Should've Been My Girlfriend
Pairing: (Jennifer/Rodney), John/Rodney
Rating: NC-17 (eventually) — for adults only
Summary: Seriously, Rodney would make the perfect girlfriend
Thanks: To Tex, Lamardeuse, WPAdmirer, and Rustler for beta.
Notes: Spoilers up to 5x15 "Brain Storm," AU to everything after that. This story was inspired by some remarks David Hewlett made at Armageddon 2008. Not mine.
"Oh, hey," John said, but Rodney didn't even hear him. Rodney just blew right by, hunched over his tray like he was bent on a mission, and plopped himself down at a table right across from Keller. Who looked up from her own lunch and smiled at him like they were actually comfortable with each other, and that was just . . . crap.
John changed course midstep, scanning the room for . . . ah, Ronon. Sitting alone and looking morose. John set his tray down and slid into the chair next to him. Which unfortunately had a nice, clear view of Rodney and Keller.
Ronon muttered a greeting and kept eating, but that was cool, because John wasn't in the mood for talking. Not if Rodney had finally gone and made his move on Keller, and hadn't he asked Katie Brown to marry him less than a year ago?
"So how long have they been," John waved a half-eaten roll, "you know?"
Ronon took a drink. "Happened on Earth."
"Really," John said. Because, damn it, they'd been back for a week, now, and he hadn't noticed anything different. "And you knew about this?"
"Knew," Ronon said. "Just didn't care."
"Oh," John said, and felt ridiculously wronged. Not that it was Ronon's job to tell him. But Rodney could have at least said something. They'd hung out on the East Pier last night; he could've easily let something slip. And Jesus, what was it about Rodney? When the hell had he become a babe magnet? Okay, it wasn't like John was jealous or anything, because Keller wasn't his type at all, but still.
"Hey," Ronon said, climbing to his feet. "I have to go."
"You want to spar, later?" John asked, because right now he was feeling like he could stand to get out a few aggressions.
"Cool. I'll catch up with you before dinner."
"Okay," Ronon said, and took off with his tray.
John turned back to his own lunch. The soup was tepid and the roll wasn't all that fresh and damn it, Rodney had no right having a girlfriend. Well, okay, he had a right, he just, well, obviously he cared more about sex than hanging out with his friends. Unless this was about more than sex, which, knowing Rodney, he probably thought it was, and damn it, they were holding hands.
Right there in public, across the table. And Keller was leaning in with that little closed-mouth smile she did, and that was just . . .
The thing was, John didn't even want a girlfriend. Seriously. He didn't have time for all the relationship stuff, and he sure as hell didn't want another Nancy. Well, of course he would've liked the regular sex; it wasn't like he wanted to be a monk or anything. But when there was a crisis, he needed to be wherever he needed to be, and the last thing he wanted to be worrying about was whether he'd be hurting someone's feelings by taking off at a moment's notice.
Of course, Rodney had to do that, too. Hell, Rodney was called in on nearly all the same crises John was, but as far as John knew, that wasn't what had messed up the thing with Katie. So Rodney had to have some secret, some way of mollifying them—unless that was what the whole obnoxiousness thing was about, that any girl who would put up with him in the first place wouldn't mind a few additional inconveniences.
Except it didn't look like Keller was just putting up with him. Keller's cheeks were pink and she was beaming at Rodney like she was crazy about him, and that was just . . .
John stood up with a jerk. He wasn't hungry anymore, anyway, and he had things to do. Important things. Things that didn't involve speculating about his teammate's sex life. And he'd think of them just as soon as he got out of the mess.
"Jesus, fuck," John gasped, his eyes ringing and his ears seeing stars. "You could . . . let me down, now."
Ronon let him go, and he slumped against the wall. It was that or fall over.
"Sorry," Ronon muttered.
John shook his head and straightened, trying to suppress a wince. "What crawled up your ass today?"
"Nothing," Ronon said, backing off and twirling his stick. John bent to find his own sticks—he was fighting two against one, but with the mood Ronon was in, that was sheer preservation.
Ronon came at him again, no warning, swinging hard and fast, and it was all John could do to parry and dance out of the way. "Seriously," John said. "Did somebody piss in your Cheerios or what?"
"I said," Ronon grunted, "it's nothing."
Right, well, it obviously wasn't nothing, not when Ronon was coming at him like, Christ.
"We need a softer floor," John croaked. The pattern on the gym ceiling was a lot less interesting when it was spinning.
Ronon held a hand out, and John took it cautiously and let himself be hauled to his feet. He leaned on his stick for a moment, hoping Ronon would take a hint. If Ronon was capable of taking a hint today, and right, it wasn't just the sparring. He'd been subdued and cranky in the mess hall at lunch, when they'd both been watching Rodney and . . .
"Keller?" John said. "You have a thing for the doc?"
Ronon twirled his stick and glowered. "No."
John took a step toward him. "You do." And God, it was like an answer to his prayers. "Wow. You really do. Hey, you should ask her out." Which, okay, wasn't sporting, but still. If anyone could compete with Rodney, it would be Ronon.
Ronon glowered some more. "She's dating McKay."
"They're not engaged," John said, because damn it, they'd better not be. "It can't hurt to ask."
But Ronon just looked gloomy. "Already did," he said. "She said she was interested in McKay."
"Damn," John said, and then Ronon was coming at him with intent again, and it was all he could do to get his sticks up to protect himself.
They clashed and clattered and Ronon got in a glancing blow, but John twisted away and lived to fight another minute.
"So what about you?" Ronon asked, feinting left and then pulling back. "You ask McKay yet?"
"What?" John said, and, Jesus, wow, this time the ceiling was spinning in both directions at the same time.
"You need to watch your left," Ronon said, looking down at him.
"Yeah." John said weakly. "What the fuck?"
"They're not engaged," Ronon said. "You should ask him out."
"Christ," John said, and closed his eyes, because where the hell Ronon had got that idea, he had no clue. "Look, I don't date guys."
Ronon frowned and held out a hand. "Thought you said you did."
John took the hand and let Ronon half-wrench his arm out of the socket pulling him up. Damn, he was getting too old for this. "I did?"
"That day. You know. The day Beckett died. Only before that."
Holy shit. John tried to remember that day, that conversation. It wasn't exactly easy, since he's spent the better part of two years trying to forget it. "I asked if you were interested in anyone, female or male," he said slowly. "I don't recall saying anything about my own . . . interests."
"Figured you wouldn't ask if you weren't interested," Ronon said, and swung his stick around some more.
"Wow," John said, and closed his mouth with a snap. "Okay, look, I wasn't hitting on you. I swear. I was just, you know, being a friend."
"Okay," Ronon said. He twirled his stick around his arm and caught it with the other hand. Show off.
"And I'm not interested in McKay. Not like that."
"You sure?" Ronon said. "'Cause you kind of act interested in him."
"Really not," John said.
"Okay," Ronon said again, and swung his stick up. "Are we still sparring?"
John's head was still spinning, and really, he had enough bruises to take his mind off of just about anything. "You know what? I think I'm going to call it a day."
He didn't intend to sit with Rodney at dinner; it just happened. One minute Ronon was getting up to go, and the next Rodney was sliding into his place. And Keller was nowhere in sight.
"Oh, hey," John said, and willed the tips of his ears not to go hot, because Ronon was looking at him sideways like he hadn't believed a word John had said, and damn it, he was not going to get self-conscious. He wasn't interested in Rodney. The idea was ludicrous. Even if Rodney had been a girl, he wouldn't—
"Have you tried the chicken pot pie?" Rodney asked, picking up his fork and knife. "Is it any good? Because there's nothing better than a good chicken pot pie."
"It's not real chicken, you know," John said, but Rodney was busily smiling down at his tray, his cheeks pink, his eyes fond, and well, okay. If Rodney had been a girl it might've been different, because Rodney was the one John spent time with and had fights with and made up with, and you couldn't have a friendship like that with someone of the opposite sex without at least contemplating something more.
Rodney took a bite and grinned around the pastry. "Ha, I knew it was going to be good. Sanders is head cook today, and she makes the flakiest pastry in the galaxy."
Obviously, though, John wasn't contemplating anything, because Rodney was a guy. Rodney had balls and a dick and hair on his chest, and it didn't matter that they squabbled and teased each other, because they were never, ever, ever going to have sex. Not unless Rodney suddenly acquired a pussy, and the very thought of that was just . . .
"Aren't you going to eat yours?" Rodney said. "Because it would be a shame to waste it, you know."
"I'm eating," John said, and took a bite to prove it. It wasn't half bad, really, a little bland, but the crust was almost as good as Rodney said.
Rodney, who was very, very much a guy. Hell, he wouldn't even make a pretty girl. He was too . . . blunt everywhere. Solid. And the features that looked just fine on a guy—the strong, mobile eyebrows, the soft jaw line with its surprisingly sharp chin—would be all wrong on a woman. So really, it was a good thing Rodney was male.
Except . . . okay, weird thought. Seriously bizarre, but Jeannie looked like Rodney. A lot like Rodney. And Jeannie was kind of hot. Not that John had entertained that thought in any kind of personal way, because Jeannie was married and whatever Rodney thought, he did have a few moral standards. But yeah, Jeannie wasn't hard on the eyes, and if Rodney were a girl who looked like that . . .
Jesus. That was wrong. That was so wrong. He was thinking about a friend as girlfriend material. And it would've been bad enough if it were Teyla, but what the hell was he thinking, that they were going to find some sort of magic Ancient sex-swap device?
". . . placate Woolsey," Rodney was saying. "So what do you say?"
John blinked and tried to look like he'd been paying attention. "Weeelllll," he started, buying for time, but Rodney just rolled his eyes.
"Don't tell me. You were so busy checking out the new seismologist over there, you didn't hear a word I said."
"Not true," John said, which wasn't entirely a lie. He hadn't even noticed the seismologist, despite the fact that she was, wow, kind of hot.
"I hate to break it to you," Rodney said, looking smug, "but she's a lesbian."
"You were talking about placating Woolsey," John said, swiveling back to face Rodney, who was not the least bit hot, and also male. "Which is, you know, occasionally a good idea, seeing as he is our current base commander."
Rodney's chin rose and his eyes brightened. "You mean you'll do it? And here I thought I was going to have to twist your arm."
Okay, that didn't sound so good. "Well, maybe we shouldn't rush into things."
"Rush?" Rodney said. "How is this rushing? We've been sitting on this for months, just because Woolsey doesn't have the balls to risk any more incidents. And okay, I realize it's going to be kind of boring for you, but you could always catch up on your paperwork or something. Seriously, this is the most exciting discovery we've made in years, and it's practically criminal not to pursue it."
"Well, when you put it that way," John said, because whatever the hell it was, it sounded important—at least, important to Rodney, and usually when something was important to Rodney, there was a chance it would end up paying off in ZPMs or energy weapons or puddlejumper modifications.
"Great," Rodney said, and set his fork on his empty tray. "Are you done yet? We can start right after dinner."
"I haven't finished my pie."
"So what are you waiting for?" Rodney said with an impatient wave of his hands.
Actually, John wasn't all that hungry, and he kind of wanted to know what he'd just signed on for. "Yeah, okay," he said. "Let's go."
They stopped by Rodney's lab for three laptops and a coil of cables, and then made a detour to the armory. "I need you armed to the teeth," Rodney said, so John picked up some grenades and a SAW instead of his usual P90. It was enough to make him almost break down and ask, but no. He'd find out soon enough. He wasn't going to give Rodney the satisfaction.
And anyway, he figured it out as soon as Rodney touched the transporter screen: Janus's lab. Which Woolsey had put strictly off limits after the incident with the Attero device.
"Wait," John said. "How the hell did you do it? Woolsey really signed off on this?"
Rodney rolled his eyes as he stepped out of the transporter. "I told you already. You know, when you weren't listening? It's a provisional agreement. He okayed it as long as I have the most stringent security we have, namely, you."
"Right," John said, suddenly all-too-aware that he'd heard the part where Rodney had warned him it would be boring. "So you just need me to shoot any aliens that show up?"
"Zelenka's on notice to alert us immediately if anything unusual shows up on the city sensors. Or he will be." Rodney tapped his earpiece. "Zelenka, you're on notice. What do you mean? Of course I convinced him. We're going in now."
It was still deeply weird to just walk through a wall, but then they were inside and it looked pretty much the way it had before. Well, except for the way Rodney's face was glowing—John hadn't remembered that part, but then, he hadn't been here for the discovery of the lab. So maybe Rodney had looked like this the last time, with the flushed cheeks and the hands rubbing together.
"Have a seat, Colonel," Rodney said. "And don't touch anything. Not until we've figured out what we've got here, which could take some time."
"I'm not staying all night," John warned, pulling up a chair. "We still have a day job."
"Yes, yes." Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "Don't worry, there's always tomorrow." He uncoiled his cables and hooked up his computers, and then he was just gone. Mesmerized. In his element. Seriously, John might as well have not even been there. Well, except for the part where he was going to shoot any aliens that showed up, of course.
John put his feet up on the nearest console and leaned back in his chair, his weapon cradled in his lap. He wished he'd brought a book, or at least a laptop, because Rodney was typing on two keyboards and looking at his third screen, so it didn't look like he'd be up for sharing.
Oh, well. It would be Rodney's own fault if John entertained himself by thinking about . . . whatever he felt like thinking about. It would serve Rodney right, because he'd totally taken advantage of John's momentary lapse in the mess hall, and they both knew it.
And really, the idea of Rodney as a girl was pretty entertaining, because it would be Rodney. With breasts. His voice would be higher, of course. And his hips would be broader. He'd probably still squeak when he was outraged, though, and flush and stammer when he was embarrassed, and he'd still drink fifteen cups of coffee a day and proclaim his own genius to anyone around him, and God, he'd be a terror.
The thing was, though, it would be perfect. To date someone who liked video games and gadgets, someone who wouldn't be the least bit intimidated by John's position, someone who understood that the city came first, who wouldn't make a fuss when John took off at a moment's notice because he'd be right there at John's side, helping solve the crisis. And then they'd get to have "yay, we survived" sex afterward, and it would be great.
Only Rodney wasn't a girl. Not even close, with his receding hairline and his eight-o'clock shadow. And Rodney was dating Keller, who apparently liked him just fine like this, and that was just . . .
Right, well, obviously, that was none of John's business. It didn't matter if they were having an old-fashioned, dinner-dates-and-flowers romance or boffing like bunnies, because John wasn't interested either way. It wasn't like it mattered to him whether Rodney was the kind of girl who put out on a first date, because Rodney wasn't a girl.
Even if he might've made a kind of awesome one.
The second night, John brought a book. He didn't get much reading done, though, and he almost spilled a cup of coffee on it. The third night, he brought his laptop, but he got bored playing blackjack against the machine, and his paperwork was even less appealing. And Rodney was right there, and so absorbed in his screen that he didn't even twitch when John closed his own computer and leaned back in his chair.
In three nights, nothing had happened, and John was starting to feel superfluous. Not to mentioned bored out of his skull. What he really wanted to do was suggest they knock off and go have a beer, or put together the radio control airplanes he'd just had shipped in on the Daedalus, but he had a feeling that would get him a glare and possibly a lecture. Of course, if Rodney had been a girl, he could have tried other methods of persuasion, more effective methods, and model airplanes probably would've been the last thing on his mind.
Not that he was still thinking about that. Well, okay, maybe he was. Because the idea was still hilarious, and it had nothing to do with the fact that—
"Ngah. Toloway. Irdus!" a deep voice growled, and in an instant, John was out of his chair, weapon in hand. Right there in the center of the lab was a huge creature, covered with long, silvery-gray hair and rearing up on its hind feet like a bear. It eyed John narrowly with fierce, intelligent eyes. "Ngah!" it said again. "Irdus!"
"Oh, my God," Rodney said, from where he had ducked under the nearest console. "Where the hell did it come from?"
The creature took a step closer and raised paws armed with three-inch claws. "Irdus!"
"Easy," John tried, stepping sideways to get Rodney's console between himself and the creature. "Easy, now. Nobody's going to make any sudden moves."
"What are you waiting for?" Rodney said from the vicinity of his knees. "Shoot it!"
"I don't even know what it is," John said. And then, faster than he'd thought possible, the creature swung at him, claws spread wide.
John ducked and fired a burst of bullets, right at the center of the creature's torso. And then something took his legs out from under him and he fell right on top of Rodney.
"Oh, God," Rodney whimpered, and John twisted, trying to get his weapon up, trying to aim at . . . nothing. There was no sound. No thud or swish, no growly voice, and no hairy creature. John lifted his head to look over the top of the console, but the lab was completely empty.
"Jesus," John said, and lowered himself back down onto the ground. Or rather onto Rodney, who was right where he shouldn't be.
"Ow," Rodney said faintly.
"Sorry," John said, and rolled off him. "You okay?"
"That depends on your definition of okay," Rodney said. His thigh was still pressed up against the side of John's. "Is it dead?"
"I don't know," John answered honestly. "I don't know where the hell it came from, and I don't know where the hell it went."
"What?" Rodney said. "How is that possible? It can't have just vanished into thin air. We both saw it." He pushed himself up into a sitting position, still really close to John, so close that if he'd been . . .
Crap. John had to stop thinking about this, because it was getting seriously creepy. There was no way he was ever going to kiss Rodney. Not if someone paid him to. And the nonsense about Rodney turning into a girl was ridiculous, because it might theoretically be possible, given the kind of tech they'd found so far, but practically—
"Well? Aren't you going to go check it out?"
"Yeah," John said, and straightened with his gun ready. But the lab was truly empty. No creature, no body, no blood, nothing.
"I'm not picking up any life signs," Rodney said, climbing to his feet and reaching for his nearest laptop. "Nothing. In fact," he added, scrolling through some data too fast for John to read over his shoulder, "it doesn't look like there ever were any."
"What?" John leaned forward, squinting at Rodney's screen. "How is that possible?"
"I don't know," Rodney said. "I saw it. You saw it. So either it was some kind of replicator—"
"If it was a replicator," John said. "What the hell was it a replication of?"
"—or it was a hologram."
"Oh," John said.
"Ha!" Rodney said, typing furiously. "Hologram it is."
John lowered his weapon and tried not to look like an idiot. "Good thing you told me to shoot it."
"Apparently I triggered it when I switched to working on a different project," Rodney said. "It's . . . no, that can't be right."
"It's what?" John prompted, leaning in again. Rodney didn't smell like a girl. Not even close. Not that he smelled bad, he just—
"No, apparently it is," Rodney said. "It's Janus's own creation. It's some kind of alarm system—if he didn't stay focused, it would trigger the hologram. Apparently he liked a little incentive to stay on task."
"Oh-kay," John said, pulling back, because the last thing he needed was for Rodney to notice him sniffing. "Guess he was a few pecans short of a fruitcake."
"Uhn-uh," Rodney said. "He was a genius. That makes him merely eccentric."
John grinned, because that was totally Rodney talking about himself. "So what do you say we knock off early? I figure we've had enough surprises for one night, and I've got a six-pack in my fridge."
"Let me just turn the thing off," Rodney said, his fingers flying across the keyboard. "Okay got it. I suppose that means—" But then he frowned at his screen. "Wait, no. No, I think I'm onto something here. Maybe some other night."
"How 'bout tomorrow?" John said, and wow, that came out sounding weird. He leaned against the nearest console, carefully nonchalant, just in case Rodney noticed anything.
But Rodney, of course, was Rodney, which meant he didn't even look up as he said, "Sorry, can't make tomorrow. I won't be here, either." He smiled at his screen. "I have a date."
"Oh," John said. "Sure." And damn it, it was fine, because he didn't like Keller like that, and he didn't care who Rodney dated, and it really wasn't any of his business, anyway. "Have fun with that."
"I'm sure I will," Rodney said, and finally glanced up. "Hey, do you think I should serve red wine, or white? I mean, we're having chicken, so I guess that means traditionally I should go for the white, but on the other hand, maybe red would be innovative and daring, and I want her to think I'm innovative and daring, so maybe I should—"
"Rodney," John said, because this really wasn't what he wanted to be talking about right now. "Why don't you just ask her?"
"Oh," Rodney said, and tilted his head, considering. "Actually, that makes a lot of sense."
"Now, come on," John said. "Get back to work. Unless you want to knock off, in which case I'm out of here."
"No, no," Rodney said, "I'm working. See? This is me working." And he bent over his screen and began typing furiously again.
John rolled his eyes and walked around Rodney to flop back down into his chair. That was the problem, really. Rodney was working. John was just sitting around and shooting the occasional hologram.
He was unnecessary here. It was a complete waste of time. And damn it, Rodney had another date with Keller.
John slipped it into the conversation casually, a week into their nightly sessions in the lab, and late, when his own eyes were getting a little glazed and Rodney's mutterings had already been punctuated by more than one yawn. After all, it was all about timing.
"So," John said, tipping his chair back until half the wheels left the floor, "was Janus working on any DNA stuff?"
Rodney didn't look up, so that was okay. It wasn't even a ripple in the pool. "You mean like Michael with his hybrids? Not likely."
"I was thinking more like that ascension machine," John said. "You know, the one that—"
"Yes, well, I'm hardly going to forget about that one, am I?" Rodney said, still tapping at his keyboard. "And no, fortunately, Janus seemed wholly uninterested in biological means of achieving ascension. For which I can only admire him."
"So nothing else with DNA? Nothing that could, I don't know, rewrite a person's genes?"
Rodney finally looked up. "Not that I've found. Why? You think we could find a better delivery system for the ATA gene?"
"Sure," John said, like that was what he'd been thinking about. "Or, you know, do other stuff."
Rodney was looking straight at him now, like he's said something bizarre. So much for flying under the radar. "Like what?"
"Nothing in particular," John said, and brought his chair carefully forward to rest on all six wheels. "But there are a lot of things that could come in handy, right? I mean, if you could change DNA, you could change a person's height or athletic ability or eye color or, you know, um, sex."
"Well, it's not that simple," Rodney said, pushing back a little from his computer screen. "Something as complex as, say, making a human body male or female requires a series of developmental interactions between hormones and— oh, my God."
John whirled, expecting to see another hologram, but when he turned back, Rodney was staring at him. "What?"
"Are you . . . trying to tell me something here?"
Whoa. This was not how this conversation was supposed to go. "No," John said. "No, of course not. Why would I—"
Rodney's eyes were wide, his cheeks pink. "Because, seriously, the idea of you wanting to be . . . I mean, I understand it's not actually a choice, but wow. How long has this been going on? Is it just something you always knew, or—"
"Rodney," John said, because no. God, no. "You've got it all wrong. I have absolutely no desire to be a girl."
"Oh," Rodney said, looking slightly less freaked out. "Right, of course. Wait, are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure!" John said. "Jesus. I'm pretty fond of my dick."
"Because the way you were talking about it—"
"I do not," John said in his darkest voice, "want to be female, okay? I just thought, you know, maybe someone else might."
Rodney frowned. "Like who?"
John's heart was pounding in his rib cage, and damn it, he'd never needed to look casual so badly in his life. "No one in particular. I just kind of thought, well, it's something people think about, right?"
Rodney screwed up his face like he thought that was nuts. "Not usually, no," he said. "I mean, yes, of course, I realize it's an issue for some people, but, well, obviously it's not something I've ever personally contemplated, so I really wouldn't know. Not that I'm narrow minded, you understand. I'm just—how did you put it?—rather fond of my dick, too."
"Never said you weren't," John said, and he wasn't disappointed. Shit, no. It wasn't like he'd been expecting anything. He'd just been curious. And now he knew and he could stop thinking about it and everything was fine.
"Colonel?" Rodney said, and he was looking at him with his head tipped to one side, like he was trying to figure something out and shit, shit.
"Are you sure you're . . . oh, God, please tell me you didn't eat those biki berries Teyla said were happy-making, because I really don't think she meant an entirely innocent sort of happy, and it would be just our luck if you had some kind of idiosyncratic—"
"I didn't eat the damn berries," John said. "I'm just tired. And bored out of my skull from hanging out here five days a week with nothing to do but shoot holograms. We have to talk to Woolsey. I'm sure by now we can convince him this is a total waste of my time."
"I already tried that," Rodney said, finally, finally distracted. "Just yesterday. He wasn't convinced. Oh, but hey, if you're that bored, you can help."
John scowled. "You know, that wasn't funny the first time."
"No, seriously," Rodney said. "There are plenty of things you can do. Here, let me show you."
"Not tonight," John said, and wow, okay, maybe he was a little cranky, because the last thing he wanted right now was to be leaning in close to Rodney.
"Fine," Rodney said. "Tomorrow, then."
"You don't have a date?" John asked a little snidely.
But Rodney didn't even notice. "Not tomorrow," he said with perfect unconcern. "We should have an early dinner, get an extra hour in."
It was the last thing John wanted, more time with Rodney. "Sure, what the hell?" he heard his voice say. "Early dinner it is."
It turned out there were a surprising number of things John could do. He couldn't crack Janus's cryptography, and he couldn't analyze any of the theoretical stuff, but he could work on running Janus's reams of notes through the translator and catalog the results, keeping a running summary for Rodney to look over and prioritize.
"I thought you could read Ancient," John said, because the last thing he wanted was make-work.
"I can," Rodney said. "Technically, you're doing a first pass on the documentation, but it will speed things up for me, too. Reading too much Ancient gives me a headache."
It wasn't exactly entertaining, but it was better than sitting around doing nothing, and every once in awhile Rodney would come over and lean over his shoulder to see how it was going.
Not that he enjoyed that. Jesus, no. Because there was no way on this planet or any other that Rodney would ever been anything but a middle-aged man with thinning hair and hunched shoulders, so there was absolutely no reason why John would want to kiss him.
He was just cranky because he wasn't getting any play time, that was all. Rodney was getting his hot dates with Keller on their days off, while he . . . okay, the last time he'd sparred with Ronon and had ended up bruised and sore for days, and how had he forgotten that seeing Rodney date Keller made Ronon grumpy, too?
"Sheppard?" Rodney said, and Jesus, he was close, he was right behind John's chair, and John could feel the heat of his body warming the air between them.
"Yeah," he said, and it came out weird—low and a little breathy.
"I was just wondering if you'd found anything related to Device Number Seventeen," Rodney said. He leaned in to peer at John's screen.
"Everything I've got so far is in the shared folder," John said. "I'm not holding out on you."
Rodney turned his head to look at John's face, and crap, he was close. Close enough to kiss. Not that John was still thinking about that, because he really wasn't. Only, God, he couldn't help wondering what Rodney's mouth tasted like. If Keller liked it. If she . . . well, right, of course she liked it, or she wouldn't keep coming back for more.
Rodney was still just looking at him. Without a word, which was so un-Rodney-like it was bizarre.
"I'll, uh, let you know if I find anything," John said, and swallowed. And Rodney's gaze dropped to a point somewhere on John's neck and then Rodney's whole body flinched, like . . . holy fuck. John wrenched his eyes away.
"Right," Rodney said, straightening with a jerk. "Right, of course. That would, ah, be fine. No hurry."
"Okay," John said inanely, but Jesus. What the hell? He hadn't said anything or done anything, unless . . . crap. He'd kind of been staring at Rodney's mouth for a bit, there. And Rodney had thought . . .
Okay, he had no idea what Rodney had thought. Rodney dated women. In four and a half years, Rodney had never dated anything but women, and he was dating Keller right now, well, okay, not right this minute, but he had three days ago and he was undoubtedly going to again. So this wasn't about Rodney, which meant—
No. Rodney couldn't possibly think that. Rodney had noticed him staring, sure, but the important thing was that there was deniability. If Rodney asked, he'd just say he'd been distracted. It wasn't even a lie, and Rodney certainly never needed to know exactly what the distraction had been.
"What's it supposed to do?" John asked, because someone had to say something.
Rodney looked up. "What's what supposed to do?"
"Device Seventeen," John said.
"Oh," Rodney said. "Right. Well, the note I just found suggested it was some sort of mechanical personal assistant."
"Wow, and here I thought you went on dates to get that sort of thing."
"Wha—? Oh, that is just . . . seriously, it's supposed to fetch and carry, not that. And for your information, I do not go on dates merely to get laid. I have a relationship."
Crap. That was pretty much the last thing John had needed to hear right now, even if it was his own damn fault for asking. He lifted his chin, pretending to read something on his screen. "As long as you kids are having fun."
Rodney sniffed. "As a matter of fact, we are."
"Great," John said, and if it came out a little sarcastic, it was not his fault. "Guess you can use Number Seventeen to fetch and carry your wine for you. Red wine, so you can be innovative and daring."
Rodney tapped on his keyboard for a moment, not looking up. "Actually, it turns out she prefers white."
"Go figure," John said. "Guess it was a good thing you asked."
Rodney looked up then, a quick, startled flick of his eyes. "Yes, actually. Yes, it was. Thank you for that, by the way."
"No problem," John said, and he turned back to his screen so he wouldn't have to urge to hit something.
Which was wrong and stupid and patently ridiculous and yet, damn it. He didn't want to date Keller. He didn't give a rat's ass what she did with her personal life. It was none of his goddamned business.
But he hated the fact that she was dating Rodney. He just did.
They spent three days on M3V-830, ironing out a misunderstanding involving not two but five opposing factions, each of whom had unique and unpleasant designs on the team. Fortunately the age-old method of biding their time and then running like hell worked its usual charm, and they eventually made it through the gate unscathed.
John tried not to be smug about the fact that Rodney had missed a date, but he kind of failed. At least, he did until they were back on Atlantis and he heard heated whispers coming from a low-traffic corridor near the infirmary.
John froze. Rodney and Keller—because he couldn't mistake either of their voices, even in a whisper—obviously hadn't heard him, because their argument didn't so much as falter.
"—yet another evening. When do I get time with you? I thought I was your girlfriend, but now I'm starting to think—"
"Okay, look," Rodney said, and he sounded so weirdly defeated that John's heart twisted in his chest. "You know that I . . . that it has nothing to do with . . . I mean, seriously, this has the potential to be the most amazing discovery we have ever made, and I . . ."
Rodney's voice dropped, and John lost a few words. The next thing he heard was Keller. ". . . spending more time with Colonel Sheppard than you are with . . ."
And it hit him what he was doing. He was eavesdropping on a private conversation, a private argument, and he had no right, never mind the way it was making his hairline sweat. He backed away slowly, silent enough to make Ronon proud, and then hightailed it out of there.
By the time he got to his office, his heart was pounding and his palms were damp and he felt a little sick and a little exhilarated, and it was incredibly wrong, but he couldn't help it. He'd had no idea that there was trouble in paradise, no idea that he was part of the cause—a tangential part, of course, but still, a part.
But the way Keller had been talking—God, she'd sounded like Nancy, well, except for the part where Nancy had been less likely to voice her complaints and more likely to brood. But still, it couldn't be good, not for the relationship and not for Rodney, and damn it, he didn't want Rodney to be unhappy.
John dropped into his desk chair and put his head in his hands. That was the worst part. Even if Rodney and Keller broke up—and God, yes, he wanted that, with an intensity that made his stomach hurt—Rodney was going to be miserable. For days or weeks or longer. And John didn't want that, didn't want that at all, and it wasn't like he was going to . . . do anything different, even they broke up. It wasn't like he . . . and anyway, Rodney wouldn't want to, either, so it was stupid to be thinking . . .
Right, well, he wasn't thinking that. He was just thinking of his radio control airplanes, gathering dust in the corner of his room. Because if Rodney had a little more free time, maybe they'd get a chance to—
John jerked his head up to find Teldy standing in his doorway with a datapad. "Major."
"I need you to sign off on these supply requisitions, sir. I can leave them with you if you'd like."
"No, now is fine," John said, dragging himself out of his chair. Because work came first, work always came first, and honestly, he would have thought Keller would understand that. "Is Mehra still going through more than her share of grenades?"
"With all due respect, she just saved our asses on M3Q-864," Teldy said. "I prefer to have her well-armed."
"Can't argue with that," John said, and reached for the data pad.
He was expecting Rodney to be grumpy at dinnertime—cranky, or possibly just beaten, but Rodney and Keller came in together, all smiles and sidelong glances at each other, and sat at one of the little tables by the window. Ronon had his back to them, so he could ignore them, but Teyla was sitting next to John and smiling indulgently.
"It is good to see Rodney so happy," she said.
"Yeah," John lied, lifting his chin. "Yeah it is." He bent to shove a forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth so he wouldn't have to say anything more.
"You should've asked him," Ronon said. "While you had the chance."
"Ronon," Teyla said.
Ronon was busy chewing an enormous bite of his pork chop. "What?"
"It is not our place to meddle in the affairs of our friends," Teyla said. "And I believe Rodney and Jennifer are truly happy together."
"You just want them to get married and start popping out babies so Torren can have someone to play with," Ronon said.
Oh, God. John couldn't suppress a shiver. Because that would be worse than Rodney marrying Katie Brown. Much, much worse.
But Teyla shook her head. "I have no such hopes," she said mildly. "But I believe it is unworthy of us to begrudge our friends their happiness."
"What if they aren't happy?" John heard his voice say.
Teyla's eyes turned to meet his, sober and assessing. "Then I trust them to work through their differences. If they need our help, they will ask for it."
"Fair enough," John said, while Ronon muttered something that didn't sound entirely conciliatory.
"So," John said, because if they didn't change the subject, he might hit something, "how's Torren doing? The little guy up to anything new this week?"
Teyla smiled a smile that said she knew what he was up to, but she warmed to the subject, anyway. Which meant John heard more about rolling, teething, and babbling than he'd ever really wanted to, but it sure as hell beat the alternative.
Rodney and Keller were still lingering over their dinner when John left the mess, so he went to his room. He'd meant to read or polish his golf clubs or something, but he was weirdly restless. Nothing held his attention for more than a few minutes, so he finally showered—not that kind of shower, because he really wasn't in the mood—dressed, and headed out to Janus's lab.
He was a little early, so he kicked back in his chair and let the translator get to work while he waited for Rodney to show. After a few minutes it began spitting out the usual garbled notes—clearly Janus hadn't intended to leave things for posterity. Well, either that, or he'd considered obfuscation to be an intentional game.
John started combing through it. It would have been nice if the notes were even organized, but so far, it was all they could do to figure out which note was relevant to which theory or device. There was a labeling system, of sorts, but it was incredibly spotty, and the notes themselves were arranged in seemingly random order. It might as well be a to-do list: get milk, install flux capacitor in jumper, feed cat.
There was nothing related to Device Seventeen, at least, not as far as John could see. But one note caught his eye. For Besla it said. In order to reduce the pain.
Okay, reducing pain sounded good, although this was the first thing they'd found that seemed to have a medical purpose. The notes that followed made no sense out of context—limit exposure to once per five days, ten or twenty preferable and readjust beam to 200 cycles per eskem.
John dutifully filed it. He'd have to mention it to Rodney when he got there. Rodney might even know who or what "Besla" was. And Rodney really should be showing, any minute now. John glanced at his watch.
Okay, wow, Rodney was late. Rodney was half an hour late, which was a new one. Usually Rodney was champing at the bit to get to work, whining if John delayed him even a little. So Keller must be doing some serious distracting and crap, that was really not what John wanted to be thinking about right now.
But suddenly it was all he could see. The two of them, naked and laughing. Kissing. Tumbling over on the sheets, and kissing some more. Rodney's eyes would be warm and his cheeks would be pink, and the rest of him would be . . . damn it.
Male. The rest of him would be very, very male. And John had work to do. Rodney's work. Which, actually, there was no point in doing if Rodney wasn't going to be here.
John tapped his radio. "McKay."
There was nothing but empty air for a ridiculously long period of time, than then Rodney's voice said, "Sheppard?"
"You planning on showing up any time soon?"
"Oh," Rodney's voice said, and damn it, he sounded out of breath. "Oh, right, we did have . . . well, I'm sorry, but I've made other plans. We'll have to do it tomorrow night." And then he giggled. Like someone, like Keller was touching him somewhere inappropriate, well, inappropriate for a radio conversation.
"You couldn't have mentioned this earlier?" John said.
"Look, I'm really sorry," Rodney said. "Something came up."
Oh, I'll bet, John thought viciously. "Next time give a guy some warning, okay?"
"Ah, right," Rodney said. "Yes, okay. I'll be . . . I'll try to remember to do that, next time."
Crap. John couldn't listen to any more of it. He couldn't. "Sheppard out," he grated and hit the cut-off so fast he hurt his ear.
His computer was still working, churning out translations, but John snapped it shut and jerked to his feet. He didn't have to be here, didn't have to do anything for Rodney right now, not if Rodney had better things to do. Things that involved sex. With Keller. And damn it, John knew he was being dog-in-the-manger about this, because he didn't want to have sex with Rodney, he just . . . he just . . .
Okay, he was being stupid. Seriously dumb, here. And he had to get his act together and stop being stupid before he had to deal with Rodney again, because, damn it.
He was screwed. Seriously screwed. Because the only thing he wanted right now was something that was fucking impossible. Rodney was not now, and never would be, a girl.
Although the truth was, John would have settled for just a little downtime with Rodney. Alone with Rodney, and possibly a couple of radio controlled airplanes. Or a six-pack. Or both. And then maybe, just maybe, he'd be able to forget about this idiocy and relax.
John was fine in the morning. Honestly, fine. He didn't begrudge Keller her time with Rodney; hell, he liked Keller. Well, not that way, of course, but she was cool, and she'd patched him back together too many times to count, so he was really glad she was around. And if she was what Rodney wanted, yeah, okay, whatever.
It wasn't any of John's business, anyway.
Of course it turned out to be one of those days, the kind where nothing awful happened, but everything still managed to go wrong. His stubbed his toe getting out of bed; his morning coffee was cold by the time he got to drink it; Woolsey wanted him to do extra paperwork; and the milk-run mission they'd had planned for the afternoon ended up being scrapped because the First Envoy of Xannapir informed them she'd gotten a better trade offer elsewhere.
So John wasn't exactly at his best when he showed up at Janus's lab at eight o'clock. Well, ten after, because it was that kind of a day.
"Hey," he said, setting his laptop on the table he'd started to think of as his. "You're not supposed to be in here without me. Placating Woolsey, remember?"
But Rodney just waved a hand at him and didn't even look up from his screen. "No need for concern," he said. "I haven't activated anything yet."
John lifted an eyebrow at him. "Device Seventeen?"
"Device Seventeen," Rodney said, and rubbed his hands together. "We're going to get to see for ourselves exactly what it's good for. You want to do the honors?"
Device Seventeen was sitting on the table in front of them. It was a squat silver cylinder with oddly shaped clear and blue crystals sticking out the top. It didn't look like any sort of robot John had ever seen. "What do you want me to do?"
"Just touch the base. That should do the trick."
John frowned at it. It looked disturbingly innocuous. "It's not going to start shooting at us or something, is it?"
"Of course not. It responds to verbal commands. In Ancient, unfortunately, but if you turn it on, I can work on reprogramming it to English."
"Okay," John said. "Here goes nothing." And he reached for the device.
He never touched it. His hand got within an inch of the surface, and then there was a flash of light and a snapping noise and Jesus.
He was on the floor, and he had no idea how he'd gotten there.
"John!" Rodney was hovering over him, one hand trembling against his neck. John reached up to bat it away, but it took a lot longer than it should have to get his hand where it was supposed to go.
"Wha—?" John managed.
"It shocked you," Rodney said, his eyes wide and indignant.
"Yeah," John said. "I noticed that." And then, right on cue, the damn thing made a crackling noise, showering sparks down onto them. John pushed himself up onto his elbows. It wasn't as hard to move as it had been a moment ago.
"What are you—?"
"Gotta turn it off," John said, and twisted to get out from under Rodney.
"Oh, no. No, no, no, you are not going to touch it again," Rodney said, and shoved him back down with a hand to the chest. He kept the hand there as he turned and reached for his datapad with the other hand. "I should be able to cut the power from here."
"Rodney," John said, because there was no call to be holding him down. "I'm fine."
But Rodney just leaned into him, tapping away with his left hand, and wow, he really was ambidextrous.
"Rodney," John said, because this was ridiculous. But Rodney just tapped his screen a few more times, and the device above them let out one last gasp of sparks and went dark.
"Okay," Rodney said, and John could see a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead. "Okay, we have to get you to the infirmary."
"That's not going to be necessary," John said. "Really."
"You could have internal damage. The current could have passed through your heart. Or your kidneys. Or even your . . . okay, you're not seeing double, are you? Experiencing weakness on one side of your body?"
John put his hand over Rodney's, where it still pressed against him. He could feel his own heart, sure and steady in his chest. "I'm fine," he said softly, and curled his fingers around Rodney's. "Wouldn't lie to you." He lifted Rodney's unprotesting hand and sat up, right into Rodney's space, because Rodney didn't move back. Rodney was in fact staring at their joined hands. Which were still curled around each other against John's thigh.
"John," Rodney said, a little broken, and Jesus. His mouth was right there, level with John's. "I didn't mean . . . if I'd had any idea it would do that, well, obviously, I wouldn't have let either of us touch it. But I would never, I mean, I realize you don't value your life like a normal person, but—"
John's pulse was pounding in his ears. It would be so easy. All he'd have to do was lean in and press his lips to Rodney's. It was only inches, and he wanted . . . he wanted . . .
Fuck. He was going insane. He couldn't want to kiss Rodney. He couldn't. Rodney wasn't, and he wasn't either, and anyway, Rodney was dating Keller.
John twitched his hand out of Rodney's and forced himself back a few inches. "We should, uh, get back to work."
Rodney blinked at him and then glanced down again, like he'd thought . . . shit. But it wasn't like they'd been holding hands or anything. Really.
"Oh. " Rodney said. "Right. Are you sure you don't need to go to the infirmary?"
"Yeah," John said, and climbed to his feet. It was safer, farther from Rodney. "I'm sure." He leaned against his computer table, desperately casual, as Rodney got up, too. "So you think it was supposed to do that? Some kind of booby trap?"
"I don't know," Rodney said, and mercifully turned to frown at the device. "I mean, there's certainly nothing in Janus's notes to indicate another level of security. Not that I'd put it past him, but, oh, hello, look at this."
"What?" John asked, straightening but not moving any closer.
"Right here," Rodney said, pointing. "One of the crystals is chipped. It's funny I didn't notice before. I would have sworn it was fine when I inspected it a week ago."
"Where was it?" John asked, suspicion dawning. "A week ago. What part of the lab?"
"Over there." Rodney waved in the direction of the opposite end of the room. "Why?"
"Crap," John said. "I think I shot it."
"Remember? You told me to shoot the hologram. I'm guessing Device Seventeen was in the line of fire."
"Damn it," Rodney said. "You couldn't have aimed a little more carefully?"
John rolled his eyes. "You told me to shoot it. How the hell was I supposed to know it was a hologram?"
"Ah," Rodney said. "Good point." And his hands sketched the air around Device Seventeen forlornly.
"Hey," John said, "look at the bright side. At least it wasn't a deliberate booby trap."
"Hmph," Rodney said. "That's small consolation. Now let's go see if you destroyed any other irreplaceable works of genius."
John followed him across the room, his hands in his pockets. It was okay. It was fine. Rodney was the most oblivious person in the galaxy and there was nothing to worry about.
"This one's untouched," Rodney said, scanning a tall, crystal-clear device with blue handles. "So's this one. This one has, huh, a bit of a dent, but there's no telling that was from a bullet."
"Let me see it," John said, not that he wanted to prove his own guilt or anything, but the small red oval did look a bit deformed at one end. But there was nothing to prove it hadn't simply been dropped ten thousand years ago. "How 'bout we put that one on mothballs?"
"A pity," Rodney said, but he didn't disagree. He scanned the last device that could possibly have been in the line of fire and made a noncommittal noise. "Well, I suppose it could have been worse. You could have destroyed something important."
"Hey," John said, and then he couldn't say anything more, because, Jesus. Rodney was right. He could have destroyed everything, and for what? A kiss he had no intention of following up on? Because he didn't . . . he couldn't . . . hell, he'd never even thought about it, not seriously, not like he'd actually do it, not like . . . damn it.
"Well, come on," Rodney said, and wow, how had he gotten all the way across the lab already? "In case you hadn't noticed, we still have work to do."
"Right," John said, and dove for the haven of distraction.
Distraction, as it turned out, was completely useless. John surreptitiously scooted his chair a couple of feet further from Rodney, but it did absolutely no good. He could hear Rodney's breathing. He could feel every time Rodney shifted in his chair, or sighed, or frowned. It was like he was wired as a Rodney-detector, and as far as he could tell, there wasn't an off-switch.
"Got a date lined up for tomorrow?" John asked finally, out of desperation.
"Not at the moment," Rodney said, eyes still on his screen. "Why?"
"I'm not going to be here," John heard himself say. "Sorry."
"Really?" Rodney said, looking up. "Why not? I mean, what could you possibly have to do that would be more important than this?"
John rolled his eyes. "Hey, you're not the only one with a social life," he heard himself say.
"You have a date?" Rodney said, and wow, the incredulity wasn't exactly flattering. "With a woman?"
"Of course, with a woman," John said, staring at his screen while his heart thumped in his chest. "Jesus. It's not like I date men."
"Right," Rodney said. "Of course. Well, obviously, I wasn't thinking, I mean, I am well aware of that. I just meant . . . wow, I had no idea you were seeing anyone."
"It's a date, Rodney," John said. "Not an engagement party."
"Oh," Rodney said. "So you, ah, you're not much one for commitment, then."
"Already tried that," John said, because he was pretty sure Rodney knew about Nancy. "Didn't work out."
"Really." Rodney's lips made a flat line, and he'd given up all pretense of working. "Have you ever thought it might have been because you weren't with the right person? You might want to actually try it, instead of dismissing it out of hand."
Crap. This was the last thing he wanted to be talking with Rodney about. "Pretty sure she was the one with the wrong person," John said, "not me. She's remarried. Happily, far as I can tell."
"Ah," Rodney said, "but that merely proves my point. You were incompatible. You weren't right for her, and she wasn't right for you. That doesn't mean there's no one out there who could be. You just didn't get lucky the first time around."
John clenched his jaw. "Okay, I get it. You're in love, and you want everyone else to be. Well, not everyone can have the perfect little relationship, okay? Now, can we get back to work? Because, in case you don't remember, I'm not going to be here tomorrow."
Rodney made a strange face, somewhere between a wince and a grimace. "Right," he said shortly, and bent over his screen. "Let me know if you find anything related to Device Twelve."
John slouched down in his own chair, eyes on his own screen, but not seeing a whole lot. Goddamnit, he'd just committed himself to going on a date tomorrow, and he had no prospects whatsoever. He hadn't, in fact, gotten laid in ages, which, now that he was thinking about it, was probably a huge part of his problem.
So maybe what he really needed was a date. A real date. With a real woman. Maybe that was all he needed to straighten out the mess in his head.
He just had to figure out where to find someone who would go out with him on extremely short notice.
They knocked off later than usual. It might have had something to do with the fact that they weren't really talking to each other, so neither one of them spoke up to call it a night until Rodney started yawning.
John said good-night in the transporter and dropped Rodney off first. Then, as soon as the doors closed again, he pressed the map for the infirmary. Might as well take his chances while he had an excuse.
The night nurse was Veronica, which was an unexpected stroke of luck. John was pretty sure she'd always been a little sweet on him.
"Hi," John said, giving her a friendly smile. "Looks like a quiet night down here."
"Colonel," she said, returning the smile with a show of dimples. "What brings you here at this hour?
"Just a minor run-in with some Ancient tech," John said. "I kinda got zapped, and McKay said I ought to get it checked out."
"Of course," Veronica said, ushering him toward the exam table. "I'll just alert Dr. Keller, and you can tell her what happened."
"No need to wake her," John said quickly. "It was just a few sparks. McKay's kind of a worrywart."
"Sorry," Veronica said with an apologetic glance, examining his head and neck with cool, competent hands. "I have standing orders. And you have blisters on the tips of your fingers." Which was totally not . . . okay, maybe it was true. Funny, he hadn't even noticed.
"I was trying to turn on an experimental device," John explained. "It wasn't working quite right."
"Dr. Keller, please report to the infirmary," Veronica said into her radio, and John suppressed a wince. He'd really been hoping to avoid that. "Colonel, if you'll just hop up on the scanner for me."
John hopped up, giving her another smile. "You can call me John."
Veronica's eyes flicked up to his face, and her dimple flashed again. "You'll just need to lie still for a minute, John."
John lay back, trying not to twitch while the green lights played over him. He had to make his move soon, because Keller could be here any moment now. "So what's the verdict?" he asked as soon as the scan was done.
"Wish I could tell you," she said with an apologetic smile, "but I have to wait for Dr. Keller to read the results. She should be here any moment."
John leaned back on his hands. "Must be a tough job, working the night shift. You ever get time off for good behavior?"
Veronica was bent over the readout, typing something for Keller. "Oh, this is the last day of my night rotation. I go back to days tomorrow."
"Great," John said. "Then you can have dinner with me."
She looked up, disconcertingly startled. "Oh," she said. "Oh, wow, that's very sweet of you. But I'm so sorry. I'm kind of, you know, seeing someone."
"Of course you are," John said, a little too heartily. "The best ones are always taken."
Naturally, that was when Keller arrived. "How's my patient?" she asked as she crossed the room, and all John could do was give her a smile and hope to hell she hadn't overheard anything. "You didn't hurt yourself sparring again, did you?"
"Nope," John said. "Just got a little zapped. I wasn't going to come in, but Rodney insisted."
Keller's eyebrows twitched at that, and John felt a little guilty. He hadn't been trying to lord it over her that he'd been the one to spend the evening with Rodney. It had just popped out.
"Your scan looks clean," Keller said, perfectly professional, which only made John feel worse. "You want those fingers bandaged?"
"Nah," John said, hopping up off the table. "I'm good."
Keller looked up at him and shook her head. "You're almost as bad as Ronon. I'm going to have Marie put some antibiotic on the blisters for you. And next time, pay a little more attention where you put your hands."
"I'll do my best," John said, not touching that opening with a ten-foot pole.
"Then I'll get back to my nice, warm bed," Keller said. "Good night."
"'Night, Doc," John said. He leaned back against the examining table and did his best not to wonder whether that bed contained Rodney. Veronica seemed to have disappeared, but Marie had magically taken her place, and was now wielding a small tube of ointment and a large cotton swab. John held out his hands, palm up, for her to get to work.
"Tell me if it's uncomfortable," she said, dabbing his fingertips with brisk efficiency.
"It's fine," he said, and then—because what was a little more humiliation?—he added, "I don't suppose you're free for dinner tomorrow."
She didn't so much as lift an eyebrow. "I'm sorry, I have the evening shift all week."
"Of course you do," John said. "Maybe I can have a rain check?"
"I'd like that," Marie said, and John shut his mouth before he got himself into any more trouble.
She was just about done, anyway, and John flexed his hands. They didn't feel any different—the blisters hadn't been bothering him before—but at least this way they probably wouldn't get infected.
"Thanks," John said, and Marie nodded professionally and let him go. He was almost to the door when a pretty, dark-haired woman stepped in front of him. A fellow patient, he thought, not one of the medical staff, and she looked familiar, but he couldn't quite place her. Science team, from her jacket.
"Colonel Sheppard," she said. "Hi. I'm Natalie Wilson. In xenoseismology?"
Oh, right. The seismologist. That was where he'd seen her before. "What can I do for you?" he asked.
"I think it's more what I can do for you," she said, the corner of her mouth twitching up. "I kind of got the impression you're looking for a date for tomorrow night, and you aren't too picky who you end up with."
"Ah," John said, because apparently there were deeper levels of humiliation. "Well, I wouldn't exactly say—"
She cocked an eyebrow at him and eyed him frankly. "I'm free, if you're still looking."
"Uh, wow," he said, and how was it possible that he didn't see it coming even when he was actively looking for it? "Okay, actually, that would be great."
"Cool," she said. "See you tomorrow at, say, six? I'm guessing you want to do this somewhere nice and public, like the mess hall. Am I right?"
Jesus. She totally had his number. Which meant he could be in for an excruciating evening, but he was desperate, here. "Well, it doesn't have to be," John said, but Natalie just grinned at him.
"Bring a bottle of wine, and we'll be even," she said, and flashed him another smile as she turned to go. "See you tomorrow."
John watched her go, thinking dark thoughts about frying pans and fires. Honestly, one of these days, this thing with Rodney was going to kill him.
Natalie met him at the mess with a friendly (if slightly worrying) smile and led the way to a table. It was one of the ones by the window, just a little farther from the other tables than most. Rodney was already at his own table for two, eating with Keller, of course. John could just see them from where he was sitting, although he did have to turn his head a little.
"So how are things over in seismology?" John asked when she'd gotten settled and he'd poured them each a glass of Zinfandel from the bottle he'd carried in. He'd gone for innovative and daring, mostly because it was the only wine he'd been able to get his hands on, on short notice. "Should we be expecting any tidal waves any time soon?"
Natalie smiled and held up her glass to him, then took an obviously appreciative sip. "At the moment, the planet is looking surprisingly stable, given the fascinating composition of its lithosphere. But you didn't come here to talk about plate tectonics."
"I didn't?" John said.
She tipped her head and eyed him speculatively. "Come on, dish," she said. "If you're going to use me for cover, you can at least let me in on the secret."
John leaned back and took a bite of his bread stick. Damn it, she was shameless. Of course, considering how she'd asked him out, he should have been expecting that. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I think you do. I think we both do. You're either trying to make someone jealous or let them know you're not interested, and as your date for the evening, I think I deserve to know which it is."
"I'm really not," John said, and took a sip of his wine.
She rolled her eyes. "Okay, if that's the way you want to play it, fine. But I'm going to figure it out, anyway, so you might as well just tell me. You know, I'm leaning toward the jealous angle, since I think even you would have a better idea how to let a girl down easy."
John frowned at her and took a bite of his casserole. It wasn't the best thing the mess had ever made, and it kind of clashed with the wine. "What do you mean, even me?"
"Oh," she said airily, "it's just your reputation. You know, easy on the eyes, but hasn't got a clue about women. It was part of the 'Welcome to Atlantis' briefing."
"Now you're pulling my leg," John said. "I wrote the official briefing myself."
"The unofficial briefing," Natalie said. "The one the boys aren't invited to."
Christ, she was serious. "Wow," John said, and took a slightly larger gulp of his wine than he'd intended. "Wait, aren't you breaking the secret sisterhood protocol by telling me this?"
"It's a calculated risk," Natalie admitted. "I'm a woman on a mission."
"A mission to find out who I want to make jealous?"
She laughed. "Oh, no. That's just my prurient curiosity. And I promise not to tell anyone who it is. It'll just be between the two of us."
"Then what's the mission?" John asked, because damn it, he was in over his head here.
"That would be telling," Natalie said with another smile. "But don't worry. I'm not out to embarrass you in front of the object of your affections."
John leaned forward, and his smile might have had a tiny bit of an edge to it. "Look, let's just get one thing straight. I am not dating you because I want to make some other woman jealous, okay? There is no other woman."
Natalie met his gaze and held it without flinching. "Okay," she said finally.
John leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Okay, then."
She took took a bite of her casserole and then tilted her head at him. "You know, if you want to make it look like you're on a date, you kind of have to act the part."
"Right," John said, but she had a point, so he uncrossed his arms. "Maybe we should go back to talking about plate tectonics."
She laughed at that, and launched into some sort of random technobabble about oceanic trenches and the potential for volcanic activity on the mainland. She didn't seem to require much in the way of response apart from the occasional "oh, really," so John occupied himself with his food and dared a quick glance over at Rodney and Keller's table.
Rodney was leaning forward, speaking intently, and Keller's eyes were locked with his. Like there was no one else in the room with them, and that was just—
"So that's it," Natalie said, and John jerked his head around to find her watching him, a surprisingly sympathetic expression on her face.
"It's not what you think," John said quickly. The back of his neck was strangely hot. "I do not have some sort of secret thing for Dr. Keller."
"I know," Natalie said. "I saw you together in the infirmary, remember?"
Crap. John took a sip of his wine, smooth and easy, though his pulse was pounding in his ears. "Yeah, well, it's not that, either."
Natalie took a thoughtful bite of her green beans. "Really."
"Yes," John said. "Really."
She looked at him for a moment, and then held up her hand. "You're right. I'm sorry. I can't ask that, can I?"
John shifted in his seat. "Well, technically, you can, since you're not military. But it's kind of a moot point, because you're barking up the wrong tree." He leaned closer to her and set his fork down, the adrenaline still coursing through him like he was on board a hive ship. "Look, it's no big secret. McKay's got me working nights, running security for a project he's doing, and the only way he was going to give me a night off was if I had a good excuse. So I made one up. End of story."
Natalie let out a quick laugh. "That's almost dumb enough to be believable," she said. And then her eyes narrowed. "Almost. Just please tell me you're not the kind of closet case who takes it out on everyone around you in order to compensate."
"Jesus," John said. "No." Because that would be just . . . hell, he wasn't what she was saying, he couldn't possibly be, because he wasn't . . . he didn't . . . okay, sure, it was true that he'd wanted Rodney to be a girl, but that wasn't the same thing as . . . fuck.
"Because if you're letting your personal issues affect your professional decisions—"
"Now just a damn minute," John said. "I know you're new around here, so I'm going to cut you some slack. But I have never, not even once . . . if you think I'm going to send a soldier home because of something that is none of my business in the first place, you're nuts. My people are damn good at what they do in the field, and I don't give a flying fuck what they do in the bedroom. You got that?"
But Natalie, unaccountably, broke into a grin and raised her glass to him. "Thank you. I think I just won a bet."
"Wait," John said, "That's your mission?"
She lifted an eyebrow. "You have a problem with that?"
"You could've just asked," John said. "You could've asked anyone. I've been more or less in charge here for five years. That's got to be enough track record for anyone."
"Let's just say I like to see some things for myself," she said.
"And get free wine in the process?"
Natalie laughed out loud. "Sure," she said. "Can you blame me?"
John shook his head, but he could feel the corner of his mouth twitch up. And then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rodney and Keller get up and head out of the mess. Natalie's gaze followed his, and she gave him a knowing look.
"So," she said, blunt as hell, because apparently that was her default setting, "it looks like your mission is accomplished. Are you going to take off on me?"
John leaned back in his chair and smiled at her for real. "Now, why would I do that?" he said. "We still have half a bottle of wine."
"So you're dating lesbians now?"
John crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair while his computer churned through translations. Rodney had been cranky all day, so he wasn't going to take it personally. "You got a problem with that?"
Rodney's mouth set in a tight line that made John's chest twinge. "No, no, of course not. I just, well, you do realize she's using you, right? She's never going to want anything real or lasting."
John shrugged and tried not to imagine dating Natalie Wilson for real. "Strangely enough, I'm okay with that."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Right. The whole commitment thing. Funny how that sort of slipped my mind."
"Look," John said, "I told you. Not everyone can have what you and Jennifer have. That's pretty damn rare, especially around here."
But Rodney's face only went tighter. "Extremely rare," he said. "To the point of extinction, really."
John's heart jumped in his chest. That wasn't, that couldn't possibly . . . "What's that supposed to mean?"
Rodney looked up, and crap, he looked bad. Beyond cranky, and pushing on toward miserable. "Well, I suppose you're going to find out sooner or later, so I might as well tell you now. There is no Rodney and Jennifer anymore. We broke up."
"What?" The crazy thing was, he'd wanted this. He knew he had. But now all he felt was a kind of blank disbelief.
"Not everything works out," Rodney said. "Not even when two people really want it to."
"I'm sorry," John said, and meant it. "I thought you guys were good together."
"So did I," Rodney said, and he looked so damn forlorn John wanted to pat his shoulder or something . . . else. "I just . . . she wanted me to be something I'm not. And I tried, I mean, I really tried, but in the end I just . . . couldn't."
"Tough luck," John said, but his stomach suddenly felt like he'd swallowed a bowlful of lead, because if that was the problem, Jesus.
He was worse than Keller. He was a hell of a lot worse. And he was suddenly deeply, deeply grateful that they'd never come across a sex-change machine, because if they had . . .
Fuck. Talk about wanting someone to be something they weren't.
"John?" Rodney said, his expression odd. "Are you okay?"
"Of course," John said. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You look like you're going to be sick. You're not going to be sick, are you? Because if you are, you really should get to the infirmary before you puke. We have to work in here."
"I'm fine," John said, and he was. There was nothing wrong with him. Well, nothing apart from the fact that he wanted to kiss Rodney.
But he did. He couldn't kid himself any longer. He wanted to hold Rodney's face in his hands and bury his fingers in Rodney's hair and press their mouths together and not let go. He wanted to suck on Rodney's tongue until Rodney forgot all about Keller, forgot about Janus's lab, forgot every bit of wormhole physics he'd ever learned. And it was stupid, it was insane, because he didn't want . . . okay, okay, he did. He didn't give a damn that Rodney had a dick instead of a pussy. He'd touch it. He'd stick his hand right down Rodney's pants and jerk him until his face went slack and his eyes rolled back, and Jesus.
"Seriously," Rodney said. "Do I need to get you a barf bag?"
John managed to turn a snort into a cough, just barely. If you knew what I was thinking, he thought, more than a little hysterically, you'd probably want one for yourself. "We should get back to work," he managed. "I think you're going to like the stuff I've found about Device Twelve. It has something to do with antigravity."
"Really?" Rodney's face lit up, immediately distracted, and for a moment, John could only stare. God, Keller was an idiot to have given this up. "Oh, wow," Rodney said, scrolling through the data on his screen. "Do you know what this is? It's a prototype for a personal antigravity device."
"You're kidding," John said, momentarily distracted himself. "You mean, you could make me fly?"
"Possibly," Rodney said. "Please tell me you have more."
John scanned the latest file coming out of the translator. "Sorry. This stuff is tagged for Device Nine."
"Damn," Rodney said. "Okay, well, let me know immediately if you find anything about Twelve."
"Okay," John said, and leaned back in his chair and tried to breathe.
His Rodney detector was apparently switched on full-time, now, and it was driving him insane. In meetings. Off world. At breakfast—team breakfast, now, with Teyla being extra kind to Rodney and Ronon eyeing John speculatively, and it took John a full three minutes to figure out that the reason his eggs tasted funny was that he was eating oatmeal.
"Looks like your seismologist found greener pastures," Rodney said, and John looked up to see Natalie Wilson sharing a cozy table for two with, wow, Sergeant Mehra. Okay, he wouldn't have guessed that one. But her more-than-casual interest in his policy stance made a heck of a lot more sense, now.
"My heart is broken," John said, "but somehow I'll manage to carry on."
"Oh, very funny," Rodney said sourly, and crap, he looked hurt, like he thought that was an intentional barb, and that was just . . .
John pushed his chair back. "I'm going to get a refill on my coffee. Anyone else want some?" And maybe he was looking at Rodney a little too obviously, but he still didn't deserve the eye-roll.
"For your information," Rodney announced, "Jennifer and I broke up by amicable, mutual agreement. So there's no need to mollycoddle me. Any of you," he added, glaring around the table and finishing up with John.
John stuck his free hand in his pocket. "Are you saying you don't want a refill?"
Rodney's expression changed so fast that John would have laughed under other circumstances. "Well, I mean, if you're getting up anyway . . ." He held out his cup.
"No problem," John said, and it didn't come out nearly as sarcastic as he'd intended it to. And Jesus, that was bad, because one of these days, someone was going to notice that he was off his game, and then what the hell was he going to do?
It was small comfort that Rodney was oblivious, because Ronon and Teyla weren't, and he'd never pictured a day when he would actually want Rodney to get back together with Keller, but right now it seemed like the sanest solution.
The coffee urn wasn't crowded, so it took only a moment to fill two cups and add cream to his own. Rodney, being Rodney, took his black. John turned back toward the table, only to see Rodney leaning toward Teyla and shaking his head slowly.
Christ, John could only hope they weren't talking about him.
"Coffee," he said, and set Rodney's cup down hard enough to slop a little over the rim.
"Hey," Rodney said, "watch it. You could have burned me!"
"You're welcome," John said, and it came out reassuringly snide. He dared a glance at Teyla, only to see her rolling her eyes. And Ronon was leaning back in his chair and grinning.
Great. Just great. Now they were both going to be on his case. And Rodney was sitting next to him, making coffee-slurping noises that sounded like porn.
John thumped down in his own seat and absolutely did not look at Rodney. Or listen to the slurping. Or think of porn. Because the last thing he needed was to be getting a hard-on in the mess hall at breakfast.
By dinner time he knew he was in trouble. He'd been getting random erections all day long; there was no way he was going to make it through another evening in Janus's lab without embarrassing himself. So it was either come up with an excuse not to show, or take care of matters on his own, first.
Right, well, dinner could wait.
He had his pants down as soon as his door was locked, his fist closing around the shaft of his cock, just below the head. He braced himself against the nearest pillar and closed his eyes. He was going to start slow and easy—not that he wanted to take his time, but he wasn't going to cheat himself, either. He needed to make this count.
And he wasn't going to think about Rodney. He wasn't. It would be stupid, and counterproductive, and anyway, he had plenty of other fantasies if he needed them.
Like breasts. Breasts were nice. High, round, firm ones. Or big lush handfuls. Hell, yeah. That was what he needed. That was great. And it was perfect, because Rodney was never going to have breasts. Rodney didn't want breasts. Rodney had a chest, a guy's chest, with hair, and small pink nipples, and yes, okay, he filled out a t-shirt pretty nicely, but, crap.
Right. He wasn't thinking about Rodney. He was thinking about pussies, which Rodney most definitely didn't have. Soft, sweet pussies, slippery and warm inside. Of course, Rodney had an ass, but that was just . . .
He was not going to think about Rodney's ass. Not like that, because he couldn't go there, couldn't even picture it. Rodney would never go for it, not even if he were a girl, and John . . .
Well, it wasn't like he'd want Rodney thinking things like that about his ass. Jesus. He would never . . . and he certainly wouldn't want Rodney . . . crap.
Okay, right. This wasn't working. And if he wanted to get to dinner before the mess closed, he was going to have to come up with something that would.
John tightened his grip, pulling a little harder, and swiped the tip of his cock with his thumb. God, what he really wanted right now was a blow job. A nice, slow one, with a tight, wet mouth and a lot of tongue action. Fuck, yeah. And he'd be good, he wouldn't thrust or anything, just lean back and take it, while Rodney's tongue—
He wasn't thinking about Rodney. He couldn't. Rodney would never want to blow him, and hell, it wasn't like he would want to return the favor.
Because he'd never . . . he wouldn't . . . he couldn't even imagine dropping to his knees and yanking Rodney's fly open. Although Rodney would be shocked if he did, and that might make it almost worth it. It might even be fun to lean in and touch his mouth to Rodney's cock, to suck it in, just to hear Rodney's gasp.
Of course he wouldn't know what the hell he was doing, so the chances he could make Rodney actually like it weren't all that good. But then again, how hard could it be? He knew what he liked, and he could probably figure out the suction part and the thing with the tongue. And Rodney would be the noisy type, which was good, really good, because John would be able to figure out when he was doing something right and do more of it.
Jesus. John clenched his teeth to stop the whimper that wanted to come out. He didn't want . . . he didn't . . . okay, he didn't give a damn what he wanted, or what Rodney wanted, he needed this, needed it right now, and he could face the consequences later.
His hand was working a little faster, now, and he could feel his pulse pounding in his neck. He wished he knew what Rodney's cock would feel like in his mouth. It would be big, hell, even if it wasn't really all that big it would feel big. And warm. It would definitely be warm. And the skin would be soft and smooth and he'd be careful with his teeth, damn careful, because he knew what that felt like, and he wouldn't do that to Rodney. He'd make it good for Rodney, well, as good as he knew how, and Rodney would . . . .
Rodney would be moaning softly, and babbling, God yes. He'd be talking a mile a minute, only it would get less coherent as he got closer, and John would suck harder, until Rodney's hips jerked and his balls tightened and his babble turned into a groan.
And then he would come. Right in John's mouth.
Christ. John pumped harder. He was so close he was leaking, the head of his cock slick in his fist. He just needed . . . right. He closed his eyes, switched hands, and shoved the fingers of his right hand into his mouth. They were hard and ocean-bitter against his tongue, and that was it, God, that was it, and he was coming, hard and hot all over the floor, and the release was so good, so pure, that for a moment he could almost feel Rodney right h—
John yanked his fingers out of his mouth and tipped his head back until it hit the pillar with a thump. He'd just crossed the line. He'd just seriously crossed the line, and there was no way to go back, no way to fix the mess in his head. The joke was on him, now. And he was going to have to spend an entire evening with Rodney pretending he hadn't just jerked off thinking about blowing him, and shit, he was so totally screwed it wasn't even funny.
He pushed himself away from the wall and went to clean up thoroughly—both himself and the floor. Then he dumped the soiled towels into the bathroom scrubber and leaned forward to check out his face in the mirror.
It didn't look any different than usual, the same mole on his left cheek, the same crow's feet around his eyes. There was nothing to show what he'd just done. Rodney would never know, well, not unless he slipped up, and he wasn't going to slip up.
Not a chance.
Of course, when he got to the mess, he found the rest of the team having dinner together. And of course Rodney looked up, confused and put-upon, when John approached the table.
"Where have you been? We were expecting you twenty minutes ago. I hope you haven't forgotten we're scheduled for an evening in Janus's lab, because I think I'm close to a breakthrough, and I need as much time as possible tonight."
John slid into the seat next to Teyla and didn't look at Rodney while he said, "Sorry, something came up," and hoped to hell no one would guess exactly what.
John was doing his damnedest to keep his eyes on his screen and not think of blow jobs, so it took him a moment to recognize what the translator was spitting out at him, even though it was written in surprisingly clear English.
A straightforward genetic conversion. The transition from woman to man or man to woman must be indicated subvocally in order for the device to operate.
He had to read it twice, because his heart was pounding and his palms were sweating and shit. But it was tagged clearly: Device Eight.
John looked up, but Rodney was hunched over his screen, madly tapping away.
It was his fucking Holy Grail. The device that Rodney had said didn't exist, and it was a huge cosmic joke that he'd found it now, when it was absolutely no use to him. Well, it hadn't been any use before, but he hadn't known that, and now, Jesus, now he didn't even want Rodney to be a girl, and that was the sickest part about it.
He could remember wanting it, with a strange sense of distance, like it had been a dream, or something that happened to someone else. Because now he couldn't even picture it. Rodney was just fine the way he was, and if he turned into a girl, John would never get the chance to blow him.
Not that John was going to get a chance, anyway, since Rodney didn't do guys. Rodney liked women, like Katie Brown and Sam Carter and, oh yeah, Jennifer Keller.
So it was pointless to keep the note out of the shared folder. Pointless to hide it under a layer of folders on his laptop, and anyway, if Rodney wanted to find it, it wasn't like there was anything John could do to stop him, short of shooting up the hard drive.
"So, Device Eight," John said, desperately casual. "That the one that's dented?"
"Hmmm?" Rodney said, and surfaced from his data long enough to blink. "Oh, yes. That was Eight. A pity. Did you find something about it?"
"Nope," John said, heart pounding in his chest. "All I've got is notes on Eighteen here. Just wanted to make sure I was remembering right."
"Whatever," Rodney said, drawn back to the gravity well of his screen. "Let me know if you run into anything about Twelve."
"Okay," John said, and turned his eyes back to his computer like he was working.
He couldn't even see the screen. There was a weird thrumming in his ears, like he could feel the damned device from across the room, even though he'd never touched it. But he remembered where Rodney had put it. It was in a box next to the last table. Potentially damaged. Right. He had to remember that.
Except it was only a little dent. Maybe it wasn't damaged internally at all. Maybe it would still work just fine. Of course, there was no way to know without turning it on.
Which he wasn't going to do. He wasn't insane. He didn't want Rodney going near that thing. Not that Rodney would give it the proper mental command, of course, so actually, Rodney was probably the one who was safe to touch it.
John got up slowly, stretching like he was just taking a break, and slouched around the room, deliberately aimless. "You know, it's a complete waste to have me here," he said, and Rodney finally lifted his head. "We should talk to Woolsey again. Nothing's happened. Nothing's going to happen. You'd be better off with someone like Zelenka."
Rodney's face went wide-eyed, and then fell. "I see," he said. "You're bored again. And here I thought it would be enough to be part of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time, but apparently I was wrong."
"It's not that," John said. "I just . . ." If he had to be cooped up in this room with Rodney for one more minute, he was going to do something certifiable. "I figured you'd rather have someone else here."
But Rodney only sniffed. "Zelenka would just claim it for his own work. And no one else could actually understand any of it."
"I can't understand it," John said desperately.
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and glared. "You do a perfectly adequate job of categorizing," he said stiffly. "And I already tried to convince Woolsey, twice, so there's really no point in trying again."
Right. So apparently Rodney wanted him here and John . . . didn't have the strength to fight that. "Okay, but I get to be the first one to test the antigravity device."
That earned him another glare. "Fine, whatever. Now, if you don't mind, I have work to do."
John waved a hand at him. "Don't let me stop you." And watched while Rodney bent over his screen once again.
Damn it. Maybe he should try talking to Woolsey himself. It would be the smart thing to do, to get out of this ridiculous situation. And then he wouldn't be tempted by things that didn't make any sense.
John shoved his hands into his pockets. Rodney wasn't watching him. Rodney was completely absorbed in his work again, and that burned in a way John didn't even want to think about. Because he was so damn distracted by Rodney's presence he couldn't even think, but Rodney barely even noticed he was in the same room.
Right. Well, it wasn't like he didn't already know that Rodney was straight.
The box where Rodney had put Device Eight was still on the floor next to the last table. John leaned against the table and surreptitiously slid one hand down to open the lid. The device was right where it should be, oval and oddly translucent, nestled in a cushion of foam. It lay there, silent and inert and treacherous.
The dent was barely noticeable. It didn't look like something that would affect the function, well, not as far as John could see. Not that he was an expert in Ancient tech, but he'd certainly seen things that looked a lot more banged up work just fine.
Rodney still wasn't looking at him. John turned and crouched over the box. He wasn't going to touch it, didn't want to turn it on, but when his finger brushed it, it hummed softly against his neural pathways. Initialized.
Jesus. He yanked his hand away. And then, suddenly, it all clicked into place, so blindingly obvious he couldn't believe he hadn't seen it before.
He wanted to blow Rodney. Rodney liked women. And Device Eight was right here.
So, okay, it was nuts. It was possibly the craziest idea he'd ever had in his life. But nothing said it had to be permanent, and hell, it wasn't like he didn't take worse risks every day of the week.
John reached into the box, placed his hand firmly on the translucent oval, and thought, Do it. Change me.
He braced himself, waiting for it to hit, but nothing happened. Nothing at—oh, right, he had to be specific. John gritted his teeth and added, Into a woman.
For a moment the device just lay there, cool and smooth beneath his palm. John pulled his hand back, ready to chalk it up as a failure, and then he saw it: a tendril of white light curling around his wrist. It snaked up his arm and down over his torso, bright enough to make him blink, but it didn't hurt. Actually, he couldn't feel anything. Not even a tingle. Nothing that could possibly be enough to—
"John! Oh my God, John!" And wow, Rodney could move fast when he wanted to.
"I'm fine," John said, and he was, really. The white light was dissipating even as he said it, and he felt . . . exactly like himself. No sign of breasts, and he could still feel his dick, right where it always was. So maybe the damn thing was broken, after all.
"What the hell did you think you were doing? Wait, is that Device Eight? Did I or did I not just say that it was damaged?"
"It was just a little—fuck."
The pain slammed into him without warning, exploding from his balls like he'd been kicked, and Jesus, that was the floor, cool and hard beneath his cheek.
He tried to fight it, tried to drag himself upright, but the pain slammed into him again, so hard he couldn't breathe. He clawed at his crotch, trying to make it stop, but nothing helped, nothing made it let up, not even for a moment.
He was aware of Rodney's hand on his shoulder, of Rodney's voice, calling in a medical emergency, but it felt like his body was coming apart. He couldn't see, couldn't think, couldn't do anything but curl into himself and shake.
There was an arm around him propping him up, and he could hear Rodney's voice, high and frantic, saying his name. And then finally, finally, blackness found him and pulled him under.
He was in the infirmary. He hated waking up in the infirmary, especially when he had no memory of getting there in the first place. Although nothing hurt, which was always a good thing.
"Colonel, you're awake." That was Keller, coming around the privacy curtain that surrounded his bed.
"Seem to be," John said, and whoa, his voice sounded funny. He cleared his throat and tried again. "What happened?" That was a little better, though still not quite right.
"I'm afraid you're going to have to tell me," Keller said. "Rodney said you touched something you shouldn't have."
"Right," John said, and realization woke cold and heavy in his gut. Fucking Device Eight. He tilted his head slowly and looked down. He was dressed in baggy scrubs, but they kind of stuck out a little in front. Just a tiny bit too much to be his pecs. And he couldn't feel his dick. Jesus. He couldn't feel his dick or his balls.
"You're okay," Keller said, putting a hand on his arm. "Rodney says the device didn't malfunction, although apparently it's a miracle it didn't."
"I'm a girl," John said, and it was all he could do to keep from shoving a hand down his pants to find out for sure. He pressed his legs together instead and felt a bizarre twinge of sensation right where the base of his dick should have been. Fuck.
Keller inclined her head. "Physically and genetically, you're now female. I take it this means it was an accident? Because Rodney wasn't entirely sure."
"Of course it was a goddamned accident," John said, and scrubbed his face with his hands. It felt reassuringly familiar. "Please tell me Rodney can change me back."
"He's working on it," Keller said. "He hasn't done anything else since you collapsed."
"Oh," John said, and tried to check the time, but he wasn't wearing his watch. "What time is it?"
"Nearly three in the morning," Keller said. "You were unconscious for six hours."
His wrist was still hairy. Damned hairy for a girl. "I should probably let you get some sleep, then," John said.
Keller pressed her lips together. "I'd like to check a few things, first. Are you in any pain?"
"I feel—" castrated "—fine," John said. He wanted to see Rodney. He couldn't possibly see Rodney. Rodney knew what he'd done.
Jesus H. Christ, what the hell had he been thinking?
Keller was busy scanning him with a hand-held scanner. "Well," she said finally. "It doesn't look like you've had any more major changes in the last hour, but I'd like to keep you under observation for the rest of the night. Also, I, um, don't know what you want to, I mean, I realize this is a rather unusual situation, so I didn't know what you . . . that is, I want you to know that I've held everything that's happened to you in strictest doctor-patient confidentiality."
John winced. "Except for the part where you told Rodney."
"Oh," Keller said, and gave him an embarrassed smile. "Right. Well, he was the one who saw it happen, and of course he's the one who can figure out how to change you back. You do, um, want to change back?"
"Yes," John said. "Jesus."
"I'm sorry," Keller said, flushing a little. "I didn't mean to imply . . . I mean, of course you said it was an accident."
"Yeah," John said, and suddenly, despite the queasiness in his gut, he was achingly tired. "Look can you just tell Rodney . . ."
John pressed his lips together. He couldn't say what he wanted to say, but then again, he didn't even know what that was. "Tell him to get some sleep. He can figure out how to fix me in the morning."
Keller gave him an assessing glance, then a quick smile. "Okay," she said. "I'll tell him. Now you need to get some more sleep, yourself. Do you want a sedative?"
"No," John said, and yawned. "I don't think that's going to be necessary."
He managed to sleep for an hour or two before restlessness won out. Fortunately, the night nurse was Marie, and he managed to con her into releasing him for time served. She didn't bat an eyelash at him, but it didn't mean much; Marie was so unflappable she wouldn't have flinched if he'd grown antlers, and it wasn't like he was asking for his rain check. John took the clothes she handed him and promised to contact Keller immediately if he experienced any unexpected symptoms. Whatever that meant. Then he went back behind the curtain, dropped his clothes on the bed, steeled himself, and stripped off the scrub top.
He wasn't going to look. He really wasn't ready for that yet. But somehow he managed to catch a tiny glimpse, and then he couldn't help himself.
He had breasts, all right. Small, kind of pointy ones. But his arms weren't the only things that were still hairy. Jesus. John wrenched his chin up and yanked his t-shirt over his head. He really should have left well enough alone.
He didn't look at his lower half, just shoved the scrubs down, but he was still wearing his own boxers, which made it easier. His pants fit fine, which was kind of a relief, and when he buttoned his uniform shirt over his t-shirt it kind of camouflaged his chest. His boots fit okay, too, so . . . yeah. Okay. At least he wasn't going to have to ask for new clothes.
He waved to Marie on his way out and actually got a bit of a smile in return. There was no one in the corridor outside, and he knew the Marines' patrol schedules, so he managed to make it back to his quarters without being seen. He locked the door, sat down on his bed, and dropped his head into his hands.
He was an idiot. Seriously, certifiable. What the hell had he thought, that being a woman was going to be fun and games? Well, obviously he hadn't thought, or he hadn't thought enough, because now he had bizarre, hairy growths on his chest, and he didn't have a dick.
Which was going to make things difficult when he had to take a leak.
Crap. He was going to put that off as long as possible. Maybe until Rodney figured out how to fix him, except that now that he was thinking about it, he really had to go.
Make that really, really had to. Fuck.
Right, well, women did it every day. How hard could it be?
He made his way to the bathroom and shoved his pants and boxers down without looking. Sitting wasn't all that weird, although it was strange not to have to worry about keeping his dick inside the rim. Release was, wow, faster than he was expecting. And then he was done, and it was fine. He was fine. He could handle it.
Except, wait, didn't women wipe up? John gritted his teeth, grabbed a wad of toilet paper, and stuck his hand down there.
It felt weird, but that was par for the course. And then he brushed something that had to be his clit, and Jesus. He'd always thought his dick was sensitive, but that almost hurt. The next time he touched a woman there, he was going to go damn easy.
If he ever touched a woman again.
He managed to get his pants up and his hands washed without looking in the mirror, because he wasn't ready for that, either. Although he was going to have to, sometime, just to see how bad it was. It was almost enough to make him wish he had a sister, just so he'd know what to expect.
He still had his head down when he heard the pounding on his door. "Sheppard. Open the door. Sheppard! Come on, I know you're in there."
Crap. But there didn't seem to be much choice. John crossed the room and unlocked the door.
Rodney was gesturing as he stepped inside. "Okay, look, I just need to—" His gaze found John's face, and he broke off suddenly, like all of the air had gone out of him. John's heart hammered to life in his chest. He wished he'd had the guts to look in the mirror, so he'd know what Rodney was seeing.
"What?" John said, and his voice sounded almost like his, low and annoyed.
"I thought you'd . . ." Rodney made an indecypherable gesture. "I've been working on it all night, and all the indications were that it didn't malfunction, but you . . ."
John frowned. "But I what?"
Rodney waved a hand helplessly. "I thought you'd look different."
John rubbed a hand over his face and felt . . . stubble. Wow. No wonder his face felt familiar. "Sorry to disappoint you."
"No, I . . . no," Rodney said. "God, no, it's amazing. So it didn't work?"
John bit his lip. He could lie. It would be easy. But Keller knew everything, so really, there was no point. "No," John said. "No, it did."
"Oh." Rodney's face fell, and John's gut turned over. Not that he'd actually believed that Rodney wanted him to be a girl, but still. A little curiosity wouldn't have been entirely out of line. Or even sympathy. But Rodney's face looked like someone had just kicked his puppy. "I see."
John started to cross his arms over his chest but managed to stop himself halfway, because right, bad idea. He shoved his hands in his pockets instead. "Look, I just . . . can you turn me back? I mean, if it didn't malfunction, then there's no reason why it won't work again, right?"
Rodney's eyes went wide. "You want to turn back?"
"Of course I want to turn back," John said. "Jesus, McKay."
"Well, I'm sorry, but I think I can be forgiven for a little uncertainty, here." Rodney lifted his chin. "I found the file. I know you did it on purpose."
Fuck. John's stomach lurched again. "It was an accident. I didn't think it would do . . . this."
"Well, what did you think it would do? The file was really pretty clear, and you're not an idiot. At least, I didn't think you were. Given current circumstances, I may need to reconsider . . . oh, my God. Your lesbian."
"No, no, not you, your lesbian. You know, what's her name, the seismologist you were trying to date. I can't believe you . . . wow. I mean, I had no idea. That's actually kind of romantic, in an incredibly demented sort of way."
"Rodney, Jesus," John said, and how ironic was it that Rodney had it so wrong, and yet so frighteningly close to right?
"You know, I hate to break this to you, but I don't think she's going to, you know. Not that you're not . . . I mean, I'm sure the basic equipment is . . . but—and don't take this personally—I'm not really sure you're her type."
"Thanks," John said sourly, but there was no point in setting Rodney straight, because then he'd go jumping to different conclusions, and some of them might end up too close to the truth. "Look, I just need to know if it works in reverse, okay? Don't leave me hanging, here."
"Oh," Rodney said, and seemed to really look at him for the first time. "Wow, are you okay? Do you need to go back to the infirmary?"
"I'm fine," John growled. "I just want my dick back."
"Right," Rodney said, but it sounded noticeably less sarcastic. "Right, well, see, here's the thing. There's a bit of a problem with that."
John's stomach went queasy as Rodney started to pace. "What kind of a problem?"
Rodney turned back to face him. "It was damaged. You knew it was damaged when you touched it. And you have no idea how incredibly lucky you are that it maintained its structural integrity long enough to finish changing you."
Rodney looked helpless. "Okay, look, the truth is, it fried out its power circuits. I can't even get it to turn on, never mind trying to get it to function properly. It's about as useful as a doorstop right now."
"Fuck," John said, and sat down heavily on his bed. "Can you fix it?"
Rodney started pacing again. "I don't know yet. I'm working on it. I just needed to make sure you actually wanted me to."
"For the last time, I said—"
"I know, I know. You want it fixed. I told you, I'm working on it. I've got the go-ahead from Woolsey, and I have Zelenka helping me but I'd . . . I'd like to have you there, too."
"Me," John said.
"Yes, I . . . I'd feel better about it. Whatever we find out."
John ran a hand over his face again. Still with the stubble. And his hair felt like his own. So maybe . . . maybe no one would look very closely at him, and he really, really wanted to be there. To keep Rodney on task, if nothing else. "Okay," he said. "I just need a minute."
"Take all the time you want. We're reconvening at Janus's lab after lunch. I, ah, might need an hour or two of sleep," Rodney said, and right, he did look kind of exhausted. "Radek said I was starting to repeat myself."
John gestured to the door. "Get some sleep. Don't worry, I'll be there." And Rodney must have believed him, because he nodded, gave John one more close-mouthed look, and turned to go.
John climbed slowly to his feet and forced himself back into the bathroom. The only mirror was over the sink—apparently the Ancients weren't quite as vain as modern-day Americans. He kept his chin up, kept his eyes level, and turned squarely to face the facts.
The face in the mirror . . . looked like himself. Like himself on a bad day, with stubble and bags under his eyes and hair flat on one side. There was nothing soft about his face, nothing feminine. He was just himself. With breasts.
And to think he'd thought it would be funny, when he'd thought about it being Rodney.
But maybe the breasts were something he could do something about. He opened the bathroom cabinet and found an ace bandage, then stripped off his shirts. He wasn't going to look, wasn't going to look, yup, still hairy.
But still on the small side. It didn't take too much effort to wrap them, around and around with the bandage, until they were squashed against his chest instead of poking out. It wasn't entirely comfortable, but it felt better than having a rib taped, so he could stand it. He put his shirts back on and looked . . . huh. Pretty much like himself.
He ran a hand through his hair to fix the flattened side, and decided not to shave. He had no idea who knew, but the fewer, the better. Even if, no, especially if, he was going to be stuck like this for awhile.
He wasn't going to think forever. He couldn't think that, because if he did . . . crap.
He was screwed. He'd fucked himself over but good, and it didn't help that he had no one to blame but himself. And now he was going to have to face the city, face everyone, and pretend he hadn't done this on purpose.
And hope to hell that Rodney found some way to fix the damn device.
No one said a word over breakfast. Well, nothing specific. Ronon just said, "Heard you spent the night in the infirmary," and John just said, "Yeah, got zapped by one of McKay's toys," and that was pretty much that. Even Teyla didn't seem to notice anything wrong. And neither Teldy nor Lorne looked at him twice during their morning meetings.
So apparently the missing dick was less than obvious to everyone else. John only wished it were less obvious to him.
He couldn't stop thinking about it. He'd spent forty-one years taking it for granted, and now he was counting lost opportunities. He could've jerked off more frequently. He could've had sex with more hot girls. Except—and Jesus, this was the worst part about it—he wasn't really missing that part all that much. Mostly what he was missing was, yeah. The one thing he'd never had. Not that it mattered much, since Rodney apparently wasn't interested in him no matter what he had in his pants.
Zelenka glanced up when John stepped through the wall into Janus's lab. Rodney's spot at the far console was still empty, and there was no one else in the room. So apparently no one was worrying about placating Woolsey anymore, whatever that meant.
"Colonel," Zelenka said, and then looked up again and pressed his glasses to his nose. "You are looking quite . . . ah, good. That is, I'm glad to see you here. Rodney says you were working on cataloging Janus's notes."
"Yeah," John said. "But I already gave Rodney everything I had."
"Yes, yes, I know," Zelenka said. "I am trying to improve the algorithm to search Janus's database, but the data structure is . . . very idiosyncratic. I was hoping perhaps you could show me your translation logs. It would help to know which file came from which sector."
"No problem," John said, and opened his computer. Zelenka indicated the chair next to him, and they were leaning together over the screens and transferring files when Rodney announced his arrival by clearing his throat. Loudly.
"Well, isn't this cozy?" he said, and wow, sleep really hadn't done anything for his mood.
"Huh?" John said, and Zelenka said, "Rodney."
"You just had to start without me, didn't you? Makes me wonder what else you two have been up to."
Zelenka frowned. "Rodney, it is nothing. He was showing me the logs from the translation program."
"Yes, yes, of course he was. And let me guess, it was your idea to have him sit so close. Don't forget, I'm onto you. I know all about your thing for tall women."
"Rodney," John said, because he couldn't be hearing what he was hearing, only he was. "Are you really trying to warn me off Zelenka?"
"No!" Rodney's chin jerked up. "No, of course not. I mean, obviously, it's none of my business, but you do realize you shouldn't be having sex in that body, don't you? Because I'm pretty sure you have a fully functioning reproductive system there, and if you were to get preg—"
"McKay," John said, because damn it, he was feeling queasy again. "Shut the hell up."
"Oh," Rodney said, chin still high. "Right, your lesbian. Well, I suppose you don't have to worry about her getting you pregnant, at least."
John gritted his teeth. He had to remember that he was better off if Rodney thought he had a thing for Natalie Wilson. Oh, yeah, and if he killed Rodney now, he'd have to rely on Zelenka to fix Device Eight. "You do realize that the sooner we get to work, the sooner you can stop worrying about my sex life, right?"
Rodney scowled, but it kind of looked like his face went a little pink. "Right," he said. "Radek, is that search algorithm ready yet?"
"Almost," Zelenka said. "Thanks to the colonel's files, I am beginning to understand the data structure. It is like nothing we've seen before."
"Really," Rodney said, coming around the table to look over Zelenka's other shoulder. "How is that . . . ah, right. Let me see your . . . no, no, no, see, the log file clearly indicates the use of recursive subdivisions in the . . ."
John leaned back in his chair, out of their way. It was like he'd suddenly ceased to exist, and yeah, that had burned yesterday, but today he was kind of grateful for it. Because the last thing he needed was to have Rodney thinking about him right now.
Rodney and Zelenka were doing the finishing-each-other's-sentences dance, now, hands flying over their keyboards.
"Uh, guys, did you have something for me to do, or am I just window dressing here?"
Zelenka looked at Rodney and Rodney looked up and John wished he'd used any other metaphor. "Be with you in a minute," Rodney said, and for once it wasn't a lie. And then Rodney was leaning over John's computer, as close as Zelenka had been, only it didn't feel like Zelenka. It didn't feel like Zelenka at all.
"I've organized all of the notes we have on Device Eight right here," Rodney was saying. "I need you to go through them and piece together anything you can about the actual operation of the device. It's pretty fragmentary, so anything you can add could potentially be extremely useful. Seriously, anything."
"Oh," John said, and frowned. "You don't want me to try to turn it on?"
"No!" Rodney straightened with a jerk. "Absolutely not. Even if you could initialize it again, it can't possibly function properly in its current state."
John rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't tell it to change me."
But Rodney just crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm not taking any chances."
"Fine," John said, even though Rodney was being completely unreasonable. "I'll look at the damn files."
He pulled the file up as Rodney went back to work, but his Rodney detector was apparently turned on again, because even with Zelenka between them, he could feel every twitch, every quick breath. John shifted in his chair. At least the inappropriate erection problem was solved for the time being, although from the dampness in his crotch he was pretty sure this body liked Rodney just fine, in its own way.
John suppressed a small shudder. It sucked that he still had to deal with this, when Rodney was so obviously horrified by the idea of him having sex. Not that he even wanted to . . . well, okay, yes, he still wanted to blow Rodney. He just . . . crap. For some reason, he hadn't realized that this body wouldn't be him anymore. That it would matter to him. But it did. It really, really did.
But Rodney was going to change him back. He had faith in that. Rodney would fix the damn device and he would never, ever do something this stupid just to get laid again.
The file was worse than fragmentary—the bit he'd found was the only thing that seemed to have clear meaning. Most of it was about design of the thing, which might be useful to Rodney, but was utterly meaningless to him. He went over it twice, and typed up everything he could remember, the sensation of it initializing, the fact that it hadn't done anything until he'd thought the word "woman" explicitly. He couldn't see how any of that was useful, but Rodney wanted it, so Rodney got it. And the fact that Rodney didn't want other things was just . . .
"Got it!" Rodney said, and Zelenka said, "Yes, yes, it appears to be working."
John's heart jumped in his chest. "You fixed it?"
"No," Rodney said, and looked cranky again. "Not yet. But I've just figured out the data structure, which should make sifting through the notes infinitely faster."
"It's more like a factor of twenty," Zelenka said.
"Yes, well, it's much faster, that's all he needs to know."
"What Rodney is trying to say is, we should have some more notes to you to look at within the hour."
"Great," John said, because it was something to do, even if it still felt like make-work. "I got through all these already."
"Really? Let me see," Rodney said, and the next thing John knew he was leaning in again, so close he was almost touching, when it damn well would have been just as easy to transfer the file to his own screen.
John almost said something. Almost. But if Rodney knew what it was doing to him, he wouldn't do it again, and yeah, it was pathetic, but John couldn't face that.
So he endured the torture, for as long as it lasted. Endured Rodney's breath against his cheek, Rodney's warmth against his shoulder, the growing dampness in his shorts.
It wasn't like it was anyone's fault but his own.
He woke up itching. Itching all over, but worst on his chest and face and stomach. He groaned and scratched until his skin was raw, and then woke up enough to realize . . . crap.
He stumbled to the bathroom and squinted in the mirror, but the face that looked out at him was still his. A little red from the scratching, but still covered in day-old stubble, like every morning. Except, wait. He hadn't shaved yesterday, and it looked exactly the same, so it wasn't growing any. Which meant if he shaved it off . . .
Right, well, he wasn't going to do that. He was just going to leave it the way it was. And with any luck Rodney would fix the damn device today and he wouldn't have to worry about what he was going to do tomorrow.
He did have to take a shower, though, because he'd skipped yesterday and he was getting kind of ripe. He gritted his teeth, stripped off his track pants and t-shirt, and stepped into the shower.
He washed his hair first, because he could do it with his eyes closed, but there was only so long he could rinse. And he could handle it, really. He'd gotten the worst of it over with yesterday.
His breasts were still on the small side. Just like they had been, only . . . okay, maybe not. Maybe they were actually a little bigger. Still kind of hairy, though, and now they were crossed with red lines from his nails. His stomach was still hairy, too, and below that . . .
Crap. He didn't want to scrub there, but he had to. The last thing he needed was for someone to figure him out from the smell. He grabbed the soap and the wash cloth and stuck it down there—gently, right, because he remembered how damn sensitive it was. And complicated, too many folds and creases, and he had absolutely no idea if he was supposed to wash up inside, but there was no way he was going to try.
He leaned into the water, eyes closed. The saddest thing was, he was probably never going to be able to look at a pussy shot the same way again. Only . . . okay, actually, on a girl, a real girl, a woman, all those folds and creases would be . . .
Wow. He'd been so distracted by the thing with Rodney that he'd started to think he wasn't into women anymore. But he was. He still . . . well, obviously he wasn't into Natalie Wilson, but she was kind of a nutcase, and also about ten years too young for him. But women in the abstract . . . actually still did it for him.
That was weird. That was really weird. But apparently it had nothing to do with the current shape of his genitalia, because unless they were on someone else, someone female . . . right.
On him they were just plain wrong.
He scrubbed everywhere else as fast as he could and stepped out of the shower, only to hear a pounding on his door. "Sheppard. Are you deaf? Sheppard!"
John snatched his radio off the edge of the sink. "Hold your damn horses, McKay. I'll open the door as soon as I'm dressed."
"Oh," Rodney said faintly. "I can . . . I can wait for that. Take your time."
John cut the connection and reached for his ace bandage. He wasn't going to think about Rodney standing right there on the other side of his door. He wasn't going to think about Rodney walking in on him, because Rodney would freak out at the sight of him like this. And if he didn't . . .
Fuck. John yanked the bandage tight and clipped it in place. If Rodney didn't, he didn't know what the hell he would do, because he wasn't a woman, he didn't know how to be a woman, and how the hell he'd ever thought this would add up to a blow job, he had absolutely no idea.
John crossed to his dresser and pulled on a pair of boxers and clean pants, which still fit like they always had. Or were they a little snugger in the hips? No, they were fine. He tugged a t-shirt over his head, buttoned on a uniform shirt, and sat on his bed to put on his socks and boots.
He wasn't ready to face Rodney, but then, he wasn't sure he ever would be. He shoved a casual hand in his pocket and went to open the door.
Rodney whirled to face him when the door opened, like he'd been pacing back and forth in the corridor.
"What's so important you couldn't tell me over the radio?" John asked.
Rodney's forehead creased. "You weren't answering your radio."
"I was in the shower."
"Yes, I can see that," Rodney said, with a gesture in the direction of John's hair. Then his eyes narrowed. "What happened to your face?"
John couldn't help it. He had to bring a hand up to rub over his chin, but it still felt reassuringly stubbly.
"It's red," Rodney said, still frowning, and his hand reached up like he was going to touch John's cheek.
John held his breath. Rodney was going to touch him. On the face, like he was . . . like they were . . . And then Rodney snatched his hand back like he'd been burned.
Fuck. "It was itchy," John said. And what the hell had just happened? Was Rodney really starting to see him as . . . ? Shit.
"You need to check in with Jennifer," Rodney said.
"It's a scratch," John said. "I don't think I'm in any danger of gangrene."
"No, seriously," Rodney said. "You need to get checked out. It's, well, it's purely a precaution at this point, but the files we discovered overnight seem to indicate that the cellular changes aren't instantaneous. You may be experiencing . . . additional symptoms."
"Crap," John said.
"Anyway, Jennifer wants to make sure everything is hunky dory, well, at least as good as can be expected, and I really don't think you should be scratching like that."
John looked down to find his hand under his shirt, nails digging into his belly. "Okay," he said. "Infirmary it is."
Rodney walked him all the way to the infirmary. John was going to protest, but then he figured Rodney wanted to see Keller, and, yeah. Well, it wasn't really something he wanted to witness, but he wasn't going to get in the way, either.
"Oh, good," Jennifer said when she saw them, smiling at Rodney. "You found him."
"He was in his quarters," Rodney said, but he didn't return the smile. "Just like I told you he would be. He just wasn't answering his radio."
"I was in the shower," John said, because honestly.
"It's no problem," Keller said quickly. "Rodney was just a little worried."
John glanced from Keller's earnest face to Rodney's, which had gone a little pink. "Is there something you guys haven't told me?" John asked.
"No!" Rodney said. "Certainly not. Well, apart from the thing where you're going to continue having . . . physical changes for two to three more days. On average."
"Great," John said, and tried not to grimace.
Keller gave him a sympathetic smile and gestured to the scanner. "I'd like to compare you to your baseline from yesterday."
"Okay." John hopped up on the scanner bed and lay down while Keller walked over to the console and Rodney stayed exactly where he was and fidgeted. Like he was planning to stay for the scan, which really wasn't like him—not that Rodney had much sense of propriety, but the infirmary wasn't exactly his favorite part of the city, and if he wasn't here to talk to Keller, it didn't make much sense for him to hang around.
"Rodney," John said. "You can take off. I'm sure the doc will forward the scan if you need the data for your work."
"Oh!" Rodney said, and his head jerked up. "Right. I'll just be, um, going, then." But he threw a strange glance over his shoulder as he left.
"I'll just need you to hold still for the scanner," Keller said.
John turned his head to look at her. "I'm ready."
"You're scratching," she said apologetically.
Oh, right. John yanked his hand out from under his shirt and placed it firmly at his side. "It's kind of itchy."
"I'll see what I can do for that," Keller said, and the green lights started to move across him.
John sat up when they were done, carefully rolling his hands into fists so they would behave themselves.
"Well," Keller said, a little too briskly, "it looks like Rodney's right. You're still changing. Your hormone levels are rising, and I've picked up some redistribution of body fat as well as a few skeletal changes. Also, quite a few of your terminal hair follicles have shut down."
John started to lift a hand to rub his face, then forced it back down again. "I noticed that."
"From what Rodney says, we can expect that to continue," Keller said. "Also, you should probably know that you're fertile. I mean, not that you're ovulating right now or anything, just, you know, you're physically capable of it, and given your levels of estradiol and FSH, you should expect it to happen in a week or two."
Her cheeks were pink, and John felt his own ears going unpleasantly warm in response. "Are you going to give me the safe sex lecture, too?"
"Oh," she said, and went pinker. "I don't think that will be necessary. Um, will it?"
"Really not," John said, and hopped off the table. "Is there anything else you need from me?"
"Just hang tight for one second," Keller said. "I have a couple of things for you." And she disappeared back in the direction of the dispensary cabinets.
John waited, his hands in his pockets, and when she returned, she was carrying a small tube and a flat package wrapped in plastic.
"This should help with the itching," she said, handing him the tube. "Don't apply it more than four times a day. And this," she said, holding up the package, "should be more comfortable than that bandage you're wearing."
Crap. Of course she knew about it. She'd just scanned him. John took the package gingerly, turning it over in his hands.
"It's a post-surgical compression vest," she said. "It should, um, do what you need it to without causing any, you know, physical damage."
His ears were hot, now, but he managed to say, "Thanks," without looking at her.
"Oh, and if you don't want me to discuss the scan with Rodney—"
John looked up. Her face was still pink. "No, that's okay," he said. "If it might help him fix me—"
"I understand," she said, although the look on her face said she didn't, at all. "Listen, there's one more thing. I think you should talk to Dr. Nguyen. I can make an appointment for you if you—"
"It was an accident," John said.
Keller's eyes widened, just a little. "Of course it was. I only meant, well, I know this isn't easy for you, and I think she might be able to help."
John could think of a few things he'd rather do, some of which involved broken bones or getting fed on by Wraith. "I'm fine," he said. "And it's temporary, because Rodney's going to fix me."
"I know he will," she said. "I mean, if anyone could, it would be Rodney." And there was something about her casual confidence, the mirror to his, that made him think . . . crap. She still cared about Rodney. She had to, to have that expression on her face.
"You know, I'm pretty sure he'd take you back," John heard his voice say, and shit, shit, he couldn't believe he'd said that out loud.
"Oh!" she said, and went pink again. "Oh, no, that's not . . . I mean, Rodney's really . . . he's really very sweet. But we're both better off as friends."
Crap. It was none of his business. It was really none of his business, but that sounded like it really had been a mutual break-up.
"He was happy," John made himself say. It was only the truth, and he owed her that. "You made him happy."
She ducked her head, and when she looked up, she was smiling, but her eyes were a little too bright. "I know. He made me happy, too. But we didn't . . . we're just in different places, I guess. And he . . ." Her mouth snapped shut. "I shouldn't be telling you this."
John's heart was pounding in his chest. "Yeah," he said. "Probably not."
But her arm snaked out and grabbed his, surprisingly strong. "Don't hurt him, okay? I mean, I have no idea what is going on with—" she made a circular gesture "—all of this, but just . . . I know he can come across as pretty, um, self-confident, but he can be pretty insecure about . . . about, you know. Things."
Oh, God. She didn't mean . . . she couldn't. She couldn't possibly, not when she'd just broken up with Rodney herself. Even if it had been mutual, and apparently friendly. "I don't know what you're talking about," John said desperately.
Her hand dropped from his arm and she took a step back. "Okay," she said, and he wasn't sure if she was talking to him or herself. "Okay, I'm sorry. I don't know what I was . . ."
John looked down, and found the vest and tube of cream still in his hands. "Hey," he said. "Thanks for these."
"You're welcome," she said. "If you need anything else, don't hesitate to come back. And I'll need you to check in tomorrow morning for another scan."
"You got it," John said, and made good his escape.
The cream helped the itching, at least a little, and the vest wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was better than the bandage. He still felt a little squeezed, but it didn't pinch, and he could breathe. Well, he didn't want to go running in it, but walking was fine, and he felt noticeably more like himself when he headed to the mess for breakfast.
Teyla and Ronon were already leaving when he got there, and Rodney was nowhere in sight, so John was sitting all by himself when Woolsey found him.
"How are you feeling?"
John tried to suppress the wince. Of course Woolsey knew. Rodney had mentioned that already. "I'm fine."
"I've talked to Dr. Keller," Woolsey said, "and she suggested we suspend your offworld activities until after your cellular changes stop. However this . . . turns out."
"I've taken myself off the roster," John said, which was close enough to true. Anyway, he'd do it as soon as he had access to a computer. "Teyla and Ronon—"
"Are scheduled for a mission with Major Lorne this afternoon," Woolsey said. "I hope you will be feeling more like yourself, soon."
"Thanks," John said.
Woolsey continued on without so much as another glance, so John got up to bus his tray and figure out what he should do with his day. He had enough administrative stuff to occupy himself for hours, and Rodney hadn't said anything about needing him, but maybe he'd stop by Janus's lab, just to see what kind of progress they were making.
He'd just set the tray in the stack when a woman's voice said, "Colonel?"
He turned to find Natalie Wilson looking at him. Really looking, her eyes traveling up and down his body and finally settling on his face.
"Dr. Wilson," he said, evenly as he could. "There something I can do for you?"
"No," she said, and tilted her head. "No, I'm good. I just . . . didn't realize for a moment that it was you."
Crap. What the hell was she seeing? "'Fraid so," he said, and plastered a casual smile on his face.
But she frowned. "You look different. Younger."
He lifted a shoulder. "Sorry. Still the same old John Sheppard."
"Huh," she started to say, like she wasn't buying it. But then she caught a glimpse of something over his shoulder, and her whole demeanor changed. "Oh, hey, look at the time. Listen, I have to run. I'll see you later." And she gave him an exaggerated wink and a little wave before heading off among the tables.
John turned slowly to find Rodney standing there. Not exactly a surprise, but it still gave him a little jolt in the pit of his stomach. "McKay."
Rodney was silent for just a beat too long, like he was busy adding two and two and getting eight in that marvelous brain of his. "I was just looking for you. Well, actually, I was looking for coffee, but I was hoping you'd be out of the infirmary. Radek and I have some more files for you to look at."
"I was just heading over there."
"Great. Just let me get that coffee."
"I could use another cup, myself."
Rodney was just a little too busy with the coffee urn, filling three cups and getting a tray for them and adding sugar to one, so apparently that was for Zelenka. He kept darting glances around the room until his eyes zeroed in on a table at the far end. John didn't have to look to know who was sitting there.
"So you decided to go for it after all," Rodney said, as John was putting cream in his own cup.
John rolled his eyes, which was entirely wasted because Rodney was already turning to go. "We were talking," John said, grabbing his cup to catch up. "Not making out."
"You do realize that it's going to have to be a pretty short-term relationship, right?" Rodney's chin was up, his eyes focused straight ahead. "Unless you've decided you don't want to change back, after all."
"Will you cut it out?" John said. "I'm not dating her. I don't want to date her. I want to be me again. That clear enough for you?"
Rodney glanced over at him, eyes narrow. "Hmmph," he said, and John couldn't tell what the hell that meant. "All I can say is, I hope I'm not doing all this work for nothing."
"Really not," John said as they reached the transporter outside the mess. "How's it going?"
"Actually, surprisingly well." Rodney pressed the map. "I found, well, Zelenka found a wiring diagram. So all we need to do is rethread about a thousand optic circuits and replace the power source, and we're good to go."
"Really?" Wow, that was better than he'd hoped for. "So, what, that's a few hours' work?"
"Make that a few days. Possibly. If nothing goes wrong."
"Oh, like you're not padding that estimate," John said, and stepped through the wall.
Inside the lab, Zelenka was hard at work on the fibers. John snagged the proper coffee cup from Rodney's tray and handed it over.
"Ah, Colonel," Zelenka said, taking the cup happily. "We have more files for you to look at."
"Good, good, he can get you set up."
Getting set up involved nothing more than Rodney telling him the name of the file. No bending together over the screen. No accidental hands brushing each other. And then Rodney went to sit at the other end of the lab, where John could barely feel his presence.
So maybe that should have helped with the distraction problem, but it didn't, because John found himself straining to hear Rodney's every shift and quiet mutter, and it was stupid to be cranky when they were making good progress, but John couldn't help himself.
The file was mostly incomprehensible, anyway. Design specs and theoretical explanations, not to mention a whole bunch of obscure biology that John wasn't even sure was translated right. And then his eye caught something.
There is a slight possibility of genetic degradation after ten or more reversals. I have stored Besla's original genome in an external pattern buffer, so that it can be reuploaded if necessary.
"Huh," John said, and Rodney lifted his head.
"What is it? Did you find something?"
"I don't know," John said. "There's a word here, could be a name. Besla. I'm pretty sure I've seen it before."
"Oh," Rodney said, waving a dismissive hand. "Besla was one of Janus's lovers. He doesn't appear to have made any scientific contribution at all."
"He?" John said, because, Jesus, Rodney had dropped the pronoun pretty damn casually.
"Or she," Rodney said. "The notes aren't entirely clear on . . . okay, no, wait, that's it!" Rodney's eyes went bright, his fingers snapping the rhythm of self-confirmed genius. "Besla wasn't a man or a woman. He was a man and a woman. Janus built the device for him. Or her. Or however you want to say it."
"Kinky," John said without thinking, and then felt his ears go hot. He glanced back at his screen and hoped Rodney wouldn't notice. "Looks like he used it, too. A lot."
Rodney was out of his chair and looking over John's shoulder again, warm and close and crap, this was getting pathetic. "We need to search the database again," Rodney said.
But John was already scrolling through the old files, the ones he'd translated a week ago. "Here it is," he said finally, and they both stared at the screen.
For Besla, it said, in order to reduce the pain. Limit exposure to once per five days, ten or twenty preferable, and readjust beam to 200 cycles per eskem. "Crap," John said, because pain was bad and once per five days was worse. Hell, it had hurt plenty the first time. Did this mean it was going to be worse to change back? "What's an eskem?"
"It's an Ancient measure of time," Rodney said, distracted, and reached across John to type in a new window. "Approximately a third of a millisecond."
"So you can adjust it," John said. "Make it hurt less."
"Mmm, unfortunately no," Rodney said, still typing. "It was already adjusted."
"Damn it," John said, just as Rodney said, "Radek, you might as well stop pushing yourself. He's not going to be able to use it for three more days, anyway."
"Oh?" Zelenka said, lifting his head from his work.
"Apparently there's a necessary delay," Rodney said.
"It doesn't say 'necessary,'" John argued. "It just says, 'to reduce the pain.'"
"Yes, well, the first time it had you on the floor in seconds," Rodney said. "We're not risking it."
"Whatever," John said, because he couldn't exactly argue with that. "It's my call."
Rodney twisted to face him. "How can you even . . . I mean, seriously, you are not going to use some device I repaired to pull one of your idiotic stunts. And anyway, we're doing it in the infirmary, this time, so Jennifer can keep an eye on you and give you proper pain medication and, oh yeah, make sure it doesn't kill you."
"Wow," John said. "I didn't realize you had it all planned out."
"As a matter of fact I . . . oh, right. Sarcasm. Well, I'm sorry if someone around here actually cares if you live or die, but as it happens—"
"Please," Zelenka said from his corner. "Can you two take this somewhere else? It is impossible to work in this noise."
"That's okay," John said, pushing his chair back, away from Rodney. "I'm done here. Give me a call if you guys need me again." And he managed to escape while Rodney was still gaping.
He spent the rest of the day alternately scratching the random itchy spots and desperately wishing that Ronon and Teyla weren't offworld. Not that he really wanted to try running or sparring in this damn compression vest. He just . . . really missed having them around.
He checked the mirror a couple of times, but he still couldn't see whatever Natalie had seen. He looked like himself, itchy stubble and all. And when he ate dinner with Lorne and a couple of marines, no one said a word or even looked at him funny. But he was still feeling weird about it, weird enough to head back to his quarters and attempt to entertain himself with his Sudoku books rather than hang out anywhere where someone might look at him too closely. And if that meant he was a little bored, well, he survived.
It wasn't like he wanted to see Rodney, anyway. Not like this. Not until he was himself again, and even then . . . yeah. So much for blow jobs.
He just wished that moment would stop replaying in his head, the moment when he had somehow managed to convince himself that this would be a good idea. And the next moment, too, when he'd reached out and touched the damned device. It was too bad Rodney hadn't figured out Janus's time travel device so that he could go back and stop himself.
The worst part was that what he really wanted to do was jerk off, but he couldn't even . . . okay. Wow, maybe, he could. Women did it all the time, and it wasn't like he'd never had any experience with female topography. He knew what women liked, how Nancy had liked to be touched, and Sharon, and plenty of others. It wouldn't be that hard.
John slid down on his pillow and breathed for a moment. He just had to stop thinking. Or at least stop thinking about himself. Hell, he could think about Rodney. That wouldn't be hard.
He got a hand under his waistband, managed to slide it halfway down his belly, but then his hand just . . . stopped. Like it didn't want to go any further.
Right, he could do this. He could. He just had to think about Rodney, about Rodney kissing him, and touching him, and wanting him like this. About Rodney leaning in to kiss his bre—damn it.
His stomach had gone queasy. His head was hot and if he'd had a dick, it would have been limp, and damn it, this wasn't like going down on Nancy or fingering Sharon. It was him and he wasn't, he couldn't, he didn't want . . . fuck.
He couldn't do it. He wished to God he could, but he couldn't.
He slept fitfully and woke early with one hand on his chest and the other on his jaw, and crap, the itching was worse than ever, despite the fact that he'd slathered on Keller's cream before crawling into bed.
He stumbled to the bathroom, grabbed a quick shower, and squeezed back into the compression vest. It fit fine, still, although it was pretty damn tight around the chest. But it had been tight before, so, really, it was fine. His clothes still fit okay, too, and his boots certainly weren't any looser, so whatever kind of cellular changes he was still going through, he was still pretty much himself. For better or for worse.
On the whole, he wasn't complaining.
What he really wanted to do was go for a run, but the vest was too tight to breathe properly, and he wasn't about to go without it. So he headed straight for the mess, instead.
Rodney was there, up early and sucking down coffee like he needed a siphon. So maybe he wasn't sleeping well, either. John set his tray down on the table and slid into the opposite seat.
"Hope you weren't up all night," he said.
"Oh, no, actually we finished at . . . oh, my God." Rodney's eyes went wide, staring at John's face.
"What?" John said, his heart pounding to life in his cramped chest.
"Your face," Rodney said, and made an aborted, self-conscious gesture.
John couldn't help bringing a hand up to rub his chin. "What's wrong with my face?" It felt perfectly . . . crap. No stubble. Or rather, patchy stubble. He was prickly under his lip, but not on the point of his chin or the side of his jaw. Where he'd been scratching, damn it.
"You might consider shaving," Rodney said. "I mean, it's not like you're, ah, likely to fool anyone any longer."
"Jesus," John said, and ducked his head. Not that he thought anyone was looking at him—actually, the mess was pretty sparsely populated at this hour. "Hey, look on the bright side," Rodney said. "Maybe this way, your lesbian will actually give you the time of day."
"Would you stop it with that?" John said. "I already told you I'm not dating her."
"Hmm," Rodney said. "A pity. I mean, think how much fun the memories would be, when you're back to—"
"Rodney," John said, and glared across the table.
"You know, I still don't get it. I mean, if you're not going to take advantage of it, why do it in the first place? You're not a moron. You must have thought of that before you touched the device."
"I didn't think it would be like this," John said, and took a long swig of his coffee.
"Like what?" Rodney said.
"Like this," John growled.
"Oh, right. I guess you must miss it."
"You could say that," John said, and took another gulp of coffee.
Rodney frowned. "You couldn't just, I don't know, enjoy it for a bit? I mean, after all, it's not like it's permanent. Oh, right, I didn't tell you, did I? Zelenka and I managed to finish last night. We tested it against Janus's specifications, and everything seems to be in order."
John set his coffee cup down and leaned forward as relief coursed through him, sharp and giddy. "You couldn't have mentioned that earlier?"
"I was distracted! I think I can be excused for that. You're very," Rodney waved a hand, "very distracting."
So maybe it was the relief, still, or maybe it was something else, but that almost sounded like . . . no. No, obviously Rodney didn't mean it that way. "So it's ready. All I have to do is turn it on."
"Yes. I mean, no, no, you are not using it for another two days. You promised."
John didn't remember any such thing, but he wasn't about to argue about it. "Fine, whatever. As long as you're sure it will work."
"I'm sure," Rodney said. "Well, pretty sure. It's at least as reliable as it was the first time."
"Thanks," John said, because he'd kind of forgotten that part. "Seriously, I . . . thank you."
"Yes, well, I couldn't exactly leave you like this, could I?"
John busied himself with his food so he wouldn't have to look up or say anything more. Which of course turned out to be a major tactical mistake.
"So what's it like?" Rodney said, and John looked up to find him leaning over his tray, dangerously close. "You know . . . does it feel the same, or is it like a whole new universe?"
John slumped back in his chair and took another bite of bacon. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, please. You know exactly what I mean. Orgasm. Come on, it's the ultimate mystery, the one thing everyone wants to know that no one has been able to figure out. Does it feel different for a woman?"
John kept his head down. "I wouldn't know."
"What? How can you . . . ? You've been in that body for three days. Are you telling me you haven't even taken it for a test drive?"
"Two an a half," John said, and suppressed a shudder. "And it's really none of your business."
"I can't believe it. I mean, the whole experience is just wasted on you." Rodney gestured with his coffee cup. "I have half a mind to try it myself."
"No!" John said, and the sweat sprang out on his hairline. "Jesus, McKay. You can't."
Rodney lifted his chin. "Why not? I bet I'd make a better woman than you."
Fuck. That was just . . . wrong. And yes, okay, John could see the irony in being the one thinking that, but there was no way he could laugh about it. Not now. "Because it hurt like hell, okay? And trust me, whatever kind of woman you made, you wouldn't be a woman. Not unless you were a woman up here." And he tapped his head for emphasis.
"Ah," Rodney said. "Well, I suppose you have a point, there. Was it really that painful?"
"Excruciating," John said, suddenly grateful that it wasn't a lie.
"A shame," Rodney said. "I suppose it's one mystery science won't crack this time around. Unless you're willing to—"
Rodney gave him a disappointed look and crossed his arms over his chest. "Right. Well, it can't be helped, I suppose."
It was suddenly, finally, too much to take. John pushed his chair back. "I have to go."
"What? You've barely touched your food."
"Gotta check in at the infirmary," John said. "I'll catch up with you later." And he grabbed his tray and headed out before Rodney could say anything more.
Because sometimes, honestly, the only viable strategy was retreat.
Patchy was the wrong word for it. Apart from a few rough spots, his stubble was nearly gone, as was most of his right sideburn. John shaved off the rest of it, including the left sideburn, and tried not to look too closely at the results. His face looked softer. Possibly younger. And he didn't think his jaw line had changed any, but he still looked . . .
Wrong. Just flat-out wrong. No wonder Rodney had stared.
"John? Are you there?"
That wasn't Rodney at his door. Not this time. No, that sounded more like . . . yeah. He opened his door to find Teyla and Ronon.
"Hey," Ronon said, and Teyla said, "Are you all right? We heard . . ." But then she broke off, her eyes wide.
"What the hell happened to you?" Ronon asked.
"I, uh, I told you. I had an accident in Janus's lab," John said, rubbing his too-smooth chin with his hand.
"There have been rumors," Teyla said.
"You're supposed to be dying," Ronon added.
Christ. "I'm not dying," John said. "I just got zapped. And Rodney's already fixed the damn gadget that changed me, so he's going to change me back."
"Changed?" Teyla said, with a lift of one eyebrow. Her gaze traveled over his face, then flicked down across his body. "Ah. I see."
"What?" Ronon said, and squinted at him. "He looks like a girl."
"It's temporary," John said.
"Wait." Ronon shifted on his feet and looked disconcerted. "You mean you lost your dick?"
John's ears went dully warm. "It was an accident."
"You sure you're not dying?" Ronon asked.
"Pretty sure, yeah."
"We are very glad to hear that," Teyla said, with a sideways glare at Ronon. "And if there is anything we can do—"
"It's fixed," John said. "I mean, it's going to be fixed. I just have to wait for a couple of days for the cellular changes to be complete."
Teyla cocked her head. "Perhaps some physical exertion would help."
"I'm not sure that's really such a—"
"Of course it is," Teyla said. "Your body is different now. That does not mean it is inferior."
"Well, I wasn't saying—"
"C'mon," Ronon said. "At least you don't have to worry about getting hit in the balls."
"Remind me again," John said to the ceiling, "why this was a good idea."
Ronon reached for his hand and hauled him up with a jerk. "It's better than moping in your quarters."
"I'm supposed to stop by the infirmary," John said.
"I can help with that," Ronon said, and came at him again.
John managed to jump back just in time—really, this body wasn't all that different than his usual self, and at least he could breathe, thanks to the sports bra Teyla had found him. He wasn't going to ask where she'd gotten it. It was clearly about three sizes too big to be anything she could wear herself.
"Aren't you supposed to go a little easier on a woman?" John asked, trying to hide the fact that he was breathing hard.
"Why?" Ronon asked, with a hard swing that John barely managed to parry. "If I went easy on Teyla, she'd have me on the floor."
"Good point," John said. It was, in fact, why he'd asked to spar with Ronon, who for all his size lacked Teyla's killer sense of irony. Ronon was bigger and stronger, but Teyla knew how to hit you where you lived. Figuratively and literally.
"So," Ronon said, "what does McKay think about your new tits?"
"Fuck," John said, and took a hard shot to the belly.
He doubled over and tried to remember how to breathe, while Ronon made a ridiculously amused noise.
"This has nothing to do with McKay," John said, when he could do more than gasp for air.
"If you say so," Ronon said, but his eyebrows were skeptical.
"It was an accident," John said.
Ronon twirled his sticks. "You know, if you keep saying that, no one's gonna believe it."
"Look, you've got it all wrong, okay? And anyway, he's not interested. He doesn't give a damn whether I've got a dick or a pussy."
Ronon's sticks went up. "You asked him out?"
The best defense was a good distraction. John feinted right and went left and almost landed a blow.
Ronon stepped sideways and eyed him narrowly. "You never asked him out."
"You haven't asked the doc out," John countered. "Not since they broke up."
Ronon shrugged, his sticks momentarily motionless. "Actually, I did. She said she was happier being single right now."
"Oh," John said, and then Ronon's sticks were flying, and he was on the floor again. Ow.
"I don't want to date him," John said. Ronon stared down at him, one eyebrow cocked. John closed his eyes. "I just want to blow him."
"You really think that's going to be enough?"
John opened his eyes to find Ronon offering a hand. "It's not like it matters," he muttered as he took it. "Since it's not going to happen."
Ronon dragged him to his feet with a jerk. "You want to be a coward, fine. Don't ask him. Just don't come complaining to me and Teyla."
"You know, you were the one who brought the topic up," John tried, wiping the sweat off his forehead with his wristband. "Can't we just, I don't know, spar?"
"Okay," Ronon said, and something about the gleam in his eye made John almost wish they could go back to talking.
Not that it mattered, really. Either way, he was toast.
John had planned to head back to his quarters after his stint in the infirmary, but Teyla put the kibosh on that with a lift of her eyebrow. So he went about his day like nothing was different, only to find that no one seemed to notice that it was. He might've gotten a double take out of Lorne, but other than that, no one but his friends seemed to really look at him. Or if they did, they did it when his back was turned.
So John ate lunch, and dinner, too, in the mess hall like usual, with Ronon and Teyla and Rodney. And apart from a brief, sharp stare from Rodney, it pretty much felt like normal.
Or it would have, if John hadn't felt like he had the word "Coward" painted on his forehead in neon letters. Because Ronon was right. He'd never asked. And maybe he had no reason to believe Rodney was interested in him—with or without the breasts—but he didn't know for sure that Rodney wasn't, either, and there had been at least a couple of times in the lab when he'd wondered . . .
Right. Well, the one thing he did know was that Rodney was attracted to women. Which meant he had exactly two days to find out if Rodney was attracted to him as a woman.
Now or never. Take the chance or lose it.
And seriously, it wouldn't be that hard. All he had to do was ask Rodney out. Hell, he still had those model airplanes. He could suggest a night on the pier, taking them out for a test flight. And then . . . right, okay, that was where his brain stalled out. Somehow he couldn't seem to come up with any sort of logical progression that would get him from "hanging out with Rodney" to "blow job" without the intervention of vast quantities of alcohol.
"John?" Teyla said, eyeing him from behind her almost-empty tray.
"Yeah," he managed, because he was pretty sure the conversation had been something about gym schedules. "Sure, whatever you want."
But Teyla just tipped her head and looked concerned. "Are you all right?"
"Me?" John said. "Oh, yeah, fine." And gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
"I am glad you are adjusting," she said, and patted his hand.
"Uh, thanks," John said, and tried not to feel too guilty for lying. He glanced around the table, but no one else was paying much attention. Ronon was putting his fork and knife down and Rodney's tray was entirely clean. So dinner was over and it was time to head back for . . . yeah. Another evening in his quarters, alone with his breasts.
"So, hey," John said, before Ronon could push his chair back. "Anyone up for a movie tonight? I've got popcorn."
He was regretting it as soon as he said it, but it was too late to take it back, because Teyla was already beaming at him.
"That sounds like a lovely idea," she said, with a pointed glance across the table.
"Sure," Ronon said, and Rodney's chin jerked up.
"Well, I don't, I mean, I have some things, important things, I really should be—"
"I am sure you can manage to find the time," Teyla said. "We will see you in John's quarters. Shall we say in an hour?"
John blinked, because somehow he had managed to lose control of the situation in the space of fifteen seconds. "That's okay. If McKay's busy, he doesn't have to show."
"It will be good for him to relax," Teyla said. "Rodney?"
Rodney made a face. "Well, I don't really . . . okay, fine. Fine. If it's that important to you, I'll be there."
"Thank you," Teyla said smoothly, and turned back to John expectantly.
"Great," John said, because it wasn't like he wanted to get on Teyla's bad side, either. "I'll see you all in an hour."
An hour wasn't nearly enough time. John fired up his computer and checked the morale server, feverishly searching for something, anything, they could watch. He was in the mood for something with a lot of shooting, but Ronon had seen just about every action flick on the communal drive, and it didn't look like anything good had come through the last databurst. Unless you counted Nights in Rodanthe, which John definitely didn't.
He scrolled through the older folders. Heavy dramas were out, and he wasn't really in the mood for something about idiots who split up their team at the first sign of danger. And, Jesus, who had requested Victor/Victoria? That was just . . . okay, no, no, it wasn't aimed at him. The file date was months ago.
Okay, Time Bandits was a possibility, because humor would be good. Humor was exactly what he needed . . . no, Ghostbusters. Because that way he got both the jokes and the special effects, and he hadn't seen it in years.
He cued it up on his laptop, cabled it to the big screen, and got out the popcorn, plus a big bowl of fruit for Ronon. He pulled a chair up next to the couch so there would be room for everyone, and okay, an hour was plenty of time. He had fifteen minutes left, which was enough time to get nervous.
Well, of course he wasn't going to get nervous, because it wasn't a date. Teyla and Ronon were going to be here, and Rodney hadn't even wanted to come, so seriously. Not a date. Not even close. So there was no point in . . . right.
He was still wearing the compression vest, which he'd squeezed back into after his earlier shower. But he could try the sports bra. It was more comfortable, and hey, maybe this way he'd be able to figure out if Rodney actually liked this body.
The clothes he'd worn to spar in were still in the bathroom, so he sent them through the scrubber and stripped off his shirts and the vest. His breasts were . . . yeah. They still felt like alien entities, like something that belonged to someone else had been accidentally left behind on his chest, and they were definitely bigger than they had been. Rounder. And, oh yeah, somewhere along the way they'd lost the hair and he hadn't even noticed. They were, in fact, smooth and bare except for a few traces of scratch marks, and even those had faded to faint, pink lines.
If they'd been on an actual woman, he might have thought . . . yeah. Too bad they were his.
John gritted his teeth and reached for the sports bra. It wasn't like his chances with Rodney were all that great, anyway. Even if he finally really almost . . . looked like a woman.
He felt a little better once his breasts were tucked away. Well, he still felt like a freak, but it was easier when he didn't have to look at them. He reached for his t-shirt and pulled it over his head, then . . .
Okay, no. If he wore his uniform shirt over the tee, there was no point in wearing the sports bra. And if he wanted to know what Rodney thought, he was going to have to work on that cowardice thing.
His door chimed before he could change his mind, so he steeled himself and went to answer it.
It was Teyla, by herself. So he wasn't going to have to be alone with Rodney. Which was good. A relief, really.
"Hey, come in," John said, stepping out of her way. "Can I get you a beer?"
"Please," Teyla said, and followed him to the fridge. She took the bottle he handed her and downed a swig.
John took a gulp of his own beer and looked around to find Teyla watching him.
"I am glad you invited us here. It will be good to be surrounded by your friends tonight."
"Yeah," John said. "Thanks for not freaking out."
Teyla tilted her head. "Why would I? Whatever the shape of your body, you are still yourself."
"Yeah," John said, and took another gulp. "That's kind of the problem."
Her eyebrows lifted. "You would rather be someone else?"
"No," John said quickly. "No, of course not. I just, I mean, I'm not . . . crap."
Teyla's eyes were assessing. "You are not adjusting, then."
John shook his head and looked away. If he wished hard enough, maybe Ronon would show up and end this conversation.
"Is it truly so difficult? You feel . . . inferior in this body?"
"No," John said. "It's not that."
Teyla crossed her arms. "Being a woman does not make you less than you were."
"I know," John said. And he did. He had to. Because, God, Teyla was right there in front of him, and obviously there was nothing inferior about her body. He just . . . "Maybe you should tell that to Rodney."
"You should not take Rodney's discomfort personally," Teyla said. "This has been . . . difficult for him."
"John." Teyla frowned and took another swallow of her beer. "I did not mean that it is harder for him than for you. But I believe he may be feeling . . . responsible for the accident."
"Yeah, well, trust me, he wasn't. It was my own damn fault."
"I see," Teyla said with a tilt of her head. "I had not realized."
Christ. He'd just given away more than he'd intended, and knowing Teyla, that meant she'd figured out a hell of a lot more that she was saying. "Look," John said, "it wasn't like that, either, okay?"
She lifted an eyebrow. "You think I would not approve."
"No," John said, even if she had, as usual, hit the nail on the head. "'Course not. I . . . look, it's just complicated."
"I understand," Teyla said. "It is complicated for Rodney, too. I suspect he had more . . . invested . . . in seeing you as you were than the rest of us did."
"What's that supposed to mean?" John asked, but Teyla never got the chance to answer, because his door chime was ringing again.
John swiped the door open to find both Ronon and Rodney.
"Hey," Ronon said, and brushed past him, but Rodney stood right where he was, his mouth half open.
"What did you . . . ?"
It was kind of bizarre to be standing right there and have someone's gaze so obviously south of your face. "They're called breasts, Rodney."
Rodney's eyes jerked up, and his face went pink. "But how did you . . . you can't have grown them in the last hour. Um, can you?"
John rolled his eyes. "Just decided I wanted to breathe for the rest of the evening," he said. "You coming in?"
Rodney started, like he hadn't even realized he was standing there staring like an idiot. "Oh! Yes, yes, of course."
John stayed exactly where he was, but Rodney didn't brush by him the way Ronon had. Rodney kind of sucked in his belly and scraped against the door frame, like he didn't want to even risk the slightest touch.
"They're not contagious, McKay."
"I'm aware of that," Rodney said, and sidled away.
John bit his lip and followed him into the room. So that was how it was going to be. Well, at least he knew now. At least he knew not to . . . try anything.
Not that he'd been planning to.
John busied himself getting everyone drinks and popping the popcorn with the handy Ancient heat beam device they'd discovered the first year. John still wasn't sure what it was supposed to be used for, but it made pretty good popcorn as long as you didn't leave it on too long.
He cued up the movie and turned to find Ronon sprawled on the chair and Rodney and Teyla on the couch. At either end, which meant . . . yeah. And he couldn't ask Teyla to scoot over without being too obvious.
He sat—a little closer to Teyla than to Rodney—propped the popcorn bowl on his knees, and hit Play.
"Ghostbusters?" Rodney said. "Seriously?"
"Come on," John said. "It's a classic."
"Do you have any idea what sort of—"
"Two words," John said. "Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man."
"That's four," Rodney said.
"Can we watch instead of talking?" Ronon said, and Rodney reached for the popcorn with a theatrical roll of the eyes.
The sad truth was, it didn't really matter what movie was on the screen, because John was incapable of watching. Rodney was sitting right next to him, shifting and sighing and reaching for the popcorn, and it was worse than distracting. It was all John could think about. Because if Teyla and Ronon weren't here, if Rodney weren't so freaked out . . . yeah, well, that was the problem. John couldn't even imagine sliding to his knees in front of the couch and reaching for Rodney's fly, because Rodney wouldn't want him to.
Although, really, John had never figured Rodney for the kind of guy who would refuse a blow job, especially not one that was already in progress. So all he'd have to do would be to yank Rodney's fly open and go for it.
If Ronon and Teyla weren't there. But of course, they were. Which was generous and supportive and incredibly maddening, because Rodney was being Rodney right here next to him, and he needed . . .
Crap. He was going insane. If he'd had a dick, it would have been at full mast, so it was probably a good thing he didn't. Well, good in that sense. Except for how it wasn't, because what John really wanted to do was knock the popcorn on the floor and roll over on top of Rodney and just rub all over him, only that wouldn't work with this body.
At least, he didn't think it would. Hell, how would he know? It wasn't like he'd tried out the equipment. Only now he wished he had. He wished he knew what the hell to do with this body, because then maybe he wouldn't miss his dick so much, and wow, Teyla was laughing her head off right next to him.
Rodney reached for another handful of popcorn, while Teyla giggled some more and John tried not to squirm. He was pretty sure his boxers were getting damp. And Rodney hadn't even touched him.
But apparently Rodney didn't need to touch him, or even want him. Rodney could drive him crazy by just sitting there, and crap, how had this started? Oh yeah. Once upon a time he'd figured out that Rodney would make the perfect girlfriend.
And the crazy part was, that was still true. Impossible as he was, Rodney was still the one John wanted to hang out with—with Teyla and Ronon, or just the two of them. Rodney was the one he wanted to touch. And kiss. And do other stuff with. And Rodney was apparently the only one in the room who didn't know it.
All in all, that was probably a good thing.
But John could picture it easily, now. Could picture opening Rodney's fly and pulling his cock out, could picture nuzzling it, and licking it, and taking it in his mouth. Could almost taste it . . . if Rodney tasted anything like him.
The bowl on John's knee jerked and bounced a little, as Rodney's hand rooted around inside, then came out empty.
"What?" Rodney whispered. "No more popcorn? How much did you make?"
John looked down in amazement, but the bowl was empty apart from a few barely-popped kernels. "Made a full bowl, like always," John whispered back. "I can't believe you ate it all."
"Teyla had some," Rodney protested, but John looked over to see Teyla holding up a half-eaten merisfruit.
"No, seriously," Rodney said, but Ronon turned and glared at him. "Oh, right, no talking during the movie."
Ronon lifted a pointed eyebrow, and turned back to the screen.
Rodney settled back into the couch, and John put the empty bowl on the floor. And if Rodney with popcorn had been distracting, Rodney without it was . . .
Wow. Really not even pretending to look at the screen.
"Stop staring," John hissed. "They're just breasts."
"I think they got bigger in the last half hour."
"They did not."
This time when Ronon turned around, he growled.
"Sorry," John said, and edged toward Teyla.
It didn't help. Rodney turned back to the screen, but his eyes stayed on it for all of a minute. He kept twitching, and looking down at the floor, or at Ronon, or out the window, but then, inevitably, his gaze slid over to John and flicked away again. Which John knew because apparently . . . okay, yes, he was kind of twitching and glancing, too.
God, he was so screwed.
The hour and forty-five minutes crawled by. But finally, finally, the theme song was playing and the credits were rolling and Teyla was wiping her eyes and saying, "Please tell me that your people do not believe in the existence of these strange, green spirits."
"Oh, no," Rodney said, sitting forward. "No, no, this is pure fiction. We don't actually, well, most of us anyway, don't believe in this sort of ridiculous claptrap, although apparently some of us believe in flux capacitors, which is just—"
"Thanks for the beer," Ronon said, climbing to his feet. "I gotta go."
"Oh, yes, I believe I should be going, too," Teyla said. "Thank you for the beer. And the movie. It was most amusing." And before John could so much as stand up to usher them out, she and Ronon were out the door, and John was alone with Rodney.
Alone. With Rodney. Who had spent the entire evening staring and not touching and damn it, that ought to be against the Geneva Convention. Not that the Geneva Convention applied in the Pegasus Galaxy, and yeah, that was the problem. Rules didn't apply here. Nothing applied and anything was possible and it was enough to make you start thinking crazy things that made you do crazy things and the next thing you knew you had the body of a girl and your best friend was spending the evening staring at your breasts.
Rodney jerked to his feet. "I should . . . I should really be going, too. It's late, well, actually it's not that late, I just, you know, have things to do, experiments to run, you know, busy, busy."
"Rodney," John said, and then something cracked inside him, something sharp and desperate. He pushed himself off the couch and planted himself between Rodney and the door. "Rodney," he said again. And then he was reaching for Rodney's shoulder and jerking him close and pressing his mouth against Rodney's, hard.
"Mmmmph," Rodney said, but he didn't pull away. His mouth opened against John's and his lips were shockingly soft and wide. John slid one hand around the back of his neck and held on, every motion of his mouth a revelation, from the prickle of Rodney's stubble to the electric slide of his tongue. He pulled Rodney closer, and felt an unexpected twinge as his breasts bumped against Rodney's chest.
And then Rodney wrenched himself away.
"Oh, my God." Rodney stared at him, one hand coming up to touch his lower lip. "You . . . you kissed me."
John's heart was hammering in his throat. "Pretty sure that's what they call it, yeah."
"Oh, God," Rodney whimpered. "I can't believe you . . ."
Courage. Right. Funny how was it easier to face a planetful of scary monsters than do this.
John took a steadying breath and dropped to his knees. Rodney's fly was right there in front of him, and John was pretty sure he could see a bulge over to the left. A sizable bulge. He reached for the top button and yanked, but it didn't pop, and his fingers wouldn't quite obey him.
"John," Rodney said, half breathless, half squeaky. "Oh, God, you can't . . ."
"Watch me," John said, and finally managed to get the button undone. The second and third buttons were easier, and Rodney was wearing red-and-white striped boxers underneath. John slid his hands up to haul them down, but Rodney's hands caught his wrists before he could do more than slide his fingers under the waistband.
"No, seriously," Rodney said. "I mean, I can't believe I'm doing this, but no. You can't . . . we can't. You're not yourself, you don't know what you're doing, you—"
John clenched his jaw in frustration. "I know exactly what I'm doing." It was true—well, theoretically, anyway—and also really not the point. "So why don't you just close your eyes and enjoy yourself?"
"No, no, no, you don't understand. I can't . . . I can't do this." And Rodney pushed his hands away and stepped back.
"Jesus, McKay," John said. "You pick now to go all noble? Like you weren't staring at my breasts for the last two hours?"
But Rodney just cringed. "Look, I didn't actually . . . I mean, I never . . . okay, it's possible I was slightly out of line, but in my defense, they're incredibly difficult to ignore."
Crap. John climbed to his feet and crossed his arms over his chest, which did nothing to disguise the breasts, but it was a little too late for that, anyway. "What's the matter? You want to touch them?"
"No!" Rodney said, too fast and too wide-eyed for it to be a lie. "No, I just . . . look, whatever game you're trying to play, you are not a woman. Not up here." Rodney tapped his head. "Not where it counts."
"Right," John said, and felt his shoulders slump. Because that was the core of the problem. That right there. And there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. "Yeah, okay. I get it."
"No," Rodney said. "No, you don't. You don't get it at all, or you never would have kissed me in the first place. You still haven't even touched yourself, have you?"
"Jesus." John's face flamed. "What the hell has that got to do with anything?" It wasn't like he'd been asking Rodney to screw him. Christ, all he'd wanted was to spend a little quality time on his knees.
"I thought not." Rodney said. His face went tight and miserable, like he was the one who'd been rejected, which was completely unfair. "For whatever it's worth, I'm sorry."
"Yeah," John said heavily, breathing through his nose. "Me, too."
Rodney made a helpless gesture with both hands. "You know, this is really not the conversation I was expecting to have tonight."
John bit the inside of his cheek. "You're not the only one." He uncrossed his arms and bent to pick up Teyla's empty beer bottle. "You probably should go."
"Oh," Rodney said with a jerk of his chin. "Right. I'll, you know, see you around."
"'Course," John said numbly, and watched him go.
There was no point in sitting around and moping. He'd laid his cards on the table and lost everything. So it was over. And the best that he could hope for was that Rodney would chalk it up to hormonal imbalance and never mention it again.
John stripped off his t-shirt and the sports bra, then put the tee back on and went to find a uniform shirt to put on over that. His breasts were more noticeable than ever, but it wasn't like he was headed anywhere where he'd be seen.
The tone generator was still in place, so he didn't even have to worry about the wall rematerializing around him. And Device Eight was still in its case, looking exactly as it had before, minus one small dent.
John tapped his radio. "Sheppard to Keller. I need a medical team in Janus's lab, stat."
"This is Keller," the doc's voice said in his ear. "Who's injured?"
"Me," John said, and reached for the device.
He hurt. Jesus, he hurt everywhere, from the throb behind his eyes to the ache in his chest to the fierce, sharp burn in his balls. And he had sense-memory, too. Memory of searing pain everywhere, of screaming until his throat was raw.
Oh, God. John scrabbled for his crotch, yanking at the IV he hadn't even noticed in his left hand, but fuck, yes. Thank God. He had a dick again. And balls to go with it. He pulled out the waistband of his scrubs and boxers and peered down to be sure, but they were right there. Looking maybe a little small, but maybe it was the angle. Anyway, he was male again. That was what mattered. Even if it hurt like hell.
"Whoa, there, take it easy," Keller's voice said, and John yanked his hand out of his pants and jerked his head up as she came through the curtain to his bedside. "How are you feeling?"
"I've been worse," John said. It wasn't exactly a lie, but only because he'd been pretty damn bad a time or two.
Keller gave him a smile. "You gave us quite a scare. For a moment there, I thought we were going to lose you."
Crap. That didn't sound good. "Oh, you know me. More lives than a cat."
"I'm starting to think you do this to me on purpose," Keller said, checking his IV.
John shifted, spreading his knees a little to find a more comfortable position. It didn't help. "Don't take it personally."
"Oh, I don't," she said. "But you'd better tell that to Rodney. He's the one who wants to take your head off."
John winced. "Hey, you want to do me a favor? Can you keep him out of here for awhile? 'Cause I kind of like my head still attached." And facing Rodney right now was pretty much the last thing he needed.
That got another sympathetic smile. "I'll see what I can do. Do you need any pain relief? I can give you some Vicodin if you need it."
There were times to be stoic, and there were times when your balls were on fire. "Sure," John said. "I'll take whatever you've got."
But hell, at least he had balls now, to hurt.
Rodney, of course, was much sneakier than Keller or any of the nurses. He showed up during the bustle of the evening shift change, and even though John could hear him coming from two rooms away, he still managed to barrel through the curtain unchecked.
"Are you insane? What the hell were you thinking? Did we or did we not establish that you were supposed to wait a minimum of another two days?" He held up a hand. "Wait, don't tell me. You decided that once again, the rules don't apply to you. Do you have any idea what . . . I mean, seriously, you almost died. Is that what you were after? Because believe me, there are plenty of easier ways to go and get yourself killed."
"'Hi, John. How are you feeling? Can I get you anything? Hey, I'm glad you're not dead.'"
"Very funny," Rodney said, and then stopped and actually looked at him. "Are you, um, are you okay? Did it work properly? Because Jennifer said it did, but there's the whole cellular changes thing again, and quite frankly, I wasn't entirely confident about those repairs."
"Now you tell me," John said, but Rodney didn't even crack a smile. "I'm fine. It worked. I'm back to being me again." And if it still hurt, even through the Vicodin, well, he didn't have to tell Rodney that part.
Rodney's eyes flicked to his chest and then back up to his face. "Well," he said. "That's a relief."
"Yeah," John said, "it is."
Rodney stared at him for a long moment, his hands sketching awkward gestures in front of him. "So are they planning to let you out of here anytime soon?"
John made a face. "Doc wants to keep me overnight for observation. I tried to get the nurses to spring me already, but they're not going for it. Can you believe that?"
"Strangely enough, yes," Rodney said. "Listen, I'll, um, see you after you get out, okay?"
"Sure," John said.
Rodney turned to go, and then spun around again. "For your information, I have removed Device Eight from Janus's lab and locked it in a secure storage area, keyed to a unique password that only I know."
John squinted at him. "You do realize that not everyone who'd be interested in using it is an idiot, right?"
"Um," Rodney said with a blink. "I suppose you have a point there. Just because you were . . . wait, so you just admit that you were an idiot? Then why the hell did you do it in the first place?"
Jesus. And here he'd thought the conversation was going relatively well. "Can we not talk about this here?" John said.
"Oh," Rodney said, and blinked at him. "Right. You're still telling people it was an accident."
"Okay, I'm going now. I'll see you later."
"Yeah," John said, and didn't know whether he should be afraid of that, or terrified.
Only the weird thing was, he didn't see Rodney, even after he got released in the morning. He saw Teyla, who asked him how he was feeling but otherwise maintained a tactful silence on the subject, and he went running with Ronon, which didn't turn out as well as he'd hoped.
"So what happened?" Ronon said, during a breather at the top of one of the service catwalks in the South Pier. "You asked him and he said no?"
John swallowed a long squirt from his water bottle. "Do we have to talk about this?"
Ronon shrugged and took a drink himself. "You should try again. He might like you better like this."
Something in John's gut flared and burned. "Is that what you do? Just keep on asking Keller out, because one of these days she might decide she likes you after all?"
But Ronon just shrugged again. "Nope. I'm seeing Amelia now."
"What?" John blinked and tried to process that. He hadn't even seen them talking together. Of course, he'd kind of had his head up his ass for weeks, but still.
"She's nice," Ronon said, handing him back the water bottle. "She's teaching me kickboxing."
"I'm, uh, I'm happy for you," John said, because obviously what Ronon needed was more martial arts training.
"Thanks," Ronon said. "We gonna keep going?"
"Yeah," John said, and shoved the water bottle into his waist clip. Ronon took off without waiting for him, and John pushed away from the railing and pounded after him, ignoring the soreness in his muscles and everywhere else. He wasn't going to think about what Ronon had said. He wasn't. And anyway, actions spoke louder than words, and Ronon's actions were pretty damn clear. The right thing to do was just accept rejection and go find someone else.
Only John didn't want to find someone else. That was the stupidest part about it. Whatever he'd been saying or even thinking, this wasn't just about a blow job, and it never had been. He wanted Rodney. Even if Rodney didn't want him back. Even if Rodney never would. The thing was . . .
Rodney would still be the perfect girlfriend. Even if—no, make that especially if—he never turned into a girl.
John had to shower after running, which meant taking a good long look at himself whether he wanted to or not. He stripped quickly, stepped under the water, and surveyed the damage.
His breasts were really and truly gone. Well, his chest was still tender, and possibly a little swollen, but there was no roundness, nothing that didn't look like pecs even if you squinted, and his nipples were pretty much back to their old size. His chest hair was still missing, but he could live with that. It would probably start itching and growing in another day or two.
His dick . . . okay, actually, it was looking a little bigger. He wasn't imagining that. It was back to the size it had been; well, close enough, anyway. It still felt a little sore, but it wasn't like he was planning to give it a workout right away, anyway. He had it back. He could wait a few days if he had to.
The hair on his arms and legs was still finer than it should have been, and his chin was still smooth. But at least he'd never done anything stupid like shave his legs for Rodney. Because that would have been . . . yeah. Utterly wasted.
But he wasn't going to think about Rodney. He wasn't. Thinking about Rodney was pointless and annoying and right, who was he kidding? Thinking about Rodney was impossible to avoid. Because that was just the way things were.
But damn, it was good to have his body back.
By evening most of the aches were gone, and Rodney was avoiding him. Either that or he was so busy catching up on a week's worth of work that he forgot to eat dinner, which, okay, wasn't entirely implausible. Not that John was complaining because he really didn't want to have that conversation, but still. He was the one who was supposed to be avoiding Rodney, not the other way around.
He said good-night to Ronon and Teyla and headed back to his room. He didn't need a movie tonight, or rather, it wouldn't help, since he was pretty sure he'd just spend the evening thinking about Rodney no matter what he was doing.
Unfortunately, that was probably going to be standard operating procedure for the foreseeable future.
What he really needed was a good crisis. Well, not anything life-threatening. Of course not. He just wished he had a good excuse to be working with Rodney tonight, doing the things they both did best.
But there was no point in moping over it. John stripped off his holster and put it away, then sat on his bed. He was reaching for his book when he noticed the two boxes in the corner, over by his desk.
The radio control airplanes. John got up and went to get them. They were electric models because liquid fuel was kind of hard to come by in Pegasus, but he'd kind of been hoping Rodney would be able to replace their batteries with something more efficient.
Not much chance of that, now. John opened the box for the red one and took out the instructions. "Some assembly required" always meant more than you expected, but he liked that part. Rodney liked that part, too, even if he always bitched and moaned about manufacturing quality control.
This one had a lot of pieces, but it wasn't like he had anything better to do. John sorted through them, then pulled out his tool box and set to work on step one. It was mercifully engrossing, and he was all the way to step three when the door chime rang.
Crap. He wasn't expecting anyone, which meant it had to be . . . Rodney. Of course it did.
"Hi," Rodney said. "Can I come in?"
The temptation to say no was strong, but John forced himself to step to the side. He didn't want to have this conversation, but it wasn't like putting it off would help. If anything, it would only make Rodney more suspicious.
"Oh," Rodney said, and John turned to find him staring at the half-completed model on the bed. "You're . . . is that thing radio controlled?"
"Yeah," John said, going for nonchalant. "Thought it would be fun to try out on the pier."
Rodney's eyes flicked up to John's face, and then back down to the floor, where the second box sat, unopened. "You have two."
John shrugged. "More fun that way."
"Huh," Rodney said, crouching down to look at the box. "What kind of power source do they . . . oh, no, no. These can't possibly fly more than an hour or two on a single charge. You're going to need serious modifications."
"Well, I would've asked if you weren't so damn busy all the time," John said.
"Oh." Rodney looked up at him, and then slowly climbed to his feet. "I, um, actually, this isn't what I came here to talk to you about."
Right. So much for distraction. "I figured."
"Look, I just need to know, okay? And yes, I realize it really isn't my business, but I think I would be justified in saying you made it my business when you kissed me, even if you were, well, obviously you were out of your right mind. I mean, it makes a certain amount of sense. You're a heterosexual man, so it turned you into a heterosexual woman. Which was obviously inconvenient when it came to—"
"Jesus, Rodney," John muttered. And then, because he had to, "I'm not."
Rodney's eyes snapped to his. "Not what?"
John gritted his teeth and forced it out. "Not heterosexual." There. It was out and Rodney could have his freakout and be done with it.
"What?" Rodney's eyes were wide. "But you're . . . what about your lesbian? I saw you with her. You were . . . and she was . . . I mean, wow, she has the most amazing body I have . . . and you can't convince me that's wasted on you, or what the hell were you doing dating her in the first place?"
"I didn't say I don't like women," John said. "I just . . . "
"Just what?" Rodney said, and his eyes narrowed. "Oh, don't tell me. You wanted to broaden your horizons, and you thought it would be easier to make it with a man if you were a woman? That is . . . okay, I am sorry, but I have an extremely hard time believing you couldn't get all the man meat you wanted, especially given the ratios around here. Seriously, the physics division alone—"
"'Man meat'?" John said.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Isn't that what you call it? I mean, you're clearly not particular, not if you were willing to settle for . . ."
Christ, this was even more excruciating than he'd been expecting. Rodney couldn't possibly be this obtuse, could he? Not unless he desperately wanted to be. It made John want to shake him. Or . . . yeah. That, too. "I'm particular," John said viciously. "I'm so goddamned particular I can't see straight. And I'm sorry if that freaks you out, but you're the one who wanted to know. I can always ask Zelenka to make me a better power source for the damn airplanes."
"Wait," Rodney said, staring at him. "What?"
"I meant," John said through clenched teeth, "that I would understand if you don't want to spend time with me."
Rodney's eyes were wide again. "Why would I . . . oh my God. You actually . . ."
John crossed his arms tight over his chest and turned away. He hadn't thought anything could hurt more than getting turned down the first time, but he'd been wrong. "Look, I think you'd better go."
"John," Rodney said, and the little helpless crack in his voice made John's heart clench. "John, I . . ."
"Really not kidding," John said, staring resolutely at the floor. But then Rodney's hand closed on his shoulder, tugging him around, and then, oh God, those were Rodney's lips, soft and awkward against the corner of his mouth.
John couldn't stop himself. Not if Rodney actually wanted . . . and that was Rodney's mouth, unmistakable against his. He turned into the kiss, his eyes closed, his lips clinging to Rodney's, because Rodney might change his mind, and if he did . . .
John wrenched his mouth away and pawed at Rodney's fly. "Please let me," he said, and jerked the buttons free. "C'mon, please. I need this. I . . ." He was on his knees, yanking on Rodney's pants, and Rodney wasn't stopping him. Rodney was staring down at him with wide eyes and an open mouth and really not stopping him.
John paused with Rodney's pants still around his hips. "Tell me I can do this." He had to know, had to be sure, because if Rodney pushed him away halfway through, he was pretty sure he would break. "Rodney—"
"Um," Rodney said, his voice high and breathless. "Yes? I mean, you don't . . . if you really . . . that is, ah, yes."
Thank God. John leaned in and nuzzled the bulge that was trapped in Rodney's crumpled pants, and it twitched against his cheek. Like it was . . . like he . . . John yanked on his waistband, jerking it down, but Rodney's cock was caught in the fabric of his boxers.
Right, he could touch. All he had to do was slide his hands down.
Rodney's cock was warm through the fabric, warm and hard and, wow, really big, and it wasn't just the perspective, or maybe it was, because John had never been this up close and personal with someone else's cock before. He eased the fabric down, stretching the waistband as far as it would go, and okay, this really wasn't anything to do with perspective.
John took a steadying breath and leaned in. Rodney smelled warm and a little sweaty, not like a woman at all. His skin tasted salty and smoother than John was expecting, the head of his cock tender against the tip of John's tongue.
"Nnrh," Rodney whimpered, and John had to look up, had to see Rodney's eyes gone dark, and wow, Rodney wanted this. Rodney really wanted this. Which didn't make any sense when he hadn't wanted it before, but John wasn't about to stop to ask questions. He had his chance, now, and he wasn't going to waste it. He closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and slid home.
It was nothing like his fantasy. Rodney's cock filled his mouth and bumped against the roof, and John had to swallow around it, his tongue pressed flat to the underside. He didn't know what the hell he was doing, but, okay, Rodney wasn't complaining. And maybe there was no way John could be as good at this as, say, Keller undoubtedly was, but . . . okay, crap. He couldn't think about that, couldn't think about all the women Rodney had had, because that would make him crazy.
And Rodney's cock was right here in his mouth, was his for as long as he could make this last, and God, this was going to give him jerkoff material for months. John pulled back until the flare of the head was between his lips, then sucked Rodney in again, and Rodney made a little noise.
It wasn't much, just a tiny gasp, but it was exactly what he needed to hear; he was doing this right, or at least right enough, and that was all that mattered. John braced himself and sucked harder, and Rodney let out a little moan.
It was heady. It was everything that John had wanted, only better, because he wasn't imagining this. This was real. This was Rodney's cock bumping the back of his teeth, this was Rodney's skin, slick and salty, this was slide and suction and the smell of arousal. This was all his, this moment was everything, and Rodney was making a constant stream of little moans and whimpers, now, perfectly in time with John's sucks.
So, okay, maybe he could have gotten here without turning into a girl first, or maybe he couldn't have, but all John knew was that this was worth it, worth the pain and the wrongness and everything else, and yes, that was insane, but he couldn't help it. This was why he'd hated seeing Rodney dating Keller. Hell, this was why he'd been so horrified when Rodney had showed him the ring meant for Katie Brown.
Because yes, he might as well admit it. This went a long way back, a ridiculously long way, and somehow he'd followed a tortuous path that led here, where everything that had been so wrong was now right, where his blood was running hot and quick and his lips were stretched tight around Rodney's cock.
"John," Rodney said, breathlessly soft. "I can't believe you . . . Oh, God, John."
"Mmph," John said around his mouthful, and then he was shoving one hand down to scrabble at his fly, because he needed to be touching himself now. He popped the buttons open and tugged himself out, and okay, maybe he was still a little sore, but he didn't give a damn. He had Rodney in his mouth and he was going to—
"Ungh," Rodney said, and his cock jerked against John's tongue, which wasn't . . . couldn't be, but it was. Rodney was coming, a flood of slick and bitter, and John wasn't ready, wasn't ready at all, because he'd been trying to make this last, and Jesus.
Rodney tasted like him, only not exactly, and John coughed and gulped and lost some of it down his chin. But his hand was whipping on his own cock, now, and God, he was close. He was almost close enough, and if he could just hold onto Rodney's softening cock for a moment more—
"No, no, no, come on, don't," Rodney was saying, and then Rodney's cock was pulling away and John was chasing after it, because damn it, he wasn't done yet. He just needed—
"You can't, you don't have to . . . no, seriously, not like that," Rodney said, and he was down there on the floor, right there, his hand on John's arm, like he was trying to intervene, which was totally unfair because John needed this, but then Rodney was sliding down, and that was, oh fuck. That was Rodney's tongue, and John was coming, hot and hard and right into Rodney's mouth.
John clutched at Rodney's shoulder and shook through the aftershocks, curled half around him. He couldn't believe Rodney had just done that. That Rodney had wanted to. Because Rodney dated women. Rodney had only ever dated women, and John had been watching him long enough to know.
Rodney shifted, levering himself up slowly. He was still fully dressed apart from the part where his pants were bunched around his thighs and his cock was lying soft but definitely not small against his thigh. "So," he said, and wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve.
"You didn't have to do that," John said, which was stupid, crap, so stupid, but Rodney just lifted his chin.
"Maybe I wanted to."
John's heart kicked in his chest. Rodney was still close enough to kiss. "Okay."
"Hey," Rodney said. "You can't go . . . you were the one who started this." Which was totally unfair, and also wrong.
"You kissed me first," John said.
Rodney made a face, and turned enough to prop his back against the edge of the bed frame. The floor had to be cold under his bare ass, but the bed was still covered with model airplane parts, and the next time they did this, John was really going to have to plan better. "Not the last time," Rodney said. "Because I distinctly remember you kissing me first the last time."
If they ever did this again. "Last time you weren't interested."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Well, I think I can be excused from that. You had breasts."
John glared at him, and how they had gotten here from mutual blow jobs, he had absolutely no idea. "Right. Because you've never been attracted to anyone with breasts, which explains Jennifer and Katie and, oh yeah, all those years you spent pining after Sam Carter."
"I wasn't pining," Rodney said with another lift of his chin. "I don't pine. But don't think you can cloud the issue. They're all women, and you're not."
"So you said," John said, and it shouldn't have still hurt. It really shouldn't. "Didn't stop you from staring at my breasts."
"They looked wrong," Rodney said. "Anyone would have stared. Well, anyone but Ronon and Teyla, but they're both . . ."
"Tactful?" John suggested.
"Happily involved with someone," Rodney said. "Not that that ever did me much good, but at least I was trying. So, okay, yes, your breasts were bizarrely mesmerizing. Are you happy now?"
No, John wanted to say, his heart in his throat again. "Let me get this straight. You liked my breasts. You just didn't like them on me."
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "You didn't like them on you. You couldn't even touch yourself. And maybe I'm not the most . . . sensitive person in the galaxy, but how the hell did you expect me to enjoy having sex with someone who was so incredibly uncomfortable in his own body?"
"Oh," John said, and felt the back of his neck go damp, because damn it, when had Rodney caught the clue train?
"Yes," Rodney said. "Oh. And seriously, why the hell did you do it? You must have known you would hate it. Even you aren't that much of an idiot."
"I didn't know it would matter that much," John said. "And anyway, you said it was romantic."
"I said it was demented," Rodney said. "I didn't mean . . ." But then his whole face changed, brightening from annoyed to amazed. "Wait, are you saying you turned into a woman for me?"
Crap. John put on his best poker face and shook his head. "'Course not."
But Rodney was already talking. "Oh, my God. You did. I can't believe you . . . seriously, John, why the hell?"
John made a face and looked at the floor. His bluff was called; there was no point in holding on to his cards anymore. "You like women. You've only ever dated women. How the hell was I supposed to know you'd let me put my dick in your mouth?"
"For your information, I have never limited my dating to women. I just happen to know how to be discreet." But Rodney's face had gone soft, and he was uncrossing his arms and leaning forward. "I can't believe you did that for me."
"Trust me," John said. "I'm not planning to do it again."
"You'd better not," Rodney said, and kissed him.
Rodney's lips were warm, and they soothed the stiffness of John's, and okay, wow, he could drown in this and die happy. Because apparently Rodney liked kissing, liked kissing him and that was almost more astonishing than the blow jobs.
When he finally pulled back, Rodney's lips were shiny and his eyes were soft. "So, are we . . ."
Oh, God. John willed his ears not to go hot. "If you want."
"I should warn you that I'm not, ah, that is, I don't exactly have the best track record at—" Rodney waved a hand. "—relationships."
There was no hope for it. His ears were on fire. "I know," John said. "Your latest ex kind of warned me about that."
Rodney's mouth opened and then closed a few times. "She did? What was she . . . I mean, really? When did she . . . ?"
John shrugged, suddenly feeling a whole lot better about Keller. "It was after you broke up. And I'm pretty sure she was trying to tell me not to fuck you over."
"Oh," Rodney said, brightening. "That was nice of her. Not that I should be surprised by that, of course, seeing as generosity of spirit is one of her many fine qualities, but—"
Or maybe not so much better. "You know, she might still take you back, if you grovel."
"What?" Rodney's eyes went wide. "Oh, no, no, no. We're not . . . I mean, trust me. Even if I were interested, which I'm not, that bridge is well burned. Apparently it wasn't the way I said it. It was what I said."
"I see," John said, and then had a sudden, awful thought. "It wasn't about me, was it?"
"You? Oh, God, no. She knew how I felt about you from the start. I wasn't about to make the same mistake I'd made with Katie, not that that was what broke us up, of course, but the guilt and distraction certainly didn't help with the intimacy issues, if you know what I mean."
"Hang on a sec," John said, his head spinning. "Are you saying you felt something for me when you were dating Katie?" Because that was impossible. Surely Rodney would have said something or done something to . . . okay, no. Maybe this was what Keller had meant by "insecure."
"Well, duh," Rodney said with a roll of his eyes. "Although it wasn't pining. Certainly not. I told you, I don't pine."
"Oh." John's head was feeling even lighter. "So this goes back quite a while."
"Ah, yes?" Rodney said. "I mean, I don't . . . that is, I'm not expecting . . . well, obviously, I'm aware that it wasn't the same for you, and that you have commitment issues, so—"
"Rodney," John growled, and leaned in to kiss him. He'd meant it to be a quick thing, just enough to make his point, but Rodney's tongue got involved and John's hand ended up on bare skin and, well, it took awhile.
"I turned into a girl for you," John said when he finally surfaced for air.
Rodney's eyes met his, impossibly bright "Yes, and I still haven't forgiven you. In fact, I think I'm insulted. Did you really think I'd want you to change for me? I mean, you wouldn't want me to change for you, would you?"
John dove in for another kiss, and if his hand strayed a bit north of Rodney's thigh, well, a little distraction was in order, here. "'Course not," he said, straying further. "I like you just the way you are."