned something besides how to fly a helicopter."
"And if I'd rather not?" John asked, needing to know the answer, not just being a jerk.
"You can resign your commission and go to Atlantis as McKay's pet kitty cat." Caldwell met John's eyes with no fear, no hesitation, and no pity. "I heard he made a carry cage in your size, just in case you were his one personal item."
The harsh words said in such a matter-of-fact manner made the decision easy. "Those were good insults, but I live with McKay. Try harder."
"I'll work on it."
They both dropped their gaze, and John opened his file. He swung his legs up on the corner of the desk and started reading. He didn't imagine Caldwell's long-suffering sigh. John hid his smile. It was barely possible that they'd get along well enough.
The wormhole burst into life, and John smelled a world of possibility. He glanced at Rodney, making sure, and then to each of the Felines behind him. They all gave him a small nod. Ready or not, they were on their way to Atlantis.
Rodney leaned close and whispered in John's ear, "I brought some nip."
"Oh, shut up," John said, not needing nip to follow Rodney everywhere. Rodney gave him a lop-sided grin.
Weir made a small speech about backing out, but no one would dare. Caldwell graciously gave her point, after the MALP, of course, and John went up the ramp without hesitating. He was itching to see what Atlantis would hold.
"John? You're sure?" Rodney barred the way, right at the cusp of the wormhole. "It's a big step."
"Rodney, you know the saying about curiosity and cats." John pushed Rodney through, hurrying after him, and then, in a blink, John was home.