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SGA Reverse Bang Mod ([personal profile] sgarb_mod) wrote in [community profile] sgareversebang2011-05-31 12:00 am

Fic: Warrior

Author: [personal profile] shippen_stand
Wordcount: ~30,000
Rating: mild NC-17
Pairing(s): McKay/Sheppard
Summary: The Cananth people have an underground Ancient facility where they shelter when the Wraith come, called the Haven and Help. The haven is obvious, but what is the help? They all have the Ancient gene, and a quiet steady confidence that John can't help envying. When a mission goes bad, John begins to question both who and what he is. Thinking of the Cananth, and remembering Marine Col. Everett, who led the force that helped save Atlantis, John wishes he had that same single-minded assurance - even if it fractures his changing relationship with Rodney.
Warning(s) highlight to read: Canon character deathdisappearance (Ford); OC deaths, including children; horror elements. This is in one section only, not throughout the story.
Notes: This is set after "The Storm/The Eye" and "Sanctuary", and canon happens in the background up through "Intruder". Ends before "Runner".
Rapid and amazing beta provided by [livejournal.com profile] tesserae. If there is anything wrong, it's my fault. If it's good, it's to her credit.

Companion piece to Warrior.


Warrior


There was nothing but what Teyla had told them to expect on PXC-145. They stepped out of the wormhole into a forest clearing, three paths leading away through the trees. John did not relax his grip on his weapon. There were too many places for cover here. He could feel Ford's tension, and knew he was scanning the area, too.

"Teyla? Which way we should go?"

"The Cananth keep one settlement always on the left-hand path. They call it the meeting place." She stepped forward, then paused to look back at John. "The Athosians did not often trade with the Cananth, for we had little that they needed, but they were friendly."

Ford said, "So were the Genii."

Teyla smiled grimly at John. "The Genii. I had always wondered why they seemed to have no spark. It shouldn't have surprised me that all their ceremonies were camouflage. I assure you that the Cananth are more fun." Teyla huffed a small laugh. "In fact, the Genii never invited the Cananth to any of their harvest festivals. I suspect they kept trying to dance."

"I'm all for fun," John said. "Not sure about dancing."

"Somehow I can't imagine the Genii dancing," said McKay, "unless it was one of those Dance! Dance! things where they shoot at your feet." The bitterness in McKay's voice was no surprise. His arm was healed, but he was still trying to deal with a traumatic event as Heightmeyer kept reminding John.

Ford said. "The Genii were pretty uptight, even when we thought they were bumpkins. She's trying to say these people are probably more like what they seem."

"I know what she's trying to say, Lieutenant," said McKay, and then turned to business. "There's no energy signature beyond the gate itself. No life signs in fifty meters bigger than a large cat."

"How's the arm?" John asked.

"You ask me after we go through the gate? It's fine. It's been fine for a week." McKay sounded peeved. That was normal. John relaxed a little.

"Feels good to be going on a mission again, sir," said Ford.

"Sure does," said John.

"So," said McKay, "are we going to stand here, or are we going in search of steak?"

Ford grinned. "I could use a good steak. First people we've visited who might trade meat."

"If we have anything they want," said John. "Okay. Let's move. Ford, take our six."

Away from the gate, there was less undergrowth, and the trees grew tall, the branches starting about twenty feet high. The wide path was springy under John's boots and the air was fresh. When Teyla said the Cananth were herders, John expected something more like a cattle farm, with the overriding smell of digested hay. This felt like a park.

"Major!" Ford's voice came at the same time John heard the crack and felt something whistle past his head. He could see movements in the trees ahead, and as one, his team left the path and took cover behind the tall trees. Wood splintered over Teyla's head and John motioned for them to go deeper into the trees, pulling up his P90. Ford clicked the safety off his weapon, and John heard McKay mutter some complaint.

"Teyla?" John said. "I thought you said they were nice people."

"They normally are. They are usually willing to trade."

"So, what, they want to trade shots?" Ford asked, as another crack sounded, close.

John glanced over and Teyla was no longer sighting down her P90. Her eyes moved, surveying, but she looked calm, not wary. "I suspect the Cananth could hit us if they wanted to."

"So why aren't they?"

"Perhaps this is a challenge. We do not look like typical traders. I am not wearing Athosian clothes."

Ford snorted. "What's the challenge? If we fire back, we'll win."

Two impacts threw up dirt near the trees they were using for cover. John saw McKay flinch, but Teyla bent and picked up two stones, quick and careful, eyes on the direction of the volley. "They have markings," she said, turning them over in her hands.

"Do you know what they mean?" McKay asked. "Something like, May this rock kill my enemies?"

"Hmm," Teyla said, and then glanced up at John. "I believe you should fire over their heads. Perhaps aim to knock down a major branch."

John took aim and fired a burst, and the top of a tree on the other side of the path cracked, throwing splinters and branches. Everything was quiet for a few moments, and then there was a faint rustle of movement around them. John raised his weapon and Ford moved to cover McKay. Seven people, men and women, stepped out onto the path. Several had weapons at their belts. John threw a glance over his shoulder. Three more stood visible through the trees about thirty feet away, hands held palm open toward them. The clothing was the only thing alike about them, at least from this distance—typical Pegasus tunics and leggings. Whatever they looked like, John was pretty sure there were more people in the trees.

He shared a look with Teyla and shook his head. They'd established a pattern over the last few months, and he tended to let her open discussions, but not this time. He stepped out from behind the tree and walked back to the path, hands on his weapon. When nobody made a move, he lowered it slightly. "I usually tell people we're peaceful traders."

A heavyset woman stepped forward. Her brown hair was cut fairly short. "We usually welcome peaceful traders."

McKay answered before John could reply. "With rocks?"

"You do not look peaceful," the woman said, "but you shot deliberately to warn, not to wound."

"Of course we did!" McKay said.

"We kind of outgun you," Ford muttered, but John turned his head slightly to tell them both to be quiet.

"We're really not interested in hurting anyone," John said. "Like I said, peaceful traders."

This was Teyla's cue, and she stepped forward next to John. "We are cautious, Kaline, having found danger many times when we stepped through the Ancestor's ring, even among people I held as friends." She let her P90 drop and turned her palms outward.

"Teyla!" said the woman. "I would not have known you in those outlandish clothes."

"It is good to see you, again. Much has happened since my last visit."

The woman raised an arm across her body, hand in a fist. As the cloth fell back, John could see parallel bars of tattoos running up from the wrist toward the elbow. Each line seemed to have a slightly different design, but it was hard to tell from this far away. Teyla imitated the gesture, and they touched at the wrists. "We heard the city of the Ancestors was awake, and new people had come. To see you among them is a comforting thought."

"You have never thrown rocks at me before," Teyla said. "Has there been trouble?"

"Heard about the Genii, too. I'm going to miss tava beans." She shrugged. "We've been friends since your father's father's mother. Didn't know it was you, and don't know your new friends."

John said, "If we'd fired more than a warning shot?"

"We would have killed you." Kaline gave a high whistle, and figures began to drop from the trees until they were surrounded by at least thirty people. John's hands tightened reflexively on his P90, but he schooled himself not to raise it. Kaline smiled and said, "Very glad we didn't have to."

"So are we," McKay said.

Teyla made the introductions. "Kaline often speaks for the Cananth," she said. "This is Major John Sheppard, charged with the safety of the Ancestor's city. Lt. Aiden Ford, who aids him in that task. Dr. Rodney McKay, who studies how things work, and fixes them."

Still smiling, Kaline said, "Please, come with us." She spoke softly to a young man standing next to her, and he nodded and gestured to several others. They took off down the path at a jog. Another dozen faded back into the trees, and John watched one of them climb with the aid of a cord, moving rapidly up a trunk in inchworm steps and swinging easily to the first branch. The rest of their welcoming committee fell into step, ahead and behind. Teyla walked next to Kaline, who tucked her hand in Teyla's arm.

John couldn't hear their conversation. For all that Teyla seemed comfortable, he wasn't ready to relax. "McKay," he said, but he looked at Ford and nodded for him to take the rear. McKay stepped up next to him. "Anything?"

"Hadn't been looking, what with the rocks going over our head." He pulled out the life signs detector and peered at the screen. "Hmmm." He handed it to John and reached back to rip his computer off his pack. John could see from the detector that they were being shadowed by more than the company on the road. It was what he would do. McKay made the humming noise again. "That's funny."

"What kind of funny?"

"There's an area of no energy, or maybe not no energy, but remarkably stable energy at fifty percent of background fluctuations."

"You want to explain that?"

"There's always some sort of background energy or radiation, fairly constant, but this seems a bit too constant. Consistent."

"Any natural explanation?"

"Could be." McKays's fingers started tapping. "I'm going to set this up for automatic monitoring."

"Is it a shield of some kind?" John asked.

"What, you think maybe hiding technology from the Wraith? Huh." McKay tapped one-handed on his laptop. When the path curved to the left, John had to herd him in the right direction. He could hear Ford start to talk with the Cananth making up the rear guard, caution threading through the surface friendliness. People underestimated Ford's ability to observe and to hear past the words, and John would want to hear later what he thought of the Cananth.

They'd walked almost a mile when the smells started to change, woodsmoke giving way to blood. And not just blood, but guts, too. He froze.

John's sudden halt put Ford on alert, and he brought his gun up to scan the rest of the area. McKay walked on, oblivious. "McKay! Teyla!"

McKay stopped, looked up, and stowed his tablet quickly. Teyla turned, and gently pulled her arm from Kaline's. "John?"

"Is something wrong?" asked Kaline.

"I smell blood." He didn't say death.

As Teyla neared him her nose wrinkled. She put a hand on his arm. "Animals, John. The have a slaughter ground."

"The prevailing winds are usually from another direction," Kaline said, coming closer. John glanced at her. "Does the smell disturb you?"

"I..." He couldn't finish the sentence. He didn't know what to say.

"We have seen... many things, lately," Teyla said, her hand was still on John's arm, but she spoke to Kaline. He shifted away from her, letting his P90 down and giving his face a small smile.

"Well," said Kaline, "can't welcome you properly without roasting a rhunok."

"Thank you," John said, and heard Ford chuckle behind him. Teyla and Kaline turned back up the path.

"We don't usually, uh, smell that unless something bad is happening," Ford said, falling back into step with the men he'd been talking to.

"People smell different," said one of them.

John's foot did not fall on the next step, and he turned the hesitation into waiting for Ford and his new friends to catch up. "Know the difference, do you?" John saw Ford glance over at him, but he kept his gaze on the young man who spoke. He was as tall as John, broad, and his dark hair was pulled back into a braid.

The three of them stopped, causing the few following to halt as well. The young man didn't look away from John, but face went a bit gray under the brown. "You can't be thinking we would..." His horror at the thought was evident, and the others following shifted, looking suddenly ready, their hands moving to the slings at their belts.

"These guys are fighters, Major," said Ford. "They've seen what we've seen." He smiled. "My uncle had a farm, and, yeah. Cow shit is totally different. Still don't want it on your shoes, though."

John felt his heart start to slow, although he hadn't been aware of it speeding up. "No, I guess not," he said. He looked back at the young Cananth, cocked his head and laughed as if to himself. "Just caught me off guard there. No offense meant. We're kind of new around here."

"What you implied is deeply offensive to us, but only because it is not... unheard of. There are worlds where such practices can be found. How any can imitate the Wraith, I do not understand."

"You and me both," said John. "Please, I..." He wasn't sure how to apologize.

"You meant no offense, so I'll take none." With those words the other fighters seemed to relax.

John looked up to see McKay trailing Teyla and Kaline ahead. He caught Ford's eye and nodded up the trail, and Ford moved to guard McKay. He turned back to the Cananth and tried to smile. "Major John Sheppard."

"Kanor. I guard and I herd. Do I call you all that long name?"

"Sheppard's fine."

"Does it mean anything?"

John thought for a minute. "Someone who watches flocks, who herds."

Kanor grinned. "You guard and you herd, like me. You are more, I think, because you are major. I asked to be no more." John wondered how it could be so simple, but Kanor held up his arm in the gesture Kaline had used with Teyla, exposing a line of four tattoos. They were similar to Kaline's but there were fewer. This close John could see that each bar was made up of distinct patterns. John imitated the movement, and they bumped their wrists together, John's watch catching on Kanor's skin. "What is that?"

"It's called a watch. It tracks time. When I'm on a different planet, I know what time of day it is back home."

"Is it from the Ancestors?"

John shook his head. "No, we made them."

"The Wraith have permitted this?"

John had a pat answer for this, "The Wraith do not know where we live. It's pretty far from here."

Kanor hesitated, and said, "I should like to see it some time."

Yeah, so would I, John thought, but he just smiled. "I guess we should catch up with the others."

As they set off down the path, Kanor asked, "May I ask? Underneath?" He held up his own wrist, showing the four tattooed bar designs.

"Nothing... like that," John said. He wasn't used to anyone asking about his wrists. "Can I ask what they mean?"

"Sometimes we must become something new," Kanor said. John glanced at the wrists of the others. Some had one or two marks, three at the most. They seemed to go with age, but not completely. Maybe they had to do with some kind of ritual.

They walked for another few minutes before a bend in the path led them to the meeting place, a small settlement of wood-framed buildings with bark roofs and walls made from hides. Teyla had said the Cananth were nomadic, and the buildings, hidden away beneath the trees and difficult to see from the air, bore it out. There was a clear space, mostly covered by a canopy of branches some forty feet above the ground. In the middle was the fire John had smelled. People were setting up trestle tables, benches, low seats. John knew this script--the impromptu feast.

Kaline had paused, waiting with Teyla for them to catch up. McKay barely looked up in time to avoid bumping into them. When John and Kanor caught up, Kaline nodded dismissal, and the escort group left for other tasks.

"So," said Kaline, "Teyla tells me you want to trade for our rhunoks."

"Well, we're not well set to raise our own meat animals," John said. McKay snorted, but at least he was paying attention to something other than his tablet. "We have medical supplies, technical know-how. What would you be interested in from us?"

"I can see that you have metal."

"Yes?" John could feel himself draw out the word. Out of the corner of his eye he could see McKay turning in a circle where he stood, his eyes never leaving the tablet.

"Knives. We need good knives." Kaline sounded final, and her curt nod shook her short hair from behind one ear. "One per beast."

John glanced at Teyla. She had a very neutral expression. Whenever she approved of a trade offer, she would look agreeable, so John figured that Kaline was trying to gouge them. In some bargains he would be expected to insult the merchandise, but he suspected that would not go over well with Kaline. "Well," he said, "we don't even know if we like the taste of rhunok."

Kaline laughed in a short bark. "Well, you shall find out, and when you taste it, you'll think a knife is a bargain!"

"Major," McKay said suddenly, "we need to--" He broke off and pointed off in the direction of the setting sun.

Teyla said, "Dr. McKay would like to explore. Would you permit them to walk in that direction?"

"What's he looking at?" Kaline asked.

"Very sensitive instrument," McKay said. "Do you have any old Ancient ruins?"

"Ruins? No. You point to our haven and help."

Teyla said, "Dr. McKay is very interested in anything from the Ancestors. I have never heard you mention this place before."

"No reason," Kaline said, "We've never needed it when you were here."

"May we see it?" Teyla asked.

Kaline paused. "Because it is you, Teyla." She considered for another moment. "The Ancestors gave the haven to us, yes, but it is not ruined, no. We would not let that happen."

"So," said Mckay. "Lead the way."

Kaline raised her eyebrows and glanced at Teyla, who said smoothly, "As I said, Dr. McKay is very interested in learning anything he can from the gifts of the Ancestors. Please excuse his single mindedness."

"Well, if you won't talk deal until you've tasted our meat, I suppose it'll keep you out from underfoot for a bit." She gestured. "Kanor, would you lead our new friends to the Haven and Help." John could hear the emphasis in the words now. It was a formal title.

"Of course." Kanor nodded to John and led the way out of the settlement. Five more Cananth followed behind, and John noted that they all carried slings at their belts. This place was important enough that they would not let strangers in unguarded. John approved, and hoped McKay didn't do anything stupid.

The path through the trees began to rise, and John mentally grumbled about the thick, high canopy of the trees, which made it hard to see if this was just a rise or the led to a larger mountain. "Tell me about this place," he said to Kanor.

"This is where we go when the Wraith come. They have not been able to find us there."

"Some kind of dampening field," McKay said.

"So that's why it's haven and help?" John asked.

"Haven for hiding, help for helping," Kanor said.

"What kind of help?" John asked, prompting the answer he knew McKay wanted.

"To become what we are," Kanor said, "what we need to be. I guard and I herd, and so do you. How did you know who you are?" The question needled John, and he didn’t answer. Kanor continued smoothly, "I've spent time on other worlds. We all do. Other people sometimes know what they are, and sometimes don't. When they don't, you can tell they are out of balance. The whole people suffer."

John wasn't sure what to make of that. "Sometimes people are more than one thing."

"Like us. We do not just guard. Herding requires more than simple guarding. You have to find the patterns, sense the threats to come, plan for what is needed when there are no threats. Sometimes people like us need to become leaders, and it helps us change, adds to who we are." Kanor smiled over at John. "But I am never confused. And when I need to be something else, I can return to ask for help." Kanor held out his wrist, and John made the connection. The bars probably represented every trip to this Help, whatever it was. "When our young people are unsure, we let the Ancestors help them. When we must become new things, the Ancestors help us. We have tried to help others, but it seems that we are particularly blessed. It does not help people who are not Cananth."

Which was about as clear as some of McKay’s explanations. He smiled politely and moved ahead to peer over McKay’s shoulder. "Anything interesting?"

"I want to see what it looks like when we're inside that field." McKay said. His eyes were fixed on the tablet "If we could replicate it, we might be able to hide from the Wraith. Whatever it is, I'll bet there's a ZPM involved."

They didn't have much farther to go. The hillside sloped up abruptly, and when Kanor walked up to the rock wall, there was a ripple, and then a opening. It looked like a cave at first glance, but it was too square, and under the grass and moss, John could see stone and metal. It seemed Ancient, from what he could see. McKay was walking straight toward it, glancing back and forth between the opening and his tablet.

John glanced at Ford, who stepped closer to McKay and snapped on the light on his P90. "You won't need that," Kanor said, stepping through the doorway. "Come." As soon as he entered, lights appeared along the wall, dimly illuminating a dirt-covered floor. They followed Kanor, and as soon as John passed inside, the lights brightened.

Kanor turned. "What is this?"

"I, uh..."

Kanor herded them out. The rock wall slid into place behind them, and he turned to McKay. “Go back in, please.”

McKay frowned but approached the wall. It rippled, and when he stepped cautiously through the opening, the lights glowed dimly.

“Step back out,” Kanor said. McKay took a step back, and the rock re-appeared. “Now you.” He pointed to Ford, but neither he nor Teyla could induce it to open.

Kanor looked at John. "He is one of us, then. We could help him if he wanted, to know himself and become who he is."

John was still processing the notion that Kanor and all the Cananth probably carried the Ancient gene.

"Help me how?" McKay said. "I know what I am."

"Then tell me," Kanor said, in a tone that expected McKay to reply, like a lamb being called back to the flock. John was surprised at Kanor's focus on McKay. The lights hadn't gone super bright for him. "Tell me what you are." Kanor didn't threaten, but his posture had shifted, and John didn't know what Kanor might do. John put his hands on his P90, and glanced to see that Ford, standing behind McKay, had done the same.

McKay sputtered for a brief moment, and then put his chin up. "I'm the smartest man in two galaxies."

"True," Kanor said slowly, considering the answer, "but you have some confusion." He reached toward McKay, who did not flinch. Ford took a step forward, and Kanor shook his head. His shoulders relaxed and he ran the back of his fingers down McKay's arm. "You do not care for yourself."

Ford snorted, and John's lips twitched. But McKay was looking at his arm where Kanor had touched him, confusion on his face. Kanor smiled kindly at him. "You need to learn to dance. Too much here," he gestured toward McKay's head. "Not enough here," Kanor said, putting his hand flat on his own torso, and taking two sinuous steps. John looked away, not wanting to watch the masculine grace so openly displayed.

"If I tried that, I'd put my back out," grumbled McKay, but the complaint seemed more like habit. He watched Kanor, and then shook his head.

Kanor turned to John. "Now you. Step through. I think we all know what we will find."

John nodded and walked to the opening again. As he expected, the lights came on brightly. He tried to turn them down by thinking at them, but they didn't respond. The dirt eventually gave way to very familiar floors, the same colors and textures as Atlantis. He put a hand on the wall and thought the command. lower lights. They dimmed a bit, but were still brighter than they were for McKay or Kanor. "What are you?" Kanor asked, his voice soft and intimate.

John looked over his shoulder, a careful half-smile on his face. "I guard and I herd. Among our people, I serve as Major."

"But you are even more than I thought you were."

John turned away and muttered, "A walking on switch."

"Many things," Kanor said. "But we should go back now. I have much to tell Kaline. We have not found brothers like you on any planet." He ran his fingers down John's sleeve, smiling broadly. "We planned to simply welcome you, but I think we will want to celebrate."

"You're not going to try to keep me here, are you?" John tried to keep his voice light.

"Why would we do that?" Kanor's touch turned to a light grip, turning John back to the opening. "You are very suspicious, my dear important herding guard. Let's go see Kaline."

"McKay will want to look around," John protested.

"He can stay with Narin and Maline." Kanor called the names, and a man and a woman from the honor guard came in. "Show McKay our Haven and Help. Do not let him seek help yet. He is not ready. We must speak with Kaline."

They parted at the entrance. Teyla joined John, and catching John’s glance, Ford moved to to guard McKay. John wondered if he ever noticed how well protected he was off world.

They walked in silence, which surprised John. He had expected questions. It had taken them half an hour to hike up, but the trip down was faster. Back at the settlement, people were moving about, making ready for a party by setting up benches and rough timber trestles. Kanor took him straight to one of the buildings. "Kaline," he said, as they entered, "The Ancestors speak to Sheppard."

"Well," John began, but Kaline was already answering.

"How do you mean?"

"The lights in the Haven light for him, and for another. McKay."

"And you only brought him? Why?"

"Because I have never seen the lights so bright."

Kaline looked at John, and he shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. "We..." he said, and then stopped, not sure of what to say. We know what causes that? To Kanor, she said, "Bring the other, too. He should not be in the Haven and Help until we know who he is."

Kanor nodded. "He does not know who he is." John heard him leave at a run.

"Teyla, did you know this?"

"I did not know of your Haven and Help, but I did know that Major Sheppard was gifted with the ability to--" She hesitated. "--waken the Ancestor's artifacts."

"I see. Would you have told me this?"

"We do not speak of it."

"And you, Major Sheppard?"

John shifted his weight. Teyla was treading carefully. "On other worlds there were people who wanted me to stay."

"Against your will." Kaline nodded. "We understand. Happens to us, too. Never met anyone else like us. All your people like you?"

John shook his head. "Pretty rare." He wasn't going to say that they could give people the Ancient gene. "Most of us don't have it. Some have it weakly, like McKay."

Kaline looked at him sharply, and John felt himself blush. He hadn't meant to insult them by saying their Ancient gene was weak. "Well, I think we have something in common," Kaline said after a moment, with a kind of finality. "Good to know we're not the only ones. And you seem to know what you are." She raised her arm, and John knocked wrists with her again. "Tell me about the Ancestor's city, and what exactly happened with the Genii."

John let Teyla take the lead. She knew what not to say, and he wanted her to strengthen her friendship with Kaline. About twenty minutes later, he could hear McKay outside the door, and Kanor led him in.

"What's the deal?" McKay asked. "I didn't find the power source, but there is definitely something interesting about that field from the inside. I haven't seen any control panels, but just when I thought I was getting somewhere I get hauled back here, which isn't exactly the best use of--"

John cut him off. "They all have the gene," John said.

McKay stared open-mouthed. "All of them?" John nodded, and McKay said, "Oh."

"Don't start thinking what I think you're thinking."

"What? Did you just say what I thought you said? You can't know what I'm think--"

Kaline cleared her throat. "It's been tried."

"What?" McKay said. "What's been--"

"Tried to use us to use things the Ancestors left." Kaline's voice was light, almost amused. "We don't permit it."

"We would not do that," John said. "We might invite you, but the choice would be yours." He put on a smile that he almost felt. "It's not as if I liked it when they've tried that with me."

Kaline cocked her head and looked at John for a long moment. "I will trust you."

"Thank you."

"I might even bargain fair for the rhunok," she said, and then laughed. "Come. Eat, drink, dance. You dance, yes?"

"No," said McKay, but he glanced at Kanor.

"Been known to," said John, and that earned him a look from McKay.

"Then put away your weapons," said Kaline. "Let's celebrate friendship."

***

John tasted everything before McKay did, checking for any taste of citrus. There was a drink that McKay liked, but it didn't appeal to John, and even though he hadn't tasted alcohol, it had an effect on McKay. John was glad he'd passed it up, because he hated getting buzzed off planet. Teyla and Ford did not seem too bothered by it, but McKay soon was grinning, enjoying himself.

It was dark, the food mostly eaten, including the very tasty roasted rhunok, and the Cananth danced. They all danced. Some of it reminded John of a cross between Greek or Balkan cultures and Brazilian Samba, sometimes with complicated steps in a line. Sometimes the dancers broke into small groups or pairs, or danced solo. Some groups mixed men and women, others had only one sex, or only a set number of dancers making complicated patterns to the music of stringed instruments, pipes, and drums. Teyla joined them, following steps as if they were familiar. Smiling widely, Ford followed, and the Cananth helped guide him.

Eventually, Kanor took John's hands and brought him to his feet, and John gave in, sliding into the music as much as he could let himself. In the clubs, anonymous without his dog tags, he had danced and lost himself in a sea of rhythm and sweat and men. He restrained himself here, but he matched Kanor, learning steps and following patterns. It was impossible not to smile. It was equally impossible not to watch Kanor. The grace he'd shown up at the cave, talking to McKay, was nothing compared to the subtle and sinuous moves he made now, his hips sliding. It wasn't crude, but it was sex. John dragged his eyes up to Kanor's face, framed by the long brown curls that had escaped from his braid. Kanor smiled, gesturing at him to move closer, and John looked away, keeping his movements in his feet and his knees. He couldn’t do this, not here, and not now. He glanced over at McKay, and found him staring.

When the music began to change, John smiled at Kanor, shooting for polite, and nodded toward McKay. Kanor nodded back, but his look was knowing. He said, "He might dance with you, and it would ease our minds to see it."

"Been... a long time since I danced like this," John said. "I, uh. I mean, thank you."

Kanor squeezed John's shoulder, and the touch felt hot. John schooled his face, and Kanor threw a glance at McKay before turning to go. John watched Kanor walk away, wondering if he'd read any of that right, and wishing he could have danced with Kanor the way Kanor danced with him.

McKay ignored him as he sat down. John leaned over. "They have a fully charged ZPM."

"That's nice," McKay said, swaying and looking at the dancers, then straightened up and said, "Wait. Really?"

"No. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention." John took a breath. "Ever dance like that?"

"I don't know how."

"It's easy." John stood and held a hand out to McKay, who took it and got to his feet. John had to steady him a bit, and then stood next to him, their backs to the main group. "Just follow me." They stepped left, then right, in the easiest dance possible. McKay wasn’t graceful, but his sense of rhythm was excellent, so John turned to face him and they swayed in time. They kept moving through several changes of the music, and McKay followed John's increasingly complex lead until, laughing, McKay sat down again.

"Not bad, McKay."

"Hmm." McKay stared off at the dancers for a while, accepting another refill. After he had drunk about half of it, he turned to John, his lopsided smile on his face. "Do you know the one about the physicist, the engineer and the biologist who were trying to win at the race track?"

"No," John said. "How much have you had to drink?"

"Some," McKay said, but drawled out the word, almost slurring. "So, physicist, engineer and biologist, betting on horses. You know the joke?"

"Why don't you tell me."

"Well, they're all trying to use their disciplines to pick winning horses, and the physicist is the one who cleans up." McKay started laughing.

"That's the punch line?" John asks

McKay took a breath, and then giggled again. "Well, they all talk about what technique they used. The biologist says he looked at the breeding lines and each animal's physics-- I mean physiology. The engineer says he looked at each animal's biomechanics to make predictions. Those didn't work so well--you know, because they lost all their bets--and so they look at the physicist, who won, and ask what he did." He giggled again.

"So, what did the physicist do?"

"He says to them, 'First, I assume horses are spherical.'" McKay rocked back laughing.

"Yeah, that's a real knee-slapper," but McKay fell into John, now laughing harder, and the more John thought about it, the funnier it was. It occured to him that it was the first time he'd ever heard McKay tell a joke. In another moment realized that McKay was still leaning on him. "Tell me another," he said, pushing McKay upright.

"Did you hear the one about the 10 patent lawyers and the 10 engineers?" John hadn't heard it, and the next thing he knew, McKay was doing what amounted to stand-up geek humor, including a detailed comparison of the original Star Wars trilogy with Scooby Doo. "I mean, think about it. They pull off Darth Vader's helmet, and it's 'Look, it's old man Skywalker from the farm!'"

John snorted once and said, "And I would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you pesky kids."

McKay pointed at him and laughed. "Exactly! Found that on the early days of the 'net. Can't remember who wrote it."

McKay giving credit. That was interesting. John noticed that people were drifting away from the fire. Teyla was smiling, talking with Kaline and another man. Ford danced with a circle of men, picking up their steps and moving in time. It was a dance for late evenings, the rhythms slow and the dancers moving more closely together. For the few still on their feet, it was a prelude to other things.

McKay was leaning on him again. John knew how to find their sleeping place, so he hauled McKay to his feet. They walked over to Teyla to say good night to her and Kaline. John caught Ford's eye, and he looked at one of the women and back to John. John followed his gaze to a pretty girl of medium build with short curly hair, looking at Ford from under her lashes.

John leaned down. "Teyla. Can you find out these people's feelings on, you know, um, sex with outsiders? I don't want Ford to get in trouble."

"I already know, John. Three women have asked about approaching you, but I have politely declined."

"They were asking your permission?"

"More like advice, and making sure you were not already obliged. I told them that part of what you are involves protecting Dr. McKay. Dancing with Dr. McKay dispelled any doubts." Teyla paused, reticent. "That was well done."

"Thanks," John said, but he wasn't sure what to make of it. "So, if Ford..."

"They would welcome a child from him, and the woman's name is Sanor. She is free to make her own choice."

John nodded. It explained why the Cananth all looked so different, even if he couldn't keep their names straight. "Okay then, and, um, thank you for, you know... that dodge."

"I did not want anyone to disturb you and Dr. McKay."

"Yeah, he's in rare form. Whatever it is they're serving went straight to his head. I need to get him out of here before he does something stupid."

"Hmm," Teyla said.

John stood and caught Ford's eye, looked at the woman, and nodded. Ford grinned. He wouldn't be joining them tonight.

McKay seemed unaware of the by-play, and John led him to the room they'd been given, one with an actual door. It showed signs of hasty re-arrangement. John wondered who they'd displaced, who last slept on these furs. Their tac vests were already there, along with their packs, the weapons cached inside and locked, the gesture of trust Kaline had requested. As soon as the door was closed, McKay stripped, unselfconscious. He stopped at his boxers, which had a Mario Brothers illustration involving a mushroom and the word "Bigger". John turned away, taking off his shirt and awkwardly pulling off his boots, intending to sleep in his T-shirt and BDUs. He turned to see McKay watching him. It was a look he'd never seen on his face. His face was flushed, and his eyes half lidded. His hair stuck out in all directions, and his mouth had a half smile. He was relaxed, and that was a rare state for Rodney McKay.

They stared at each other a moment too long, and then McKay tilted his head. "The only thing that would make this night perfect would be getting laid. I didn't expect you to be here tonight. I assumed you'd be off with one of the local nubiles."

"Nubiles?" John frowned.

"Oh, you know. Alien women. The whole Kirk thing. You seem to attract women from all kinds of cultures."

John snorted. "Right."

"Oh, come on, even I can see it a mile away," McKay started to say and then stopped suddenly. Oh, shit, John thought. McKay continued carefully, "You don't see it coming because you're not looking for it."

John schooled his face. "Maybe." He could feel a rush of adrenaline, heart rate rising and his face going warm, so he dropped his shoulders and put on a lazy grin. He wondered if he'd let something show when he danced with Kanor.

McKay asked, "Have you ever been to Las Vegas?"

"A time or two," John said, not knowing where this was going. "You?"

"I was barred from the city for life back in uni. Card counting."

That didn't surprise John. "This isn't exactly bright lights and blackjack. What made you think of Vegas?"

"The thing called the Vegas Rule," McKay said.

John didn't like where this was going. "As in What happens in...?"

"Right. Stays in." McKay takes a breath. "I'm invoking it. I mean, I know we're not in Vegas now, but I'd like to invoke it, because I have the urge to ask you something."

"We're a long way from Las Vegas." He knew it was weak, but it was the best he could muster under McKay's astute gaze.

"Well, I didn't think the Vegas Rule was actually tied to a specific location," McKay started. "Look, it's a theoretical construct that will allow, theoretically, interactions that won't impact life outside the defined Vegas Rule zone."

Now he sounded more like McKay, the speed of the words and cadence that stemmed from either the socially awkward or scientifically excited McKay. This time, John couldn’t tell which it was. He opened his mouth, intending to deny McKay the right to invoke the Vegas rule on the technicality of location when McKay announced, "So, theoretical construct accepted. Vegas Rule."

John schooled his face again, but his shoulders wouldn't drop back down. "What do you want to ask?"

"This is more a matter of confirmation of the validity of a hypothesis, not necessarily prurient interest, but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't indicate that I have a personal stake in the outcome. I mean, in general, the answer to this question won't make a difference in our working relationship regardless of the answer, unless you decide to hit me, or take offense, or something."

McKay was in full verbal stream mode. "Okay, okay. Vegas Rule. You can ask. I'll answer if I want."

McKay looked at John, narrowed his eyes for a moment, and then said, "Are you gay?"

The question pulled at John in strange places, and his stomach felt like it suddenly reached the floor. The Cananth had talked so much about knowing what you are that the question hit in a way he couldn't deflect. But he said, "No." It wasn't a lie in his mind. He had always preferred--strongly preferred--sex with men. He could not imagine waving at the crowds from the float of a Pride parade.

"Huh. I could have sworn. I mean, the data were starting to strongly lean that way." McKay sat up in bed, arms crossed and one hand supporting his chin.

John let his eyes linger on McKay's shoulders and biceps, which were larger and better shaped than most people probably suspected. There was exactly the right amount of hair across McKay's chest, and his nipples were tight in the cooling air. He swallowed, pulling his gaze up to McKay's face. "Why did you ask?"

"Personal interest, I guess." McKay blushed and dropped his glance.

"Are you gay?" John asked.

"Sort of flexible." John snorted, but McKay continued. "We were having such a good time dancing, and you actually get my jokes, and if this had been a normal date back on Earth I would guess I'd be getting lucky right about now. Instead we're having what should be an awkward conversation and isn't really, and oh God, what was in that drink?" McKay flopped backward on the bed. "I'm just not aware that it's awkward, am I?" He flung his arm over his eyes.

"Not so much." Something about this McKay, up to the gills in whatever was passed for alcohol here, made John relax a bit. "Vegas," he said, meaning that it wouldn't affect their working relationship later.

"But I'm not getting laid tonight, am I? Oh God, I can't even believe I just asked that. Or that I was that stupid. I could have sworn..."

"No," John said, and swallowed. "You're not that stupid."

McKay dropped his arm. "Did you just mean what I thought you meant, because even for you..."

"Vegas." John said. "Good night, McKay."

John pulled on his boots sat outside the door for half an hour, watching as the feast wound down, trying not to think about what he had just done. McKay wasn't the most discreet person. On the other hand, John would never have expected the strange kind of come-on McKay had just given him. A group of people started to clean the area and re-arrange it. John stood, thought for a moment, and then decided to go help them. When he got back to the room, McKay was asleep. John lay down next to him, outside the furs that covered McKay. From the faint scent and the smile on McKay's face, John knew that McKay had probably jacked off. He ignored his visceral response, and made himself go to sleep.


***

"So," said Elizabeth, looking down the conference table at them. "The Cananth?"

"They are very interesting, Dr. Weir," said Teyla. "They have meat to trade, and they are interested in metal tools." She glanced at John.

"They all seem to have the Ancient gene," he said. "And they have some Ancient facility that can hide them from the Wraith. They call it their Haven and Help."

Elizabeth's eyebrows went up. "A population with the gene? That would be--" But she stopped when she saw John shake his head. "No?"

"Some of them will want to visit, but don't make any plans for them. They won’t like that... They may let McKay back to examine this Haven place, but there's something sacred about it for them."

"I see." She gave John a look that said she planned to hear more later. "Your report said that they are herders, but their methods seem very different from Earth cultures. They herd within forests instead of on plains and fields. I'd like to send an anthropologist with the next team."

"They are adept at limiting the effect of the Wraith. They keep only one small village near the stargate to greet potential traders, and perhaps strengthen their lines." Ford blushed and shifted in his seat. Teyla continued without a sideways glance. "But their people follow the herds and are scattered widely."

Elizabeth nodded. "No permanence means no mining, no farming. I think we can find ways to trade knives and other tools they might find useful. We haven't had a good source of meat yet. What do these rhunoks look like?"

"They looked more like bison than anything else," Ford said, "but they're about the size of goats. The hair is really soft. The Cananth use them for everything - clothing, tools, food. Because of the Wraith they can't do anything permanent, anything big. But I don't think we should judge them by the home-spun clothes. They think. A lot."

"And they dance," John said.

Teyla said, "Worlds here in Pegasus find different ways to live in the shadow of the Wraith. The Cananth find joy." Teyla smiled softly. "And they dance."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, but all she said was, "Major, your thoughts?"

"Seemed like fine people," John said. "Teams in the future need to watch out for that drink they were serving. Doesn't taste like alcohol, but there's something in it." McKay was unnaturally still, the bounce of his pen suddenly frozen.

Elizabeth glanced between them. "Anything I should know?"

"They still want to trade with us, right?" John kept his voice and body nonchalant. "I don't think we got out of hand."

"There is one more thing you should know," Teyla said. "I didn't quite realize how deep this ran in their culture, but it is important to them that each of them know who they are, or what they are. The help part of their Haven and Help seems to be important."

"Any indication what that might mean?" Elizabeth asked. Teyla shook her head. "All the more reason to try to learn more about the facility. Rodney? You haven't said much."

"They may have a ZPM, and they may have transporters."

"Did you see it?" John asked.

"No, but they said they can bring people in from all over the planet, and that means transporters. And that means power. Although from their perspective, all over the planet could be less than a hundred kilometers."

"Could you find out anything about the dampening field you mentioned? How does it work?"

"Still not sure. I need to bring in some different sensors. They wouldn't actually let me look at anything that mattered. I didn't see any control consoles, or even the places that sounded like transporters."

"So you want to go back?"

McKay glared at her. "Of course."

John said, "So, are we done here for now?"

"Yes. Let's put this on the agenda for our meeting tomorrow morning. I'd like to plan how to approach the Cananth next." Elizabeth smiled. "I'm sure everyone on Atlantis is looking forward to a good hamburger."

They rose from the table, and instead of turning toward the labs, McKay followed John. "I don't remember anything after you leaving. I didn't, you know..." McKay waved his hands around, the gesture stiffer than usual.

"You went to sleep," John said.

"Good. That explains why I only remember everything up to that point. Thanks for not punching me."

John didn't want this brought up at all. "You're breaking the rule," he said, his voice so neutral as to sound cold even to himself. He didn't want McKay turning this into an opportunity for bonding.

McKay's eyes flared a moment, hurt by the rebuff, but he caught himself quickly. "Stays in... Right. Apologies, Major." He turned quickly toward the science labs.

"None needed," John said, to his back.

***

The rule held until the sanctuary planet, and then, a few days after John’s picnic with Chaya, McKay called him in for chair diagnostics. John normally enjoyed these sessions, but this time McKay was all business.

"Okay. All done. You can go."

"Okay," John said, and he got up, stretched and walked to the door. Before opening it, he turned. "Rodney?"

McKay tensed before he looked up. "Major?"

"Everything okay?"

"Why wouldn't it be?" But John wasn't going to be the one to say it. He waited, watching expressions flit across McKay's face. John raised his eyebrows, a silent, Well?. "Okay," McKay said, drew a breath, and looked down. "The benchmark is, well, unreachable." John had no idea what he meant, and let his face show it. "Hot babe Ascended being versus, well..." McKay gestured vaguely toward himself.

"Don't sell yourself short." The words came out of John's mouth before he could stop them. The Vegas Rule only meant you couldn't talk about what happened in Vegas, not that you couldn't think about it, and John had thought about it a lot.

McKay's mouth opened slightly, eyes widening. John pulled his own face straight, nodded once, and left.

***

"Ah, Major?" Ford stuck his head in John's office door.

"What can I do for you, Lieutenant?"

"We haven't gone back to PXC-145. The Cananth."

"I know. McKay's bugging me about getting back to that Haven and Help."

"I was wondering if we could put ourselves on a burger run.."

John looked at him. "Sanor, right? Was that her name?" John hoped he had her name right.

Ford drew himself up to a parade rest. "Sir."

"I'll take it under advisement. Dismissed."

John pinched the bridge of his nose. Chaya and her sanctuary had made him cautious about the Haven and Help of the Cananth, and up until the Wraith came he'd assigned another team for what was becoming known as the burger run. Getting involved with the locals, especially ones that glowed, worried him. This Sanor woman didn't seem to be doing any unusual glowing, but from what Teyla had said, she was probably trying to get pregnant.

The thought brought John up short. If all the Cananth had the gene, but they wanted to--what was it Teyla had said? Broaden the bloodlines? Wouldn't that mean the possibility of children born without it? They could test them at birth just by walking them into that cave. They wouldn't practice infanticide, would they? He put in a call to Elizabeth, and then to Dr. Corrigan in Anthropology.

***

The four of them waited at the gate for Dr. Corrigan, who came running up, pack in his arms and panting. "Sorry to be late. I promised Kaline I'd bring a few things when I came back."

"What kind of things?"

Dr. Corrigan was tall and dark haired, but his fair skin blushed slightly. "Hershey's Kisses."

McKay seemed stunned. "You have chocolate?"

Corrigan didn't back down, despite his now-flaming cheeks. "I brought a few bags with me, and they are not for general distribution."

"Agreed," John said, with a glance at McKay. "Just because you went through your own stash in a month..."

"I did not!"

"Anyway," Corrigan said, "I'm on an information barter system with Kaline. She won't answer my questions unless I tell her about us, too. She knows I'm avoiding anything about where we really come from, and there's not any reference for things like television or movies. Last month I got the cook to make something like barbecue sauce."

"So you're why we had barbecued rhunok ribs?" John asked.

"Man, those were good," Ford said.

"Amazing," McKay agreed.

Corrigan nodded. "And now, chocolate."

"We don't have any more of that to trade," John said.

"Not trade. Cultural exchange. It's been fascinating."

"Anthropologist fascinating?" John asked with a smile. He and Corrigan had only been on one mission together, early on when the Wraith were tracking them through Teyla's necklace, but it had left them with a catch phrase.

Corrigan snorted. "Maybe fascinating is not the word."

"Certainly not," grumbled McKay.

"Don't complain, McKay," John said. "I'm trying to get you back into that Haven and Help place." He looked up at Chuck. "Dial her up."

They stepped through the event horizon and started down the path to the left. Kanor came out of the trees about twenty feet away, his hair loose and curling to his shoulders. He tossed a rock underhand to John. John caught it. "Just keeping us on our toes?"

"It is good to see you again, Sheppard. I wondered when you would come again yourself."

"Busy herding. Guarding. You know."

"And more," Kanor added. Kanor stepped closer and raised his arm, and he and John bumped wrists. "You are major, after all." Kanor was smiling, teasing John with a familiarity that made John wonder if he missed something about the last visit. Then he remembered dancing with Kanor, and maybe that was enough. "Teyla, Ford, Doctor. And Matthew," he said to Corrigan. "Maline will be pleased to see you again."

John schooled his face. They were going to have to establish off-world frat regs. Then again, he'd brought Ford along, knowing he wanted to see Sanor.

They walked to the settlement, making small talk, but John wondered if Corrigan could use the relationship with this Maline to find out if the Cananth practiced infanticide.

"You are troubled, Sheppard," Kanor said suddenly.

John put a lazy grin on his face. "Well, Dr. Corrigan here has brought something for Kaline to try, but I'm worried you'll like it too much. We only have so much to trade."

"I do not think that is all."

"Wait 'till you taste chocolate," John said, but Kanor looked away.

When they reached the settlement and traded greetings with Kaline, Corrigan brought out a single Kiss. He laid it on a table.

"Is that metal?" Kaline asked.

"It is, yes. A thin metal called foil." He unwrapped the foil into a neat square, handing Kaline the paper tag. "Not to eat. Just smell. It will give you an idea." The paper passed from hand to hand, with murmurs following.

Corrigan took out a small kitchen knife and pared the chocolate into eight or nine pieces. "The flavor is strong, and it is sweet," he said. "It will melt on your tongue."

Kaline glanced at Teyla, who said, "I have tried it. It is delicious."

John glanced at McKay and Ford. McKay looked impatient, but Ford was amused, watching as Corrigan held out the first small slice on the tip of the knife. Kaline took it and placed it in her mouth, exclaiming as the chocolate melted over her tongue.

"And that's not even the best stuff," John heard McKay mutter.

"We have traded for candy before, but this is unlike anything... Your people invented this?"

"It comes from our planet, yes,” said John, not willing to get into the discussion of how many cultures were on his planet.

Kaline gestured for several people to come forward to try the slivers of chocolate. One or two did not appear to like it, but most looked to see if there was more. Kanor joked, “I wonder if that is what we taste like the Wraith?”

As if his words were a harbinger, the familiar whine of darts made everyone freeze. “Go!” Kaline yelled. “You know what to do!”

The Cananth did not panic, John saw, but very quickly moved to the buildings. Some ran inside, while others grabbed ropes he hadn't noticed and fixed their eyes on the trees above them, waiting tensely. John heard hurried whispers and more footsteps as the people who had gone into the buildings came out, carrying larger objects. As soon as they were clear, one of the people at the corners of the buildings called softly, and they all pulled together. The buildings went down, and the bark roofs broke in such a way that it almost looked like a natural pile. People moved in to scatter them further. They took the trestle tables apart and threw the pieces into the trees. On the ground you could tell there had been people here, but John guessed that an aerial view would not be so obvious. One group of people systematically packed the larger objects and began moving quickly up the hill along the path he remembered from their first visit. Someone went by leading a pair of rhunoks, which were bawling loudly. Corrigan looked around, beginning to panic. John wasn't sure how much combat experience he had, so he turned Corrigan toward the path and said, “You heard the nice lady. Go!”

McKay and Ford dropped back, and they set out running. Teyla glanced up, her eyes following the whine of the darts above the canopy of the trees. “I wish,” she started to say, sounding frustrated, but a woman’s scream, high and keening, broke into her words. It was a woman, and after the first scream she was trying not to yell but clearly frantic. “Shanor! Shanor!”

John looked behind him and saw a young child struggling to keep up, and a glance forward showed a woman running against the tide. No one stopped to help her. John nodded to Ford forward to continue, slipped to the side out of the stream of people, and ran back. The child, a tow-headed boy, was carrying a cooking pot far too heavy for him, struggling up the hill as it banged his shins. The Cananth, laden down with pots of their own, moved around him, so John darted in behind the boy and picked him up. He slid one arm around his middle and tucked the other under his knees so that the boy was nearly sitting, the pot in his lap, his straight hair tickling John's nose. He ran up the hill, looking for the woman.

They reached the Haven and Help before any sign of Wraith on the ground, and John could hear the collective sound of surprise when the lights brightened fully after he entered through the arch in the rock face. He could hear Kaline and Kanor explaining, and saw faces turned toward him. He scanned the crowd, trying to spot the mother he had seen. Brown hair. Straight hair. Blond. Curly. Coffee-and-cream skin. Olive skin. The Cananth were like an advertisement for genetic diversity, even though they all carried the Ancient gene. The child began to wriggle in his arms before he spotted her, and he set the boy down on his feet. His chest felt hot from the center, watching them come together.

“Shanor, what happened?” The woman asked, going down on one knee in front of the child. Her eyes were bright, as if she'd been crying. She had only one tattoo on the arm that reached for her son.

“You left the stew pot,” the boy said. “We can't lose metal, Mama. You said that!”

“I would rather lose the stewpot then you,” the woman said folding her arms around the boy, pot and all. John fought the urge to hug them both, the pounding in his chest slowing in relief. The woman looked up. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, ma'am.” He turned away, embarrassed. He glanced back once as he went to find Kanor, and saw a few of the people closest talking with the boy. He held up the pot, proud of what he'd done, and the faces seemed approving. No one looked at John, which seemed strange. Usually when this happened, people would say something to him, usually effusively. He never enjoyed the compliments, but to be ignored? It seemed odd. Maybe the Cananth weren't big on gratitude. He turned away and threaded his way back to Kaline.

Voices murmured behind him, and seemed to come from every passageway. He spotted Kanor chasing McKay, who was looking at his tablet and following his own course, barely dodging people.

"Sheppard." The voice was Kaline's. "Would you come with us?"

"Let me check on my people, first. You're sure the Wraith won't find us here?"

She nodded, seeming both to agree and to approve. "I will wait for you there." She indicated the passage McKay had taken.

John found Ford at the entrance, standing with the Cananth guards. A dart sounded above them, far away and moving fast. "You good?"

"I'm good."

"Seen Teyla? Corrigan?" John asked, and Ford nodded, inclining his head back up the wide hallway where Teyla stood talking to Kaline. "You all right?" he asked her.

Teyla nodded, then looked at Kaline. John followed her glance, and Kaline said, "Your McKay has gone to see the place of Help with Kanor. I would like to show it to you."

"I've got one more person to find." John walked through the Haven. There were several hundred Cananth here, at the very least, perhaps several thousand, if these tunnels went back much farther. It was more than came up the hill with them. He had no idea how so many had entered so quickly. He found Corrigan with Shanor and his mother.

"Everything okay?"

"We're fine," Corrigan said. "Mind if I spend the--" He turned to the woman. "The Wait, right?" She nodded. "Can I spend it here? I thought I'd talk with with Shanine and Shanor." He gave John an open look, but John thought this would be a perfect way for Corrigan to ask about what happened to the children without the Ancient gene. He nodded, and smiled at Shanine. She smiled back and reached for her son. He touched the boy on his blond head and went back to Teyla and Kaline, trying to fix the names in his mind before he gave up and started calling them the blond ones.

The corridor looked more like the interior of Atlantis than a cave, although some of the rock formed a wall. Hallways led off it, and John could hear the sound of people and animals echoing back. There seemed to be more people here than came up the hill. "Kaline, can I ask a question?"

"Of course, Sheppard."

"Are there more entrances than the one we saw?"

"Many, all over the planet."

"All over the planet?" That was what McKay had noted before.

"There is only one Haven and Help, but many paths to it."

"Can you use these paths to get to other places on the planet?"

"Of course."

"Transporters?" John said, and he looked at Teyla.

"Not what we call them, but yes. Senders."

"Senders," John repeated. "Everyone at once, or a few at a time?"

"Everyone in the chamber."

McKay's voice came down the hall. "But what I want to see is that way."

They turned a corner. McKay stood gesturing toward the corridor Kanor had blocked with one muscular arm. "McKay," John said, "Let's take the tour, okay?" John wanted to see more, too, but Kaline was not the type to be pushed. McKay glared at John, but nodded reluctantly.

They followed Kanor down a corridor. Its blues and greens reminded John of Atlantis, but as they walked further into the Haven, the patterns began to shift and twist, becoming more intricate, less angular. They came at last to a pair of closed doors. Kanor stepped aside. "Would you, Sheppard?"

John stepped up to the doors, looking for a familiar Atlantis-type sensor, but there wasn't one. The pattern on the door came to a central spiral, and John tried putting his hand on the swirl. The lines in the pattern lit up in a wave, bright and strangely calming. The door rose into the ceiling. John looked into the room.

"Our Help," said Kanor behind him.

For the size of the door, the room was not large. The dimensions were about the same as the Chair Room in Atlantis, but there were swirling patterns on the walls, Ancient in feeling but unlike most of Atlantis’ Ancient décor.An offshoot, maybe? Something religious rather than just functional?

McKay bustled past him. "All right. This is interesting."

"Interesting how?" John asked.

"The readings are a lot like the Chair." McKay made noises in the back of his throat, his thinking noises. "Strong neural interface-type readings, but--" McKay looked up. "Interface with what?"

There was nothing in the room, but as soon as McKay mentioned the Chair, John knew he was right. He turned to Kanor. "How does the Help, uh, help you?" John asked.

"Here we become."

"Clear as mud," McKay muttered.

"You do not know what you are," Kanor said. "Here you could become."

"Not this again," McKay said.

"We still don't know what that means, to become," John said.

Kaline stepped toward them. "Kanor says you guard and you herd. Your name comes from herding an animal called sheps, right?"

McKay snorted. John glanced at him, trying not to answer the slant of McKay's mouth with smirk of his own, "Close enough. I don't actually herd animals." He heard McKay mutter something about Marines.

"But herding is more than that," Kanor said. "We talked about it."

John nodded, and Kaline said, "How do you know who you are and what you do? How do you become that? The Help clarifies, removes the doubt and distraction. Could I speak for the Cananth with doubt in my voice?"

John couldn't answer. He shifted from foot to foot under Kaline's gaze, feeling as if she could see his own doubts. He couldn’t look at McKay. It struck him that McKay knew more about who he was than anyone else on Atlantis, and maybe anywhere.

A runner came to the door of the room. "Kaline, I am sent to tell you the Wraith have gone."

"Well, that's it then," said John, relieved that the questions would stop. "Business as usual now?"

Kaline looked at him. "Not here." She led him out of the Help, and John and Teyla turned McKay toward the door, against his protests. When they were back to the place where Kanor had held off McKay, John said, "Is there any chance McKay can go see what he wanted to see now?"

Kaline said, "Not... yet. Another time. Soon maybe." She looked at John, and he couldn't read her expression.

They followed the Cananth out of the Haven and Help. Ford was waiting outside the entrance, Dr. Corrigan with him. Corrigan looked like he was there only because Ford insisted, looking down the hill and fidgeting. When he saw Sheppard, he started to step toward him, then checked himself when he realized Kaline was there, too.

"Everything all right?" John asked. Ford nodded, and Corrigan did too, a half second later. John smiled at Kaline, and said, "We'll be right behind you." Kaline glanced past him, and John kept himself from turning around to see what she was looking at back at the entrance. She nodded, and turned to walk back. Very quickly she was surrounded by Cananth.

Corrigan started to speak, but John turned to Teyla. "Have you seen anything like that place before?" She shook her head. "Neural interface, McKay. What's it do?"

"How could I know? The readings were similar. That other place I wanted to check out, they wouldn't let me get to, but I think that's where the dampening field, or whatever it is, is generated."

"They have room-sized transporters," John said. "There were people in there from all over the planet." He watched McKay's face go slightly slack, the way it did when he was calculating in his head. "Yeah," John said. "That's a lot of power." He turned to Corrigan. "You get an answer about what happens to kids without the gene?"

"She said, 'They are left for others.' Near as I can tell, that means they dial the gate, find a nice doorstep, and leave the child on it."

"What is he talking about, John?" Teyla asked.

"Simple genetics. If the Cananth all have the gene, but they encourage outside blood, eventually there will be a child who doesn't have the gene. Maybe a lot of them. So why do the Cananth all have the gene?"

Teyla's eyes went wide. "They are the source of the foundlings?"

"What? You know about this?"

"Yes. We have a few among the Athosians. They are children found near the Ancestor's rings. They are always healthy and well-fed, but we have learned not to look for their family, for their people. No one ever claims them. Certainly not the Cananth." There was an edge to her voice, and John shared her feelings. They made sure the children found homes, but this was eugenics, and he didn't like the sound of it. "This would not be the day to speak of it, but I will have to ask Kaline."

They walked back to the settlement area, and found the Cananth rebuilding the structures. They were going up quickly, and John assumed they had the system down pat. He saw two people over to the side, their heads together and near crying. He recognized one as Sanor, the girl Ford was seeing. He touched Ford on the shoulder to get his attention, and nodded over. "You want to find out what happened?" Ford nodded, and walked toward them. John watched for a moment to see if he'd be welcome, and the woman stretched out her hand to Ford, not letting go of the other man man near her. They looked enough alike to be siblings, and John didn't see any jealousy. He turned and found Kaline. "Need any help?"

"Sure. You go with Kanor. Teyla, please with me. Shanor!" The boy came running. "Teach Corrigan to calm rhunoks."

"I just want a corner where I can analyze these readings," McKay said. "Somewhere the sun actually comes through." He gestured to his solar panels.

They found a spot for McKay at a break in the trees, and then Kanor showed John how their buildings went together, and how easily they came apart. It was ingenious, and John had no doubt that the Cananth, if left alone by the Wraith, could have built sturdy and strong. The collapsible frames were a matter of practicality, easier to hide. Kanor handed John a rope, and they pulled in opposite directions, and John realized they were raising the small room John and McKay had been given that first night. He didn't want to think about it, didn't want the memory of McKay, bare-chested and relaxed. He looked at Kanor, who was flushed from exertion. That didn't help, either, so he asked, "How often do you have to do this?"

"I'm not sure how you measure time," Kanor said, "but not more than every thirty or forty days. We do not lose many to the culling, but when they come on foot, they find the few who stay behind with the rhunoks."

"Like today?" John asked, gesturing over to where he'd last seen Ford and the woman. "She lose someone?"

"A brother," Kanor nodded. "She will need to dance tonight, and she will need comforting. You will stay, won't you?" John hesitated, and Kanor said, "We can't simply trade now. After the Wraith come, we must dance."

John tried his lazy grin. "No offense, but, you seem to dance for everything."

Kanor stepped closer, and ran the back of his hand down John's forearm. "We dance to remember we are alive." The gesture was too intimate, and John stepped back. Kanor merely looked at him. "No offense, but you seem to need to dance. Stay. Be alive with us. If not with me, with McKay."

John held himself, kept himself from glancing toward McKay. "I'm fine." Kanor said nothing, but John heard how clipped he sounded in his own ears. He tried to soften it. "We appreciate the hospitality, but we're expected back. Perhaps next time."

Kanor seemed to accept the excuse, and led John away from the settled area, down no path John could discern, until they found the herd of rhunoks. Corrigan stood when he saw John, but he was grinning. "My dad was a large animal vet. I never thought I'd say this, but I missed being around big, smelly, hairy things."

John raised an eyebrow, but Corrigan looked too earnest to know what else the words might mean. One look at the rhunoks and John thought he might have a point there. "Sorry to break it up, but we need to get back."

Kanor came up holding a lead. At the other end was a rhunok, brown and trusting, looking like a small buffalo. "We cannot dress it for you, but in thanks for your labor--" He held out the lead to John, who took it.

"Thank you," he said, and then looked at Corrigan. "I'll let the experienced one handle this." Corrigan smiled and took the lead. They gathered Ford, Teyla and McKay, who had shifted following the sun until the Cananth had to dodge him to finish rebuilding the settlement. Kaline called a farewell, but continued working. Kanor walked with them back to the gate. John wished he hadn't, but talking with the team could wait until they were back in Atlantis.

Kanor stopped him, pulling him away from the others for a moment, and held up his arm. John bumped wrists with him. "You are troubled, Sheppard. Perhaps next time we can go to the Haven and Help, and you can see how it helps us."

"I--" Sheppard began. "Maybe."

"At the very least, you need to dance." Kanor smiled at him.

Something about the smile would not have been out of place in a bar with loud, throbbing music--the smile of someone cruising him from across the room, and John had to blink the image away, the sense memory. "Thanks for dinner," he said, nodding at the rhunok.

Kanor nodded, and McKay dialed the gate.

***

And then the Wraith came and laid siege. And Ford was gone. And Colonel Dillon Everett came and took command. And John, meaning it, said, "So long, Rodney." And John didn't die.

***

PX4-998. The Wraith had culled the planet recently, and they didn’t expect to find any people. It was a good place to bring a new guy to see how he behaved in the field before a permanent assignment. John led his team through the gate, heading for the inevitable village. Teyla and McKay were with him, and a Marine corporal named Shane, who was half a head shorter than Ford and a good six inches broader. Shane was okay, new, but he wasn't Ford, and he wasn't easy with people. With two years at the SGC, John suspected he’d be good in a firefight, but the Mountain didn't prepare anyone for Pegasus. He didn't like calling these trips test drives, but that was really what they were.

As they walked through the cold, charred wood of what had been the village, John looked for any sign of recent life. McKay had instruments out, but he didn't seem to see any power or life signs. "Okay, let's split up," John said. "Shane and Teyla, me and McKay. We're looking for any indication that there are still people here.

Shane hesitated, glancing at Teyla. "Sir? Priorities?"

John walked over to him, and led him a few steps away. "What are you asking, corporal?"

"Is she a priority? In case of, you know..."

"Attack?" John asked. Shane nodded, and John missed Ford. "Do we need to go back to the 'gate?"

"Sir?"

"I need team members who are part of a team, corporal, even if it's a temporary assignment. If you don't trust her to pull her own weight and to get your back, then..." John let the sentence hang unfinished for a moment. "And we don't leave people behind."

"Sir," Shane said. John couldn't tell what he meant, and he wondered again they shouldn't just go back. That was his gut-level reaction. He wasn't sure what that would do to Shane's morale, or what message it would send to the rest of the Marines. Ford had been a Marine John could work with, but maybe that was the difference between officer and non-com. Or maybe it was just Shane, who seemed to be staring off into the middle distance. John tamped down a flash of irritation. Maybe he should have paired Shane with McKay, but the man needed to learn to work with what he kept calling the natives. Two years at SGC, and he didn't know better?

"Go on. Meet back here in fifteen. Follow her lead." As he said it, John wondered what Col. Everett would do. He'd been wondering that a lot lately. Shane turned and set off with Teyla, and John moved to McKay, who was still looking at his readings. "Anything interesting?"

"What?" McKay looked up. "Oh, not really. No energy. Life signs, I think."

"You think?"

"I think. Could be large animals."

John pulled out his own life signs detector, and looked at the reading. He could see the four of them, Shane and Teyla moving in an arc away from where he and McKay stood. There were other signs in the area, but they weren't clearly human. They seemed small. "Shall we check those out?"

"Yes, let's walk toward the potential predator," McKay said.

"Could be something else. Maybe the people here were just short." McKay snorted, but began to lead them toward the nearest group. John looked at his own detector. The dots fled before them, scattering. "Huh. Kids, maybe?"

McKay groaned. "Great. Orphans. You're going to want to bring them all back to the city."

"Sure, Dr. McKay," John said. "I'll let you help them with their science fair projects." It wasn't even a good joke, as sarcasm went. John felt twitchy. "Let's see if we can find them."

McKay made a non-committal noise, but he led the way. The small dots continued to scatter before them. John stopped. "Let's head back. They're scared and they won't come near us. Maybe Teyla and Shane had better luck."

When they reached the ruin, there was no sign of them. John keyed his radio. "Teyla? Corporal Shane? We're back at the site. Come in?"

"We're here, sir," Shane's voice answered. "Nothing to report."

"That is not quite true," Teyla said. "I have seen signs that there are children still here. They are hiding themselves well."

"Good for them," McKay muttered, but John said, "We thought as much from our life signs indicator, but they're staying away from us. We won't find them. Not now. They're still scared."

"Perhaps another group," Teyla said. "One prepared for children. The Wraith may have left them to re-grow the herd." Even over the radio, John could hear the bitterness in her voice.

"All right. Meet us back at the 'gate." John turned to McKay. "Let's go. Nothing to see here."

"No," McKay said, but he was still watching his instruments. "Colonel, I think we have something. They're converging on Teyla and whoever the jarhead is."

"Cpl. Shane," John corrected automatically. "What's going on?"

"I'm not sure, but Teyla has company. Just kids, so it's probably okay."

John knew that kids, especially scared ones, could be very dangerous indeed. He jogged toward the other side of the village, McKay keeping pace. Shane's voice came through the radio. "We have a situation."

When John arrived, Teyla was gone, and Shane stood waiting, blood running in a thick line down one side of his face and on his neck. "Where is she?!"

"Sir, they--" Shane didn't finish, and when John got close, he could see his brown eyes were unfocused. He was on his feet only through Marine toughness. Loose rocks, some dark with blood, lay scattered on the ground around him. "They were kids, sir. They just wanted a mom. I couldn't shoot."

"It's okay," John said, although it was anything but. He needed Shane to keep talking.

"She knew something was wrong. I missed it. I could have stopped them, but I thought they were just kids looking for a mom."

"Which way, corporal?" John didn't hold back his anger but he hid his fear. If these were kids who survived the Wraith, there was no telling what they would do. Shane pointed. "McKay, get him to the 'gate, and tell whoever's on deck to gear up and get here."

"What if--?" McKay started, and John cut him off. He needed to be moving, not listening to McKay.

"I don't care if they're kids. Shoot if you have to. Don't let them in range."

"They've got good arms sir," Shane said with a vague laugh. "Be good ball players."

"Take him before he passes out and you have to carry him." John reached over to McKay's holster, flicked the safety off, and put it back. He looked into McKay's eyes, nodded once, and turned.

John wasn't much of a tracker, but the path on this side of the village wasn't hard to find. He took it at run, fast enough to cover ground and still look for the signs. Footprints in the dirt seemed fresh, but he wasn't sure he'd be able to tell if they went off the path. This wasn't right. He stopped himself and listened, slowing his breathing, willing his heart to slow down enough that the blood would stop rushing in his ears.

Voices. Children's voices. Teyla's lower note came through the babble, but the tone was off. She was scared and trying to talk her way out of it, keeping her voice calm. John gave himself a few more seconds to be sure of the direction, and then he ran. The sounds led him toward a break in the trees, and he slowed again to listen. He could hear Teyla distinctly.

"No, this will not help you. We can take you with us and find you homes. We would be happy to feed you, help you. Don't do thi--" The word ended in a shout, and John ran again, fear skittering like hot wires under his skin.

He broke into a small meadow and skidded to a halt. A silent pile of children, writhed in the middle of the clearing. John couldn't see Teyla, but then he heard a acream from the center of the pile. "Get off!" he yelled, running forward and picking up a smaller child by the waist. It was a boy, maybe eight, and he twisted and fought. John felt something stab into his forearm, and he let the boy drop. Blood welled up on his forearm through a slice in his uniform jacket. The boy grabbed John and clamped his mouth over the wound, and John could feel the boy's tongue through the hole in the fabric, hear the sucking sounds he was making.

John froze for a second. These were children, left after the Wraith culled their parents and destroyed their village, and they were trying to suck the blood out of them. He heard Teyla moan again, and went cold.

He flung the boy off his arm, and kicked him when he attacked again. He fired his P90 into the air, yelling, "Get off her, now!" but it felt like he was doing it for form's sake. Some of the children looked up at him and rose, reaching for rocks. He couldn’t afford to underestimate them, couldn't afford to be hit in the head like Shane. They were the enemy. He shot at their feet, bullets kicking up dirt, but they didn’t stop. John dodged the first rock, took aim at a girl who looked to be about ten, dirty and thin, with a red smear around her mouth and a rock aimed and ready.

He killed her with a single shot to the head. Time slowed as her head snapped back with the impact, and she fell. He could see Teyla, staked to the ground through her uniform jacket and her BDUs, her clothes torn and stained with red blotches. The children had rocks and small knives, and they turned away from Teyla and came for him.

He backed into the tree line, shooting at a sandy-haired boy with a rock, aiming for the leg in a hope that screams of pain would slow down the others, make them change their mind. He fell with a howl, but they stepped over him. There was only one thing he could do. He fired.

When he was sure he was safe, at least from that group, he ran to Teyla. "You okay?"

"I am alive," she said. "Did you...?" Her voice broke.

John nodded as he pulled out the rough stakes that pinned her. "They were killing you, and they were going to kill me." He didn't glance at the bodies, didn't listen to the sounds that told him that some were still alive. He held out his hand and Teyla took it with both of hers, wincing as he pulled her to her feet. "Can you walk?"

"I think…" she started, but she looked past him and swayed, and John leaned down to take her over his shoulders. He was half way to the 'gate when Sgt. Bates and his team found them. There were medics behind them, and John let them take Teyla on a stretcher.

"Colonel, sir?" Bates said, "Do we need to look around?"

John shook his head. No one needed to see what he had done, and he didn't want to be forced to talk about it. "Let's get her home."

***

Teyla looked pale. There were bandages all down her arms, and an IV line taped to her hand. John swallowed, remembering the children around her, feeding on her. Carson came and stood beside him at the foot of the bed. "She'll be fine, Colonel. Most of that won't even scar. She's lost blood, but that's really only the worst of it."

"Shane?" John asked, not taking his eyes off Teyla.

"Concussion and a broken finger. Some bruises. He'll need a few days off."

"He can have a week," John said, tamping down a surge of anger. It was irrational, John knew, but he felt like Shane had dropped the ball by not understanding the threat. They might have been able to get away before anyone was hurt.

Before John had to kill fourteen children armed with rocks and knives.

"What about you?" Carson said, as if he could read John's thoughts.

"Bruise," John said. The rock that had hit him on the arm had left a purple welt.

"I'm not talking about that. You might want to talk with Dr. Heightmeyer."

"I'm fine." John clamped his jaw around the word.

"Colonel, what you just did, no one should have to do. To kill children--"

John kept his voice even. "I'm fine." He couldn't have left Teyla. Maybe if he'd been alone…. He glanced down at Teyla's bandages. "You weren't there. They were eating her."

Carson nodded. "Consider it, though, won't you?"

John agreed, then turned to go. "I need to get cleaned up."

"What's that?" Carson pointed at the tear in John's jacket. John rolled up his sleeve. "That's more than a bruise. What made this?"

"They had knives. Same kind as…" He gestured toward Teyla.

"Let's take care of this, then." Carson led John to a chair, and put his arm on the table next to it. He cleaned the cut, which was deeper than John had thought, and put in two stitches. As he put on the bandage, he brought up Heightmeyer again.

"I'm fine," John said, pulling his arm out of Carson's grip and rolling his sleeve back down.

"I'll see you tomorrow, then," Carson said, looking levelly at John. "Staff meeting. I'm going to ask Dr. Weir if I can take a medical team back to that planet."

John would advise against it, but he didn't say anything to Carson. He took a last glance at Teyla, and left the infirmary. Back in his quarters, he stripped down to his shorts and turned on the shower, wanting nothing more than to wash off the day. Then it hit him: he should have seen Shane. He couldn’t believe he hadn't. He turned off the water, and pulled his clothes back on, jogging through the corridors to the infirmary.

Carson looked up. "Everything all right, Colonel?"

"Is Cpl. Shane still here?" John almost hoped Shane had been released to his quarters.

"Aye. I'm keeping him over night. You'll find him back that way."

John nodded, and walked back to a bed where Shane lay sleeping. Part of his head had been shaved, and there were dark stitches surrounded by bruises and swelling. There was another goose egg on the other side of his head, and welts and bruises on his arms. The kids and their rocks had been pretty effective. Shane opened his eyes. "Sir." He said. Both eyes focused on John, and then Shane looked away. "I'm sorry, sir."

"Sorry for what?" John asked. "What happened?"

"The kids came up, and I just didn't think they'd be a problem. They came up to Teyla and they said they needed a queen and a mother, and I thought that, you know, after the Wraith had culled all their parents and trashed the town... I mean, back home I'd've worried they had bombs or something, but they looked so happy to see Ms. Emmagen."

The word queen struck John, but he wasn't sure what he thought about it. "Then what happened?"

"They started dragging her with them, and she tried to get them to let go, but they wouldn't. I tried to help, you know, pulled one off her. Then they went nuts and started throwing rocks. I got knocked out. I'd just managed to get up when you found me."

That made John feel a bit better. Shane hadn't been able to go after Teyla. "Why didn't you radio us?"

"It all happened pretty fast, sir. I'm sorry, sir. They were just kids. I couldn't see shooting at them." Shane closed his eyes. "But you found her, sir, and you got her home."

"Yeah." John didn't know what to say. He was fairly sure no one had told Shane what happened, but he let it lie, wanting mostly to leave and get back to his shower. He clapped Shane gently on the shoulder. “Get better, Corporal,” he added, and when Shane thanked him, looking as if he expected more, John fled.

The shower was not enough, but it had to be, and when he was dressed he went down to the mess hall, still feeling on edge. Here he had no one to blow off the steam with. Back on Earth, there’d always been places to find quick relief with someone who'd been there, who'd understand, and if Sheppard wanted to use his mouth instead of his hand, no one complained. It was good, and reminded him he was still alive, and he'd swallowed down the bitterness of war and made it part of him. It was hard to think about sex here, surrounded by people he couldn’t touch, but quick sex was what he had always had before Pegasus.

He didn't remember getting his tray or sitting down, but then McKay was sitting across from him. "I heard it went Lord of the Flies."

John blinked. "Something like that. Don't really want to talk about it."

"What happened?" McKay said around a mouthful.

"Didn't I just say that I didn't want to talk about it? It was--" John realized that the combination of his earlier train of thought and McKay sitting right across from him were having an effect. He probably shouldn't stand up any time soon. Inappropriate maybe wasn't a strong enough word for just how wrong it was to get hard right then, but then McKay, Rodney, sweat-drenched and begging, had been the star of some of John's weirder fantasies lately.

"Colonel?"

Maybe talking about PX4-998 would take his mind out of the place he really didn't want it to be. "The kids. They cut Teyla all over and sucked on the blood. One of them cut me, and latched on to it." John indicated the bandage.

"Human saliva? I hope you had Carson clean it."

"Of course," John said, waving away Rodney's concern. "They had Teyla staked to the ground, and they were on her in this pile. A puppy pile," John said, snorting at the grim humor.

"Wait," Rodney said, holding up his fork. "On our way to the 'gate, Shane kept saying that the kids were looking for a mother or a queen. Queens, Sheppard. Who has queens in this galaxy?"

John instantly knew what Rodney meant. "They were Wraith worshippers. That's why the Wraith left the kids, so that they could breed more food."

"And maybe the Wraith Queens did something weird, or the kids put things together that didn't make sense." Rodney nodded. "So what happened?"

"They came after me, and they had Teyla, and there was only one thing I could do." John could hear his voice breaking, and it echoed somewhere inside him. He pushed his tray to the side, unable to eat. He tried to control his face, but there was no hiding this from Rodney.

Rodney stared at him, his laden fork paused in the air. John looked away. "That means what I think it means, doesn't it?" His voice was soft, and there was a note in it John had never heard. He glanced at Rodney, and his brows were drawn, his mouth tight. It made him look as if he were working on a problem that hurt.

After a long moment, Rodney said very quietly, "The Cananth have that whole dancing thing they do. I heard what Kanor said, about how it reminded them of living, or something. You want to go there?"

"What for?"

Rodney mumbled "Get you laid if nothing else." When John looked at him he said, "I've seen how Kanor looks at you."

"Arranging my social life, McKay?" John went for sarcasm, but his voice broke again.

Rodney blushed, which surprised John. "Just trying to help."

"I don't want to go to see the Cananth." John swallowed as if he were trying to stop the next words. "I want to go to Vegas."

Rodney froze, then his eyes started moving while the rest of his body was still. "You mean that? Not just a heat of the moment that you'll regret?"

There were no take backs. Rodney was giving him an out, and he knew he should take it for all the problems this was going to cause, but this was more than after-mission jitters. This was Rodney, and it was going to mean something if it happened. He heard himself say it again: "Vegas."

Rodney dropped his glance to his tray, put down the fork he was holding, and then said, "All right. My quarters. They're bigger. Give me fifteen, then I'll meet you there."

A quarter of an hour. An eternity. Rodney took his tray and left. John followed, taking a different route out of the mess hall, grabbing the nearest transporter and taking it to a tower on the other side of the city. He found a balcony and looked out over Atlantis. She was his to guard, and the people, in one sense, his to herd. Kanor talked as if John was as sure of himself in those roles as Kanor was with the Cananth and their rhunoks.

John stepped to the edge of the balcony and took in the shape of the city, and it was as if she filled a hole in him. He belonged here, he was sure of it, but he couldn’t get past the idea that he didn’t belong in command. He remembered the siege a few months ago. Everett had landed and taken charge, and in all of the danger and insanity, for all that they had butted heads, John had relaxed. An actual warrior was in command, and he listened, adapted, and made the right decisions. The weight wasn't John's to carry any more. If it had been, he couldn't have made the Hail Mary pass, taken that jumper out with the bomb. Commanders stay behind.

John wasn't one for soul searching, but he had to do it. Why didn't he want the job he'd been doing? Because he'd been faking it. Faking who he was came from long habit. Staying behind meant giving up the adrenaline rush that had always fueled his ability to keep other things hidden. Here in Atlantis he didn’t have any other outlet: the one place where he'd always been able to completely let it go--more than the furtive post-mission getting off--was the clubs with their back rooms. They were very far away, now. He had a sense memory of a cock down his throat, and that near choking feeling, the smell of a stranger's balls sweaty from dancing, the sound of the music blotting out everything, high enough, drunk enough, and nothing in the world that mattered.

Everything here mattered. A low sun glinted off the windows of Atlantis, and this city that almost fit, that almost felt like home--it was worth it. Even after days like today, it was worth it.

John's radio beeped. "Colonel?" It was Rodney.

"Go ahead." John glanced at his watch. Thirty minutes had gone by. "Sorry. On my way. Sheppard out."

John walked back to the transporter, not hurrying, but not dragging his feet. He set the destination for the section where Rodney lived and walked to the door. This was not going to be like anything he'd ever done. It was more than jitters and blowing off steam, and he had no idea why he was doing it. Rodney opened to his knock, and he'd changed clothes. He wore a blue shirt and civilian slacks that John didn't even know he owned. He looked good, and he looked nervous.

John looked down at his BDUs and the knife on his belt. He still had his sidearm strapped to his leg. "I guess I could have changed." It sounded stupid as he said it, but he hadn't thought about what this meant to Rodney. He stepped into the room, and when the door closed, the only light was the sunset through Rodney's window. Music played through the tinny speakers of Rodney's laptop, some jazz piece that had rhythm and melody. "Sorry I was late. I was thinking."

Rodney stepped back. "Did you come to tell me you changed your mind? Or is this not Vegas enough, because it's not really easy to get neon lights in this galaxy. I mean, I could, I could--" Rodney swallowed and looked away. "I have no idea."

"No, this is fine," John said, and it wasn't and it was. "What do you want to do?"

"I thought that was kind of obvious," Rodney said, blushing. John smiled. It was easy to let Rodney be nervous enough for both of them. "I mean, I thought through a number of scenarios, from starting with a movie and a beer, or we could dance, or just, you know, go for it."

Any preamble, and John was afraid he'd change his mind. "Let's go for it."

And Rodney did the thing John least expected, but should have seen coming, given the lighting and music. Rodney stepped up, took John's face in his hands, and kissed him.

John had rarely kissed a man, and every one of those had been aggressive preludes to establish who was hotter and hornier and more in control, with pounding music in the background. Rodney's kiss wasn't like that, and it wasn't like a woman's. John tensed at first, and when Rodney stepped back in response, he moved forward, putting his hands on Rodney's flanks, feeling the soft texture of his shirt and leaning in to close the distance between their lips. They barely touched for a long moment, breathing each other's breath, and John felt Rodney shiver under his hands. John felt like he was balanced on a precipice, the moment more intense, more overwhelming than any moment in any club, with the rush of blood in his ears and the staccato of Rodney's breath providing the rhythm. He let himself fall, pressing forward and opening his lips against Rodney's, feeling Rodney's mouth tense and then soften, and the tentative touch of their tongues.

Rodney made a noise in the back of his throat, but John could feel it vibrate under his hands, and he slid them from Rodney's waist, one circling around the back to draw him closer, the other running down the flank and to Rodney's thigh. John deepened the kiss for a long moment, and then pulled back, breathless. He was shaking, and he didn't know what he was feeling, and then he looked in Rodney's eyes. There was wonder and fear, and John knew Rodney well enough by this point to know that he was afraid that John was faking it, that the joke would be on Rodney when John turned to go. That was the last thing John wanted right now. "Come on," he said. It was only a few steps to Rodney's bed, and when they were standing next to it, John reached out to unbutton the soft, blue shirt. He wanted to see Rodney's chest and arms again, and when he had them bare, he ran his hands over them, learning the contours of Rodney's surprising muscles.

"Can I?" Rodney asked, reaching for John's T-shirt where it tucked into his BDUs. John untucked it, and pulled it over his head, tossing it on to a chair. Rodney placed his hand in the middle of John's chest, over his dog tags, fingers in the hair. John reached for Rodney's head and pulled him in for another kiss, this time rougher and more demanding. When he pulled back for breath, their mouths barely apart, Rodney said, "What do you want? What do you need?"

John didn't know the answer. He wanted what he always wanted, a cock down his throat, but he didn't want to rush this. This was the opposite of mindless club sex. This took every ounce of his attention, and he was here, now, doing nothing but this. "It's all good," he said, the words meaning more than the dismissing slang. "Really, I..." and he couldn't finish with words. He kissed Rodney close-mouthed, and dropped to his knees, but instead of standing where he'd been and letting John suck him, Rodney sat on the bed and tilted his head up toward John. "Could you maybe, you know, disarm before we do this?"

John realized he hadn't planned taking off his BDUs at all, but he stood and unstrapped his gun, and then went to Rodney's desk to set it down, and then sat at the chair to take off his boots. He felt self-conscious with Rodney watching. He didn't know what to expect, but when he'd draped his BDUs on the chair and stood, naked except for his dog tags, Rodney shucked himself out of his trousers and shorts, and rocked from sitting on the bed to kneeling in front of John. He slid his hands up John's thighs and captured the end of John's cock in his mouth.

John's legs went momentarily weak. If Rodney's kiss was intense, his mouth on John's cock was a revelation. John looked down. Rodney's eyes were closed, and he sucked and licked as if he wanted nothing more in the world. It was all random, from a lick up the side to Rodney's tongue behind his balls, pulling one testicle gently into his mouth. None of it was designed to get him off, but the feelings and the sight of all that intelligence focused on him made his chest so tight it was hard to breathe. He had never imagined anything like this, and his head swam. He gasped out, "I have to sit down."

Rodney stood up, and turned them so that John's back was to the bed. John sat down slowly, missing the warmth of Rodney's mouth. Instead of sitting next to him, Rodney stood, looking down at John. John couldn't read his face, but it seemed the nerves were gone, but the wonder was still there. John couldn’t wait, and he leaned forward, using his hands to guide Rodney's mostly hard cock into his mouth. He heard a sharp intake of breath as he sucked down, taking the whole length of him in. He held it as long as he could, pulled back to breath, and sucked down again, feeling Rodney's cock harden further.

He'd done it to strangers. He'd loved it with strangers, but this was something completely different. The stretch of his mouth was like the opening of some wider door.

Rodney eventually pulled away and sat next to John on the bed. "Come on," he said. "We have to, just, sixty-nine, please." The words should have broken the mood, but they didn't, and John shifted with Rodney until they were comfortable. It was a long ride as the room darkened, a low buzz, and the vibration of Rodney's stifled cries when he came sent John over the edge after him, and when he drank Rodney down he tried to memorize the flavor. This wasn't the bitterness of war, but the musk of life.

Long moments later, John sat up. He leaned down to kiss Rodney, and the flavor of his breath made his gut clench and send a hot wire to his chest. He rested his forehead on Rodney's. "I can't stay."

Rodney chuckled. "I can't move." In the faint light from the window, he looked as relaxed as he had that night on Cananth, with an added satisfaction that was beautiful.

John rose, brought the lights up just enough to see, and dressed, finishing with his sidearm. He looked at Rodney, and by this point some of the tension and wariness had come back. "I'll be here, if you need me."

Words spilled out of John before he could stop them. "Every day. Whether we can do this or not." Rodney looked as if he were trying to decide between a sarcastic or serious answer, but John didn't want Rodney to say anything. "Kanor..." John said. "He's right. We need to dance." He held out his hand. "Partner."

Rodney looked at John's upturned palm, and his voice almost broke as he reached out and put his hand in John's. "Partner."

John paused at the door and swallowed as he looked back at Rodney. He put on one of his wry grins and said, "Leaving Las Vegas." Rodney closed his eyes, and nodded, and with that, John left. He didn't go back to his quarters, but instead took the transporter back up to the tower. The sun had long set. He stepped out to the balcony, looking at the stars and the water and the sectors of the city where there were lights. He drew breath, and tried to make sense of it all.

He felt light-headed, anchored only by the heavy weight in his chest. It wasn't every day you killed fourteen children and discovered you were in love. John didn't know who he was any more.

***

PX-something or other was a typical mission, in that it was typically turning into a mess. Opening negotiations, discussion of trade, and then suddenly they were surrounded, and it was clear they wouldn't be allowed to leave the stone fortress. "Awesome," Rodney muttered, and then Teyla and Shane were moving into position behind them.

"One of you has the power to operate the Ancestor's devices," said the lead chancellor. "We will determine which it is." They started with Shane, who was on his first mission after the Lord of the Flies planet. The box they held up did nothing when they brought it near him. Rodney was next, and John tensed, knowing it was likely to light up, and not knowing what the men in leather armor were planning if it did. He brought up his P90.

When the box began to glow, Rodney rolled his eyes, but the robed priestess knelt before him, holding the box up over her head. "You will stay with me as my priest, and ancestors will bless us. Please accept me. Or if you prefer, we will find someone more to your liking."

"None of you will be to my liking," Rodney said. John couldn't help the warmth in his chest, but he did not glance over.

"Do not insult us," said the chancellor, his face going red over his beard.

John made eye contact with Shane, while Teyla stepped forward. "Chancellor Ganiron, I'm sure we can discuss what you might like from our friends who can activate the Ancestor's technology. Dr. McKay merely meant that he cannot stay here. His duties would not permit it."

"Our need is greater than any of yours. Your technology is superior. You cannot deny us this." The guards began to move forward.

"I am not a poker chip!" Rodney said, but John was already moving, the warmth in his chest turning to fire.

"If you come any closer, I'll kill you." The guards stopped. They didn't have firearms, but they'd probably seen Wraith stunners. "We're leaving. Now." He led them out the door, nodding to Shane to take the rear. John could tell Teyla was fuming, but she didn't say anything. When they reached the outer wall, John turned to the hill where they'd parked the cloaked jumper. No one said a word as they sat down and he started the flight sequence.

Halfway back to the stargate, Teyla said, "Colonel Sheppard, this is the second time you've resorted to threats when negotiation was possible." John said nothing, remembering that the last time the threat had been to Teyla. Teyla sat back, but John was sure she was saving the conversation for later.

When they came through the gate, Elizabeth radioed even before they'd reached the jumper bay. "You're early. Everything all right?"

"Just a little threatened kidnapping," John said, drawling on purpose. "Didn't exactly feel welcome."

"Come and brief me in the conference room as soon as you're parked. Weir out."

They walked down the stairs from the jumper bay to the gate room in silence. Elizabeth was waiting for them, and turned to lead the way to the conference room. When they were all seated, she said, "What went wrong?"

"They found out McKay had the gene, and wanted him to take up with their priestess," John said. No one else spoke.

Elizabeth waited a moment and then said, "Teyla? Your thoughts?"

Teyla glanced at John, then at Shane, before looking at Elizabeth. "I would prefer to express them in private."

John leaned back, remembering what Teyla had said. He made a decision. "Dr. McKay, Cpl. Shane, please give us a moment." He turned back to Elizabeth. "If that's all right with you?" She nodded, and they watched them leave, Rodney with a brief glare at John, and Shane with evident relief. "In Teyla's opinion, I met force with force too quickly. They were threatening to kidnap Rodney."

"I think," said Teyla, not looking at John, "that there was room for negotiation. They appear to have something of importance that requires the Ancient gene to activate. Col. Sheppard did not take the time to find out what it was. It might have been shield technology, or even a weapon."

"They don't take my people." He sounded mulish in his own ears.

Teyla turned to him, "What happened to me with those children was not your fault. We know now that they were Wraith worshippers. Even Dr. Beckett's team had to turn back because they were attacked. John, you cannot continue this way."

"I'm fine."

Elizabeth looked at him, her gaze level. "You have not yet talked with Dr. Heightmeyer, have you." John didn't bother to repeat himself. "If you'll excuse us, Teyla," Elizabeth said. Teyla rose, touching John's shoulder as she passed. When she was gone, Elizabeth leaned back in her chair. "I can't afford to have you like this."

"Like what?"

"Paranoid."

"I wasn't paranoid enough for Teyla." And he wouldn't let anything threaten Rodney.

"And you may alienate all our potential friends because of this shoot first mentality you've adopted. I'd like you to stay out of the field this week, and then go on the burger run." She smiled. "The Cananth are friendly."

"You talk to them about abandoning their children yet? The ones that don't have the gene?"

Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment. "Teyla has started that conversation, yes. Her goal is to have them foster the children openly. Many Pegasus societies would welcome the population. And Dr. McKay has expressed interest in getting back there to learn about their Haven and Help."

"Is that all?" John asked. He felt disconnected from the conversation.

"I am directing you to see Dr. Heightmeyer this afternoon. No excuses. You don't go through the stargate again until you do. And your next trip is to the Cananth. You need to unwind." She laughed. "Maybe dance."

John felt color rise on his cheeks, but he said, "Sure."

"I'll know if you don't see Heightmeyer. I'll have her email you an appointment time."

"Okay."

"We'll talk later," Elizabeth said, rising. John left and walked to Rodney's lab.

Rodney was peering into the screen of a laptop, and barely glanced up at John. "Need something, Colonel? I'm a little busy, but if it's urgent..."

"No, not urgent." John wasn't sure why he was here. He wasn't looking for sex. He wasn't buzzing. He just had to assure himself that Rodney was fine.

Rodney sat back, snapped the laptop shut, and snapped, "My office." John raised his eyebrows, but he followed. When the door closed behind them, Rodney said, "I'm not a damsel in distress."

"What?"

"We've talked our way out of much worse. They were probably just opening negotiations or something. When do you start shooting first?" Rodney dropped his voice. "Vegas means Vegas. Everything else has to stay the same."

"It's not just you," John said. "Elizabeth thinks it's because of what happened with the kids. She wants me to go see the Cananth and dance."

"What do you think?" John couldn't answer. His back was to the windows between Rodney's office and the lab, so he raised his hand between them, palm up. Rodney didn't move to take it, but he said, "Come see me tonight." John nodded and turned to leave, but Rodney wasn't done talking. "Don't do that again, Colonel. There are many reasons, but one of them is that you'll out yourself if you keep protecting me that hard. It used to be Ford's job, and you need to delegate again."

"You knew?"

"That you made sure someone always had my, uh, six?" Rodney smiled at his own use of military jargon. "Smartest man in two galaxies. Of course I noticed. And, uh, thank you."

John smiled back at him. "See you tonight."

***

"Can you describe for me what happened with those children?"

John didn't look at Dr. Heightmeyer. He usually managed to use the right words to talk his way around shrinks. It was hard with her, because she'd been through what they'd all been through, and her BS detector was as good as any master sergeant's. He told her the events in order, delivering his report. He knew the next question, "And how did that make you feel?"

"I needed to not feel anything," John said. "I was focused on the mission, and at that point, they were enemy combatants."

"But after?"

"Really, I'm fine about it." But Heightmeyer liked emotions to have names. "I'm angry that they were born into a bunch of Wraith worshippers, but it wasn't like they weren't going to try to kill me. I tried warning them, but they just kept coming. I regret what I had to do, but I've worked it through in my head, and there wasn't anything else I could do. Even Teyla agreed."

"And that was important to you, that she agreed?"

"She was there," John said quietly. "She was the one they were sucking the life out of."

"And you were angry Cpl. Shane hadn't protected her?" John nodded. "But you've kept him on your team."

John shrugged. "He's still training for Pegasus. He'll do for now."

"Not a strong recommendation." John shrugged again. "About this recent trip. Dr. Weir is concerned that you jumped to the threat of violence first." She waited a long moment, but John said nothing. He was afraid he'd give himself away, that it was as much what had happened to Teyla as who those idiots wanted to make join with their priestess. "Why do you think that is?"

"It's been a rough year," John said.

"You used to be much more controlled. What do you think you can do to get it back?"

"I'm sure I'll come up with something." It would be Rodney. Rodney in their own Las Vegas. "Look, this has been great, but I have things to do."

He rose, and she didn't try to stop him. She looked at John and got to her feet. "I have you down for 10:00 on Thursday. See you the day after tomorrow."

John nodded and left. He sat with Bates at dinner, discussing staffing issues and armory stocks. McKay ate with someone from the science team. Later that night, he went to Rodney's room, hands trembling with repressed need for contact. And in the end, when Rodney was sweaty and boneless, John lay with his head on Rodney's stomach, the taste of him in his mouth and the smell of him filling his head.

Rodney threaded his fingers through John's hair. "Your turn?"

"I, uh, got it myself."

Rodney huffed, and then he said, "Does a mission have to go wrong for us to do this?"

"I'd want to do it all the time," John whispered. He wanted to say, I've never had anything like this, never had anyone like you, and now that I do, I can't stand the thought of losing it.

Rodney said, "Me, too." John almost thought Rodney was answering what he hadn't said. Rodney sighed. "We couldn't afford to. Too much depends on us."

"Yeah," John said, rising to dress. He kissed Rodney before he left, intending a quick brush of the lips, but Rodney grabbed his head to kiss deeply. When they pulled back, Rodney didn't let go. He looked at John, his eyes flicking back and forth between John's eyes. John leaned in to kiss him again, just to break that searching gaze.

John went back to the tower again, trying to figure out what Rodney was trying to say, what everyone seemed to be trying to tell him, and what he was trying to tell himself. He didn't get any answers from the stars.

***

"Sheppard!" Kanor dropped from a tree partway down the path, his hair neatly braided, and a grin on his face. "You're here again! Teyla. McKay," he said, bumping wrists with both of them, "And who is this?"

"Cpl. Shane, meet Kanor of the Cananth. He guards and he herds." John had the pattern down now. Who and what. "Kanor, this is Cpl. Shane. He's a soldier." John watched Shane's jaw twitch, wanting to correct him to say Marine. John still wasn't sure about him, so he was trying him out with friendly locals. Kanor did not offer his wrist.

Kanor nodded. "Do we trade today?"

"Sure. I'd like to see Kaline, if she's not busy, and Dr. McKay would like to go back up to the Haven and Help to study it more. If Kaline will let him," John added.

"I'm sure. Come." Two more Cananth appeared out of the forest and flanked them. Kanor maneuvered himself so that he was walking alone with John. John glanced at Rodney, and his shoulders were tightly set. "How are you, Sheppard?" Kanor asked, running the back of his fingers down John's upper arm. "You were troubled when you were here last. You seem troubled now. What are you now?"

"I'm not sure of the question." He made more space between the two of them.

"I was told by the ones who came to trade that you are no longer major, but something called colonel. What does that mean? Do you still guard and herd?"

"Sort of." John wasn't sure what the difference was, but there was a difference. He tried to think of an example. As near as he could tell, Cananth society wasn't very hierarchical. "When the Wraith came, how did everyone know what to do? Who decided which one was going to call for the ropes to be pulled to bring the houses down? Kaline didn't call every single one."

Kanor cocked his head. "Knowing what you are is knowing weather you decide or follow. The Help does that for us."

"We do it by naming the role, the rank. Colonel is a rank. Higher than Major."

"But it's just a name. I can call a tree a rhunok, but I still wouldn’t want to eat it."

"Well, we're not as lucky, I guess. If you're a tree and they're calling you a rhunok, you have to figure out how to look like you've got fur."

Kanor said nothing, so John inclined his head and walked forward to catch up with Rodney. "What's the plan?"

"Based on that last analysis, they may have another kind of energy generator that isn't a ZPM." McKay lowered his voice. "Maybe you can get Mr. Flirty Eyes back there to get me into the deeper parts of that complex."

"You have nothing to worry about," John said, suppressing a smile. Rodney snorted, but they didn't talk more until they reached the meeting place. It looked a bit different. "Visit from the Wraith since we were last here?" he asked Kanor.

Kanor nodded, momentarily grim. "They took Sanor. She was pregnant. Pregnant women are a delicacy to the Wraith."

Sanor. The woman Ford had been seeing. John felt the pang of losing Ford deep in his gut, punctuated by nausea of the idea of Wraith delicacies, of Ford's child gone. "What happened? That Haven works pretty well."

"She fell. There was no time." Kanor gave John another smile, but John remembered no one helping the boy, Shanor. "It happens."

"Why do they keep coming back?" John asked.

"I think we annoy them," Kanor said. "They are sure there must be more people here, but they cannot find us. But as much as we can do, not everyone makes it to the Haven on time."

"And you don't go back for them, because...?"

"It would risk more."

John understood. He didn't agree, but he could understand the logic.

"We find things to remind us we're alive," Kanor said. He touched John's arm with the back of his fingers, but John moved before Kanor could slide them down. Kanor glanced at Rodney, who was watching them. Rodney's mouth was a tight, slanted line. "Ah."

"Please," John said, feeling his face go cold. "We have a lot of reasons to keep it secret."

"You people who do not know who you are," Kanor said, shaking his head. "I won't speak of it." John glanced around to see who might have heard. He noticed Shanine, the young mother. Her wrist bore a second bar. John wondered what that might mean.

Kaline joined them. "Sheppard. Thought you'd forgotten us." She held up her arm, and John bumped wrists with her. What kind of blades did you bring us?"

"We have something you haven't seen. John pulled a folding knife from his pocket. John hadn't wanted to put it into the barter pool because it had belonged to Hernandez. The blade was half serrated, its edge curving to a very sharp point. Elizabeth thought that something more exotic might buy them entrance into the Haven and Help. If they didn't like it, he had a bone-handled paring knife in his vest. He demonstrated how the blade locked into place, and how it could be released to fold. Kaline tried the mechanism, and then handed it back to John.

"Worth more than two rhunoks. How many do you want?"

"Just two, and a favor."

"What kind of favor?"

"We would very much like to explore your Haven and Help."

Kaline looked at him for a long moment, then over to Kanor, who nodded. "Go with Sheppard and McKay," she said. Then to John, "Staying for dinner?"

"Didn't want to presume." John wasn't sure he wanted to stay, but before they left Elizabeth had said that she didn't expect them home. Yes, Mom, he’d replied, grinning when she rolled her eyes.

"Stay," Kaline said. "Teyla and I will talk."

John nodded to Teyla, and she stayed behind when the rest of them started up the now-familiar trail. Another Cananth woman that John didn't know fell into step with them at a word from Kaline. She wore the sling at her belt, and her reddish hair was cut close to her head. When they walked in through opening that appeared in the hillside, Kanor smiled at John as the lights brightened. "Where to first?"

"I'd like to see anything that looks like a control room," Rodney said. "Consoles. Anything with crystals. Maybe those movers, or whatever you call them? The big transporters."

"Senders," said Kanor. "We can show you everything. You may not touch anything."

"Hmm," Rodney said, tablet out, and looking down the hall. "Take me to the room you understand the least. Let's start there."

They followed Kanor, and the walk seemed longer than it probably was. The corridors kept brightening that extra bit when John entered them, and he was starting to worry that wherever they ended up, the technology would do something more or different. When they reached the room, it looked like many on Atlantis, with banks of consoles and suspended screens. Rodney walked around the five main stands, and he hummed as he consulted his tablet. He reached for a button, but Kanor shouted, "NO!" The Cananth woman had Rodney's hand in a tight grip. Rodney's face constricted in pain.

John was fast, and in two steps he had the woman's wrist, broke her loose from Rodney, and had her on the floor. "Sheppard, you cannot," Kanor said, his hand on John's shoulder. "Taline only did what you would have done.”

His heart hammering in his chest, John stepped back, motioning to Shane to lower his weapon and fighting to get a grip on his temper. What the hell was wrong with him?

"Please, let everyone stand," Kanor said. John looked at Shane and nodded. When they were all on their feet, Kanor looked at Rodney. "Can you learn without touching?"

"Can I at least open up the panels without changing the insides, and see how it fits together?"

"Can you skin a rhunok and make it run again?"

"It's a machine, not an animal," said John. "Rodney knows what he is. He is a person who understands machines better than almost anyone."

"Almost?" Rodney said, but there was no sting in it, and John glanced at him, stifling a grin because Shane was in the room.

"This is what and who he is," John said, turning back to Kanor. "Do you trust me? Then trust him. He will change nothing. Right?"

"Right," said Rodney. "Looking only. No punching buttons, unplugging wires."

"How long do you need?" John asked.

"How many of these rooms are there?"

"Five," Kanor answered, "and you asked about the senders."

Rodney looked at John. "Depends, then," he said. "If the other four rooms are just like this? Can I at least activate the screens? That's just an advanced form of looking."

"Show me."

Rodney held a finger above the control panel. "All this will do is activate the screen here." He pointed to the empty frame. "If it does anything else, you can break my hand."

"I would do more than that," Kanor said. "This is our Haven and our Help. It is not worth a knife to lose it."

"We know what it means to you," John said. "It would not be worth your life to harm him." Kanor's eyes narrowed, but John continued carefully, needing to get this right. "It's not worth your friendship to risk your Haven."

Kanor considered. "Let me see this screen," he said. Rodney pressed the control that brought up the screen, and his whistle was almost drowned out by the gasps from Kanor and the woman. "What is this?"

"Big," Rodney said, and without waiting for permission, brought up the others. "This is really big. It's like a new area of physics. Well, maybe not a new area, but if that means what I think that means this was an experimental station for large scale, well, experiments." Rodney was barely stopping to breathe as he talked, pointing out spectrographs and power readings, and then suddenly he stopped.

"Rodney?"

"I..." He chewed on his lip. "I need to look at this for a while." He went silent, and picked up his tablet, his eyes moving among the screens, and his fingers flying on the computer.

"Rodney?"

"Working now. Talk later."

John snorted. "He's going to be a while."

Kanor said, "Taline, stay with him. He touches nothing."

"Got that, don't need to," Rodney muttered. "Go do something else."

John walked around the room. Without a reference point to know how to interpret them, he couldn't read the displays on the consoles, but there was something interesting, something different about the readouts.

Kanor came up behind him. "Let's walk."

John turned at the touch, surprised. He hadn't realized he'd been concentrating so hard. He nodded at Shane. "Corporal, make sure he behaves and that everyone plays nice."

"Yes, sir." Shane had lowered his weapon, but he hadn't taken his hand off it. John approved.

Kanor led him down a corridor, and when they were several yards away, out of earshot, Kanor said, "You have changed."

"Same old me," John said, but he shifted his pack.

"From what you said before, the change from major to colonel means you have more responsibility?"

"Oh paper, I guess. I'm doing what I did before."

"No." Kanor's voice sounded final. "Before you guarded, herded, yes, but it was all your people. Now you only guard one. How can that be more responsibility?"

"That's not true." John had guarded Teyla, just not well enough, and it had to be a rescue.

"Sheppard, do you know what you are now? When everything is quiet, are you at rest? When it is only you and the wind in the leaves above?" John remembered looking at the stars a few nights ago, thinking that he didn't know who he was any more. He also remembered Ford saying that they shouldn’t underestimate the Cananth, because they were thinkers. Kanor had certainly thought a lot about John.

Kanor took his silence for an answer. "Come. We are here." John recognized the large room known as the Help. "Here we Become," Kanor said, repeating what must be some Cananth mantra. "You have taken a step. You have become Colonel. You have found your lover. It changes what you must be. A lover is a precious thing, but what you are requires that you guard all, not just him." Kanor put his hand in the center of the swirling pattern. John watched the lights play over his face, and when the door opened, Kanor said, "Become."

John stood in the doorway. Kanor leaned on the frame, inhabiting his skin and simply being the person that John tried to project. Every time he stood like that, leaning nonchalantly, it was a pose. Rodney couldn't pose to save his life. His twitchy arrogance, warring with his self-doubts, made him so good at what he did. He had to be right, and he worked hard to make sure he was. John had to be right, too, he hadn't been lately, from not trusting his gut with Shane and going back through the stargate, to attacking that Cananth woman just now. "How does it work?" he asked Kanor.

"If the Ancestors will speak to you, then you have only to stand and Become." Kanor reached for John's arm, leading him into the room. "What do you need to be?" An image of Marine Col. Dillon Everett flashed in John's head--the easy confidence, the competence, the ability to adapt, the sense of both strategy and tactics. He wouldn't want that same level of arrogance, because it was probably what had gotten him killed. But he needed to be that kind of person to do his job. "See what it is you need to be," Kanor's voice said softly.

John hadn't realized he'd closed his eyes, but he didn't want to open them, not yet. He had a sensation much like sitting in the command chair, and he opened himself to it. Instead of sensing all of Atlantis, it felt like watching something sensing all of him. He didn't know enough about biology and physiology to follow it, but there came with the images a slow and rising heat of pain, of change, of going through a fire. Two low points in his back burned, and he felt himself entirely calm in the face of the strange sensations.

And then it faded, and John opened his eyes, and Kanor was in front of him, an easy smile on his face. "You see? It is help. You will see. You have become what you needed to be."

John didn't feel any different. "Okay. Maybe we can see the Senders?"

"We need to go back to McKay. It is late."

"How long was I in there?"

"Most of the day. Becoming is not a quick thing."

"Seemed like just a couple of minutes."

"I know. Come," said Kanor, and John followed him down the hall. McKay was still staring at screens and at his tablet, but he'd convinced the guard somehow to let him open the face of one of the consoles to expose the wires and circuits. John could see control crystals. That would be the best way to shut this place down if needed, and they shouldn’t be exposed. Shane was standing where his weapon would cover either the door or the Cananth guard. Sheppard approved.

"What do you have for me, Rodney?" John said.

McKay looked up. His hair was sticking up and his eyes were a bit red. "For you? Nothing. But I think I've figured out how this works. The Genii were able to hide from the Wraith just by going underground, and that should really be enough if your power sources are off, but the Ancients were able to hide this facility. Except that I'm not sure these were authorized experiments, and they were probably trying to hide this from other Ancients."

"Why?" John asked. "Is this place dangerous?"

"Well, without getting into this more, I can't tell what the purpose of the facility was. Why create the room-sized transporters, which I looked at while you were gone, by the way, and then why shield the fact that you were doing it? No, unless I can start looking at records, maybe with Corrigan, because I think Elizabeth has been teaching him Ancient."

John hid his impatience. "We'll ask Kaline. In the mean time, is there anything specific we can take from this? Any idea how this dampening technology works?"

"Well, no, not without getting into it more than the don't touch rule."

"I see you got a console open."

"Well, it took a bit of convincing, and I haven't touched anything inside." Rodney glared over at the woman.

"Let's cover it back up and get out of here."

Rodney looked at him for a moment, and then picked up his tools and put the panel in place. They left the Haven and Help and walked down to the settlement. John turned to Kanor. "We need to get back."

"We like to celebrate a Becoming," Kanor said. "Kaline expects you to stay, and you haven't even picked out your rhunoks. She'll give you at least three for that blade."

"Maybe next time, John said, looking to see if Rodney was close enough to hear it. "I'd like to make our goodbyes." John went through the motions with Kaline, and took the rhunoks on the hoof. The Cananth were perfectly nice, but if he didn't have to dance again, that would suit him, and he didn't want to wait for the local butchers

Kanor did not walk them to the gate, but left the job to their guard for the day. He waved in parting, but turned to his own work, dismissing John. About half way to the gate, the woman paced John. "You Became today?" she asked quietly.

"I guess."

"I've never heard of that happening for someone who was not Cananth. And the Ancestors' machines spoke to your Dr. McKay. It is a day of wonders."

"I suppose." John wasn't sure what she was getting at, or if he cared.

"You do not stay to share the joy with us?"

"I have a job to do, and a place to be," John said, and she nodded, like it made sense.

They dialed in and walked through the event horizon. As they walked into the city, John turned to Rodney. "What did you really find there?"

Rodney looked at him for a moment. "Okay, whatever was going on there they were trying to hide it from other Ancients. Like I said, if they were just hiding from the Wraith, being out of sight seems to be enough."

"But the Genii have to shut down all their generators to keep from being spotted. The Cananth have the Senders, and those take power. Any idea what kind?"

"I think it's magma core, like geothermal on steroids."

"So not something we can take with us."

"I thought the rule now was that we don't try to take things people are using to, oh, I don't know, survive the Wraith."

"Oh. Right," said John. "What about the large-scale transporters?" John asked. "We've never seen the technology on that scale. Could we figure it out and replicate it? Hell of a tactical advantage to transport in an entire platoon."

"I don't know," Rodney said, running his fingers through his hair. "I've been up to my ears in this stuff all day, and if it isn't about to blow up, I'd like to let it all just settle." He looked up at John. "Where were you all day?"

"Kanor took me to see the Help."

"That's it? The room?" Rodney looked at him, and for a moment, John found the brilliance annoying. Rodney was assessing him. "You didn't, did you?"

"Oh, come on, Rodney. How likely am I to let some alien machine mess around with my head?" John didn't want to lie, but if he told Rodney the truth, he'd just worry. But Rodney looked at him for a long moment. He was opening his mouth to say something when Elizabeth walked up.

"What's going on?"

John said, "We didn't have a moment alone to talk, and I wanted to find out what Dr. McKay had learned. I'm sorry I didn't wait for the debrief. When would you like to start?"

"You've had a long day. If it isn't pressing, how about at the staff meeting?"

"This could be more urgent than that. Dr. McKay found that the facility is older than the Wraith, so the energy dampening served some other purpose, perhaps hiding the facility from someone else."

Rodney broke in, "I think. Maybe. I have no idea what the facility is for. The only think I didn't check out was that Help thing."

John didn't want Rodney to go there yet, so he said, "And Dr. McKay tells me he found the large transporters. That technology could be very important."

"Yeah, if you want to drill down to a planetary core to power it," Rodney said. "I'm tired, and I want a shower. Do we have to do this now?"

"Teyla?" Elizabeth asked.

"My news is not urgent."

"But you have news?"

Teyla nodded. "I think we have made some progress about the foundlings."

John wondered for a moment what they were talking about, and then remembered the question of the Cananth and the children who did not have the gene. It didn't seem very important, since the kids were usually okay with their foster families, right? He gave Elizabeth his lazy smile. "Showers to take. Reports to write. The morning meeting is fine."

He left at her nod, and went to stow his gear. Rodney followed, as did Shane, and none of them spoke as they hung their tac vests. John went to check in his P90 at the armory, nodded to Shane as he did the same, and then showered. He noticed a tattoo on his wrist, a bar made out of subtle, swirling shades. It had been hidden by his wristbands, and he'd have to hide it from Rodney for now. It was early evening, so he went to his office and wrote the preliminary report for the mission, then started on the stack of paperwork on his desk. About 19:00 he realized he'd almost missed dinner, and made his way to the mess hall.

Rodney was sitting by himself at a table, his computer open in front of him, slowly demolishing a bowl of jello. John set down his tray. "Dr. McKay," he said.

"Colonel." Rodney didn't look up, so John started eating. At one point Rodney pushed away his empty bowl, and put both hands on the keyboard and started to type.

"What are you working on?" John asked, breaking ten minutes of silence.

"Mmm. Stuff."

"You okay?"

Rodney glanced over the top of the laptop. "Are you?"

"Never better," John said, and saying it, he realized that he meant it. He stacked his silverware on his tray. It was time to get to the gym. "See you later."

"Really?" said Rodney. John glanced down, and Rodney was looking at him with an expression John couldn't read.

They had their "rough mission" agreement. Wasn't that enough? John didn't want to lead Rodney into thinking it was something more. "Gym. Work." Rodney's gaze jumped back and forth, and John realized he was focusing in turn on each of John's eyes. That meant they were too close, and he didn't remember leaning in, so he stood up and said, "Twenty-two hundred?"

Rodney nodded.

John limited himself to a light workout, followed by another quick shower and more deskwork. What had he been thinking to let the paperwork build up? At 21:50 he stood and stretched, then set off for Rodney's quarters. It was good having someone like that, John thought. Rodney had been more discreet than John had thought possible, and if the commander and the chief scientist had late meetings, who would notice it. How was it any different from before? Just the friends with benefits aspect, but no one else needed to know. And having Rodney's personal loyalty? That was going to make things much easier in the future if there were any conflicts. They key was to keep Rodney happy.

Rodney had changed, but only into a T-shirt and jeans. He looked tired. "Hi." He stood aside to let John in. "You okay?"

"Sure," John said. "Been worse for you. How's that analysis coming?"

"I'm getting somewhere. It would be easier if I could see what the controls did. Then I might understand what they're doing. Right now I have a vague idea. And I want to get into the Help. I think what they were hiding was the Help."

"I wonder why."

"I don't know. I'm not really sure what it does for them. It's a neural interface, but there's something more." Rodney rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, and then ran his hand down his face."

"Feel like I should offer you a beer."

"That's be nice," Rodney said, sitting heavily on his bed. "Look, I'm, I mean, I don't know how this works. It's not exactly heat of the moment, bad mission, and all that."

"It wasn't exactly an easy mission for you. My turn. He pulled off Rodney's shirt and pushed him down on the bed, face down, and started to work on the knots. John wasn't expert at this, but in the state Rodney was in, any kind of massage was probably going to feel good. John checked his watch and kept it up for ten minutes, before slowing and trailing his fingers down Rodney's spine. "Better?"

"Mrph" Rodney said to his pillow. He glanced up with one eye. "You're overdressed."

John gave him a smile. "What do you want to do?"

"I think I owe you one," Rodney said. "You know, from last time."

John wasn't going to argue. He was partly hard already, so he stood and opened his BDUs as Rodney sat up, pushing them past his thighs. "This okay?"

"Sit down," Rodney said, "or you'll trip yourself. Can't even be bothered to take off your boots?"

"Practicing for field situations," John joked, but the truth was, he wasn't interested in stripping in front of Rodney at the moment. He sat at the foot of the bed, and Rodney arranged himself with his head in John's lap. He started with a lazy tongue and took his time getting John all the way hard. He took John's hand and guided it down, and John started rubbing Rodney through his jeans, feeling his cock swell and his legs part as he shifted to give John more access. John thought about opening the jeans and lying down, making it a sixty-nine again, but he was pretty happy being able to pay attention to McKay's mouth. He rubbed McKay absently, enjoying the slick and the heat and even the occasional graze of teeth.

Eventually he wanted to thrust, and his shifted his hips, but Rodney didn't take the hint. John couldn't control the friction, couldn't push himself over the edge. He let go of Rodney's cock and leaned back on his hands pushing up with his hips again. "C'mon," John groaned. "Just, yes, that," as Rodney got down to business and got him off.

John flopped backward on the bed, catching his breath. "Man, we should have done this a long time ago." He felt Rodney kiss his thigh, and it reminded him there was unfinished business. He rolled toward him, opening the button and fly of Rodney's jeans. Rodney helped shuck them down, and John pulled out his cock and sucked it in wetly, using his hand and his mouth in a driving rhythm with one goal. Rodney came, beard scratching where his head lay on John's thigh, clutching convulsively at the tails of his shirt. John swallowed, because it was easier that way.

He gave Rodney time to recover, and sat up. Rodney's eyes were still closed and John put his hand into his thinning hair and rubbed his temple with his thumb until Rodney opened his eyes. "Hey," John said.

"Hey," Rodney answered, blinking as if he'd just woken up.

"I need to get going." He gave Rodney a wry smile. "Plus, beard burn on the leg."

"Oh, what? Sorry," Rodney said, sitting up hastily and laying the other way to pull up his jeans.

John stood, pulled up his shorts and his BDUs. "Thanks." He looked at Rodney as he turned to the door, and the stopped the movement. Rodney's mouth slanted sideways, as if he were unhappy. John remembered that Rodney liked kissing, and he was good at it. He bent down, a hand cupping Rodney's head. "Seriously. This is the best thing ever." John brought their lips together, but instead of Rodney meeting him, open and demanding, he gave John a closed-mouth kiss. John stood back, and Rodney got off the bed, walking over to his desk to turn on his laptop.

"Good night, Colonel."

***

Two days later, Rodney knocked on his office door. "Col. Sheppard."

"Dr. McKay." John blinked, "Can I help you?

"What are you doing here?"

"It's my office."

"You're never in your office."

"There was a lot of catching up to do."

"You never catch up! And you don't go up to that balcony any more." Rodney tightened his mouth as if he could swallow back the words.

"That would be why there was a lot of catching up to do. And I don't need to go stargazing. What can I do for you? Anything new on that Cananth facility?"

"Nothing." Rodney shook his head and turned away. "Sorry to disturb you."

***

"John?" Teyla sat next to him in the mess.

"Hi, Teyla. How've you been?"

"You have not been to train with me in almost two weeks."

John glanced up at her. She looked concerned. "I've been busy."

"We have had no missions."

"Military commander. Means I have to do... military stuff."

"You always found time before. And I have seen you in the gym, or sparring with the Marines."

John didn't want to tell her that he had started to feel strange about working out with a woman. He couldn't put his finger on it, but maybe it was important for good relations. "Y'got me." John gave her a smile to make her feel better. "Got tired of getting my tail kicked."

"I will expect you tomorrow morning."

John went down to the gym the next day. He remembered doing this with Teyla, and picked up a pair of fighting sticks. She came in, dressed in her skirt and leather shirt. Without a word, she picked up sticks of her own and walked to the center of the room. John followed her and took a fighting stance, eyes on the center of her chest, to see which way she would move. He blocked her first attacks, failed to land a few of his own, and they she came at him quickly, and he couldn't keep following both sticks. Blows landed, and he knew she was pulling them, and he felt a calm anger wash over him. She didn't need to baby him. He swung both sticks together, breathing hard now, and trying to overwhelm her with strength, and the next thing he knew, he was lying on the floor, Teyla's foot in the middle of his back.

"You have been avoiding me."

"Nah," he lied.

"You are not responsible for what happened to me."

"I know that. Can I get up now?" She moved her foot and he started to rise.

"And those children?"

"Enemy combatants." John got to his feet and looked Teyla in the eye. "It sucks that they were delusional enough to think they were supposed to feed like Wraith, and I'm sorry it was you they caught, but it played out the way it played out. It's no good going over it now."

She looked at him levelly for a long moment. "I see."

"I need to get to work," John said. Teyla nodded, stepping toward him, but he turned away before he remembered the Athosian forehead touch. When he turned back, she was already gone.

***

The rest of the week was routine. John sat through his sessions with Dr. Heightmeyer, kept to his gym and running schedule, and thought about a new program for combat readiness. He had just wrapped up the memo informing Elizabeth of the plans, when Sgt. Bates knocked on his office door. "Sir."

John looked up from his computer, squinting and stretching his neck. The backlog was almost caught up. "Yes?"

"My team is on rotation for the burger run, but Capt. Levy is down with some kind of flu."

"You can go a man short, can't you? It's just the Cananth."

"Yes sir, but Dr. McKay heard me tell Dr. Weir, and he seems to want to go back there. Something about additional readings in that facility of theirs." Bates shrugged. "Just wanted to give you a heads-up, sir."

"Thank you, Sergeant. Dismissed." John hadn't been back on his computer five minutes when his earpiece beeped. "Sheppard," he answered.

"John," Elizabeth said. "Capt. Levy is ill, and we were due for a visit to the Cananth. Rodney would like to go back. Would you mind taking your team?"

"Sure. What's our ETD?"

"Levy's team was due to go out in about two hours."

"We can make that. Sheppard out."

"Wait. John?"

"Yes."

"Instead of taking Cpl. Shane, would you mind taking Dr. Corrigan? He's requested a trip."

"Sure. Just have him there on time." John keyed his radio for his team. "Teyla, Dr. McKay. We have a mission. Just a burger run. See you in the gate room in two hours from this mark. Cpl. Shane, you're sitting this one out."

"Of course, John," Teyla answered.

"Oh, good," Rodney said.

"Yes, sir," Cpl. Shane said.

John worked at his computer for another hour, answering emails and checking off on inventories. He used the time on his way to the gear room to stop by the armory and do a quick visual confirmation of the inventory there and pick up his P-90.

Corrigan and McKay came into the gear room when he had mostly finished, and he nodded on his way out. "See you at the gate." He was there with fifteen minutes to spare.

"Colonel Sheppard," Elizabeth called from the balcony. "A moment." John took the stairs two at a time. "My office?" He nodded and she led the way. She didn't sit, or offer him a chair, but leaned on her desk to face him. "Is everything okay?"

"Why shouldn't it be, ma'am?"

"Your paperwork is up to date, the Marines are all jumpy, and you just called me ma'am."

"I gave the Marines a few spot inspections to keep them on their toes. How is that a problem? It's part of my job."

"I see," she said. She took a deep breath. She walked around to her desk, and took a knife out. "Carry on, then. Here's your trade goods."

John nodded and went back down the stairs, Elizabeth following. Dr. Corrigan and Rodney were waiting for him.

Teyla walked up a moment later and stepped over to Elizabeth. "It is time?"

"She agrees," Elizabeth nodded, her lips tight. "Rodney, you have a go."

John looked at Rodney. "What's that about?"

"The, uh, facility. Stuff up there."

John didn't like the look on Rodney's face. He was a bad liar. He also wasn't sure what the exchange between Elizabeth and Teyla meant. He shrugged, looked at Chuck, and nodded. "Dial 'er up."

They stepped through into the familiar glade, the high canopy of trees overhead. As they stared down the path, Taline and another man came forward to accompany them to the settlement. Taline fell into step with John. "Welcome back! Will you let us celebrate now?"

"I'd rather you didn't," John said. "Not that I'm not grateful, but I like to keep things low key."

"Part of what you are," she said, agreeing. John didn't know what answer there was to that, so he nodded, and glanced away. Rodney was near, trying to look like he wasn't evesdropping, but his body language showed that his attention was directed toward John and Taline. John let it go. He didn't want to tell Rodney he'd been in the Help. He was fine. Never better.

At the settlement they greeted Kaline, and Rodney reached into his pack to pull out an entire Hershey Bar. "I really would like to attach my computer to the consoles in the Haven and Help. It won't change anything, but I can learn more."

"And that is your price?" Kaline asked. "What is it?"

"Remember the chocolate that Dr. Corrigan brought? This is the same thing, and it's wrapped in metal foil." Rodney waved it. "Enough for everyone to taste, plus, metal. I won't change a thing, but I'll be able to learn much, much more."

Kaline glanced at John. "Did you bring me a knife, too?"

Reached into his pocket and handed her the paring knife Elizabeth had given him. "It's small, but it's useful. Fine work."

Kaline took it and tried it on her thumb, and nodded. "This will do."

"What about me?" Rodney asked. "Can I go up there? She can come with me and break my hands if I do something funny." He pointed at Taline.

Kaline nodded. Rodney turned up the path, and John noticed that Corrigan wasn't going with him. "What brings you here, Doc?"

Corrigan blushed slightly. "I'm going to join Dr. McKay in a few hours when he has the interface up, but in the meantime, I'd like to go play with the rhunoks."

John looked at Kaline, who shrugged. "They seem to like him," she said.

"Knock yourself out."

John, Kaline and Teyla stood silent for a moment. Teyla said, "May we talk of the foundlings?"

"Of course," Kaline said.

They went into one of the buildings, and John sat with them. He wasn't really interested in the discussion, but he listened to their voices rise and fall, and kept up with the gist of it. "Do you agree, John?"

He nodded. "I think so. If I understand, the Cananth agree to start asking people to take the foundlings, and not just leaving them at the gate. If they can't place a child, the Athosians will help."

"Yes." Teyla looked at John. "I think we are finished here."

About damn time John thought. Whole thing could have been settled in less than half the time. "I think I'll see what Rodney's up to, if that's all right?" Kaline nodded, and John rose, smiling at both women before he went through the hide door. Several Cananth nodded to him and stepped aside as he made his way up to the path. John didn't know what that meant. About half way there, he heard the distinctive whine of darts in the distance. He ran back to the settlement to help hide the signs, noting approvingly the organization of the Cananth and the calm in the face of danger. Rodney was already in the Haven and Help, and Teyla was carrying something, trailinging a group of Cananth up the trail. John hadn't seen Corrigan, but when the buildings were down, Kanor appeared at his side. him. "Come. We must go. They have spotted Wraith on the ground."

John took off with him to the Haven and Help, following the last people up the hill. As they stepped inside, he said, "Everyone in?"

"I think so," Kanor said. He glanced back. "And two breeding pairs. What happens from here is what happens. People die every time. We who live will remember them, and remember we are alive." He put two fingers in the middle of John's chest. "We dance."

"Okay," John said, suppressing a shrug.

Kanor's lips twisted as he looked down. John couldn't figure out why the man was disappointed. They stood just inside the opening, listening to the darts for several minutes. Teyla walked up to them, a worried look on her face.

"I can't find Dr. Corrigan."

"I'm sure he made it up," John said.

"No, John, I am sure he did not. I have looked everywhere for him, and Shanor said he last saw him with the rhunoks."

"Sometimes those with the herd are last to arrive here. They are the first to be taken," Kanor said.

"Hey may still be out there!" Teyla took John by the shoulders. "We cannot leave him."

"The Wraith are here, Teyla. Kanor says some are taken every time. It's not a reasonable risk to go after him."

Teyla looked at him, stricken, but John didn't understand why. She'd grown up with the Wraith. She should understand these things.

She turned and ran into the Haven and Help. John looked back out the door. Only those with the Ancient gene could open the door, and the Wraith couldn't even see it. He settled in to wait, but moments later she returned with Rodney.

"You're not going after Corrigan?"

"Rodney," John began. He wasn't sure he could put it in terms Rodney would accept.

"Who taught me that we don't leave people behind?"

"This isn't the same thing. Sometimes you just have to do the math, Rodney."

Rodney looked down, eyes moving from side to side, his jaw working. "If you leave him out there, in our uniform, the Wraith will know where we travel. We can't afford that. The Cananth can't afford for the Wraith to know that we come here. I'm going if you won't."

John took a breath. "Damn it." Rodney was right. He looked at Kanor. "Corrigan was with the rhunok herd. Where were they?"

"Beyond the meeting place. They were in a glade, feeding. You'll hear them."

"If he's down, it'll take two of us to carry him. John glanced at Rodney and then at Teyla. Rodney was more valuable, and Teyla was better in the field. "Teyla, you're with me."

"Of course."

John waited for a moment. The darts didn't seem close. "All right, let's go. We've got Wraith on the ground. You know the drill.

"Indeed I do."

John looked at her, not sure what to make of the edge in her voice. He nodded, and they started down the hill, keeping just off the trail, moving from tree to tree for cover. John heard movement, and froze, motioning to Teyla, but she stepped out onto the path. John brought his weapon up. What would possess her to do that? Were there Wraith close enough that they could cloud her mind?

"Cpl. Shane," he heard her say. John started to yell for them to take cover, wondering what the hell Shane was doing here. "This way." She raised her voice, calling, "John?"

John stepped out from behind a tree, walking with his weapon up, sighting down the barrel. "What's going on here?" Teyla stood with Corrigan, Shane, Dr. Beckett, and a team of six Marines led by Sgt. Bates.

"John, put your weapon down. There are no Wraith."

"What's this about?" He heard sounds behind him, and saw Rodney, Kanor, and Kaline walking toward them. "What's going on?"

"You are not Cananth," Kaline said. She glanced at Kanor. "Should never have let you ask for Help."

John looked from Kanor to Teyla. He couldn't look at Rodney, and there was no dodging this. Rodney walked up to him and held out his hand. "Your wrist. Let me see it."

"No."

"Sir," Bates said, "We need to see your wrist." He nodded toward Rodney, and Shane stepped closer, both tense, and John knew they probably had orders to make him comply.

"This is some misunderstanding," John said. I'm fine. Rodney held out his hand again, and John stepped back, dropping his P-90 and raising his wrist. He peeled back the black band just enough to show the dark bar. "Okay? But they're right. It does help."

"Sir," said Sgt. Bates, "you are under the influence of alien technology and have been relieved of command by Dr. Weir's order."

"There is nothing wrong with me," John insisted. "Tell them, Dr. Beckett."

"Not physically, no, but Dr. Heightmeyer has her opinions on the matter."

John looked at Rodney. His mouth slanted sideways, but he looked John in the eye. "You are not yourself, Colonel. We've all seen it."

"Kaline," Teyla said. "It is time."

"What about the Wraith?" John asked.

"Simulation, Colonel," Bates said. "We came through with a recording and a speaker.”

John turned to Kaline and Kanor. "You were in on this?"

Kaline shrugged. "Chocolate. And you are not Cananth. It is not for you. Teyla told me how you had changed."

Kanor stepped closer to John. "You did not Become what you are. You Became something wrong, something very different from what your people expect, from what they need you to be. Teyla helped us understand." He put the back of his fingers on John's arm, and John stepped away. "You cannot dance any more. That is wrong. That is not Help. What reminds you that you are alive?"

"I'm fine," John insisted. "This is better." Rodney snorted. John turned to him. Rodney's anguish was written on his face, clear enough even for John to see.

"You're not fine, and it's not better." Rodney stepped close. "Smartest man in two galaxies, remember?"

"Not noted for your people skills."

Rodney looked down and set his jaw, then his gaze locked on John's face. "Maybe not, but then if even I can see it? You have to undo this. We need you back." Rodney dropped his voice. "I--" he cut himself off. "You need to undo this."

Bates and Shane moved to flank John. "Sir, it's time to go." The Cananth began to stream down the hill, but they parted around the group and continued down to the meeting place. John shook off Shane's hand on his arm, and still looking at Rodney, turned to go up the hill. Rodney nodded at him, and John looked away, striding up the hill through the crowd moving the other way, letting the rest follow behind. If he was going to do this, it would be on his own terms.

He knew his way to the Help, but when he reached the door, he stopped. He didn't want to change back. He didn't know how. He could hear the others coming behind him, so he put his hand on the swirl in the center of the door, and it lit up and rose into the ceiling as before. He could feel the slight buzz when he stepped in, but nothing happened. Kanor and Rodney arrived at the doorway. "Nothing's happening," John said. "I guess you're stuck with the new me."

"No," Rodney stuck his arm out to block the doorway. "Try harder."

John snorted his impatience, but went back to the center of the room. He took in a breath and tried to concentrate. "Nothing."

Rodney walked into the room and grabbed John by the shoulders. "You have to--" but his words were cut off in a rush, the sensation that he was connected with himself the way the Chair helped him connect to Atlantis. It was painful, and he heard a sharp intake of breath from Rodney, and then the pain resolved to fire, the feeling that some kind of fire was being moved inside his head, pressed under his skin. The two spots on his lower back exploded and then froze, and he felt suspended, balanced, precariously open. His heart began to thunder in his chest as the sensations passed. He was gasping for breath when he opened his eyes, and saw Rodney's blue eyes, wide and worried, searching his face. "John?" There was a note of panic in his voice.

"All here," John said, and he could remember what he had been. He was not the Col. Everett type. This hurt, but the rush in his center when he looked at Rodney was a deeper pain, spiking down to his groin and the realization that he was suddenly hard. He turned his body away from the door, bending over with his hands on his knees, breathing deeply. He fought to get hold of himself, and Rodney's hand on his shoulder was an anchor. When he could stand and turn, he saw Teyla at the door, Bates, Corrigan and Kanor behind her. He looked at Rodney. "You got these people to agree to a fake Wraith attack, just to get me in here?"

"It was my idea," Shane said. "Everyone knew there was something off about you, but there wasn't anything we could point to that the military wouldn’t think was a positive."

"It was nice to have the paperwork up to date," Bates said.

"But you were willing to leave a man behind, sir," Shane said. "It gets you into trouble, but it's who you are."

John didn't know what to make of it. "Teyla?"

"You are here again." She stepped forward and they touched foreheads. Teyla’s hands came up to rest on his forearms, warm and familiar.

John straightened and turned away, because he couldn't school his face. They had done this for him, because he was who he was, not because of who he thought they wanted him to be. "I... Thank you." He couldn’t look at them. It was overwhelming. He walked to the far side of the Help, and put his hands against the wall. He could feel it. He could shut it down if he wanted to. Rodney stepped closer to him. "Col. Sheppard."

"Dr. McKay."

"Don't do what I think you're about to do. I have the gene. I can feel it.”

John nodded, swallowing down bitterness. Softly he said, "It's too much. How did I do it?"

"Live with emotions?" John nodded. Rodney said, "You were the most self-controlled man I know, and I have always, always admired that about you." He paused, and his voice changed to an attempt at breezy. "Wanted to be more like you, actually."

John pushed himself off the wall, laughing. "Not on my worst enemy, partner." Anyone overhearing them would think it was a joke, But he offered the word as an apology, remembering what he hadn't felt the last time he and Rodney had been together. "I owe you one."

"Can we get going? Carson wants a look at you."

"Sure," John said, ready to turn, overwhelmed, but with a lazy smile on his face. "Let's out of here."

***

Elizabeth came to see him in the infirmary. "I hear things are back to normal."

"I guess so," John said.

"Rodney and Dr. Corrigan have been going over the records Rodney was able to download before..."

"Before you faked a Wraith attack."

Elizabeth nodded.

"They learn anything?"

"Dr. Corrigan thinks the dampening field was to hide research into machines that alter consciousness. The Ancients were looking into ways to improve Ascension, maybe, or treating criminals? The Cananth may be the remnant of the experimental subjects."

"Elizabeth, that doesn't explain room-size transporters, or the fact that the Help could probably hold 50 people at a time."

Her eyebrows came together. "What do you think?"

"I don't know what to think. Creating soldiers to fight the Wraith?"

"Mass mind effects," Elizabeth said, and John could watch her drawing conclusions. "I suppose we may never know what it was for, unless Rodney and Dr. Corrigan work it out. Maybe I'll take a look at it, too. Maybe a rogue Ancient scientist?"

John shrugged.

"What was it like?" She asked abruptly. "After the help. Kaline explained it to me that they have some idea of what they want to become, and visualize it. What did you visualize?"

John felt his neck heat up. "I'd rather not say."

"Was it Jack O'Neill?" John snorted. That would have been a better choice, maybe. He shook his head. "Col. Caldwell?" He shook his head again. He stared at him for a long moment. "Col. Everett." It wasn't a question, but her voice sounded disbelieving.

John hung his head to hide his embarrassment.

"Well, that explains a lot," Elizabeth said. She patted his shoulder, and left him alone.

***

John stood at Rodney's door, shifting from foot to foot. He checked his life signs detector. Someone was coming, so he turned and walked briskly away. Around the corner he paused, watching the blip go into its room, then went back to Rodney's door, took a breath, and knocked.

Rodney's eyes widened when he saw John, but then dropped again as his mouth slanted sideways. "What can I do for you?"

It wasn't the greeting John had expected. He held up the life signs detector. "Can I come in?"

Rodney nodded and stood aside. John noted that he was freshly shaven. John had also showered and shaved when Carson released him. He came in far enough for the door to close behind him. "Should I go?"

"What?" Rodney said. "No. No. I just, I think I know why you're here, and it's okay. I mean, really. I get it."

John felt his shoulders unclench a bit. "I was afraid that after--" He didn't know how to say it. "I wasn't myself."

"Yeah," said Rodney, his voice tight. "I get it." He stepped away, his arms hugging across his chest. The distance confused John. He stepped forward, and Rodney stepped back. "I get it. Should never have happened. Vegas and all that."

"Have you been listening to me at all?"

"Yes. I hear you. You weren't yourself." Rodney wouldn't look at him. He'd made some decision John didn't understand, and he wondered if he should just turn and go, but he decided to chance it. Rodney's laptop was on the desk, so John walked over to it and leaned over the keyboard.

"What are you doing?" Rodney dropped his arms and took a step toward him.

John held up a finger. "Trust me." It was only a few keystrokes and clicks and he was in Rodney's music player. Sure enough, there was a playlist called 23423. He started it, and sure enough it was part of that rhythmic jazz mix Rodney had played that first night. He looked up to find Rodney with his mouth open.

"How did you?"

"Jazz for John," he said. 23 is the number of the letter J in ROT13 substitution. J is the 10th letter of the alphabet, and add 13, and--"

"I know. I did it, I mean, and God, do I love your brain! But I thought..."

John put his hand out, pretending he wasn't worried that his fingers would show his nerves. "I thought maybe," John stopped and took a breath, "maybe we should dance."

John looked from the hand to John's face. "That night, with the Cananth, I was drunk, stoned, whatever that stuff did. I mean, I can waltz if I have to, but..." Rodney let his voice fade. "Wait. You mean...?"

"I mean. Yeah," John said.

Rodney shook his head, his mouth twisting down, and John felt a weight fall in on him. He reached for the laptop and stopped the music. "I'm sorry. I'll go.

"Wait. No. What?" Rodney said. "No. It's just that if I had any doubt you were returned to normal, I think this proves it."

"What?" John's head was starting to buzz.

"You talk like you. You can't even finish a sentence."

"I finish sentences all the time!" The buzz got louder. Even for Rodney, this conversation was confusing.

"Not when it matters," Rodney said, "and not when you think I know what you're thinking. But I don't. I don't know what you're thinking."

John wanted to sit down. "Now I'm completely lost."

"Why did you come to see me?"

John looked down and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look," he said, trying to figure out how to keep Rodney from interpreting everything he said the wrong way. When he glanced up at Rodney his eyes were closed tight, like he was waiting for a blow. Words wouldn't do it. He pulled off his T-shirt, tossing it aside as he closed the distance between them, and grabbed the hem of Rodney's shirt, lifting it up and pulling it over Rodney's head. He had to touch him, to tell him, hands sliding down the contours of Rodney's arms, across his chest. Rodney reached out, more tentative at first, but when John reached for the button of Rodney's jeans, he went all in, and they helped each other undress.

When they were naked, they stopped, looking at each other from a short distance, their breathing ragged. John took Rodney's head with both hands, fingers splayed in his hair. Rodney's lips parted, but John hesitated. He'd fallen off this cliff once before. It should be easier the second time, but he held himself back. Last time he hadn't been sure of what he was getting into. This time he was.

He leaned in, feeling Rodney's moan against his skin, shot through with relief as their lips touched. Their mouths opened to each other and the kiss deepened, and neither one of them pulled away. This was the conversation they needed to have, with apology and forgiveness, and desire melting back and forth between them. The noise in John's head went silent, and in the space was light and air. John broke the kiss and looked into Rodney's eyes, his thumb rubbing across a cheekbone.
"Are we clear now?"

Rodney nodded. John led him to the bed and they lay down side by side, close enough to feel each other's breath, with their hands moving. John felt the tension of Rodney's muscles, and his own shivers when Rodney trailed his fingers down a flank. He rolled Rodney onto his back, and positioned himself above him, aligning their erections as he lowered his weight to his elbows. He wanted to drop his head to Rodney's shoulder, but he made himself look into Rodney’s face, open and wonderful, searching back at him. In the Help, the Ancient machine, it was Rodney who had made John whole, and Rodney who knew John well enough to help him find himself again.

A kiss could not say enough, but as John hesitated, Rodney reached up, giving John all the things that words could not convey. With Rodney's teeth on his lower lip, John panted, hips starting to rock, but hardly moving. Slick with sweat and trapped in the heat between them, John was more than ready, and when Rodney captured his mouth again, it muffled John's cries as he spilled out everything he had. Rodney matched him moments later, John pulled back to watch his face, grinning. He dropped his head to Rodney's shoulder before Rodney could see the smile and mistake it.

He shifted his weight, and lay down beside Rodney's spent body, hand on his chest to feel his heart and breathing slow. "Better than dancing," Rodney said.

John didn't correct him. They had long been dancing, and they would always dance.

shippen_stand: Written by a Shippen (Default)

[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-06-03 04:17 pm (UTC)(link)
And a huge thanks to [personal profile] cybele, whose gorgeous art inspired the idea of two Johns, one hollow.
cesare: portrait of John Sheppard by Crysothemis (sga - dubious john)

[personal profile] cesare 2011-06-06 12:09 pm (UTC)(link)
I enjoyed this a lot. I liked the well-balanced worldbuilding of Cananth. The individuals were reasonable and likable, but then there's their society's treatment of their cast-out children, and their willingness to sacrifice laggards during attacks. Your OC, Shane, was like that too; when we first see him, he's not too impressive, but then he helps come up with the plan to discover what's going on with Sheppard. Nothing's ever simple and I appreciated that about these characterizations.

The Wraith-worshiper children were terrifying and John's detachment in the moment, and his regret and rationalization afterward, seemed right.

I really like to see exploration of John's insecurity about his base command. He's been trained to lead as an officer, but he's a pilot; running a base at that point in his career seems like a leap for him. And this is set at a great period for that exploration, at maybe John's most vulnerable time, after the siege and losing Ford and only retaining command thanks to Elizabeth. Not to mention, in this story, coming to terms with his sexuality with a little less denial, and falling in love.

It's very satisfying to see the expedition members recognize the changes in John and make the deliberate decision to restore him. And it's moving, how affected John is by their determination to get John back to himself, not a pragmatic Everett-a-like. The mood really suits Cybele's artwork, the rough reality of John's dilemma over the almost fairy-tale-like beauty of Atlantis by night, the way it might look to John's mind's eye when he thinks about standing on his balcony, looking over the city and the stars.
shippen_stand: Written by a Shippen (Default)

[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-06-06 01:57 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this, and for the rec.

I tend to write with a basic idea and let the story take me. The idea here was that Sheppard has so much going on under the surface, what would happen if all that went away? When I first started writing, it was Ronon instead of Ford, but the Sheppard of later seasons wouldn't have the same insecurities you note (and he'd have Lorne to help run things). His sexuality is a different question, but if Flannigan wasn't playing Sheppard as closeted gay/bi on purpose, I'd be surprised. So thank you, again, for this, and I'm very glad you enjoyed it
shaddyr: Text from Astolat's story, "Touch" (Default)

[personal profile] shaddyr 2011-06-07 09:46 am (UTC)(link)
This was really well done!

Watching Sheppard be strong until part of him crumbled and he finally admitted he wanted to go to Vegas; watching him suffer over what happened to Teyla and finally become someone he is not in the effort to be what he thinks other people want, other people need - and the end, when they all create an elaborate hoax to smoke him out and tell him they want him back - lovely.
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[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-06-07 08:19 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Even with the show gone, I'm still fascinated by the character, and really appreciated the reverse big bang as a way to get back to him again. It was an effort to think back to the early days of the show and think through what he did and what he had seen up to that point. And thanks so much for the comment.
gaffsie: (John)

[personal profile] gaffsie 2011-06-07 10:47 am (UTC)(link)
This was really good. I loved this exploration of John's doubts in his own ability to lead a whole military contingent. It was really heartbreaking that he believed he had to become someone else to take care of his people, so having them all conspire to make him himself again was a really fitting ending.
shippen_stand: Written by a Shippen (Default)

[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-06-07 08:16 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you. I got the image of the hollow John stuck in my head, and it went from there. I got the impression from the show that the Marines became very loyal to him, because of who he was and what he would risk, and in part because he was like that without being the Everett type. I'm glad to know that it worked for you.
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[personal profile] danceswithgary 2011-06-10 03:36 am (UTC)(link)
Fantastic worldbuilding for the Cananth and a wonderful exploration of John - his strengths, his doubts and his needs. Loved it!
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[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-06-10 03:57 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you. I didn't really set out to write a character study or build a world, so I'm glad it worked.
tesserae: john, rodney, paperwork (Paperwork)

[personal profile] tesserae 2011-06-11 10:55 pm (UTC)(link)
I needed to step away for a bit before reading this again, but I really like the changes you made - it's much tighter, and the pacing is really good there toward the end. And I especially like the role you gave Shane - seems he learned more than John gave him credit for at the SGC!

Nice work, and always a pleasure to read for you...
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[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-06-12 10:44 pm (UTC)(link)
If it's any good, it's because of you.

Thanks.
tesserae: white poppies in the sun (Default)

[personal profile] tesserae 2011-06-13 02:29 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks, but no - I've done this from both sides, remember? It was your story to tell; I don't think I touched the story, just tried to make the telling of it louder and clearer...
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[personal profile] chaps1870 2011-06-19 06:26 am (UTC)(link)
I like how you changed John and didn't make it so obvious it slapped the reader in the face. It was subtle, but still there. It made the surprise attack on the planet even better because I didn't see his 'rescue' coming. Well done.
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[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-06-21 09:08 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you. John didn't feel different to himself, just better. It was almost painful to write that scene with Rodney, because he's being such a jerk without even realizing it. I'm glad it worked for you.
mific: (Default)

[personal profile] mific 2011-06-20 01:41 pm (UTC)(link)
I enjoyed this a lot. It was well written and painted a very believable picture of Sheppard in the early days. The world-building was great and you wove it into canon well. The relationship with Rodney was subtly developed and there were some wonderful turns of phrase here and there. Really good.
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[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-06-21 09:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks. I've been perversely fascinated with Sheppard since the beginning of the show. He's not a typical square-jawed hero (unlike Col. Everett), and there always seems to be a lot going on under the surface, the way JF played him. This was my way of looking under the hood, as it were. I'm glad you liked it.
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[personal profile] runpunkrun 2011-09-27 12:53 am (UTC)(link)
Very satisfying story! I like the way you developed the Cananth and how their values made John think about himself, who he is and what he's meant to do. After he Became, the story gets very terse, all the best parts of John gone; I immediately starting hoping that Rodney would find a way to fix him. And he does! All of John's people come through for him, because they liked him the way he was.

Great balance of plot and romance. The progression of the John/Rodney relationship is slow and sexy and handled very well. Thanks for sharing!
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[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-09-27 02:19 am (UTC)(link)
Thanks for commenting! I enjoyed writing this, starting from an image of a hollow man in [personal profile] cybele's art. It's been interesting to subvert the trope of the combustion that begins the standard romance. Also, it let me tell one of my favorite jokes.

I'm glad you liked it.
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[personal profile] omg_wtf_yeah 2011-12-08 07:16 am (UTC)(link)
I really liked this. Totally interesting device and transformation, and I really liked the romantic build up between John and Rodney. Wonderful work.
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[personal profile] shippen_stand 2011-12-10 04:05 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you. It's a character study, more than anything. I'm still a bit fascinated with what was under John Sheppard's surface.