John marks each milestone by absence: chitin flaking off like a snow of dead fingernails after a whole-body hammer blow; blue pigment sinking invisibly beneath his skin like a worn-out dye; fear leeching out of people's eyes when they look at him, as though he's no longer more alien than human.
"You're looking good, John," Elizabeth says, and her eyes are warm, concerned, but he can smell the way she wants to touch her neck, right where the faded bruises no longer match the shape of his hand.
"Still feeling kinda blue," he says, deadpan.
When she laughs, the scent changes to one of relief, and John smiles back at her, ignoring the instinct to open his mouth so he can smell her better.
He tries not to think about that: the odd impulses, the things that don't show on the surface. The way everything smells just wrong enough to notice. The not-purple color (octarine, he thinks, wishing he could share it with Rodney, but knowing he can't, can't) that echoes and twists around anything alive. The way his legs ache with wanting to jump, run, take him to high places where he can feel the wind. The way he wants to eat Jell-o all the time, like a cramping emptiness that won't fill with anything else; he has to force himself to let Rodney steal it from his tray, force himself to be normal.
He's grown out of the habit of that kind of effort in Atlantis; it's an unexpected burden to keep his weirdness from showing. But he's learned trust here too, and he figures Beckett's magic pill will make all the side-effects fade away, so that he's just standard-issue John Sheppard again, all the way through.
"Hurry up," Ronon grumbles when he visits, slapping John on the arm, unafraid to touch. "Your Marines are afraid to run with me. It's no fun on my own."
"I'm not going to be fast like I was before, you know."
"Doesn't matter. Don't run with you for the speed, anyway." Ronon shows his teeth. "Do it to make myself look good."
John is oddly relieved by this insult. "Are you implying I'm old, or ornamental?"
Ronon shrugs. "Both."
It's maybe the best insult John's even received, allaying a niggling worry he hadn't even admitted to himself; not that he's vain about how he looks or anything. Still, it can't be allowed to go unpunished: John swats Ronon with his pillow.
It's totally not John's fault things escalate from there.
Ronon finally admits defeat after six pillows, a couple of sponges, and a packet of cotton balls. He stands at the foot of John's bed, still clutching an unrolled length of bandage, looking as contrite as a six-and-a-half foot, muscled behemoth can, and lets both Carson and nurse Lee (who is small but very, very scary) verbally rip strips off him. He obediently follows Lee's pointy finger of doom when she kicks him out; he's slouch-shouldered like a kicked dog, and he's leaving behind a trail of feathers as he walks, like some very large flightless bird, mid-moult. At the door, he half-turns and flashes John a grin, before quickly loping off to safety.
When Rodney comes to visit, they play chess. It's the quiet of late evening, after most of the city has gone to bed.
"You're better," Rodney notes, when John takes a bishop.
"Pretty much," John agrees, turning the piece end over end, feeling it slowly take on the warmth of his skin. They've been playing all week, and it's the first time John's been able to concentrate properly on strategy.
"Good," Rodney says, "That's good," and John feels another piece of worry peel off and fall away.
Rodney wins that game, but only just. As he stands to leave, he hesitates beside John's bed, chess board tucked beneath one arm, staring at something just past John's left ear. "Um," he says, hand stuttering up until its hovering over the bedspread.
"What?" John says, just as Rodney leans forward and his fingers glance over the outer shell of John's ear. John breathes in sharply at the unexpected touch; it's the first time Rodney has voluntarily touched him in forever. Forty-five days.
Rodney jerks back, looking flushed and uncertain; he's holding a fluff of down between his index finger and thumb. "It was..." He motions at his own ear. "It's been driving me crazy all night."
"Oh," John says. "Right." They look at each other awkwardly for a moment. "Thanks," John adds.
"I'd better..." Rodney takes a step back, nearly colliding with the meal table. He does a quick two-step, managing to avoid tragedy, then throws a hasty, "Bye, then," over his should and flees out into the night-lit corridor.
John sleeps well that night. He dreams of feathers, of flight.
Later in the week, John finds himself alone with Carson in one of the private rooms: eye chart on one wall, a treadmill, a padded mat. It's a room that leads out directly to one of the hydrotherapy pools, which is usually busy with a steady flow of almost-recovered Marines and scientists, lap-lap-lapping back and forth as they work hard to get back into the field. Right now, it's also silent, empty.
"What's going on?" John says. He thought he was being released tomorrow, but this looks like a setup for bad news.
"Just a few tests." Carson looks at him solemnly, one hand resting gently on John's shoulder, warm through the thin cotton of the scrubs. "We need to find your new baseline."
"Oh," John says, because he hadn't been expecting that, even though Carson's face is glowing blue-violet octarine, and John already knows how to translate that into easy-to-read worry. "Does that mean..." John looks at Carson's notepad, sitting open on the bench, booted up and ready to go. He wonders just how many reports about him already exist in the medical database; wonders what they say and who has read them. "What does that mean?"
"It's not unusual for a person's baseline to change after trauma, John. I know you're probably a wee bit worried, but there's no need to make a big song and dance about it." Carson turns and slips on a pair of gloves. "It'll be over and done before you know it, and then we can put it behind us and get on with the important things."
"Carson?" John wants to be reassured, but this is too important.
Carson looks up, looks him dead in the eye. "Elizabeth and I already discussed it. This is clearly a matter of doctor/patient privilege. No one else needs access. But we have to have a baseline, John. An accurate one."
John takes one more look around the deserted room, the empty pool. He nods slowly. "Okay," he says, and his voice comes out a little shaky. He's thinking of the IOC and his command, of being labeled a freak, he can't help it; but he's thinking of Atlantis, of old-Elizabeth and nanites and infectious diseases too. "What do you need me to do?"
"Let's start with the eye test," Carson says, waving John over to a chair and picking up his ophthalmoscope.
It takes hours, and John is more than a little freaked out at some of the things he can do, but Carson doesn't seem to be and that's surprisingly reassuring.
He's released right on schedule the next day, and after that Carson never mentions it again. Elizabeth does once, obliquely, just to let him know he's safe, that she's got his back covered.
And then Carson and Elizabeth are dead and gone, all the records and machines destroyed in one accident or another, and with all the changes, all the stress, it's not until months afterwards -- late one night on P0D - 891, lying sleepless in a damp cave next to a snoring Rodney, John silently panting because the night air smells like formic acid and it's so good and his legs ache with wanting to hunt -- that it even occurs to him that there might not be anyone else who knows.
She's beautiful: tall, willowy, bright eyed, with tumbling auburn curls.
"Here we go," Rodney mutters and pokes at his scanner with more violence than is really necessary.
The things is, Rodney's right. Narva's face shines purple-red whenever she looks at John, and she smells... it's indescribable. Like baking bread, and flowers, and fresh sweat all mixed together with something bitter; it's deep and heavy and it coats John's tongue.
She puts her hand on John's arm, and where her fingers rest against his bare skin (the sleeves are rolled up; he wishes he hadn't done that, but it's warm here) he can taste her, fragrant with want and too intimate for comfort. John's back muscles spasm with the need to get away, to fly, but he swallows it all down and smiles.
They need this. The Daedalus is late, off fighting the latest end-of-the-galaxy threat, and Atlantis is nearly out of flour.
"Come and see our gallery," she says, quite another invitation hidden in her words. "There are many beautiful things there. A man such as yourself must be a connoisseur of beauty."
Rodney snorts the word, "Etchings!" and turns his back, asking one of the locals to take him to their paltry irrigation system to that he can start working on the miracles already. John nods at Ronon, who follows on Rodney's heels.
The gallery is something of a trial, mainly because John has to tread the line between polite and giving Narva what she wants. Once upon a time -- it feels a long time ago -- he might have given in; might have thought what the hell and had a fling. It's not an option now.
He manages to hold the line at kissing, some fully-clothed fooling around. Narva is a little disappointed, but not too much; she assumes he'll be back on the next mission.
John won't be; he's going to pull rank on Lorne.
Off in the fields, Rodney does work miracles. Between their joint efforts at diplomacy, they get the wheat.
The walk back to the gate turns out to be the hardest part of a hard day. Rodney keeps up a steady commentary, just soft enough that the two men pulling the wagon up ahead can't hear it.
"--and seriously, I know the girl-in-every-port-thing is considered macho by your kind, but its like going offworld with a gigolo. You're giving Atlantis a reputation, and it's not for--"
John is tempted, so, so tempted, to say, "Hey, McKay, guess what? I haven't been able to get it up since I turned into a bug. How 'bout them apples?"
It had taken a while to notice there was a problem, and since then there have been too many desperate nights trying to touch himself and feeling broken inside; too much wishing that Carson was still here and he could talk to somebody who understood; too long remembering that look of fear in everyone's eyes when his skin was blue and he wasn't entirely human. He can't talk about this. Especially with Rodney.
In the end, he tries, "It wasn't like that, Rodney," but Rodney just screws his face up and says,
"Really?" with terrible sarcasm. "Please, do enlighten us, Colonel. What exactly was it like, then? True love? Happy families? Proposals by candlelight?"
Defeated, John stays quiet. There's no way he can win with the truth off the table, and it was stupid to try. It's best just to let Rodney have the last word and get it over with as fast as possible.
After a moment, Rodney's shoulders slump. "Right," he says, sounding miserable in victory. "Exactly. Kirk."
The problem solves itself, but not in a way John wants to live with.
It turns out hive ships look different in octarine -- less ooky, more alive. Everything shimmers in strange purple-golds.
When he's taken into the central room, the Queen makes him kneel before her, which he's pretty much come to expect. They all seem to have a fetish for that. He gets as far as, "You know, you need some new shtick. This was kinda old the first thre--" and then the scent hits him, a one-two punch straight to his lizard brain.
Her hand feels like cold orange rind against his cheek, but the air around her tastes like a brothel, stale nutmeg and salt and terrifyingly sexual. "Sheppard," she breathes, her voice full of subsonic clicks and hums, a whole other conversation: "Mine now. So pretty. Eat you up."
He's never been so hard, so fast.
She slides her hand down his neck, down, down, lingers to fondle his chest, the little mouth in her palm lipping playfully at his skin, down, down, until her fingers are an inverted V on either side of his dick.
He can't keep in the groan or the hitch of his hips, because God, he's about three seconds and one touch from coming, the scent of her the only thing in his world.
When the ship shudders beneath his knees, for a moment he thinks it's him, for a moment he thinks he's come with her hand on him; but she takes her hand away and turns to face the door. There's the sound of approaching P-90 fire.
Her face twists in rage; John is still achingly hard.
With a wrench, the guard pulls John towards the far door by his tied hands, and the pain of it helps, pushes him back from the edge.
As soon as he's away from her smell his erection wilts. The "Thank God" that falls from his lips is the most heartfelt prayer he's ever made in all of his agnostic life.
The relief he feels when Teyla slides out of the shadows to rescue him is anti-climactic by comparison.
The day starts so well, all of them eating breakfast together in the mess. Teyla has recently discovered horoscopes, and insists on reading out the ones published on the Atlantis e-news site.
"Oh, please," Rodney says, in response to his, "'you can dominate your social and professional circle' isn't a horoscope, that's simple observation."
Teyla smiles at him slyly: "Is 'a romantic scenario gets hotter for you' also simple observation, Rodney?"
John thinks that Rodney sputtering in indignation just never gets old.
Teyla continues over the top of Rodney's muttered threats to take back his laptop before it is permanently contaminated by the stupidity. She scrolls carefully down the screen, and then says, "John, you must take great care today."
Playing along, John says, "And why is that, Teyla?" He rather likes this horoscope phase. So far, not a single one of them has come true, and they're nearly always funny. The best one was a few weeks ago, when Ronon's had predicted a dragon-slaying; John had assumed it was meant metaphorically, but was still relieved when the not-coming-true run of luck held good and no giant lizards had appeared during an away mission.
Teyla's eyes twinkle as she reads out: "Your passion may not meet with the same reciprocal level of intensity as you have expected but this requires patience on your part. Over the coming weeks this situation will change so don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. You are emotional as well so do some extra physical exercise this week."
John can feel his good humor slipping away at the thought of reciprocal passion -- waxy touch of her hand, ghost smell of nutmeg -- and he shifts in his chair, not quite hard but too close for comfort.
"Ha!" Rodney says, his previous snit forgotten in favor of this new one. "It would serve you right to be shot down by one of your alien bimbos."
It's like an unexpected right hook to the jaw, even though it's what Rodney always says. But this time John can feel himself losing the battle to keep his anger off his face.
"Why would you throw out a baby?" Ronon asks, not aware of the undercurrent, or maybe just ignoring it. "I like babies."
"You would." Rodney holds his coffee mug in front of him with both hands, like a barricade against even the idea of children.
John can't help one brief, horrible vision of the kind of babies that might come from cross-breeding with a Wraith. "Sorry, big guy, but I don't think there's any danger of babies." Thank God.
"I don't know," Rodney says, that nasty edge back in his voice, and he's shining with the purple-black octarine John hates. "When you think about it, it's amazing it hasn't happened already, given your proclivities. The odds have to be against you by now, statistically speaking."
"Screw you too, McKay," John says, and eats the strip of bacon he'd been saving for Rodney to steal.
"No thank you. I have higher standards than that."
John knows his own breaking point, and he's just hit it. Without another word, he gets up and leaves the mess.
He jogs to the perimeter of the inhabited zone, and then picks up the pace until he's running flat-out. He's made it all the way to the north pier, legs just starting to burn with the effort, when Chuck buzzes him.
By the time he gets back to the gate room, Dr Davis, a jumper and two Marines have successfully defected to planet unknown.
"John," Sam says, her face nothing but grim lines. "We can't find Rodney. Radek says he was scheduled to have a meeting with Davis twenty minutes ago."
The rage that has been driving him for the last hour slithers away, leaving him hollow and gripping the balcony railing so that his knees don't buckle. "I'm going to kill her," he hears himself say.
"It might come to that," Sam agrees, and for the first time, John is fiercely glad to have a soldier, and not a civilian, standing by his side.
After that, time passes like black, sucking glue. Each moment frittering away unclocked, the endless now of adrenaline eating everything else.
The break finally comes from the Genii, of all people, Cowan informing them of a rumor his spies have picked up, about a new player in the weapons market with guns a lot like those of Earth. He says all the right words about the Genii-Atlantis treaty, about alliance, but his expression is knowing, so knowing, and John wonders how much these new weapons have dented the Genii arms trade, and how many of his Marines will die shutting the operation down.
They go in by stealth, gating through to a nearby world and then flying cloaked to the moon that's their target. They find the co-ordinates the Genii have given them easily enough, and set down in a clearing in the middle of dense jungle a few klicks from their target -- an abandoned outpost being slowly swallowed by green. The moment the hatch cracks open, John can taste it, like a beacon calling him on: Rodney is here.
He doesn't lose all sense of caution; he's been careful for too long. But when the LSD shows no signs of habitation in the nearby ruins, and the scouts find nothing, no trace of life, John is left with a simple choice. His Marines are all looking to him expectantly, Ronon fingering his gun impatiently, and Simpson is nodding her head about recalibrating the sensors, but she's saying, "Twelve to fourteen hours, maybe more." And, more softly, "I'm not Rodney."
He gives her as long as he can, but as the hours go by he can tell by her face...
Night falls, and John goes with Plan B, leading two of the three teams towards the ruins. He doesn't bother with the night-vision goggles, they'd just get in his way.
He opens his mouth, breathes in, and the air is scented with a million stories, zigzagging around him in layers of time. This one: the rank echo of a small scavenger passing by just a few minutes ago. This one: the sappy trace of a crushed leaf, broken by something with feathers while the sun was still up. And this, this: faded, days old, but Rodney was here, walking slightly heavy on his left side, as though carrying something. John can feel the pressure of Rodney's limp shiver up into his own feet; he can augur Rodney's path twisting down the side of the hill like a golden road... the rock he rested on to eat a chocolate powerbar, a faint trace of blood still present on the lichen where his right hand rested... the place Rodney slipped and someone touched him, someone he didn't like... a squashed turd, marked with the military tread of Rodney's boot... the squirm of his fear, like a hook in John's gut, pulling him closer and closer.
The ruins are still a dark smudge at the bottom of the valley when they crest a small ridge, but John stops them with a raised fist. The real entrance is straight ahead, concealed in a gnarl of the rock face. Rodney's touch is everywhere, like fluorescent paint, marking the way as clearly as a sign-post. The more recent traces are tainted with Wraith enzyme. Not much. Just enough, John realizes, to make Rodney want more. Just enough to give them a handle on him.
He lets Zwiki and Thomas blow the door, and then they're in, the flash of machine-gun fire bright in the enclosed space. The people they take down are wearing a mishmash of leather armor and homespun. The Genii intel is good; they have Earth-style guns, but they aren't fully trained yet.
John leaves the Marines to mop up and follows Rodney's scent, Ronon and Teyla dogging his heels. They come to his cell quickly, but it's empty, the residue of violence drumming against John's tongue.
He can't run much faster than he could before, so Ronon and Teyla keep up easily until they reach the elevator shaft. They all crowd around the edge, looking down: there are no cables, just the low rumble of an engine, and the faint shadow of movement a long way below.
"Perhaps there is another way down," Teyla says.
John nods. "Try and find one. I might need back up." Then he swings into the shaft, his fingers finding tiny imperfections in the smoothly cut rock and gripping easily.
Ronon's hand snaps around his wrist, a manacle, holding him in place. He's staring at John's hands on the rock, and John can see the moment memory clicks and he remembers John climbing the walls of Atlantis in just the same way. "You've been holding out on us."
John nods. There's nothing else to say.
"Stupid." The iron grip releases. "Don't get yourself killed."
John nods again. "You too." Then he scuttles down the shaft as fast as he can go; his back muscles bunching so tightly with the effort that the seams rip out of his shirt.
Above him, Ronon and Teyla's heads draw back -- having assured themselves he's not going to fall -- but he can't think about them now; Rodney's hook is like fire in his belly and he can't stop.
He quickly narrows the distance between himself and the descending elevator. By the time the brakes kick in and it begins to slow, its roof is a grey square about six feet below him. There's a thin square of grime marking the outline of an emergency hatch.
He's just made the decision to wait, play it safe, stage his attack once he has a safe line of retreat, and then he hears the dull thwack of skin against skin, a choked off cry...
The sharp nutmeg tang of Rodney's enzyme-tainted blood seeps up into the shaft.
John's moving without thought, dropping from the wall to land on the elevator just as it jars to a halt. His left foot lands right on the hatch's control lever with his full weight behind it, and the flap pops straight up with a little hydraulic pfft. He twists and rolls into the opening, gun first, and shoots -- one, two -- the two Marines go down, their brains spattering all over the wall -- three -- a man carrying a laden backpack collapses -- four, five, six, seven -- leg shot, leg shot, shoulder shot and a miss, because Davis is kneeling over Rodney, trying to get a knife to his throat.
John lets gravity take over and rolls into the elevator, twisting mid-air to kick the knife out of Davis's hand. There's a snap of bone and she screams, but tries to scrabble for a gun with her other hand. John lands in a crouch, gun already on target, and shoots again -- eight -- straight to the head, and then there's blood everywhere, all over him and Rodney.
With an asthmatic sigh, the lift's double doors slide open and give an odd-sounding ding.
"Rodney?" John says, his gun still trained on the bodies, but groping behind him for Rodney's reassuring bulk. "Are you okay, buddy?"
"Oh my God," Rodney says, voice cracking, and it's the best sound John's ever heard. "You... you killed them."
"Yeah," he says, thinking he'd do it a dozen times over if he had to. "Come on. We need to get out of here."
He helps Rodney up, and they limp out backwards, John not lowering his gun until the doors slide shut again.
"There should be stairs this way," Rodney says, waving at a T-junction just up ahead.
They lurch forward, John taking at least half of Rodney's weight, Rodney making little hurt sounds with every step. As soon as they're around the corner and out of a direct line of fire, John holsters his gun and pushes Rodney into an alcove.
"Where are you hurt?" he demands, running both hands up and down Rodney's arms, his neck, his torso, dismissing the wet tackiness he finds as not Rodney's, not Rodney's. "Where is it?"
"I'm not--" Rodney says. "Well, nothing major anyway, but they..." He draws in a deep breath, shudders against John, expelling nutmeg-laden air. "They were spiking my food with enzyme and it's been, I don't know, hours--"
The smell of nutmeg is everywhere, rising off Rodney in waves, his skin smooth and slick with sweat beneath John's questing hands.
"--and I need to... God, we need to go back. We need to get the backpack. Then I can... please, John..."
"No," John says, but he's not sure if he's speaking to Rodney or himself. "No," he says, gently cupping Rodney's face with both hands. "We have to go."
"I'll do anything you want, just--" Rodney's fingers are in his hair, and Rodney's saying, "Please, please," lips skidding across John's without warning, tasting of blood and nutmeg -- a lightning bolt straight to the dick -- and then John's shoving Rodney up against the wall, kissing him back, opening up for Rodney's tongue as though he's dying for it.
"Yes," Rodney pants, between kisses, "yes, distract me. Don't let me think." He pushes his hand into John's pants, and touchdown is like a dash of fire on John's cock; like Rodney has just torn away some invisible barrier, and suddenly John can feel.
"Fuck!" John's hips jerk forward into Rodney's palm, but it's not enough. He attacks Rodney's BDU's, ripping the button off in his haste to get inside and feel skin; warm, giving, human skin.
They're both panting now, stroking each other, kissing frantically, and then Rodney's teeth glance against the Iratus scar on John's neck, and just like that, his whole body seizes up and whites out.
He comes back to awareness to find Rodney frantically jerking himself off -- Rodney's hand clamped down hard over John's, which is lax on Rodney's cock.
"Sorry," John murmurs, and tightens his fist, sliding his other hand beneath Rodney's shirt until he finds his nipple and twists it hard.
Rodney moans, deep and broken-sounding as he comes. John holds him tightly in the cage of his arms as he shakes apart.
They're still pressed together, breathing hard, when John hears the distant shuffle of approaching feet. He reluctantly pulls away, wipes his hand off against the wall and buttons himself up. "Incoming," he whispers, and Rodney nods in acknowledgement, shifting to pull his own clothes together.
John eases down the hall, all his senses alert. He breathes in, testing the air, the vibrations beneath his feet: Ronon, Teyla. He taps his radio: "Good timing. Rodney and I are straight ahead of you."
Rodney steps out of the alcove looking wrecked, eyes shiny with enzyme. "Let's go home," he says.
And for a moment -- Rodney's mouth turning up in a tired, one-sided smile -- the only thing John can smell is nutmeg and salt.
It doesn't happen the way John imagines.
There's no rampaging McKay-esque tantrum, full of insults, accusations and demands for explanations. There's no career-ending freak out in the infirmary. Nor is there awkward avoidance, until Rodney finally breaks and gives John the Just Friends speech without meeting his gaze.
It goes like this:
John is lying on his bed, reading a comic.
The door slides open -- no buzzer, no warning -- and Rodney walks in. He looks tired, but his eyes are finally clear and the enzyme tremor has left his hands. He's wearing his own clothes, so Keller must have released him.
He comes over to the side of the bed and looks down at John. He says nothing, and the silence is like a ton of weight settling on John's chest.
Then, very carefully -- as though it's the most dangerous thing he's ever done -- he places his hand on John's knee.
"I wish you'd told me," he says.
John stays very still.
Rodney huffs impatiently, his fingers tightening, and John panics.
The comic falls to the floor, forgotten, and he grabs Rodney's wrist. "I can lift six times my own weight."
The expression on Rodney's face takes no special powers to read: it says you're-a-moron loud and clear. "So can I. It's called a lever. You might have heard of it." Then he pushes his way onto the bed and lies down next to John, pressing his face into John's neck.
John swallows hard, and cups the back of Rodney's head with his hand, octarine flaring flame-blue everywhere they touch. He can still smell a ghost scent of nutmeg, even though he knows the enzyme is gone.
"The thing is," John whispers, as Rodney's arm inches across his chest, tucking itself in beneath his butt, "it isn't as cool as the comic books make it sound. And the side-effects are a bitch."
There's a snort that sounds suspiciously like, "Duh!" in his ear, but John doesn't really give a shit, because he's not alone with this problem anymore. Rodney's a genius, and just as importantly he's a man who will want sex, and John's pretty confident that means that if Rodney can't find a fix, he'll find a work-around.
"I doubt even you could pull off lycra, anyway," Rodney says, pressing a kiss to John's ear, his mouth warm and clever and real, cutting straight through to what's important, just the way Rodney always does.